The shorter version of my review
of Michael Farris' book, From Tyndale to Madison
Some nuggets from the book-- in a separate post
Here's the longer review, scheduled to come out with Indiana Policy Review this summer.
January 16 is “Religious Freedom Day” in the United States. The celebration commemorates the same day in 1786, when Virginia passed its “Statute of Religious Freedom”. Written by Thomas Jefferson, it protected what would later be enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Government should neither “establish” a religion nor prohibit its “free exercise”.
Today, most Americans value religion, but they differ considerably in their understanding of it. You can be a Baptist or a Mennonite; a Catholic or a Protestant; a Christian or a Hindu; a theist, a deist or an atheist—and it’s okay. It’s wonderful that we can mostly get along.
A recent book, American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, sheds light on this topic by focusing on the last 60 years of American cultural history. But I want to commend another book to your reading: From Tyndale to Madison by Michael Farris.
Farris makes clear that religious freedom should not be taken for granted; it is rare within the scope of world history. We properly look down on Muslim countries where religion is enforced through social and legal pressures and violence. We rightly criticize China for persecuting those in “house churches”. But the historical norm—even in Europe and the American colonies—was the use of government power to grant monopoly power to a religious sect in each country.
Farris covers the amazing history of religious intolerance and the tenacious battle for religious freedom in Europe (especially England) and America. He opens with William Tyndale’s martyrdom in his quest to publish his translation of the Bible in the 1520s—and concludes with the rhetoric and legislative work of James Madison through the 1780s.
Farris details brutal repression over religious differences—even in America, but especially in England. Farris describes the saga of Henry VIII and his wives at length—and its impact on Catholicism in England. The changing tides after Henry, between Catholics and Protestants, included the reign of “Bloody Mary”. Her regime put John Rogers to death (the first of 283 Protestants), leaving behind a wife and 10 kids. Perotine Gosset gave birth while being burned alive. The baby boy was snatched from the flames by bystanders, but then thrown back into the fire by the sheriff.
In England, pastors were required to divorce their wives and leave their children—when the country moved back to Catholicism. In America, authorities resorted to “cropping” ears and branding cheeks. Ferris also describes two females who were strip-searched n Boston for being Quakers. As William Henry Foote described the early governance in Virginia: “The company knew not how to control the members composing the colony but by religion and law. They exercised a despotism in both.”
Authorities would burn Bibles and “heretical” books. They would punish people for preaching, owning a Bible, or meeting in a home church. It was illegal to translate the Bible into English or to own an English Bible. Possessing the Latin Bible was legal. Much like Islam and the Koran today, you could be punished for not having the Scriptures in the (only) authorized language. Again, these crimes were, at times, punishable by death.
To generalize, early in the time period, those who had alternative beliefs and practices could be put to death. Later, governments “moderated” and used regulation to limit competition for the “established” church—with fines and prison to discourage dissent. Even into the Revolutionary War, one needed a license from the government to preach as a Baptist in Virginia.
Trying to Preserve the Monopoly
After Bloody Mary, Queen Elizabeth pursued moderation—with interesting and unintended consequences. Farris (98-99): “Rejecting both Catholicism and revenge, Elizabeth pursued a policy demanding outward conformity with the rituals of the reinstituted Protestant church. Her policy purported not to coerce the conscience. It was not a violation of the law simply to believe the wrong doctrine…This insistence on religious unity was primarily grounded in political reasoning…By demanding religious acts for a secular purpose, Elizabeth unwittingly sowed seeds of destruction to the concept of a [politically] Christian nation that had prevailed unbroken since the days of Augustine.”
Farris also details the broader stepping stones to religious competition. Some of these steps were “economic”. Practically, getting the Bible to laypeople required an increase in literacy, the invention of the printing press, and the work of translators. Literacy increased steadily over this period; Johannes Gutenberg’s press changed the world; and Tyndale led the charge to translate the Bible into English.
From there, the concerns are largely political. Why would one prohibit other sects of Christianity? Motives ranged from doctrinal (a desire to limit and punish “heresy”) to political (a unified religion would promote a unified State) and economic (the established church did not want competition). Another factor, in the days of Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer, might have been the amazing and embarrassing Biblical illiteracy of the priests.
These tensions have their most famous origins in the debate between Tyndale and Sir Thomas More. Farris notes that More was initially an advocate of learning, but later became an advocate of ignorance. He had a heavily paternalistic concern about laypeople reading the Bible on their own. He “repeatedly suggests it would be better if the Bible had never been written” (27)—since it was being used to critique the (Catholic) Church. More is famous for the vision of toleration in his 1516 book, Utopia. But that was theoretical; the turmoil undermining his favored church was actual. With Tyndale and the Bible undermining the Church’s monopoly, More connected “heresy” with sedition. (His concerns extended to particular aspects of Tyndale’s translation. For example, he preferred the term “charity” to “grace”, since it implied giving money to the Church.
More’s rhetoric in death was poignant but hypocritical. Farris (35-36): “Taken in isolation, More’s action makes a compelling case for the freedom of conscience. The echoes of More’s vindictive words against Tyndale’s claim of freedom of conscience, however, shatter his saintly image…He argued for a right for himself that he had previously denied to others.”
A few years later, a similar debate on freedom of conscience in religion occurred between John Calvin and Sebastian Castellio on the heresy of Michael Servetus. Farris devotes a chapter to Calvin coming out on the (More) wrong side of the debate.
Moving Toward Religious “Competition”
In the face of religious, economic, and political incentives to pursue monopoly power in religion, how would people gain and maintain the right to hold religious beliefs and engage in religious practices—for example, to obtain a Bible, to talk about it with others, and to gather in groups of like-minded believers? These are the basic and vital freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment: freedom of the press, of speech, and of assembly.
The politics were driven—over a long period of time and through much effort, courage, and sacrifice—by Scripture, the ideas of the Enlightenment, and a growing belief in the efficacy of limited government. Although most of the credit is typically given to the (secular) Enlightenment, Farris makes the case for the idea that one “ought to surrender as little as possible to the civil government” and the primary role of Scripture, especially in the American context. The bulk of the credit should go to faithful people who were willing to tolerate massive persecution.
Farris points to many heroes of religious freedom. Some, like William Penn and especially Roger Williams, are relatively well-known. Others were historically obscure. My favorite story was a Baptist preacher, Elijah Craig, who was imprisoned in Virginia a few years before the Revolutionary War. He preached within the prison and the jailers responded by building a wall around the jail to make it more difficult for people to hear him.
Preachers and laypeople made the argument for “freedom of conscience” from passages such as Romans 14:5’s “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind”; Romans 14:23’s “the man who has doubts is condemned if he” engages in the activity; and I Corinthians 10:15’s “judge for yourselves”. And they made almost-constant reference to the Bereans of Acts 17:11—who “were of more noble character…for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” What a remarkable example in any age—but especially in a time when such “nobility” was being threatened with imprisonment and death!
Logic played its part too. Why did government have the right to grant (and thus, take away) such rights? Why would a Christian insist on uniformity instead of the Biblical concept of “unity”. Why should “proper Christianity” be defined by national boundaries? If country A says X is correct and country B says Y is correct, then how do we know which country is infallible? And if government should define proper religion, should one depend on the legislative, judicial, or executive parts of government.
Some observed that the true Church never persecutes, but is instead persecuted. As James Madison put it: “That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution ages among some and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business.”
How to Institutionalize Religious Freedom?
As religious “tolerance” became more prevalent, some argued that this enlightened attitude was sufficient, even with a government-established religion.
The Federalists opposed the Bill of Rights as unnecessary and ineffective—what they saw as merely a “parchment barrier”. They couldn’t imagine that a legislature would be an impediment to freedom of conscience, when all previous advances on this in England had come through legislatures (in opposition to royalty). Moreover, the idea of written constitutions in a republican form of government was new. (And as we see today, they can be easily abused.) Finally, they thought it would be unnecessary since the federal government only possessed enumerated powers and would lack authority to restrict rights
But others including James Madison prevailed, in what became the First Amendment, arguing that laws based on tolerance could be revoked. These rights were not to be given—and thus perhaps taken in a less-tolerant time—by government. Freedom of conscience in religious matters was seen as endowed to us by God, rather than granted to us by a government.
As Patrick Henry put it: “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” And these liberties extend to religion.
We owe a lot to those who were persecuted and even martyred—that we can believe and practice religion (or not) according to our convictions. With impending death at the stake, Hugh Latimer said to Nicholas Ridley: “Be of good comfort…we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust never shall be put out.” God graciously answered that request. Whether you are a Methodist in Maine, a Catholic in California, or an Atheist in Arkansas, say a little prayer today, expressing thanks for those who made the effort—“from Tyndale to Madison”—so that we could have religious freedom.