Religion in Revolutionary America

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Digital History ID 3794

Essential Points

1. The American colonies were settled by people of deep religious convictions who crossed the Atlantic to escape religious persecution and practice their faith freely. New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were founded for religious reasons.

2. The Great Awakening of the 1730s and '40s, the first event shared by all the colonists, promoted the growth of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches. It convinced many Americans that God works directly through the people and that Christ's Second Coming was rapidly approaching.

3. Religion contributed greatly to the Revolution. Many clergy pictured the Church of England as a dangerous, almost diabolical, enemy of American freedom and argued that resistance to tyranny was a Christian duty.

4. Both the central and state governments were convinced that morality and national survival depended upon religion. But there was also a growing belief that government and the churches should be separate. Intense debate erupted over the propriety of government providing tax support to an established church or indeed to any churches.

5. The Revolution gave rise to the American System of religious pluralism:

Churches were disestablished, that is, they lost tax support.
Concern about Deism and skepticism led Evangelicals and others to band together to ensure that the United States remained a godly nation. Through camp meetings, religious revivals, and moral reform, revivalists and reformers sought to save souls and save the republic.

Religion and the Constitution

U.S. Constitution, Article VI: "No religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification" for federal office holders.

The 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Questions To Think About

1. Did the Constitution's framers intended to build the 'wall of separation' between church and state?

  • Does the separation of church and state mean that prayer and moments of silence should not be allowed in public schools? li>
  • Does the separation of church and state allow for clergy to participate in graduation ceremonies?
  • Can religious displays appear on public property?

2. What does freedom of religion mean?

  • Does it mean that members of particular religious sects do not have to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school or that they can practice polygamy?
  • Does the separation of church and state allow individuals to bring religious items into the workplace or school classroom?

Interpreting Primary Sources

Reading 1:

Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness…. To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right….

Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, 1786

Reading 2:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all of his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802


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