'A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion': John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment

John Witte Jr.

Emory University School of Law


Journal of Church and State, Vol. 41, pp. 213-252, 1999

Thomas Jefferson described the 1779 Bill for the Establishment of Religious Freedom in Virginia as a novel experiment in religious liberty. The bill defied centuries of Western thought, which advocated one form of Christianity to be established in a community and protected by the state. John Adams was equally excited about the Massachusetts Constitution, which established mild protections for preferred forms of Christian piety, morality, and charity. Both men advocated human rights and religious protection, but had different views of religious liberty. Jefferson argued for disestablishment and free exercise of religion through separationism and religious individualism. Adams articulated the need for one public religion with freedom of private religion. This article discusses Adams model of mild religious establishment and the benefits such an approach could offer.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was rejected due to its abridgement of religious rights. A heated discussion of religious liberty abounded leading up to the vote for the 1780 constitution. The moderate position asked for liberty of conscience and religious pluralism while advocating preference for “true religion.” Some argued for stronger establishment, others warned against the dangers of a state religion. John Adams was asked to draft the religious liberty article of the constitution. The draft imposed duties upon the governor and lieutenant governor to swear an oath to the state and against Catholicism, imposed tithes to support the need for public worship and religious instruction. New denominations would have to win a lawsuit to gain religious recognition. However, the tithing collection system was local and voluntary, and religious societies could pay their minister directly, rather than paying taxes to the state. The article was not ratified by the convention, but the constitution went into effect anyway.

Adams was eclectic and pragmatic in his draft. Adams himself was nondenominational, and well-versed in the Western liberty tradition. He recognized the uncertainty in law, and therefore sought balance between a tempered religious freedom and a slender religious establishment. Adams believed too much freedom would encourage depravity, while compulsion would lead to hypocrisy. Thus, Adams favored a mild establishment of religion, ceremonial and moral in nature. Adams plan was far from perfect. Such an institution would be supported by taxes without direct religious representation. The taxation to support a state religion contradicted the guaranty of religious equality. The article draft directly contradicted a prior article’s guarantee of private religious liberty. Furthermore, a mild establishment of religion could lead to worse forms of establishment. However, Adam’s establishment was also innocuous in its mildness. Such an establishment would keep the state small and efficient. Most importantly, the state would encourage happiness through the promotion of morality and virtue. The article itself ended up being a clumsy and litigious document that was eventually repealed, but the ideas from the article remain today.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 40

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, Religious Establishment, John Adams, Religious Liberty, Religious Rights

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Date posted: March 30, 2011  

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Witte, John, 'A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion': John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment (1999). Journal of Church and State, Vol. 41, pp. 213-252, 1999. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1797864

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John Witte Jr. (Contact Author)
Emory University School of Law ( email )
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)
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