“Is This the Nineteenth Century, or Is It the First?” The American Sentinel 6, 44, pp. 345-347.

November 12, 1891

JESUS CHRIST came into the world to set men free, to make known to all mankind the genuine principles of freedom, and of religious freedom above all. The Roman Empire then filled the world,—“the sublimest incarnation of power, and a monument the mightiest of greatness built by human hands, which has upon this planet been suffered to appear.” That Empire, proud of its conquests, and exceedingly jealous of its claims, asserted its right to rule in all things, human and divine. As in those times all gods were viewed as national gods, and as Rome had conquered all nations, it was demonstrated by this to the Romans that their gods were superior to all others. And although Rome allowed conquered nations to maintain the worship of their national gods, these, as well as conquered people, were yet considered as only servants of the Roman State. Every religion, therefore, was held subordinate to the religion of Rome, and though “all forms of religion night come to Rome and take their places in their Pantheon, they must come as the servants of the State.”

The Roman religion itself was but the servant of the State; and of all the gods of Rome there were none so great as the genius of Rome itself. The chief distinction of the Roman gods was that they belonged to the Roman State. Instead of the State deriving any honor from the Roman gods, the gods derived their principal dignity from the fact that they were gods of Rome. This being so with Rome’s own gods, it was counted at Rome an act of exceeding condescension to recognize, legally, any foreign god, or the right of any Roman subject to worship any other gods than those of Rome. Neander quotes Cicero as laying down a fundamental maxim of legislation, as follows:—

No man shall have for himself particular gods of his own; no man shall worship by himself any new or foreign gods, unless they are recognized the public laws.

Another principle announced by Mecenas, one of the two chief advisers of Augustus, was this:—

Worship the gods in all respects according to the laws of your country, and compel all others to do the same, but hate and punish those who would introduce anything whatever alien to our customs in this particular.

Accordingly, the Roman law declared as follows:—

Whoever introduces new religions, the character and tendency of which are erring, whereby the minds of men may be disturbed, shall, if belonging to the higher rank, be banished; if to the lower, punished with death.

The Roman Empire filled the world. Consequently, there was a government ruling over all, in which religion and the State were held to be essentially one and indivisible.

Jesus Christ gathered to himself disciples, instructing them in his heavenly doctrine; bestowed upon them the divine freedom, the soul-freedom, which he alone can give; endued them with power from on high; and sent them forth into the world to preach to every creature this gospel of freedom, and to teach all to observe all things whatever he had commanded them.

He had commanded them to render to Cesar only those things that were Cesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s. This statement was the declaration of the [346] principle of the total separation of religion and the State; and in the mind of every true disciple, it was a divine command, inseparable from the divine rite, and supported by divine power.

In the exercise of this right, the disciples went everywhere, preaching the word, and calling all people to the joy of the salvation of Christ, and to the freedom which that salvation gives. But it was contrary to the principles of Rome. It was actually forbidden by the laws. Laws, too, and principles, which were of established usage long before Christ cam into the world. The law forbade the introduction of any new religion, but the Christians introduced the new religion. The law especially forbade the introduction of any new religion, the tendency of which was to disturb men’s minds. Of all religions, the Christian religion appeals most directly and most forcibly to the mind. In the very letter which the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he said to them: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind,” and “with the mind I serve the law of God.” The law commanded all to worship the gods according to the law. The Christians refused to worship any of the gods recognized by the law, or any other god but the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

According to Roman principles, the Roman State was divine. Caesar was the embodiment of the Roman State, and was therefore divine. Divine honor was therefore exacted toward the Emperor; and, as a matter of fact, the worship of the Emperor was the most widespread of any single form of worship known to Rome. He was the chief Roman divinity; accordingly, under the Roman system, that which was due to God was due to Cesar. Consequently, when the Christians refused to render to Cesar the things that were God’s, and render to him only that which was Cesar’s, it was a refusal to recognize in Cesar any attribute of divinity. But as Cesar was the embodiment of the State, to deny to him divinity was to deny like-wise divinity to the State.

The preaching of the gospel of Christ, therefore, raised a positive and direct issue between Christianity and the Roman Empire. And this was an issue between two principles—the principle of the freedom of the individual conscience, and therefore the principle of the separation of religion and the State; as against the principle of the union of religion and the State, and therefore the principle of the absolute subjection and enslavement of the individual conscience. Rome refused to recognize the principle of Christianity, and Christianity would not yield the principle. The contest was carried on two hundred and fifty years through streams of blood and untold suffering of the innocent. Then Rome, by an imperial edict, recognized the justice of the Christian principle, and the right of every man to worship whatever God he pleases, without any interference on the part of the State. The principle of Christianity had triumphed.

Then paganized bishops, ambitious of absolute power, through a dark intrigue with the Emperor Constantine, succeeded in establishing a union of the Catholic religion with the Roman State, and thus perverted to the interests of the Papacy the victory which had been so nobly won, and again Christianity had to take up the contest in behalf of the rights of conscience, and of the separation of religion and the State. And again through torrents of blood, and untold suffering of the guiltless, for more than a thousand years, the Papacy made its way to the place of supreme authority in the world.

Then came the Reformation, announcing anew to the world the Christian principle of the absolute separation of religion and the State, and the rights of the individual conscience; and by an unswerving exercise of the divine right of dissent, established Protestantism. But sad to say, even Protestantism was presently perverted, and the Christian principle was violated which gave it of right a name in the world. Then the contest had still to go on, as ever, through blood and suffering of the innocent, by the Christians’ exercise of the divine right of dissent, of the freedom of conscience, and by a protest against a false Protestantism in Geneva, in Scotland, in England, in New England, in Virginia, and all the other American Colonies, except Rhode Island alone.

Then arose the new Nation, declaring before all people that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;” and, when the national Government was formed, recognizing and establishing, as an example to all the world, and as a principle of the Government itself, the Christian principle of the absolute separation of Church and State, and therefore the divine right of the free exercise of the individual conscience; requiring of men that they render to Cesar only that which is Cesar’s, and leaving them absolutely free to render to God that which is God’s, or not to render it at all, even as the individual might choose in the exercise of his own personal individual right of conscience.

Thus, after ages of bloodshed and suffering, through fearful persecution by Paganism, Catholicism, and false Protestantism, the Christian principle of freedom of conscience and the separation of religion and the State was made triumphant before all the world.

Much has been said (none too much, however) in praise of the wisdom of the fathers of this Republic in establishing a Government of such magnificent principles, but it would be an impeachment of their common sense to think of them that they could have done any less, or any other, than that which they did. The history of those ages was before them. They saw the sufferings that had been endured in behalf of the rights of conscience, and which had been inflicted in every instance by religious bigots in control of the civil power. Were they to shut their eyes upon all this, and go blindly blundering on in the same course of suffering and of blood?

Both the history and the philosophy of the whole matter is expressed by Madison in that magnificent memorial and remonstrance which he wrote in behalf of the free exercise of religious belief in Virginia, the principles of which were likewise, by his influence; embodied in the national Constitution. He said:—

A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it [public liberty] … will be best supported by protecting every citizen in the enjoyment of his religion with the same equality which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any sect, nor suffering any sect to invade those of another…. What a melancholy mark is the bill of sudden degeneracy. Instead of holding forth an asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of citizens all those whose opinions in religion do not bend to those of the legislative authority. Distant as it may be, in its present form, from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other is the last, in the career of intolerance…. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the Old World in consequence of vain hopes of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all differences in religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease. The American theater has exhibited proofs that equal and complete liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys its malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State. If with the salutary effects of this system under our own eyes, we begin to contract the bounds of religious freedom, we know no name which will too severely reproach our folly.

The lessons of history were not lost upon the noble minds that formed the Government of the United States. The blood which had been shed, and the sufferings which had been endured, both in the Old World and in the New, bore their fruit in the right of the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the supreme law of the new Nation—the right of every citizen to be protected in the enjoyment of religion with the same just and equal hand that protects his person and his property. This right, in the meaning and intent of those who declared and established it, is the right of “equal and complete liberty,” of complete religious freedom, the bounds of which should never be contracted. This is the sense in which the doctrine of the free exercise of religious belief is declared and established by the Constitution of the United States, and by the Constitution of Tennessee, and the several States which [347] have followed the example of the national Constitution.

Now, in view of history and these facts, please read the following extract from Judge Hammond’s dictum on the question of religious freedom:—

This very principle of religious freedom is the product of our religion, as all of our good customs are; and if it be desirable to extend that principle to the ultimate condition that no man shall be in the least restrained, by law or public opinion, in hostility to religion itself, or in the exhibition of individual eccentricities or practices of sectarian peculiarities or religious observances of any kind, or be fretted by laws colored by any religion that is distasteful to anybody, those who desire that condition must necessarily await its growth into that enlarged application. But the courts cannot, in cases like this, ignore the existing customs and laws of the masses, nor their prejudices and passions even, to lift the individual out of the restraints surrounding him, because of those customs and laws, before the time has come when public opinion shall free all men in the manner desired. Therefore it is that the petitioner cannot shelter himself just yet behind the doctrine of religious freedom in defying the existence of a law and its application to him, which is distasteful to his own religious feeling or fanaticism, etc.

Is it possible that the history of eighteen centuries has taught no lesson that can be learned by a court of the United States? Can it be possible that the streams of blood that have been shed, and the fearful sufferings that have been endured, in behalf of the rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion, have been in vain? Do we indeed stand in the first century instead of the nineteenth? And from there are we to “await the growth” of the principle of religious freedom into such an enlarged application that religion and the State shall be separate; and that every man may enjoy the free exercise of religion, according to the individual conscience? Is it true that the time has not yet come when men can be counted free from religious oppression?—from religious observances enforced by law, “in spite of religious freedom and in spite of the progress that has been made in the absolute separation of Church and State”? Is it true that from such oppression men cannot shelter themselves yet behind the doctrine of religious freedom?

Again, we can only inquire, and in astonishment, too, Has the history of the past enlightened centuries no lesson upon this subject that can be learned by a court of the United States? Have the suffering through these centuries for this principle all been endured in vain? Has the work of our governmental fathers been utterly in vain? Do we truly live in the nineteenth century and in the United States or do we live in the first century in Rome?

A. T. J.

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