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God in America: "A New Eden"
Written, Produced and Directed by
Principal Cinematography by
[The words spoken by the actors in this film are from transcripts, sermons and personal journals of the characters they portray.]
LAUREN F. WINNER, Historian of Religion, Duke University: OK, you've created this nation. What's the story? What's the story of this nation? What does it mean to be an American? Suddenly, you have both opportunity but also the imperative to construct something of an identity.
NARRATOR: For Thomas Jefferson, the new republic must be founded with religious freedom. And that, he believed, was a God-given right.
STEPHEN PROTHERO, Professor of Religion, Boston University: One thing he says is, you know, "God created us in such a way that we can make our religious choices. Who is the state to tell us something that God chose not to tell us?"
NARRATOR: It was not just a matter of principle. He had already witnessed the struggle for religious freedom with his own eyes. And his remarkable partnership with the Baptists in his home state of Virginia would help define what freedom would mean for America.
In 1773, 27-year-old Jeremiah Moore, a Baptist from Fairfax County, Virginia, found himself arrested and thrown in jail. His crime, preaching without a license.
JEREMIAH MOORE: I have felt the effects of an ecclesiastical establishment and have been told by the judge in his seat, "You shall lie in jail until you rot," when my crime was no other than preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
NARRATOR: Virginia's Baptists were evangelical Christians who came from Pennsylvania, migrating south to the Piedmont hills of central Virginia, looking to spread their Gospel message.
Rev. JAMES SLATTON, Baptist Minister: They were looking for converts and were bringing to people the idea that people can encounter God, and can encounter and experience God for themselves- in fact, not only can but must.
NARRATOR: Baptists called it "rebirth" and it meant choosing Christ as your personal savior and being baptized as an adult.
LAUREN WINNER: You had to testify persuasively to that dramatic conversion, and then you would be taken to this river and immersed sometimes in quite cold water. And there would be crowds. Crowds weren't just politely observing this ritual, they were also sometimes being slain in the spirit and falling down, laughing, shrieking, praying.
NARRATOR: The experience began to attract hundreds of converts in rural Virginia.
STEPHEN MARINI, Historian of Religion, Wellesley College: They're singing and they're preaching the terrors of hell and the glories of the gospel of Christ. Everybody's praying for them and they're crying. If you are moved somehow, these people will embrace you, they will love you, they will support you. And the next day, you're telling your neighbor and you're inviting your neighbor to the next meeting. And it goes like that.
NARRATOR: But to convert to a different religion was dangerous in colonial Virginia. America's oldest and most prosperous colony was run by a powerful ruling class, and at its heart was its religion, the Anglican church.
LAUREN WINNER: Everyone was an Anglican. I mean, everyone was part of an Anglican parish. By definition, you were. You were a parishioner in an Anglican parish.
NARRATOR: Citizens paid taxes to maintain their parish church and their minister.
LAUREN WINNER: And everyone in Virginia society understood that when you left your house and saw that society was functioning, you were encountering the work of the church, the established church. And you were also encountering the work of these elites who were overseeing that work.
NARRATOR: For more than a century, Virginia's elites had held power along with the Anglican Church. Now the Baptists were drawing converts away from Anglican parishes.
LAUREN WINNER: To share the Gospel with you is to call you into a whole new way of being. Of course, that's not particularly appealing if you're a happy elite person who likes your way of being as it is just fine, thank you, and everything's hunky dory. It's quite appealing if you're a person who lives a life of toil and suffering. And you would, of course, be compelled by a message that says, "Come into this new religious society, into this new community."
STEPHEN PROTHERO: There was a sense that religion was a big factor in what would hold a society together. And the Baptists, as a growing, gathering force, were seen as a significant threat.
NARRATOR: The colony responded by restricting where non-Anglicans could preach. Any preacher without a license could be arrested.
Rev. JAMES SLATTON: This was very burdensome. And it offended their sense of what was right because they believed that they should obey God and not man. They needed no man's permission in order to go somewhere and proclaim the gospel.
NARRATOR: Jeremiah Moore was one of many Baptists who'd refused to get a license and had been thrown in jail.
JEREMIAH MOORE: God himself is the only one to whom man is accountable for his religious sentiments simply, nor has he erected any tribunal on earth qualified to judge whether the man worships in an acceptable manner or not.
STEPHEN MARINI: When you start getting preachers like Jeremiah Moore and John Waller and Samuel Harris getting arrested and tried and thrown into prison, either they knew or they found out right away that the more trouble they got in with the government, the more appealing they were to the rank and file out there on the Piedmont. They said, "Well, at least these people are convinced. At least these people are committed to what they believe. They're willing to put it on the line. They're willing to risk."
NARRATOR: Moore turned his incarceration to his advantage, preaching to crowds through the bars of his cell.
JEREMIAH MOORE: God is our refuge. God is our strength. And the righteous God in his wrath-
STEPHEN MARINI: He's not just preaching to the converted, he's making news. And so the government comes down harder. All of a sudden, in almost every county, militiamen are arresting these folks, sending them to jail. And it spreads all the way across the Commonwealth.
Rev. JAMES SLATTON: But all this backfired because actually being persecuted and being willing to go to jail, this gave great credibility. Rather than discredit them, it empowered them.
NARRATOR: In October 1776, Jeremiah Moore brought a petition to the Virginia Assembly demanding the right for Baptists to be free to worship without fear of persecution.
PETITION: Equal liberty, that invaluable blessing, which though it be the birthright of every good member of the state, is what your petitioners have been deprived of-
NARRATOR: Ten thousand names were on the petition.
STEPHEN MARINI: They were looking for an advocate, an advocate to go into the courts and at least make their case.
NARRATOR: They found their advocate in Thomas Jefferson. As a member of the Virginia Assembly, he'd received the Baptists' petition. Weeks before, he'd drafted America's Declaration of Independence, and what he would now undertake on behalf of the Baptists would enshrine religious liberty as an American value.
STEPHEN MARINI: This one is obvious to him. This one is very obvious to him. Suddenly, in his back yard, is an example of the worst kind of abuse that government can do.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: We tend to think of Jefferson as a sort anti-religious person, but he was intensely religious, or as we would say now, he was spiritual but not religious. But he thought that it was up to the individual. And he didn't want the state to tell him what to think.
We think of Jefferson as a rationalist, but in some ways, this is also an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation, where the Protestants are saying every individual is free to read the Bible for himself and to figure out what it says. Jefferson wanted us to do that, too. He wanted us to be free to look at the evidence in the world of religion and decide what we thought it all meant.
NARRATOR: Jefferson's own religion had nothing in common with Baptist beliefs. He created his own version of the Gospels, keeping only what he believed relevant, cutting out the rest.
STEPHEN MARINI: And he takes away all the narrative, all the miracles, all of that stuff that just won't stand rational inspection. "No, Jesus didn't raise Lazarus because there is no exemption to death." But Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers." This is divine wisdom, and no institution can mediate it for you, including the church, let alone a government."
[www.pbs.org: Examine Jefferson's Bible]
THOMAS JEFFERSON: I cannot give up my guidance to the magistrate because he knows no more of the way to heaven than I do and is less concerned to direct me right than I am to go right.
NARRATOR: Jefferson met with Virginia's leading Baptists, who told him of their struggle to practice their faith.
STEPHEN MARINI: Jefferson says, "I couldn't disagree with you more about the substance of all of this. But I will defend your right to say it." And that's exactly what he does.
NARRATOR: Jefferson joined forces with the Baptists.
DANIEL DREISBACH, Legal Scholar, American University: And their idea, which is radical at the time, is you disestablish the church. You allow every religious sect and denomination to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
NARRATOR: Jefferson began to draft a bill that would end state-supported religion.
BILL: No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever.
DANIEL DREISBACH: Ministers are not going to go grow fat and lazy relying on a check from the state. Rather, they're going to become diligent.
NARRATOR: Jefferson went further. Individuals must be free to worship as they choose.
BILL: All men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion.
DANIEL DREISBACH: It's through this competition of religious sects and denominations that the purest and the most efficacious faith and church will prevail in Virginia.
NARRATOR: But when Jefferson submitted his bill to the Virginia Assembly, it was met with fierce opposition by many Virginians, including his fellow revolutionary, Patrick Henry.
LAUREN WINNER: It tells us something about precisely how radical and revolutionary this idea is that even these revolutionary Virginians, suddenly, when actually faced with the possibility of religious freedom, there was a sort of collective sense of needing to pause and slow things down a bit.
NARRATOR: Henry feared that without state support, religion in Virginia would wither and die. At war's end, he drafted a bill that would fund not just the Anglican church but other approved denominations. When the Baptists read Henry's proposed bill, they were outraged.
STEPHEN MARINI: "This is still state control or state funding or state monitoring of religious institutions, and we want hands off."
NARRATOR: Baptist support for Jefferson's vision of a religiously free Virginia grew more vocal. Their message struck a chord with ordinary Virginians who had fought for America's independence. In January 1786, Jefferson's bill was finally passed.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: That connection was so palpable, between the tyranny of a government that didn't allow you to do your own thing and the tyranny of religious groups that wouldn't allow you to do your own thing, that we decided that, yes, it was worth the risk and we need to try.
NARRATOR: And when, a year later, the Constitution was being drafted in Philadelphia, Jefferson and the Baptists hoped that their hard-fought principle of separating church from state would be part of the country's founding document. But when the Constitution was presented in September 1787, in not one of the seven articles was there any guarantee of religious liberty or other individual rights.
FRANK LAMBERT, Historian, Purdue University: People were incensed. Here was a Constitution that created a very powerful central government. Surely, individual rights ought to be protected, ought to be specified. That was the concern.
NARRATOR: The Constitution's framers wanted to create a more perfect union, and some feared that statements on religion would be divisive. But Jefferson believed their fears were unfounded, that defending an individual's liberties through a Bill of Rights would hold the country together.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: Jefferson said, "Let's do this experiment. Let's see what happens." But I think he had a real faith, we might say, in the power of freedom of conscience, and he believed that we could be held together through other sorts of things other than a shared religion. And those would be shared values around things like democracy and things like freedom.
NARRATOR: Virginia and four other states agreed with Jefferson and demanded a guarantee of individual rights. On September 25th, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York, America's First Congress proposed a Bill of Rights. The 1st Amendment was ratified and became part of the Constitution in 1791.
BILL OF RIGHTS: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
NARRATOR: Years later, as president, Thomas Jefferson would define the 1st Amendment as having erected a wall of separation between church and state.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The metaphor is so strong that people often think that, "Oh, the 1st Amendment means that there should be a wall of separation between church and state." It doesn't mean that at all. You know, it says that we are not going to establish laws that are going to favor one religion over another, but it doesn't say exactly what kind of barrier there's going to be.
NARRATOR: Like the new nation, the 1st Amendment would be a work in progress. But with no national church, religion would not be guaranteed a place at the center of public life. No other nation had ever taken such a step.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: I think there's some fear- in the word "experiment" that you hear a lot in the early America, you know, there is fear there. There is this idea that it could go wrong, that it can fail, the experiment can fail. And there's a lot of talk, especially around the issue of religious freedom, that this is maybe too dangerous.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY, Historian, Boston College: With the American religious marketplace opening up, everybody realizes that one choice could be "None of the above." You can choose not to go to church, not to read the Bible, not to believe in God. And that leads to opportunities but also to potential- potential damnation.
NARRATOR: And it was on America's frontier that both the risk and the potential of religious freedom would be played out. By the turn of the century, as many as 200 wagons were leaving the East each day in search of a new life.
CATHERINE BREKUS, Historian, University of Chicago: These are people who gather up all their belongings in carts and set off on these journeys that take many, many weeks. Michigan was the wild West. Indiana seemed just impossibly far away. But when they arrive, they have to begin carving out some kind of new world.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: The frontier was still a pretty dangerous place. It was not undertaken lightly. This was not a lark, especially if you were going to bring your wife and kids. Your sense of isolation would have been profound.
NARRATOR: It was a dangerous and lonely life. People longed for spiritual direction, but there were few churches on the expanding frontier.
James Finley had traveled with his family from North Carolina to the Ohio frontier in the late 1790s. In his later life, he would become a leading figure on America's religious landscape. But as a young man, Finley, like thousands of other Americans, struggled alone with his faith.
JAMES FINLEY: What's the point in praying? If I'm one of the elect, I'll will be saved in God's good time. And if I'm one of the non-elect, praying will do me no good, as Christ did not die for them.
NARRATOR: He'd been brought up as a Presbyterian but now, with the opportunity to choose, came anxiety.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: People are starting to ask, "What religion should I have," you know, or "What's thae experience that these other people have had that I haven't had? Or have I had it?"
JAMES FINLEY: Sometimes, my faith wavers, in spite of all my efforts to bolster it up, and my conscience stings me with remorse. The thought that perhaps my soul will be lost produces the most intense emotion.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The idea is shifting. We're shifting away from the old Calvinist idea that God has made these choices- before you're even born, God has decided whether you're going to heaven or hell. Now it becomes up to us. Totally different thing. Now we have the choice.
NARRATOR: In 1801, James Finley left Ohio heading for Kentucky. Thousands had been drawn to a religious gathering in the town of Cane Ridge.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: He had heard about this meeting that was supposed to take place because it was publicized well in advance. And he'd been hearing that at these revivals, that men would fall flat on the floor and start crying or weeping, that they would be struck under the Word and maybe fall to their knees. And he told his two companions, "We're going to go. We're going to- let's go to this meeting and let's check this out" because it was actually a phenomenon.
NARRATOR: Revivals or camp meetings were springing up across the frontier. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of ordinary people would gather, drawn by the message of new, charismatic preachers seeking to save souls.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: There's a perception that this new republic is just a baby in its infancy, and is in moral danger.
NARRATOR: Ministers warned that fewer people were going to church than had been before the Revolution. America, they feared, faced a spiritual crisis.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: They have a sense of urgency in trying to bring people to Christ because they're not just saving them, they're saving the nation, as well. Somehow, we've lost our moral underpinnings, that religion is no longer in a central place.
NARRATOR: As Finley drew closer to Cane Ridge, he grew nervous at what he was walking into.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: He warns the two buddies on the way. He says, you know, "I'm not going to fall down. There's not going to be any falling."
NARRATOR: When he reached Cane Ridge on August 8th, the revival had been under way for two days. As many as 20,000 people had gathered there.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Imagine if you walked into a clearing in the woods, and people all around you were crying. And people all around you were on their knees and they were begging for God's forgiveness.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: These are people who have not seen this many of people together ever. And then you've got them out in the wilderness with these torches and this kind of holy light they describe.
CATHERINE BREKUS: The preachers are towering above you in preaching stands. They're preaching day and night, and everything is announced by trumpets blowing.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Finley sees these people screaming, shrieking, shouting, some people singing. You would have seen other people screaming. You would have seen slaves commingling with their masters, listening to the Word.
JAMES FINLEY: There was a noise like that of Niagara. A vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm, 20,000 persons tossed to and fro like the tumultuous waves of the sea in a storm, or swept down like the trees of the forest under the blast of the wild tornado.
CATHERINE BREKUS: People actually begin rolling on the ground. There are people fainting, weeping.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: At one moment, a preacher's preaching and the preacher looks right at James Finley, and he finds his knees almost ready to give out.
JAMES FINLEY: Like long pent-up waters seeking for an avenue in the rock, the fountains of my soul are broken up. I cry for mercy and salvation. All my sins crowd upon me like so many demons of darkness. My disobedience to God, my backslidings rise before me, and it seems to me that hell is just at hand and that soon I must plunge into its dismal abodes.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: He stops and says, "We're going to have to change our lives or we're going to hell." He weeps copiously, shouts out, and he's converted.
JAMES FINLEY: The direct witness from heaven shines full upon my soul. Then there flows such copious streams of love that I think I should die with excess of joy.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: Christian conversion offered a really, really powerful promise of fundamental change, that you could be a certain kind of person on Wednesday, and you could go to a revival on Thursday morning and by Thursday afternoon, you were a new creature.
NARRATOR: News of the Cane Ridge revival, and others like it, spread across America. Over the next two decades, there would be thousands more. A wave of revivals swept through South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. The middle Atlantic - Delaware, Maryland, Virginia - hosted yearly camp meetings that were wild with enthusiasm. And revivals burned across New York and New England.
[www.pbs.org: Revivals & American identity]
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY, Historian, Boston College: If you think you've found the key to eternal life, are you going to not tell your friends about it? They found the way, the truth and the light. And they're obligated, they're compelled, in fact, they would be damned if they do not go and spread this to other people.
NARRATOR: America's thirst for a true religious experience spawned dozens of denominations. Baptists and Methodists flourished. Individuals seeking a different message found a home with the Freewill Baptists, Antimission Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Universalists, and Joseph Smith's Latter Day Saints. Even the older faiths, the Presbyterian, Congregational and Anglican churches, became more evangelical in response to the competition they faced not just from new faiths but a new kind of preacher.
Lorenzo Dow's outlandish preaching style made him a household name from New York to Alabama. Sojourner Truth shattered taboos by preaching to men and women, and like Jarena Lee, to black and whites. Peter Cartwright preached across the frontier and conducted more than 12,000 baptisms. Richard Allen had used Methodism's message of freedom to secure his release from slavery and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania. And Charles Finney brought the populist revivals to the middle class and converted thousands, becoming the most talked-about preacher in the nation.
By 1811, more than a million Americans were attending at least one religious revival every year. And in this competitive religious atmosphere, Methodism was attracting more converts than any other denomination.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: Because Methodism is a religion of the heart, it's about feelings and about emotions, they're appealing to people- you don't have to have education. You don't have to have money. You just have to have the right heart. They urge people in these emotional tones to turn from God's wrath and potential judgment and hellfire to God's love and happiness. It's a great- I mean, it's- who would not want that?
JAMES FINLEY: I felt as though someone had spoken to me, "Go preach my Gospel." I instantly replied, "Yes, Lord, if thou wilt go with me."
NARRATOR: The anxiety that had afflicted James Finley was washed away when he became a Methodist preacher in the spring of 1809. He would dedicate his life to spreading the gospel of Christ and would become a leading social reformer, championing temperance, the rights of Native Americans and the conditions for prisoners in his home state of Ohio.
NARRATOR: Finley's rise to national prominence began on the frontier as a traveling preacher.
CATHERINE BREKUS, Historian, University of Chicago: One of the reasons that Methodism becomes so popular and powerful is that they send out itinerants who organize churches and who try to impose some kind of religious order on that unruly landscape.
NARRATOR: Dozens of ministers were each given a route of several hundred miles along which they preached. They were known as circuit riders.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: You can reach many more souls on a circuit than you can reach as a pastor in a local area. So they'd go around and they'd preach on various stops, usually in peoples' homes along the way, along the circuit.
NARRATOR: It was a system that was ideally suited to frontier life.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: We liked these traveling preachers because, "He was sort of like me." You know, he was just, you know, a farmer who got a horse and a Bible and went out did something. And when he speaks, like, "It sounds like my neighbor."
JAMES FINLEY: I announced my text as follows, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out," Acts 3, 19. My soul fired with the theme, and the Holy Spirit shed abroad its hallowed influence, and the divine power pervaded every heart.
NARRATOR: Methodism's circuit riders became a focal point of peoples' lives.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: These circuit riders, they don't just bring the Methodist message. They bring books. They bring learning. They're going to have a Sunday school, and the Sunday School's going to have to teach the kids how to read and write. So they bring- they bring infrastructure, if you will. From class meetings to prayer meetings to missionary society meetings, they provide kind of the moral stability that the frontier needed.
NARRATOR: At America's independence, there were just 15,000 Methodists. But by 1850, there were more than a million. By then more Americans were going to church than ever before and two out of three church goers were evangelical Protestants. Religion had regained its place at the heart of American life.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: And along with that comes this push to change the society, to Christianize the society, to evangelize the society. And that doesn't just mean converting people, it means making America look more like the kingdom of God, you know, making America look like the sort of place that Jesus would want it to be.
NARRATOR: Evangelical Christianity was no longer just about individuals being reborn or about going to church on Sunday. Evangelical Christianity was about building a new America.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: As these people are converted, they're not just going back to their churches to their families, and saying, "Gee," you know, "I have a new heart and now I'm going to heaven." But they're saying, you know, "There's something weird about the way we're running our prisons. There's something weird about the way we're doing our educational system. There's something wrong about slavery. There's something wrong about the fact that women can't vote." And they start to move out into the society.
CYNTHIA LYNN LYERLY: You walk into any town in America in 1830, and you're going to see an orphanage that's probably run by evangelicals. You'll see evangelicals at the prison, making sure the prisoners are clean, well fed and cared for. You'll see evangelicals taking care of people in the poorhouse, other evangelicals trying to get rid of taverns and drink in the town.
NARRATOR: Schools, hospitals, relief for the poor, women's rights, abolition- the associations that evangelical Protestants had built to tackle society's ills had become pillars of American life.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The United States is starting to look like something. It's not just the New Adam, it's not just this sort of thing out ahead of us. We were going to make it. And what that promised land is, is this more evangelical Protestant country that has the possibility for this individual heart-felt piety, but also has the possibility for creating a kind of heaven on earth.
NARRATOR: Protestant America's success and its values of freedom and opportunity had begun to attract huge numbers of new European immigrants. By the 1830s, hundreds of thousands were arriving on America's Eastern seaboard.
Many were Irish Catholics fleeing poverty and religious oppression. But Catholicism was the religion that Protestants had been resisting ever since they broke away from it three centuries before, and the mass immigration of Catholics would threaten Protestant America's vision of their new republic.
JOHN McGREEVY, Historian, University of Notre Dame: Many Americans associated Protestantism not just with liberty but with progress, as part of the progress of the modern world. And the fact that Catholicism was growing, that it was growing in the United States, which in particular was founded with a strong Protestant ethos, seemed particularly threatening.
STEPHEN MARINI: They are perceived as alien, as not us. This is the whore of Babylon. This is Antichrist.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: They're not promoting Protestant America. They're not accepting Jesus into their heart. They're not going to these revivals and becoming born-again Christians.
JOHN McGREEVY: And precisely because the United States was so open, was so welcoming, it was in danger.
STEPHEN MARINI: These are poor, devastated Irish folk. It doesn't matter. "Satan has been set loose in our Garden of Eden, and we will not have it!"
NARRATOR: By the 1840s, nearly half of all immigrants to America were from Ireland and a quarter of all New Yorkers were Irish. In Philadelphia, Irish Catholics doubled in population in 30 years. Boston's Catholics tripled in number in just 10 years.
And with Catholic numbers growing, so came increasing Protestant hostility. There had been riots in Philadelphia at St Mary's Church. In 1835, several thousand Protestants rampaged through the Catholic Five Points Area of New York. And in Boston, factory workers surrounded the city's Ursuline convent before burning it to the ground.
Amidst the violence and suspicion, one man led the struggle to make Protestant America accept that their new Eden had to include Catholics. John Hughes was the country's most outspoken Catholic bishop. His challenge to America would redefine the country's commitment to the principle of religious freedom.
Bishop JOHN HUGHES: I am the pastor of a Christian flock. I am a citizen of a country whose proudest boast is that it has made the civil and religious rights of all its citizens equal.
NARRATOR: The desire for religious freedom ran deep in John Hughes. As a boy growing up in Ireland, he'd witnessed the oppression of Catholics by the country's ruling Protestant minority.
Father RICHARD SHAW, Roman Catholic Priest: The turning point in the Hughes family was when John Hughes's sister died, and it was against the laws in Ireland, his own country, for a priest to enter a cemetery. The priest would have to bless dirt outside, the family would bring it in, sprinkle it on the coffin.
NARRATOR: Shortly after his sister's death, Hughes emigrated to America with his family. He worked first as a ditch digger before training for the priesthood.
Father RICHARD SHAW: So you watch this raw-boned, scantily educated youth educate himself. Once he saw what was written in the Constitution and what was declared to be freedoms - and then saw them not lived out - he makes that his clarion call, this country will live up to what it claims to be.
NARRATOR: In his Philadelphia parish, he was famous for his blistering attacks on religious prejudice. He'd sign his letters with a cross. "Dagger John" people called him.
MARK S. MASSA, S.J., Theologian, Boston College: He put a cross in front of his name, which does look like a dagger. But I think his enemies called him "Dagger John" because he could be nasty. He was a street fighter.
NARRATOR: In 1837, Hughes's reputation as a fighter prompted a summons to the Catholic diocese of New York. Most of the city's 12,000 Catholic children were on the streets and not in school. Their parents had taken them out of the public schools, which they saw as bigoted against Catholics.
STEPHEN MARINI: New York is not what we think New York is today. New York was the center of evangelical public moral reform activity in the whole nation.
JOHN McGREEVY: Many teachers in the public schools were ministers or former ministers. The fact that they were singing Protestant hymns, the fact that the textbooks in the public schools were virulently- they were quite virulently anti-Catholic.
NARRATOR: Hughes agreed with the parents and vowed to take up their fight.
JOHN McGREEVY: Hughes genuinely felt that the public schools were engines of converting Catholics into Protestants. Their fear was they're going to lose a whole generation of young Catholics. So they thought they had to somehow stop this.
NARRATOR: New York City's schools were run by the Public School Society, which had been founded in 1805 by Quakers. They, like other evangelicals, believed creating good Americans began in the classroom.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: One of the main purposes of the public schools was to create moral citizens. And the only way to create a moral citizen was to give them religion, and the only legitimate religion was Christianity. And the only way to inculcate Christianity was the Bible.
NARRATOR: Hughes agreed with the idea of moral teaching in schools through religious instruction. But the public schools were teaching Christianity using a Protestant Bible. Catholics had their own Bible.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: The public school people, who were mostly Protestants, typically said, "Just give them the Bible. Let them decide for themselves." And they didn't see that that was a Protestant way of doing things. The Protestant Bible, the King James, does not have footnotes. But the Catholic Bible does because Catholics say, "You can't read the Bible by yourself. There's a whole tradition, "right? "We have all these people, Augustine and Aquinas. Who are you, some 12-year-old or some 35-year-old public school teacher to think you know what the Bible says? Listen to what the tradition says."
Bishop JOHN HUGHES: I was bound to see that the religious rights of my flock should not be filched away from them under the pretext of education.
NARRATOR: Hughes's support of the Catholic parents removing their children from school baffled the Protestant establishment.
MARK S. MASSA: To the Protestants who founded the New York Public School Society, this sounded anti-intellectual. It sounded like sort of the argument of an illiterate throng who wanted to remain illiterate. And it sounded like people who were rejecting a very good offer of learning how to become good American citizens, with the presumption that to be a good citizen of the United States was to be a good Protestant evangelical.
NARRATOR: But Hughes knew Catholics, too, could be good Americans. And the Constitution, he believed, gave them the right to be both.
Bishop JOHN HUGHES: The great fathers of our liberties insisted that consciences and religion should ever be free and regarded as above the law.
NARRATOR: Hughes petitioned New York's City Council, which funded the public schools, demanding that if the public schools were teaching Protestantism, then Catholics should be given money to set up their own schools. He demanded a full hearing, where he would make the argument for New York's Catholics in person.
STEPHEN MARINI: This was a full-bore public debate, with mass coverage in the press, packed house, people outside. So there he is appearing probably for the first time in a Protestant public venue.
Bishop JOHN HUGHES: We interfere with no other denomination of citizens. We wish them all to enjoy the same privileges that we claim for ourselves. Suppose your children were in the case with these poor children for whom I plead. Suppose then what your feelings would be if the blessings of education were provided bountifully by the state and you were unable to participate unless you were willing to submit that your consciences should be trenched upon.
STEPHEN MARINI: He is relishing, he is positively enjoying the fact that he is making an American constitutional religious liberty case. The same religious liberty that enabled them to create an evangelical majority, he is now going to use to challenge the legitimacy of the education they are delivering and to challenge their political control.
NARRATOR: The Public School Society responded with their own witnesses. From Old Brick Church, the Presbyterian, Gardner Spring.
GARDNER SPRING: The Catholic Church is almost uniformly the enemy of liberty. I resent that Bishop Hughes should come to a community of Protestant citizens ask for the bounty of the state to support such a system as his.
NARRATOR: Ignoring Hughes's constitutional arguments, others attacked Hughes's loyalty. Was he with America or with the Vatican?
WITNESS: In all candor, I ask whether if it does belong to a foreign potentate to say whether the Bible shall not be read in our common schools?
NARRATOR: Hughes stuck to his argument, that in America, no one religion could be favored over another.
Bishop JOHN HUGHES: Is not this the principle of the American government? Is it not the pride and boast and glory of the American people? And if it be all this, why is it that Americans are opposed to it?
NARRATOR: The debate lasted two days. In the end, John Hughes lost the vote 15 to 1. There would be no state money for Catholic schools. The Protestant establishment felt it would be the end of the matter.
MARK S. MASSA: I think they viewed John Hughes as a rustic. They viewed John Hughes as kind of an interesting throwback, charming - John Hughes could be incredibly charming - but not a serious leader, and certainly not a serious leader for religious people in the United States. I think, to some extent, they underestimated John Hughes.
NARRATOR: Hughes responded to the council decision by raising funds to build dozens of parochial schools. And he was determined that if the Constitution was to be upheld, then the city must be forced to give up funding Protestant schools.
MARK S. MASSA: I think Bishop Hughes realizes then that there's more than one way to get to Rome - excuse the metaphor - that if you can't win it through debate, you can win it through the ballot.
NARRATOR: 1841 was an election year in the state of New York. Five days before the election, at a Catholic rally at Carroll Hall, Hughes presented a list of the candidates he favored. He urged his parishioners to vote for them.
Bishop JOHN HUGHES: Will you adhere to the nominations made? Will you be united? Will you let all men know that you are worthy sons of the nation to which you belong?
JOHN McGREEVY: That was the fear of many Protestants. "We're going to have Bishops interfering in our politics. Here is this unelected bishop, appointed by the Pope in Rome, telling thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens how they should vote. Catholics are more or less like sheep. They're going to do exactly what they're told. And if we have people like Hughes telling Catholics what to do, we're in trouble."
STEPHEN PROTHERO: Catholicism threatens the whole American project. That's the point. It threatens the whole American project because it threatens to bring us back to pre-revolutionary America because it's going to enslave us in the tyranny of a king- in this case, a king who's called the pope.
NARRATOR: The Constitution gave Hughes the right to advise his parishioners how to vote, but the Protestant establishment was outraged at what they saw as priestly meddling in politics. Leading the attack, James Gordon Bennett, editor of The New York Herald.
JAMES GORDON BENNETT: A bold, daring, reckless, unexpected attempt to control politics by the force of religious sentiment, thereby sullying his garment with political dirt.
NARRATOR: In defending the rights of New York's Catholics, John Hughes believed he was fulfilling his priestly duties.
Bishop JOHN HUGHES: So vital and important do I consider the question that I conceive that I cannot be anywhere more in keeping with my character as a bishop than to stand before you pleading the cause of the poor and oppressed. So near is the question to my heart that I can bear insult from morning until night.
NARRATOR: Hughes's politicking paid off. All but three of the candidates he had supported were elected. In April 1842, the state passed the Maclay [sp?] bill. By a majority of just one, New York's Senate voted to end religious instruction in New York's public schools.
It was a decision that New York's Protestant majority found hard to stomach. Four days later, on April 12th, riots broke out. Bricks were thrown through the windows of Hughes's house and doors were kicked in before the police arrived.
CATHERINE BREKUS, Historian, University of Chicago: Freedom can be quite dangerous, and I think Americans are both wedded to freedom and nervous about where it might lead.
NARRATOR: By demanding religious liberty for Catholic immigrants, John Hughes had expanded the idea of what it meant to be an American.
STEPHEN PROTHERO: And so if you ask, why do we persecute Catholics and then why do we stop, it's because we have this idea of freedom in our heads from the beginning, and we have this story about a people who are enslaved, which is wrong, who move through the power of God and their own efforts to freedom, which is right.
That story is always working on us. And even when we're doing things that are persecutory and that are immoral and that are enslaving other people, that story is operating on us as we're doing it. And I think, gradually, we hear the story and we hear the voice that says "Stop."
NARRATOR: As hard as America found it to grant freedom to those it distrusted, religious liberty had become the founding principle that would help shape America's identity.
Published October 11, 2010