Religious Disestablishment in the Era of the American Revolution

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Jonathan Den Hartog

The American Revolution came about through a sequence of fractures in the ties between the colonies and Great Britain. One of those fractures arose from an important call from the Continental Congress. On May 15, 1776, Congress approved a resolution urging each of the colonies “to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”[1] This invitation immediately called into question the charters and habits under which the colonies had been operating in a British constitutional and legal regime. It thereby forced the new states to question and modify long-standing arrangements, potentially transforming many aspects of American life.

One key element of those reconsiderations was the public place of religion for the states. In 1776, various forms of church establishment stretched from Georgia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Although “establishment” has often been used to mean financial support for the official church, in reality, these establishments often connected with many other aspects of colonial life, property holding, and governance.[2] It was in the states that Americans experienced the most issues around “church and state.” The states thus provide the best location in which to examine how Americans pursued religious liberty in a revolutionary moment. Although much ink has been spilled about the First Amendment, even more significant change occurred at the state level.

The process of religious disestablishment in the states provides a fascinating story in political and legal innovation. It transformed conceptions of ties between religion and politics, religion and the law, and the citizen’s relationships and duties. It produced a unique American model of religious liberty for all, voluntary support of the churches, and non-sectarianisn (non-preferentialism) in governmental approaches to denominations. It’s a story that needs to be told.

Book cover of Disestablishment and Religious Dissent by Carl Esbeck and Jonathan Den Hartog.

In order to examine religious disestablishment at the state level, Carl Esbeck and I recently co-edited a volume entitled Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the American States, 1776-1833 (University of Missouri Press, forthcoming November 2019). We recruited twenty-one scholars to analyze how establishment and disestablishment operated at the state level. These scholars—historians, political scientists, and legal experts—brought their distinctive insights, as they each took up one specific state. The range of investigation took in the original thirteen states, along with other early-admitted states such as Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Contributors also examined the special cases of Ohio (admitted from the Northwest Territory), Louisiana and Missouri (additions from the Louisiana Purchase), Maine (carved out of Massachusetts), and Florida (gained from Catholic Spain).

After receiving the contributions, my co-editor and I sought to analyze the chapter results and synthesize them into a coherent understanding of state disestablishment. In our introduction, we present this synthesis as a series of claims. We believe many of the findings counter conventional wisdom and so bring a fresh scholarly voice to religious, political, and legal issues.

I don’t intend to go into all ten conclusions—although I would encourage readers to find the Introduction and consider them all. Instead, for Age of Revolutions readers, I would like to highlight the process of religious disestablishment, its results, and the mechanisms for bringing it about.

First, Professor Esbeck and I highlight that disestablishment should be viewed as a process, initiated by the historical moment. Often in discussing these changes, states will be labelled as having disestablished at a given point—Virginia in its Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, or Connecticut in 1818. If establishment was only a matter of funding, then a specific piece of legislation could well enact disestablishment. However, since establishment was more complex, then unwinding that establishment took much longer. Many of our authors stressed the multiple components of moving away from a state-sanctioned denomination. Thus, disestablishment was a process that continued even after states approved definitive legislation.

Second, we point to the significance of creating religious voluntarism in the states. Support for the churches would come from individual members, not the state which had the power to coerce through taxation. This voluntarism was revolutionary in that it pushed against European notions—inherited from the late Roman Empire and Middle Ages—that required religious uniformity and conformity in the state and believed that only an official church could speak with an appropriate voice to inculcate the virtues of citizens. Instead, advocates of voluntarism pressed for a religious liberty that they defined as “the right of private judgment.”[3] This principle, rooted in a Protestant understanding, sought to defend the conscience from deforming interference by state power. Thus, a model of religious voluntarism would best protect individual rights of conscience in the period after the American Revolution.

Finally, we emphasized the significant contribution of religious dissenters in pushing for disestablishment. That is, they agreed with the basics of the Protestant theology taught in the established churches. They still struggled for disestablishment, however. Their beliefs motivated them to seek religious liberty rooted in their faith, as they understood it. In seeking that end, they made common cause with more enlightened or rationalistic members of the political community. However, the numbers and the energy came from the dissenters. Further, the most successful of their rationalist allies were those who could appreciate and articulate their concerns. The best example of such a statesman was James Madison of Virginia, who, in his Memorial and Remonstrance, gave powerful argument to the dissenters’ claims.

The end result for religion from the American Revolution was to open up space for the citizens in the states to consider their religious establishments. In a fifty-year period, Americans pursued strategies to protect the rights of conscience of the individual. Through their actions on the ground, they reconfigured the institutional character of religion in America. The new voluntarist marketplace of religion would be much more wide open to alternative groups and movements than it had been. These Americans in the revolutionary era thus vitally shaped the American practice of faith.

Jonathan Den Hartog is Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (2015), and is the co-editor (with Carl Esbeck) of Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833 (2019). He can be followed on Twitter @jdenhartog1776.

Title Image: Gostelowe Standard No. 10, c. 1776. Watercolor once in possession of Edward W. Richardson. Copyprint. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution and Its Color Guard (91)

Further Reading

Curry, Thomas J. The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Esbeck, Carl and Jonathan Den Hartog. Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2019.

Kidd, Thomas. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Stokes, Anson Phelps. Church and State in the United States. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.


[1] Washington C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 4 Vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937), 4: 342.

[2] Michael W. McConnell, “Establishment and Disestablishment at the Founding, Part I: Establishment of Religion,” William & Mary Law Review 44 (2003): 2105, 2131-81.

[3] For an extended reflection on the language of the “right to private judgment,” see Nicholas Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

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