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People and Ideas: Early American Events


The Virginia Experience

When the English king granted Virginia a royal charter in 1624, the Church of England (the Anglican Church) became the established church of the colony. Tax monies supported the clergy and the church. Preachers of dissenting sects were required to obtain licenses in order to preach. Preachers who refused, such as the Baptist Jeremiah Moore, risked imprisonment and fines.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, persecution of dissenting preachers intensified. As colonists clamored for increased liberties and Revolutionary fervor swept the colonies, however, Virginia began a 10-year struggle to redefine the relationship between church and state. Three groups vied for supremacy: traditionalists who believed that religion was essential to maintain social order and sought to maintain financial support of churches; rationalists like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who believed that separation of church and state was essential to guarantee liberty of conscience; and dissidents, including Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists, who sought to keep the church free of the corrupting influence of government. Those who wanted to maintain state support of the church were largely members of the propertied class; those who opposed it were primarily unskilled laborers and other members of the worker class. The struggle among these groups severely strained the social fabric of the Commonwealth.

In May 1776, the colonies were called upon to draft new constitutions to govern the soon-to-be-created states. James Madison, a 25-year-old representative to the Virginia House of Delegates, submitted a bill to change the constitution from one that granted "tolerance" of dissident sects to one that recognized the "free exercise" of religion. Dissenting religious groups such as the Baptists flooded the Legislature and demanded an end to continued support of the church.

Then in 1779, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Virginia Legislature, submitted the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The act was aimed squarely at undoing state support for the Anglican Church. Jefferson and Madison found allies in dissenting Baptists. But many opposed this measure, including the fiery orator of the Revolutionary cause, Patrick Henry, who believed that religion was essential to cultivate a moral citizenry and that without state support religion would simply wither away. In 1784, Henry submitted a bill that would impose a tax to support churches, but would allow each citizen to designate which church their taxes should support.

The following year, Madison wrote an important and powerful argument against any state-supported religion, titled "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" Henry's bill went down in defeat. Madison then reintroduced Jefferson's Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. In 1786, the bill passed, formally ending state support of organized religion. "I flatter myself [that the act has] in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind," Madison wrote to Jefferson.

Catholic Missions

Members of the Order of St. Francis, the Franciscan friars had elected to live in poverty, reject the temptations of the flesh, forswear sex and maintain a regimen of strict discipline that they believed would bring them closer to Christ.

From 1610 to 1640, the Franciscan friars undertook an intense period of mission building in present-day New Mexico. The friars worked to convert the Native peoples they named Pubelos, after the Spanish word for "town." Their efforts were supported by the Spanish Crown and supplied by wagon trains that made the long journey from Mexico every three years. In California, between 1770 and the early 1840s, Franciscan missionaries established 21 missions from present-day San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north. Their aim was to transform the Native Californian Indians from hunter-gatherers into novice Catholic farmers. While the Franciscan missions varied in size, most maintained at least two Spanish padres to serve as religious leaders for the 1,000 or more Native Californians that lived on each mission. For the Native Californians, daily life rotated between the field and the church. Though left with little free time, they were still permitted to hunt and fish for themselves, often donating a portion of their kill to the padres.

But not all the Californian Indians willfully submitted to life on the missions, and relations between the Franciscans and the Natives were often contentious. The Spanish and the Californian cultures clashed, and each maintained different attitudes about sexuality, marriage and religion that were difficult to reconcile. In order to bring the Californians into line with European culture and Catholic dogma, the missionaries suppressed traditional cultural practices and often treated the Natives as children lacking the necessary understanding and awareness to make decisions for themselves. The Native Californians were taught European-style agriculture, crafts and trades and were forced to adopt Western-style dress. To ensure compliance, the padres punished all who broke the work or prayer schedule, whipping, beating and using other coercive measures.

When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, secularization swept across the missionary communities. The Mexican authorities cared little for the Natives' salvation and saw the missionary system as both anachronistic and economically inefficient. The Natives, too, clamored for increased control over their land and livestock. In 1826, they were fully emancipated from the missions. Many relocated to California's burgeoning towns and cities, plying the trades and crafts they had learned on the missions. Some even continued to work the land as Mexican ranchers and planters took over the former Franciscan missions. But this brief spell of autonomy ended in the 1840s. A smallpox epidemic ravaged the Indian communities in 1844; in 1846, the United States seized California from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Despite pledging to protect Native rights in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Americans denied them voting rights and negotiated treaties that forced them to renounce all of their land claims within the state.


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