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Church and State
18th Century Context

© 2007, by Jim Peterson



Historically the idea of separation of church and state evolved over a 100-year period, and at the state level, considerations went well past the 1787 Constitutional Convention. A few decades earlier or later and the separation issue could have become something very different than it is now. The following compressed information will attempt to put the church and state issues in context to the 18th-century, address how the late 18th-century milieu viewed it, and outline the feelings that drove the issue.


Rewind to 1720.


At this time, most colonists (and Europeans) presumed America was a largely a nation of Protestant religions. Calvinist Congregationalists governed Massachusetts and Connecticut. Roger Williams had started a more liberal religious-tolerant colony in Rhode Island, but it too was Congregational at that time. These Puritan-stock Congregationalists would (and did) have colonies based on their interpretation of Christian beliefs. They made those beliefs law and supported those laws. This does not mean all of the laws of these early colonies were exclusively favoring reformed Protestants, only that their moral compass and legal interpretation was anchored in their particular Biblical understanding.


In Virginia, the dominant religion was Anglican – the Church of England. There were almost no Puritans in Virginia. However, the Anglicans conformed to English law. Virginia Colonists paid taxes to make sure their Anglican churches were constructed and the clerical help was provided. They too assumed religion would be part of the civil and legal communities.


Both the dissenting Puritans and the Anglicans quite possibly would have been FOR a state-sponsored church in 1720 – but they would not have agreed on the type of Protestantism that would represent this country’s national religion. They disliked each other’s theology immensely (and disliked Catholicism even more). That argument, however, would not have to be discussed for 56 more years.


Fast-forward to 1740

Welcome the “Great Awakening” – America’s first big religious revival. The actual dates of the first Great Awakening range from 1730-1750, but most scholars will admit that the dates are slightly arbitrary.

The Great Awakening is the coming of evangelical Protestantism. Although Baptists are a well-known Protestant denomination in 1740, they, along with several other Protestant faiths, make a big splash during this period. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Calvinist off-shoots make big gains in converts. Why? They gain because itinerant preachers can now preach everywhere without permission – and the laws governing Anglican parish territorial ownership are not enforced. The "New Light" Great Awakening preachers could show up on a Sunday and start a sermon in an nearby field - even one adjoining the established church - and draw from the Sunday crowds going to hear their usual Anglican Sunday sermon. New Protestant ideas were being formed and no organized church body (in England or America) would or could stop it.

The Great Awakening started with the great evangelist, George Whitefield, who was known to draw an incredible 20,000 people for some sermons. The rumor that Whitefield could actually be heard by 20,000 people was actually put to a scientific test by Whitefield's friend, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin listened to a Whitefield sermon, then counted people surrounding his outdoor theater and moved backwards until he could no longer hear Whitefield. Franklin came to the conclusion that 20,000 people could, and probably did, listen to Whitefield's sermons. Whitefield's approach to evangelizing encouraged several well-known spin-off preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert Tennent to continue to preach throughout the mid-1700s.

Many revivals were born at this time and an enormous number of new converts were made. These will be converts from both New England Congregationalists and from the Mid-Atlantic Anglicans into the newer Protestant groups. Religious dynamics begin to broaden significantly in the mid-1700s. By 1770, Anglicans are less than 50% of Virginia’s religious affiliation. The rest are dissenting Protestant groups, Quakers, and smaller, less well-known sects. The New England region too has also seen a much wider variety of Protestantism. America's religious diversity has no dominating feature.

Religious pluralism expanded outward. Not only had evangelical religious groups exploded on the scene during the mid 1700s, but a liberal backlash had simultaneously occurred with Deist, Unitarian, and Universalist thought all gaining in popularity as well - creating a menagerie of religious ideas. Deist and Unitarians would at least consider reason over scripture - something considered heretical 100 years earlier when Biblical text was far more sacred. Most of the pluralism and American religious diversity happened at the expense of Anglicans and New England Congregationalists who had held the dominant denominational positions in 1720.

Fast forward again: Freedom FROM religion, or freedom OF religion. 1776

By mid-year of 1776, it was clear England was the enemy and that America would seek independence. Religious freedom was seen through the eyes of freedom from British power and regulation. Most issues were political and economic, but one focus was making sure England was not the sole arbiter of America’s religion. The language in the Declaration of Independence was not a source of great contention between Protestant groups in 1776. Most colonists simply wanted to be free of England, period. The discussion of American religious independence would happen 11 years later at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. At that time, America was a recognized independent country, but it was a country floundering with the ambiguous Articles of Confederation as the governing written law. American badly needed a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Religion would have to be discussed as these two documents were hammered out.

In America, the free market of religious opinion had its first opportunity to be determined by Constitutional lawmakers. Once America won its War of Independence, the time for discussions on freedom OF religion were at hand. Since there was no major dominating force on the American religious scene, the political landscape would be allowed to steer the various religious opinions as events unfolded - unusual for any 18th century European country that was ultimately subservient to a Pope or a religious king.

The concept of separation of church and state would be decided by a very strange combination of liberals and evangelists. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Deists and Unitarians wanted to make sure a dominant religion did not subjugate reason and practical economic thought. Baptists, Methodists, and other up-and-coming Protestant groups wanted to make sure no dominant religion subjugated their religious beliefs. Neither of these groups wanted to see a state-sponsored religion. Both thought a dominant religious system could lead to taxable coercion and a stifling of free thought.

These two very different groups saw the situation the same way. Without separation, a religious monopoly was always possible. There were at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 enough Anglicans who were also liberal enough to also join forces with Deists and evangelical groups. Quakers and Mennonites had always wanted separation for fear of persecution, so they too were on board. Thanks to both James Madison (the real policy wonk) and Thomas Jefferson, the separation of church and state was outlined in Congress and born in writing – the first nation to do so.

Much of the church and state groundwork had been hammered out on the state level prior to Constitution. Thomas Jefferson would recall later that the most difficult fight he ever fought was religious freedom in Virginia two years before the Constitutional Convention. The state issues on religion would continue to be argued at the state level even after 1787 and well into the 1800s. The First Amendment would take precedent over any new states, but current laws on the books for 13 states still had to be ironed out for many more years. None of this was easy.

Even during Jefferson’s run for the presidency in 1800, the tides were shifting again into a more religiously conservative landscape. Many were calling Jefferson an atheist and his views on church and state far too liberal. Yet even with his liberal and unorthodox religious views, he won the presidency in that year.

The ideas of Church and State seem to rise up during great conflicts. It happened in the Civil War and it happened recently after 9/11 (although not nearly as coordinated as it was in the Civil War). 


      1.    The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, Frank Lambert, 2006
      Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David Holmes, 2006
      The Separation of Church and State, Forrest Church, 2004
4.     A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877, Gaustad and Noll, 2003



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