Freedom in the New World
What does the Shaker movement say about freedom of religion in the new world?
Did you know that the State of Maryland was actually granted by the King of England to an English Catholic. The English Catholic settler to the United States, was worried that there was no specific state where his co-religionists can peacefully live in. As you probably already know, Catholicism was not exactly popular in England at that time. There were many Catholics who plotted the overthrow of the King because England was a Catholic country before Henry VIII decided to break away from the Pope in Rome.
Henry VIII decided that the King of England will be his or her own distinct and independent ruler, as far as matters of faith are concerned. Now this took about a hundred or two hundred years to fully resolve. We’re talking about coup d’etats, failed assassinations, failed rebellions, so on and so forth. But, ultimately, by the time of The Great Restoration of the English Monarchy, it became firmly established that, once and for all, the united Kingdom will be a Protestant country.
Indeed, due to European nations’ experience with multiple religions and the fact that in many of these countries no one religion holds a majority, there was an uncomfortable and unforeseen shift towards tolerance. This was not by design or by preference. Rather it was done due to sheer necessity.
I’m raising this background because freedom of religion was not a given, as it is today. People can take that concept for granted in the United States. If you want to believe in a flying spaghetti monster, knock yourself out. If you want to believe in Kermit the frog, go on ahead. If you choose not to believe in anything, that’s perfectly fine as well.
This tolerance, that we all take for granted, is a testimony to the principle of people like the ones in the Shaker Movement in US history. There were a lot of Protestants who were all too eager to impose their brand of Christianity on other Christians. Let’s not kid ourselves. The Anglicans, for example, were very big on this.
But a lot of other Protestant groups stood up. They said no. If that was unfair when the Pope is doing it to you, it’s also unfair if you’re doing it to somebody else. Now this did not make them very popular.
But it did make them very principled. And this really is their contribution to American life. Because if you think about it, all that makes America great, its tolerance, its imagination, its willingness to transcend tradition to formulate, innovate, and come up with something new, is built on the foundation of tolerance.
It’s built on the foundation of, “live and let live”. And we can thank the Shakers for this. Again, it’s not a question of one turning point in history, but let’s call a spade, a spade. They really helped shape the all too distinctly American attitude towards difference.