Over the history of mankind there have been relatively few who have truly enjoyed religious freedom. Though we see definite signs of increased limitations being put on traditional religious organizations today, we here in America enjoy freedom far beyond that enjoyed by the generations before us and most of our contemporaries around the world. We take our freedoms for granted just as we take fresh air until we are deprived of it. It seems to be a fact of human nature that it is only in its absence that a particular freedom is most valued.
Let us briefly review a little history of religious freedom in Europe prior to the settling of America.
The first major breakthrough came about 1450 with Johann Gutenberg’s invention of removable type and the printing press. Not until Gutenberg’s invention was the mass production of the printed word possible. Books prior to that time were copied by hand, and a large library of even a wealthy family might be ten books or less. It is estimated that within 50 years of Gutenberg’s invention 20,000,000 books were printed.
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But with the printing press came the opportunity for rapid spreading of information, especially copies of the scriptures, which up until that time, were the exclusive possession of the Church and were kept under strict control. It was understood that a monopoly on the scriptures gave those in power the ability to "manage the news" to the people and thereby control their thinking. The closely aligned political and ecclesiastical powers of the day combined and were soon doing what they could to make it illegal to own a Bible.
The Gutenberg Bible was initially printed in Latin for the Catholic Church. Various scholars began making new translations and even dared to translate scripture into the native tongue of the people. For two hundred years, governments imprisoned and even executed those who translated, printed, or possessed illegal scriptures.
To English speaking people, the most notable was William Tyndale. He was the first to translate portions of the Bible into English while in exile, and his last wish before being executed by strangulation in 1536 was that the king’s eyes would be opened that the people might have the Bible. Within just a few years the political climate in England began to change, and Miles Coverdale printed the first complete English Bible using much of Tyndale’s work. It had to be printed overseas and shipped to England. Six thousand copies were smuggled into the country.
Those who owned them were at risk of severe punishments, but the word was spreading. And it became politically opportune to authorize an official Bible under the authority of the king. After delays and aborted attempts, the King James Bible was published in 1611 and was the first printed-in-England Bible free to circulate among the people. It was not immediately popular, as the Geneva Bible had already been spread widely among the people.
When the American colonies became populated, the king forbade them from printing their own copies of an English translation. They had to be imported from England.
The first American Bible to be printed in the English language was printed in 1776, only after the American colonies had declared their independence.
This is only part of the story of the quest for religious freedom. As you know, the Pilgrims and other groups came to this country seeking the freedom to practice their faith which did not fully adhere to the established churches of the day. These people, often out of a sense of desperation to preserve the purity of their faith and the integrity of their community, immediately practiced intolerance of other faiths. The concept of religious freedom was not yet mature, but over the follow century and a half, recognition of the value of religious liberty increased. And colony by colony, more liberal views were enacted into law.
Just days before our declaring independence from England, Virginia adopted a bill of rights which included these words:
"…All Men are equally entitled to the free exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience; and that it is the mutual Duty of all to practice Christian Forbearance, Love, and Charity towards each other."
I do not have time today to discuss this in detail, but it is clear that the early settlers and the Founders viewed this nation as being founded for a Christian purpose but were also coming to the realization that for that purpose to prosper full religious freedom was necessary. Even so, as we became a nation in 1776, there still remained established churches in various colonies and in some places there were laws restricting public offices to only those who professed a faith in Jesus Christ.
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