Preparing the Way: The Rise of Religious Freedom in New England


Preparing the Way:

More than 2,400 years before the restoration of the gospel, Nephi beheld in vision the necessary prelude to that significant event: the discovery and colonization of America, the American Revolution, and the spread of the Bible. (See 1 Ne. 13:12–20, 34–37.)

From our vantage point today, we can see why it would have been difficult for a restoration to succeed until after the birth of a new nation. In addition to intolerance, the beliefs and practices of most nations were out of harmony with restoration teachings. Even in the American colonies, which had been a haven for several persecuted groups, religious persecution, not religious freedom, was the norm.

The field was not ready to harvest until after the creation of the United States and the adoption of a constitution that guaranteed religious freedom. Following this religious reorientation, New England became a fruitful region in which seeds of political and religious liberty could be planted. During the decades preceding the Restoration, many of these seeds flowered.

It is not surprising, then, that many of the early Church leaders were born in the northeastern section of the young nation: Joseph Smith and his family, Brigham Young, Wilford and Phebe Woodruff, Orson Hyde, Heber C. Kimball, the Knights, and the Johnson family are just a few. Of the known members of the Kirtland Stake during the decade of the 1830s, 46 percent were born in New England and another 32 percent were born in New York. 1

While favorable religious changes developed in New England preceding the Restoration, the Church was not organized there; New York provided a more favorable climate. Nevertheless, the forces that emerged in the Northeast significantly affected life in New York and from there fanned out westward.

The establishment of religious liberty was not easy. The struggle to separate church and state by eliminating mandatory support of state religions was longer and more intense in New England than in any other section of the United States. 2 Rhode Island was the first colony in New England to implement a more tolerant relationship among people of different religions. Although Roger Williams succeeded in planting religious liberty in the area, other New England colonies did not immediately follow.

Part of the problem was that the Pilgrims in Plymouth and the Puritans in Massachusetts continued a policy inherited from England. Although many who sought religious liberty had immigrated to those colonies, the Pilgrims and Puritans did not, generally speaking, believe in extending religious freedom to others. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were not the only leaders driven from Massachusetts for proclaiming unorthodox beliefs. During most of the seventeenth century, nonconformists in Massachusetts and Connecticut suffered from intolerant legislation. In that section of America, Anglicans were banished and Baptists were fined and imprisoned. Quaker missionaries—women as well as men—were not only banished, fined, and imprisoned, but some were tortured, and a few were executed. According to one oppressive law applying to the two colonies, Quaker preachers were to have their tongues bored through with a hot iron. 3

During the early decades of settlement, colonists in most of the New England provinces could neither vote nor hold office unless they were members of the Congregational Church. Furthermore, churches could not be legally established without authorization of the legislature. Only orthodox Congregational bodies were permitted to organize.

It wasn’t until the 1680s, when England imposed toleration on Congregationalists, that Trinitarian Protestants could finally worship in public. Nevertheless, throughout much of the eighteenth century, non-Congregationalists in most of New England had to pay taxes to support the Congregational Church. Many also suffered forms of oppression, including social ostracism. Prior to the American Revolution, for example, Baptists were imprisoned in Massachusetts for failing to comply with complicated ecclesiastical laws. 4

Fortunately, a religious revolt in New England preceded and paralleled the American Revolution. The view of Roger Williams regarding separation of church and state found sympathetic support among those concerned with identifying their natural, God-given rights. When Thomas Jefferson sounded the patriotic position that men were endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, many Americans insisted that one of the rights included freedom to worship God in peace.

By timing their protest to coincide with the battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Baptists attacked the ecclesiastical tax laws of New England, refusing to pay rates that, in their opinion, were a violation of their basic beliefs. Patriot Congregationalists needed the support of these dissenters and relaxed the enforcement of laws that were most offensive to the Baptists. 5

Following the American Revolution, a quasi-Congregational establishment continued in most of New England until after the War of 1812. An ecclesiastical tax persisted, but individuals could select the faith that would receive the revenue. If a person did not indicate to whom the tax should go, the Congregational Church received it. In this thrust for political liberty, Americans of the early republic gradually changed their views regarding relationships between members of other denominations.

Provisions in state and national constitutions and in the Bill of Rights, followed by court action, finally implemented legal religious liberty. The public support of religion ended in Vermont in 1807, in Connecticut in 1818, in New Hampshire in 1819, and in Maine in 1820. In 1833, Massachusetts repealed a law providing for the financial support of the Congregational Church, removing the last legal trace of public support of religion. 6

Religious liberty, however, was young, while intolerance was old, and the bigotry that Americans inherited from the past persisted. Too often, historians who identify forces leading to LDS persecution neglect to discuss America’s heritage of intolerance. Nevertheless, many Americans of the early republic recognized that a new religious era had been inaugurated. Elias Smith, a Christian minister from New Hampshire, recognized shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century that a religious revolt during the revolutionary war era had transformed America. Writing in 1809, he recalled that, in colonial New England, settlers were “fined, whipped, imprisoned, banished, and hung for not worshipping according to the law of the state.” In recent years, he added, remarkable changes had occurred, and “the increase of civil and religious liberty in this country, since the declaration of independence, … will be the wonder of all future generations.” 7

The new climate of liberty that developed in the previous century allowed a significant reorientation of Christian thinking. Beliefs that the most popular creeds of Christendom had espoused were suddenly challenged, and new patterns of religious thought circulated freely. The most intense battles of this theological controversy were waged in New England. The war of words and the contest of opinions had led to more divisions within congregations and to the formation of more religious communities there than in any other region.

This splintering of religious congregations became a ground swell after 1750. In 1750, all the religions of New England were communities that had been transplanted from the British Isles. The dominant religion in the Northeast was the Congregational Church—there were 454 Congregational societies in New England, compared with 58 Baptist, 44 Anglican, 19 Presbyterian, and a few Quaker societies. There were no Roman Catholic or Jewish congregations and just one Lutheran congregation. Only Rhode Island approached religious liberty and pluralism, with 30 Baptist, 12 Congregational, and 7 Anglican congregations, plus a number of Quaker communities. 8

The first serious challenge to Congregational dominance occurred with the rapid growth of the Calvinist Baptists. In 1734, there were only six Baptist churches in New England; and in 1750, twenty-eight. Yet in 1795, 285 Baptist churches existed in New England. 9 (That sect was America’s first convert religion.)

Accompanying the tremendous growth of the Baptists was the formation of other religious communities. Universalists organized in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1779; Unitarians in Boston in 1785; Jemima Wilkinson’s Jerusalem Community in Rhode Island in the 1780s; Freewill Baptists in New Hampshire in 1780; and Restorationists in Vermont in 1801. 10

During this American reformation, many beliefs were brought into harmony with the teachings of the still-future restored Church. These changes in belief would later make it easier for many to receive the fulness of the gospel. For example, the Unitarians, Eastern Christians, and some Universalists replaced the traditional view that God was three persons of one essence with a belief that the Father and Son were two separate and distinct entities.

In addition, Unitarians joined Quakers in proclaiming a belief that the Bible has not always been translated correctly. Unitarians, liberal Congregationalists, Eastern Christians, Freewill Baptists, and other groups rejected the traditional Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity. Instead, they felt that individuals would be judged according to their actions and that they would not be held accountable for Adam’s transgression. Unitarians, Universalists, Freewill Baptists, and Restorationists proclaimed with the newly organized Methodist Church that man played a role in the process of salvation and that man could fall from grace. Baptists and Eastern Christians popularized the doctrines of baptism by immersion for believers and of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial. Restorationists added the belief that mankind needed to return to the pure practices and doctrines of ancient Christianity.

Meanwhile, Universalists taught that after death men went into either a state of happiness or a state of misery. Christ, they added, preached to the spirits in prison to convert others, so that eventually every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ. All in the spirit world would eventually be converted and lifted up into a heavenly paradise. While others criticized Universalists for encouraging unrighteousness (the result, the critics felt, of saying that the punishment of hell was not everlasting), the Universalists replied that the foundation of unhappiness was wickedness. In addition to arguing that some created a hell on earth through unrighteousness, they preached that living the laws of God had an intrinsic value. 11 Some of Joseph Smith’s relatives were Universalists—his father, Joseph, Sr.; his grandfather, Asael; and an uncle, Jesse. 12

Accompanying this departure from traditional doctrine was a departure from the traditional institutions of their forebears. As settlers penetrated the frontier, many lost contact with institutionalized religion. Materialistic and pluralistic ideas influenced the people, and many lost zeal in traditional Christian orthodoxy. Some historians have speculated that organized religion in the new land was at a lower ebb in 1800 than at any other time in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. 13 After the turn of the century, when organized religion reached its lowest point, large numbers of people launched a crusade for religious truth. Thousands began to wonder which church they should join.

If Americans had been members of a state church, if liberty had been greatly curtailed, or if only a few churches existed, few would have asked such a question. But in this land of liberty and pluralism, something unparalleled in the history of mankind occurred. In unprecedented numbers, Americans joined churches of their choice. While the population of the United States in pre-Civil War years almost doubled every twenty years, church membership increased at a faster pace. The approximate 8 percent church membership in 1800 increased to 11 percent in 1820, 13 percent in 1830, and 23 percent in 1860. 14

America was unique in the early nineteenth century. Religious liberty was becoming a reality, and the beliefs of many were being brought into harmony with teachings of the restored gospel. Numerous new churches prospered, and vast numbers sought for religious truth. Truly, the field was white, ready to harvest.

[illustration] Writing the Declaration of Independence, by J. L. G. Ferris. Courtesy of Archives of ‘76.

[illustration] Illustrated by E. Kay Watson

Milton V. Backman, Jr., a professor of Church history at Brigham Young University, serves as high priests group instructor in the Edgemont Ninth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont North Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Milton V. Backman, Jr., The Heavens Resound (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), p. 51.

  2.   2.

    Although public support of religion was eliminated in the South before it disappeared in northern New England, some forms of religious persecution persisted there longer than in the far North. For a discussion of church and state in early America, see Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States, 3 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, 1950); Leo Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967); John Frederick Wilson, ed. Church and State in American History (Boston: Heath, 1965).

  3.   3.

    Milton V. Backman, Jr., American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1970), pp. 164–70.

  4.   4.

    Ibid., 172–75.

  5.   5.

    Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Isaac Backus: A Pioneer Champion of Religious Liberty” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1959), pp. 230–33, 243–44.

  6.   6.

    Backman, American Religions, p. 185; “Backus,” pp. 323, 341. For a detailed discussion of separation of church and state in Massachusetts, see Jacob C. Meyer, Church and State in Massachusetts from 1740 to 1833, reprint of 1930 ed. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968).

  7.   7.

    Herald of Gospel Liberty (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), June 23, 1805, p. 1.

  8.   8.

    Edwin Scott Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 167.

  9.   9.

    Backman, “Backus,” p. 285.

  10.   10.

    Backman, American Religions, pp. 207–25, 231–32, 238.

  11.   11.

    Ibid., pp. 218–20.

  12.   12.

    Tunbridge Town Record (6 Dec. 1797), p. 188, cited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971), p. 106.

  13.   13.

    Backman, American Religions, p. 283.

  14.   14.

    Francis Asbury, The Journal of Reverend Francis Asbury, 3 vols. (New York: N. Bangs and T. Mason, 1821), 2:283–92, 308. These percentage figures indicate a phenomenal rate of increase because of the population doubling. Eight percent of 5.2 million (the population of the U.S. in 1800) for instance, is 416,000. Eleven percent of 9.6 million (the population in 1820) is 1,056,000 (a 254 percent increase).