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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 11

In Search of Freedom - Part I
By Judy Leithe

The British Separatists and Puritans, later known to us as Pilgrims, felt utterly deprived of the freedoms we have in the first Amendment of our Constitution -- freedom of  religion, speech, press, peaceable assemblage, and the right to petition our Government for a redress of grievances.  These British subjects couldn't choose their religion,  speak or write about their faith, worship in the privacy of their homes, and certainly had no access to redress their grievances to their government. 

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, England was rife with religious persecution.  Under the reign of King Henry VIII, and the Catholic Church of England, if you were a Protestant, your possessions could be taken from you and you might even be tortured or killed, in any number of alarming ways.  Because of Henry's inability to produce a male heir, as well as his perpetual roving eye, he petitioned the Pope to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  The Pope's refusal drove the king to break with the Vatican, so the state religion became The Anglican Church of England.  Now, if you were a Catholic, you could be relieved of your possessions, tortured, and even killed, in alarming ways.

 Among the Europe and Eastern oligarchies in the Middle Ages, England was not unique for exercising absolute control over the  lives of its subjects.  However, there were many cultural advancements made under the approving crown of England, including the incomparable poetry and plays of Shakespeare and John Donne in the 1500s.  And, the earlier Magna Carta, which secured more freedom for the commoners, while not immediately popular with Royalty, was finally adopted into British law by 1215.  Ironically, 1776, this charter of liberties was used  by our Founding Fathers as precedent for asserting our liberty from the English Crown!  

King Henry VIII's successor was his daughter Elizabeth, whose remarkable 60-year reign as the first Queen of England, ended with her death in 1603.  Since she remained childless, her throne was passed to her nephew, James, son of her half-sister, Mary, Queen of Scots -- also known as "Bloody Mary."  

King James I ruled over England, Scotland and Ireland.  He dealt harshly with the Puritans and the Separatists because he felt that only he was the Lord of his people.   However, these were people who sought to reform the Church so that it would reflect the pure teachings and practices of the Bible, failing that, they separated themselves from the doctrines of the Church of England.  Many of today's American denominations find their roots in these groups.

The Dutch were much less restrictive in terms of religious beliefs, but the Separatists were hunted down by the British Government as they  attempted to flee to Holland, where they might practice their faith as they saw fit. 

Next week, we'll continue with the history of the young William Bradford, as he and other Pilgrims took real leaps of faith and sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower.