In the history of human society, religion and politics have almost inevitably been intertwined. Those in control of the organs of government seek to harness for their own legitimacy and power the natural human longing to participate in a project that transcends one’s everyday life. Religious belief and participation in religious ceremonies satisfy that personal longing, while they are also useful tools to control the actions of the populace and sustain the social order. Because politics has those same objectives of control and order, the levers of religious and political power not infrequently have been held by the same hands. The normal outgrowth of this is an officially-recognized religious dogma with approved outward manifestations, along with suppression, to different extents, of those who would deviate from the true path. In similar vein, those who would dissent from religious orthodoxy often make common cause with those who would challenge the reigning political faction.

In the medieval Christian West, there was a formal separation between the religious and political spheres, represented by Pope and Emperor, which reflected Jesus’s teaching about the superior domain of God and the profane (in the classic meaning) temporal world. However, there, too, the reality was different, in that those entrusted with the care of the soul often participated in power politics. The Pope and his control over the Papal States, the various warrior-bishops in the Holy Roman Empire, the English House of Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Archbishop/Electors that chose the Holy Roman Emperor come to mind. As well, secular rulers frequently attempted to influence, by various means, the selection of the Pope and subordinate clergy, and to secure the endorsement of the administrators of the spiritual realm for immediate political goals. The “Babylonian Captivity” of the popes at Avignon under the control of the French king is a prime example.

The end of feudalism and the emergence of the modern State were marked by increased wealth of the political rulers and by centralization of power in the person and the office of the king. In that era of royal absolutism, competing centers of power which might dilute the king’s ability to lay sole claim on the subjects’ loyalties had to be made to submit. Thus, the nobility, stripped of its important ancient privileges, increasingly became courtiers residing at the monarch’s court, where they were more easily controlled. The clergy, too, had to be neutralized. Much is told about King Henry VIII’s project to reduce the Catholic Church to the Church in England and, later, the Church of England–with the monarch as its head. Henry was not alone. With the shattering of the Universal Christian Church by the Reformation, the Holy Roman Empire’s superficial political universality came under pressure. The constituent duchies, principalities, and other assorted noble enclaves aligned based on religion, often for reasons of the rulers’ political ambitions. The specter of religious warfare induced the various parties to adopt the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, that is, the religion of the ruler (Catholicism or Lutheranism) would be the religion of the ruled. Those who did not wish to follow their rulers’ lead could emigrate to a more sympathetic realm; otherwise they might be subject to persecution.

With the vessel of religious universality broken, the essentially anarchistic imperative of Protestantism (“sola scriptura”) led to the formation of various sects beyond the relatively conservative Lutherans and the even more traditional Anglicans. Despite the establishment of the Church of England, the struggle between Anglicanism and Catholicism continued during the 16th and 17th centuries, as various English monarchs favored one or the other. Calvinist Presbyterians, nominally dissenters in England, also had a brief turn in power, through the person of James I Stuart, who had become the head of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland during his tenure as King of Scotland. Excluded from political power were adherents of various dissenting sects, such as Anabaptists and Quakers, and, except during the Oliver Cromwell “Protectorate,” other Calvinists. Their radicalism was seen as subversive of the existing order. Those and other dissenters primarily belonged to the middle classes of artisans, farmers, and merchants.

The common denominator in most European polities was the formal establishment of a particular Christian denomination and the suppression of dissenting views. There were exceptions, however. For example, the 17th century United Provinces of the Netherlands established the Dutch Reformed Church as the official religious body, yet broadly tolerated free exercise of religion even by non-traditional Christians and by Jews. This policy of relative tolerance attracted many adherents of persecuted faiths to the Dutch Republic. It also presented an alternative model to that of most state churches at the time, namely, that officially established state churches need not result in suppression of dissent.

Among the English dissenters were two groups of Calvinists, the “Pilgrim Fathers” and the “Puritans.” While the former sought to separate themselves from the Church of England, the latter hoped to purify it from within by continuing to associate their congregations with the official church. They abandoned that policy after the Restoration and became the Congregational Church. Both groups established settlements in New England. Despite their geographic proximity, their theological differences–though perhaps trivial to an outsider–kept them distinct for several decades, until the Pilgrims’ Plymouth colony was absorbed by the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690.

In popular myth, Europeans came to British North America in search of religious freedom, which they heartily extended to all who joined them. The truth is more complex. The Pilgrims and Puritans, for example, indeed came for religious freedom, but for themselves only. Conformity in community, not diversity or toleration of dissent, was the goal. God’s law controlled, and governance was put in the hands of those who could be trusted to be faithful to the ultimate objective, the realization of the City of God on Earth.

As the Pilgrims’ “Mayflower Compact” of November 11, 1620, stated, “Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the christian [sic] faith, and the honour of our King and country, voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; [we] …combine ourselves…into a civil body politick, for furtherance of the ends aforesaid ….” Puritan colonies in New England similarly strived for their goal to “lead the New Testament life, yet make a living,” as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison summarized it. The “Fundamental Orders” of the Connecticut River towns in 1639, a basic written constitution, set as their purpose to “enter into…confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced among us ….” As in Massachusetts Bay, justice was to be administered according to the laws established by the new government, “and for want thereof according to the rule of the word of God.” The Governor must “be always a member of some approved congregation.”

The theocratic nature of the 17th century New England societies meant that they limited new settlers to those who belonged to their approved strain of Puritanism. Those numbered many thousands, however, as the Massachusetts Bay Colony grew to 10,000 within four years. Dissenters were expelled. Those who failed to get the message of conformity were subject to punishment, such as four Quakers who were publicly executed in 1659 after they repeatedly entered the colony and challenged the ruling authorities.

The religious congregationalism that was at the core of the Puritans’ anti-episcopalism and which justified their expulsion of dissenters from their religio-political commonwealth also caused those dissenters to form communities of like-minded believers. Some of them, such as the famous dissenters Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, founded settlements in what became Rhode Island. Unlike Massachusetts Bay, these new settlements allowed freedom of conscience and lacked the official religion of other New England settlements.

During the English rule, at least nine colonies had formally established churches, generally the Anglican Church, and all required office holders to be at least Christians. However, other colonies’ founding had lacked the theocratic imperative of New England. While the Anglican Church enjoyed economic and political benefits from its established position, freedom of conscience and practice was extended to other Protestant denominations. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina were founded with the deliberate goal of protecting peaceable religious practice. Other colonies, seeking to attract as many settlers as possible for the financial gain of investors (Virginia, New York) or proprietors (New Jersey, Maryland, Georgia) had pragmatic reasons to tread softly on the issue of religious orthodoxy.

The position of Catholics and Jews to practice their faith was more tenuous. In England, the Bill of Rights adopted in 1689 officially declared the country a “protestant” realm and prohibited the monarch from being, or being married to, a Catholic, a prohibition reinforced in the Act of Settlement of 1701. Similarly, only Protestants were guaranteed the right to bear arms. Other statutory restrictions on Catholics, Jews, and non-trinitarian Christian sects remained in place well into the 19th century.

In North America, even enlightened charters demonstrated the limits of religious tolerance. Colonial Pennsylvania rightfully has had a reputation for religious liberality. Thus, its 1701 Charter of Privileges declares that no person “who shall Confess and acknowledge one Almighty God…shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced in his or their person or Estate because of his or their Conscientious perswasion [sic] or Practice” or to attend any religious worship or do anything else contrary to their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, that same charter, as well as Pennsylvania’s lengthy “Frame of the Government” in 1682, contained a ubiquitous feature of such constitutions, the religious test oath or affirmation, in this case that all government officials had to “profess faith in Jesus Christ.” Maryland’s Toleration Act of 1649 recognized freedom of worship for anyone “professing to believe in Jesus Christ. However, the Act also provided for the death penalty for blasphemy or “[denying] our Saviour Jesus Christ to bee the sonne of God, or shall deny the holy Trinity the father sonne and holy Ghost.”

The formal establishments remained during the 18th century. However, the enforcement of religious conformity and suppression of dissent was undermined by the growth of the populations from many different European countries, the diversity of their religious beliefs, the relative isolation of settlements due to the large size of the colonies outside New England, and the scarcity of Anglican clergy and absence of a strong hierarchy. True, local communities might be remarkably homogeneous. In the colony at large, Quakers might be attracted to Pennsylvania for shared religious values, Catholics to Maryland, and Congregationalists to New England. Anglicans might be the majority in most colonies. Yet, the variety of sects within a colony and, even more pronounced, across the several North American colonies, combined with the general desire for material success, made tolerance a pragmatic policy. Eventually, pragmatic necessity became aspirational virtue. It must not be overlooked, however, that even the most tolerant polities had no use for skeptics, agnostics, or atheists. There was no Inquisition; the reality was more akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Nevertheless, freedom of religion did not mean freedom from religion.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:


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1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Very interesting. Having read an excellent book on Roger Williams I was previously exposed to some of the fact presented herein, Yet the essay provided much wider context which is greatly appreciated.

    One of the things that struck me while reading abut Williams and struck me gain with this essay is what to me is peculiar notion, that people down through the ages have deemed it not only prudent but also necessary to execute judgement for disbelief. “the Act also provided for the death penalty for blasphemy or “[denying] our Saviour Jesus Christ to bee the sonne of God, or shall deny the holy Trinity the father sonne and holy Ghost.” It seems that the biblical judgement of eternal damnation such suffice for those who reject Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The human death penalty only served to prevent the poor soul from possibly accepting Jesus as the savior, perhaps late, very late in life. These viewpoints also demonstrate an incredible lack of faith in God to save even the most intransigent unbeliever. They forgot that Saul the number enemy of Jesus was ultimately redeemed from the kingdom of darkness into the God’s glorious kingdom of light and ended up writing a vast portion of the New Testament and was a ardent voice proclaiming the excellencies of Him who had called Saul out of darkness.

    The essay makes an interesting point that power and control, not sound doctrine motivated some of the political leaders to govern and right religious laws as they did. Pitiful.



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