Religion and the Founding of the American Republic
America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century, Part 1
Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established "as plantations of religion." Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives--"to catch fish" as one New Englander put it--but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create "a city on a hill" or a "holy experiment," whose success would prove that God's plan for his churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves "militant Protestants" and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as "inforced uniformity of religion," meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.
Execution of Mennonites
This engraving depicts the execution of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, described variously as Dutch Anabaptists or Mennonites, by Catholic authorities in Ghent in 1554. Strangled and burned, van der Leyen was finally dispatched with an iron fork. Bracht's Martyr's Mirror is considered by modern Mennonites as second only in importance to the Bible in perpetuating their faith.
Murder of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins, Ghent, 1554. Engraving by J. Luyken, from T. J. V. Bracht (or Thieleman van Braght), Het Bloedig Tooneel De Martelaers Spiegel. . . . Amsterdam: J. van der Deyster, et al., 1685. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (1)
A Jesuit Disemboweled
Jesuits like John Ogilvie (Ogilby) (1580-1615) were under constant surveillance and threat from the Protestant governments of England and Scotland. Ogilvie was sentenced to death by a Glasgow court and hanged and mutilated on March 10, 1615.
The Expulsion of the Salzburgers
On October 31, 1731, the Catholic ruler of Salzburg, Austria, Archbishop Leopold von Firmian, issued an edict expelling as many as 20,000 Lutherans from his principality. Many propertyless Lutherans, given only eight days to leave their homes, froze to death as they drifted through the winter seeking sanctuary. The wealthier ones who were allowed three months to dispose of their property fared better. Some of these Salzburgers reached London, from whence they sailed to Georgia. Others found new homes in the Netherlands and East Prussia.
Lutherans leaving Salzburg, 1731. Engraving by David Böecklin from Die Freundliche Bewillkommung Leipzig: 1732. Rare Books Division. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (7)
A Pair of Salzburgers, Fleeing Their Homes
These religious refugees flee Salzburg carrying with them religious volumes. The man has under one arm a copy of the Augsburg Confession; under the other is a theological work by Johann Arndt (1555-1621). The woman is carrying the Bible. The legend between them says: "We are driven into exile for the Gospel's sake; we leave our homeland and are now in God's hands." At the top is a scriptural verse, Matthew 24:20. "but pray that your flight does not occur in the winter or on the Sabbath."
Persecution of Huguenots by Catholics
The slaughter of Huguenots (French Protestants) by Catholics at Sens, Burgundy in 1562 occurred at the beginning of more than thirty years of religious strife between French Protestants and Catholics. These wars produced numerous atrocities. The worst was the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris, August 24, 1572. Thousands of Huguenots were butchered by Roman Catholic mobs. Although an accommodation between the two sides was sealed in 1598 by the Edict of Nantes, religious privileges of Huguenots eroded during the seventeenth century and were extinguished in 1685 by the revocation of the Edict. Perhaps as many as 400,000 French Protestants emigrated to various parts of the world, including the British North American colonies.
Massacre Fait a Sens en Bourgogne par la Populace au Mois d'Avril 1562 . . . Lithograph in A. Challe, Histoire des Guerres du Calvinisme et de la Ligue dans l'Auxerrois, le Sènonais et les autres contrèes qui forment aujourd'hui le dèpartement de l'Yonne. Auxerre: Perriquet et Rouille, 1863. General Collections, Library of Congress (2)
Persecution of Catholics by Huguenots
In the areas of France they controlled, Huguenots at least matched the harshness of the persecutions of their Catholic opponents. Atrocities A, B, and C, depictions that are possibly exaggerated for use as propaganda, are located by the author in St. Macaire, Gascony. In scene A, a priest is disemboweled, his entrails wound up on a stick until they are torn out. In illustration B a priest is buried alive, and in C Catholic children are hacked to pieces. Scene D, alleged to have occurred in the village of Mans, was "too loathsome" for one nineteenth-century commentator to translate from the French. It shows a priest whose genitalia were cut off and grilled. Forced to eat his roasted private parts, the priest was then dissected by his torturers so they can observe him digesting his meal.
Frightful Outrages perpetrated by the Huguenots in France. Engraving from Richard Verstegen, Thèâtre des Cruautez des Hérétiques de notre temps. Antwerp: Adrien Hubert, 1607. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. (3)
Drowning of Protestants
Shown here is a depiction of the murder by Irish Catholics of approximately one hundred Protestants from Loughgall Parish, County Armagh, at the bridge over the River Bann near Portadown, Ulster. This atrocity occurred at the beginning of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Having held the Protestants as prisoners and tortured them, the Catholics drove them "like hogs" to the bridge, where they were stripped naked and forced into the water below at swordspoint. Survivors of the plunge were shot.
Persecution of Jesuits in England
In the image on the left is Brian Cansfield (1581-1643), a Jesuit priest seized while at prayer by English Protestant authorities in Yorkshire. Cansfield was beaten and imprisoned under harsh conditions. He died on August 3, 1643 from the effects of his ordeal. At the right is another Jesuit priest, Ralph Corbington (Corby) (ca. 1599-1644), who was hanged by the English government in London, September 17, 1644, for professing his faith.
Die Societas Jesu in Europa, 1643-1644 [left page] [right page] from Mathias Tanner, Die Gesellshafft Jesu biss zur vergiessung ihres Blutes wider den Gotzendienst Unglauben und Laster . . . Prague: Carlo Ferdinandeischen Universitat Buchdruckeren, 1683. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (6)
Martyrdom of John Rogers
The execution in 1555 of John Rogers (1500-1555) is portrayed here in the 9th edition of the famous Protestant martyrology, Fox's Book of Martyrs. Rogers was a Catholic priest who converted to Protestantism in the 1530s under the influence of William Tyndale and assisted in the publication of Tyndale's English translations of the Bible. Burned alive at Smithfield on February 4, 1555, Rogers became the "first Protestant martyr" executed by England's Catholic Queen Mary. He was charged with heresy, including denial of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of communion.
John Rogers Portrayed in New England
Two centuries after John Rogers's execution, his ordeal, with depictions of his wife and ten children added to increase the pathos, became a staple of The New England Primer. The Primer supplemented the picture of Rogers' immolation with a long, versified speech, said to be the dying martyr's advice to his children, which urged them to "Keep always God before your Eyes" and to "Abhor the arrant Whore of Rome, and all her Blasphemies." This recommendation, read by generations of young New Englanders, doubtless helped to fuel the anti-Catholic prejudice that flourished in that region well into the nineteenth century.
Crossing the Ocean to Keep the Faith: The Puritans
Puritans were English Protestants who wished to reform and purify the Church of England of what they considered to be unacceptable residues of Roman Catholicism. In the 1620s leaders of the English state and church grew increasingly unsympathetic to Puritan demands. They insisted that the Puritans conform to religious practices that they abhorred, removing their ministers from office and threatening them with "extirpation from the earth" if they did not fall in line. Zealous Puritan laymen received savage punishments. For example, in 1630 a man was sentenced to life imprisonment, had his property confiscated, his nose slit, an ear cut off, and his forehead branded "S.S." (sower of sedition).
Beginning in 1630 as many as 20,000 Puritans emigrated to America from England to gain the liberty to worship God as they chose. Most settled in New England, but some went as far as the West Indies. Theologically, the Puritans were "non-separating Congregationalists." Unlike the Pilgrims, who came to Massachusetts in 1620, the Puritans believed that the Church of England was a true church, though in need of major reforms. Every New England Congregational church was considered an independent entity, beholden to no hierarchy. The membership was composed, at least initially, of men and women who had undergone a conversion experience and could prove it to other members. Puritan leaders hoped (futilely, as it turned out) that, once their experiment was successful, England would imitate it by instituting a church order modeled after the New England Way.
Richard Mather (1596-1669), minister at Dorchester, Massachusetts, 1636-1669, was a principal spokesman for and defender of the Congregational form of church government in New England. In 1648, he drafted the Cambridge Platform, the definitive description of the Congregational system. Mather's son, Increase (1639-1723), and grandson, Cotton (1663-1728), were leaders of New England Congregationalism in their generations.
Richard Mather. Relief cut by John Foster. Copyprint. c. 1670. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (11)
Cotton Mather (1663-1728), the best-known New England Puritan divine of his generation, was a controversial figure in his own time and remains so among scholars today. A formidable intellect and a prodigious writer, Mather published some 450 books and pamphlets. He was at the center of all of the major political, theological, and scientific controversies of his era. Mather has been accused, unfairly, of instigating the Salem witchcraft trials.
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Cottonus Matherus S. theologieae doctor regia societas Londonensis. . . . Mezzotint by Peter Pelham. Boston: 1728, restrike 1860. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (12)
Sermon by Cotton Mather. Holograph manuscript on paper. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (13)
The Bible Commonwealths
The New England colonies have often been called "Bible Commonwealths" because they sought the guidance of the scriptures in regulating all aspects of the lives of their citizens. Scripture was cited as authority for many criminal statutes. Shown here are the two Bibles used in seventeenth-century New England and a seventeenth-century law code from Massachusetts that cites scripture.
The Geneva Bible
The Geneva Bible was published in English in Geneva in 1560 by English reformers who fled to the continent to escape persecutions by Queen Mary. Their leader was William Whittingham, who married a sister of John Calvin. The Geneva Bible was used by the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England until it was gradually replaced by the King James Bible. According to one twentieth-century scholar, "between 1560 . . . and 1630 no fewer than about two hundred editions of the Geneva Bible, either as a whole or of the New Testament separately, appeared. It was the Bible of Shakespeare and of John Bunyan and of Cromwell's Army and of the Pilgrim Fathers."
The King James Bible
The first edition of the King James Bible, also called the "Authorized Version," was composed by a committee of English scholars between 1607 and 1611. The first copy of the King James Bible known to have been brought into the colonies was carried by John Winthrop to Massachusetts in 1630. Gradually the King James Bible supplanted the Geneva Bible and achieved such a monopoly of the affections of the English-speaking peoples that a scholar in 1936 complained that many "seemed to think that the King James Version is the original Bible which God handed down out of heaven, all done up in English by the Lord himself."
Seventeenth-Century Laws of Massachusetts
Criminal laws in the early New England colonies were based on the scriptures, especially the Old Testament. Many civil laws and procedures were modelled after the English common law.
The Bay Psalm Book
The first book published in British North America, what has become known as the Bay Psalm Book, was the work of Richard Mather and two other ministers who transformed the Psalms into verse so they could be sung in the Massachusetts churches. Shown here is one of the eleven surviving copies.
Eliot's Algonquin Language Bible
Obedient to the New Testament command to preach the Gospel to all nations, ministers in all of the first British North American colonies strove to convert the local native populations to Christianity, often with only modest results. One of the most successful proselytizers was John Eliot (1604-1690), Congregational minister at Roxbury, Massachusetts. His translation of the Bible into the Algonquin Indian language is seen here. At one time Eliot ministered to eleven hundred "Praying Indians," organized into fourteen New England style towns.