Thursday, September 10, 2009

Quakers, Shakers and Papists in America

"Je pense, donc je suis." --Rene Descartes, 17th century
French philosopher and mathematician

In entertaining this important subject of the Enlightenment in colonial America, its great influence upon the world then and now, Bryan LeBeau writes in his book Religion in America, that "the period from 1763 to 1789 (1789 = the eve of the French revolution) brought momentous changes to Americans. They "confronted, then overthrew the only government they had ever known, and they established a new government" based on what they hoped would be the beginning of a new society and a new world. The Deists of Philadelphia wished their city to be known as the 'city of brotherly love'. With this optimism and utopian spirit, the United States of America commenced. They trumpeted their handiwork as the new order of the ages.

At the eve of this new republic, many feared that without the stabilization of social organizations such as churches, the fate of the Republic would be undermined if the new republican virtues necessary to the survival of the state were not supported by such assemblies. In the end, organizations not only stepped in to support and characterize the republic but to sustain it as well, forming today's well known American characteristic of spirituality and religiosity.

Dissenters, as they came to be known, were those persons who, in pre-revolutionary America, while participating in the Anglican Churches, established in the New World by the English crown, were those who also held faith in the new age of Reason, in the Enlightened thinking arriving progressively to American shores. Over time, as Anglican Bishops, also colonists in the New World, grew in support of the politics of the Whig party, the political party associated with the Enlightened, free-thinking movement in England, their numbers coalesced into one great mind.

The two 'Great Awakenings' and the Evangelical style of oratory they supported, shaped increasingly into what was to be the American Revolution, against the English politicians and their motives for a church established as an institution of State. Thus not only were they opposed to a protestant king led church-state, but also to the most traditional, more historic Papal led church-state. The dissenters simmered in the Colonies until a further storm in 1774 erupted over the enactment of the Quebec Act, wherein the English Crown recognized "the Roman Catholic Church in the conquered, formerly French territories of Canada". The English government effectively offered persons in those places a 'freedom of religion,' freedom that was not available to English colonists in America.

The perceived tyranny of the Papists, and the Stuart kings' reign had since the 1640's incited strong anti-catholic feeling in the colonies. Protestant thought reinforced Whig politics. Whig ideas resonated through a large swath of colonial society. The appeal of the Whigs was more broadly accepted than that of the Calvinists or the New England establishment. The basic Whig text, John Locke's Second Treatise of Government was widely available. As the church specifically, and religion in general, was at this time a part of the State, politics did and does necessarily enter into the discussion.

In fact, politics is very often a prominent feature of religious practice and affiliation even today. It is somewhat naive to presume that two such great social institutions within society would be permanently divorced, one from the other. In colonial New Jersey, the policy towards Dissenters was more liberal than elsewhere. As a result the Quakers were attracted to the state for the 'free practice of their religion,' William Penn, their leader, wrote that they laid 'a foundation for their liberty as men... that they be brought by their own consent... not by bondage'. Penn in 1670 wrote a passionate appeal for religious liberty, for tolerance and that the force of the state had 'no place in religious conscience'. Penn launched his 'holy experiment,' as he called it in 1681.

Another outgrowth of the Enlightenment zeal were the establishment of the Shakers who trace their lineage back to 17th century France. Known in France as 'Camisards,' they were Protestants who organized as a result of the revocation of the Edicts of Free Practice of Religion by the Crown. Their American foundress, Mother Ann, led a small group of British to New York in 1774, where their group established themselves. In Mother Ann, followers were instructed in the androgynous nature of God, Jesus being masculine and she herself feminine; thus her arrival marked the completion of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Despite their universal views on God, most Shakers were women by the nineteenth century.

All these groups and more directly owe their liberty to ideals of the Enlightenment and the utopian experiment that became America. Yet one significant group was late to establish itself in the English Colonies, the Papists as the English colonists called them, were generally unwelcome. While their ancestors had come to faith largely due to the efforts of Saint Augustine, among others, and due to the Roman occupation of the British isles, the English of the colonial period viewed Roman Catholicism, Papacy, with suspicion.

They wished not to be subject to a foreigner; preferring to be ruled by a monarch of British origins. After the religious wars of England, and the establishment of the Anglican Church of England, most were firmly placed into that political-social orbit. However in England, numerous Catholics remained; unwilling to acquiesce to the Crown, they resolved to reform themselves in the Colonies, like many others. Baltimore, Maryland became their destination and thus in the English speaking parts of the New World, the Papists did install themselves.

Not to be overlooked was the concomitant existence of both a Spanish and French territory within the New World. Initially seeking riches for the Crowns of Spain and France, colonists arrived in the Caribbean and the Americas regions of the New World. With them they brought their Catholic religion, their Latin culture and languages. Thus over time a vibrant Latin society came to exist within the New World. Catholic Christians, unlike their Protestant neighbors, existed in joyous exuberance, establishing communities and social structures beyond churches. In time the city of New Orleans was established at the mouth of the great Mississippi river. New Orleans, Louisiana was destined to become a major port city and commercial center.

It was in the borders of this sovereign territory of France and Spain that the free-thinking conversation continued. Many persons, especially French men and women were in frequent contact with the Old World and travel between the places was routine. With the travelers came the ideas; Pascal in the 1600's wrote brilliant philosophical treatises on various subjects , including Libertarianism (Les Libertines), who were motivated not so much by hostility as by indifference with regard to religion, preferring Reason and science in its place. He also advanced our understanding of Geometry and mathematics, all within the frame of Enlightened thinking.

In 1697, the Encyclopedia, a collected source of knowledge was all the rage. In the France of Louis XIV, there among the higher classes who could afford to read and purchase such books, was Guy Allard, a gentleman of the Royal court. He eagerly wrote and produced some of his own. Officially he was the Court Librarian under the reign of Louis XIV; his post was however hereditary. Keeping the monarch's personal library in order was his task. Today that library is the National Library of France (L'Archive Nationale de France). While smaller in his day, it included works by contemporary thinkers and poets such as Pascal, Descartes, Rabelais, Mme. de Sevigne, Voltaire and others. Within the Royal court structure of the time, persons such as Allard, had the education, the time and the availability of materials from which to construct his own encyclopedia; eventually he wrote 67 volumes.

Recall that the Monarch was acknowledged chief of state and of religion, at this time, throughout the West. Yet the nobility was not without its influence; the relationship between the two developed over time into an interdependency. Monsieur Allard however was like others of his time, free-thinking and quietly republican. He writes in a book published in 1711 that the time has come to look to science, to consider that the state nor the church can provide all the answers. He echoes Descartes' reckoning, "Je pense, donce je suis (I think, therefore I am)."

So he writes in his book about the families of the Dauphine, a region from which Allard derives, that there are many fine men and minds "in this region, who in learning and science, see the advances being made in the intellectual world." He does not mention the sovereign however. Yet reading his words 300 years later, one is struck by the vision he cautiously suggests, that the world can and will function in a new form, that the sovereign is not the Church, and that enlightened thinking will pave the way in the future for a reformed government.

This Frenchman did not live to see the intense revolt which occurred later in the century; he did not see the violence, the wholesale killing within France, the anarchy that republican revolution inspired. Nor did he live to see his grandson, a staunch republican, Armand Allard Duplantier escape to Louisiana, narrowly avoiding the guillotine, and the crazed mobs in Paris. As a signer of the French document, the Rights of Man Armand Allard Duplantier envisioned a new society, like the Americans; his belief was for life, liberty, and brotherhood for all. He supported the ideals of the Frenchman, Marquis de Lafayette. He desired a new, reformed government, with a more equal share in governing for all French people. At this moment, he did not see the excesses of science, the faults of reason, the lack of heartfelt humanity. There was only then the prospect of a better world.

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