Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

Article Index

The American Revolution was more than a political revolution; it was also a social revolution. The whole concept of life in the Colonies changed; the American revolutionaries dismantled the British institutions and created new institutions based on the ideals of the Enlightenment.

The greatest event on the domestic side of the war was the increase of religious freedom. Americans suffered less religious persecution than the Europeans did. There was a small degree of religious persecution throughout the Colonies. The established churches, the Congressionalist Church in New England and the Anglican Church in the South, were the main culprits of this persecution.

The Puritans of New England are the best example of this type of persecution. They made laws and ordinances to such a degree that they were inadvertent creators of discontent and other Colonies. The establishment of Rhode Island as a refuge from religious persecution in Massachusetts is an example. This persecution spilled over into the political sector of colonial life. For example, only Congregationalist and Anglican Church members could hold public office in Northern and Southern colonies respectively.

The revolutionary elite saw religion as backward, closed and a hindrance to social growth. They were totally against any form of organized religion. Many of the revolutionary elite practiced Unitarianism or Deism. Unitarians saw Jesus Christ as a great teacher. Deists saw God taking only a small part in creation, then sitting back and shaking his head and letting the world continue on its own. This devotion came from the ideas of the Enlightenment. Because of this, they became devoted to institution religious and political freedom.

The established churches attempted to protect their privileged position in the colonies. This battle went on throughout the colonies, particularly in Virginia and New England. In Virginia, the battle was against the Anglican Church. In 1776, the House of Burgesses passed the Virginia Bill of Rights. Many Anglicans challenged this statement because they refused to accept the death knell of the established church in America. The two men behind this Bill of Rights were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Both men disliked established organized religion because the established church was a British institution.

The Bill of Rights relieved non-Anglicans from the burden of supporting the Anglican Church through taxes. The state governments suspended this form of taxation for one year and continually renewed this suspension thereafter. This supporting of a church that you did not belong was exactly like taxation without representation, only it was in the realm of religion.

In an attempt to solve this problem to their advantage, the Anglicans, led by Patrick Henry, gathered their forces and came up with the idea of the general assessment, a user fee. The money collected from this assessment would support all churches. Washington and Marshall supported this idea. In 1784, James Madison waged an effective one-man campaign against the general assessment idea. It was so effective that, by 1785, the general assessment plan was dead. In 1786, the Virginia legislature passed the statute of religious liberty. This statute gave Americans the freedom to go to and support the church if they so choose, or they did not have to do if they so choose.

In New England, the battle was against the Congregationalist church. The colonies included in this fight were New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. In these colonies, outdated puritanical laws were written off the books. The Congregationalists like the Anglicans in the South proposed a modified general assessment plan. This modified plan said that the Congregational Church would receive all of the raised revenue and there would be no religious freedom. However, this plan extended toleration to Quakers and dissenters.

On the national level, a general assessment plan was proposed. This proposal of 1785, which set aside church land, was defeated because there was no unanimous consent within congress. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance set aside land for schools that the founding fathers hoped would teach the ideas of the Enlightenment to future generations. The battle over the established church ended in 1791, with the acceptance of the first amendment to the Constitution. This amendment declares that the government shall make no laws establishing a religion, nor could it prohibit religious freedom.