Starting Points Journal: JMC Fellows on the First Amendment and Early American Religion

Landing of the Pilgrims

Starting Points Journal: “Early American History: Religious Exercise and Establishment”

By Glenn Moots


“The ‘free exercise’ of religion protected by the First Amendment, together with prohibition of national establishment, reflects a long debate at the colonial and provincial levels in 150 years preceding the amendment’s ratification. Changes in both law and religious belief altered the shape of toleration and liberty in the American colonies. This debate took place in the context of a much older conversation about religion’s role in the formation of good rulers, good citizens, and a good polity. Ecclesiastical and civil authority long contended with one another in the Christian world, beginning with statements by Jesus and the Apostles that one’s conscience may stand against civil authority (e.g., Matthew 22:21, John 19:11, Acts 5:29, Hebrews 11:23).  Furthermore, Protestant rejection of papal authority in the sixteenth century was perceived to necessitate increased civil authority over religion.

Religious toleration and liberty in Britain and America did not reflect a declining interest in religion so much as an intense but more diverse interest in religion. While colonists desired to protect private and public piety, they increasingly disagreed about what true piety meant. Greater diversity of religious interests and ideas, introduced by both immigration and proliferating Protestant theologies, forced Americans to accept the idea of a civil sphere operating despite theological disagreement. In states with an established religious tradition, such as Massachusetts or Virginia, toleration enabled worship by dissenters (albeit with varying degrees of restrictions) who still provided financial support for the established denomination. Over time, however, dissenters and nonconformists enjoyed religious liberty—worship or ordination free of imposition and without taxes to support a denomination to which they did not belong…”

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Starting Points Journal: “Catholics and the First Amendment”

By Michael Breidenbach


“On the morning of April 6, 1789, Daniel Carroll opened the front door of his apartment and stepped onto Maiden Lane in New York City. A gentleman of considerable landholdings, he had recently traveled over 200 miles from Maryland to New York in order to join the other newly elected members of the first Federal Congress. Walking in the rain against a ‘violent Wind’ that had greeted pedestrians that morning, he turned left onto Nassau Street, named after the royal dynasty that included King William III and a reminder of the anti-Catholic Revolution of 1688 that the Dutch monarch had helped to secure. Yet four blocks later Daniel Carroll entered a new institution, the US House of Representatives, where he would challenge this anti-Catholic legacy. Within the history of Anglo-American politics, Daniel Carroll’s presence in the newly remodeled Federal Hall for the first session of Congress was a quiet but momentous occasion. He was Catholic, yet he held a political office whose equivalent position in Britain had been denied to Catholics since the English Reformation. Carroll’s presence in Congress signaled a remarkable double transformation: an American political culture more accessible to Catholics and a Catholic political theology now supportive of church–state separation and religious liberty.

A few months later, when Madison proposed his first draft of what would become the First Amendment, Daniel Carroll was the only Congressman to support the measure explicitly. In his speech in Congress on August 15, Carroll maintained that the amendment merely articulated what was the general sentiment concerning the right to religious liberty…”

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Starting Points Journal: “The 19th Century View of the First Amendment”

By Jonathan Den Hartog


“In 1801, a group of Connecticut Baptists wrote the newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson hoping that he would affirm their religious liberty and oppose the Congregationalist church establishment in their state. These leaders of the Danbury Baptist Association asserted to Jefferson that “Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty… That no man ought to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions.” Jefferson saw in the letter an opportunity to score political points, so he and his cabinet carefully crafted a reply. The result was his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson famously stated:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State…

More than just affirming existing conceptions of religious liberty, Jefferson defined a “wall of separation” that would divide the operations of the Church and the State much more fully than American society had previously accepted.

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Glenn MootsGlenn Moots is Professor and Chair of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University. He is the author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology (University of Missouri Press, 2010) and co-editor (with Phil Hamilton) of Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American War of Independence (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). He has also been published in American Political Thought, Locke Studies, and Perspectives on Political Science, and in edited collections on religion and politics.

Professor Moots is a JMC faculty partner.

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Michael BreidenbachMichael Breidenbach is Research Associate at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Ryan Center at Villanova University, and Assistant Professor of History at Ave Maria University (on research leave). His research interests concern the history of political, legal, and religious thought, especially in early America and the Atlantic World. He has particular interests in religious liberty, church and state, and the relationship between religion and politics. His recent work has also been published in William and Mary Quarterly, Perspectives on Political Science, The Things that Matter: Essays Inspired by the Later Work of Jacques Maritain, and Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833.

Professor Breidenbach is a JMC fellow.

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Jonathan Den Hartog is Department Chair and Professor of History at Samford University, where he specializes in American history and American religious history. Previously, he served as the Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Northwestern. Professor Den Hartog has written extensively on the political outlooks of the Founders, and his work includes several journal articles, book reviews, and blog posts. He has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, the American Antiquarian Society, the University of Notre Dame, and Northwestern College.

Professor Den Hartog is a JMC fellow.

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