“Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship, who only doth enlighten the Minds, and persuade and convince the Understandings of People, I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge Our almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and professes him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their consciencious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or suffer any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion. And that all Persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, shall be capable (notwithstanding their other Persuasions and Practices in Point of Conscience and Religion) to serve this Government in any Capacity, both legislatively and executively…”
Similar statements are found in Georgia’s founding documents, such as its 1732 charter, which stated: “[R]epresentatives… shall be of the Protestant religion… All persons whatever shall have the free exercise of their religion; provided it be not repugnant to the peace and safety of the State; and shall not, unless by consent, support any teacher or teachers except those of their own profession.”
William Penn signing a treaty with Indians
Pennsylvania – which was a refuge for the persecuted Quakers – included many such statements in its founding documents, including in its 1681 charter a requirement that all elected representatives to take the “following oath or affirmation: ‘I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.’ And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this state.”
New York was founded by the Dutch West India Company, whose members were predominantly from the Netherlands’ Dutch Reformed Church – and traditionally tolerant of other Christian faiths. In fact, nearby Massachusetts was founded by Puritans who had fled to the Netherlands after being persecuted by the Church of England. They set off for America, believing they were called by God to establish “new Israel,” a holy commonwealth based on a covenant between God and themselves as His people.
New Hampshire and Connecticut were also officially Puritan. Connecticut’s 1662 charter declared: “Our said people, Inhabitants there, may bee soe religiously, peaceably and civilly Governed as their good life and orderly Conversacon may wynn and invite the Natives of the Country to the knowledge and obedience of the onely true God and Saviour of mankind, and the Christian faith, which in our Royall intencons and the Adventurers free profession is the onely and principall end of this Plantacon.”
The Puritans en route to Massachusetts
Rhode Island was founded by Baptist Roger Williams, who was banished from Massachusetts because he preached that the true church was a voluntary association of God’s elect and should not be dictated by any government – either the Church of England or the Puritans.
It was into this mixture that the Continental Congress strode, hoping to avoid what James Madison termed the “erroneous idea of a national religion.” But did he and the other authors of the Constitution and Bill of Rights create an absolute wall between church and state?
“Jefferson’s famous metaphor is a good but imprecise description of the complex view of the framers,” writes Meyerson. “They generally opposed the federal government financing religion or using sectarian language. However, despite what many ‘strict separatists’ believe, the framers were not afraid of all mention of religion in the public arena.
“As presidents, both Madison and Jefferson, like Washington before them, employed sincere religious language in their inaugurals. Madison gave his pious supplication to ‘the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations.’
“Jefferson said: ‘I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose
hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land.’”