Amdt1.2.2.4 Colonial Conceptions of Religious Liberty

First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Although the colonies did not grant full religious freedom as the concept would be understood today, some nonetheless refrained from establishing an official state-sponsored church and granted more religious liberty than, for example, Virginia or the Puritan colonies.1

Rhode Island granted more religious liberty than other New England colonies. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was expelled from Massachusetts Bay for criticizing the Puritan government and arguing for a stronger separation between church and state.2 Williams was himself a Puritan minister who sought to propagate the “true church” —but he believed this could be achieved only by maintaining “a wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes[s] of the world.” 3 In a pamphlet published in England, Williams argued against civil persecution for matters of conscience, writing that civil states should not be the judges of spiritual matters.4

Rhode Island’s royal charter granted liberty of conscience, providing that no person would be “molested, punished, disquieted or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion,” so long as the person did not “actually disturb the civil peace.” 5 To preserve this civil peace, however, the civil government prohibited crimes such as adultery and fornication, and required observance of the Sabbath.6 Furthermore, the colony adopted laws limiting citizenship and public office to Protestants.7 Nonetheless, Rhode Island did not adopt criminal laws persecuting the few Catholic and Jewish people residing within the colony,8 and in contrast to other New England colonies, Rhode Island generally found no reason to charge Quakers with breach of the civil peace.9

Pennsylvania also granted some religious liberty. William Penn, a Quaker, founded Pennsylvania in 1681 as a “holy experiment” in religious liberty.10 Accordingly, the initial laws for the colony granted religious freedom to all theists, providing that anyone who would “acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world” could not “be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice” or “compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.” 11 Although the diverse religious groups in Pennsylvania had social and political disagreements, they did not face persecution from the government for their religious beliefs alone, as they did elsewhere.12 While this made Pennsylvania unusually tolerant for the era, the colony still limited office-holding to Christians, forbade work on the Sabbath, and prohibited a variety of “offences against God” such as swearing, drunkenness, and fornication.13

In addition to Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, discussed here, New Jersey also did not have an established church. Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms 72 (1986). Cf. Sanford Hoadley Cobb, The Rise of Religious Liberty in America 416 (Johnson Reprint Corp. 1970) (1902) (saying instructions from the crown to support the Church of England “kept up the fiction of an establishment in New Jersey” ). Further, although Georgia established the Church of England, it also guaranteed freedom of religion to non-Catholics and tolerated significant religious diversity. Cobb, supra, at 419; Curry, supra, at 152–53. For a definition of religious “establishment,” see supra Amdt1.2.2.1 Introduction to the Historical Background of the Religion Clauses. back
Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America 88–89 (2003). back
Roger Williams, Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered (1644), reprinted in The Sacred Rights of Conscience 147 (Daniel L. Dreisbach & Mark David Hall eds., 2009); see also Curry, supra note 1, at 15, 17. back
Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644), reprinted in 5 The Founder’s Constitution 48–49 (Philip B. Kurland & Ralph Lerner eds., 1987). back
Rhode Island Royal Charter, 1663, R.I. Sec’y of State, (last visited June 14, 2022). back
Curry, supra note 1, at 20–21. back
Leo Pfeffer, Church State and Freedom 85 (rev. ed. 1967). back
Id.; see also Curry, supra note 1, at 90–91 (saying that Jewish people in the colony “were free to practice their religion” but “did so as second-class citizens,” and claiming that “Catholics never came to the colony in numbers sufficient to test its liberality” ). back
Curry, supra note 1, at 23. back
Lambert, supra note 2, at 102 (quoting a letter from William Penn to James Harrison). See also William Penn, Frame of Government of Pennsylvania (1682), in The Sacred Rights of Conscience, supra note 3, at 117. back
Laws Agreed Upon in England, &c, 1682, in The Sacred Rights of Conscience, supra note 3, at 118. back
See, e.g., Lambert, supra note 2, at 114. back
Laws Agreed Upon in England, &c, 1682, in The Sacred Rights of Conscience, supra note 3, at 118–19. back