A Bit Of Church History
by John W. Gunn
One thousand Years ago, the church (Roman Catholic) claimed and, on the whole, effectually maintained supreme power in the affairs of Europe. The church punished with torture and death those who disagreed with its teachings. The church was the biggest grafting Institution — or, more plainly, robbing institution — in Europe, and it grew tremendously wealthy. The church admitted for itself no obligations. It laid stern commands upon the people. It was a vast machine of exploitation.
With the growth of independent kingdoms and monarchs who ruled genuinely and with no light hands within their own domains, the church still held the major share of its original power. It maintained its “spiritual” rule, which meant, in gigantic effect, that all rival beliefs about religion were crushed and that the masses were compelled to continue in their submission to ecclesiastical robbery. The state and the church were closely united machines of tyranny and exploitation.
When secularism advanced (although it was far from complete) and innumerable protestant sects came forth with new and strange doctrines, established (state) churches were for long upheld both in Protestant and Catholic countries and, frankly enough, these churches were regarded as bulwarks of the oppressive governments that patronized them. The church was not so powerful, but it was still very powerful; and it was as greedy as ever.
When religious toleration (for the various believers in religion but not equally for, opponents of all religion) was won, the church was less powerful, although it continued to be rich. In countries (both Protestant and Catholic) where there were established churches, those institutions were burdens upon the state — in other words, centers of graft and favoritism. They were always taking from the state (which meant from the people) — never contributing to the public good.
In the early days of American colonization, the church maintained its privilege and power as it did in Europe. In Virginia, for example, the Episcopal church (or Church of England) was the ruling ecclesiastical machine, its doctrines absolutely supreme and its financial demands supplied by taxation of the citizens. In Massachusetts the sect of Calvinism held this strong, favored position. In the early colonies, church and state were practically the same, at any rate united in a close conspiracy of oppression.
After the American revolution and the legal separation of church and state, the churches were all on an equal footing and they did not directly control nor participate in the affairs of government. But they were favored by tax exemption, blue laws upholding religious bigotry were enforced (although they could not be enforced regularly and consistently) and preachers retained a very considerable, often a commanding influence upon the opinions of the citizens. There was no strong opposition to the church; religion held sway intellectually; and the argument that church and state were mutually dependent and helpful was not disputed, insofar as it implied special privilege, (though not political power) for the church.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the preachers were very influential, but their actual power of creating or guiding opinion slowly but certainly dwindled, as politicians and newspaper editors grew more powerful and as secular affairs, beyond the control of the church, grew in recognized importance. At the beginning of the twentieth century, preachers still had a great deal of prestige and influence, and the churches held on to their special privileges, chief among these being the privilege of tax exemption.
Science and liberalism have added, in the first decades of the twentieth century, to the brilliancy and power of secular history. The supremacy of religion per se has long since been overthrown: that is to say, there are no professedly religious doctrines in which we must believe and there is no professedly religious control over our lives. However, the churches have turned to operating under the guise of moral reform organizations; and such a group as the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals wields a very alarming, though in many ways an indirect and insidious, power in our government. Yet the majority of Americans do not attend church, do not believe in church doctrines and are not interested in supporting the church. Skepticism grows steadily. Secular affairs are foremost. Religion is dying, although the church flourishes as a social and business institution.
And let students of history reflect that, after all these centuries, during which the power and greed of the church have been manifested in every conceivable shape — after all these centuries the church is still an institution of special privilege and it is at its old game of taking money from our pockets. Throughout all its hanging history the church has been distinguished by its two ruling motives of bigotry and greed. The church is still demanding laws to enforce its bigotry (though it now commonly calls such bigotry moral rather than religious) and laws to uphold it in its financial privileges.
There has been a series of significant revolutions within ten centuries; mainly within the past two centuries, the world has progressed sensationally. This progress has been secular in character. Our age, in all that is beneficent and hopeful and civilized, is irreligious. But the fact remains — the stern fact — that the necessity of war on clericalism is not ended. It is a serious problem in this modern age and until it is solved, until clericalism is deprived of all its powers and privileges (retaining only its rights of private propaganda), civilization will not be safe.