And in 1786, the Virginia legislature snuffed out the last vestiges of the state’s religious establishment by passing Jefferson’s bill for religious freedom.
It provided that “…no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” It marked a signal victory for Madison and Jefferson.
At the same time, many Americans who cleaved to Christian orthodoxy—especially those who dissented from former or current religious establishments—were determined to ensure that no denomination would enjoy the unfair advantage of government support.
Both groups supported the separation of church and state, with Virginia’s bill for religious freedom providing the model.
In the decades after 1790, all of the states abolished taxpayer support for religion and religious tests for office-holders, and state courts, deeming that churches were private institutions, ruled that religious bodies could not receive public funding to provide education or poor relief.
Even so, those changes proceeded slowly: religious tests persisted in some states until well into the nineteenth century, and religious establishments lingered in New England, with Massachusetts maintaining its Congregationalist “Standing Order” until 1833.Divining America 17th & 18th Centuries 19th Century 20th Century 17th & 18th Century Essays Native American Religion in Early America Deism & the Founding of the US Puritanism & Predestination The Legacy of Puritanism Witchcraft in Salem Village The First Great Awakening Religious Pluralism in the Middle Colonies Church and State in British North America The Church of England in Early America Religion, Women, & the Family Religion & the American Revolution Divining America is made possible by grants from the Lilly Endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.Divining America Advisors and Staff In 1773, it came to the notice of a weedy, bookish, young Virginian that some Baptists were languishing in a nearby jail.But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there or twenty gods or no God.It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” That reasoning persuaded many Virginians, Anglicans and evangelical Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, to affix their signatures to Madison’s petition, thus dooming Henry’s general assessment scheme.Even for Virginia’s government to sponsor all Christian religions, as Henry proposed, would establish a dangerous precedent, for “Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” Jefferson’s (1785) echoes a similar conviction: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.“What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his [Henry’s] death,” Jefferson joked in a letter to Madison.By 1785, Madison was pursuing another strategy: he composed a petition to the Virginia legislature entitled “A Memorial and Remonstrance.” Following Locke, Madison argued that to promote any religion was outside the proper scope of limited government.But the founding generation could not foresee our concerns: what consumed them was answering the needs of their present and avoiding the pitfalls of the past.Those steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment were determined to ensure that the religious wars which had wracked Europe would not engulf the new republic and that its clergy and churches would not acquire the wealth and influence which would enable them to play a prominent role in civil government.