Revolution and Religion: The Debate over Religious Establishment
University of Utah
Published in Historia: the Alpha Rho Papers, Vol II.
This paper examines just how radical the American Revolution truly was through the lens of early American Religion by analyzing the effects of the revolution on American churches and the relationship between church and state.
The American Revolution created both an institutional and ideological crisis in American religion. The war itself demanded the involvement of many churches and religious leaders and disrupted religious establishments. This caused the churches to decline and sparked a vigorous debate over the separation of church and state which included the expansion of religious freedom. This increased liberty of thought and action, to believe and to worship, was the greatest effect produced by the American Revolution upon American religion. Legal concessions produced by tolerant American legislation, especially the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, and the pluralism of American society ultimately resulted in the codification of religious freedom in American law as the First Amendment to the Constitution. The cumulative results of the revolutionary period ultimately established an unprecedented degree of religious liberty.
This liberty however, was simply part of a larger debate involving religious establishment. The arguments for a strong connection between political and religious authority differed among the states. Many contended that the piety and morality produced by religion would strengthen American society and government while others felt that political regulation would only diminish individual freedoms and lead to civil and moral abuses. The protestant consensus throughout the country eventually led to greater tolerance towards various denominations (especially Christian churches), and the establishment-not of an official state church-but of a foundation for increased religious activity.
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