Denying religious freedom is American tradition

Religious Freedom survey

A December 2015 poll found people in the US still discriminate against people of other faiths, a tradition that began with the Puritans.

The latest AP-NORC survey findings about our American lack of commitment to religious freedom would be frightening if not so in line with our history.

Most of us learned in grade school that the Puritans came to this continent to escape discrimination in Europe. Most of us never learned that once they arrived here, they began practicing discrimination against a wide range of other beliefs, in order to best protect the Puritan “city on a hill” they sought to establish.

Who Did Puritans Discriminate Against?

Here are a few examples of faith groups that experienced discrimination at the hands of the Puritans:

  • Baptists. Puritan law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony required all able-bodied colonists to attend Sunday services at the Puritans’ churches. Baptists who rowed out to Noddle Island in Boston Harbor to worship according to their consciences could find themselves in the stocks on their return for “absenting themselves from the ordinances of Publicke Worshipe.”
  • Jews. They quickly fled the Bay Colony for nearby Rhode Island, where Touro Synagogue in Newport is today the oldest synagogue building in North America.


    Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island is a national historic site.

  • Quakers. Their acceptance of women as ministers, among other dissents from Puritan orthodoxy, made them anathema to Puritans. They were banned from the Bay Colony on pain of death and most settled in Rhode Island. Mary Dyer, a Quaker woman who refused to be separated from her Massachusetts family, was hanged for her beliefs. She is commemorated today with a statue on the grounds of the Massachusetts State House.
    Mary Dyer goes to the gallows

    In this period etching, Quaker Mary Dyer is led to the gallows. Holding Quaker beliefs was punishable by imprisonment and execution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


  • Methodists. Here’s where it gets personal, I admit. Because the Puritans Congregational churches were the state-established church in the Bay Colony, their ministers were paid with taxes. So when one of my ancestors found his faith stirred in an 1810 Methodist revival, and joined a group of townspeople in forming a Methodist congregation, he and the entire group were ridiculed as simply seeking to evade taxes. This charge appears in (Congregational minister) Everett Stackpole’s history of Durham, Maine — which was still part of Massachusetts at the time.

‘Spiritual but not Christian’ also faced discrimination

Then, of course, the people with”insufficient” Christian testimonies entered a fairly historic battle with the Puritans’ Congregationalist heirs over who should have control of the pulpits that the entire community’s taxes funded.

The issue was that Congregational elders could decide whether a person’s testimony was such that they should be allowed (voting) membership in the church — but all community members paid taxes to support the pastor in any case. So having had a revolution against the British over “taxation without representation,” they faced taxation to support their local churches without representation in their governance. This group’s battles with the Congregational movement led to the takeover of many churches by Unitarians, a movement which began in the formerly Anglican King’s Chapel in Boston.

The result, as we all recall, is that by the mid-19th century, the Congregational movement lost its tax support throughout the Northeastern states. Many pastors had to take up tutoring, classroom teaching, or college professorships to make up for the lost income.

 What’s the Lesson for Today?

American Christians don’t know our own history of religious discrimination … a fact reinforced to me every time I hear a Baptist preacher cite the goodly Puritan faith heritage of this country. Because we don’t know how readily that discrimination might be turned (and even has been turned) against “people like me,” we are ready to draw battle lines that God never intended.

Our God has called Christians to unity. He warned us against even the human divisions that come when we ally with a particular preacher — Paul, Apollos, Joel Osteen, John MacArthur, TD Jakes.

When we look to those who are not followers of Jesus, God calls us to see people who may be — in the fulness of time — part of God’s family. Even if today they appear to be enemies, we are responsible to love them.

I can’t see how that gives us freedom to limit their freedom to worship. What do you think?



About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at, and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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2 Responses to Denying religious freedom is American tradition

  1. Jenni D says:

    A very thought-provoking post. The “I’m right, you’re wrong” game that I see too often among the self-proclaimed religious folk is such a turn-off, yet it seems almost no group is exempt — and this goes back forever. I love this line — “Even if today they appear to be enemies, we are responsible to love them.” I’ve spent the past year completely disenchanted with organized religion, but then over the weekend I was invited to a ground-breaking ceremony for a Unitarian Universalist building in a community where we used to live. I hadn’t set foot in a church in months, but as I stood in the congregation filled with people of various backgrounds and religious sects coming together to celebrate differences and speaking of LOVE as a uniting factor, I was reminded of the power of individuals with a multitude of views coming together for the greater good. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister, and while I disagreed with him on many things, he DID set an example and came to all situations in love. The minister of my former church was a Unitarian Universalist, a uniter who walks the walk of love and speaks out on embracing differences rather than denouncing them. She walks the walk of love WAY above doctrine. I don’t want to be a part of any religion who denounces another’s beliefs and actively seeks to limit their religious freedom.

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by! I’ve engaged with churches in more than 50 denominations over my career, so I know how true it is that showing God’s love isn’t limited to one group or another. As best I understand the Christian scriptures, God asks us to choose to follow the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jakob and Leah and Rachel — in the same way God asked Abraham to follow God out of Ur into a new way of life. God demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God’s readiness to fight to the death to rescue us from the power of evil and death. Because God desires for all to be part of God’s family, and because God is powerful to accomplish what matters to God, it would be presumptuous for anyone to limit the freedom of others to follow the route God has set before them toward their entry into God’s family. But that’s just how I see it. Blessings on you on your journey!

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