Of Religious Freedom and Our Pilgrim Forbearers…
Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday for individuals and families across America. For most this is a time to think of our Pilgrim forbearers, their perilous journey to cross the seas and in settling an untamed land, and that first harvest feast celebrated in 1621 with Native American friends and benefactors to give thanks for their bounty and survival. Gratitude is a fundamental principle for God honoring and Christ following peoples, yet the purpose of the Pilgrim journey centered on another fundamental principle, without which the right to give thanks might have never been fully enjoyed by Americans.
Beginning in 16th century England there was a group of Protestant Separatists whose beliefs differed from that of the Church of England. They called themselves Saints, and considered their differences with the Church to be irreconcilable, and therefore determined to separate themselves, an act unlawful under the law of the day. To avoid punishment under that law, in the early 17th century they emigrated to Holland where they sought to exercise their religion freely. Although they found some religious tolerance for a time, it became apparent that if they were to preserve their religious culture and practices, they must begin again in a place where they could live free of the tyranny of state sponsored religion, to pray and to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.
In September 1620 the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and in a more than two month voyage fraught with peril and terrible discomfort they journeyed to America. In November they set anchor off of Cape Cod, and ultimately formed the settlement of New Plymouth in present day Massachusetts. Before they would with gratitude hold that first Thanksgiving celebration, nearly half of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower would die, most during the winter of 1620-21. Nevertheless, die they would a free people, free to worship, a price they felt worthy of payment, not the first nor the last to be martyred for a righteous cause.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”
U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, First Amendment
Many more would follow and form thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States of America, a land where people could freely worship as they will. The Founding Fathers did not forget the importance placed by these early Pilgrim Saints on the fundamental principle of freedom of religion. In the First Amendment to the Constitution of these United States of America it is ratified, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Freedom of religion and the exercise thereof is the very first right guaranteed.
People of religious conscience everywhere strive for the preservation of freedom of religion for all mankind. It is at the very fabric of God’s plan of agency for His children, that all may choose to worship in a manner that he will, and not be encumbered upon by any majority of populace nor minority of tyrants. Concerning governance of the whole or the faith of a single heart, tyranny by the majority is just as unacceptable as by the minority, or the one.
“Concerning governance of the whole or the faith of a single heart, tyranny by the majority is just as unacceptable as by the minority, or the one.”
Of his willingness to recant words on religion freely spoken, even under threat of execution, Martin Luther (1483-1546) stated, “I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other.”
Roger Williams (1603-83) taught that a person ought to be free to believe and act according to his own values and will. He said, “Men’s consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged, or constrained.” He also expressed, “Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks” should not be forced to worship or pray as others, nor “compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.”
“I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800
In a 1799 letter Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) wrote, “I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.” President Jefferson further wrote in 1802, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805-44) declared, “We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to Him, and to Him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul” (Doctrine and Covenants 134:4).
“We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to Him, and to Him only, for the exercise of it,…”
The Prophet Joseph Smith by Alvin Gittins
The Apostle Paul wrote in a letter to the Roman Saints of the freedom of every man to decide for himself, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). Paul further in question to the Corinthians posed the idea of the divine right of one’s will to believe and follow, “Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?” (Corinthians 10:29-30).
As stated clearly in the Eleventh Article of Faith, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith 1:11).
Let us live up to those tenets and fundamental principles espoused by our pioneering Pilgrim ancestors, constitutionally guaranteed by common consent through our Founding Fathers, and confirmed in the gift of agency by our Father who dwells in Heaven. May we with humble gratitude break bread in thanksgiving for all of the blessings created for our good, remembering our God and all those He inspired to live, journey, fight for, and even die to guarantee this very right we have to pray and to give thanks. Let us be willing today, for the coming generations, to do the same and preserve the faith and hopes of our fathers, and the free exercise of religion thereof. May we on this 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving bow our heads and lift our voices Heavenward in thanks for the great gift of religious freedom given, and this inspired tradition perpetuated in righteousness. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.