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Martin Luther, Founding Father
(and no, I'm not confusing him with Luther Martin, who enters the picture later)
When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg—if he really did nail them—he wasn’t thinking of America. Like other educated people of his place and time, this German monk had heard of the explorations across the Atlantic, but he was much more concerned about events across the Alps, in Italy. The behavior of the pope and cardinals in Rome scandalized Luther, who believed they had led the Catholic Church far from the path prescribed by Jesus in the Gospels. The sale of bishoprics and other church offices, the flagrant violation of vows of chastity and poverty, and especially the traffic in indulgences—shortcuts to heaven, according to church teaching—caused Luther to conclude that the Church needed a root-and-branch reformation. His ninety-five theses—challenges to debate—were a start.
On that day in 1517, Luther had no idea what he was setting in motion. He soon discovered he was hardly alone in thinking the Church had become corrupted; others joined his revolt against Catholic orthodoxy. Some did so for theological reasons, wishing to restore the Church to the fundamentals practiced in the days of the first Christians. Others jumped aboard for political reasons, resenting the power of the pope in affairs apart from faith and morals. Between them, the theological reformers and the political reformers produced an earthquake in the life of Europe, a Reformation that broke the continent in two. In northern Europe, the reformers were largely successful in establishing new churches, still Christian but no longer allegiant to Rome. In southern Europe, Catholicism managed to withstand the challenge.
On account of the disruption attending the Reformation, the early lead of the Spanish in exploring the Americas persisted. For nearly a century after the 1492 landing by Columbus in San Salvador, the English, the French and the Dutch were so busy battling over the route to heaven that they had little time to discover routes to America. Spain entrenched itself in Central and South America, except for Brazil, which was claimed by Portugal under an arrangement dictated by Pope Alexander VI and then revised into treaty form by the governments of the two Catholic Iberian kingdoms.
The English had visited North America in the 1490s, but the Reformation postponed serious efforts to establish colonies there. King Henry VIII picked a fight with the pope over Henry’s desire to get out of his first marriage; after the pope refused to grant Henry an annulment, the English monarch broke with Rome and declared his own church, the Church of England. The decision split the ranks of the English faithful. Henry’s loyalists followed him, while Catholic loyalists stuck with the pope. Henry couldn’t even convince everyone in his own family. His daughter Mary, on becoming monarch after Henry’s death, did all in her power to reverse the English Reformation and lead her country back to Roman Catholicism. She was called “Bloody Mary” for her efforts, which themselves were reversed when her half-sister Elizabeth succeeded her.
The double-reversal left England more divided than ever. Besides the Roman Catholics, who thought Henry and now Elizabeth had gone too far in reforming England, two other groups thought they hadn’t gone far enough. The Puritans worked to purify the Church of England from within, while the Separatists concluded that the new church was a lost cause and that their own salvation compelled them to secede. A band of the Separatists relocated to Holland, where Dutch Protestant practice was more to their liking.
But not for long. The Separatists decided that though their children were growing up sufficiently Protestant, they were becoming too Dutch. And so they sought a new home. America beckoned, for English efforts across the Atlantic had finally gotten back on track. A colony had been planted on Roanoke Island off the coast of what would become North Carolina. The colony failed amid an English war against Spain, but the basic idea and general location seemed promising.
Another colony was attempted at Jamestown, in Virginia, in 1607. This one struggled but survived, well enough to tempt the Separatists to found their own colony, in 1620. They aimed for Virginia but were blown off course and landed in modern Massachusetts, at a place they called Plymouth. On account of their religiously inspired journey, they were dubbed Pilgrims, and they established Plymouth colony as a refuge for religious dissenters like themselves.
The model took hold, and the few hundred Pilgrims were followed by several thousand Puritans, who now decided that the Church of England might best be purified from a distance. In time the Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay colony, centered at Boston, absorbed the Plymouth colony, as Puritanism spread over all New England.
The concept of American colonies as refuges for dissenters was almost novel with the English. The Spanish, having remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church, had no large body of dissenters eager to relocate to America. For this reason, among some others, the Spanish colonies never attracted sizable emigration from the home country. Likewise with the French colonies in Canada and the West Indies. French Protestants—Huguenots—existed, but precisely because they did, the Catholic monarchy of France wanted them where they could be closely monitored, and not across the Atlantic where they might cause mischief.
Religious freedom wasn’t the only attraction of America for the English. The Virginia colony had been established in pursuit of profit—to wit, gold. But largely because the obvious gold supplies of the Americas—in Mexico and Peru—had already been cornered by the Spanish, the English never discovered gold in paying quantity. The Virginians, with the help of local Indians, found a substitute in tobacco, which proved profitable enough to draw others to Americas. Among those who sailed west were free English men and women, indentured servants, and enslaved Africans.
Yet the religious-tolerance example also spread. Pennsylvania was established as a colony for Quakers, and Maryland for Roman Catholics. A refuge of another kind was created in Georgia, which provided an alternative to prison for English debtors.
The multifaceted approach of the English to American colonization fostered remarkable growth of the colonies’ population, which from the start outstripped the population of the French colonies and in time exceeded that of the Spanish colonies. And the English tolerance of dissent in the colonies promoted independent thinking among the colonists, who hadn’t agreed with the government when they left England and grew more independent-minded with each passing decade. The Americans came to consider such independence their birthright; when the government in London belatedly differed, in the 1760s and 1770s, an explosion followed.
One who helped spark the explosion was Maryland attorney Luther Martin, who called for independence from Britain with the same vehemence his reverse namesake had employed in demanding independence from Rome a quarter-millennium earlier.