The History of Religious Liberty: from Tyndale to Madison

The History of Religious Liberty: from Tyndale to Madison

Religious liberty is at the very foundation of our country.

Across the street, a large number of cars were parked in front of my neighbors’ house. It’s a quiet street where one almost never sees cars parked on the street. My neighbor and his wife are very religious people and they regularly hold Bible studies in their home.

Little do they likely know that in 16th and 17th century England such gatherings were illegal and that for holding them—or attending—they might be arrested, fined, imprisoned or even burned at the stake for heresy, depending on what was said at those meetings—and who ruled England at the time.

Such things are almost inconceivable to modern Americans. Yet religious liberty is at the very foundation of our country.

In medieval Western Europe, the Church ruled the spiritual lives of the people and the State was its enforcement arm. Faith, religion, and even the Bible itself was what the Church said it was.

Only the clergy, trained in Greek and Latin and perhaps Hebrew, could read the Bible. Then, in 1495, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a set of 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany detailing abuses of the Church and beginning the Protestant Reformation. Luther translated the Bible into vernacular German and the invention of the printing press helped it to spread.

But Ferris’ story doesn’t start with Luther; rather, it starts with William Tyndale, who, beginning in the 1520s, sought to bring the Bible to the ploughboys of England.

For Tyndale to achieve his goal of giving the Bible to ploughboys, Ferris writes, the worlds of religion, law, and politics would all have to dramatically change.

And change they did, slowly, over the next two centuries in England.

As Ferris recounts the story, it is a tale of the kings and queens of England: of Henry VIII and his break with the Catholic Church; of “Bloody Mary,” who earned her reputation by burning Protestant “dissenters” at the stake. It’s the story of James I who, almost unwittingly it seems, ordered an “official” translation of the Bible into English—the 1615 King James Bible.

Throughout this time and until the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the approved religion was what the monarch said it was. The church in England, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, had the monarch as its formal head.

This is what is meant by “an establishment of religion.” To hold public office, one had to take a loyalty oath not only to the crown, but also to the church.

The relationship of church and state was that spiritual matters belonged to the church and the police power belonged to the state. If the church declared someone a heretic, it was the duty of the state to punish that person.

Everyone in England believed that every person in the realm should be a member of the official church; they just disagreed on what that church should be. (Jews had been banned from England for several centuries.) Everyone was expected to attend church every Sunday or face consequences. Home meetings were banned, for only the educated clergy were thought fit to teach.

Puritans felt this way as much as Anglicans, Presbyterians or Catholics.

Ferris describes that the accession of William and Mary in 1688 established, once and for all, Protestantism as the national religion of England (soon to become Great Britain). The Anglican Church, however, was no more tolerant of Baptists, Methodists, Puritans, Anabaptists, Quakers or others that is had been prior to their reign. And even toleration is not liberty.

These and others came to the New World for freedom of religion. We should never forget that many of the colonies were founded by those seeking religious freedom—freedom of conscience.

Freedom of conscience is the freedom to believe what you want in matters of religion and to exercise those beliefs freely.

Yet even in the New World, those religious refugees set up their colonies with established religions. Massachusetts was for Puritans (later Congregationalists), Maryland for Catholics, Virginia for Anglicans, Rhode Island for Baptists, Pennsylvania for Quakers.

Why should 21st century Americans care about what happened more than two hundred years ago? Hasn’t the question of religious liberty been settled long ago?

Unfortunately, not.

In modern America, religious liberty is again in danger.

When florists, bakers, photographers and wedding venues can be forced by the government to serve homosexual marriage ceremonies they believe to be sinful or be driven bankrupt, they do not have religious liberty.

While the story of Tyndale begins Farris’ book, Madison’s fight for religious liberty closes it.

We have a bill of rights today because the Anti-Federalists insisted on it as a condition of ratifying the Constitution. James Madison saw to it that the Bill of Rights was passed by the first Congress.

The very first right is the right of religious liberty—not mere tolerance, but liberty as a natural right.

That right, articulated in that amendment, was upheld yesterday by the Supreme Court which unanimously ruled that the government cannot fine the Little Sisters of the Poor for not violating their conscience by participating in Obamacare’s abortion mandate.

Farris’ book tells us why that was such an important victory.