Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Intolerant religion

kw: religion, north american history

I have been reading about the three religious groups that founded Colonial America because among my ancestors I have immigrants of all three stripes: Puritans, Pilgrims, and Quakers. Some of what I have read is quite disturbing. Religious extremism, once it gains civil power, is trouble every time it is tried.

All three of these groups are well known in history as seekers of religious freedom. It is less well known that all three tried to establish theocracies in the New World, with differing levels of success, or rather, of un-success. A theocracy is by its nature intolerant, and the level of intolerance undermines its roots.

The least intolerant (I hesitate to say "most tolerant") were the Quakers. This is partly because they were the most persecuted, by not only the Catholics and Anglicans in England, but by the Puritans and Pilgrims of North America once they began to migrate to the Colonies. They learned about the dangers of intolerance and somehow became more tolerant themselves. This is not to say that they weren't intolerant, just less so by contrast, and they soon passed laws allowing most other groups to practice their religions unmolested. But they expected fellow Quakers to adhere to certain standards, and they had sanctions against those who failed to do so. Old Quaker meeting records are full of disciplinary notes, and many violations of "discipline", meaning their rules for conduct, were followed by a person or couple being disowned. Being disowned was a kind of excommunication, and was severe. No Quaker would trade with them any more and to make a living they had to go into exile.

The Puritans were, for a century, the most successful at forming a theocracy and making it stick. They became legendary for intolerance, and dissenters, including a number of Quakers, were hanged over the years. There was a long list of religious infractions for which a person could be fined, such as a few pence for missing Sabbath services, or jailed for varying lengths of time, or have property confiscated, and right up to hanging for serious heresy. The most infamous hangings were the 1692-3 killings of seventeen purported witches in Salem, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims were in a middle ground. Religiously distinct from the Puritans, they avoided contact whenever possible, and there was little trade between Plymouth Colony (Pilgrims) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Puritans) until the two were politically merged in 1691. This followed a decree in 1689 from England mandating religious tolerance and an end to political sanctions against people for religious reasons. The Pilgrims of Plymouth had a list of infractions that they punished in various ways, just as extensive as the Puritans'. I don't read where they hanged anybody, but they were definitely hostile to Quakers, and suffered the hostility of the Puritans.

I find it ironic that all three groups fled intolerance in England, but it took the English Parliament's decree to force them to tolerate one another. It required a few centuries for this toleration to become enshrined as a kind of American virtue!

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