Religion During the American Revolution and the Early Republic

Silvio Ferrari, ed., LAW & RELIGION (Ashgate Publishing Co., U.K., 2013)

University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-30

22 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2012 Last revised: 29 Dec 2012

See all articles by Carl H. Esbeck

Carl H. Esbeck

University of Missouri School of Law

Date Written: December 30, 2012


This paper is part of an anthology on Law and Religion that will appear in volume 1 of the collection under the heading Historical Introduction to Law and Religion in the West. The editor requested an extended essay concerning religion and religious liberty in the American War of Independence and its aftermath. The paper will be juxtaposed with another on the French Revolution, providing a comparison for the role religion played in these events that continue to shape the world. In addition to the War itself, which unfolded over 1775 – 1783, changes within American Protestantism had a leveling effect on society and, during the early years of the republic, the political and religious culture exalted liberty, individualism, and the voluntary church.

The Quebec Act of 1774 illustrates the degree to which American patriots reacted against Roman Catholicism. In the act Parliament preserved the established role of the Catholic Church in French Canada, including public funding and full sanction by Great Britain. British tolerance of the Catholic establishment drew harsh protests from Congress, even mention as a grievance in the revered Declaration of Independence. American sensitivity was to Old World political uses of religion. The patriots believed that a fully-empowered Catholic hierarchy to the north and west of them would bring Old World intrigues involving the Roman Church. To be an American was to be in sympathy with Protestantism, to be Protestant was to be republican, and to be republican was to oppose Catholic absolutism. Moreover, the British were departing from their constitutional commitment to representative government when they unilaterally imposed taxes and other oppressive acts on their colonial subjects. This was seen as an offense to each American’s inalienable rights. The resulting breach of the Lockean social contract legitimated armed rebellion. Where American patriots might have suffered divisions due to religion, the denominations instead united in support of the Revolution. The unity of Protestants among themselves (excepting Quakers and Church of England) and with the Enlightenment-rationalists behind the War-time effort was widespread. Notwithstanding divergent theological and philosophical ideas, there was a general set of beliefs on which Protestants could agree. Rationalists, in turn, were able to join with Protestants regarding an organization of the central government which respected conscience and left authority over religion in the States.

In 1783, Congress under the Articles of Confederation received a petition from the Papal Nuncio in Paris. The Catholic Church in France sought recognition of a Catholic bishop in the United States. Congress replied that such matters were not its jurisdiction, but that such power was reserved to the States. With the French scheme exposed, embarrassed Catholics in the United States contacted authorities in Rome to open an American bishopric that would deal directly with the Vatican. This is an example of Catholic intrigue that Americans abjured.

The last major act of the Confederation Congress was passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It was rushed to completion by the Ohio Company, a venture by New Englanders willing to tender cash needed by Congress to pay war debts. Consistent with the establishmentarian leanings of New Englanders, the Company wanted glebes in the territories for the support of religion. Members of Congress outside New England opposed glebes and were able to force their no-aid view into the final draft of the Ordinance. This was an early example of American continental government embracing the voluntary principle.

In the federalist republic instituted in 1789, once again jurisdiction over religion was primarily reserved to the States. Disestablishment was not spurred forward by the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Rather, disestablishment was a state-law affair that had been progressing in some colonies when they first adopted constitutions in 1776, and which spread state-by-state until completed in Massachusetts in 1833.

As the Revolution subsided, America witnessed a dramatic rise in Protestant expansion and influence on the broader culture. So extensive were the alterations by a more populist and personal Christianity, that this period is called the Second Great Awakening (1790s - 1820s). During this time it was voluntaryistic religion that served as a seedbed for ordinary citizens, imbuing them with the civic virtues to sustain the nascent republic.

Keywords: American Revolution, American War of Independence, Quebec Act, Northwest Ordinance, anti-Catholicism, Continental Congress, Articles of Confederation, Voluntary Church, Disestablishment, Second Great Awakening, Religious Liberty, Law and Religion, Religion at the American Founding

Suggested Citation

Esbeck, Carl H., Religion During the American Revolution and the Early Republic (December 30, 2012). Silvio Ferrari, ed., LAW & RELIGION (Ashgate Publishing Co., U.K., 2013), University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-30, Available at SSRN:

Carl H. Esbeck (Contact Author)

University of Missouri School of Law ( email )

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