Bibles and Freedom

Visiting the Red Mill in Clinton, New Jersey is always a worthwhile experience. Yesterday, a gloomy, gray September postcard, was perfect for such a visit. In addition to the many buildings on the museum grounds that retain an atmospheric feel year-round, the Mill is supposedly haunted and is frequented by a number of ghost hunting teams. With its long (for America) history and its picturesque beauty, the museum is a popular spot with tourists as well as ghost hunters.

One of the buildings on the grounds is an old one-room schoolhouse. As a family we have visited a number of these, although none of us qualify as having been actual pupils at one. A frequent blandishment at such institutions is the rules by which school teachers had to live in the nineteenth century, usually posted on the wall. Yesterday as we read the obligatory list, one “commandment” stuck out from the 1872 code of conduct: “After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or any other good books.” While many of the rules were condescending in their moralizations, this one carried a perfect example of how a nation, naively short-sighted, was already giving preferential treatment to one religion, Protestant Christianity.

As a nation founded as a haven for religious freedom, the colonists and settlers simply had narrow exposure to religions of the world. Freedom seemed an ideal worth dying for, but usually it meant freedom to be whatever (Protestant) denomination you wished to be. Catholicism was associated with the old powers of Europe, and the religions of the east were barely known. The Protestants were the ones who promoted Bible reading in those days, and while the rules allowed for other good books, there is an unstated superiority given to the Good Book in its pride of place. Once the colonials became nationals, it was still fair to taunt Quakers, Unitarians, and others who didn’t seem to fit the mold. We didn’t see any ghosts at the Red Mill yesterday, but it did seem that a haunting memory of true religious liberty hung about the place.

Clinton's Red Mill sews freedom

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