THE FOUNDING FATHERS were literate. As many in British America were. They knew their history. Europe’s history. And Antiquity’s. They read books. They knew that a Macedonian conquered a weak confederation of Greek city-states. That Julius Caesar marched into Rome at the head of a professional Roman Army and put an end to the Roman Republic. That large standing armies and a bloated bureaucracy bankrupted the Roman Empire and led to her demise. That differences in religious opinion plunged nations into war. And they were very conscious that history repeats itself.
They studied history and applied the lessons they learned to the founding of a new nation. And they were blessed with a blank canvas. There were not centuries of past wrongs to right. No grudges. No bad blood. They had an ocean between them and that past. Europe may have still been fighting each other, but it was just too costly to extend that fight across an ocean. At least, not in any large scale action. And they had vast tracts of land to the west waiting for them to settle. Growing space. True, there were indigenous people on some of that land, but there was so much more land than people (even today vast tracts are uninhabited). Not like in Europe. There, if a nation left the confines of her borders, it bumped into another. And, typically, professional armies did the bumping.
So there they were, the Founding Fathers, on a new continent ripe with possibilities. They had land, resources, knowledge and timing. It was as if God said that now was the time for a great new civilization to begin. Or so many felt then.
THE FATHER OF Christianity was a Jew. A Rabbi. Born and raised in a part of the Roman Empire that was a royal pain in the ass to them. The Jews just did not readily submit to Roman rule. And the Emperor was growing tired of this thorn in his side.
The hapless procurator for this troublesome land was Pontius Pilate. He may have been cruel. He may have been just (in the context of the times). He may have tried his best to keep the peace. But he was certain to fail. Don’t rule hard enough and order breaks down and Rome is unhappy. Push too hard and it may cause open rebellion. Again. And Rome is unhappy. Damned if he does. Damned if he doesn’t.
Long story short, the Romans crucify Jesus Christ. And a religion is born.
THE CHRISTIANS WOULD became as big a pain in the ass as the Jews were for the Roman Empire. Christ’s apostles spread His message and Christian pockets developed in the Empire. And the Romans persecuted them. Until one day.
The Roman Empire was in civil war. Constantine approached the River Tiber. Across lay Rome and Maxentius. They would meet in battle in the morning. Before that battle, though, Constantine had a vision. He saw a Christian symbol. The Christian god appeared to him. He was to advance his armies behind this symbol. Or so the story goes. Anyway, Constantine did win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He proclaimed that the Christian god made that victory possible. And he would subsequently convert to Christianity.
The Roman Empire would give up its pagan past and become Christian. Constantine would build a great Christian city and name it after himself. Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Christianity would spread throughout the civilized world. Even to the place where he became emperor. Britain. A Christian Monk would take the religion into the hostile lands north of Hadrian’s Wall (Scotland). There he founded a monastery called Candida Casa. His successor at the monastery, Caranoc, probably introduced Christianity to Ireland. St. Patrick’s missionary work took over from Caranoc.
ONE OF THE surviving institutions of the Roman Empire was the Catholic Church. With the structure and order of Roman rule gone, it was the one uniting force that transcended the diverse remnants of the empire. King Clovis converted to Catholicism and united the Gallic people. Charlemagne built on this consolidation and created the French and German monarchies, setting the stage for modern, Christian Europe.
The Catholic Church was the bedrock of life in the Middle Ages. It soothed and comforted. It gave hope and meaning during difficult times. Civilization became civilized when Christianized. People lived by the Golden Rule. They helped each other. Christian kings ruled more compassionately, for the afterlife was important to both ruler and ruled. A king may answer to no man, but a Christian king answered to God. And in Europe, that was the Pope, who ruled spiritually in God’s temporal world.
The Pope may be the last word on things spiritual, but he was still a man. And like all men, power tends to corrupt. And it would be a German priest to point this out in a grand way.
IT WAS THE 16th century and the Renaissance was under way. Everyone was catching the fever. Even the Pope. Pope Leo X was renovating his St. Peter digs in the new style. Paid for, in part, by the selling of indulgences. You say you’ve sinned? But you still want to go to heaven? No problem. I can help you. I can forgive you. For a nominal fee. And really, now, can you put a price on personal salvation? I mean, sure, you can risk eternal damnation. But why take the chance? Buy an indulgence today.
Or so went some kind of sales pitch. Which caused a problem for a German priest. Martin Luther. He didn’t believe you could buy your way into heaven. So he said it. The king wasn’t wearing any clothes. I mean, the Pope was wrong. He nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 and the Protestant movement was afoot. Caused a reverberation or two. Plunged Europe into war. Catholic versus protestant. Reformer versus counter-reformer.
Luther translated the Latin Bible into the common German spoken in his country. Over in England, they were translating the Bible, too. And speaking of England.
HENRY VIII WANTED a son. As kings are wont to do. But he wasn’t having any luck. He needed a new wife. So he wanted a divorce. Couldn’t get one. So he said goodbye to Rome and opened the Church of England. He got his divorce. And a new baby. Another girl.
The story of England’s break with Rome is a bit more complicated than this. Henry VIII was a Catholic. He even persecuted Protestants. But his third wife was a German princess married for political reasons. And his new Church leaned Protestant. He did a lot of things that Luther said to do. And he hated Luther. His subjects were even reading an English translation of the Bible. But then the politics changed and he divorced Anne of Cleves. And the Church swung back to Catholicism.
When Henry VIII died, Edward VI assumed the throne. And the Church swung back to Protestant. When he died, his sister took the throne. His Catholic sister. Queen Mary. And the Church swung back to Catholicism. People didn’t mind. Hey, they were Catholics far longer than they were Protestants. Then she married the Catholic King of Spain. Started burning Protestants at the stake. Went to war with France in support of Spain. And lost English land on the continent in the process. The people didn’t take kindly to this.
Then came Queen Elizabeth. She swung the Church back to Protestant. And the Pope thanked her for that by excommunicating her. Pope Paul V sent missionaries into England to agitate and return England to Catholicism. Elizabeth countered by making life very difficult for Catholics. But the Catholics weren’t the only ones unhappy with Elizabeth.
The Puritans were Calvinists who were extremely anti-Catholic. Yes, she swung the Church of England back to Protestantism, but it still had some Catholic flourishes (bishops, priest vestments, candles, some saints’ days and feasts, transubstantiation, etc.). As Supreme Governor of the Church, these Puritans were challenging her authority. So she arrested and executed them.
YOU GET THE picture. The tug of war between Catholicism and Protestantism was a long and bloody one. And it involved outsiders. Catholic France was stirring up trouble in Protestant Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots, cousin of Elizabeth, even plotted against her cousin to take her throne (and make Scotland and England Catholic). She failed and Elizabeth chopped her head off.
Meanwhile, Catholic Spain was stirring up trouble in Ireland. She hated England for their break from Rome. Wanted to bring her back to the Catholic fold. The Catholic Irish did not like Protestant English rule. There was rebellion in Ulster. Spain helped the rebels. The English suppressed the rebellion. To dilute this Catholic hotspot from causing further disturbances, England settled Ulster with Protestants.
Spain also wanted vengeance for the looting of Spanish ships (filled with gold and silver looted from the New World) by English pirates. Spain assembled a great fleet (The Great Armada) for the invasion of England. It was defeated. England escaped Catholic Spanish subjugation.
SO THERE YOU have it. Kindling for civil war in England as well as world war across the continent and in the New World as the Old World fought to colonize it. And that history would be a bloody one. A lot of wrongs to right. A lot of bad blood. A lot of grudges. And the Founding Fathers wanted no part of it.
When the British defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City, Catholic French Canada became British. To appease the local French inhabitants, though, the British passed the Quebec Act. And let them keep their French heritage. Je me souviens (I remember, motto of both Quebec Province and the Royal 22e Régiment). One part of the Quebec Act expanded Canadian territory into lands that the Americans were planning to settle. Another part guaranteed the free practice of Catholicism. Right in British America’s backyard. Which was a Protestant backyard. This infuriated the Americans. The Protestant-Catholic simmering hatred did make it to the New World. This was one of the last of British insults that eventually led to the Revolutionary War.
But that was the peak of anti-catholic rhetoric in America. After the war, the states would eventually disestablish their churches. Catholic and Protestant would live peacefully together. Along with Baptists. And Jews. And any other denomination. And religion flourished. Especially Christianity. By not establishing Protestantism or Catholicism, both flourished. The new nation blossomed. And America became that city on a hill. If you go by immigration records. And one day America would even have a Catholic president. JFK.
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