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Church and State in British North America

Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware
©National Humanities Center

The students in my survey course know one sure thing about early American history: the Puritans came to New England in search of religious liberty. It takes some heavy lifting to persuade them that, on the contrary, most American Puritans sought the liberty to practice their own faith but refused to grant others the same freedom. To create a holy commonwealth and a godly society, the founders of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut instituted religious establishments—arrangements by which the civil government favored one church and penalized anyone who dissented from its teachings.

By adopting religious establishments, New England Puritans followed the course deemed wise and prudent by most early modern Christians on both sides of the Atlantic. Throughout Western Europe, civil governments lent official support to one Christian denomination, granted temporal powers and privileges to the clergy of those churches, and persecuted men and women who held other religious views. The Church of England held sway as the established religion everywhere in the British Isles except Scotland, where the Presbyterians came to claim that status; the Dutch Reformed Church prevailed in the Netherlands and the Roman Catholic Church in France and Spain. A majority of Protestants and Catholics alike believed that these close alliances between temporal and spiritual powers benefited both the church and the state by promoting individual morality, social harmony, and political stability. In their view, allowing full liberty of conscience would only invite chaos—and worse still, tempt God to punish an entire nation for permitting “heretics” to flourish. The matter of religion was too important, the stakes in this world and the next too high, to be left to the free choice of individuals.

No surprise, then, that the founders of most colonies in mainland British North America moved quickly to set up religious establishments. Throughout New England (with the notable exception of Rhode Island), Congregationalism (a.k.a., Puritanism) was the state-supported church, while in New York and all colonies to the south (with the notable exception of Pennsylvania), the Church of England (a.k.a., Anglicanism, known today as Episcopalianism) enjoyed that favored position by the end of the seventeenth century. Laws in those colonies mandated attendance at the public worship services of one church, levied taxes on all citizens to pay ministers’ salaries, and penalized religious dissenters who sought to practice or proselytize their faiths.

Statue of Mary Dyer,
who with William Robinson,
Marmaduke Stephenson, and
William Leddra were the four Quakers
hung on Boston Common.
Even so, the strength of colonial religious establishments varied considerably. The firmest alliance between church and state existed in Massachusetts Bay, where for most of the seventeenth century only male members of the Congregational Church enjoyed the right to vote in colony elections. In those colonies, too, the civil government dealt harshly with religious dissenters, exiling Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams for their outspoken criticism of the Puritan way and whipping Baptists or cropping the ears of Quakers for their determined efforts to proselytize. Official persecution reached its peak between 1659 and 1661, when Massachusetts Bay’s Puritan magistrates hanged four Quaker missionaries. But England’s intervention in 1682 ended the corporal punishment of dissenters in New England, and the Toleration Act, passed by Parliament in 1689, granted them the right to build churches and to conduct public worship. Despite those measures, dissenters endured discrimination and financial penalties well into the eighteenth century. Many devout Puritans refused to intermarry or to conduct business with Baptists and Quakers, and civil governments resisted granting them exemptions from the taxes, which supported Congregationalist ministers.

The Church of England’s establishment attained its greatest strength in Virginia, where religious dissenters comprised only small minorities until the 1750s. But the dispersed pattern of settlement in colonial Virginia, the chronic shortage of clergy (due to skimpy salaries), and the power of local Anglican vestries ruled by prominent laymen weakened the Church of England’s influence in that colony. Even so, colony laws obliged all Virginians to attend Anglican public worship and taxed dissenters to pay for the support of the Anglican clergy; after 1750, as Baptist ranks swelled in that colony, outspoken preachers met with sporadic abuse from angry mobs and fines and imprisonment from outraged local magistrates.

Elsewhere in British North America (outside of New England and Pennsylvania), colonial Anglicans enjoyed less official support, despite the benefits of establishment. In the Carolinas as well as in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, Anglicans never made up a majority, and thus competed with (and were obliged to tolerate, even if grudgingly) ethnically diverse groups of Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, and a variety of German Pietists. But while the Church of England failed to plant establishments in any colony as formidable as those put in place by the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, Anglican influence steadily spread in the South and the Mid-Atlantic during the first half of the eighteenth century, and even in New England’s inhospitable climate, a few of their churches thrived.

In other words, the first point to emphasize in class is that colonial religious establishments afforded powerful advantages to two denominations, the Anglicans and Congregationalists, who together claimed the largest number of churches in British North America by 1750.

Roger WilliamsWilliam PennThe second point, one meriting equal emphasis, is that a small but influential minority of colonials rejected the widely held conviction that religious establishments were essential to a unified state and an orderly society. By the lights of Roger Williams (the founder of Rhode Island) and William Penn (the founder of Pennsylvania), government efforts to enforce religious conformity provoked discord in civic life, promoted corruption within state-sponsored churches, and encouraged hypocrisy and ignorance among ordinary men and women. Those two radical thinkers contended that it was the duty of governments to uphold liberty of conscience: Penn’s first set of laws for his colony pledged to protect the civil liberties of “all persons…who confess and acknowledge the one almighty and eternal God to be the creator, upholder, and ruler of the world,” while Williams guaranteed all Rhode Islanders, no matter what their religious views, the liberty to “freely and fully have and enjoy…their own judgments and consciences.” 

John LockeThe view that government had no business meddling in religious matters gained momentum throughout the Anglo-American world during the eighteenth century. Swelling that sea change of opinion were two opposing historical tsunamis, which, paradoxically, contributed to the same result: a rising tide of support for full religious toleration among both elites and ordinary people. The first wave of influence was the Enlightenment, which nurtured a new liberal world-view exemplified by the writings of John Locke. Locke contended that government originated from a voluntary contract among individuals and that its sole purpose was to secure their natural rights. It followed that the state should serve merely as a referee in contests among individuals seeking to advance their private interests; government had no responsibility to promote morality and religion or to help steer men and women toward eternal salvation. Locke set forth the novel proposition that religious belief was a matter of individual preference, not political proscription in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), which declared, “The magistrate’s power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws.” Those words, stripping the state of any religious function, set afire the brains of his young readers in the American colonies, a circle that included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and many other future architects of the new republic.

The second influence crested in mid-eighteenth-century evangelical religious revivals, which swept across Great Britain (as well as parts of present-day Germany) and its American colonies (where those revivals came to be called the first Great Awakening). As this new age of faith arose to counter the Enlightenment’s age of reason, a growing number of colonial Christians embraced upstart evangelical communions like the Baptists and the Methodists and protested their persecution by Anglican and Congregationalist religious establishments.

In short, by the end of the eighteenth century, an unlikely combination of insurgent evangelicals and “enlightened” liberals were mounting stiff challenges to the once-dominant proponents of religious establishments. For the next installment in that historic confrontation, check out the sequel on this web site entitled, “The Separation of Church and State from the American Revolution to the Early Republic.”

Guiding Student Discussion

Despite my kvetching about how readily students endow the Puritans with their own beliefs about liberty of conscience, they’re erring on the side of the angels. Indeed, their mistake attests to how firmly those values have struck root in our civic life. For precisely that reason, it’s all the more important for us as teachers to emphasize that the separation of church and state is not a legacy which disembarked along with the Mayflower colonists; it is instead a hard-won achievement wrought from many centuries of struggle.

“During the early modern period, the context of human affairs was changing dramatically. Within the globalization of life, three major changes were of special significance.

1. The development of new-style empires and large state systems that came to dominate global political and military affairs.

2. The internal transformation of the major societies, but especially the transformation of society in western Europe.

3. The emergence of networks of interaction that were global in their scope.

These developments reoriented the global balance of societal power. In 1500 there were four predominant traditions of civilization in the Eastern Hemisphere in a position of relative parity, but by 1800, one of these societies, the West, was in a position to assume political and military control over the whole world.”

The Encyclopedia of World History:
Ancient, Medieval, and Modern,
6th ed.
, edited by Peter N. Stearns.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
February 2008.
One way to drive home that point is by encouraging your students to explore the possible reasons that religious establishments enjoyed broad support among both elites and ordinary people in early modern Europe and colonial America. Why did so many people on both sides of the Atlantic embrace close alliances between church and state as a positive good? If your classes are like mine, you might be saved the trouble of asking that question by the stray student who wonders aloud: “Hey, Roger Williams was totally right. So why didn’t the other Puritans get it?”

That’s your cue to play the devil’s advocate: Defend the proponents of religious establishments from the perspective of the early modern period. Remind your students that sixteenth and seventeenth-century Western Europe weathered a long series of bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, accompanied by constant political turmoil and mounting levels of poverty, unemployment, and crime. Many victims of those upheavals ended up in British North America only to confront new challenges to staying alive. The determination of southern planters to exploit and control indentured servants—the majority of whites settling in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake—made for a violent and volatile society. Meanwhile, embattled Puritans in New England defended their settlements from Indian nations striving to reclaim their lands and French Catholic traders and missionaries seeking to expand their influence in Canada. Small wonder, then, that many early modern Christians turned to religious establishments as institutional bulwarks against the violence and disorder closing in on all sides.

Another angle worth stressing in class discussion is the distinctive emphasis of the earliest arguments advanced in favor of religious liberty by Roger Williams and William Penn. Unlike the principal political architects of the new United States (e.g., Jefferson and Madison) who feared, that established churches and their privileged clergy would undermine republican governments, Williams and Penn dwelt on the ways in which the alliance between church and state corrupted the purity of Christianity. To bring class discussion into the present, you might point up the ways in which Williams’ and Penn’s arguments are being echoed by some 21st century evangelical moderates who have recently expressed spiritual concerns about the close association between their churches and the conservative political wing of the Republican Party.

Finally, class discussion of this topic might prompt an inquiring young mind to ask, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” Here’s one way to address that point (all the better if you can channel Bill Clinton): “That depends on what we mean by America, what we mean by Christianity, and what we mean by founded.” And then proceed, all kidding aside, to explain, that the first inhabitants of the Americas who founded settlements from present-day Canada to the southern tip of Chile migrated from Asia and that their descendants developed a rich variety of religions, none of which were Christian. As for the rank-and-file Euro-American colonists who founded outposts of empires along the north Atlantic coast many millennia later, they embraced diverse Christian teachings and ritual practices, often intermixed with robust beliefs in the supernatural powers of magic, witchcraft, and astrology, and their attendance at Christian worship ranged from regular to never. And most forced colonists of African descent (whose labor founded the early South’s plantation economies and whose numbers accounted for about one-fifth of British America’s population by 1775) adhered to traditional West African religions or Islam.

In other words, the great mass of ordinary people who “founded” what came to be called “America” did not share any uniform religious outlook. Perhaps for that reason, many scholars have adopted Jon Butler’s view of American religious history (see Awash in a Sea of Faith [1990]) as a long, uneven process of “Christianizing” the inhabitants of the present-day United States. And even if the “founders” of “America” are narrowly defined as those who framed the earliest governments of British North America, their ranks encompassed both proponents of religious establishments who strove to make their colonies Puritan or Anglican polities and advocates for religious liberty who sought to protect the purity of Christianity by divorcing churches from civil power and politics.

Historians Debate

The relation between church and state in British North America is one of those rare topics, which provokes little disagreement among historians. For the most accessible overview, check out Edwin Scott Gaustad’s indispensable classic, Without King, Without Prelate (2nd ed., 1993), the go-to book for boning up on the facts and gathering cribbing good lecture material.

While unsurpassed as a soup-to-nuts introduction to this subject (right through the early nineteenth century), Gaustad’s book overlooks the ways in which the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England made historic headway in separating church and state. In seventeenth century Britain, bishops of the Church of England (which owned a great deal of property) sat in the House of Lords and voted on all legislation. What’s more, church courts and wardens exerted considerable temporal power within every English community. By contrast, in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, there were no church courts empowered to levy fines on offenders against the law, Congregational churches typically held no property (even the local meetinghouse was owned by the town and used to conduct both town meetings and religious services), and ministers, while often called upon to advise the civil magistrates, enjoyed no official role in town or colony governments. All those ways in which New England departed from English practices receive emphasis in Edmund S. Morgan’s introduction to Puritan Political Ideas (1965), a fine anthology of primary sources from the beginnings of settlement up to the American Revolution. It includes short excerpts from the seminal debate between John Cotton and Roger Williams over liberty of conscience—an exchange guaranteed to provoke a lively response from students. And Morgan’s Roger Williams: the Church and the State (1967) remains the best exploration of that pivotal thinker, a short book written with such verve and lucidity that you might consider assigning students to read a chapter or two.

Recent scholarship on the Church of England in the American colonies has convincingly criticized earlier interpretations for understating the vitality of Anglican establishments and their increasing influence and appeal during the first half of the eighteenth century: on that subject, consult Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith [especially Chapter 4] and John Nelson’s state-of-the art study of Virginia Anglicans, A Blessed Company (2001). To learn more about the ways in which the first Great Awakening aroused growing opposition to colonial religious establishments, read Patricia Bonomi’s superb overview of early American religious history Under the Cope of Heaven (1986)[especially Chapters 5&6] and Rhys Isaac’s boffo article, “Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765–1775, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 31 (1974), 345–368 and his splendid book, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 (1982). For the contributions of early New England Baptists to the cause of toleration, dip into William McLoughlin’s New England Dissent, 1630–1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State (1971).

Then there’s The Godless Constitution (1996) by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, an in-your-face polemic against the Christian Right which includes thoughtful analyses of the thought of Roger Williams, John Locke, Baptist leaders Isaac Backus and John Leland, and Thomas Jefferson on the subject of separating church and state. If you agree with the authors’ take on contemporary church-state debates, this book will give your convictions a shiatsu massage. If you don’t, breathe deeply as you turn the pages.

Christine Leigh Heyrman was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1986–87. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and is currently Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial New England, 1690–1740 [1984], Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt [1997], which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998, and Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the Republic, with James West Davidson, William Gienapp, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff [3rd ed., 1997].

Address comments or questions to Professor Heyrman through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “Church and State in British North America.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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