M. Stanton Evans rightly complained against what he termed “the Liberal History Lesson”, the lie that Americans got our freedom by turning from Christianity.[1] That tale is supported by other fictitious claims, such as that the statesmen who gave us our independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of  Rights were Deists, rationalists, and skeptics who wanted to separate Christianity from politics and establish a “religiously neutral” or secularist political order over these United States.  None of that fits the evidence—when all the evidence is considered.  The pertinent evidence must be summarized,[2] but the evidence from our first states’ constitutions, declarations and/or bills of rights is sufficient to make the case.[3]

Christianity, overwhelmingly Protestant Christianity, was the religious commitment of the people of every state.[4]  Early American education—at all levels including college, in all colonies and areas of the colonies/states—was overwhelmingly Christian: before, during, and long after the “Revolution” and the “Founding Era.”[5]  Christianity was fundamental and dominant in early American law, legal thought, and legal education during and after this time.[6]  Christianity was much more influential on early American political thought than we have been told.[7]  Moreover, the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution created by representatives of the several states and ratified by the respective state legislatures or specially elected state ratification conventions were not Deists, skeptics, rationalists, or secularizers, but were overwhelmingly Christians.[8]

Two states retained their manifestly Christian colonial charters as their state constitutions: Connecticut until 1818, and Rhode Island until 1842.  New Hampshire and South Carolina created their constitutions in 1776, before the colonies’ Declaration of Independence, as temporary expedients in case no accommodation could be reached with England.  Virginia and New Jersey crafted their constitutions before the Declaration too, but as permanent governmental devices.  Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia and New York framed their constitutions, declarations, and bills of rights after the Declaration but completed the process by early 1777.[9]  The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was the first to be created by a constitutional convention and approved by popular vote.  Thus, says McClellan, it was “the first written constitution resting on a thoroughly republican base, and in this respect set the standard for the Federal and State constitutions that were to follow.”[10]  Though they had important similarities, the states had different histories, religious and ethnic compositions (in religion, overwhelmingly among Christian denominations), social orders, economic interests, and internal politics.  They were thirteen peoples, not one.[11]

The new state constitutions, declarations and/or bills of rights created by the states were clearly Christian, though not flawless, and the people of each state learned from the fundamental laws created by the representatives of the peoples of other states, as well as from their own.  These documents were adaptations of the inherited forms, structures, and principles of the respective colonies’ governments and laws.[12]

Our states’ first fundamental laws featured Christian rhetoric, statements of God’s—and no other god’s—attributes and authority, including His providential, covenantal governance of history, and a Christian view of the Source and rightful content of law.

Concerning civil government, they set forth a covenantal, republican view that civil government must, under God, be based upon the consent of the governed.  Concerning man, the rulers and the ruled, they affirmed that he is created with certain unalienable God-given rights, but rejected notions that man is either “neutral” or naturally good.  They affirmed the unpleasant reality of Original Sin and designed their governments to protect liberty and justice against it.  Because they knew the fallen nature of man, they designed limited republics with written constitutions and bills of rights.  Those republics had both democratic and aristocratic features, designed to protect the majority and the minority against injustices.  They were not egalitarian, and sought to protect property by means of graded property qualifications for government offices.  To protect and promote godly laws and liberty, they had Christian qualifications for public office; in respect for Christians who believe that God forbids men to swear an “oath,” they let them make an “affirmation” instead.  To promote the benefits of education in all mental, practical, and geographical areas of a state, they encouraged the towns, precincts, and voluntary associations to promote Christian instruction.

Due to the states’ colonial heritage, some of them (Virginia, North Carolina, New York) had the Anglican, or Episcopal Church as the legally established church of the state.  In Connecticut and Massachusetts the Congregational Church was the de facto established church.  In South Carolina, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, Protestantism was the quasi-established not church but religion.[13]  In Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, and Rhode Island Christianity was quasi-established.[14]  When the states finally did away with their particular de jure or de facto established or quasi-established church, they were not motivated by rationalism, “neutrality” among all religions, or secularism, but by Christianity, Christian leadership, and a desire for religious liberty within the boundaries of Christian, or Biblical ethics (later including Jews).

Because they knew the fallen nature of man, they created systems of separation of powers with accompanying checks and balances among institutions to protect liberty and justice.  For the same reason, they stated the right of the people to resist tyranny.  And to protect their people against simplistic philosophies of freedom, they reminded them of the biblical connection between Christianity, virtue, and liberty: faith in God, obedience to His commandments, and God’s blessings upon the people of the state.  Such historical realities the “Liberal History Lesson” omits.

Archie P. Jones, Ph.D., Teacher, Librarian, Author of The Gateway to Liberty: The Constitutional Power of the Tenth Amendment

[1] M. Stanton Evans, The Theme Is Freedom; Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994), 3-21.

[2] Benjamin F. Morris, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, [1864] 2007), provides more than 800 pages of pertinent evidence about Christianity and the states in general.

[3] Morris, 267-292, deals with the state constitutions framed during the “Revolution.”

[4] For extensive evidence on this, see Morris, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, 55-138.

[5] Archie Preston Jones, “Christianity in the Constitution: The Intended Meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Dallas, 1991), 79-144.

[6] Jones, “Christianity in the Constitution,” 145-230.  See also John Eidsmoe, Historical and Theological Foundations of Law, 3 volumes (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision Press, Tolle Lege Press, 2011), especially Vol. I, pages 243-468, Vol. II, pages 582-620, 687-960, and all of Volume III.

[7] Since political sermons were often part of public affairs in early America before, during and after the War for Independence, see Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991).  Further evidence of the influence of Christian political thought on early America see Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz, eds., American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983).

[8] M.E. Bradford, A Worthy Company; Brief Lives of the United States Constitution (Marlborough, New Hampshire: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1982), and M.E. Bradford, Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence (Marlborough, New Hampshire: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1991).

[9] James McClellan, Liberty, Order and Justice; An Inrtoduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Center for Judicial Studies, 1989), 84-86.

[10]McClellan, 87.

[11] Abel P. Upshur, The Federal Government: Its True Nature and Character; Being a Review of Judge [Joseph] Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1868), Reprinted by St. Thomas Press, Houston, Texas, 1977, provides a 242-page, point-by-point refutation of Story’s unhappily influential work.

[12] On the colonial charters and states’ constitutions see Conrad Henry Moehlman, The American Constitutions and Religion; Religious References in the Charters of the Thirteen Colonies and the Constitutions of the Forty-eight States; A Sourcebook on Church and State in the United States (Berne, Indiana, 1938); Benjamin P. Poore, ed., Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters and Other Organic Laws of the United States, 2 volumes (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, [1877] 1888); and William J. Federer, The Original 13; A Documentary History of Religion in America’s first Thirteen States (St. Louis, Missouri: Amerisearch, Inc., 2014).

[13] That is, Protestants’ religious freedom was protected.

[14] That is, Christians’ religious freedom was protected.

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John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court


When John Jay, in Federalist No. 2, said he had often noted with pleasure that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence,” he was half right.  He recognized that the peoples of the states that declared their independence in 1776 were overwhelmingly Christians and Protestants.  Yet he was certainly wrong about them being “one united people,” and about them having a purpose to establish “general liberty and independence,” for as the colonies’ Declaration makes clear, they fought to make each colony, under God, a free and independent state.

The Americans of those colonies had an overwhelmingly Christian background extending through English and Western history to the Old and New Testaments.[1]  Their theological background was dominantly Calvinistic, but with diverse expressions.  Of the 3,000,000 Americans in 1776 about

900,000 were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin, 600,000 were Puritan English, and 400,000 were German or Dutch Reformed.  In addition to this the Episcopalians had a Calvinistic confession in their Thirty-nine Articles; and many French Hugenots also came to this Western world.  Thus…about two-thirds of the colonial population had been trained in the school of Calvin.[2]

These colonies were the most thoroughly Protestant, Reformed, and Puritan commonwealths in the world.  Puritanism provided the moral and religious background of 75 percent of the people who declared their states’ independence in 1776.[3]  Ahlstrom says that “If one were to compute such a percentage on the basis of all the German, Swiss, French, Dutch, and Scottish people whose forebears bore the ‘stamp of Geneva’ in some broader sense, 85 or 90 percent would not be an extravagant estimate.”[4]

American culture when our early state constitutions were framed was clearly Protestant, with local variations in each state according to its ethnic, denominational and theological heritages.  Education, law, legal thought and legal education were overwhelmingly Protestant—before, during, and long after our first states framed their fundamental laws.[5]  These were deeply Christian, with theological presuppositions, philosophies, histories, and precedents reaching back through British and Western history and legal thought beyond the Reformation and the medieval period to the Bible.[6]

Although the peoples of the English colonies were basically one in their commitment to Christianity, the Christian basis of their ethical, political, and legal thought, and their desire to be free of England’s rule, they were not one but many in many other ways.  They were many in their theologies, ecclesiastical doctrines, and denominational affiliations.  Theologically, they were Calvinists and Arminians, Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Denominationally, they were Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Reformed, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Evangelicals, independents, Lutherans, German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, Hugenots, Quakers, Mennonites.  Most were from England, but some were from Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland (Scots Irish), France (Hugenots), the Netherlands (Dutch Reformed), or Germany (Reformed, Lutheran, Mennonite).  Though most were from England, they spoke different dialects.  As Phillips noted in The Cousins’ Wars, those who settled the various colonies were from different parts of England, had fought against each other in the English Civil War (1640s), and would, to some extent, fight against each other again in the colonies’ War for Independence, and later in our misnamed “Civil War”.[7]  As was obvious to the colonists, the New England colonies were heirs of the Puritans, quite different from colonists of the more diverse Middle Colonies, and even more different from the more traditional Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist colonies of the South.

Nor were they one in their economic interests and endeavors.  Farming was dominant in every region.  But New England’s economy focused on mercantile activity, manufacturing, fishing, and whaling.  The Middle Colonies’ focus was on mercantile activity.  The South was dominated by agriculture and an agrarian philosophy.

The cultural difference between the people of the North, particularly New England, and of the South was deep.  Page characterized it as producing “(t)wo essentially diverse civilizations”,[8]  and eventually (1861-1865) our most destructive war.  The differences were religious, economic, cultural, and political.  Religiously, the South was more Anglican or low-church Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and traditional; the North, especially New England, was Puritan (Calvinistic Congregationalist).  Culturally, the South was individualistic, traditional, and conservative; the North was more community-centered, authority-centered, and church-centered.  The tyranny of the British king-in-Parliament, not cultural or political convergence, brought the two peoples together for their common defense.[9]

The colonies had different modes of government: in New England the township; in the South the county; in the Middle Colonies a mixture of the two.  The New England township was more overtly democratic than the Southern colonies’ governments, but had oligarchic aspects and exercised more power over the individual than Southerners would have tolerated.  Southern government was formally more aristocratic, yet substantively much more influenced by the “plain folk” than most historians admit.

The colonies had diverse histories.  Each section had been settled by somewhat different groups of people, from different places in England and Western Europe.  Though slavery existed in almost all the colonies, it was more successful in the South, so the Southern colonies had larger slave populations, and more diversity in that respect than the other two sections.  Peoples of the New England states had more in common with those of the Middle states than they did with the peoples of the Southern states. Moreover, each colony had its own unique history and regional and local differences within its borders.

The relations of the colonies to each other clearly indicate that they were not one people.  They were all under the authority of the British Empire, but each was connected to Britain by its own charter.  They were not bound only by laws of a common sovereign to them as a whole, for each had its own government.  They owed no reciprocal obligations to each other and had no common political interests or duties.[10]  As Upshur explains:

The people of one colony owed no allegiance to the government of any other colony, and were not bound by its laws.  The colonies had no common legislature, no common treasury, no common military power, no common judicatory….There was no prescribed form by which the colonies could act together, for any purpose whatever; they were not known as “one people” in any one function of government….even in the action of the parent country, in regard to them, they were recognized as separate and distinct.  They were established at different times, and each under an authority from the Crown, which applied to itself alone.  They were not even alike in their organization.  Some were provincial, some proprietary, and some charter governments.  Each derived its form of government from the particular instrument establishing it…, without any connection with, or relation to, any other.[11]

The nature and extent of the powers exercised by the Continental Congress did not make the people of all the colonies a “de facto nation” or “one people.”  That Congress was not a true civil government: it could only consult, deliberate, pass resolutions, and advise, not legislate.[12]

The Declaration of Independence did not “bring forth a new nation”; it brought forth thirteen new independent nations.  The Congress that produced that Declaration then acted only upon the authority of the consent and acquiescence of the several states—not upon any authority of a new nation consisting of all the people of the states as a collective entity.  It was then a de facto government that, in its ordinary business, relied on the belief that its actions would be approved and confirmed by their states.[13]

In no Continental Congress did the states’ representatives act as representatives of one people.  No wonder, for the standard estimate of the loyalties of the colonists is: one-third for independence, one-third against it, and one-third undecided.  Every recommendation to send representatives to a general Congress was addressed to the colonies as such, not to “the people.”  Each colony acted for itself in the choice of those deputies; none acted in the name of the whole “American people.”  The colonies after their Declaration acted as equals, not as areas having a certain percentage of the whole people of a “new nation.”[14]  However a state’s representatives were chosen, they were chosen in each particular state for itself alone, certainly not for any “nation.”

The Continental Congress exercised de facto a power of legislation in many cases, but never had that authority de jure by any grant of power from the colonies or from “the people” of “the nation.”  Congress’s acts only became valid by the states’ subsequent confirmation.  During the course of the war the people

“…never lost sight of the fact that they were citizens of separate colonies, and never, even implicitly, surrendered that character, or acknowledged a different allegiance.  In all the acts of Congress, reference was had to the colonies, and never to the people.  [Its] measures were adopted by the votes of the colonies as such, and not by the rule of mere numerical majority, which prevails in every legislative assembly of an entire nation.[15]

Acts of the “revolutionary government” were consistent with the independence and sovereignty of the states….  The Continental Congress did not have “exclusive” power to wage war; the independent states used their own sovereign authority to wage their war for independence.[16]

The people of the colonies were not one people before they joined to declare the independence of their states; uniting to form the Declaration did not make them “one people.”[17]  The Congress that declared their independence was appointed by each colony separately and distinctly.  They deliberated and voted as separate colonies—with only one vote per colony—not in proportion to each colony’s population, as they would have if their collective vote were intended to represent the will of the “national majority.”  They did not declare the independence of a new union, but of their thirteen respective states.[18]  The delegates signed the Declaration not as random individual representatives of the whole people of the states, but in groups according to their respective states.  Foreign countries, in treaties, recognized the distinct sovereignty of the states.[19]    

The states’ framing and ratification of the Articles of Confederation did not presuppose or create one people.  The Articles’ wording explicitly refutes such an idea: plainly announcing that “each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”[20]

Clearly, the states’ framing and ratification of the Constitution did not presuppose one people.  Providence gave this geographically united country to the divided peoples of thirteen separate states.  Their different colonial histories—in 1776, seven well more than a century, four more than a century, one, more than ninety years, and one, four decades—gave the people of each state a separate identity.

The Constitution did not create one people.  It was framed by representatives of the states, whose legislatures chose the delegates they sent to what turned out to be the Constitutional Convention: not by “the people” of the United States as a whole.  In Philadelphia each state had only one vote.  The states were not allotted votes on the basis of population.  They were represented as equals because they were equally free, independent states.  The Constitution was ratified by elected representatives of each individual state—the state’s legislature or specially elected ratification convention—not by a popular vote of the people of the state, much less by a national plebiscite.

Each state that ratified the Constitution acted on the basis of its own debates and its own representatives’ decision.  In doing so, each state’s representatives determined that the new Constitution and its federal government would not be a threat to its own particular Christian constitution, declaration or bill of rights, governmental system and laws.

The Christian theory of resistance to tyranny that the colonies followed in resisting the king-in-Parliament continued long after the framing and ratification of the Constitution of the United States (and its Bill of Rights).  At least six states—New Hampshire, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts—stated this right explicitly in their fundamental laws, and thereby implied the right of the people to use all the legitimate means of resistance endorsed by that tradition.  Article IV of Maryland‘s Declaration of Rights (1776) phrased it pointedly: “The doctrine of non-resistance, against arbitrary power and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”  Where this doctrine was not stated, it was implicit in the constitutions and declarations of all of the states—which owed their existence to the exercise of precisely such a conviction.

At least three states—Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island—made it plain in their ratification documents that to defend their people’s inherited rights and liberty against central government injustice or tyranny they had the right to secede from the Union established by the Constitution, to take back the powers their people had delegated to the central government whenever it should become “necessary to their happiness.”  Some other states’ ratification documents made it clear that each state retains all powers it had not explicitly delegated to the central government, and that these powers remain with each state—as the Tenth Amendment, voicing a common concern of the people of each state, later made explicit.[21]  Unquestionably, in God’s providence, the peoples of the respective states intended to remain so.

Archie P. Jones, Ph.D., Teacher, Librarian, Author of The Gateway to Liberty: The Constitutional Power of the Tenth Amendment

[1] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1974), 11-392.

[2] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., [1932] 1972), 382-383.

[3] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Image Books, 1975), vol. 1, 169.

[4] Ahlstrom, 169.

[5] Archie P. Jones, “Christianity in the Constitution: The intended meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment ” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Dallas, 1991), 79-144.

[6] Russsell Kirk, The Roots of American Order; Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution; The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); John Eidsmoe, Historical and Theological Foundation of Law, 3 vols., (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision Press, Tolle Lege Press, 2012); and Jones, “Christianity in the Constitution,” 145-230.

[7] Phillips has in mind the Puritans who settled New England and the Anglicans who settled the South.  Our War Between the States was not a “civil war” because it was not fought for control of the national government but over the right of a state to secede from the union established by the Constitution.

[8] Thomas Nelson Page, The Old South; Essays Social and Political (Chautauqua, New York: The Chautauqua Press, 1919), 259.

[9] Page, 260.

[10] Abel P. Upshur, The Federal Government: Its True Nature and Character; Being a Review of Judge Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States; With an Introduction and Copious Critical and Explanatory Notes by C. Chauncey Burr (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1868).  [Reprinted by St. Thomas Press, Houston, Texas, 1977], 35.  Upshur’s 242-page point-by-point refutation of Joseph Story’s claim that the Constitution was intended to be based on the national majority will destroys the arguments of multitudes of Fourth of July orations, books, and lectures.  It should be required study for any analysis of the Constitution.

[11] Upshur, 36-37.

[12] Upshur, 44-50.

[13] Upshur, 57.

[14] Upshur, 58.  The states’ argument in their Declaration of Independence refutes the concept of a binding perpetual union, for the laws of nature and of nature’s God that the Declaration invokes as the standard by which one people is justified in terminating its relationship with another are prior in authority to all unions of peoples.

[15] Upshur, 61.

[16] Upshur, 64, 65.

[17] Upshur, 77, 78.

[18] Upshur, 79-81.

[19] Upshur, 90.

[20] Upshur, 94.  This is an obvious forerunner of, and is better worded than the Tenth Amendment.

[21] Archie P. Jones, The Gateway to Liberty: The Constitutional Power of the Tenth Amendment (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision Press, 2010), 47-53.

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Disestablishment in the remaining states did not depart from the substance or results of “disestablishment” in the previous states.

The South Carolina Constitution of 1778 was the most explicitly Christian and Protestant of our first states’ fundamental laws.  Its “religious” provisions were more unambiguous, detailed and lengthy than those of any other state.  This constitution is the best example of why secularist and “neutralist” accounts of religion and the Constitution seldom deal with the state constitutions, declarations, and bills of rights that were in force when our national Constitution and its First Amendment were framed and ratified.  Among many other things, the South Carolina Constitution declared the “Christian protestant religion” the state’s established religion.  It required a brief, definitely Christian confession of faith to be made by churches incorporated by the state.  It also contained an excellent “declaration” of duties to which ministers must subscribe (from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer).

Disestablishment in South Carolina came in 1778.  It was not the work of non-Christians.  It was mostly the work of the Rev. William Tennent, a Presbyterian minister among the predominantly Christian “dissenters” of the state’s interior.  The new constitution of 1778 omitted a provision for paying ministers from parish funds: making support of “religion” voluntary and equal before the law.  To promote religious liberty, the constitution extended corporate status to all Protestant religious societies that would affirm the fundamental Christian doctrines stated in the South Carolina Constitution.  Protestant churches were granted equal civil and religious privileges.  Tennent did not argue for “neutrality” among all religions, nor for the secularization of civil government and law, but for equal treatment before the law of every denomination of Christians.  He argued for liberty of conscience and judgment in “religious matters”—but did not divorce “conscience” from Christianity:

No legislature has a right to interfere with the judgment and conscience of men, in religious matters, if their opinions and practices do not injure the state….The State may give countenance to religion, by defending and protecting all denominations of Christians, who are inoffensive and useful.  The State may enact good laws for the punishment of vice, and the encouragement of virtue.  The State may do anything for the support of religion, without partiality to particular societies, or imposition upon the rights of private judgment.

He did not advocate reducing Christianity to equality with all other religions, nor anti-“religious” secularizing of civil government or law.

The South Carolina Constitution of 1790 provided for religious freedom “without distinction or preference,” which meant that Roman Catholics and other non-Protestant religious groups—of which there were very few—were granted equal religious freedom with Protestants.  Article VIII provided that “the liberty of conscience thereby declared shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this state.”

Disestablishment in South Carolina preceded disestablishment in Virginia:  It did not present Virginia legislators or the framers and ratifiers of the U.S. Constitution or the First Amendment with a model of either “religious neutrality” or secularism.

The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 reflected a long tradition of Christian liberty in worship.  Article XVIII had strong provisions against an established church and for liberty of conscience in worship.  The very next article (XVIV) made it clear that this was a Protestant constitution:

…no Protestant inhabitant of this Colony shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right, merely on account of his religious principles; but that all persons, professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect, who shall demean themselves peaceably under the government,…shall be capable of being elected into any office of profit or trust…

Not until the New Jersey Constitution of 1844 (53 years after ratification of the First Amendment) were Roman Catholics allowed to hold office in New Jersey.

Since Delaware had long been part of Pennsylvania, it had a long tradition of religious toleration.  The colony’s first charter (1701) provided for liberty of conscience, but made it explicitly clear that Almighty God is the only Lord of conscience.  It also restricted public office to those who profess to “believe in Jesus Christ, the savior of the World…”

The Delaware Constitution of 1776, like its original charter, required a Trinitarian Christian oath of office.  Roman Catholics could hold office; non-Christians could not.  There was no religious qualification for voters, but officeholders had to “acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by divine inspiration”.

The constitution prohibited the establishment of any one “religious sect” in preference to another: no Christian denomination was to be preferred to another by law.  It assumed that non-Christians would not be eligible for office.  Delaware’s 1776 Constitution was neither “neutral” nor secularist regarding “church and state” or religious freedom.

The new Delaware Constitution of 1792 stated that no religious test would be required as a qualification for any state office.  This neither secularized Delaware’s civil order nor made it absolutely “neutral” among all religions, for the constitution’s preamble stated that

Through divine goodness all men, have, by nature, the rights of worshipping and serving their Creator according to the dictates of their consciences…

This formulation was not “neutral” among all religions, for it excluded atheism, agnosticism, Satanism, and polytheism; nor was it consistent with Mohammedanism.

Section I of the Delaware constitution asserted the rights of conscience in religious worship, prohibited legal preference of any “religious societies, denominations, or modes of worship,” and prohibited the kinds of practices associated with an established church.  It also declared: “It is the duty of all men frequently to assemble together for the public worship of the Author of the universe, and piety and morality, on which the prosperity of communities depends, are thereby promoted…”  This referred to the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God of the Bible.  Hence it excluded, by implication, the worship of all false gods and all false religions from the legitimate protection of “the rights of worshipping and serving their Creator according to the dictates of their consciences.”

The provisions of the 1792 Delaware Constitution were intended to be consistent with the religious and moral doctrines of the Bible, but not to reduce Christianity (or Christianity and Judaism) to a level with all other religions and religious-ethical systems conceived by fallen man in a fallen world.  Approval of the religious actions of the false religions of the world would have nullified the covenantal protection of the prosperity of the community that the Delaware Constitution sought to continue through the worship of the Author of the universe and the piety and morality that He requires.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, one of the many manifestly Christian state fundamental laws created by our statesmen of the “Revolutionary” period, stated:

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…

Like other early American fundamental laws with similar provisions, it did not state that all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship false gods, or many gods, or to worship them in immoral ways.  Nor did it level all religions down to a lowest common denominator.  The “natural and unalienable right to worship” was plainly linked to Almighty God, before whom members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives had to swear this religious test oath:

I do believe in one God, the Creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked.  And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by Divine inspiration.

This admitted Roman Catholics to full civil and religious rights, but excluded non-Christians.

Under pressure from the Jews of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 dropped the requirement that the divine inspiration of the New Testament be affirmed and all religious requirements for electors.  This was too late for it to have influenced the framing of the First Amendment.  It watered down previous provisions, but did not make Pennsylvania’s 1790 Constitution religiously “neutral” or secularist.  Pennsylvania officeholders still had to affirm the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments.  This requirement was maintained in the Pennsylvania constitutions of 1838 and 1873.

The Pennsylvania constitutions of 1790, 1838, and 1873 were neither “neutralist” nor secularist.  All recognized the being of God and preserved as fundamental law a 1700 statute penalizing anyone who would “willfully, premeditatedly, and despitefully blaspheme, or speak lightly or profanely of Almighty God, Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, or the Scripture of Truth.”  Pennsylvania’s constitutions and laws protected Christianity until at least nine decades after the ratification of the First Amendment.

Maryland’s 1776 Constitution was definitely a Christian document.  Its Declaration of Rights ended the financial privileges of the Anglican Church, stipulated that a man would no longer be compelled to attend any particular place of worship, and prohibited an established church by forbidding legal compulsion to financially support a particular ministry.

These things were achieved by the work of the dissenting denominations: Protestants (mainly Presbyterians) and Roman Catholics—and the work of outstanding individuals like Roman Catholics Charles Carroll and John Carroll.  They were not the work of rationalists, Deists, or Unitarians, much less of secularists or advocates of “neutrality” among all religions.

The Maryland Bill of Rights and Constitution were not intended to “neutralize” or secularize the relationship between church and state.  They did not abandon Christian ethical standards regarding religious freedom.  The Maryland Declaration of Rights of 1776 allowed only “persons professing the Christian religion” to exercise religious freedom.  A 1781 law required public officials to subscribe to a declaration of belief in the Christian religion.  Not until 1826—35 years after ratification of the First Amendment—were Maryland Jews allowed to hold public office.  Despite their provisions against the establishment of a state church, the Maryland Declaration and Constitution of 1776 could not have been examples for a “neutral” or a secularist First Amendment.

Georgia’s colonial charter granted the free exercise of religion or freedom of conscience to “everyone except papists,” but its 1777 Constitution removed the restriction on Roman Catholics’ religious liberties.

The 1777 Constitution also stated that no one had to support a religious teacher not of his own religious profession: so Christians had to support their church’s or denomination’s pastors.  Like some other states that sought to prevent the establishment of one denomination in a position of superiority in the state, Georgia’s 1777 constitution stipulated that no clergyman of any denomination would be allowed to serve in the legislature.  These provisions were intended to be consistent with the fundamental Protestant Christianity of the document—which required members of the legislature to be “of the Protestant religion.”

Georgia’s new constitution of 1789 dropped the religious test for office, provided that there would be no legal infringement on a man’s civil rights because of his religious principles, and established the free exercise of religion for all persons.  No one would be required to support any religious profession but his own.  This did not create absolute “neutrality” among all religions or secularization of Georgia’s civil life: the state retained its Common Law foundation and its laws enforcing Christian morality.

The 1798 Georgia Constitution clarified the meaning of the free exercise of religion, stating that: “No one religious society shall ever be established in this state, in preference to another; nor shall any person be denied the enjoyment of any civil right merely on account of his religious principles.”

Neither the 1789 nor the 1798 Georgia constitution can be used to argue for a “neutral” or a secularist First Amendment: because neither was really religiously “neutral” or secularist.  And because Georgia did not ratify the First Amendment.

Rhode Island used its colonial charter as its state constitution until 1842.  Its charter established principles favorable to religious liberty and unfavorable to an established church, providing for the “free exercise and enjoyment” of the subjects’ “civil and religious rights.”

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was the main influence on the charter.  His intentions were certainly Christian.  The original charter was brimming with Christian rhetoric and principles.  A fundamental purpose of the charter was “enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights”.  So was “that liberty, the true Christian faith and worship of God…”  The charter also stated—as would many of the newly independent state constitutions, declarations, and bills of rights—that this liberty was not to be used “to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others.”

Rhode Island residents were made into a body politic to be “in the better capacity to defend themselves, in their just rights and liberties, against all the enemies of the Christian faith…”  This was Rhode Island’s fundamental law until 1842: over 50 years after ratification of the First Amendment.  It is misleading for secularizers to define an “establishment of religion” as any governmental support of “religion,” and to cite Rhode Island as an example of a state “which never had an establishment and opposed every sort of one,” for Rhode Island was definitely neither secularist nor “neutral” toward Christianity.

The evidence from the states previously surveyed as well as from these remaining states is clear and compelling.  At the time of the Declaration of Independence:

  1. Our first thirteen states all had clearly and unmistakably Christian fundamental laws in their colonial charters (Connecticut and Rhode Island), or state constitutions, declarations of rights, and bills of rights (all the rest).
  2. One state, Rhode Island, had liberty of conscience within a Christian setting.
  3. Four states had a single denomination as the state’s established church: In Virginia, North Carolina, and New York the Anglican Church; in Connecticut the Congregational Church.
  4. Eight states had a quasi-established church, an establishment of Protestantism, or of Christianity: Massachusetts (Congregational Church), New Hampshire (Protestantism), South Carolina (Protestantism), New Jersey (Protestantism), Delaware (Christianity), Pennsylvania (Christianity), Maryland (Christianity), Georgia (Protestantism).

At the time of the framing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution (1787-1789), and of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment (1789-1791):

  1. Two states (Rhode Island and Virginia) had full “religious freedom”—without separating Christianity from their laws.
  2. One state (New York) had “full religious freedom”—with two exceptions: a Protestant test oath for office (until 1806), and a requirement that all naturalized citizens renounce allegiance and subjection to all foreign princes and potentates in ecclesiastical and civil matters.
  3. The other 10 states were either Christian or Protestant establishment (or quasi-establishment) states with religious freedom bounded by Christian morality.

Regarding “disestablishment” and religious liberty:

  1. In NO state—including Virginia—was disestablishment a result of the leadership and work of non-Christians, or a significant number of non-Christians.
  2. In every state it was overwhelmingly the leadership and work of Christians: mainly of the “dissenting” denominations and churches, chiefly Baptists, Presbyterians, and other Protestants.
  3. Some tolerant members of the established church or denomination supported disestablishment: Anglicans/Episcopalians like Madison and Jefferson in Virginia; and Orthodox Congregationalists in Massachusetts—where Unitarians had taken over many Congregational churches from within.
  4. The arguments in the various states’ struggles for disestablishment of a state’s established, or quasi-established church, were conducted as arguments between Christians, not as disputes between Christians and pagans, rationalists, agnostics or atheists.
  5. In NO state was “disestablishment” intended to produce, or did it produce “neutrality” among all religions, de-Christianization or secularism.
  6. Christianity remained fundamental to the laws and practices of each state.
  7. “Disestablishment” in the states was not a precursor of a “religiously neutral” or a secularist First Amendment.

Archie P. Jones, Ph.D., Teacher, Librarian, Author of The Gateway to Liberty: The Constitutional Power of the Tenth Amendment

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“Disestablishment” and “religious freedom” in North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire were motivated by different intentions than we have long been taught.

North Carolina had an Anglican establishment before independence and a non-Anglican majority that disliked the Anglican Church.  Dissenters were excluded from all offices of power and dignity and had to pay tithes to the Anglican Church.  Independence and the new constitution of 1776 changed this by precluding the existence of any established church and establishing a Protestant civil government.  Article XXXII declared:

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.

Article XXXI prohibited any clergyman from holding any office in the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State while he continued to be a pastor.  So the North Carolina Constitution provided for the disestablishment of any one Christian denomination and the establishment of Christianity as fundamental to the law of the state.

North Carolina achieved disestablishment without the aid of any non-Christians, rationalists, or Deists—because there was a balance among the various Protestant denominations, and most “dissenting” Protestants disliked the Anglican Established Church.  Scotch-Irish Presbyterians—no rationalists they!—led in the battle for disestablishment and religious liberty.

North Carolina was a clearly Protestant state until at least 1835, when it provided religious liberty for Roman Catholics, and then in 1868, when, still a Christian state, it removed religious and civil disabilities from Jews.

New York’s 1777 Constitution, the third main victory for disestablishment of the Anglican Church, provided for “free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship.”  But it stated that “the liberty of conscience, hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State.”

New York’s constitution excluded all ministers of the Gospel from office—because of the great importance of their duties as ministers, not on anti-clerical, religiously “neutral” or secularist grounds.  It also abolished all parts of the Common Law and colonial statutes that might be construed as establishing “any particular denomination of Christians or their ministers.”  It did not do away with the Common Law as such—with its many Christian principles and rights—so Christianity remained fundamental to the laws of New York.

In 1784 New York abolished the remaining legal privileges of the Anglican Church.  It also passed a law to restrict the political power of Roman Catholics:  requiring all persons naturalized by the state to take an oath renouncing all foreign allegiance and subjection in both civil and ecclesiastical matters.  This test oath was not repealed until 1806.

Disestablishment in New York was achieved by Christians who wanted religious and civil liberty without abandoning Christianity.

Connecticut did not achieve disestablishment and religious freedom until 1818—for until that year the colonial charter served as the state’s constitution, and the Congregational Church remained established until the new Constitution of 1818.  Disestablishment was the will of the ministers, prominent laymen, and ordinary church members.  When it did come, it was supported by tolerant Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, most Episcopalians, Quakers, and a tiny minority of the Unitarians and Universalists.  Most rationalists in Connecticut (Unitarians and Universalists) were on the side of the establishment, not disestablishment—reversing the supposed order of “separation of church and state” mythology.

The Connecticut Constitution, in the clause after it established freedom of religious profession and worship for all persons in the state, stated that this right “shall not be construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the State.”  So much for the freedom of all religions!  The next section said “no preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship,” which meant that Christianity was virtually recognized as the state’s belief.  Its article on religion—drafted by a subcommittee of “Jeffersonian Republicans”—made it clear that even with “separation of church and state” this was a Christian constitution.  It referred to God as “the Supreme Being, the Great Creator and Preserver of the universe,” and said that “every society or denomination of Christians in this State, shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights and privileges….”

Disestablishment in Connecticut was won by various denominations of “dissenting” Christians, with little help from non-Christians.  It was partly motivated by Christians’ desire to be free of domination by an established church that had been infiltrated by the false doctrines of Unitarianism.

Massachusetts had the most protracted conflict over disestablishment of any state.  As early as the middle of the 18th century, “Strict Congregational” churches joined Baptists in opposing the established Congregational churches, for they considered many members of the established church to be unconverted and did not want to pay taxes to support such a church.

The War for Independence did not bring a drive for “neutrality” among religions or for secularism.  As Stokes says, the new government’s constitution had “resonant and high sounding clauses concerning the sanctity of religion and liberty, immediately followed by others denying religious liberty in any adequate sense to many creeds and sects.”[1]  That is because they drew intellectual and moral distinctions that Stokes did not, because they knew some things about the world’s religions’ practices that he should have known.  The new state Constitution of 1780’s Declaration of Rights stated the duty of all men to worship God, “the SUPREME BEING, the Great Creator and preserver of the universe”—not any other gods.   It stated the right and principle of individual liberty of conscience in worship and religious beliefs, but qualified this by requiring that the individual not disturb the public peace or others’ religious worship.  The framers of the Massachusetts Constitution were rightly concerned to protect religious worship and the public peace; and to protect their people’s lives, liberty, persons and property against such religious practices as human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, and “holy wars.”

Article III made it clear that “liberty of conscience” was not merely individualistic:

III.  As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality:  Therefore, to promote their happiness, and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of GOD, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.

This article also affirmed the legislature’s authority to require all subjects to attend the teachings of these Protestant ministers, if they could conscientiously do so.  It stated the equality of all Christian—but no non-Christian—denominations before the law:

And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law; and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.

This article was not modified for 53 years (1833)—more than 40 years after the addition of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As in Connecticut, the established Congregational Church in Massachusetts was weakened by the growth of rationalism within, and a division between the theologically orthodox and those who would later call themselves Unitarians.  An 1818 legal decision said that the Unitarian “society” that owned a church, not the Christian majority of the members of that church, could control that church.  This gave the Unitarians a great advantage and weakened the Congregational Church, but provided an opportunity for the growth of disestablishment thought, since orthodox Christians would not want to be legally subordinate to a church in the hands of apostates.

Not until 1831 did the legislature vote for disestablishment—but then it did so decisively.  In 1833 the state’s citizens voted nearly 3:1 to remove Article III from the state constitution and add an article favoring the equality of “all religious sects and denominations demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good citizens of the commonwealth…”

The growth of Unitarianism contributed to disestablishment, but disestablishment in Massachusetts was not produced by Unitarians or rationalists.  It was a result of the growth and work of the dissenting Christian denominations, especially the Baptists.  Episcopalians, since their church was not the established church, supported disestablishment, as did other dissenting denominations.  Probably many orthodox Congregationalists, persuaded by Baptists’ “liberty of conscience” arguments and not wanting to give the growing Unitarian faction in Congregational Churches the privileges of an established church, supported disestablishment.

Once again, disestablishment and religious liberty were the work of Christians, not of non-Christians.

New Hampshire’s 1778 Constitution’s Bill of Rights was clearly a Protestant document.  It stated that the “rights of conscience” are unalienable, and supported the individual’s right of liberty of conscience in worship and belief.  Its sixth article said the best security to government is “morality and piety, rightly grounded on evangelical principles”, and “evangelical” meant Protestant Christian.  It called for towns, parishes, and religious societies to “make adequate provision, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.”  It stated that “every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves quietly, and as good subjects of the state, shall be equally under the protection of the law…”

Its Form of Government required every representative in the legislature to be “of the protestant religion,” and stated that one who left the Protestant religion would automatically cease to be a representative of his town or district.  Not until 1852—more than six decades after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment—was the required two-thirds popular vote to repeal the Christian religious test oath approved.

The state’s constitutions of 1778 and 1792 did not support an established church, but by providing for local laws to support religion in effect established Protestantism.  New Hampshire continued to favor Protestantism in particular and Christianity in general for more than a century and a half after the First Amendment had been ratified.

As is evident from the states we have examined, state governments’ support of Christianity long after the addition of the First Amendment, Stokes’s comment that New Hampshire’s retention of these provisions is “inconsistent with the American tradition of impartiality of the State in matters involving the religious convictions of citizens”[2]  is without foundation in fact and foolish.

It is without foundation in fact because the evidence of American “church and state” relations throughout the era of “disestablishment” clearly indicates that the states have not been “impartial” in regard to religion or the “religious convictions” of citizens—and by the manifest intentions of their constitutions and laws should not have been so.  Neither the states’ “disestablishments” nor the First Amendment set up “impartiality” as the standard for our civil governments’ relationships to “religion” or to Christianity.  If there was any “impartiality,” it was meant to operate only among Christian denominations, or among religions whose ethics or exercise of religion did not include actions that violate others’ rights.  At most, it was impartiality among Christian denominations, with tolerance of other religions that at least conformed to Christian ethics.

It is foolish because impartiality or neutrality among religions is impossible:  Religions differ radically in their theological and ethical doctrines and requirements.  To be impartial or neutral among conflicting doctrines and requirements is to abandon logic.  It is also to commit the government to permitting adherents of disparate religions to violate others’ rights to life, liberty, person, and property.

“Impartiality” among all religions at first glance appears “understanding,” and “tolerant,” but upon closer inspection it is seen to be ignorance, amorality, and a lack of concern for others’ wellbeing.  “Impartiality” or “neutrality” neglects the horrific consequences of the free exercise of many religions that differ from Christian ethics.  Thank God we did not have a tradition of “impartiality” toward all religions!

Clearly, not only in Virginia, but also in North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire disestablishment and religious liberty were not the results—in any state—of popular intentions to live under “religiously neutral,” secularist, or de-Christianized civil government and laws.  In every state disestablishment and religious liberty were the results of Christian leadership and overwhelming support by diverse denominations of Christians, and in no state was “religious neutrality”, secularism, or de-Christianization a result of disestablishment.

Archie P. Jones, Ph.D., Teacher, Librarian, Author of The Gateway to Liberty: The Constitutional Power of the Tenth Amendment

[1] Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States. 3 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950), vol I, p. 423.

[2] Stokes, Vol. I, 432.

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We have long been told that the American “Founding” was a product of rationalism and of secularist political thought; that the states’ struggles for “disestablishment” and “religious freedom” were driven by a desire for “neutrality” among all religions, or for secularism; and that the states’ religiously “neutral” or secularist “disestablishment” and “religious freedom” were precursors of a religiously “neutral” or secularist First Amendment to our federal Constitution.  Advocates who use the Constitution’s First Amendment to establish “neutrality” among all religions, or secularism, have long used the battle for disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia to advance their objective.

None of their arguments fit the evidence.  Let us consider the evidence of “disestablishment” in Virginia.

Virginia was the most famous victory for disestablishment of the Anglican Church.  The leaders of the debates in the Virginia legislature—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and Patrick Henry—were all professing Christians: all Anglicans at that time.  Jefferson was still orthodox, financially supported several Christian ministries, and would not develop significant doubts about the Christian faith for a few decades.  When he did develop such doubts, he kept them secret: telling the recipients of such letters to keep their contents secret or not sending the letter.  Madison and Mason were orthodox.  Henry, the most influential man in the state, was a zealous Calvinist.

The main background of the struggle did not consist of any significant increase of rationalism (Deism, Unitarianism) or non-Christian thought, but of opposition to the spiritual laxity of the Anglican clergy by the numerous Baptists and Presbyterians, many Anglican laymen, and Methodists.  And of opposition to Anglican Church persecution of Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and members of other “dissenting sects.”  Many Anglicans, like Madison, opposed this persecution.  Furthermore, the Anglican vestries wanted to rule their own churches, not to remain under the authority of the English church hierarchy.

The famous Rev. John Leland led the Baptists, and the Rev. Samuel Davies led the Presbyterians in the struggle for religious liberty.

Jefferson’s famous Act Establishing Religious Freedom opposed compulsory taxation of non-Anglicans to support things they didn’t believe.  Its ideas and rhetoric were clearly Christian, not rationalistic, nor religiously “neutral.”  Far from beginning the movement for disestablishment of the Anglican Church, Jefferson’s famous Act was a product of it.  Though Jefferson wrote it in 1777, it was not passed until 1786, under Madison’s, not Jefferson’s leadership.  At the time of his writing the act and his work for disestablishment, Jefferson was a professing Christian, not a closet Unitarian, nor a rationalist.  Jefferson’s religious views changed as he got older.  He was an orthodox Christian in at least the first half of his adult years—when he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence (1776), served in the Virginia legislature, served as governor, and served as President (1800-1808).  The last decade or so of his life (ca. 1813-1826) he was a closet Unitarian.[1]  He was not a rationalist during Virginia’s struggle for disestablishment of the Anglican Church and for “religious liberty.”

Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1784) used Christian rhetoric and changed the Virginia public’s views from state support of “religion”—Christianity—through financial aid.  It was much more influential than Jefferson’s Act Establishing Religious Freedom.  That plus the removal of Patrick Henry, the most popular man in the state, its greatest orator, and the great advocate of state aid to Christianity—certainly not to “religion” in general—from the legislature by his being elected governor, enabled the bill to pass.

Anglicans were a distinct minority in the state, but were two-thirds of the legislature.  Most Anglicans in the legislature had been convinced by Christian writers that all churches should be equal before the law.  The dissenting ministers cleared the way for disestablishment.  The legislators who voted for disestablishment were mostly members of the Established Church.  The bill was not enacted to make Virginia law either “neutral” among all religions or secularist—and in fact did not do so.

Stokes credits Jefferson’s statement, in his 1821 Autobiography, that during the debate on his bill the “great majority” of Virginia legislators rejected a proposed amendment to the bill adding the name of Christ, so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion,” and that this proves that they wanted to include protection for the free exercise of every religion—including “the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.”[2]  For several reasons, this is difficult to believe:  First, This would have given legal protection to such contradictions of Virginia laws, the Christian Common Law, and Christian morality as the Mohammedan harem, “honor killings,” and jihads against unbelievers in that religion; the Hindu sutee (immolation of the wife on her husband’s funeral pyre), caste system, and parents’ right to murder their children, especially newborn daughters, via child sacrifice.[3]  Not to mention other pagan religions’ orgies, human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Second, this would have been contradicted by Article 16 of the Virginia Bill of Rights’ statement that Virginians should practice “Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”  That placed Christian ethics in a position of superiority to those of all other religions: an obvious contradiction to the idea that all religions are equal.  To have accepted the old Jefferson’s remembrance of Virginia’s legislators’ intentions, Stokes would have to have believed that most of Virginia’s legislators were ignoramuses or thoughtless, or that they were carried away by the passion of the moment.  But Virginia’s legislators were not ignorant, nor were they intellectual or moral dunces.

Third, all churches in Virginia were not on the same legal basis until 1787, a year after approval of Jefferson’s bill, when the special law incorporating the Episcopal Church was repealed.  Not until 1802—17 years after Jefferson’s bill—did the Virginia Assembly remove control of the glebe lands from the Episcopal Church.  Not until 1840—54 years after Jefferson’s bill—did a state Court of Appeals decision finally sustain the 1802 act and make “separation of church and state” complete in Virginia.

Fourth, Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom did establish religious freedom  in Virginia when it was enacted (1786), but it did not remove all state support for the Anglican Church.  And it was not intended to make Virginia’s laws “neutral” among all religions (a logical impossibility, for religions have contradictory beliefs and practices), or secular (separated from all religions’ influence), or to de-Christianize Virginia’s laws:  far from it!  Jefferson’s famous Bill, #82 was part of a set of bills concerning religion apparently framed by Jefferson and approved by the committee he chaired in the Virginia General Assembly.  Bill #83 was “…for Saving the Property of the Church Heretofore by Law Established” (the Church of England).  Bill #84 was “…for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers”.  Bill #85 was “…for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving”.  Bill #86 was “…for Annulling Marriages Prohibited by the Levitical Law” (the law of God revealed in the Old Testament book of Leviticus).  This package of bills—and their enactment—make it very clear that neither Jefferson nor the Virginia legislature was trying to make Virginia laws “neutral” among all religions, or secular, much less de-Christianized.

“Disestablishment” in Virginia was only removal of all legal preference for the Episcopal Church.  It was not fully achieved until 1840—54 years after Jefferson’s bill.  It was accomplished—overwhelmingly—by the efforts of Christians, particularly of the former “dissenting sects.”  It obviously was not intended to create, and did not produce “neutrality” among all religions, secularism, or de-Christianization.  It therefore is not, and cannot be either a precedent or evidence for “neutrality” among all religions, secularism, or de-Christianization of American law.

Archie P. Jones, Ph.D., Teacher, Librarian, Author of The Gateway to Liberty: The Constitutional Power of the Tenth Amendment

[1] The development of Jefferson’s religious thought is carefully set forth in Mark A. Beliles and Jerry Newcombe, Doubting Thomas?; The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2015), 13-184.

[2] The full quotation is given in Beliles and Newcome, 222.

[3] George Grant and Gregory Wilbur, The Christian Almanac; A Book of Days Celebrating History’s Most Significant People and Events, Second Edition (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2004), 541.

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