Presented to the Club by Harold I. Salzmann on June 8, 2009. Illustration: Statue of Roger Williams in the U. S. Capitol Building.
“Freedom’s a thing that has no ending …”
As all of us know, this Monday Evening Club of ours was founded almost 140 years ago at the home of the grandfather of our recently deceased member, Thomas Plunkett. That founding took place on Wednesday evening, November 11, 1869. By an unrelated coincidence, my own congregation, Temple Anshe Amunim (“People of Faith”) was founded just a few days later, on a Sunday evening, November 14. I have been researching this latter history for some time – not incidental to our congregation’s similar observance this November of its 140th celebratory observance.
One of the intriguing questions that concerned me, at the outset of my inquiry into the beginning of our congregation here in the Berkshires was why our beginnings here were only in the middle of the 19th century. Our congregation is one of the oldest in New England. But American Jewish history goes back actually to the discovery of America itself, beginning with Columbus. Luis Torres, the navigator’s official interpreter, was a converso/marrano, the first white man actually to set foot on the soil of the New World. And there is a school of scholars – non-Jewish and Spanish at that – who have theorized that Columbus himself was of Jewish origins.
But undisputed American Jewish history begins with the arrival on the Dutch brig St. Charles in New Amsterdam in 1654 of 23 refugees from Recife, Brazil – much to the upset of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of the colony. Incidentally, our Club member Robert Newman, of blessed memory, had a first cousin, Harmon Hendricks Goldstone, whose ancestry traced back to one of those arrivals on the St. Charles. Stephen Birmingham’s “The Grandees” makes mention of him and his mother, Mrs. Lafayette Lewis Goldstone, who was married to Bob Newman’s uncle on his mother’s side.
The Jewish population here in the United States in the mid-19th century was concentrated mainly in New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Georgia. Massachusetts, our state, had very few Jews despite the fact that it was one of the oldest settlements in the Americas. The average individual thinks of our Commonwealth as being quite liberal, but this was not so for the most part of its history. This was hostile territory not only for Jews but for Catholics, Baptists, Quakers and all other non-Puritan religious groups. The Puritans – despite their own history of being a persecuted movement back in England – were just as intolerant of other religious groups as their English religious enemies had been to them. In the 17th century it was a crime to be a Quaker in New England. A Quaker who refused to leave Massachusetts could be whipped in public for a first refusal, have an ear cut off for a second, and be executed for a third.
There is the case of Mary Dyer of Boston, who along with some other people started a Bible class in her home, offering up different interpretations from those held by the established Congregational Church. Her minister, finding out about the sessions, accused her of heresy. Then when she opted to become a Quaker, she was banished from Boston. But she kept coming back because she believed in the truth of her beliefs. On October 27, 1659, she and two of her Quaker friends were tried and convicted of defying the banishment order and were sentenced to death by hanging. She was present at the snapping of her friends’ necks but she was given a last-minute reprieve. A year later she defied the banishment order again and was brought before the General Court with John Endicott, the governor, presiding. Found guilty this second time, there was no reprieve and she was executed on June 1, 1660 by the Holy Commonwealth of Masschusetts – the very government established by the Puritans who had fled England to avoid religious persecution. It is recorded that drum beaters lined the execution route, prepared to drown out her words if she attempted to protest her innocence to the crowd that watched her procession to the gallows.
With such intolerant beginnings, it is not so difficult to understand why, even after the establishment of the United States, Jewish settlement in New England was somewhat late in development. Individual Jews had come, of course, to the Bay State from time to time and had settled here, but not in numbers sufficient to create a viable and permanent Jewish community. Jews were not allowed, for example, a basic necessity – burial rights in the Commonwealth. At death, bodies had to be sent to Newport, R. I., the closest Jewish cemetery. Illustrative of these Jewish difficulties was the case of Aaron Lopez. He had come to the Bay Colony many years before the Revolution. During the war he had encouraged a number of co-religionists to settle in Leicester. A man of considerable substance and (according to Ezar Styles, president of Yale College) one of the most successful merchants in all the Americas. Nevertheless, he was refused naturalization in 1762 by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.
It is estimated that several hundred Jews must have come to the Bay Colony over the decades, but as noted before, because of Puritan prejudice and intolerance, either left or became converts, as in the case of Judah Monis in 1722, who became an instructor of Hebrew at Harvard College.
The 1900 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia attributes the fact that so many Protestant families in the Boston area have distinctly Jewish names to the “convert or get out” stance of the Puritan milieu. One of the most famous and egregious examples of this prejudice is that of Moses Michael Hays, who came to Boston from Newport, bringing with him his two nephews, Abraham and Judah Touro. Hays was a successful insurance underwriter and despite civic disabilities (not being allowed naturalization rights) served, nevertheless, as Grand Master of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Massachusetts for four years. His nephew, Abraham Touro, at his death left $10,000 to the Massachusetts General Hospital and $5,000 each to the Asylum for Indigent Boys, the Massachusetts Humane Society and the Boston Female Society. His other nephew, Judah, fed up with Bostonian prejudice, left the Commonwealth for New Orleans, but later helped finance the Bunker Hill Monument.
The first Jewish congregation in Massachusetts was established only in 1842 in Boston. The members met in what (interestingly enough for Berkshirites) had been the home of the Oliver Wendell Holmes family. So, if our local Jewish community did not develop until the middle 1850s, we have some understanding of why this was so: Massachusetts was, because of its Puritan beginnings, not a friendly venue for Jewish settlement in the 19th century.
Massachusetts was not the only intolerant colony before the Revolution. So, too, were most of the other colonies. Baptists were persecuted throughout the Americas, most intensely in northern Virginia, where later James Madison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had their origins. Officials of the Anglican Church unleashed a wave of persecution against area Baptists, throwing them in jail for preaching their own gospel. This trampling on “liberty and conscience” had a profound impact on Madison, who later became the nation’s most zealous champion of religious freedom.
But long before Madison and Jefferson’s time, there was one champion of religious tolerance who pioneered the concept of religious liberty, even originating the idea of a “wall of separation between Church and State,” a phrasing which subsequently was attributed to Thomas Jefferson. That individual was Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island. Williams was born in 1603 in England. Though born into the Church of England, he was a precocious youngster, becoming a Puritan at the age of 11 to his father’s upset. Born into a family of substance, he was educated at Charterhouse and also at Pembroke College at Cambridge. He had an unusual gift for languages, mastering Latin, Greek, Dutch and French. He gave John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for Milton teaching him Hebrew. On graduation, Williams took orders in the Church of England and accepted a chaplaincy at Otes in Essex. But a year later an event took place which so disturbed Williams that he made the decision to leave England for what he believed was a more sane and tolerant living venue, Massachusetts. The cause for that decision: a leading Puritan reformer in 1630 was placed in pillory in London. One of his ears was cut off and a side of his nose was split open. And for good measure, his face was then branded with the letters SS, short for “sower of sedition.” And, in addition, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Williams had already had his fill of the Church of England’s intolerant orthodoxy, and as a consequence of this atrociously inhumane event, he took leave of England.
At first Williams was warmly received by Massachusetts Bay authorities, but Boston soon found his views about individual conscience too radical, and he took a congregation to Salem. By 1635-36 Boston found his preaching and teaching too radical for its liking and authorities there ordered his arrest. Tipped off in advance, Williams fled south to what is now Rhode Island, founding a settlement in Providence. In 1643, while sailing back to England to secure a charter for his new colony, he wrote a book entitled The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. It was his philosophical defense of what he had decreed for his new Rhode Island colony where he had provided safe haven for people who, because of their religious ideas and practices, were not tolerated elsewhere. Baptists, Quakers and other dissidents joined his Puritan dissenters. In 1658, four years after the St. Charles had sailed into New Amsterdam with its Jewish refugees from Brazil, 15 Portuguese Jewish families arrived in Newport. And they, amazingly, enjoyed the same religious liberty granted to others – an astonishing matter when you realized that Jews in England were given similar civil liberties only some 200 years later, well past the middle of the 19th century. (In 1858, to be exact.) In one of his letters – Williams was a prodigious writer of books, letters and pamphlets – he uses the famous phrasing “wall of separation” between religious and political institutions, which more than a century later became part of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking. Without question, then, Roger Williams must be acknowledged as the first great contributor to the idea of religious liberty in the new American world.
There were others, too, such as Thomas Paine and George Washington who made their contributions to the cause of religious freedom in the New World. But if we were to choose the most important figures, they would be Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth presidents of the U. S.
Some hold Thomas Jefferson, our third president, who elevated reason above all other virtues, to be a secularist, but that is not so. Jefferson held that reason was so important because it would actually lead one to believe in a Supreme Being. Jefferson wrote that “the mind was the only miracle that heaven gave us.” Jefferson was convinced that Virginia needed religious reform – a break with the established Anglican Church of this largest, at the time, of all the American colonies. Interestingly enough, his chief opponent was Patrick Henry, who favored state support for the teachers of the Christian religion. Jefferson’s bill would separate the Church from the State, take the clergy off the public payroll and exempt the people of Virginia from paying taxes to support the Anglican Church. In 1786 the Virginia Assembly passed the Statute of Religious Freedom and James Madison, Jefferson’s closest friend, wrote him that “thus was extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” Jefferson, incidentally, considered this achievement one of the three most major in his life’s work. He included it in his epitaph, which he wrote himself, for his tombstone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
And James Madison, our fourth president, Jefferson’s successor, continued the effort to create this wall of separation between Church and State. Madison had witnessed personally the Anglican Church’s persecution in his local area against Baptists, throwing them into jail simply for preaching their own gospel. This subjugation of “liberty of conscience” had a profound effect on Madison, who, possibly even more than Jefferson, became in time the most zealous champion of religious freedom. Yet, it should be recognized that his struggle to erect a “wall of separation” was to promote, not to discourage, religion. His crusade for religious liberty for all promoted religion by leaving it stand on its own, resulting consequently in religious freedom for all Americans. Interestingly enough, it was the evangelical Christians of Madison’s and Jefferson’s time that were “foot soldiers in the drive for religious liberty….They aimed to stop the persecutions of the established church which were preventing them [the evangelicals] from praying the way they wanted.” (The words of Stephen Waldman in his recent book Founding faith: Providence, politics and the birth of religious freedoms in America. [Random House, 2008]) Present day evangelicals might take note. And Madison, called the “Father of the Constitution,” in 1791 drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the first of which, in 45 words, guaranteed freedom of religion for all, guaranteeing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
At first several states in the new national federation did not take seriously this first amendment of the Bill of Rights, concerning free practice of religion. In several New England states, Protestant Christianity was established by state laws, and even the right to vote was restricted on religious grounds. But in time, the Federal Constitution came to prevail and freedom or religion and freedom from religion came to be accepted as a legal right for all.
And yet, while giving lip service to this right, there are still, as we can note, those who seem to have difficulty understanding this. There is currently a situation at the Air Force Academy where violations of the First Amendment clause seem to exist either out of ignorance of the Constitution or deliberately so, on the part of the military complex whose oath is to “uphold and defend the Constitution.” There is seemingly, on the part of certain members of the Supreme Court, a tendency to take rather questionable positions on the impregnability of the “wall of separation.” The recent Berkshire Eagle item about a bill being submitted to our state legislature on the use of “Year of our Lord” wording on state documents is only a minor example of such Constitutional infractions.
And yet, we must all understand that a conviction that there must be a separation between Church and State is not indicative of being a secularist or being anti-religious. Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and those who supported them among the founding fathers of our nation would have made no such distinctions. These were high-minded, truly religious personalities who believed that religious faith and practice was more favorably positioned in a social setting where the state was fundamentally neutral and liberty of conscience was legally guaranteed.
There are those who may take issue with some of what I have said here, but let me conclude by noting that some 50 years ago the composer Millard Lampell and lyricist Earl Robinson collaborated on a ballad, most popular at the time, called “The Lonesome Train.” Some of you may still remember the lines: “Freedom’s a thing that has no ending/ It needs to be cared for, it needs defending.” And when freedom of religion, of speech, of peaceable assembly, or the right to petition the ruling authority for the redress of grievances is questioned or threatened, as not infrequently has been the case over the years, these lyrics of Lampell and Robinson’s “The Lonesome Train” should ever be most seriously kept in mind: “Freedom’s a thing that has no ending/ It needs to be cared for, it needs defending.”