Religion's Influences

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Religion's Influences

"Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics....Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods....Let government protect him in so doing." Baptist minister John Leland penned these famous words in 1776. They are reprinted in The Writings of John Leland (1969), edited by L. F. Greene. During his campaign for the presidency in 1800, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) quoted Leland's words.

Religious freedom is a pillar of individual liberty in America. But while the pillar stood firm in early America, views of religious freedom slowly evolved in the 1600s and 1700s. When settlers first journeyed to the New World's eastern shores in the early 1600s, religious freedom meant freedom to establish a colony that followed specific religious principles. There was no religious freedom within the colony. All colonists worshipped in the church of the colony; if anyone refused to do so, he or she had to leave the colony. A colony was governed by rules of the church. Therefore, government and church were tightly united.

Not until the ratification (approval by the states) of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 was a modern version of religious liberty in place. That version, known as the separation of church and state, completely separated religion and government. It allowed Americans the freedom to worship (or not worship) according to their individual beliefs. The story of American religious liberty can be traced back to the 1500s, when Europe underwent the Protestant Reformation.

Words to Know

Enlightenment: Also called the Age of Reason, a period that began in Europe in the 1600s and lasted through the 1700s; a philosophy emphasizing human ability to apply reason over ignorance and religious superstition.

established church: The official church of a colony, state, or country; the established church commonly received a portion of taxes collected from all the people.

pluralism: Many people of diverse ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds coexisting peacefully while sharing common cultural experiences.

Protestant Reformation: An effort in Western Europe beginning in the sixteenth century to reform the Catholic Church, resulting in new denominations such as the Lutheran Church.

religious freedom: In colonial days, freedom to establish specific religious principles in a colony; not the freedom of individuals to worship in the church of their choice.

sect: A religious body that has separated from a larger religious group.

toleration: A government policy of allowing various forms of religious belief not officially established.

Protestant Reformation

Until the early 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church, led by the pope and headquartered in Rome, Italy, was the unquestioned religious authority in western Europe. With the invention of the printing press in Germany about 1440, printed materials including the Bible began to reach people outside the Church. A few religious thinkers began to question the Church's practices. Martin Luther (1483–1546), a Catholic priest and teacher in Germany, began the Protestant Reformation (an effort in Western Europe to reform the Catholic Church resulting in new denominations such as the Lutheran Church) on October 31, 1517. On that day, he posted on the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, a list of complaints against Catholic Church practices. His famous list is known as the Ninety-Five Theses (opinions or contentions). Luther believed that people could be saved from hell by the kindness of God and their faith in Jesus Christ (c. 6 bc–ad 30), who he believed was the son of God. Luther thought the works and actions demanded by the Church were not necessary, and he rejected the pope's supreme rule. As a result, he was excommunicated (dismissed) from the Catholic Church.

Luther revised many Church practices, and his reforms led to a new religion commonly known as Protestantism. John Calvin (1509–1564) further organized Protestantism in Switzerland, France, and other western European countries. His reforms added meaningful worship services for the common people (the Catholic Church, for example, conducted services in Latin, a language that ordinary people did not know) and leadership by elected church members rather than bishops or the pope. John Knox (1514–1572) introduced Calvin's teachings in Scotland.

Both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church were Christian churches. This meant that members of both churches believed Jesus Christ was the son of God; both churches taught that belief in Christ could save humans from their sins and earn them eternal life in heaven. However, all Protestant sects had three common principles that conflicted with sixteenth-century Catholic Church teachings. Those principles insisted that (1) the Bible was the word of God and could be read by anyone; (2) God freely forgave individuals for their sins; and (3) churches should be governed by the people of the church. All over western Europe, including in England, new Protestant religious sects were established.

Following the initial effort in 1534 of King Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47) to establish a Church of England separate from the Roman Catholic Church, Queen Elizabeth I (1553–1603; reigned 1558–1603) made it permanent in 1559 when she assumed the throne from her father with the passage of the Act of Uniformity and Act of Supremacy. The Church of England was now the official church of England, separate from the Catholic Church. The Church of England, commonly known as the Anglican Church, was a compromise between Catholic and Protestant religious beliefs and practices. Many English Protestants felt that the Church of England was still entirely too Catholic. These people were known as Puritans; they wanted to further reform, or purify, the Church. When change from within the Church proved impossible and they suffered severe persecution for their efforts, Puritans decided to separate from the Church of England and seek a new beginning in America.

Regulated religious colonies in America

A small band of Pilgrims, a branch of the Puritans, wanted a complete separation from the Church of England. They set sail for America on the Speedwell and the Mayflower. In 1620, after landing in the New World, they established the Plymouth Colony along present-day Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1628, Puritan colonists arrived just north of the Pilgrims' colony and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony at present-day Boston. Puritan religious practices were simple. Worshippers congregated for meetings that were run democratically by an elected group of elders (elected church leaders). After the initial hardships of surviving in a new land, Puritan colonies grew and prospered, establishing settlements throughout New England. These New England Puritan colonies established the Congregational Church as their official church. Colonists who did not adhere to the Congregational Church's values and rules were forced to leave the colony.

Established even earlier than the Puritan colonies, in 1607, was Jamestown, the first permanent colony in Virginia. Colonists at Jamestown were Church of England members who had come to the New World not because of religious persecution, but because they wanted to improve their economic position. The colony was governed strictly by the rules of the Anglican Church and by a hierarchy (different power levels) of church leaders who were appointed by the mother Church in England. The Church of England was the established church of Virginia until 1785.

In early colonial America, the church performed duties that modern Americans expect from government agencies—keeping birth, marriage, and death records; educating the young; and caring for the poor. Rules governing the colonies were set by each colony's established church, and early courts enforced those rules. Anglicans were not welcome in Congregational colonies, and Puritans were not welcome in Anglican colonies. Individual colonies strove to keep their communities "pure," welcoming only persons of like religious beliefs. When colonists did not agree with the established church, they were labeled as Dissenters and were expected to move to a new community that might have religious principles more suitable to their beliefs. The large geographic expanse and small population of the New World allowed for this movement. Freedom to establish a new community of worshippers was the essence of religious freedom in early colonial America, but within each colony there was no religious freedom. Exceptions were the colonies of Maryland, established in 1632, Rhode Island, established in 1663, and Pennsylvania, established in 1681.

Maryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania

Since the establishment of the Church of England in 1559, Roman Catholics in Britain were increasingly persecuted for continuing to worship in their faith. One wealthy Catholic family, the Calverts, sought refuge in the New World. They wound up in Maryland where they established a colony in 1632; two years later, Leonard Calvert (1606–1647) led a group of Catholics to Maryland. The Calverts welcomed settlers of all faiths. In 1649, Maryland passed the first religious tolerance act in the New World.

The first settlement in Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams (1603–1684) after he was banished from Puritan Massachusetts Bay in 1636. He called his new settlement Providence, believing that God had led him there. Williams was a strong early advocate for the separation of church from government. Soon other Dissenters joined him, including

Key Religious Groups Present in America by 1783

Anglicans or Episcopalians (Church of England)

Old World origin (date): England (1559)

Arrival location (date): Jamestown, Virginia (1607)

Reason for leaving Old World: Searching for economic profit

Type: Protestant

Notes: Formally established by Queen Elizabeth I; Anglican churches retained many Catholic traditions but all rejected authority of the pope; American branch name changed to Protestant Episcopal Church in 1789.


Old World origin (date): Germany, Norway, Sweden (1500s)

Arrival location (date): Pennsylvania, New York (1700s)

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Protestant

Notes: Founded on Martin Luther's principles.

Congregationalists (Pilgrims and Puritans)

Old World origin (date): England (1500s)

Arrival location (date): Massachusetts: Pilgrims (1620), Plymouth Colony along Cape Cod; Puritans (1628), Massachusetts Bay Colony, Boston

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Protestant

Notes: Pilgrims, also known as Separatists (separated from Church of England), were a radical branch of Puritans.


Old World origin (date): American origin (1600s); Baptist Church in America arose independently of Baptist churches in England and European Anabaptists

Arrival location (date): Providence, Rhode Island (1636)

Reason for leaving Old World: N/A

Type: Protestant

Notes: Founded by Roger Williams, who fled England after rejecting the Church of England. Banished from Massachusetts, Williams settled in Rhode Island. Baptists rejected infant baptism, believed in adult baptism by complete immersion under water; were strong supporters of separation of church and state.

Roman Catholics

Old World origin (date): Rome (first century)

Arrival location (date): Missions from Florida to California, Canada to Louisiana (1500s); Colonial: Maryland (1634)

Reason for leaving Old World: Missionaries to New World; Colonial: Persecution in Britain

Type: Catholic

Notes: Led by the pope in the Vatican, Rome, Italy; Colonial: Maryland settlement founded by Leonard Calvert from Britain; first American bishop, Reverend John Carroll.

Dutch Reformed

Old World origin (date): Netherlands (1500s)

Arrival location (date): New York (1628)

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Protestant

Notes: Very tolerant of newcomers.


Old World origin (date): Middle East (ancient times); lived in many European countries at the time America was discovered by Europeans

Arrival location (date): New York (1654)

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Jewish

Notes: By American Revolution had established synagogues (houses of worship) in New York; Newport, Rhode Island; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; South Carolina; and Georgia.


Old World origin (date): England (1744)

Arrival location (date): Maryland (1780s)

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Protestant

Notes: Organized in America by Francis Asbury; first Methodist church in America established at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1784; known for enthusiastically spreading their faith to all colonies and the frontier by preachers on horseback.


Old World origin (date): Czech Republic (1457)

Arrival location (date): Georgia (1735; unsuccessful settlement); Pennsylvania (1740s)

Reason for leaving Old World: Missionaries

Type: Protestant

Notes: Headquartered in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Salem (present-day Winston-Salem), North Carolina.


Old World origin (date): Scotland and Northern Ireland (1500s)

Arrival location (date): Philadelphia (1683)

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Protestant

Notes: Led to America by Reverend Francis Makeme; Scotch Irish were Protestants of Scotch and English heritage who lived in the northern part of Ireland; presbyter means elder; Presbyterian Reverend John Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence; Reverend William Tennent founded Princeton University in New Jersey.

Quakers (Religious Society of Friends)

Old World origin (date): England (1640s)

Arrival location (date): Pennsylvania (1681)

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Protestant

Notes: Founded in England by George Fox; led to America by William Penn; Penn established the "Holy Experiment" in the Pennsylvania colony.


Old World origin (date): England (1750)

Arrival location (date): New Jersey (1770)

Reason for leaving Old World: Persecution

Type: Protestant

Notes: Founded in America by Reverend John Murray; first organized American congregation located in Gloucester, Massachusetts; spread throughout New England.

Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643). After Williams established a church in 1639, his plantation became the center for Baptists. In 1663, England gave the colony a charter, officially guaranteeing the settlement's religious liberty. A charter is a document defining rights, privileges, and land to be settled.

Pennsylvania was another colony founded on principles of religious tolerance. King Charles II (1630–1685) granted a new colony charter to William Penn (1644–1718) in 1681. The charter encompassed a large tract of land in America that became known as Penn's Woods, or Pennsylvania. Penn had been born into the English aristocracy, families of wealth and privilege and solidly Anglican. However, as an adult, Penn joined the Protestant Quaker sect established in the 1640s. He had been imprisoned in the Tower of London because his beliefs did not conform to the teachings of the Anglican Church. Like Penn, thousands of Quakers were persecuted in England. So in 1681, Penn led a group of Quakers to his new colony in America. Calling his colony the "Holy Experiment," Penn welcomed not only Quakers but any persecuted religious sects from Europe.

Penn immediately established his capital, Philadelphia, but he established no official church. By the late 1700s, Philadelphia was home to thirty different religious groups, including Catholics and Jews. However, Quakers held the most power in Pennsylvania's legislative assembly. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania was known as a pluralistic colony, meaning many people of diverse ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds coexisted peacefully while they shared common cultural experiences. Penn's experiment foreshadowed the type of religious liberty that was to come for all Americans.

Challenging the established churches

By 1700, about 85 percent of colonists lived in colonies with an established church. The established church in most of New England was the Congregational Church. However, the Dissenters who settled Rhode Island had split from the Congregationalists. The Church of England was the official church in eight colonies. It was stronger in some—Virginia, North and South Carolina—but weaker in others—New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Georgia.

In all colonies, specific churches dominated specific geographic areas. Within these areas, ministers and church members worshipped freely, without outside interference from other churches. Ministers did not have to compete with other ministers for their congregations. However, religion was still closely regulated and tied to the government.

Between 1700 and 1783, dramatic changes occurred. The population exploded as wave upon wave of European immigrants of different religious sects arrived in the colonies. One hundred colonists occupied the New World in 1607, 1.3 million by 1753, and 3.1 million by 1783. New commercial markets for trade brought diverse people and new ideas together.

Thousands of new colonists settled in the already established church communities and caused expansion into other communities. Ministers found it impossible to keep differing views out of their communities. The influx of immigrants pushed the American frontier all the way to the Mississippi River, a region where few ministers could be found. In addition to the rapidly increasing population, two major factors contributed to the loosening of religious regulation in the colonies: the First Great Awakening and Enlightenment ideas from Europe.

First Great Awakening

In 1739, young George Whitefield (1714–1770), a Methodist minister from England, began traveling through the colonies and to the frontiers and preaching to colonists. An emotional and dramatic speaker, Whitefield urged his listeners to open their hearts and to experience faith in Jesus Christ. This experience was called a "new birth," a concept derived from the Christian belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and that faith in him would bring salvation. Whitefield's dramatic style kept audiences spellbound. If ministers refused to allow him in their parish, he simply moved to the country, and the people followed and listened. Such religious teachings led to a religious movement in the 1740s known as the First Great Awakening. Awakenings were periods in which great emotion was focused toward bringing new life into religious participation by the public and usually sought to rejuvenate past stricter religious observances.

Like Whitefield, Congregational pastor Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) from Massachusetts spoke to people's hearts instead of their minds. He urged them to be "born again" in order to escape the horrors of hell. Suddenly, traveling preachers appeared all through the colonies, and the people heard their message.

These fiery traveling preachers were called evangelicals, and their meetings were called revivals. Evangelicals preached about developing a personal relationship with God, and they based their faith on the Bible. The Great Awakening lasted only a few years but made a lasting impression on Americans. They delighted in this new, independent, and personal brand of religion. They constantly questioned the teachings of established church leaders, and the number of Dissenters increased in all colonies. For the first time, ministers were forced to defend their beliefs and compete for church members.


The Enlightenment period, also called the Age of Reason, began in Europe in the 1600s and lasted through the 1700s. Enlightenment philosophy was regarded in the many scientific advances of the time as proof of the human ability to study and reason. Enlightenment philosophers included Frenchmen Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Voltaire (1694–1778) and Englishman John Locke (1632–1704). They emphasized that reason should prevail over ignorance, religious superstition, and blind acceptance of authority—all of which they considered to be the negative effects of church teachings. Enlightenment thinking taught that humans could use their free will, or sound judgment, to shape their own futures.

Many of America's most educated men listened carefully and were strongly influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), Thomas Jefferson, George Washington (1732–1799), James Madison (1751–1836), Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), and John Jay (1745–1829) all became Founding Fathers of the United States and all adhered to Enlightenment thinking. Those who followed Enlightenment philosophy were called Deists (pronounced DAY-ists). Deists did not question the existence of God or of a supreme being but saw the universe as being created by a rational and reasoned supreme being. They questioned much of traditional religion, especially the need for official state churches to regulate people's lives and worship. It appeared to them that rational human beings should be free to choose their preferred style of worship. At this point, Dissenters and America's educated political thinkers agreed.

Dissenter sects growing

In 1783, religious groups were the largest institutions in Revolutionary society. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were members of various congregations—traditional Congregationalists, traditional Anglicans, or Dissenting sects. Large numbers of Dissenters lived in each state and resisted state-established religion.

Demanding religious freedom of choice, Dissenters had formed various Protestant churches including those of Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. Dissenter groups were the fastest growing religious sects. Reflecting the changing population and attitudes, political leaders increasingly supported the separation of church and state and the separation of government policy from church controls. The stage was set for debates and change within the states.

Taking sides in religious freedom debates

By the 1780s, religious attitudes had clearly changed from the views of the early colonists. The meaning of religious freedom was being debated in all of the colonies. The three most important influences for change derived from the First Great Awakening, from the Enlightenment, and from the continuous stream of immigration. To many Americans, one "true" religion for each state and the barring of anyone not subscribing to that religion seemed no longer practical.

Debates between supporters of the status quo (keeping things as they are) and supporters of change were impassioned. The status quo proposals demanded continuation of established churches in the states. Those who favored this approach argued that order and peace within states could best be achieved by a strong, centrally established church setting rules for moral behavior. Those not adhering to the beliefs and practices of the established church would continue to be known as Dissenters. Dissenters would be tolerated—they would be allowed to worship in the church of their choice. However, they would still be required to pay taxes for support of the official church.

Those who opposed an official state church believed that worship was strictly an individual matter. They saw an official church as oppressive and dictatorial (domineering), attempting to direct how individuals should live. They demanded complete separation of church and state, so that the church could not influence colonial laws, and no taxes would be used to support a church. They demanded freedom of religious choice for all.

Massachusetts state convention struggles

The fight in Massachusetts to ratify a state constitution took two years, until 1780. Once completed, the Massachusetts constitution included religious statements requiring every person to have the benefit of religious instruction by a Protestant minister. Massachusetts lawmakers believed this approach guaranteed that all citizens would receive proper religious and moral teachings that would create a law-abiding population. They would tolerantly protect the rights of Dissenters by allowing the various religious sects their free exercise of religion. However, a portion of all people's taxes would still support the official state church, the Congregational Church. Massachusetts also required government office holders to take an oath, swearing that the Christian religion was the true religion.

The Massachusetts religious clause touched off heated controversies. Congregationalist leader Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), who was also president of Yale University, thought that Massachusetts's tolerant approach provided for sufficient religious freedom. Of course, he favored New England Puritanism, or the Congregational Church, as the model Christian religion.

Dissenters believed that the state-church relationship in Massachusetts did not provide for sufficient religious freedom. They thought that the Massachusetts constitution greatly favored the Puritan Congregational Church and restricted other sects by continued government regulation and tax support. Passage of the state constitution did not quiet debate.

Fight for religious freedom in Virginia

In the Southern state of Virginia, where the Church of England had been the established church since 1607, the Virginia assembly decided in 1785 on a revolutionary political agreement for complete religious freedom. Virginia had the largest population of the states and was the most influential. The assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. It supported free exercise of religious activities and banned government involvement. Passage came after heated debates.

During the American Revolution (1775–83), demands of the Dissenters in Virginia had grown increasingly loud. When the war began, perhaps as many as two-thirds of Virginians were Dissenters—Baptists, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodists. At the close of the war, the debate over established state religion, as opposed to complete religious freedom, raged anew.

Churchmen, those supporting a continuation of the established state religion, introduced a new bill, "Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of Religion," commonly known as the General Assessment Bill. With tax collection for the established church, it assured continued dominance of the Church of England.

Three of America's Founding Fathers and prominent Virginians—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry (1736–1799)—took sides. Henry, supporting the churchmen's bill, favored tolerance of Dissenters but a retention of the Church of England as the established church of Virginia. Those who sided with Henry, most notably Church of England minister Jonathan Boucher (1738–1804), believed an established church was essential to social order, lawfulness, and peace. They were convinced that confusion, disorderliness, and lower church attendance would be the result of individual religious freedom.

Jefferson and Madison weighed in on the side of the Dissenters. The two men argued that the churchmen's bill represented a dangerous abuse of state power that had no place in the newly independent nation. Religious choice was a matter of an individual's conscience that must not be tampered with. Jefferson supported the moral teachings of religion but steadfastly opposed links between government and religion. Both Jefferson and Madison believed there could be no real civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and press, without religious liberty. Calling on Virginia lawmakers to consider the example set by the religiously free and peaceful state of Pennsylvania, Jefferson put forth a bill of his own that established complete religious freedom.

Henry countered that complete religious freedom would surely allow dangerous religious radicals to try to undermine traditional religious ideas. Jefferson answered that in an open exchange of ideas, truth would prevail and that those with radical, unsustainable ideas would not gather support. Although the churchmen were in the majority, the Virginia lawmakers considered the arguments and on December 17, 1785, voted 67 to 20 in favor of Jefferson's bill, the Statute for Religious Freedom, establishing Virginia as a state of religious freedom where church and state were entirely separated. Historians view this vote as the most important step toward religious freedom in America. Although the lawmakers were churchmen, they realized Virginia had become far too diverse and too pluralistic, to allow any one religious sect to be sanctioned by the state as the official religion. Passage of the Statute of Religious Freedom foreshadowed similar results at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Constitutional Convention of 1787

By 1787, seven states that had recognized the Church of England as the official church had ceased designation of any church as official. Those states included Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and New York. New England state conventions had also loosened links between the state and their established Congregational churches. Some still allowed church members to direct part of their tax dollars to the church of their choice, but specific church membership requirements for political office holders were lifted or modified in many states. Nevertheless, Massachusetts and other New England states kept the Congregational Church as the established church.

In May 1787, delegates from the states gathered to revise the young nation's first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation. The convention began its discussions on May 25, 1787. George Washington was elected president of the convention. The delegates took on the responsibilities of reorganizing the federal government and of securing protection of the rights of individual Americans. James Madison, who would be the main author of the Constitution, brought with him from Virginia his strong conviction concerning separation of church and state.

The constitutional delegates' overriding task was to frame a government that could allow for many factions (groups with differing opinions) but hold the new nation together. At all costs, the delegates strove to avoid building a divisive government. As work began, the influence of the Enlightenment was obvious. Delegates overwhelmingly pursued reasoned, practical approaches to bring about a strong government that would protect the diverse interests of its people. Deliberations centered on structuring the government so as to not allow one group to undermine the freedoms of other groups. Religion was never at the center of debates. While most delegates believed Protestant Christianity was essential to building a moral, law abiding country, they concentrated on establishing the rule of law and not government by religious principles.

Nevertheless, the question of the relationship of government and religion had to be addressed. The delegates analyzed the various models of state-church relations. Massachusetts allowed for toleration of various religious sects, but the Congregational Church was the official, "true" church. The South Carolina constitution declared that Christian Protestant religion was the established religion, which left out Catholics and Jews. Pennsylvania and Virginia represented states where complete religious freedom was the rule. These two states had what became known as a free market place of religion where various religious sects competed for followers.

In the end, the Framers (writers) of the Constitution embraced the free market place of religion by simply falling silent on religion. Nowhere in the draft of the Constitution were the words "faith in God" or "Christian nation." Madison explained that the Constitution gave specific powers to the federal government. Powers not specifically stated were prohibited, including the establishment of an official church. The only context in which the word "religious" appeared in the Constitution was in a clause in Article VI that prohibited any religious requirements for candidates running for government office: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

By leaving out religious language, the Framers of the Constitution chose not to offend any religious sect and to let the free marketplace of religions operate. They gambled that allowing religious diversity would cause less religious conflict and prove less divisive to the union. Americans would be allowed to follow their own individual beliefs in the matter of religion. In effect, religious pluralism that already existed in the states had brought about religious freedom. Four months after the convention began, the delegates completed their task and sent drafts of the Constitution to each state for ratification.

Ratification and Amendment 1 of the Bill of Rights

When the draft of the U.S. Constitution reached the thirteen states in the autumn of 1787, its silence on religion set off loud and heated debates. Two-thirds of the delegates at the state-ratifying conventions were church members of many different sects. While the issue of religion had not taken up a great deal of the Framers' time, it became a hotly debated issue in the states. On one side were those who were aghast to think the Framers had left religion out of the Constitution. New England Puritans contended that God would surely turn His back on a nation whose leaders chose to ignore Him. Since the Constitution in no way called America a Christian nation, they feared that Papists (Catholics whose leader was the pope), Jews, or nonbelievers might hold office and gain influence.

On the other side, the Framers of the Constitution and those who supported its ratification insisted that government had no business dealing with religion. However, it soon became apparent that the supporters of the Constitution also had apprehensions about leaving the Constitution silent on religion as well as on other individual rights. In spite of James Madison's assurances to the contrary, they feared government leaders in the future might tamper with any subject left unaddressed—that a future government might try to establish an official national religion. As a result, there was a growing call for a list of individual rights—a bill of rights—that forever would be protected from government meddling. Supporters of a bill of rights not only wanted to include religious choice as a basic, unalterable individual right, but other liberties as well, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. In a practical move, supporters of ratification promised that a bill of rights would be the first business of a new Congress.

The Constitution was ratified by June 1788. In early 1789, a new government was formed. George Washington was inaugurated as president on April 30, 1789, and the first Congress met for its first session in New York the same day. As promised in 1788, ten amendments were proposed to the new Congress. The ten amendments were the list of rights that would never be taken from citizens. Congress passed and sent the amendments to the states for ratification. By December 15, 1791, the first ten amendments had been ratified and became known as the Bill of Rights. Indicating its importance to the people of the new United States, freedom of religion was the first liberty named in the first sentence of the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson said that the First Amendment built a "wall of separation" between government and a man's religious beliefs. As quoted in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father's well-known statement continues to be quoted in the twenty-first century:

Believing . . . that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, . . . I contemplate . . . that their [American people's] Legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Reorganization and Americanization of religious sects

In the 1780s and 1790s, religious sects in the states with the closest European ties, including the Church of England and the Catholic Church, moved toward Americanization. During and following the American Revolution, most priests loyal to both England and the Church of England fled back to their native country. In Philadelphia, William White (1748–1836), a patriot and rector of Christ Church (Church of England), reorganized the structure of the church into a more democratic form that allowed the election of church leaders. He rewrote the Book of Common Prayer to make it more accessible to the common man.

Finally in the late 1780s, the British Parliament approved a new province of the Church of England, an American province. White and Samuel Provoost (1742–1815) from New York became the first American bishops and called a convention in 1789 that was held in Philadelphia. At the convention, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States was founded. The Church of England, the Anglican Church, had been reborn in America as the Episcopal Church. The convention came at a time when the Anglicans had reached a low in membership. In 1790, there were only 170 congregations compared to 488 in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was written.

A strong leader also arose in America's Catholic Church. In 1790, Pope Pius VI (1717–1799) named the first American Catholic bishop: Father John Carroll (1735–1815) of Maryland. Carroll chose Baltimore as the church's base and staunchly defended the American Catholic Church from overreaching papal authority. Carroll was considerate of American religious views, insisted that the Church comply with American law, and established a Catholic university, Georgetown. Quietly, the Catholic Church in America thrived. New branches called dioceses were established in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in 1808. At Carroll's death in 1815, several Catholic universities and thousands of Catholic parishes were established in the United States.

Ben Franklin and Philadelphia Landmark Steeple

Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia's most popular resident and signer of the U.S. Constitution, was considered a Deist, one who believes in a supreme being, God. Franklin, however, was not a Christian. He had doubts that Jesus Christ, other than being a highly moral man, was the son of God. Nevertheless, Franklin contributed to many churches in Philadelphia, a city where complete religious freedom had long been the rule. Before his death in 1790, Franklin was concerned that Philadelphia needed a landmark. It did not have oneand ships coming to America often passed by its harbor. Franklin organized contributions to pay for a tall steeple atop Christ Church on Second Street. The steeple, built to aid Philadelphia trade, became the city's landmark.

Methodists under the leadership of British-born Francis Asbury (1745–1816) strove to Americanize. Although not part of the Church of England, Methodists had ties to the Anglicans. At a 1784 conference, American Methodist pastors elected Asbury bishop and chose Baltimore as their home base, just as the Catholics had done. Baltimore was centrally located, making it easy to reach populations in the north, south, and west. Asbury and other conference leaders set up an order of church government, removed all mention of the Church of England from the Prayer Book, and even added a blessing for the U.S. government. Methodist preachers, including Asbury, traveled to every colony and rural hamlet preaching thrift, the importance of family and marriage, and disciplined avoidance of alcohol and gambling. In the 1790s, Methodists led emotional revivals all over the nation. By Asbury's death in 1816, Methodist membership stood at 150,000 with 2,500 pastors. Within a few decades, it would become the largest religious sect in the nation.

Methodists opposed slavery. Asbury ordained two black pastors, "Black Harry" Hosier (1750–1806) and Richard Allen (1760–1816). Allen formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church and established a church in Philadelphia where he was pastor. Allen, a former slave from Delaware, sued successfully in Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his church to be an institution free of white Methodists.

Baptists churches, already the most outspokenly patriotic religious sect, rapidly gained members, and the number of Baptist churches rose from 25 in 1740 to 266 by 1790. The Baptists constantly dogged the Congregational Church and called for the end of its official church status in the New England states. Presbyterians likewise had grown rapidly and claimed 420 congregations by the 1780s. They adopted a democratic plan of government for their church administration and American versions of worship practices.

Presidential election of 1800

Most Americans still viewed the new country as a Christian nation even though the Constitution did not proclaim it as such, but conflicts over religious freedom quieted during the first years of the nation. The public regarded both George Washington and the second president, John Adams (1735–1836; served 1797–1801), as men of Christian principles.

Washington had always been a member of the Church of England, now the Episcopal Church, and held various positions of responsibility within his local parish. Membership in the church was essential to speak with influence among powerful Virginians. Nevertheless, privately, Washington's belief leaned toward the Deists, and he never proclaimed himself a Christian. However, the public had no knowledge of his private leanings. Adams's ancestry was Massachusetts Puritan. He was baptized into the church as an infant and raised in the simple Puritan lifestyle. However, as a young lawyer and member of Massachusetts delegations to the First and Second Continental Conventions in 1774 and 1776, he showed a strong interest in other religions. During the 1774 convention in Philadelphia, he attended services of many different sects, including a Roman Catholic Mass.

In the presidential election of 1800, political parties played a major role for the first time, as did the religion of candidates. The development of parties proved unavoidable as people of like philosophies tended to band together. Soon, the United States had two parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Federalists promoted a strong central government, supported industry and manufacturing, and viewed America as strictly a Christian nation. Democratic-Republicans promoted a limited federal government, emphasized an agricultural society, generally were known as the party of the common man, and supported complete religious freedom.

James Madison, who aligned with the Democratic-Republicans, worried that religious interests were creeping into the government. Federalist lawmakers had won presidential decrees for days of thanksgiving and prayer. They had won property tax exemptions for church property, exemptions that essentially provided special financial favors for churches. Federalists also managed to have chaplains appointed for military units and for Congress. Madison feared that these interests were early signs of threats to religious freedom. The issue of religious direction for the new nation again came to the forefront and created a furious debate in the 1800 presidential election.

Federalist candidates were the incumbent president (person presently holding office), John Adams, and his running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825). The Democratic-Republican candidates vying for presidency were the current vice president, Thomas Jefferson, and his running mate, Aaron Burr (1756–1836). Jefferson, who had always been a Deist, was opposed by many ministers. They believed that the country should be run by a Christian president and did not view Jefferson as a Christian. While Washington kept his views private, Jefferson had long been outspoken about his Deist views. Although Jefferson supported the moral teachings of religion, appeared to believe in a superior being, God, and considered Jesus one of the greatest leaders in history, he steadfastly advocated separation of church and state and religious liberty for all Americans. He believed that any connection between church and state would lead to tyranny and an unreasonable exercise of power over others.

In the 1800 election, Federalists were determined to color Jefferson as anti-Christian. The election turned ugly. Although the Constitution specifically forbid the application of any religious tests as a prerequisite for holding office, the Federalists used the growing media of the free press to publish pamphlets asserting that Jefferson was not Christian and therefore should not be elected to the presidency. The Federalists asked Americans if they wanted for president a religious John Adams, the Federalist candidate, or anti-religious Jefferson. To prove that Jefferson had no respect for Christianity, the Federalists pointed to Jefferson's use of Baptist minister John Leland's statement that he did not care if his neighbor believed in "one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods." In fact, Jefferson had quoted Leland's words in the defense of religious freedom that allows all individuals to follow their own beliefs.

Federalists and many Protestant ministers labeled Jefferson an infidel, a nonbeliever. They warned that Jefferson would take all Bibles from churches if he were elected. They also accused Jefferson of crimes and evil actions. For example, ministers preached that Jefferson had acquired his property by thievery and had stolen from widows and orphans. At one point, they even spread the rumor that Jefferson had died and that there was therefore no reason to vote for him.

Ultimately, after spirited charges and counter charges, Jefferson won the election. Religion was in the end only a side issue. The main issue was a government for all Americans, especially the common citizens. Federalists supporting Adams were terrified of losing control of the new government to common Americans who were neither wealthy nor had much property. The majority of Americans fell into this non-wealthy category. They viewed Jefferson as their supporter in striving for a government more responsive to the common person. Thus, they elected him president.

Interestingly, many religious leaders, especially in New England, continued for years to preach against President Jefferson as anti-Christian. For the same reason, even the Philadelphia Public Library refused until 1830 to house works about Jefferson's life or writings.

Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening reached its height during the first year of Jefferson's presidency. Virginian Presbyterians of Scottish heritage spawned the Second Awakening. Led by pastor William Graham (1745–1799), in 1787 students and pastors of Hampden-Sydney Academy in Virginia conducted fiery, emotional revivals in the Shenandoah and Piedmont areas of Virginia. In 1796, James McGready (1763–1817), from North Carolina but schooled by Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, caught the revival spirit when he visited Hampden-Sydney Academy. A talented, moving speaker and writer, he took his revival message across Kentucky and Tennessee. He planned Holy Fairs to bring rural populations together for days of preaching, praying, singing, and feasting. By 1800, Baptist and Methodist preachers joined in the revival meetings.

For one week in August 1801, a huge revival meeting took place in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Roughly twenty thousand people made their way to the Cane Ridge Revival. Sermons, singing, and praying lasted around the clock. Thousands claimed conversion to Christianity.

Revivals, often called "camp meetings," spread north and south and east from Kentucky and Tennessee to New England, New York, Virginia, and the Carolinas. At least one hundred thousand rural Americans enthusiastically responded. By 1820, the Second Awakening that had begun in the late 1780s had added thousands of adherents to Christianity, especially to the Methodist and Baptist denominations and to a lesser extent to the Presbyterians. Religion in America had shifted. While Anglicans and Congregationalists had been dominant during colonial times, these evangelical sects would dominate nineteenth-century religion in America.

For More Information


Dreisbach, Daniel L., Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds. The Founders on God and Government. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2004.

Greene, L. F., ed. The Writings of John Leland. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Hoffman, Ronald, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Religion in a Revolutionary Age. Charlottesville, VA: United States Capitol Historical Society, 1994.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by H. A. Washington. Washington, DC: Taylor & Maury, 1853-1854. Multiple reprints.

Lambert, Frank. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Marini, Stephen A. Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

McCullough, David G. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Thompson, Charles L. The Religious Foundations of America: A Study in National Origins. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1917.

Web Sites

"Experience the Life: Religion." Colonial Williamsburg. (accessed on August 9, 2005).

New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia. (accessed on August 9, 2005).

"Presbyterian 101: Presbyterian Church History." Presbyterian Church (USA). (accessed on August 9, 2005).

"Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." Library of Congress. (accessed on August 9, 2005).

"Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive: Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government." University of Virginia Library. (accessed on August 9, 2005).

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Religion's Influences

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Religion's Influences