Religious Liberty: “You Need Not Thank Anyone But God For It”

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Hat tip to Mark Scott Abeln at Rome of the West for bringing the story which follows to our attention.  Although the U.S. Constitution enshrines free exercise of religion as the first freedom in the First Amendment, attempts by government to assert authority over who can and cannot carry out the ministry of the Church happened long before the recent unpleasantness of the HHS mandate.

One such instance occurred almost 150 years ago in Missouri, in the aftermath of the Civil War.  In the closing months of the war, Radical Republicans, determined to prevent resurgence of proslavery or pro-secessionist power, drafted a new state constitution which imposed a “Test Oath” as a condition of being allowed to vote, hold public office, or practice certain professions. Those required to take the Test Oath included teachers, physicians, attorneys, corporation officials, and clergy of all denominations. Those who continued to practice their profession or ministry after a specified deadline without having taken the oath were subject to arrest, fines and imprisonment.

The oath required one to affirm various provisions of the new constitution, including one that excluded persons who had ever “given aid, comfort, countenance or support to any person engaged in hostility” against the United States from the professions and activities covered by the law.  As the oath was written, persons who had any kind of regular contact or relationship with a Confederate or Southern sympathizer before or during the war were or could be excluded.  Moreover, demanding assent to the oath as a condition of exercising religious ministry was a blatant infringement upon religious freedom. Archbishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis had ordered his priests to remain neutral during the war, and when the Test Oath was enacted, counseled his priests against taking it.

Father John Joseph Hogan, a native of Ireland who had served scattered missions in rural Missouri since 1857, was one of those who refused to take the oath. A grand jury refused to indict him for violating the Test Oath law, but Radical officials replaced those jurors with others who returned an indictment. Father Hogan was then arrested but freed after posting bail. He wrote the following in a letter to parishioners and other supporters who had protested his arrest (emphasis added):

You term Religious Liberty a God-given right. So it is. Let me add. You need not thank anyone but God for it. God is the source of Right and Power. He has said to those sent by Him to teach His religion: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore teach ye all nations. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” In virtue of this power, He sends us to teach and promises to be with us. His authority is ours. Were it man’s authority, man would not now oppose, nor from the beginning have opposed, its exercise. The Civil Authority has been ever, from the days of Herod, the enemy of Christ. Christ therefore could not have entrusted to it, the care of His heavenly teaching …

“It is very foolish then in the Civil Government, to assume an authority that does not belong to it, and to declare in contravention of God’s ordination, who shall or shall not preach or teach the Gospel of Christ. This rash assumption of authority … is as weak, silly, and tyrannical as the act of Xerxes, flogging with chains the tossing waves of the sea to make them do his will. One would think that the Civil Power would now at least in this more enlightened age of the world, cease its impotent rage against the Church, knowing as it does after its many defeats, vain struggles and humiliations, that the Church will obey only its maker, and that chains and prisons have no terror for it. And if we should prove recreant to our duty in this respect, we would accomplish nothing for the Civil Power thereby. The liberty of perdition would be of no avail to us or to it…. In obeying the Church and the state in their respective spheres, we are most obedient to law. We obey God first, our country next, and ourselves last. It is the inversion of these principles that we fear, and that would work the greatest detriment to the State and civil society as well as the Church.”

He concluded:

“…let me bid you be neither despondent nor disheartened. God is with you; who then can be against you … Be firm, yet patient, in the defence of right. This is the christian’s struggle for the christian’s crown. Let no violence characterize your actions as evil. Bless and pray for those who persecute you, for they are your rulers still. Respect and obey them, consistently with the reverence and obedience you owe to God. To-day, as of old, the religion you profess is ever the same. It bids you, if needs be, to die for Christ, but not conspire against Caesar.”

Go here to read the rest of the story. Meanwhile, a Test Oath case involving another Missouri priest, Father John Cummings, eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided 5-4 in favor of Father Cummings and struck down the Test Oath law.

In 1868 Father Hogan was named the first bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. He later wrote a memoir of his years in the rural missions whose full text is available here . The memoir covers everything from Irish immigration and slavery to bushwhacking, haunted houses, and spiritual warfare so the history buffs on this blog should enjoy reading it. Father Hogan’s words are a timely reminder that religious freedom is not something merely allowed to us at the sufferance of the state, but a right given by God Himself which the state is obligated to recognize.

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  1. Religious freedom encompasses all freedom, the freedom to speak to God, to write about and to God and the freedom to peaceably assemble for God. Freedom for our constitutional posterity encompasses the right to Life. “but not conspire against Caesar” is written into law that forbids assassinating heads of government, but meeting, as St. Joan of Arc did predators of her people is not conspiring against Caesar. It may even be called an education for Caesar. I may forgive my murderer, I cannot forgive my neighbor’s (read countryman) murderer without becoming an accessory after the fact.

  2. Here in Scotland, the Declaratory Articles, ratified by parliament in the Church of Scotland Act 1921, contains one of the clearest statements of the principle that I know:

    “This Church, as part of the Universal Church wherein the Lord Jesus Christ has appointed a government in the hands of Church office-bearers, receives from Him, its Divine King and Head, and from Him alone, the right and power subject to no civil authority to legislate, and to adjudicate finally, in all matters of doctrine, worship, government, and discipline in the Church… Recognition by civil authority of the separate and independent government and jurisdiction of this Church in matters spiritual, in whatever manner such recognition be expressed, does not in any way affect the character of this government and jurisdiction as derived from the Divine Head of the Church alone, or give to the civil authority any right of interference with the proceedings or judgments of the Church within the sphere of its spiritual government and jurisdiction.”

    They also state, “This Church acknowledges the divine appointment and authority of the civil magistrate within his own sphere…”

  3. I should add that the role of the civil courts is clearly set out in the Ministers Act 1693, “Their Majesties with Advice and Consent foresaid Doe [sic] Hereby Statute and Ordaine [sic] that the Lords of their Majesties Privy Councill [sic] and all other Magistrates Judges and Officers of Justice give all due assistance for makeing [sic] the Sentences and Censures of the Church and Judicatures thereof to be obeyed or otherways effectuall [sic] as accords”

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