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

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

37 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2011 Last revised: 14 Jan 2020

See all articles by John Witte

John Witte

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 1999


Massachusetts was the last of the original 13 American states to disestablish religion, having been founded in the early seventeenth century as a bastion of Puritanism.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 moved part way toward disestablishment by guaranteeing freedom and equality to all peaceable private religions but also retaining what leading constitutional draftsman John Adams called a “mild and equitable establishment of religion.” This consisted of (1) a ceremonial establishment, reflected in public religious language, symbols, rituals, and oaths supported by the state; (2) a moral establishment, reflected in the virtues and values to be taught in state schools and universities and exemplified by elected officials and other public figures; and (3) an institutional establishment, reflected in mandatory tithe payments, required Sunday worship, and other supports for Congregational churches.

Adams advocated this balance of a tempered religious freedom and a slender religious establishment as the best political compromise between hardline establishmentarians and radical separationists in the state. But this view also reflected Adams’ own political and religious philosophy that too little religious freedom is a recipe for hypocrisy and impiety, while too much religious freedom is an invitation to depravity and license. Too firm a religious establishment breeds coercion and corruption, while too little religious establishment allows secular prejudices to become constitutional prerogatives. Somewhere between these extremes, Adams believed, a society must find its balance. This was a strikingly different view of religious freedom than the strict separation of church and state views advocated by Adams’ long time friendly rival, Thomas Jefferson.

The balance between freedom and establishment that Adams advocated was reflected in the 1780 Massachusetts constitution and was defended in a series of famous state cases authored by Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons. But in 1833, Massachusetts amended its constitution to outlaw the institutional establishment of religion, notably the state tithing system, even though the state retained its ceremonial and moral establishments.

Keywords: John Adams; Massachusetts; Establishment of Religion; Religious Liberty; Religious Rights; Freedom of Conscience; Free Exercise of Religion; Tithing; Sunday Worship; Oaths; Religious Corporations; Thomas Jefferson; Theophilus Parsons

Suggested Citation

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: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1797864

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