“Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof” Leviticus 25:10
Each Fourth of July we celebrate the birth of America. We celebrate freedom, independence, and the precious rights that guarantee the blessings of liberty. But it is important to remember how religious liberty was the original goal for many who left England.
Christianity operated under very different rules from today. There was no separation of church and state, so whatever the King or Parliament desired regarding religion became law. It was also strictly enforced. In 1670, Parliament renewed the Coventicle Act, and began cracking down on religious dissenters, mainly Quakers and Baptists, who were not in compliance with the Church of England.
This law is alien to us today, but it fined people who attended a religious assembly other than the Church of England. It allowed magistrates and authorities to shutter the churches of these outlying religious groups. Dissenter clergy could be fined for preaching, expressing their religious views, or sharing the gospel. Even people who allowed a religious assembly in their own home could receive a huge fine if discovered.
Laws during this time had little to no religious freedom. British law required citizens to attend worship services. Practicing your faith in a different manner or practicing a different faith, one not permitted by the government, could be grounds for your arrest, conviction, or execution.
As arrests grew, dissenter groups fled England seeking the promise of religious expression without persecution. While many went to Europe for immediate refuge, they desired an enduring place where religious freedom could be secured for their families.
Lord Baltimore established the colony of Maryland as a haven for persecuted Roman Catholics. William Penn noted this and went a step further. He established the colony of Pennsylvania for Quakers, but created a Charter of Privileges where religious tolerance was guaranteed for all inhabitants.
Penn’s belief that “no people can be truly happy if abridged of the freedom of their consciences” attracted not only Quakers who had been persecuted in England, but religious groups from across the globe, all of whom had suffered because of restrictions on their religious beliefs.
Pennsylvania quickly became the American refuge of religious freedom. English Methodists, French Huguenots, Spanish Jews, Irish Roman Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, along with German Mennonites and Amish congregations filled the colony seeking peace from persecution, but mostly seeking the right to worship God.
William Penn’s holy experiment in religious liberty had succeeded. To underscore this point, the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751 ordered the casting of a 2,080-pound copper bell to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Penn’s Charter of Privileges. Placed inside the tower atop Pennsylvania’s State House, now Independence Hall, the object would eventually be known as the Liberty Bell and serves as an enduring reminder of the religious freedom Americans enjoy today.
This Fourth of July, take time to celebrate the freedom and liberty you have to worship God and pray for the dissenters of our age who still seek religious liberty.