According to one website I found, there are 313 major religious groups in the United States and an estimated 2,500 denominations within those major groups. Clearly, religion is important to Americans. Many of our ancestors came to America to seek the freedom to worship as they pleased. We tend to take that right for granted because we have always enjoyed that right and rarely have had our religious expressions challenged or limited, although such challenges and limitations are becoming more common with the secularization of America. But looking at just one of the geographical sources of America’s ancestors, Europe, you can get a feel for how important that freedom of worship is. Many of our ancestors suffered persecution in Europe before coming to our shores. The devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648) started out largely as a religious war of Protestant groups and nations against Catholic groups and nations. After Martin Luther and others began challenging the corruption of the Catholic Church, the officials of the church and their supporting political leaders were not going to take this challenge to their supremacy lightly.
If you have any doubt about how persecuted the various Protestant groups were among the European nations, I recommend reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as it is popularly known, although the "official" title is Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church. This is a book that all Christians should read so that they can appreciate our religious freedoms and the high price that many of our ancestors paid for their faith not that long ago. Much of the religious persecution captured in this book and other sources was not simply Catholic against Protestant, although the brief reign of "Bloody Mary" (1553-1558) in England was a classic example of the Catholic persecution of Protestants. There was also much persecution brought on by the mainstream, politically (rather than spiritually) minded church leaders of the time. This included the Anglican Church in Great Britain which mercilessly persecuted anyone stepping out of line, even well-meaning believers who wanted the freedom to serve Christ according to their consciences.
The Pilgrims were one such group that was persecuted by the mainstream church. The Puritans were another. The mainstream churches of that era (Medieval and Renaissance Europe) were inextricably linked to the political powers at the time, partly due to the practice of the nobility of putting their sons into church office (or the military) if they were not the firstborn. The firstborn son would get the entire inheritance under the practice of primogeniture, and the younger sons would typically get nothing, hence the need for a vocation to put the younger sons into that wouldn't require too much heavy lifting. The various splinter Protestant groups who wanted to worship genuinely, free of the authoritarian influence of the politically-approved religious organization, were persecuted as heretics, mainly because they resisted the authorities. Their desire for freedom of worship and freedom of conscience to serve God in their own way was seen as a challenge to the authorities in both the mainline church and the state, who were inextricably linked together. You can see this dynamic of authority versus individual freedom in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and in John Bunyan's book, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which was largely his autobiography.
But it is clear from these books that these persecuted people were not rejecting the faith. In fact, they had a purer and deeper faith than what the corrupt church officials followed in persecuting them. Whenever you see force and brutality used to promote or to "enforce" church teachings, you can rest assured that these people are being motivated and inspired by Satan rather than God. God's law always rests on love and on His Spiritual Power and Wisdom to get things done rather than human power and ingenuity. God will use the force of nature to get people's attention before He must punish them for their wickedness, but He uses it as a last resort after trying persuasion or progressively stepped-up misfortune, always lovingly concerned about the pain that these rebellious people will feel when matters get real serious, even more concerned about the eternal punishment that they will suffer if they do not turn away from their path of wickedness.
Satan, on the other hand, uses force as a first resort, not being concerned at all about the discomfort and misery of people. These persecuted people in Medieval and Renaissance Europe simply wanted to worship in complete freedom, to follow their own consciences as worked out individually, personally, and privately with their God. They were seeking a purified religion that honored God in their hearts and followed Him in all the ways of their lifestyle. They wanted something more pure and a deeper devotion than the stale, legalistic, ritual-heavy, expert-controlled, or even corrupt state-sponsored religion.
Much of this more pure worship and deeper devotion was a product of the individual ownership and reading of Scriptures as the various Bible translations came into the hands of people and in their own language. This mass accessibility of the Bible was due to the many translations by God-inspired people and the development of the printing press which put the Bible more and more into the hands of common people. And once the Bible came into their hands, they could see for themselves what God really said and really wanted as opposed to what the politically minded and corrupt mainstream church officials were saying. This is one of the reasons why the state-sponsored church leaders fought so hard to keep the Bible out of the hands of common people and persecuted those that were translating these scriptures into the common languages of the people. These corrupt church officials knew they would lose control of religious worship as people sought God directly themselves.
In fact, you can still see this struggle between the "approved" version of religion and translations and the primacy of the individual believer to interpret as he sees fit, as revealed to him or her directly in prayerful communion with God. As I was researching a few points for this posting, I ran across many websites that claimed that these Protestant dissenters were all heretics and that they were mis-translating the Scriptures. If you take this viewpoint, the church leaders who persecuted them were just well-meaning public servants doing their duty. This is one of Satan's lies. He and those who follow him like to portray force and the control by the "experts" as some kind of good thing. Let me state for the record, GOD DOES NOT USE FORCE to get people to believe. He may use crazy weather and other such tragedies to get people's attention, to get them to understand that they are on the wrong path, and perhaps make their walk of sin so painful that they will repudiate their sin, but I can guarantee that, the moment they repent, they will experience His mercy. Many in our country are currently wallowing in wickedness, such as those that foolishly put their trust and obeisance in their government idol, most prevalent although not confined to the northeast which has been hammered by "acts of God" recently. Nonetheless, despite the pressure of natural disasters, God still lets even these willfully secular and prideful people make a free-will choice, although He is most definitely gradually turning up the heat on them in order to get them to repent before things get really ugly.
John Wycliffe translated one of the early versions of our English Scripture in the 1380s. The Catholic Church leaders were so infuriated by Wycliffe's translations, offended by his audacity in wanting to circumvent their authority and allow individual believers to study Scripture and communicate with God on their own, that, even 44 years after Wycliffe had died, the Pope ordered his bones dug up, crushed, and scattered in the river.
I pray that, today, you will appreciate the many religious freedoms that you have in your country, and that you will take advantage of this tremendous right to worship as you see fit in your understanding and in a way that you and your God work out in your relationship with Him. I also pray that you will appreciate the tremendous right to hold God’s Word in your possession and to read and interpret it according to your conscience rather than having interpretation dictated to you by a state-sponsored, politically controlled church.