Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

One Public Religion, Many Private Religions: John Adams and the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution

26 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2005  

John Witte

Emory University School of Law


John Adams is gaining new respect today both for his political shrewdness and his religious wisdom. Both these talents were on full display in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution that Adams largely crafted. Striking a via media between defenders of the traditional Congregationalist establishment and religious dissenters, Adams' constitution established one public religion but granted freedom to all peaceable private religions. This juxtaposition reflected Adams' political and religious philosophy. Every state and society, he believed, had to establish by law some common values and beliefs to undergird and support the plurality of private religions that it embraced. The notion that a state and society could remain neutral and purged of any public religion was, for Adams, a philosophical fiction. Absent a commonly adopted set of values and beliefs, politicians would invariably hold out their private convictions as public ones. But every state and society also had to respect and protect a plurality of forms of religious exercise and association. The notion that a state could coerce all persons into adherence and adherents to a single established religion alone was, for Adams, equally a philosophical fiction. Persons would make their own private judgments in matter of faith and conscience, even if they pretended to conformity.

Keywords: Public Religion, Constitution

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, One Public Religion, Many Private Religions: John Adams and the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. THE FOUNDERS ON GOD AND GOVERNMENT, Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry R. Morrison, eds., pp. 23-52, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)

Paper statistics

Abstract Views