“All men may walk as their consciences persuade them, every one in the name of his God. And let the saints of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation in the name of Jehovah, their God for ever and ever.”
No, this is not a quotation from the Bible. it is part of a code dealing with freedom of worship. It was enacted by the first colonial legislature ever to meet in the colony of Rhode Island. The time was 1647.
This was probably the first substantial guarantee of real freedom of worship that had been made in the Christian era. Even this guarantee was far from established in fact, and was maintained in theory only for a short time. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States in 1789 there were only two of the 13 colonies that had provisions in their state constitutions guaranteeing religious freedom. They were New York and Virginia, and their state constitutions had been adopted as late as 1777 and 1785. All of the other colonies had religious tests for their officials, or in some form made religious discriminations.
The Catholic Church dominated the Christian religion until the era of the reformation. The Church of England was the most powerful daughter church. It became the official church of the realm, was supported by the taxes of the people, and ruled by the Parliament and the King. This was the state of affairs at the time of the Revolutionary War.
One of the moving factors involved in the settlement of the various American colonies was to gain religious freedom, and escape from the restrictions on conscience which were everywhere in effect in the old world. The result was that many forms of worship were set up on this land. All were comparatively strong in their chosen locality, and there was no single church that could dominate all the others.
This condition in which all churches were equally strong and equally weak made it a political impossibility for any one denomination to foster and establish a state church. Thus it came about, more out of political necessity than out of any desire on the part of the religionists of the day, that equal freedom of worship was guaranteed to all.
The body of the Constitution contains the provision that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This, of course, was a thrust of defiance at the English test act, which prescribed a religious test as a condition precedent to holding a civil position. The first sentence of the first amendment provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This complete development of the guarantee of freedom of conscience is peculiar to the United States alone. The growth of religious freedom has its roots in the common law, but our constitutional guarantees surpass anything that then existed in the world, or that even now exist in any other nation. Englishmen are still paying taxes to the support of the church of the state.
The denial of religious freedom in other nations is a crime for which their rulers will be held accountable before the judgement bar. Germany and Russia have formally and as an official act of state denied Christ and forbidden or limited His worship. No mention may be made in Germany of “Zion” or other things closely associated with the antiquities of the Jews. jewish persecution in all ages and by many nations has been always and fundamentally a matter of religious persecution. Denial of the right of conscience in many nations today ranks in severity with the most abominable restrictions ever placed upon mankind by any despot in any age.
The skirts of the United States are not clean. Before the adoption of the Constitution there were many severe plagues of persecution in the colonies. Since the establishment of that document there have been many additional such scourges. The Missouri persecutions of the Latter-day Saints in the 1830s were as reprehensible and iniquitous as any in the history of the world. In complete disregard of the constitutional provision prohibiting religious tests as a qualification for holding public office, the Congress imposed such a law upon the territory of Utah in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Religious liberty is not yet secure in actual practice even in the United States. We have yet to arrive at the day spoken of by the legislature of colonial Rhode Island in 1647 when all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, and that without molestation.
which appeared on the editorial page (page 4) of
The Deseret News, 19 March 1945 through 10 April 1945.