Remaining Early States’ History of Religious Freedom and Disestablishment: South Carolina, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Rhode Island – Guest Essayist: Archie P. Jones
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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:
- 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).
- One state, Rhode Island, had liberty of conscience within a Christian setting.
- 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.
- 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):
- Two states (Rhode Island and Virginia) had full “religious freedom”—without separating Christianity from their laws.
- 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.
- 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:
- In NO state—including Virginia—was disestablishment a result of the leadership and work of non-Christians, or a significant number of non-Christians.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In NO state was “disestablishment” intended to produce, or did it produce “neutrality” among all religions, de-Christianization or secularism.
- Christianity remained fundamental to the laws and practices of each state.
- “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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This series of essays on religious freedom and disestablishment has been excellent and very applicable to better understanding how to counter arguments relating to “separation of church and state.” That phrase from one of Jefferson’s 20,000 + letters has been repeated so often by those focused on getting rid of religious freedom that most Americans believe that our Founding Fathers intended America to be a secular country. I’ll be referring to these often and sending them to others in my networks as the issue pops up in discussions. Well done scholars!
Thank you for your interest in this very important, long misinterpreted, and long misunderstood subject. And thanks for sharing the essays’ information with others: the truth about “church and state” in the U.S. needs to be known. On Jefferson’s religion and religious legacy Mark A. Beliles and Jerry Newcombe’s excellent “Doubting Thomas?; The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson” (New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2015) is must reading. And Daniel L. Dreisbach, “Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State” (New York and London: New York University Press, 2002) is great work on Jefferson’s misleading metaphor and the abuse of his 1803 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association by U.S. Supreme Court judges and academic and political misinterpreters. He also gives some evidence of Jefferson’s own “violations” of this unsupportable metaphor. There were many kinds of connections between “religion” (Christianity) and the “federal” government, as well as between Christianity and the state governments from before the framing and ratification of the First Amendment until the Supreme Court majority’s disgraceful attack upon the original intentions of its framers and ratifiers.
(Self) Correction: Jefferson’s famous and all-too-influential Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association was written in 1802, not 1803.
Terrific concluding essay in this series with much appreciated summary. Thank you.
Thanks very much for your interest in these important subjects–and for your encouraging comments!