George Washington talks with some of his troops in First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty, on the PBS series American Experience. Part of the program examines Washington’s actions to insure religious differences wouldn’t become divisive in an army whose soldiers came from many different religious sects. Photo courtesy of Mark Goodman for Groberg Films, Inc.
During the course of the American Experience program First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty, the point is made that in Puritan New England the Sabbath was regarded as a day of rest, while in Virginia it was a day of recreation. Recognizing these cultural differences in the Continental Army, when General George Washington declared days of thanksgiving after victory in battle, he made sure all his soldiers went to church in the morning and made the afternoon a time for recreation. "Everyone was 100 percent half-satisfied," one commenter says during the program.
Much the same can be said about First Freedom itself. No matter what your stand is on religion in public life, this well-made PBS program will sometimes reaffirm your beliefs and will sometimes challenge them.
American Experience: First Freedom airs December 18, 2012, from 8:00 to 9:30 pm Eastern Time; as always with PBS programs, check your local listings for viewing times in your area. Its focus, as stated on the PBS Website, is to show "how the Founding Fathers raised the ideal of religious freedom to the level of a fundamental human right."
The program cannot be called exciting, but it is entertaining and, most importantly, it is informative. The story revolves around the inherent conflict of men who were personally devout and who believed religion played an important role in society, but who did not want to establish a state religion, as England had done with the Anglican Church. John Adams, for example, was proud that America was founded as a rational country without need for miracles or mysticism, but he believed religion was essential to an orderly society.
After a few opening remarks by the group of commentators who appear throughout the program, First Freedom begins in 1630, when Puritans hoped to create a utopia in the wilderness of the New World. Contrary to popular belief, they did not come for religious freedom—something they denied to later arrivals—but to practice their own religion. Democracy rarely applied to faith in the 1600s, we are told.
Subsequent arrivals came in search of a better life, not a particular religious society. Religion came to be the stepchild of government, not the master of it, as had been—and still was—the case in much of Europe. The First Great Awakening increased the number of churches but not necessarily the number of worshippers, once the fervor died down. Only about 25–35 percent of American colonists were regular participants in a religious community in the mid-18th century. On the eve of the revolution, however, there was a much wider diversity of religious sects than could be found in any country of Europe.
When revolution came, that religious diversity became one of the first bones of contention among the revolutionaries. A proposal that the first Continental Congress open with a prayer led to intense debate over choosing a representative of one sect—be he Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Anglican, Catholic, Jew, or the follower of some other denomination—to say a prayer acceptable to all.
The leader of the Continental Army, Washington, authorized chaplains, something that was not a common practice among European armies. He saw both military and moral usefulness in this action. He often wrote of Providence—the revolution could not succeed without the blessing of Divine Providence, for example—yet his own personal religious beliefs are difficult to ascertain.
Post-revolution, several states passed religious taxes that required all their citizens to financially support the state-approved denomination. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison adamantly opposed this. On the other hand, another Founding Father from Virginia, Patrick Henry—he of "Give me liberty or give me death"—introduced a bill for a state-sponsored church in Virginia; 11,000 of his fellow Virginians signed a petition opposing it.
One disappointment with First Freedom is that it misses the chance in this sequence to quote from some of these petitions ("memorials"). Among the most powerful was that of the Hanover Synod of the Presbyter, which explained why that it opposed a bill like Henry’s, with phrases such as "Religious establishments are highly injurious to the temporal interests of any community … We rather conceive that when our blessed Savior declares his kingdom is not of this world, he renounces all dependence upon state power."
This was the period of the Articles of Confederation, when the 13 former colonies saw themselves as independent nations loosely cooperating when their mutual interests required them to do so. This political arrangement created some chaotic situations at home, prevented the nation from paying its debts, and generated ridicule abroad. The program spends some time discussing this state of affairs because it led to forming the "more perfect union" that dramatically strengthened the role of the central government, something that led to fears of a tyrannical government. Those fears threatened approval of the Constitution, forcing James Madison to write the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing citizens certain rights. First among them was, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
First Freedom notes an interesting difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration mentions God four times, though it never refers to a specific religion. There is no mention of God in the Constitution. In both cases, political concerns were behind the word choice. The revolution itself could be called an act of blasphemy because the colonists were rebelling against a king who claimed to rule by divine right; including references to God was a way of countering charges of blasphemy. The Constitution, however, was meant to bind together, not to tear apart, and there was a fear the inclusion of religion would prevent its ratification in a nation of diverse beliefs.
First Freedom does an excellent job of presenting, in 90 minutes, the background so often left out of discussions over Americans’ freedom of and from religion. Many points are put into historical perspective, making the actions and choices of the Founders easier to understand. It informs, and the information it provides gives viewers much to mull over. There is little to complain about in the presentation—until, of course, it presents information that conflicts with what you want to believe about religion’s place in America. And it will do that, no matter whether you believe this is a nation founded on Christianity or believe this is a nation in which all references to religion are to be removed from public forums. First Freedom is well worth watching.
First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty was produced by Groberg Films, Inc., and WETA Washington, D.C.
Gerald D. Swick, senior editor of HistoryNet, has previously written about the fight over religious freedom in Virginia.