“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” the First Amendment, U.S. Constitution.
Oct. 31, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. For over a thousand years, Europe had been almost exclusively Roman Catholic, but in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This started a movement that would change the world, including what would eventually become the United States of America.
At the time, countries had to follow the religion of their rulers. After Luther’s actions, wars erupted between Catholics and Protestants over which religion would be the official religion. Enormous suffering resulted. For example, the Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, involving several European countries. Up to 20 percent of Germany’s population was killed. Towns were destroyed. It was the worst disaster to hit Germany until World War II.
Because of the violence which affected all of Europe, including Great Britain, various groups of people decided they would be safer immigrating to the New World. There, they believed, they would be free to worship as they wanted. One of these groups, the Pilgrims, landed at Plymouth, Mass., in November 1620.
Of the 102 passengers on their ship, the Mayflower, 37 were Separatists, Christians who wanted to separate from the Church of England. The rest were called Strangers, people who were coming to the New World for non-religious reasons. The leaders of the group knew that they had to stick together or they would all die, so they drew up the Mayflower Compact. This was a civil compact, not a religious one, creating a simple, nonsectarian government for the colonists.
By autumn of 1621, the colonists who had survived the harsh winter wanted to give thanks for their survival and their good harvest. Governor Bradford called for a service of thanksgiving and a harvest feast. Over the years, this celebration of thanks became a national holiday, now celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
When the Pilgrims came seeking religious freedom, they didn’t mean everyone should have the same freedom. They still believed that government should set the official religion. Other colonists disagreed. This conflict continued as the American colonies were founded.
In the 1600s, Catholics were severely persecuted in England. The last Catholic execution was in 1654. Catholics needed a safe refuge, so in 1632, the King of England granted a charter to start the colony of Maryland. Maryland was founded as a place where Protestants and Catholics could live together peacefully.
In 1635, a minister named Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts for sedition and heresy, partially because he believed in separation of church and state. He formed a community in Rhode Island where government was restricted to civil issues and people were free to follow their conscience. Citizenship was separate from religious belief, providing true separation of church and state.
In 1647, in England, a man named George Fox began preaching a new, simpler version of Christian principles. His followers became known as Quakers. Because Quakers believed in separation of church and state, they were persecuted both in England and in the American colonies. They were imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for their beliefs. They finally found refuge in the colony of Pennsylvania, founded in 1681.
As the colonies grew and then fought for their independence, these ideas of separation of church and state became entrenched in American philosophy. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted on Jan. 16, 1786. Our First Amendment is based on this statute. Jefferson said this about who should receive the protections of religious freedom. “...they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan (Muslims), the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
There are now people who want to return us to the bad old days when we had a state-imposed religion and people were forced to believe and behave in certain ways or be punished. Anti-Muslim sentiment is just one symptom of this blatant disregard for our fundamental freedoms.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, be grateful not only for our material blessings but also for our freedom of belief. No one can force us to believe anything we don’t want to, and for that I give thanks.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com.