We are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. You can get caught up here.
In this post we want to examine Metaxas’s assertion that British-America was characterized by religious freedom.
Here are some of the pertinent passages:
p.10: “The American colonies at the end of the eighteenth century…had a deep and abiding respect for religious freedom and were well-practiced in living with those who held different beliefs from their own.
p.34: “The founders, however, had quite another idea, based on their experience in the colonies over the decades before, where the idea of total religious freedom was paramount. They had already experienced this religious freedom as part of life in the American colonies. The very first settlers on American shores had left their lives behind precisely for this freedom.
p.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. This was the genius at the heart of it all.”
p.77-75: “One of the main reasons the United States came into being was because people had left Europe, where this ‘establishment’ of religion was going on all the time and was manifestly monstrous and destructive to individual freedom. People’s lives were ruined if they didn’t choose the ‘right’ religion.
There is so much that is wrong about these statements that I don’t really know where to begin.
Let’s start with the Pilgrims. First, the Pilgrims did not come to America for religious freedom. They traveled to Holland for religious freedom, but they came to America because they were worried that their children were losing their ethnic identity in Holland. Second, the Pilgrims, and their “City on a Hill” neighbors to the north, the Puritans, did indeed believe in religious freedom. (Sarcasm alert!!) As I tell my students, people who came to Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were free to practice the religion of the Puritan settlers or else be removed from the colony, imprisoned, fined, or even killed.
On p. 72, Metaxas praises Roger Williams as a champion of religious liberty. This is correct. Indeed, Rhode Island, the colony Williams helped found, was a place where religious freedom flourished. Yet later in the book, Metaxas sings the praises of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as a model of American exceptionalism (more on that in a later post). In the process, he completely ignores the fact that Williams was thrown out of Massachusetts Bay largely because of religious differences with the government. (So were a bunch of other people, including Anne Hutchinson). So much for religious freedom. Metaxas can’t have it both ways.
In fact, there were only a few places in British-America where religious freedom “was paramount.” The colonies of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and parts of New York celebrated religious freedom.
In New England, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth (before its merger with Massachusetts in 1691), and Connecticut all had state churches in which Congregationalism was the “established” religion. In some cases, these established churches were “manifestly monstrous and destructive to individual freedom.” Mary Dyer, for example, was one of four Quakers executed for their faith by the champions of John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill.”
Religious freedom and economic acquisitiveness motivated British settlers to come to Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey–the so-called middle colonies. William Penn was certainly interested in creating a “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania, but he also wanted to make some serious cash on land sales. On the eve of the American Revolution there was so much religious strife in the colony (especially between Quakers, Anglicans, and Presbyterians) that whatever kind of peaceable kingdom that previously existed in Pennsylvania had been largely lost. This all raises some serious questions about Metaxas’s argument that the colonists were “well-practiced in living with those who held different beliefs from their own.”
And then there was Virginia, where Baptist, Presbyterians, and just about anyone who was not Anglican (the state or “established” church of the colony) were persecuted for their faith. Very few settlers came to the Old Dominion in pursuit of religious freedom. Indeed, to quote Metaxas, people’s lives “were ruined” in Virginia because they “didn’t choose the ‘right’ religion.” As late as the 1770s Baptist preachers were imprisoned for preaching in Virginia. Others were beaten, had their property destroyed, and nearly drowned in rivers for their nonconformity.
It amazes me that Metaxas or Viking Press did not have a historian check this material on religious liberty before If You Can Keep It went to print.
I understand that Metaxas is very concerned–as he should be– about religious liberty, especially in light of some recent Supreme Court decisions. But his use of colonial-era history to defend religious liberty in 21st century United States fails in a major way.
Stay tuned for our next segment.