It is great to argue that the first Congress was inspired to adopt the Establishment Clause[i] by stories of Puritans and other separatist fleeing religious persecution in Europe and some mythical ideal that Americans are somehow more tolerant of other religions than their forebears but this is clearly NOT TRUE.  Jews, atheists, Wiccans and Muslims have all been subjected to legalized religious intolerance and bigotry throughout the colonies and suffered restrictions on where they could live, what jobs they could hold, and even whether they were allowed to publicly practice their faiths.  Native Americans were persecuted, kidnapped and murdered for their religious beliefs and many were forcibly converted to Christianity.  Even among Christian sects, there was open discrimination with Puritan separatist being exiled to Rhodes Island, Catholicism actually outlawed in all colonies but Maryland, and criminal punishments for failing to attend specific church services.  The motivation for adopting the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was not based on religious ideals but rather the fear that certain religious groups, were they to ascend to primacy, would impose same abominations on the new American Republic that they had in Europe. 

The main concern was, of course, the Church of England to which most colonist were forced to pay tithes (irrespective of their membership or acceptance by the Anglican Church).  The campaign to “disestablish” the Anglican Church began in Virginia (the Church of England was the colony’s official religion) and was couched in the verbiage of granting all citizens an equal right to their own religious beliefs but make no mistake, this was about ensuring that no extra governmental organization was able to legislate and adjudicate for the citizens of Virginia.   

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, played a pivotal role in passage of the landmark Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. This act served as an important model for the new Constitution that would be adopted by the states in 1789.  While the act did secure religious equality citizens who practiced what were called “dissenting” faiths, its real focus was removing the “special status” the Anglican Church had enjoyed since the colony’s creation in 1607.

From the time the first British settlers settled in Virginia in 1607, the British crown had granted the Anglican Church special privileges by declaring it the established church of the commonwealth. This meant that vicars and bishops, appointed by Canterbury and not the secular government (royal or otherwise) were able to literally create any sort of restrictions, dispensations, taxes (tithes) they wished.  The legal and social dominance of the Church of England was unmistakable.

After the “Glorious Revolution” in England and passage of the Act of Toleration in 1689, some (though not all) Protestant “nonconformist” sects in England and the American colonies were exempted from previous restrictions and impositions. Nonetheless, in many of the colonies all non-Anglicans were still required to pay the tithe, a tax to support the salaries of Anglican clergy and maintain their churches. In effect, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics, and Jews were made to pay for a clergy whose religious teaching they rejected. They were forced to support a clerical institution that served the very elite they often opposed for political and economic reasons.

The tithe to the Anglican Church combined with laws that that stopped dissenting ministers from performing marriages or conducting public worship, severely curtailed the religious freedoms of the “dissenting” faiths, even nonconformist Christians. Corporal punishment for religious dissent was common (including whipping or cropping the ears of outspoken Baptists or Quakers, and in extreme cases, execution). Even after the Act of Toleration, “heretical” preachers in the colonies risked steep fines and imprisonment. Meanwhile, daily encounters with discrimination, harassment, and marginalization hurt Dissenters’ social and economic status.

To make matters worse, the Burgesses and even the Royal Governor had no authority to prevent or curtain these acts without making appeal to the Bishop of Canterbury through the King. 

Even following the Revolution, many of these abuses continued as they were ingrained in local and state law.  Something DRASTIC had to be done and, in  in 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted a Bill of Rights that included a provision for the “free exercise of religion.”

“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed 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.” 

— James Maison

The importance of Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom cannot be overestimated. It served as the model for parts of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There are even clear echoes of Jefferson’s thinking in George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport.” For this reason, it’s worthwhile studying Jefferson’s argument in favor of religious liberties in further detail, which we will do in an upcoming post.

The text of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom spells out the argument for religious freedom for all as follows:

“Be it therefore 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 burdened 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

That’s right folks, its not about what you believe, that’s between you and your God, its about whether others can compel you to THEIR beliefs and their institutions.

Jefferson argues that no human authority (civic or religious) should impose its religious views on individuals. Such impositions, according to Jefferson, “are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion,” and they “tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness” among the believers.  He further argues that civil or religious leaders have no business imposing their view on the community, he reasons, since they are “fallible and uninspired men.”  They possess limited knowledge, he believes, as do all humans except those whom God has spoken to or inspired directly—and many in Jefferson’s circle questioned whether the prophets described in scripture were actual historical persons. It is therefore morally wrong and religiously false for a church to dictate what people ought to believe in. (It is important to note that Jefferson did not believe that the text of the Bible reflected the direct voice of God.)

This battle was not unique to the early republic.  In fact, we are still fighting these battles today.  One need only look to the current religious intolerance of the Texas Legislature with its antiabortion laws a clear attempt to impose the religious beliefs of the majority Protestant Christian sects in Texas upon those who may — for religious, economic, or other reasons – choose a “dissenting” perspective. 

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to relive it”

– Winston Churchill

Religious freedom is more than the “freedom to worship” at a synagogue, church, or mosque. It means people shouldn’t have to go against their core values and beliefs in order to conform to culture or government.  Religious freedom should prevent the cultural majority from using the power of the state to impose their beliefs on others.  Ultimately, Religious Freedom is about, as Jefferson argues, freedom of conscience.  A government that intrudes on conscience will not hesitate to intrude on our other freedoms.  It is a short slip from the anti-abortion legislation of Texas to the dystopia of the Handmaids Tale[ii]


[i] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

[ii] The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published in 1985. It is set in a near-future New England, in a strongly patriarchal, totalitarian Christian theocratic state, known as Republic of Gilead, that has overthrown the United States government.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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