I have recently finished reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. It is in my opinion an essential read in understanding the history of FreeThought and Secularism in America. I have re-read a number of sections and followed up on other articles and a number of historical points.
It’s hard for me to understate what an enormous impact this book has made in my understanding of freethought and secularism. I’ve had bits and pieces before, like the secular roots of the American Constitution, Robert Ingersoll and the role of many humanists and secularists during abolition, women’s suffrage and the early civil rights movement. But I’ve never had these pieces woven together into a cohesive history.
I’m so impressed I’ve decided to write a 4-part post on this one book alone. I won’t make any one post too lengthy however it looks like the book and the history of secularism in America could be broken into 4 rough periods. The first is the remaining portion of this post, Revolutionary FreeThought (c. 1776-1861)*, specifically the role that secular thought played in the founding of America, the way minority religious sects embraced secularism and the early foundations of freethought activism in the form of abolition and feminism.
I have posted in the past regarding the secular and specifically non-Christian origins of the American Constitution however this book spends only a small portion of the first chapter talking about the beliefs of Jefferson, Adams, Madison and other Founding Fathers. Instead, Jacoby focuses on the debate that raged around the wording of the Constitution and how any mention of any God was a strong point of contention among religious clerics at the time..
Secular Thought During the Revolution
During the formation of this country with rare exception each State had an official and established state church. And in some of those states you had to take an oath supporting that church in order to hold public office, elected or appointed. The Founders knew that if there was going to be strong and unified Federal government then religious tests for office would have to be eliminated and hence the following line shows up in Article 6 of the Constitution
…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States
To further extend the clear fear that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson and Madison, had of sectarian strife within the new nation, they clearly infused the American Constitution with the same philosophy that embodied Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Madison conveyed his views on the dilemma posed by sectarian differences (let alone the pluralistic society we live in today) to the Virginia Assembly to proposed funding of religious schooling
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
Perhaps the most notable Freethinker during this revolutionary period was Thomas Paine. A man that contributed directly to the people’s support of the American Revolution to only be reviled as the Arch-Infidel upon his return from imprisonment in France. Of course, the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the former a support for the American Revolution and the latter a support for the French Revolution and a critique of hereditary rule, was looked upon quite differntly after publishing The Age of Reason.
The Age of Reason was a scathing critique of many of the Biblical doctrines at the time. He soundly rejected divine revelation and miracles. He wholesale discounted all supernatural aspects of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike. He puts forth not a disbelief in God, despite the accusations of atheist at the time, but a belief in a deistic God. One who could be known through Nature’s Laws.
Religious Support of Secular Government
The most notable subplot, if you will, during this period was the role that early Evangelicals played in supporting the secular nature of government. As you can imagine some of the most outspoken critics of the Constitution at the time came from established, state-sponsored Christian denominations, such as The Episcopal Church (official church of Virginia) or to Protestantism in general. Catholics in America at the time were highly distrusted due to the perceived dual obligations to the papacy and to the civil governments. For example, Massachusetts only allowed Catholics to hold office if they renounced the papacy’s authority in all matters civil. New York, ironically, allowed Jews the right to hold office but not Catholics.
In the previously mentioned debate in Virginia regarding special assessments to fund private, religious education it was the minority religious sects, such as, the Quakers, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians who opposed the special assessments and ultimately would support Virginia’s religious freedom act.
It’s not at all surprising although ironic that the early roots of the Evangelicals around today would fight so strongly to oppose religious language only to turn around in the 20th century to fight to have it included. It only goes to show that the Founding Fathers were right to fear the mixing of religious and political power. Because yesterday it was the Episcopal Church and today it’s the Baptists.
I have also posted over on FreeThought Fort Wayne’s blog about a need to cultivate religious advocacy of secularism in America. I now have a better understanding that I wasn’t proposing anything new and that there is a history of support that needs to resurface
- Revolutionary FreeThought (You Are Here)
- The Golden Age of FreeThought
- FreeThought in the 20th Century
- The Future of FreeThought
* I know the timelines don’t have “clean” demarcation but it helps to give an idea of the time periods involved.