Historians frequently debate the basic nature of the American Revolution, especially whether it was conservative or radical in nature. With respect to religion, its radical nature seems quite clear. A revolution fought for all liberty, both civil and ecclesiastical, set the new nation on an untried and—in the opinion of many—daringly risky course. Most of western Europe continued to assume that a stable society required the joint partnership of the church and state, the two working in a mutually supportive harmony. In challenging that pervasive assumption, the United States would help chart a course toward the modern world.
Colonial America boasted two church establishments, an "establishment" meaning governmental arrangements that followed the European patterns of intimate alliance between the church and the state. These two were Congregationalism in New England (Rhode Island excepted) and Anglicanism in the southern colonies. In the middle colonies, the picture was more mixed. Anglicanism had some roots in New York, though the Dutch Reformed, earlier on the scene, kept Anglican power in check. In Pennsylvania, its Quaker founder, William Penn, who had seen religious persecution back in England, insured that no institutional establishment would prevail there. Quakers were also strong in neighboring New Jersey, so they, with a scattering of other sects, kept establishment at bay. Where establishment prevailed, disestablishment did not come all at once, either during or immediately after the Revolution, nor did it come without significant public resistance.
Anglicanism was the first to fall, as there was a certain logic in upending the favored position of the Church of England while the colonies were at war against that England. Nonetheless, many legislators in the colonies now on their way to becoming states did not wish to move too swiftly in severing all ties between the civil and the ecclesiastical estates. As the most populous state and the one with the longest history of establishment, Virginia offers the best example of the steady progression toward what would become the signal feature of the American experiment: namely, the separation of church and state.
A dozen years after the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the Virginia House of Burgesses recognized the Church of England, or Anglicanism, as the official religion of the young colony—just as it was recognized in the mother country. This meant that only the Anglican Church had the support and protection of the government, only for the Anglican Church did the state raise taxes to pay the salaries of the church's clergymen and to support the construction of its buildings, only the Anglican Church had its parish boundaries laid out and defined by government. These ties between church and state remained close throughout the rest of the seventeenth century and through most of the eighteenth, until the advent of the Revolution.
disestablishment in virginia
Since the Anglican establishment was strongest in Virginia, the most crucial battles for disestablishing it would be fought there. As a member of the legislature, Thomas Jefferson took the lead in revising innumerable colonial laws that protected Anglicanism, disadvantaged all dissenters, and even provided criminal penalties for "heresy" (however defined) or a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He also wrote a sweeping bill for making religious freedom—not religious establishment—the official stance of the state. Though its passage was delayed until after the Revolution, in 1779 all vestiges of tax support for religion were removed. In this struggle ("the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged," Jefferson recalled in 1821), he was greatly aided by the non-Anglicans in Virginia, notably Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians. However, some thought that to sever all ties between religion and the state was neither necessary nor wise. In the 1780s Patrick Henry took the lead in proposing what could be called a multiple establishment, in which the state was barred from supporting any single church but could support all Christian churches. Because Henry's bill had wide support, especially in the Tidewater region, its defeat was far from certain. And Jefferson was far away, representing his country in France. Into the breach strode James Madison, who penned—and, even more important, gained many signatures to—his famed Memorial and Remonstrance. Presented to Virginia's legislators in 1785 as a counterweight to Henry's bill, Madison's Memorial presented clear, cogent, and ultimately convincing arguments against a religious establishment of any sort. History, Madison pointed out, demonstrated that the fruits of state establishment have been sour indeed, if not rotten, characterized by "pride and indolence in the Clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution." Why repeat this sorry history, when a full freedom in religion "promised a lustre to our country"? Moreover, a legislature that today can establish Christianity can tomorrow establish a "particular sect of Christians," thereby taking America right back to where it was before fighting a long and costly revolution.
To a great many Virginians, especially those dissenters living in the backcountry, Madison's penetrating questions demanded a defeat of Henry's bill—which never came up for another vote. Now the long-delayed Jefferson Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom could be taken off the legislative table, debated, modestly revised, and passed in 1786. Henceforth, in Virginia, in the words of the bill, "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever." On the contrary, "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Disestablishment had come to Virginia, and in a few years to all other states where by law the Church of England had been favored.
the national scene
The progress of Jefferson's statute was followed closely by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which kept faith with the Jeffersonian stance by maintaining a separation between church and state. Also, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 quickly pronounced for religious liberty in the region north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River, although only after considerable debate and discussion did members of the Continental Congress at last agree that religion, unlike education, would not receive any governmental support. Finally, the First Amendment, ratified by the states in 1791, stipulated that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Still, establishment did not immediately disappear everywhere in the new nation. For the First Amendment only specified what the federal Congress could or could not do; it did not directly address the prerogatives of the states. As a result, that other establishment, namely New England Congregationalism, continued for some time after the ratification of the First Amendment.
disestablishment in new england
After all, this official church was home grown, not the ally of an English king, not the darling of an English Parliament. Besides, in a series of gradual concessions, dissenters had been excused from paying taxes to the Congregational establishment upon presenting proof of their membership in another denomination. John Adams defended the continued nexus between church and state in the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 as "a most mild and equitable establishment of religion." But by the second decade of the nineteenth century, Adams had grown steadily more suspicious of any alliance between religion and civil power, however "mild" it might initially appear. The restoration of the Jesuit order in 1814 did nothing to calm Adams's spirit, for he saw in the Society of Jesus the epitome of religion joined to power. "I do not like the late resurrection of the Jesuits," he wrote Jefferson on 16 May 1816. And Adams predicted that America would soon be swarming with Jesuits, men who appeared in so many guises: "printers, editors, writers, schoolmasters, etc." Adams acknowledged that under the U.S. Constitution the Jesuits could claim asylum in America, but added that Americans must be ever vigilant.
Jefferson, of course, hardly needed to be reminded of the need for vigilance against clergymen with power. In the bitter presidential campaign of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams, religion played a surprisingly large part. Jefferson was cast in the role of the "atheist," the distinction between an atheist and a Deist being too fine for politicians in the heat of battle. Publicly, Jefferson stood mute before these attacks, but privately his scorn knew no bounds. And he blamed the New England clergy, that "irritable tribe of priests," for the spew of slander. He pummeled the Congregational clergy as "those bigots in religion and government," "barbarians" who would turn the clock back on the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the First Amendment.
Jefferson, however, was elected to the presidency not once, but twice. It took his eight years in office and a few more before Jefferson and Adams could write to each other in terms of mutual respect. In 1814 and beyond, they found common cause in resisting any combination of religion with power generally, and specifically the establishments in New England. In Connecticut, dissenters (including Episcopalians who, now on the outside looking in, joined with Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers) continued their clamor for disestablishment.
In 1816, the Toleration Party, consisting mainly of Jeffersonian Republicans but now supplemented by disaffected Federalists, came into being. The party name pointed to a growing dislike for the intolerance of Congregational dominance in state offices and state affairs. The Congregational clergy, aided and abetted by Yale College, made up a ruling elite that treated most dissenters with disdain or even contempt, Federalist clergyman Lyman Beecher characterizing them as "generally illiterate men … utterly unacquainted with Theology." By 1817, the Toleration Party had won the Connecticut governorship and a slim majority in the lower house of the legislature. The next year, the citizens of Connecticut voted on a new constitution, narrowly adopted by a vote of 13,918 in favor and 12,364 opposed. By the terms of Article VII of this instrument, religious freedom was assured to all. Earlier, seeing the political winds blowing in his favor, Jefferson wrote to John Adams (5 May 1817) his congratulations that this "Protestant Popedom is to no longer disgrace the American history and character." Colonial constitutions were purged of any remaining hints of establishment, and no new state would be admitted to the Union with anything less than a clear commitment to liberty in religion.
Massachusetts, however, maintained its establishment for another decade and a half, the situation there being complicated by an intense quarrel between the orthodox Congregationalists and the liberal Unitarians. It took the state courts of Massachusetts some time to sort out conflicting claims of property and church titles, but in 1833 the citizens of that state resoundingly approved a constitutional amendment that cut all remaining ties between the church and the state. In his inaugural address in 1836, Governor Edward Everett noted that a vital lesson had at last been learned: "the mischief of an alliance of church and state." Jefferson and Adams, both having passed from the scene a decade before, would have nodded in vigorous agreement.
Gaustad, Edwin S. The Faith of the Founders: Religion and the New Nation, 1776–1826. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005.
Lambert, Frank. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Noonan, John T., Jr. The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Witte, John, Jr. Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment: Essential Rights and Liberties. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000.
Edwin S. Gaustad