Amidst all the current discussion about religious liberty, it is wise to look back at from where this country has come. (Note- the title of this column aims at taking a quick look at our startling history. It is not a current news headline.) For all of the worries and talk about how we may be losing our religious liberty and rights, when one studies the facts of early colonial America, we realize that religious freedom is subjective- to some extent.
Death Sentence for Baptists and Quakers
Case in point is from the era of the first governor of one of the first official colonies in America. John Endecott (1601-1665) was the first governor of the Massachuetts Bay Colony- which eventually would become the Commonwealth (or State) of Massachusetts. In 1629, the first year that the Colony was chartered, Endecott was governor. He would share duties with the more famous John Winthrop as governor throughout the first 12 years of the Colony. John was a hard-headed Puritan, and did not take kindly to his mother country’s Anglican Church nor other colonial denominations such as Baptists and Quakers. As he had a major position of power, he made it certain that dissimilar Christians would not be welcome in his community. This is part of the fear of combining governmental power with ecclesiastical power and vision.
Initially, Endecott deported these groups (Baptists and Quakers) from Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the governor, that did not work in stemming the tide of incoming non-Puritan Christians. Therefore Endecott punished via having ears cut off, and then with a third offense of these Baptists and Quakers- their tongues were bored through with a hot iron. Naturally, in these early days there was nothing written about the acceptability of “cruel and unusual punishment”.
Still, for Endecott and others of his ilk, that was not enough. They raised the stakes, and made the punishment for a 3rd offense the death penalty. Shortly after they upped the ante and dictated that it would be the death penalty for a mere 2nd “offense”. The only way the person could escape these truly harsh penalties was to publicly renounce their belief systems and their specific church.
These activities sound like something that one might read about in a foreign land, most likely a third world country. However, this happened right here- in the seat of colonial America. This country has come a long way, hence the title of this article is simply unimaginable. However, there is always a healthy fear about losing our freedom of religion. This specific freedom is one that is focused on by our Founding Fathers. In today’s political climate some are equating governmental health care mandates to religious persection. In a certain small way, they are correct. But when compared to yesteryear there is no true similarity. That said, a prudent citizen does not want to give up any of their religious rights and freedoms. This country has fought too hard to revert back to the norm of the 17th century.
(Writer’s Note: portions of this article were researched via Mayo, Lawrence Shaw (1936). John Endecott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)