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Freedom of Religion

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This past week, many people in the U.S. celebrated Passover or Easter. They were able to do so peaceably because religious freedom is now enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Religious freedom didn't happen easily in the U.S. Today, we are able to exercise our religious beliefs because of the courageous women and men who came before us. Let's learn about some of the women who strove for religious freedom, founded religions and have established new programs or directions within their religion.

Anne Hutchinson was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 because she wanted to practice religion on her own terms -- and she wanted to preach! After their expulsion, her family moved to what later became the state of Rhode Island because they could practice their religion freely there. Many of her followers moved to Rhode Island as well. Hutchinson has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

One of Hutchinson's followers was Mary Dyer. The Dyers were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because they agreed with Anne Hutchinson's religious beliefs. After traveling back to England, Dyer became a Quaker. She returned time and again to Boston preaching Quakerism; which was against the law. She was convicted of heresy and hanged in Boston in 1660. Her ironic death, Quakers are known for advocating peace and tolerance, led to greater religious freedom in our country. Dyer has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Next we turn to two women who followed in the footsteps of Anne Hutchinson and established new organized religions: Ellen White and Mary Baker Eddy. Ellen White and her husband co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1860. White received approximately two thousand visions containing scriptural interpretations which were used to establish the church and its health and educational institutions. Her views on health, especially her opposition to coffee, tea, meat and drugs, are incorporated in today's Seventh-day Adventist practices. In 1875, Mary Baker Eddy opened a Christian Scientists' Home in Lynn, Massachusetts. In 1879, the First Church of Christ, Scientist was formally chartered. Eddy founded two monthly publications and a newspaper and wrote the book, Science and Health, that has sold over 8 million copies in 16 languages. Today, there are 1,200 Christian Science reading rooms worldwide. Eddy has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Katharine Drexel, Hannah Solomon, and Leontine Kelly all championed new programs or directions within their religion. Katharine Drexel, raised in the Roman Catholic faith, became very concerned with the plight of Native American and African-American education in the U.S. She established a new order of nuns in 1891 and became its first member (the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament). Her order founded sixty missions and schools including Xavier University in New Orleans. The order also provided food, clothing and financial support to people living on the reservations. Drexel was canonized as a Saint in 2000. Saint Drexel has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

The founder of the National Council of Jewish Women (1893), Hannah Solomon spent her life working to better the community and establishing organizations that could contribute to that end. She advocated for women's right to vote and assisted Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago. During World War I, Solomon worked with the Chicago war leaders to coordinate war efforts for forty different nationalities. Today, the National Council of Jewish Women strives for social justice through improving the lives of women and children and insuring the protection of individual rights and freedom. Solomon has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

In 1984, Leontine Kelly became the first African-American woman to be elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church. A spiritual and moral leader, Kelly advanced the cause of social justice in the world. Her role was critical to the establishment of Africa University, a United Methodist-related institution in Zimbabwe. She received many awards for her work in social justice and advocated many progressive and controversial social positions. Kelly has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

These defenders of the right to exercise religious freedom are among the more than 850 women profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We are proud to stand on their shoulders.