TOLERATION ACTS provided for varying degrees of religious liberty in the American colonies. In New England, where the Congregational Church enjoyed legal establishment, the law required taxpayers to support the Puritan churches. Strong dissent in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the early eighteenth century resulted in legal exemptions for Quakers, Baptists, and Episcopalians. Rhode Island was the exception in New England, granting full freedom of worship.
The middle colonies offered broad religious liberty. William Penn's Charter of 1682 provided for freedom of conscience to all Pennsylvanians who believed in God. Later, however, royal pressure forced the legislature to restrict liberties for Jews and Catholics. The New Jersey proprietors offered religious liberty in order to attract settlers. In New York, although the Anglican Church enjoyed official establishment, the realities of religious diversity and local control resulted in de facto religious liberty for most denominations.
The Anglican Church was stronger in the southern colonies and often encroached on dissenters' religious practice, particularly in Virginia and Maryland. Virginian evangelicals met with resistance, as did Maryland Catholics, although the latter enjoyed protection under the Toleration Act of 1649. Georgia's royal charter (1732) confirmed religious liberty for all except Catholics. In North Carolina, Anglicans maintained tenuous power.
The American Revolution reinforced the doctrine of individual liberty, including religious freedom. Most state constitutions framed in this era sanctioned freedom of conscience to some extent. Local religious establishment continued in many states (until Massachusetts separated church and state in 1833). The Northwest Ordinance (1787) extended religious liberty to the Northwest Territory. The First Amendment of the federal Constitution forbade Congress to abridge the free exercise of religion.
Hall, Timothy L. Separating Church and State: Roger Williams and Religious Liberty. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.