Adopting the Bill of Rights in 1791 was a huge victory in a very, very rough struggle for religious freedom. I, for one, like my religious freedom, and I’m sure a lot of people back in that day did, too.
The first amendment guaranteed that the federal government wouldn’t interfere or meddle with religious freedom. It stated “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So, it sounds like the Feds are going to let off, right? Everyone will have a right to their religion, yay!
So not yay.
By 1791, most state governments had already adopted the religious freedom policy, and the states that still had churches established would then dis-establish them, meaning it wouldn’t be a state church anymore. Then they would get in line for the trend of separating state and church. Then new states would follow behind in the line. Getting religious freedom had been a long battle. Since Roger Williams had taken a stand for separation of state and church in Rhode Island, things had just not been the same.
America had been pretty much expecting established religious freedom. The early Americans had realized that the presence and the practices of Christianity provided a civilized society and peaceful life. When they realized this, some had reasoned that authority should be used to force Christianity on the people. That, however, would be completely disregarding the first amendment. Time passed, and the colonists realized that genuine belief in Christ came from the heart, and not from civil authority. So they trashed the idea.
Pretty early in colonial times, state churches of colonies held different degrees of power. For example, the closest connection between church and state was in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where state religion was strictly forced on citizens. Yikes.
In New Hampshire, some churches could receive tax money. In lots of the original colonies, the Church of England, or the Anglican church, was a law establishment. In NY, North and South Carolinas, and Georgia, the Anglican church wasn’t powerful enough to force the religion on the dissenting citizens, or the citizens who refused to follow the teachings of Christianity. But in Virginia, the church was really, really powerful.
Lots of colonies offered a degree of religious freedom. Delaware and NJ never had an officially established church. Pennsylvania was originally a Quaker establishment, but William Penn granted religious freedom to anyone who claimed a belief in “one almighty God, the Creator, upholder, and Ruler of the World.”
For a while, Maryland was under the control of the Puritans, but for a lot of the colonial period, it was a haven for Roman Catholics. Eventually, the Anglican church was established, and then Catholics faced discrimination, thanks to Lord Baltimore’s Toleration Act in 1649, stating that all lands and people who blasphemed God’s name, denied the Trinity, or denied that Jesus was the Son of God would have death and confiscation brought upon them. It wasn’t exactly the right idea.
Rhode Island was an outstanding example of religious freedom for Early America. Roger Williams had made his mark for the rest of America by offering the liberty of conscience for all. He would lead all of the states to have complete religious freedom. Whoo-hoo!! Go, Roger Williams!
I’ll write about the disestablishment of religion in the early states very soon, I promise. Look out for Religious Liberty part 2. And goodbye, all!