Religious Freedom and Disestablishment in North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire – Guest Essayist: Archie P. Jones
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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.” 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” 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
 Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States. 3 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950), vol I, p. 423.
 Stokes, Vol. I, 432.
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Dr. Jones, I really appreciate the history lesson, and I mean lesson in the highest sense of the word. Not juts facts, albeit very important. But also the cogent reasoning emanating from those facts. You have cast a fresh light on a subject that rationalist and revisionist have reduced to popular dogma not founded on facts of history. Thank you again.
Thank you very much, sir! What has been done to this part of our history–not to mention the “constitutional” decisions and law based upon the distortions!–is disgraceful (and not a little frightening). Much of the credit for what I know about he First Amendment, our first states’ fundamental laws, etc. belongs to Prof. M.E. Bradford, who directed my 2-volume doctoral dissertation, “Christianity in the Constitution: The Intended Meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, directed me to important but little-known sources, and labored through the ca. 938 pages several times, trying to persuade me to tone down my rhetoric a bit! Dr. Bradford’s research on the lives of the leading framers and ratifiers (in the states’ legislatures and/or ratification conventions) led him to surprising conclusions that he neither expected nor set out to find: (1) that at least 50, and probably as many as 53 of the 55 Framers of the Constitution were orthodox Christians [“A Worthy Company; Brief lives of the framers of the United States Constitution (Marlborough, New Hampshire: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1982)], and (2) that a similar percentage of he leading men in the states’ legislatures or specially elected ratification conventions were not Deists, rationalists,skeptics, etc., but orthodox Christians [“Religion & the Framers: The Biographical Evidence” (Marlborough, New Hampshire: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1991)]. There are many important things the scholars and popularizers haven’t told us!