In his new book, If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas writes on page 70:
Since the Pilgrims came to our shores in 1620, religious freedom and religious tolerance have been the single most important principle of American life.
As I pointed out in two previous posts (link, link), Metaxas makes the argument that the Pilgrims provided a model of religious tolerance which was incorporated by the Founders into formation of America. In contrast to his claim, I wrote about the persecution of Mary Dyer, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams. Today, I bring forward another exhibit in contradiction to Metaxas’ claim. In the year 1700, the Massachusetts assembly passed an “Act against Jesuits and Popish Priests.” Here is an portion:
Be it Enacted by His Excellency the Governour, Council and Representatives in General Court Assembled: And it is Enacted by the Authority of the same. That all and every Jesuit, Seminary Priest, Jesuits▪ Priests &c to depart the Province by the 10th. of September. Missionary, or other Spiritual or Ecclesiastical Person made or ordained by any Authority, Power or Jurisdiction derived, challenged or pretended from the Pope or See of Rome, now residing within this Province or any part thereof, shall depart from and out of the same, at or before the tenth day of September next, in this present year, One Thousand and Seven Hundred. And be it further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid,Penalty on Jesuits or Priests &c. that shall re|main or come into this Province after the 10th. of September. 1700. That all and every Jesuit, Seminary Priest, Missionary or other Spiritual or Ecclesiastical person made or ordained by any Authority, Power or Jurisdiction, derived▪ challenged or pretended from the Pope or See of Rome, Or that shall pro+fess himself, or otherwise appear to be such by practising and teaching of others to say any Popish Prayers, by celebrating Masses, granting of Absolutions, or using any other of the Romish Ceremonies and Rites of Worship, by or of what name, title or degree soever such person shall be called or known, who shall continue, abide, remain or come in to this Province, or any part thereof, after the Tenth Day of September aforesaid, shall be deemed and accounted an incendiary, and disturber of the Publick Peace and Safety, and an Enemy to the true Christian Religion, and shall be adjudged to suffer perpetual Imprisonment, And if any person being so Sentenced and actually Imprisoned, shall break prison and make his Escape, and be afterwards reken, he shall be punished with Death.Penalty for receiving or harbouring any Jesuit or Priest.
Catholics were to “suffer perpetual Imprisonment.” The law allowed the death penalty for those who escaped from prison and were captured.
Even in Rhode Island, Catholics were excluded from complete religious freedom beginning in 1719.
…all men professing and of competent estates and of civil conversation acknowledge and are obedient to the civil though of different judgments in Religious (Roman Catholicks only excepted) shall be Freemen and shall have liberty to choose and chosen Officers in the Colony both millitary and civil. (link, page 25)
None of the original founders were still around at the time and for reasons not completely clear (although perhaps related to a desire to be consistent with British anti-Catholic sentiment), Rhode Island passed a law which singled out Catholics. Thus, in the home of religious tolerance in the colonies, religious toleration went backwards. The law was not repealed until 1783.
In New York, Catholics were tolerated until a purge came in 1688. In 1700, New York’s lawmakers passed a law, similar to the anti-Catholic law passed in Massachusetts, which called for imprisonment of priests who led Catholic worship and death for any who escaped prison and were captured. Other colonies went through anti-Catholic periods as well.
When one considers the experience of the Quakers and Catholics, it is impossible to support the notion that religious tolerance was “the single most important principle of American life.” Metaxas engages in wishful thinking when he writes, “complete tolerance for all denominations and religions” existed for nearly a century before the founding of America.
It is astounding that the founders came together to ban religious tests for federal service and enact the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, one cannot exclusively ground this tradition with the Pilgrims and Protestant controlled colonial assemblies. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison and the others, influenced by Enlightenment writers as well as their religious traditions, took the nation in a different direction than was true of the colonial governments.