Public Square

The Pursuit of Religious Liberty In Colonial America

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Since the first permanent settlements were established in British North America, religion has been integral to the identity and mission of the American people and their political pursuits. Most of the colonies eventually established state churches, following a model they had known in Europe. Congregationalism enjoyed legal favor in much of New England, and the Church of England was established in the southern colonies. Religious dissenters were afforded a measure of toleration in most colonies, although they were often burdened in the exercise of their religion and denied certain civic prerogatives.  

As settlements grew in number and size throughout the colonies, the diversity of religious sects also increased. Many European immigrants from diverse religious traditions, burdened in the practice of their faith in their homelands, were drawn to the New World by the promise of the right to practice their religion without fear or persecution. The extraordinary religious diversity in the colonies was a potential source of rivalry and conflict among denominations competing for adherents and public recognition (and, sometimes, the legal and financial favor of the civil state).  

Some minority sects, unfortunately, suffered persecution in Britain’s North American colonies. However, the story of religions in America is most remarkable for the amity and general respect among the diverse sects that were planted and flourished side by side in the American soil.  

Religious Toleration & Liberty

The religious diversity in the colonies required Americans to develop policies of, initially, religious toleration and, eventually, religious liberty. In communities where the governors and the governed are all of one faith, there is little demand for a policy of religious liberty. But where both civil authorities and ordinary citizens come from many denominations and where multiple sects compete for followers and public favor, peaceful coexistence requires a workable policy of toleration. 

By the time the national Constitution was crafted in the late 1780s, a declining number of  Americans supported an exclusive ecclesiastical establishment in their respective states, and few advocated for a national establishment. The religious diversity in the new nation meant that the establishment of a national church was practically untenable. No denomination was sufficiently dominant to claim the legal favor of the federal regime, and there was little likelihood that a political consensus would emerge as to which sect or combination of sects should constitute a “Church of the United States.” Nonetheless, many influential citizens, despite some Enlightenment influences, continued to believe that religion must play a public role in the polity.  

Few Americans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even among those who supported disestablishment, doubted the value and utility of a vibrant religious, specifically Christian, culture. There was a consensus that religion fosters the civic virtues and social discipline that give citizens the capacity to govern themselves. Authoritarian rulers use the whip and rod to compel social order, but this is unacceptable for a free, self-governing people. 

Religion, alternatively, develops an internal moral compass that prompts citizens to behave in a  responsible, orderly manner. A moral people respect social order, legitimate authority, oaths and contracts, private property, and the like; and such civic virtue, many eighteenth-century Americans believed, was nurtured by the Bible and the Christian religion. 

Establishments vs. Competition

By the mid-eighteenth century, two distinct, conflicting schools of thought had emerged regarding how best to promote a vibrant religious culture. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, a respected signer of the Declaration of Independence, said “[t]here are but two ways of preserving visible religion in any country. The first is by establishments. The second is by the competition of different religious societies.” 

The first way, which was the practice in Europe and most of the colonies, was to maintain a legally established church. A dominant view in the early colonial period was that, because religion was indispensable to social order and political happiness, the civil state must officially and legally maintain a particular church or denomination, which citizens had a duty to support. These establishmentarians feared that a failure to establish a church with the civil state’s  sustaining aid would impair religion’s ability to extend its influence into civil society.  

In the second half of the eighteenth century, an unlikely coalition of religious dissenters,  nonconformists, and moderate Enlightenment rationalists advanced a second way to nurture a  vibrant religious culture. They advocated for dismantling the old arrangement of one state, one  church – that is, terminating legal privileges for one particular sect or combination of sects over all others – and replacing it with a disestablished regime in which all sects were on an equal footing before the law and could compete for adherents and their support in an open marketplace of ideas.

They believed the multiplicity of religious sects that would flourish in this disestablished regime would foster religious liberty and harmony as multiple sects would check any one sect from working in concert with the civil state to oppress and persecute other sects. This approach was in the ascendancy by the end of the eighteenth century. 

As jurisdictions abandoned ecclesiastical establishments toward the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth century, matters regarding religious belief or disbelief and association with and support of a particular minister or religious society were left to the voluntary choice of individual citizens; and, increasingly, the civil rights and prerogatives of citizens were no longer conditioned on their religious beliefs.

Each sect or church, an increasing number of Americans came to believe, should be free to compete in an open marketplace of ideas where, as Thomas Jefferson confidently predicted, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself . . . unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” 

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All. In November 2022, we are giving away a free copy of the book to everyone who donates over $50 to IFWE. Support IFWE here.


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