Puritans, Pilgrims, and Freedom Of Religion

Dr Pierre Coovert

The history of religious freedom in America has been distorted by most historians. Almost every time I hear something said about it credit is given more to the Puritans than to anyone else. In this article I would like to taker a quick look at the Puritan attitude toward religious freedom.

While the Puritans were being persecuted in Europe they, along with the Baptists, stood for religious freedom. The Puritans, being Protestants, maintained many of their Protestant doctrines. Two of the most important of these were infant baptism and the marriage of church and state. These to go together because infant baptism ensures that all citizens are members of the state church and the state guarantees the power and authority of the state church, which results in loyal subjects to the state.

The Puritans attitude changed greatly when they came to America. They wanted freedom for themselves, but not for others. We will look at why their doctrine kept them from freedom of religion later, but let us first look at one example of their intolerance. I will just give an overview and leave it to you to search out the details to see how horrible this really was.

Roger Williams tells of a revival in 1649 by Pastor John Clarke and other men in the Massachusetts town of Seekonk. Obadiah Holmes, a Congregationalist pastor, was converted to the Baptist way and was baptized by Dr. Clarke. Mr. Holmes became a member of the Newport Baptist Church where Dr. Clarke was pastor.

Two years later, in 1651, Dr. Clarke returned to Massachusetts to minister to William Witter in Lynn. Obadiah Holmes and another church member, John Crandall, accompanied him. When the authorities heard they were at Mr. Witter’s home they sent constables to arrest them for conducting an unauthorized church meeting and for practicing anabaptism. Both Dr. Clarke and Mr. Crandall were released, but Mr. Holmes remained in prison for nearly three months. He was released after receiving 30 lashes. He was beaten so badly that the blood ran in his shoes and he could only sleep on his elbows and knees for weeks.

Many other like accounts could be given to show the intolerance of the Puritans. We have but to remember where they came from to understand their attitude toward religious liberty. They were the fruit of the Protestant Reformation.

Notice that it is the Protestant REFORMATION, not the Protestant return to fundamental Christianity. The leaders of the Reformation had no desire to leave the Catholic Church. Their desire was not even to return it to biblically sound doctrine. Their desire was to clean up the corruption that was rampant in it. They had no desire to stop baptizing infants, or to remove works from their doctrine of salvation, or to separate from the secular state.

The Puritans were the reformers of the Church of England. They had no desire to separate from it or to correct its doctrine. The Church of England had become corrupt and they wanted to clean it up. When they were persecuted for this they wanted religious freedom, but as soon as they were far enough away from the Church of England they set up a government that gave religious freedom only to those who agreed with them.

When the fight for freedom of religion in the new nation was being fought the Puritans call freedom of conscience a damnable heresy from Satan himself. Had it been left up to the Puritans America would have had a state church and all would have been forced to join it.

In Massachusetts one could be fined or imprisoned for not attending the sate church. Massachusetts was a Puritan colony and the state church was the Congregational church.

While on this subject let me mention also the Pilgrims. The main difference between the two was the timing of reform. The Puritans were willing to remain in the Church of England and bring reform from within over time. The Pilgrims’ motto was “reformation without tarrying.” Both of them were Calvinistic and held to Covenant Theology.

Covenant Theology, among other things, believed that Christian government was to prepare the world for Christ’s return. This explains why they were so set on the union between church and state.

I think you can understand why those with these beliefs could not support freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. It is totally foreign to their theological system.

In my next article I will deal with who is responsible for the religious freedom we enjoy in America. There will probably be some surprises for some of you so stay tuned.

Copyright 2017 Pierre Coovert, All rights reserved

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