Disestablishment of State Churches in the Late Eighteenth Century and Early Nineteenth Century

2012-06-13 12:25:56

It is one of the ironies of our constitutional history that at the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted, including its requirement that the newly created federal government refrain from establishing religion, churches established by state law not only were permitted by state constitutions of the time, but also were common (Tarr, 1989). Establishment was accomplished via measures that imposed taxes on citizens to support the officially recognized church, attendance requirements, and religious oaths (McLoughlin, 1971, pp. 767–797; 849–850; 1183). In the years following the ratification of the Constitution, however, a movement to disestablish state churches made rapid progress. The principal driving force behind the drive to disestablish state churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was opposition to paying taxes to support a church other than the one that an individual attended. In addition, the movement’s supporters also wished to prevent the civil government from coming between individuals and God and to be free to worship without interference (Tarr, p. 82; Adams and Emmerich, 1989).

State Establishment of Religion

During the time of the nation’s founding, states imposed taxes and assessments to pay pastors and religious teachers. In Virginia, the Bill for Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion, introduced in 1784, would have continued the pre-Revolution practice of using general taxes to support the state’s church (Tarr, 1989, 81–82). Vermont’s legislature passed a law in 1783 that established its system of religious taxation (McLoughlin, 1971, 797–798). There, each town by majority vote established a denomination as the town’s church, which would then be supported by local taxes (McLoughlin, 798). Citizens who did not want to pay a tax to that church could, through a system of certificates, become exempt from that tax.

Connecticut and Massachusetts also levied taxes for the support of churches and religious schools in the late 1700s, and both provided for some exemptions (McLoughlin, 922–925; 1162; 1205). New Hampshire went further. Its religious taxes were written into its first constitution (McLoughlin, 844–845), under which each town established its religion and assessed taxes on its inhabitants to support the schools and ministries. Unlike other states, however, New Hampshire did not provide for any exemptions for dissenters.

States also used religious oaths to establish a state church. Early constitutions, such as those of New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, required anyone seeking public office to profess a belief in Christianity and Protestantism (Adams and Emmerich, 1989, 1576). North Carolina and Pennsylvania required citizens to take strict belief oaths before holding public office, and Delaware required ‘‘all officeholders to profess belief in the Trinity and the divine inspiration of the Bible’’ (Adams and Emmerich, pp. 1576–1577). Vermont’s 1777 constitution included a loyalty oath, as did Massachusetts’ original constitution (McLoughlin, 1971, pp. 797; 1184).

The Disestablishment Movement

The fight over religious taxes sparked the disestablishment movement, and eliminating taxes was the crucial act of disestablishment in many states. The Virginia proposal to use tax revenues to support Christian teachers was so unpopular that, after its defeat, the victors were able to pass Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which included the provision that ‘‘no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever’’ (Padover, 1943). As early as 1783, Connecticut’s legislature began passing laws exempting people from religious taxation (McLoughlin, 1971, 922–923). After support for state churches declined, however, the legislature tightened the exemption requirements in 1790 (McLoughlin, p. 926). These renewed religious requirements—the combination of paying taxes or having to show church membership and attendance—once again fueled opposition. A year later, the strict requirements were repealed, effectively disestablishing the state church in Connecticut (McLoughlin, pp. 937–938).

Massachusetts and New Hampshire took longer to repeal their religious taxes. As late as 1803, New Hampshire courts refused to grant exemptions to dissenters from religious taxes (McLoughlin, 1971, 863–870, citing Muzzy v. Wilkins, 1803). Eventually, forcing citizens to pay taxes to religious denominations to which they did not belong led to passage of New Hampshire’s Toleration Act of 1819, which ended religious taxation (McLoughlin, pp. 895; 898–902). The end of religious taxes in Massachusetts was finalized in 1833 (McLoughlin, p. 1259) through enactment of the eleventh amendment to the state constitution (McLoughlin, pp. 1205–1206; 1253–1260).

The U.S. Constitution eliminated religious tests for holding federal office (U.S. Const., Art. VI, Cl. 3: ‘‘[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.’’), and states eventually followed the federal lead (Adams and Emmerich, 1989, 1578). The increased role in public affairs by various sects and the growth of religious pluralism led to the elimination of religious tests (Adams and Emmerich, p. 1578– 1579; McLoughlin, 1971). ‘‘[B]y 1793 Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, and Vermont had completely removed religious tests from their constitutions’’ (McLoughlin). The voters of Massachusetts supported abolishing the oath requirement for public office, although this did not occur until 1920 (McLoughlin, pp. 1184–1185). In fact, some religious oath provisions remained in place until 1961, when they were finally struck down when the Supreme Court overturned a Maryland law requiring officeholders to declare their belief in God (see Torasco v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 1961).


References and Further Reading

  • Adams, Arlin M., and Charles J. Emmerich, A Heritage of Religious Liberty, U. Pa. L. Rev. 137 (1989): 1559, 1621– 1622.
  • Borden, Morton. Jews, Turks, and Infidels. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
  • McLoughlin, William G. New England Dissent 1603–1833. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • Padover, Saul K., ed. The Complete Jefferson: Containing His Major Writings, Published and Unpublished, Except His Letters. Reprint Services Corp., 1943, 946–947.
  • Tarr, G. Alan, Church and State in the States, Wash. L. Rev. 64 (1989): 73.