History of Religious Liberty In America

April 29, 2015

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

It is a cop out today to say, “Keep God (or religion) out of government and politics.” Everyone else wants their cause front and center but we are told by those who have no religion to not once mention this because we are a secular country with a secular government. They would like for us to be secular but a history of the founding and establishment of America has proved otherwise.

The Pilgrims seem to not count today in the discussion of the religious roots of our country. They did bring with them however a moral ethic and came to America to worship God freely according to their own conscience. They were not allowed to do this in England due to the enforcement of a prescribed method of worship and control of religion by the king and his appointees.

Nothing could impede the quest of the Pilgrims. There was no problem in the way they chose to worship God and practice their faith. The Puritans came in droves in the next decade leaning more on government sponsored religion since they did not break with the established state Church of England the way the Pilgrims (who were part of the Separatist movement) had done. The Church of England’s format evolved into a Congregationalist church ruled by elders and enforced by the first initial government of the Puritans. Catholics established Maryland and a more agreeable Anglican church that adopted state religion was exclusively the church in Virginia. There were other variations but these became the predominant provincial religious bodies in these areas.

The one exception to the provincial nature of the colonies was in Rhode Island where a colony was formed under Roger Williams and John Clarke which gave complete religious liberty to all who settled there. Anyone could worship according to the dictates of their conscience in this Baptist colony which did not give favoritism to Baptists.

Those not of the official state religion in these colonies were discriminated against. The first Baptist church was started in the south because William Screven (A Baptist pastor) and his small congregation were driven out of town in Kittery, Maine. They formed what continues to exist to this day as the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina.

There was imprisonment and even physical punishment in Massachusetts because Baptists dared to question infant baptism as being biblical.[1] Virginia imprisoned Baptist pastors for preaching without a license only granted to Anglican ministers in the colony.[2]

These affronts to religious liberty were an ironic twist from how our country was founded. Nevertheless, our nation stayed a religious people. John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[3] The provincial conflict was not solved easily.

After our country won her freedom, the establishment of our government soon followed. Something needed to be done about religious liberty and the freedom to practice our faith openly. The restrictions such as abridgement of freedom to worship and practice our faith (if you were not part of the official denominational affiliation of that country) needed to be addressed.

One of the most important figures in the early days of our country was John Leland. He was a Baptist minister who had known persecution firsthand. He befriended Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The 3rd and 4th presidents were instrumental (before their presidency) to ensure religious freedom and breakdown the provincial nature of these colonies. Leland exerted his influence on these men in Virginia. They established a Bill of Rights, urged by Leland, especially with a clause about religious liberty. What they came up with was a perfect limit to one denominational church in becoming the favored church of government while at the same time to practice their faith without any government interference.[4] They were clear that the people be protected from the intrusion of the government, not the influence of God and Christianity. The only restriction placed on religion was on one denomination controlling the affairs of other religious groups who wanted to practice their faith openly in that specific colony which had become a state.

The first amendment was never meant to keep Christian influence from government.

A brief study of presidents, statesmen, and even court decisions of our country demonstrate they had no intention of removing God from government. Abraham Lincoln emphasized how we need God to be our ally not our enemy when he said, “I know that the Lord is always on the side of right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and the nation should be on God’s side.” [5] The cry “separation of church and state” is only a ruse to get the moral influence of religion reduced to going to church if you don’t bother others. Why do other groups get a free pass to have as much influence as they wish? Separation of church and state is not separation of God from government!

The irreducible bottom line today is: Does religious liberty mean only the freedom to go to the church or your choice? In any and all other matters does government really feel empowered to tell us how to think, live, and what not to say? The free exercise of religion has to be more than just going to church. My religion is exercised in every decision I make in every aspect of life—every day of my life. To silence my views and restrict me from having influence in government, or culture, is prohibiting my free exercise of religion. It usurps my right to practice my religion. It keeps my decision to act according to my conscience and conviction bound by the government instead of my God. Government has no business doing that. It makes me accountable to the “thought police” who worship at the shrine of political correctness or whatever administration is in power. Who is doing this anyway? My next article will examine this. Until then stay strong and vigilant not to let any government agency, educational system, political affiliation or any other popular thought control group prohibit your God-given right to the free exercise of religion—guaranteed in the constitution.


[1] http://www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/resources/briefnarrative.htm
[2] http://www.ourbaptistheritage.org/blog.php: Ryan McGuire
[3] William J. Federer, America’s God and County: An Encyclopedia of Quotations, (AmeriSearch, Inc. St. Louis, 2000), 10-11.
[4] http://baptisthistoryhomepage.com/leland.john.html
[5] Federer, 388