The notion of whether or not church and state should work as one power or two separate ones is an issue that has plagued society since the very development of religion and government. The opinions regarding the ideal relationship between church and state have varied significantly and, ultimately, caused endless disagreements between myriad members of society throughout history. However, one of the greatest disagreements among the population concerning church and state relations also resulted in one of the most advantageous transformations in regards to the relationship between religion and government. While the transformation of church and state relations that occurred from the colonial period to the revolutionary era was undeniably difficult, it also greatly improved the way in which church and state interacted with one another and promoted the important concept of the person as an individual.
As members of the first American colony, settlers in Virginia remained under the oppressive rule of both the British government and the Anglican Church. Upon their arrival in America, the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia “brought that fixed idea with them” that, “without the steady support of those two powerful arms, the church and the state,” they would not survive as a “feeble or struggling young colony” (Gaustad 3). Therefore, it was quickly established upon arriving in America that “the Church of England would be the colony’s official religion, and no other church would be tolerated” (Gaustad 3). In staying true to the strong imposition of the government on religion that England promoted, those who settled in Virginia were required to “attend morning and evening prayer every day and those who ‘˜shall often and willfully absent themselves’ from these divine services would be punished according to the law” (Gaustad 3). Overall, as a colony that remained under British rule and demanded that its members practice religion in accordance with the Church of England, Virginia established early America as a place that not only promoted the detrimental relationship between church and state, but also greatly oppressed, among many other things, religious individuality among its population.
While the majority of the settlers in Virginia were in favor of the relations between church and state, or, at the very least, were not rebelling against the relationship, another religious group arose in New England that questioned whether or not religion and government should be so closely intertwined. In Massachusetts, Puritanism “flourished as the official, tax-supported church” (Gaustad 6). Although many Puritans supported the idea of a close bond between church and state because they could then charge the population taxes in order to fund their churches, there were members of the Puritan religion that did not support the relationship between church and state and actively, and independently, took a stand against it. One such Puritan was Roger Williams. Williams felt that “nothing was more absurd than the setting up of civil power and officers to judge the conviction of men’s souls” (Gaustad 7). Essentially, Williams did not support the government’s interference in matters of religion because it forced many people to have to choose whether to follow their own religious beliefs or the government. Since the punishments for disobeying the government mandated religion were brutally harsh, many people ended up putting aside their own beliefs and risking their own souls in order to avoid such punishments as “the cropping of ears and the burning of tongues” (Gaustad 9). Therefore, once Williams was banished from Massachusetts. he created a new colony named Rhode Island where “liberty of conscience would be assured to every citizen” (Gaustad 8). Although many of the settlers in Virginia and New England were still in favor of a relationship between church and state, primarily for financial purposes, Williams was one of the people that acted according to his own beliefs and opinions and set forth the idea of individuality in terms of choosing one’s own religion without the government intruding.
With the rise of the Dissenters and other individuals who felt that every person should have the right to choose which religion they practiced, Evangelicalism rose to prominence in the mid-eighteenth century. As people who believed that “the essence of pietism or evangelicalism was a movement away from formal, outward, and official religious to personal, inward, and heartfelt religion,” Evangelicals further promoted the idea that, essentially, religion is a very individual matter that should not, and cannot, be guided, controlled, or funded by the government (Noll 43). Established churches felt threatened by Evangelicals because their religion “required only an earnest preacher and an audience of people who were concerned about their souls before God” (Noll 46). With Evangelicalism there also were not any “formal educational requirements for ministers” (Noll 46). By putting forth the idea that people did not need churches in order to practice their religion, Evangelicals were saying that there was no reason for the state to charge taxes for those institutions and, therefore, the government did not need to interfere with religion. Evangelicalism also encouraged the idea that the individual was in control of their religion and their relationship with God. As the concept of individuality or religious freedom that was now supported by the Evangelicals expanded throughout the early American colonies, more people began to approve of the idea of a separation of church and state.
After the Revolutionary War and the creation of the United States of America, the majority of the American population began to see why the disestablishment of religion needed to occur. It simply was not fair to enforce “any sort of religious conformity in either belief or behavior” or to collect taxes “from all for the religious benefit of a few” (Gaustad 21). While the Evangelicals felt that “religion [was] too important to be corrupted by government” and the Enlightenment thinkers felt that the “government [was] too important to be corrupted by religion,” it was clear that the majority of the American population was finally ready for a change in regards to the relationship between church and state (The Enlightenment). Therefore, in 1791, the First Amendment was added to the United States Constitution that stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” which essentially meant that “Congress can render no aid; Congress can do no harm” (Gaustad 29-30).
While the transformation that occurred between church and state from the colonial period to the revolutionary era was difficult and long, the religious liberty that Americans were granted at the end of that journey set the foundations for a country that is open and accepting to every individual and their beliefs.
Gaustad, Edwin S. Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: A History of Church and State in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Noll, Mark A. The Work We Have to Do: A History of Protestants in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Seat, Karen. “The Enlightenment.” University of Arizona D2L website. Fall Semester 2009.