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How government influenced and regulated churches when our nation was young

How government influenced and regulated churches when our nation was young

The separation of church and state is a value enshrined in the American ethos, but how that works in real life is a source of controversy. Conservative generally want churches to have wide latitude and soverignty in their internal affairs while liberals generally like the government to steer clear of anything that even looks like a state preference for things religious. In debates about marriage equality and tax exemption for churches, every side cite the early history of our nation as the model and guide. But what if both sides are wrong about how the government and religion interacted when our republic was young?

Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says that during the early decades of American life, state authorities interfered heavily in the affairs of churches. In the process, concepts such as lay accountability and leadership, democratic governance, individual conscience and tolerance were embedded into the fabric of American faith and values.

The Economist:

While the non-establishment clause prevented Congress from proclaiming any kind of  pan-American religion, individual states moved more gradually to dislodge privileged sects; Massachussets, the last holdout, did so only in 1833. As they slowly ended the theocratic regimes which were typical of the Old World, the states looked for a new way to manage religious life, and most found a solution in the corporation: an arrangement under which churches could organise themselves, manage assets, limit their liabilities and ensure continuity. But as the professor stresses, early religious corporations were subject to very tight legal restrictions. They generally limited, to a few acres, the amount of land a church community could own, and to few thousand dollars, the annual income it could receive. Above all, it was mandated that lay trustees should hold and manage church property.

In important ways, the young republic forced religious bodies to become more lay-controlled, accountable and democratic, even if the religions in question (like Roman Catholicism) had a priestly, hierarchical tradition. The appointment of a Catholic priest was still the prerogative of a bishop, but the lay trustees of a parish could refuse to pay the salary of priest they did not like, as Ms Gordon noted in a recent podcast discussionorganised by the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

As was pointed out by her co-discussant Mark Silk, professor of “religion in public life” at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the early history of his own university exemplifies Ms Gordon’s main point: in early America, religious “autonomy” was subject to tough conditions which the state authorities did not hesitate to enforce. Trinity College was founded by Episcopalians, to the mild dismay of the Congregationalists who dominated Connecticut. They grudgingly allowed the college to have a specific denominational ethos, but insisted that it be open to students and professors of all religious hues.


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Brother Tom Hudson

Some more interesting history: in Maryland, the Vestry Act governed all Episcopal parishes (in Maryland, Easton, and Washington, DC until 1896) at the state level from 1798 until 1957:–232.html

Philip Snyder

Actually until the 14th amendment was ratified, it was common for the courts to say that the 1st Amendment applied only to the federal gov’t and not to the states. Most states did have 1st amendment protections, but not all and many states had restrictions on religious practice.

Philip Snyder

Note that almost all of this happened before SCOTUS determined that the 1st Amendment (indeed, the entire Constitution) applied to the States as well as the Federal Gov’t.

TEC was actually the state religion of Virginia for a while after the Revolution and received tax money from the State.

John Chilton

Must not have been for long! That would have been a holdover from colonial times when London held sway over the Virginia colony’s political/religious affairs. In short order, the post-revolution state government instituted laws aimed at the Anglican/Episcopal church which was tainted by the privileged position it held before the revolution and the proportion of tories in its ranks, particularly the clergy. Even so, the point about empowering the laity wasn’t merely a dictate of the state. Given the Atlantic — the distance from ecclesial authority — the colonial church was by nature lay dominated.

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