On this day in 1646, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law making it a capital offense to deny the divine origin of the Bible. Only 16 years after a small group of Puritans had set up be a rigorously intolerant community of believers, enough people were questioning its basic principles to raise alarm among those in command. The dissenting had been going on for a while – Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson had been exiled a decade earlier – but the death penalty indicates that harsher steps were required. Colonial Massachusetts did not execute people the way modern Texas does (506 in the last 30 years), but they did hang a few Quakers and other heretics who kept trying to undermine the social order. It didn’t work terribly well, as conditions in 17th-century New England were clearly not conducive to the persistence of a theocratic state. One reason, I think, was the evolution of individualism – both theologically (in the growing belief that one could talk directly with God) and socially (where the idea of a rigid hierarchy was under assault).
Individualism is itself under attack these days, viewed as the foundation of capitalist greed and the enemy of community. But America has a long history of dissenters who refused to be buckle under to the tyranny of the group, who followed their conscience and dared to dream. It takes courage to stand alone.
PS Today is also the day in 1884 when Grover Cleveland upset James G. Blaine to become president of the United States in 1884. We continue to demand a recount.