Religious Freedom: The Other Revolution

In 1775, the American colonists were in open rebellion against the King of England.

The issues of the revolution were many and varied. They included erosion of self-government and increased taxes which royal authority needed in order to pay for the expenses of the recently concluded French and Indian War, called the Seven Years War in Europe, which lasted from 1756 to 1763.

In North America, the French and Indian War began earlier, in 1754, in an action involving Colonel George Washington. Other, lesser issues included an alleged plot to increase the authority of the Anglican Church in America. This fear of the Anglican Church contributed to dissatisfaction with English authority. Resolution of the political rebellion against Britain provided the means and enthusiasm for accomplishing the same goal in the religious sphere. However, old habits are hard to break and, during the Revolution, the colonies’ breaks with religious control and support progressed, though slowly.

Although outnumbered by the largest denominations, the Congregationalists and the Anglicans, the Baptists were a growing and very active denomination in America. Not tied to rigid practices nor overly comfortable with government financial support, the Baptists and Methodists were independent and enthusiastic in their methods of reaching the people. They had established churches throughout the colonies but were particularly active in the Southern colonies.

Within only fifty years of the Revolution, the Baptists and the Methodists would replace the Congregationalists and Anglicans as the two largest denominations. In the Southern states the Baptists came into the greatest conflict with the established Anglican Church. In Virginia, the Baptists acquired one of their greatest allies against the established church. James Madison, a member of the Anglican Church, came to view the establishment as wrong when, in 1774, he observed a half-dozen men jailed for preaching without a license.

He wrote, “Pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.” Madison eventually became one of the two greatest proponents for the separation which eventually was official policy.

The Baptists also came into conflict with the Congregationalists in New England where Baptists were required to support Congregationalist churches under the Act of 1692. As Isaac Backus pointed out to the Massachusetts legislature in 1774, effectively accusing the Congregationalists of hypocrisy, their claim of taxation without representation’ was just as applicable to the religious arena since Baptists were required to pay the same tax for the support of Congregationalism as was levied on the colonists for tea. Puritan Congregationalism had been established in New England with freedom of worship for Congregationalists but dissenters did not enjoy the same freedom because Congregationalism resorted to fines, whips, jails, and gallows to enforce its religious monopoly. This lack of true religious freedom in New England would eventually lead to the call for disestablishment.

Before and during the Revolutionary War, the Anglican Church lost a considerable amount of influence among the Americans who were not among its members as well as among those who were. Its clergy and many of its leading members were Loyalists and argued for continued loyalty to the English Crown at a time when many Americans were greatly agitated about taxes and other issues. After the break with England, one-fifth of the Anglican clergy retired or left Virginia, the state most dominated by the Anglican Church. Further, the President and most of the faculty of the College of William and Mary, the intellectual center of the Anglican Church in Virginia, also departed. Thomas Jefferson stated that, by 1783, the other denominations, with the exception of Methodists and Quakers were determined to destroy the Anglican Church. A measure taken of the loss of influence of the Anglican Church was the number of memorials which were forwarded in 1785 on the issue of an assessment for religious support ó the Patrick Henry bill for support of religion. Out of more than one hundred memorials, only eleven supported the assessment. The others were in opposition.

By attempting to stand against a flood of emotion, the Loyalist Anglican Church leadership also set itself against American patriotism, led in the anti-establishment cause by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason, causing the Anglican Church a severe loss of influence. This loss of influence played a significant part in the demand for disestablishment of the Anglican Church, renamed the Episcopal Church to distance itself from England and the Anglican Church and now viewed as the enemy. There were several other reasons for this loss of influence. On November 20, 1772 in Massachusetts, the Boston Committee of Correspondence drafted A List of Infringements and Violations of Rights and circulated it, along with its The State of the Rights of the Colonists, throughout Massachusetts. Article 11 of the List referred to a plot to establish an American Episcopate, arguing that “every design for establishing the jurisdiction of a bishop in this Province, is a design both against our civil and religious rights.”

Needless to say, this alleged plot was planted in the very fertile fields of agitated Americans. Previously, the Royal Governor, Sir Edmund Andros, had forcibly introduced the Anglican Church into Massachusetts in 1689. This perception of high-handedness from the Anglican Church and from British authority added to the burden the Anglican Church had to carry with its establishment in areas populated in part by those who had dissented against the Anglican Church. Since many people had to pay to support the Anglican Church even when they were not members, they were naturally enough opposed to its influence. Anglican pastors who often supported the English Crown against angry American complaints, further alienated the populace.

James Madison did not care for the Loyalist opinions of his rector or the one in neighboring Culpeper County and helped expel the latter one from his ministry. Prior to the Revolution, with British government support, such an expulsion would have been unlikely. Finally, the persecution with which many dissenters, particularly Baptists, were met in southern states, alienated even sympathetic members of the Anglican Church. In addition to jailing’s, fines, and public whippings, Baptist ministers were required to perform military duty in a non-clerical, combat role and were forbid to preach at any location other than the specific ones mentioned in their licenses. Additionally, the new, revolutionary disposition for equality between religions and pressure from other denominations, the Anglican Church lost its special treatment. Everywhere, Anglican Churches were left to depend on voluntary donations from members. The Anglican Church leadership and others had made mistakes, resulting in a spontaneous widespread loss of authority. The cessation of financial support was only the logical response of many to years of persecution and abuse.

In New England, Puritanism had changed from the absolute religious establishment it had been so that, in 1775, John Adams exaggerated the diminishing of the New England establishment when he stated that what remained of church-state law in Massachusetts could not be called an establishment. However, legal preference of the Congregational Church still survived into the nineteenth century in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut with government-required financial support. This condition continued to exist despite the New England support for the First Amendment ending federal government support of religion. Clearly the Founding Fathers from New England saw no problem in this. The institutions of established Christianity were still a force to be reckoned with and able to influence the people. Faced with an onslaught of disestablishment proponents, established religion was not yet prepared to disappear.

With the outbreak of open armed rebellion, the loss of effective control of the colonies by royal authority created a vacuum in which the new states were able to establish their own constitutions. One of the provisions of most of these new constitutions was that of religious freedom. Previously, the colonies had been dominated by the English Parliament where the influence of the Church of England was felt. When the English government lost control of their colonies, those states which had an established church opted for a system which allowed several churches and provided support for the major denominations. Of course, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island simply allowed their systems of voluntary church support to continue. Other states, however, had to wrestle with the issue of fairness in requiring dissenters to support the established church.

This issue had been increasing in intensity but, particularly in the Southern states where the Anglican Church was established, continued unresolved under the firm control of the English government and colonial authorities. Some of these authorities, often loyal to the English Crown, persecuted any who dared oppose the established church of the government. Others, including George Washington, were more accepting of different viewpoints. They believed that different religious viewpoints did them no harm and could be tolerated. Indeed, Washington had previously observed the harmful effects of non-toleration when potential German settlers refused to buy land which Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s older brother, was involved in selling. Unable to obtain permission to not pay taxes in support of the Anglican Church, they refused to settle on the land.

The British, through the Quebec Act, signed by King George III on June 22, 1774, provided Catholic control over the province of Quebec as well as territory further south which was claimed by various states contributing to the fear of religious establishment. This act which was viewed with considerable anxiety by the Protestant colonists, provided the French Catholic residents of Quebec with religious freedom. Since it also authorized the collection of dues and fees from Catholics, this act had the effect of officially establishing Catholicism as the religion of Quebec. Due to a long-standing fear of Catholicism, the Protestant Americans viewed the establishment so near their own borders as a move by the English King to threaten their own religious freedom.

In the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress on October 14, 1774, the delegates complained that George III had erected a danger to the nearby British colonies who possessed a different religion, law, and government. Clearly they wanted no part of the Catholic Church and viewed the development with alarm. That the Quebec Act was inflammatory to the British colonies is shown by South Carolina’s reference to it in the preamble to the South Carolina Constitution of March 26, 1776. The net effect of providing a Catholic establishment to Quebec was to ensure its continued loyalty while further alienating the other North American colonies, nearly all of whom (with the exceptions of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) hated and feared Catholicism. Faced with the Quebec Act and other provocations, the Americans determined to end their connections with Britain.

May 10-15, 1776, the Continental Congress resolved that each colony establish a government to fulfill its needs. The first of the states to draft a new constitution, was Virginia which adopted theirs on June 29, 1776-five days before the Declaration of Independence was signed. This constitution included a digest of the Declaration of Independence, preceded by numerous declarations and petitions to the king. The Constitution of Virginia was nearly silent on the issue of religion, probably because it had been covered in the Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 12, 1776. The Constitution, however, denied ministers of the Gospel of all denominations the right to be elected to either House of Assembly. By doing so, Virginia became a model for the other states, retaining this major blemish in the establishment of basic rights. The Declaration of Rights, like so many other political documents of Virginia, was copied and adopted by many other states. Its sixteenth and final article speaks to the subject of religion in a manner not used before:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

The Declaration of Rights, however, was fairly mild in language on the subject and specifics of religion in Virginia. Unsettled was the condition of the establishment of the Episcopal Church and the support of its ministry. Ministers were not paid, and bills to provide for their support or to disestablish the church were defeated or tabled until the next session with no final decision. This created confusion which persisted throughout the war until the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in October 1785. Nonetheless, the Virginia Constitution and the Declaration of Rights created a wartime model which was used by Pennsylvania and other states. The basic rights these documents established became the models for later government developments including the Constitution of the United States.

The Declaration of Rights

The Constitution of Pennsylvania was established on September 28, 1776. It was largely modeled on the Virginia Constitution, and its Declaration of Rights included many provisions which had been taken directly from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. However, the Pennsylvania representatives created their own provision for religious freedom. It read:

That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding; and that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent; nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship; and that no authority can, or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

One other provision in the Pennsylvania Constitution which applied to religion, required that each member of the General Assembly make the following oath before taking his seat: “I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine Inspiration.” Although it stated that “no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this State,” the Pennsylvania Constitution continued to limit political office to Christians. Even civil rights were limited to those who acknowledge “the being of a God.” Massachusetts also provided for freedom of worship in its new constitution. The Massachusetts Constitution, adopted in 1779, stated in the second article of the Declaration of Rights:

It is the right as well as the duty of all men, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, and no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments.

Massachusetts, however, continued the tradition of church support, requiring the towns to financially support the public worship of God and to provide “protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.” Congregationalism was no longer mandated on any other basis than its status as the most popular religion in each town. Other sections “prohibited the subordination of one religion to another” and “guaranteed equal protection of the laws to all Christians.” Clearly, disestablishment had not yet fully occurred and a state of confusion continued concerning whether dissenting denominations should support the established church. Where other religions were more popular they would receive the mandated support. However, it was unlikely that any other denomination except for the Baptists would constitute a local majority — and they were unwilling to accept government support. Most of the other states were similarly inclined on the issue of religion. Although the delegates met for nearly three months, New Hampshire produced a Constitution which was little more than one page in length and, at the same time, New Hampshire was the only state that did not address the issue of religion in its constitution. The other state constitutions addressed religion in a reverent manner and specified moral support of religion as a necessity for the good of the state and its citizens. The North Carolina Constitution, adopted on December 18, 1776, is typical of such constitutions. Its provisions read:

XXXI. That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function. XXXII. That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State. XXXIV. That there shall be no establishment of any one religious church or denomination in this State, in preference to any other; neither shall any person, on any presence whatsoever, be compelled to attend any place of worship contrary to his own faith or judgment, nor be obliged to pay, for the purchase of any glebe, or the building of any house of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes right, or has voluntarily and personally engaged to perform; but all persons shall be at liberty to exercise their own mode of worship: — Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be construed to exempt preachers of treasonable or seditious discourses, from legal trial and punishment.

Clearly, freedom of religion in America was a central concern in most of the states. Just as obvious, however, is the importance American leaders such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry placed on the value of religion in the support of government and regulation of society. It was inconceivable that a society could continue to exist, enjoying peace and security without a moral focus. Most of the states required their elected officials to be Protestant Christians. Only Maryland, which was originally founded as a Catholic colony but had since lost its Catholic majority, in Article 33 of its constitution, allowed its officials to be of the Christian religion with no further specific requirement. “That, as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him; all persons, professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.” Georgia, defying the spirit of the times, specified no requirement for any profession or affiliation of faith for its elected officials. However, contrary to the climate of extending religious freedom to all Christian denominations, Christian ministers were to be denied election to public office by New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina and Delaware. Article 29 of the Delaware Constitution, ratified on September 10, 1776, stated:

There shall be no establishment of any one religious sect in this State in preference to another; and no clergyman or preacher of the gospel, of any denomination, shall be capable of holding any civil office in this State, or of being a member of either of the branches of the legislature, while they continue in the exercise of the pastoral function.

The delegates of these states, as well as other influential individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, were opposed to the influence of ministers in elective offices. They realized that the ministers were influential in their parishes as well as ranking among the relatively few who were adequately educated to perform the duties of legislators. In other states, no reference is made to the eligibility of ministers for political office and must be presumed eligible. Christian oaths were also required of officials in North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Vermont before they could take their seats in the legislatures. The other six states provided no similar requirement in their constitutions. Section 9 of the Vermont Constitution, adopted on July 8, 1777, required the following oaths:

” I ____ do solemnly swear, by the ever living God, (or, I do solemnly affirm in the presence of Almighty God) that as a member of this assembly

And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz.

” I ____ do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Diverse, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and new testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the protestant religion.”

When Vermont approved a new constitution nine years later, its religion provisions did not change. Clearly, a majority of the new states wished to continue their practices of dependence on God and required the oaths as a method of ensuring their officials remembered their spiritual duties as well as those of a secular nature. However, unanimity also did not exist since New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Georgia chose to avoid any religious connection or control in government. In addition to their new constitutions, other documents were drafted and ratified which demonstrate the views of Americans on religion and government. The Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, proclaimed the independence of America to the world. Little in the Declaration refers to religion or religious freedom. Only with the final sentence does it declare a “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” The Declaration, however, claims much that is of interest in the study of religious freedom. The radical philosophy of a “natural order” designed by God in all things including government, was never defended because it was what most educated Americans already thought. Indeed, John Adams and Richard Henry Lee, contemporaries of the Declaration‘s author Thomas Jefferson, critically claimed that much of the underlying philosophy was borrowed from the well known treatise Of Civil Government by John Lockeóa claim which Jefferson effectively denied. However, some of the phrases in the Declaration are also in Locke’s treatise, possibly the subconscious result of Jefferson having read Locke’s book several times. In the eighteenth century, Americans, as well as the English and the French, accepted the premise of a “natural order” in which God had designed the world and established laws for the conduct and institutions of mankind. Locke expounded the theory that since man had a mind which was part of the work of God, it was possible for man to bring his world into harmony with the universal natural order. Thus using widely held views on religion and the relationship of man to God to justify their rebellion, Americans demonstrated their continued dependence on religion. They were not disposed to separate their government and political actions from religion at a time when their need for divine protection seemed so great.

The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation is another document which declares the values of the Founding Fathers and the people of the American states as a whole. Drafted by a committee of the Continental Congress, The Articles of Confederation were approved by the Congress as a whole on November 15, 1777. The Articles, however, were not valid until the thirteenth state, Maryland, ratified the Articles on March 1, 1781, near the end of the Revolutionary War. The Articles state, in part, “The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other—binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion.” Interestingly, although the purpose of the Articles was to bind the states together so as to enhance the strength of the states against Britain, the delegates viewed religious freedom as important enough to include it in their statement of purpose. Similarly, the Founding Fathers demonstrated that they did not desire a separation of church and state but as they stated in the Articles, religion was to be a concern of the government. As mentioned earlier, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed in December 1785 to finally clarify the status of religion in Virginia. Its language was much more explicit on the issue of religious liberty, and the second paragraph read as follows:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that 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.

The Virginia Statute was the theoretical foundation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which was adopted in 1791. Authored by Governor Thomas Jefferson, the Statute established the separation philosophy which eventually came to define America in religious terms. By eliminating official and financial support, the Statute disestablished the Anglican Church. Without providing support for the church, the state was similarly prevented from controlling the church. From this point forward, neither the church nor the state would have any control over the other. However, this separation did not imply the same conditions of harsh, secularism which came to dominate several European countries in the nineteenth century. Most notably, the French Revolution resulted in considerable bloodshed in its attacks on established religion. In contrast, American states have contributed considerably to the support of religion through the mechanism of tax exemptions and assistance for schools. In particular, the Catholic Church has benefited greatly from this support. The Statute is relatively short in length and is certainly not as well known as other documents such as the Declaration of Independence. Yet, its importance cannot be overstated for it established, for the first time, the true meaning of freedom of conscience. Though the establishment for the Congregational Church continued in New England, its end was approaching, urged on by the example of Virginia. The Statute provided a previously undreamt of relationship for government and religion to exist in, officially ignoring each other. Arguably, the separation which was born in the new United States, is the single most defining characteristic of American history and culture.

The development of religious freedom and the separation between church and state which began to develop in the American states, particularly Virginia and New England, was part of the same process which led to the American Revolution. However, no single development of the Revolution is as important to the separation of church and state as the elimination of tax support for the Anglican Church. Although unable to bring themselves to finalize the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, Virginians and others did suspend payments at the outset of the Revolution and thus began the process which eventually led to the disestablishment. Without this significant first step, it would have been difficult to enact the Virginia Statute. Yet the first step, led steadily to the last step — the avoidance of state-supported religion at the national level. Largely a result of the persecution which non-established religious groups had experienced, Americans wanted full religious freedom. However, they also accepted, within some bounds, government support of religion in general at the state level. The final decision by the people for disestablishment only awaited proper timing when Americans had become accustomed to not paying taxes for religious support. Viewing both the possibility and the necessity of change, Americans widened their perspectives to consider many inequalities which existed in their world. Although the Revolution was fought for political independence from England, it freed Americans from the limitations of continued social institutions which their forefathers had known. Freed politically, Americans came to recognize that their only limitations were those they established themselves. It was, therefore, only natural that they would reconsider the institution of established religion and the unfairness of requiring non-believers to support a religion they would not partake in. Consumed with a passion for righting all wrongs, the Founding Fathers were forced to take a second look at the religious establishment and find a way to make it more fair. The Virginia Statute was the result of that second look. Other results included the new United States Constitution which iterated the national government’s insistence on avoiding involvement in religious affairs, leaving those to the states individually.

Clearly, the establishment of genuine religious freedom was both original and unique to America.