Spiritual Formation of the
U. S. Constitution, Part I

– a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove –
– Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD –
– April 8, 2001 [Part II on April 29] –


Intro to Hymn

It may be hard for us today to realize that one of the most despised religious groups in early America, in the colonies, was the Society of Friends, or Quakers, who, like the Puritans earlier, had fled from persecution in the land of their origin, England. Their founder, George Fox, taught the value of understanding and guidance through heeding one’s "inward light," which required no mediation by institutions or outward authorities.

Fox urged them to "quake" at the word of the Lord, thus their nickname. They generally refuse to take oaths or bear arms, and often keep to themselves in a strong but humble religious posture that frequently angered their more intolerant colonial neighbors. However, unlike some other early sects, the Quakers had no problem with music or singing, as portrayed in an old song of theirs that is a favorite of mine, so much so that I included it in my ordination in 1988.

Hymn #108: My Life Flows On In Endless Song

SERMON: Spiritual Formation of the U. S. Constitution, Part I

In early America, without the media blitz we post-moderns know so well, singing together was a common and popular pastime.

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep form singing!

And musical testimonies about early political issues played a more important role in catching the people’s attention than ever happens anymore today.

One so-called "election song" in favor of the candidacy of Thomas Jefferson included this stanza:

Let foes to freedom dread the name…To tyrants never bend the knee;
But join with heart and soul and voice / For Jefferson and Liberty.

Another, much more lasting sentiment that debuted in an even earlier political song would be:

United, we stand. Divided, we fall!

In the days of the American Revolution, this was one of the most popular political slogans. It first appeared in a tune called "The Liberty Song" in 1768, and helped inspire the thirteen separate and very different colonies to unify and form "a more perfect union" in a federal government. United, we stand. Divided, we fall!

Now, way more than 200 years later, we today might easily forget just how different the colonies were from each other. So uniting them in a common cause, even liberty, was no mean feat. But unite they did, standing together to ward off the threat of falling, divided.

We especially might forget just how different the colonies were from each other in religious matters. (Or, we might not have ever even known how different they really were, since the complex religious history of our country is often avoided or thoroughly over-simplified in our schools.)

And ironically, one could reverse that famous political slogan to accurately describe the courageous Constitutional solution to the religious pluralism of that era. Imagine this:

Divided, we stand. United, we fall.

In a capsule, that is what the Constitution mandated: respect for diversity, with no central uniting religious authority. And this critical issue is still before us today. In fact, it has never ceased to be an issue since the Constitution first codified religious freedom. Can our nation flourish–or even survive–founded on this unusual premise: respect the diversity of religions, and we stand; enforce uniformity in religion, and surely we will fall? Divided, we stand; united, we fall?

It is on the origins of this curious national proposition that I will focus my attention in a couple of sermons this month, today and on April 29. In significant ways, I find our colonial and revolutionary religious climates remarkably relevant to these post-modern times, especially amid the latest in a 200-year series of assaults on the separation of church and state. So I hope to illuminate for you–ever so briefly–some of the spiritual formation of our ambitious country, in particular how and why the formalization of religious liberty came about. May this portrayal strengthen your own ability to articulate your religious values.

After some further introduction, today I will try to show the scope of colonial religious forces that prepared the way for how religion is treated in the Constitution, and then I'll lift up the actual cauldron of creation and its creators in my next presentation. You won't hear many familiar names today. Thomas Jefferson and his ilk really come forward in the next installment.

I believe that a greater historical understanding of these large forces of our spiritual history can help us relate more clearly to the current culture, as we wrangle about, for instance, the proper place for religious language in governmental settings, such as Inauguration prayers, or the posting of the 10 Commandments. In my research I was rather surprised to discover just how fragile and controversial an idea religious liberty was in the era of our Founders. And it remains so today–certainly controversial and still fragile. After this investigation, I don't wonder why quite as much.

By writing into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights two short but far-reaching passages, the Founders of our country set in motion a radical experiment of legalized religious freedom, declaring essentially that, in religious matters, yes, "Divided, we stand, and united, we fall."

(By "united" in this religious context, I mean an enforced uniformity of belief, which had been a long-standing posture of most previous Western governments, and which the Founders rejected in favor of allowing a diversity of belief systems. In language we’re not as familiar with today, "enforced uniformity of belief" means the "establishment" of a state religion.)

It may be helpful to first review the actual wording in our most holy of political scriptures. Many of us know, at least obliquely, the First Amendment's initial restriction, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

But can you say how religion is addressed in the Constitution itself? There's again one sentence and one sentence only, at the end of Article VI. It states: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." That's all the references to religion there are–two short sentences–but it was a large leap.

The addition of these two ideas was a giant step away from tradition. The previous 13 centuries of western civilization had been staunchly based precisely on the often fierce collaboration of civil and spiritual authority to enforce uniformity in religion, differing regionally only in kind, not style. State religions were well established and religious tests for leaders were commonplace. This had been happening throughout Christendom since the Roman emperor Constantine converted early in the 4th century.

1300 years later, and relatively suddenly, in this wild land of America, a rebellious group of transplanted European stock, agreed to defy that time-honored method completely and separate the church from the state, predicting that each would be stronger by the separation. Hmmm. Were these rebels insightful geniuses or naive idealists? Perhaps neither, as my story today will show. And from these 2+ centuries beyond their time, can we declare the experiment of religious freedom a success? Well, hardly, I think. A look around us today suggests that the jury is indeed still out.

Inclinations toward enforced religious uniformity continue to rise up and effectively compete for power. Witness Pat Robertson's impressive presidential candidacy in 1988 and his continuing audience, inspiring others to run for elected office waving a religious flag. A few years ago when my wife Barbara Wells and I were serving in the Pacific Northwest, there was a bold and very well supported effort by a Washington State gubernatorial candidate who blatantly offered to rule the state with a Christian yardstick [Ellen Craswell]. She lost, but not by much.

And strong voices for an enforced religious uniformity continue to ring out of Colorado, Florida and Virginia, to name but a few centers of right wing religiosity. And then there’s the so-called "Charitable Choice" initiative by the new federal administration, the latest attempt to spend tax dollars on religious support.

A very relevant, but not so familiar word here is "theocracy," which describes a government based on religion, in which religious leaders are thoroughly intertwined with political leaders, and secular decisions are made according to religious doctrine. Many previous western governments were effective theocracies, sometimes more in behavior than visible principle, but if it walks like a theocracy and talks like a theocracy, well, then, chances are mighty good it is a theocracy.

You won’t hear Pat Robertson use that word to advocate for his platforms because it’s so blatantly illegal, but scratch the surface and theocracy is what he’s after: government based on a particular religious perspective.

Meanwhile, History begs for our judgment: are the church and the state both stronger for their legal separation, as the Founders of the United States hoped and predicted? That is a crucial and demanding question, one which I find difficult to answer without a fuller comprehension of how this radical arrangement came to be.

It is indeed a challenge to summarize briefly the complex early American religious story. I must give grateful credit to church historian (and Unitarian) Sidney Mead, for the help I found in his delicious little book, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (copyright 1963).

What I think is very important to remember about the religious life of pre-Revolutionary America is that most of the colonies had some kind of established, state-supported religion right up to and even after the Constitution was ratified. They assumed, following umpteen centuries of examples, that enforced religious uniformity was the proper way, but that, of course, they would be able to do it more effectively.

The glorious value we revere–religious freedom with appreciated diversity–was not the first choice of the vast majority of colonists. Far from being visionaries, they really just backed into it, finally unable to see any alternative. A curious alignment of unlikely collaborators helped to open the door that let in such a new breeze. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's go back to the early 17th century. The first Puritan settlers on our shores may have been escaping religious persecution in Europe, but they immediately set about establishing their own version of a dominant, government-supported religious order here–a theocracy.

In New England the Pilgrims and other Puritans fully intended to establish a society of religious uniformity, not unlike the traditional English system, only more pure and more democratic. However, their democracy was not particularly open-minded. One principle they used went like this: "There is no Rule given by God for any State to give an Affirmative Toleration to any false Religion, or Opinion whatsoever…" They and their descendants were ruthless in banning dissidents from Massachusetts. The Puritan mission, after all, was to purify religion.

Contemporaneously, down in Virginia, the Anglicans held sway, ably representing the Church of England. They, too, were fiercely narrow. In 1612, shortly after arrival, they installed the death penalty for anyone speaking out against the Trinity and Christianity. (However, since about 90% of the first generation of settlers died anyway from the harsh conditions, one suspects this law was not so widely enforced or challenged.) But other intolerant–and legal–sentiments nonetheless carried the day for decades in Virginia, without question.

It was perhaps good that these two reigning religious groups–Puritan in New England and Anglican in Virginia–were at geographic ends of the colonies. Rarely did they have to compete directly for supremacy. One story of their clashing stands out for us, however, because of its Unitarian connection.

Back across the Atlantic, in old England, the government–Anglican, of course–was not at all sympathetic to the dissident Puritans and their budding theocracy in New England. It got to the point that, in 1684, the English authorities revoked the Massachusetts Bay Charter, which had given the Puritans sole control over the region. This effectively thwarted further Puritan dominance and Anglicans everywhere no doubt chortled at the move.

Shortly thereafter, still in the mid-1680s, a new Royal Governor arrived from England onto the shores of Boston accompanied by–lo and behold–an Anglican chaplain. Of course there were no Anglican churches anywhere near Boston, so, failing to find a Puritan minister who would willingly open his church to this English chaplain, the governor had to take a pulpit by force. They held Anglican services there in an occupied Puritan church while a more suitable church, to be called King's Chapel, was being constructed.

King's Chapel is a notable landmark because, one century later, shortly after the revolution, it became the first American church where unitarianism was preached, and it still thrives as such today. If you go to Boston and walk the famous Freedom Trail, King's Chapel is a prominent stop along the way. It has been a strong Unitarian Universalist congregation for some time (as has, by the way, the church of the Pilgrims, First Parish in Plymouth).

The urge for enforced uniformity of belief was great for the two largest religious groups in north and south colonial America, but one particular factor was at work here in this big land that was very different than the way things worked back in Europe. It was big land. Unlike the hemmed-in feeling of both geography and tradition back in the old countries, here was attractive space to move around in–physical and social space galore.

The space was big, but of course it was not empty of culture. Today we are sadly aware of how the Europeans colonists dismissed and destroyed the flourishing indigenous Native American societies. But at the time, our vaunted American value of freedom was greatly cultivated by the newcomers’ experience of available space. If you and your kind weren't welcome in one place, you could take your beliefs to a different location and homestead there.

However, much to the frustration of theocratic officials, the wide-open spaces also complicated enforced uniformity. It was hard to govern by religion when the people were too far apart to get together. In Virginia, for instance, the rapidly growing tobacco industry spread planters so far apart that the Anglican church decided to help create central towns, just so that planters and their families could be required to come in for weekly religious instruction.

Meanwhile, as historian Sidney Mead described it, the persecuted minority groups, like Roman Catholics, Quakers and Baptists, avoided vertical authority by moving horizontally into relatively free space. Thus, in the middle of the colonies, out of the reach of the repressive Anglicans to the south and Puritans to the north, some important demonstrations of religious co-existence were underway. (Again, most colonists, as we know, had little interest in co-existing with the Native American religions. The levels of intolerance even within colonial Christianity could be extreme! But there was room to find a niche somewhere in this big land.)

Quakers were hated most everywhere but strong in Pennsylvania. Roman Catholics were despised even more, but welcome in Maryland. New York contained quite a variety of religions that seemed to get along. Baptists set up in tiny Rhode Island, where Roger Williams had helped establish a radically free society, which drove the nearby Puritans in Massachusetts crazy.

(Roger Williams was an interesting character, and extremely religious. He spoke about "the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world" a century before the birth of Thomas Jefferson, who usually gets credit for that famous phrase. But Williams' extreme angle on religious freedom was entirely to keep the state, the world, from poisoning religion, not the other way around.)

Into the 18th century, it became increasingly clear that no one group was going to be strong enough to establish, let alone enforce any uniform religion in this big land. Certainly some, if not most, wanted to, but circumstances just wouldn't permit it. So their options were to allow complete religious freedom, which was the path Pennsylvania and Rhode Island took, or establish a favored church and then barely tolerate dissenters, as in England. Most colonies more or less followed this latter establishment option and still maintained state religions, usually either Anglican or what the Puritans had evolved into, (i.e., Congregational, which became less strident but still committed to democratic process).

As an aside, maybe some of you, when you were younger, learned, as I did, a certain really long word, one you could proudly pronounce as the longest word in the dictionary. Odds are it was "antidisestablishmentarianism," which arose from this very period in our history, as I’m sure we all knew when we mouthed it. Those for religious liberty and freedom of belief promoted the disestablishment of the state church. The orthodoxy were against this effort, and countered with antidisestablishmentarianism.

Meanwhile, as had been happening in Europe since the Reformation, the Christian religion continued to fracture into competing denominations, many of which languished in vitality. Combine this fracturing with some very demanding lifestyles in this wide open frontier land, and you find American church religion dwindling to a low ebb as the 18th century unfolded, even despite the consolidated power of established colonial churches.

Competition among denominations, none of which had coercive power anymore, meant that people had to be persuaded to voluntarily join a church. Well, many weren't so persuaded, which became increasingly evident as church attendance decreased.

And so the stage was set for the entry of a more personal, intuitive religion than the stale and formalized liturgies of the orthodox groups and their fractured relatives. A simplified and more pious form of Christianity arrived and thrived in the mid 1700s, largely in the shape of very persuasive revivals that became known collectively as the Great Awakening.

Pietism, as this trend was called, suited the individualistic nature of many of the new American people. Pietism emerged from within the established churches but quickly stepped outside them (quite often literally–in tent revivals), and stressed personal religious experience more than traditional church practices. Very enthusiastic preachers, like Jonathan Edwards, stirred up frontier emotions with superstitious and fearful religious imagery that took powerful hold in relatively unsophisticated minds and hearts.

The orthodox were aghast at this aspect of their own religion and rejected it with scorn. But the pietists demanded the freedom to follow their own conscience and, in fact, would soon become a force that helped religious freedom find its way into the Constitution.

At the same time, another flavor of American individualism was sprouting in the intellectual religious community, spurred on by the Enlightenment. Religious rationalism became a way of thinking for oneself about Scripture and religion. This personal investigation of religious ideas heartily encouraged the concept of freedom of belief. It made slow headway into religious power bases, but still influenced many leaders of the day. (Jefferson and Madison, two major architects of American religious liberty, were prominent religious rationalists.)

The rationalists also made a strong case for freedom of belief, and they had to support the often irrational and persecuted pietists in their fight to believe as they wished. So we begin to see a unlikely–and brief–alignment of Pietist and Rationalist, widely divergent in style and theology, but both committed to an individual's right of personal belief. Together, they helped open a door to the fresh air of spiritual liberty, a breeze which inspired and supported the Founders to step in a new direction: the legalized protection of religious freedom. (Shortly after Constitutional ratification, however, the pietists turned on their rationalist allies and re-aligned with the orthodox.)

For now, in closing, I will reiterate what was, for me, an important new awareness as I deepened my own understanding of our country’s spiritual history. With the notable exception of a few visionaries, the flow of religious forces leading to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was no grand and principled movement inexorably toward religious freedom. Rather, it was, finally, a reluctant and pragmatic reality that dragged our national ancestors out of their assumptions about enforced uniformity of belief into the grudging realization that the only way to ensure religious freedom for their group was to guarantee it for all other groups as well. It is this lesson that seems to elude some of today’s more orthodox voices.

The "lively experiment" of spiritual liberty for all was circumstantially derived and emotionally tentative. Most of the colonial religious groups did not have their heart in it. This helps me to understand that we still feel the effects of such ambivalence today, so that we who care must continually strive to sustain the right of personal belief. The spiritual legacy of this great nation is still in formation, and we are the latest generation of standard-bearers for the value of diversity.

I have also realized what a debt we owe to the Founders for their stalwart efforts that installed religious liberty so firmly into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They were succinct, but it stuck, so that in the subsequent 200+ years of our national evolution, right wing tinkerers and authoritarians who would steer us back toward some kind of enforced uniformity of belief have been thwarted. So far, anyway! Stay tuned.

(In Part 2, I'll tell more of the story of the Founders themselves, the ones who led the drive for Constitutional recognition of religious liberty. Please share this sermon with others who’ve missed this talk and invite them to catch up and come on April 29.)

For now, I invite you again into glorious song, to sing out #287, one of the most strident of our hymns, proclaiming the "Faith of the Free." As you sing, feel the weighty heritage that strengthens your voice, and imagine all the earlier generations that have sustained religious freedom before us. They’re singing along with us.

…CLOSING WORDS – May we recognize our faith of the larger liberty, cherish the costly heritage we claim, and add our contributions to the spiritual legacy of this lively experiment we call religious freedom.

Heroes of faith in every age inspire us to open ourselves to the Spirit of Life and our hearts to each other. As you go forth now into community, celebrate the gift of liberal religion and our being here together. But first sing once more of the roots that hold us close and the wings that set us free, #123.

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