Two books I am reading for review in upcoming issues of the Mayflower Quarterly have sections in them expressing outrage at the perceived invasion of individual privacy by colonial and religious authorities (and those two were basically the same people). There has been general agreement for the last century or so, settled in law in the United States since Griswold v. Connecticut (381 U.S. 479 ), that marital activity was essentially private; this has since been expanded to include most consensual sexual activity and, at about the same time, religious belief. I was somewhat startled by a matter-of-fact statement at the beginning of a recent book on ecclesiastical law in England that “everyone knows” (that phrase usually covers over the absence of proof or argument, and is frequently connected to the phrase “of course”) that religion is a private and personal choice -- and this in a country that has an established, state Church. It is vitally important to realise how complete a reversal this is from what was universally the case for thousands of years, and until quite recently in the West. In the seventeenth century, religious belief and sexual activity (the subjects of the next few posts) were seen by everyone, absolutely everyone, to be public, civil and civic matters, under law both human and divine, and part and parcel of the stability of the community, the family, the state, and the church (broadly conceived). This is not an argument that such a change is wrong, although we may realise that this shift has still not really been thought through completely, and that our modern concepts of privacy do not rest on very old precedents or foundations.
New Englanders who disagreed about the bearing of divine law were punished. Thus, one man in New Haven was fined for declaring that “the laws of the jurisdiction … [were] the wills of men,” while another was chastised for “reproach[ing] those that walk in the ways of God.” Similarly, a Connecticut man who announced that “he hoped to meet some of the members of the Church in hell ere long, and he did not question but he should” was whipped, and one from Plymouth fined for speaking against the church's rule. Another Plymouth man was required to acknowledge his offense of blasphemy for saying “he neither feared God, nor the devil.”