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The Evolution Of American Conceptions Of The Role Of Religion In The State: 1630–1789

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Just over one and a half centuries prior to the enactment of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established how the relationship between religion and the state would be defined there. In 1630, Governor John Winthrop explained this model in his sermon entitled A Model of Christian Charity. He said that the colonists who were about to establish Massachusetts Bay were entering into a covenant with God. Winthrop’s expectation was that if they were obedient to the covenant, God would “please to heare us, and bring us in peace to the place wee desire, [and] hath hee ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission. . . .” If they were to fail in their commitment to the covenant, God would “surely breake out in wrathe against us, be revenged of such a perjured people and make us knowe the price of the breache of such a Covenant.” In short, the Puritans were establishing a Christian colony: religion and the state would be unified on the basis of a covenant with God.

A great shift in the American conception of religion’s role in the state would take place over the course of the next 160 years. In 1787, when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, they did not intend to follow the Puritan model. Rather than uniting religion and the state, thereby creating a Christian nation, the Convention intended to establish an environment in the new republic wherein the state would not interfere with the individual consciences of its citizens in religious matters. Religious freedom4 would be guaranteed in the United States. The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), writing in 1689, stated in his Letter Concerning Toleration, that “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.” While this statement affirming individual religious freedom—without any state compulsion—may be universally agreed upon in contemporary times, it was a revolutionary idea by the eighteenth century. Western society, since at least the empire of Constantine in the fourth century, had agreed that religion and the state were partners in bringing order and providing identity to a nation. The argument for the unity of religion and the state, modeled by the Puritans in particular was taken for granted by Westerners for centuries. To draw a stark contrast between that time and our own, Edwin Gaustad stated, “We of today ask where the state left off and the church began; they of yesterday can only shake their heads in wonderment at so meaningless a question.” Locke’s statement in the Letter is passed over today as a given, but it was radical to Locke’s readership in 1689, and was still innovative at the time of the founding of the United States.


John D. Wilsey

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Associate Pastor, First Baptist Church, Charlottesville, VA