Church Property after the American Revolution

The American Revolution brought about the dissolution of ties between many religious bodies in America, necessitating separate organizations.

Prior to the American revolution, religious corporations were created either by royal charter or by provincial authority derived from the crown. In this period the Catholic Church was without civil rights in the colonies, and title to its property was held in the name of individuals. With the establishment of the United States, religious orders and organizations began to incorporate: the Augustinian Fathers at Philadelphia in 1796, the Sulpicians at Baltimore in 1805, the Jesuits at Georgetown in 1815, and a few years later the Dominicans by legislative act in Ohio. Also, the Methodists formed in 1784, the Anglicans in 1789, the Baptists in 1784, the Presbyterians in 1785, the Dutch Reformed in 1792, and the Lutherans in 1795.

After the revolution, churches were incorporated ether by special acts of state legislatures or under the provisions of general statutes. The religious corporation in the United States belongs to the class of civil corporations, not for profit, which are organized and controlled according to the principles of common law and equity as administered by the civil courts. The church is a spiritual and ecclesiastical body, and as such does not receive incorporation. It is from the membership of the religious society that the corporation is formed. The general statutes under which religious corporations can now be formed in most of the American states contain provisions authorizing the legislature to alter, amend, or repeal any charter granted. The life of a religious corporation dates in law from its organization, not from the time it began to exercise its corporate powers. But a mere use of corporate powers limited to the maintenance of religious observances is not sufficient to establish a corporation de facto. The primary object of religious incorporation in the United States is the core of real property devoted to the purposes of religion. American courts have consistently recognized that the terms ‘‘church’’ and ‘‘incorporated religious society’’ are not identical. ‘‘Church’’ encompasses objects and purposes that are moral and religious, whereas ‘‘church corporation’’ deals chiefly with care and control of temporalities.

A religious corporation may not engage in business transactions for profit. It may, however, hold revenue- producing property not used by the church, as investment in the form of an endowment. The mortgaging of real property by a religious corporation generally requires the consent of some superior ecclesiastical authority, as well as an order of the court. Because of the objects of religious incorporation is to give a legal person standing in court, such corporations have the right to sue and be sued. It is in civil courts and not in the ecclesiastical courts that the religious corporation has standing. It is from the civil courts that orders or wants will issue, directing or restraining corporate action. Unlike private corporations, the religious corporation can neither merge nor dissolve without the consent of local church body and higher church authorities.

G. L. TYLER

References and Further Reading

  • Arnold, Jack L. Church History, American Christianity: 18th Century.

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