tepid religious establishments
To be sure, tepid religious establishments continued into the nineteenth century in three states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire). But even in those states, the idea of a religious establishment was not particularly popular, and opposition to tax assessments and religious preferences was strong and growing. Experiencing pressure from within and without, officials in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire denied they even had a religious establishment. John Adams referred to the Massachusetts arrangement as “a very slender one, hardly to be called an establishment,” whereas New Hampshire Chief Justice Jedediah Smith declared in an 1803 decision that
a religious establishment is where the State prescribes a formulary of faith and worship for the rule and government of all the subjects. Here the State do [sic] neither. It is left to each town and parish, not to prescribe rules of faith or doctrine for the members of the corporation but barely to elect a teacher of religion and morality for the society, who is to be maintained at the expense of the whole. The privilege is extended to all denominations. There is no one in this respect superior or inferior to another.
And in commenting on the Connecticut establishment, jurist Zephaniah Swift wrote in 1791 that “every Christian may believe, worship, and support in such manner as he thinks right, and if he does not feel disposed to join public worship he may stay at home as he pleases without any inconvenience but the payment of his taxes to support public worship in the located society where he lives.” Smith denied that Connecticut maintained a religious establishment, which he associated with systems that favored one church exclusively.
By the final decade of the eighteenth century, however, the New England argument that nonpreferential establishments did not violate rights of conscience was losing ground to the more compelling arguments found in Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and Madison’s , against Religious Assessments. Increasingly, early Americans believed that tax support of one religion or of religion generally violated rights of conscience. By the time of the writing of the Constitution, “the belief that government assistance to religion, especially in the form of taxes, violated religious liberty had a long history,” writes Thomas Curry. The movement away from religious assessments and toward expanding notions of rights of conscience demonstrates the transformation in attitudes about church-state arrangements.
Church-State Separation in the Nineteenth Century
Whether the prevailing regime is best represented by the Jeffersonian impulse of a “high wall of separation” or by a more accommodationist impulse that acknowledges the role of religion in public life through actions such as presidential proclamations of days of prayer and thanksgiving, there is little question that the separationist narrative runs into difficulties once one considers the nineteenth century. Indeed, the impetus toward achieving a more complete form of disestablishment foundered early in the next century. Attitudes about disengaging religious and temporal realms shifted as natural rights rationalism lost favor to a new Protestant evangelical ethos that came to dominate the nation culturally by the second third of the century. This attitudinal shift affected perspectives toward church-state relations.
Several factors contributed to this transformation in attitudes. First was the American reaction to the French Revolution and the subsequent decline in deistic thought in the United States. That reaction coincided with the wide-scale outbreak of evangelical revivals after 1800, commonly called the Second Great Awakening. Spurred on by spiritual longing, frontier conditions, and the vacuum left by disestablishment, America entered a period of religious experimentation, what historian Jon Butler has termed a “spiritual hothouse” and what Shakers called a period of religious “democratization.” While many people experimented with heterodox forms of spirituality such as Mormonism, transcendentalism, and Mesmerism, the clear winners were Methodists and Baptists.
Church membership tripled, and Protestant evangelicalism quickly became the dominant cultural expression in America, fueled by a post-millennialist eschatology (which taught that the Second Coming of Jesus would occur at the conclusion of a thousand-year golden reign). Society was, in a sense, perfectible, and America would be at the vanguard of bringing about Christ’s Kingdom. To facilitate the Second Coming, evangelical leaders created voluntary organizations designed to reform society by addressing issues such as intemperance, biblical illiteracy, and Sabbath observance. Evangelical leader Lyman Beecher believed that moral reform assisted the government by ensuring public piety. Reform societies would “constitute a sort of moral militia, prepared to act upon every emergency, and repel every encroachment upon the liberties and morals of the State,” Beecher insisted. “In a free government, moral suasion and coercion must be united.” These efforts brought reunited civil and religious functions in America. Even though this engagement now operated on an informal level, not officially, the middle third of the nineteenth century (more than the colonial period) was truly a “Protestant Ages,” the historian Robert T. Handy has noted.