The Establishment Principle in the American Westminster Standards & the Early American Colonies & States

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

The 1st Commandment, Ex. 20:3

“In the second petition [of the Lord’s Prayer] (which is, ‘Thy kingdom come’)…  we pray, that… the church [be]… countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate…”

American Westminster Larger Catechism, #191



Order of Contents

Establishment Principle in the American Westminster Standards
.     Witherspoon

Interpretation of the American 1st Amendment

Early American, Christian, Civil History
.     General Resources
.     Colony & State Constitutions
.           New England
.           Connecticut
.           Delaware
.           Georgia
.           Maryland
.           Massachusetts
.           New Hampshire
.           New Jersey
.           North Carolina
.           Pennsylvania
.           Rhode Island
.           South Carolina
.           Vermont
.           Virginia



The Establishment Principle in the American Westminster Standards


Travis Fentiman, MDiv.



It may be surprising to some that according to the American version of the Westminster Larger Catechism (which many conservative presbyterian church officers vow to uphold at their ordination), we pray in the 2nd Petition of the Lord’s Prayer (‘thy Kingdom come’) that ‘the church [be]… countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate (Isa. 49:23)…’ (L.C. #191).

It is often thought (or conceded) that the American presbyterians in 1788, in attempting to revise out of the Westminster Standards the Establishment Principle

(that the civil magistrate, as a co-ordinate authority under God, is to uphold the natural and moral law of God summarized in all Ten Commandments and to profess, protect, promote and civilly establish the True Religion, circa sacra),

did so inconsistently and left unaltered a number of things in the Westminster Standards which teach this principle.

(For all of the differences between the original Westminster Confession and Catechisms, 1646, and the 1788 American revision, see the article, ‘The 1788 American Revision of the Westminster Standards’, which has a comparative table.)

It is more likely though, given:

(1) the civil, religious, test oaths for office in the early American colonies and states,
(2) that many of the colonies’ and states’ constitutions did in fact have provisions civilly establishing the general Christian religion and forbidding many non-Christian religions from public assembly,
(3) that the federal government and states did have religious laws and provisions, including, often, upholding many or all of the Ten Commandments, and
(4) that the evidence in the American Westminster Standards is consistent with this and itself,

That the American Westminster Standards originally and still presently (2017) teach that the general Christian religion (but not any particular denomination of it) is to be established in the land by the civil magistrate.


The Evidence in the American Standards

The American proof-text that the civil magistrate is to ‘countenance’ (acknowledge and look favorably upon) and ‘maintain’ (in the only way it can by its civil jurisdiction: by legal protection and outward provision for) the Church, is Isa. 49:23, that kings are prophesied in Christian times to be, and are approved to be, ‘nurse-fathers’ to the Church..  The symbolism of this Scriptural picture entails kings, as adoptive-fathers, serving for the outward protection, nourishment, favoring and upbuilding of the Church, which the moral actions of the Old Testament kings were prime examples of.

Isa. 49:23 was historically used as a proof-text for the Establishment Principle..  It is used for the classic statement of this doctrine in chapter 23.3 of the original Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)..  Gillespie and Rutherford discuss the principle under this text in propositions 94-96 of 111 Propositions (1647) and pp. 510-11 & 513 of the Divine Right of Church Government (1646).

While the American presbyterians in 1788 deleted the phrase ‘tolerating a false religion’ (which had civil implications) from the prohibitions of the Larger Catechism on the 2nd Commandment, yet it was still left in American Larger Catechism #108 that the 2nd Commandment required “the disapproving, detesting, [and] opposing [of] all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.”  Thus, civil magistrates, according to their place and calling, are to disapprove and oppose all false worship and remove all monuments of idolatry.

(Note that removing ‘monuments of idolatry’ means not simply removing all idolatry, but it entails removing all things that stand as memorials to past idolatry, being temptations thereto, though they do not entail actual, present idolatry now..  See the Westminster divine George Gillespie on ‘Monuments of Idolatry’.)

The 4th Commandment (about the Sabbath), according to Larger Catechism #118, is “more specially directed to governors of families, and other superiors…  because they are bound not only to keep it themselves, but to see that it be observed by all those that are under their charge.”

‘Other superiors’, of course, includes civil magistrates as civil magistrates are ‘superiors’ and as the Catechism’s answer is proof-texted with Neh. 13:15-17 and Jer. 17:20-22, which speak of Nehemiah (a civil magistrate), all the kings of Judah and all of Judah generally, either upholding or being directed to uphold the Sabbath publicly by their civil authority and power.

The civil magistrate, according to American Westminster Confession 23.1, has been ordained of God ‘under Him… for his own glory’..  The magistrate, of course, can only glorify God if he rules according to God’s natural and moral law (which is summarized in the 10 Commandments, L.C. #98, see also S.C #2)..  Likewise, the rewarding of them that are ‘good’, and the punishing of ‘evil-doers’ in W.C.F. 23.1 (and its proof-texts, Rom. 13:1-4 & 1 Pet. 2:13-14) can only be defined by God’s natural and moral law.

This understanding was confirmed by the Westminster divines and the American Standards by their free use of Old Testament civil examples and case laws to illustrate and proof-text their condemnation of moral sins (see especially the proof-texts in the Larger Catechism on the Ten Commandments, though the same is done throughout the Standards).


The Establishment of non-Denominational Christianity

The most significant treatment of the State’s obligation to religion is found in ch. 23.3 of the Westminster Confession..  The original (1646) paragraph was a detailed explication of what the Establishment Principle practically entailed..  The American presbyterians revised it as follows:

“Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest in such a manner, that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging, every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth, should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief…  and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.”

This paragraph says that the magistrate is not to prefer one Christian denomination above another..

This teaching is often interpreted as being consistent with no religion being preferred above another by the magistrate..  However, as L.C. #191 says that the Christian Church is to be ‘countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate’, the teaching in the American Westminster Confession, 23.3 must be understood as consistent (if the American Standards are not inconsistent) with the positive establishment of non-denominational Christianity.

In addition to this, in accordance with the previous evidence given in the American Standards against the civil toleration of false worship, Sabbath-breaking, and that the magistrate is to rule according to God’s natural and moral law (as summarized in all of the 10 Commandments), W.C.F. 23.3 must be interpreted as consistent with the civil prohibition of the public worship-assemblies of non-Christian religions.



It is plainly evident from history that many of the American colonies and states largely evidenced and were consistent with a civil establishment of a general, non-denominational Christianity (not to mention those states that actually civilly established specific denominations) and the civil prohibition of the public assembly for worship of numerous non-Christian religions.

The American Westminster Standards reflect this political theology and teach it..  Those who teach otherwise must be regarded as out of align with the American Westminster Standards.

To see that the Establishment Principle is the teaching of God’s Word, read the classic, summary exposition and defense of it by Thomas M’Crie: ‘Brief View of the Evidence for the Exercise of Civil Authority About Religion’, which is ch. 7 of his Statement of the Difference (1807).


The Last Question

If the Bible teaches that the State is to establish the True Religion, as the American Westminster Standards teach, the last question is how is the True Religion defined?  If the True Religion was to be established, the practical necessity of answering this question is inevitable.

If Christian creeds differ as to what Christianity is, there must be a standard by which something may be determined to be Christian or not..  This standard is Scripture..  However, the question remains: what does Scripture teach?

The answer to that question can be discerned clearly from Scripture..  The answer is: Reformed (according to the Word of God) Christianity..  Hence, Scotland, from its Reformation in 1560, established (with the consent of its people) the Reformed, True Religion, and in 1647, adopted and civilly established Christianity as defined by the Westminster Standards..  The Westminster Standards were not the production of a narrow party, but the ecumenical platform, derived from the Word of God, by the concurrence of the divines of three kingdoms.

That the Westminster Assembly and Scotland were right, that Reformed Christianity (which is no denomination, but is apostolic Christianity) should be fully, civilly established in the land (in contrast to merely a general Christianity according to the American view), please give careful consideration to the following classic works demonstrating this point from Scripture:

Anonymous – Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty

The author lays out the three main views on the subject near the beginning.  ‘Sects’ and ‘sectaries’ refer to those of erroneous Christian sects.  The main relevant paragraph is about a third of the way down and starts with:

“But, 2., sects and schisms are to be punished as well, though not as much as heresy and idolatry.  There are degrees of faults, and accordingly degrees of punishments…”

Gillespie, George – Ch. 15, ‘Of Uniformity in Religion, Worship of God, and Church Government’  in A Treatise of Miscellany Questions

Brown, John, of Haddington –  Letter 1  (1780)  92 pp.  in The Absurdity & Perfidy of all Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, Popery, in Britain: in Two Letters…  in which the doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith relative to toleration of a false religion, and the power of the civil magistrate about sacred matters…  are candidly represented and defended, pp. 3-95  Buy

Brown (1722-1787) was the grandfather of John Brown of Edinburgh and was one of the leading Seceder ministers and professors of the Scottish Church.

Rutherford, Samuel – A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience  (1649)

ch. 6, ‘Errors in Non-Fundamentals, Obstinately held, are Punishable’

ch. 7, ‘What Opinions may be Tolerated, what Not’

ch. 10, ‘Of Indulgence in Fundamental & Non-Fundamental Errors’


Degrees of Reformation

In working towards the full standard of the reform of all things according to the Word of God, that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in Heaven, it should be well-understood that seeking the height of Reformation according to what Scripture holds forth, is not at variance with progress by degrees.

Desire for the best ought not to be a hindrance to attaining the good..  The Israelites had to take over Canaan a bit at a time, by degrees.

If, through evangelism and teaching, the majority of a nation becomes Christian and seeks to obey and be faithful to her Lord in civil matters (as happened during the Reformation and to some extent in the founding of the American states), it would be a great blessing to have a general Christianity established in America as the American Westminster Standards teach..  From that foundation, further Reformation could be made.

May God’s Word burn in our hearts and in those of our children, that we would desire his glory above our own lives and above all things..  May we trust in Jesus Christ’s will as He prayed it to his Father:


“Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven…”

Mt. 6:10

“I pray…  that they also might be sanctified through the truth…  that they all may be one.”

Jn. 17:15,19,21




John Witherspoon (1722–1794) was involved in the adoption of the American Westminster Confession of Faith, was the first moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (1789), was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and supported the ratification of the American Constitution.

Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Lecture 14, ‘Jurisprudence’ in Works (Edinburgh, 1815), vol. 7, pp. 119-21

“Love to God, and love to man, is the substance of religion; when these prevail, civil laws will have little to do…

1.  The magistrate (or ruling part of any society) ought to encourage piety by his own example, and by endeavoring to make it an object of public esteem.  Whenever the general opinion is in favor of anything, it will have many followers.  Magistrates may promote and encourage men of piety and virtue, and they may discountenance those whom it would be improper to punish.

2.  …It is commonly said, however, that in case any sect hold tenets subversive of society, and inconsistent with the rights of others, that they ought not to be tolerated.  On this footing Popery is not tolerated in Great Britain; because they profess entire subjection to a foreign power, the See of Rome: and therefore must be in opposition to the proper interest of their own state; and because violence or persecution for religion is a part of their religion, which makes their prosperity threaten ruin to others, as well as the principle imputed to them, which they deny, That faith [upholding agreements] is not to be kept with heretics…

3.  The magistrate may enact laws for the punishment of acts of profanity and impiety.  The different sentiments of men in religion ought not by any means to encourage or give a sanction to such acts as any of them count profane.

Many are of the opinion, that, besides all this, the magistrate ought to make public provision for the worship of God, in such manner as is agreeable to the great body of the society; though, at the same time, all who dissent from it are fully tolerated.

And, indeed, there seems to be a good deal of reason for it, that so instruction may be provided for the bulk of common people, who would, many of them, neither support nor employ teachers, unless they were obliged.  The magistrate’s right in this case seems to be something like that of the parent; they have a right to instruct, but not to constrain.”




Thornwell, James – ‘Relation of the State to Christ’  (1861)  8 pp.  being a paper submitted to the first General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church in Dec., 1861, in order to petition the newly formed Confederate States of America (during the War Between the States) to amend their constitution to include the following below.  Sadly the paragraph was not adopted:

“Nevertheless we, the people of these Confederate States, distinctly acknowledge our responsibility to God, and the supremacy of His Son, Jesus Christ, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords; and hereby ordain that no law shall be passed by the Congress of these Confederate States inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.”



Interpretation of the American 1st Amendment

The First Amendment (1791) of the Bill of Rights reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Important factors in understanding the original intent of the 1st Amendment involve apprehending (1) what was historically allowed, in point of fact, under the 1st Amendment, and (2) what the 1st Amendment does not say.

The 1st Amendment only states that:

1.  Federal “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  Whatever powers were not explicitly given to the federal government or denied to the states, are given by the 10th Amendment to the states:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Thus, the states retained the right to establish a denominational religion for themselves, which some of them did, they retaining this arrangement and power, as a matter of historical fact, under the Federal 1st Amendment.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who is recognized as one of the founding fathers of America and was the third president of the Unites States, interpreted the 1st Amendment in this way.  In a letter to the presbyterian minister and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Samuel Miller, Jefferson, then president, wrote on Jan. 23, 1808:

“I consider the government of the U.S. as indicted by the Constitution…  from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the States the powers not delegated to the U. S.  Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general [federal] government.  It must, then, rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.”  (Samuel Miller, The Life of Samuel Miller, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1869), p. 236)

The prohibition in the First Amendment was not that a people were not able to civilly establish their choice of religion.  The line was drawn, rather, that this would not be done across the board at the federal level, but that states would be free to do this according to their specific populace’s preference, the choice being decentralized with the freedom to choose one’s living arrangement amongst diverse states.

Thus states, counties, towns, etc. are free to choose and enforce religious establishments, laws and to prohibit the free exercise of other religions.

2.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Federal congress is left with the power to make laws influenced by and based on religious principles that neither establish a given religion, nor prevent the free exercise of another religion.  Hence there was a significant Christian and Scriptural influence in many of the general laws made by the federal congress in American’s youth.

3.  “Congress shall make no law…”  This does not prevent other branches of the government (such as the Judiciary or Executive) from ruling in accordance with Christian and Scriptural principles.

4.  “Congress shall make no law…”  This does not prohibit Congress, or the federal government or the civil nation as a whole (as evidenced by early American history), from holding and participating in many Christian, religious activities, in seeking the Lord and his will through prayer, the hearing of his Word, etc. and in this, confessing the True Religion, as nature calls us to, as we have light and opportunity, where congress makes no law about this.


It would be a great blessing if the full extent of the liberty of the 1st Amendment was used by the people for the State establishment of Reformed Christianity, having federal laws under-girded by Christian principles and in having civil society involved in Christian activities, it being the confession of our populace and government.

However, all civil government is a minister of God (Rom. 13:1-4) and ought to seek (according to the light we have received) the glory of Christ and the good of his Church in the administration thereof.  In this regard, the 1st Amendment falls short of the glory of God and his Christ (Ps. 2:6-12).

God is the Highest, Original and First Authority above all things; not the law that springs from man’s mind.  Christ is to receive all glory in heaven and on earth (Phil. 2:9-11); not the rights of man or erroneous and corrupt religions.  God’s First Commandment (‘You shall have no other gods before Me’) is of more authority and of greater importance than America’s First Amendment.  America’s constitution needs to be reformed according to the Word of God (see Thornwell above).



Early American, Christian, Civil History



General Resources

Colony & State Constutions

Thorpe, Francis Newton – The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories and Colonies… forming the United States of America, vol. 1 (U.S., AL-D.C.), 2 (FL-KS), 3 (KY-MA), 4 (MI-NH), 5 (NJ-Phil), 6 (Puerto-VT), 7 (VA-Wy, Index)  (1909)  ToC

Shalev, Eran – ‘“A Perfect Republic”: The Mosaic Constitution in Revolutionary New England, 1775-1766′  n.d.  29 pp.


The Sabbath

Kingsbury, Harmon – ‘Laws of the States & Territories relating to the Sabbath’ & ‘Laws of Congress’  9 pp.  being ch. 1 of The Sabbath, a Brief History of Laws, Petitions, Remonstrances & Reports with Facts & Arguments Relating to the Christian Sabbath  (1840)


Early American Political Sermons


American Puritans – Election Day Sermons, vol. 1 (Massachusetts), 2 (Plymouth & Connecticut)  in A Library of American Puritan Writings  (NY: AMS Press)  ToC 1, 2

Sandoz, Ellis – Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, vol. 1 (1730-1788), vol. 2 (1789-1805)  (1991)

ed. Thornton, John – The Pulpit of the American Revolution: or the Political Sermons of the Period of 1776  (1860)  540 pp.

Various – Political Sermons  Mostly around the turn of 1800, including by Timothy Dwight, from the library of Samuel Miller

Various – Election Sermons  Mostly around the turn of 1800  180 pp.

ed. DeMar, Gary – Passing the Torch of Liberty to a New Generation  Buy  (American Vision, 2009)  500 pp.

This is a collection of sermons on civil subjects from the late-1700’s and early 1800’s.  The original copy was a binding together of various separately bound sermons and tracts (which was common in the day), sitting in a library, which had never been published before it was reprinted by American Vision in 2009.

ed. Hall, David – Election Day Sermons  (1996)  219 pp.  ToC

“This anthology of election day sermons contains classic sermons from the founding era by Samuel Langdon, Charles Chauncey, and Samuel McClintock, as well as sermons by D. James Kennedy, George Grant, Terry Johnson, David Hall, and others.”


By Individuals

Kendal, Samuel – ‘Religion the Only Sure Basis of Free Governments, Illustrated in a Sermon the Day of General Election’  (1804)  35 pp.

Thacher, Thomas – ‘The Principles and Maxims on which the Security and Happiness of a Republic Depend: a Sermon… being the day of General Election’  (1811)  32 pp.

“1. It is necessary that they should be imbued with the spirit of religion, and cultivate its practice…  we have embraced the Christian system…” – p. 11

A Layman –  ‘The Statesman’s Manual; or the Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill & Foresight: Two Lay Sermons Addressed to the Higher Classes of Society’  (1832)  231 pp.


Presbyterians & Christianity in the War for Independence

Online Exhibit

Presbyterian Historical Society (PCUSA) – ‘Presbyterians & the American Revolution’



Gardiner, Richard – ‘The Presbyterian Rebellion?’  in Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 5, 2013

“In short, the American Revolution did have a ‘holy war’ dynamic to it that pitted Anglicans against dissenters (who were generally referred to as Presbyterians), and in the minds of the loyalists, the war was fundamentally, at bottom, a Presbyterian rebellion.  It is, without question, an accurate assessment of how King George III and his advocates perceived the American war. Whether that perception was entirely accurate may be another question, but the very fact that it was how they viewed it is an important dynamic…”




Breed, W.P. – Presbyterians & the Revolution  (1876)  205 pp.



Gardiner, Richard – The Presbyterian Rebellion: An Analysis of the Perception that the American Revolution was a Presbyterian War  Abstract  Ref  (2005)  a PhD diss. for Marquette Univ.

Baldwin, Alice – The New England Pulpit & the American Revolution: When American Pastors Preached Politics, Resisted Tyranny & Founded a Nation on the Bible  Buy  (American Vision, 2014)  272 pp.


General Christian Influence


Kingsbury, Harmon – ‘Objection 7: ‘This Nation Acknowledges No Religion’  15 pp. in ch. 5 of The Sabbath, a Brief History of Laws, Petitions, Remonstrances & Reports with Facts and Arguments Relating to the Christian Sabbath  (1840)



Hall, David – The Genevan Reformation & the American Founding  Pre  (2005)

McKenna, George – The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism  Buy  (Yale, 2009)  448 pp.



Early American Colony & State Constitutions
(Spelling has been updated)



New England

The Charter of New England, 1620  (Thorpe, 3.1827)

“James [I], by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc….  We according to our princely Inclination, favoring much their worthy Disposition, in Hope thereby to advance the enlargement of Christian Religion, to the Glory of God Almighty…”


Agreement Between the Settlers at the New Plymouth, 1620  (Thorpe, 3.1841)

In the Name of God, Amen.  We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc.  Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern parts of Virginia:  Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic…  we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod…”


The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England, 1643-1684  (involving Massachussetts, Connecticut and New Haven, in Thorpe, 1.77)

“Whereas we all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely, to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the liberties of the Gospel in purity with peace; and whereas in our settling (by a wise providence of God)…  

2. The said United Colonies for themselves and their posterities do jointly and severally hereby enter into a firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for…  preserving and propagating the truth and liberties of the Gospel and for their own mutual safety and welfare…”




Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, 1638-9  (Thorpe, 1.519-20)

“Forasmuch as it has pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of his divine providence so to Order and dispose of things that we… are now cohabiting and dwelling in and upon the River of Conectecotte…  And well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God…  do therefore…  enter into Combination and Confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced amongst us

1. It is Ordered, sentenced and decreed that there shall be yearly two general Assemblies or Courts…  wherein shall be yearly chosen form time to time so many magistrates and other public officers… Whereof one to be chosen Governor…  which…  shall have power to administer justice according to the Laws here established, and for want thereof according to the rule of the word of God

The Oath of the Governor, for the [Present]

I N. W…. do swear by the great and dreadful name of the everliving God, to promote the public good and peace of the same…  and will further the execution of Justice according to the rule of God’s word; so help me God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

[The oath of every magistrate follows, which is much the same.  See also the Fundamental Agreement, or Original Constitution of the Colony of New Haven, June 4th, 1639, p. 524 near the bottom.]


Government of New Haven Colony, 1643  (Thorpe, 1.528)

“…there shall be a General Court for the Jurisdiction, which shall consist of the Governor, Deputy Governor and all the Magistrates within the Jurisdiction…  which General Court shall, with all care and diligence provide for the maintenance of the purity of religion, and suppress the contrary, according to their best light from the word of God, and all wholesome and sound advice which shall be given by the elders and churches in the jurisdiction, so far as may concern their civil power to deal therein.”


Summary, 1700’s-1800’s

Finlay, Nancy – ‘The Importance of Being Puritan: Church and State in Colonial Connecticut’

“Following the Revolutionary war, religious diversity in Connecticut continued to increase.  In 1784, Connecticut finally passed an “Act for Securing the Rights of Conscience,” that secured religious freedom for those “professing the Christian religion,” of whatever denomination, and decreed they no longer be taxed to support the Congregational church.

But non-Christians could be taxed to support the established church, and Congregationalism remained the established state religion until 1818, when Connecticut passed a new state constitution, replacing the laws of the old colonial charter obtained in 1662.  This was not the end of the power and influence of the descendants of the Puritans, however…”




Constitution of Delaware, 1776, Article 22  (Thorpe, 1.566)

Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall take the following oath…

I, A B, will bear true allegiance to the Delaware State…  do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore: and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.'”




Constitution of Georgia, 1777  (Thorpe, 2.778-9)

“Article 2.  The legislature of this State shall be composed of representatives of the people, as is hereinafter pointed out…

Article 6.  The representatives shall be chosen out of the residents of each county, who…  shall be of the Protestant religion, and of the age of twenty-one years…”




Constitution of Maryland, 1776  (Thorpe, 3.1689-90)

“33.  That, as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such a manner as he thinks most acceptable to Him; all persons, professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religions liberty…  the Legislature may, in their discretion, lay a general and equal tax, for the support of the Christian religion…  And all acts of Assembly, lately passed, for collecting monies for building or repairing particular churches or chapels of ease, shall continue in force, and be executed… 

and every encumbent of the church of England, who has remained in his parish, and performed his duty, shall be entitled to receive the provision and support established by the act, entitled ‘An act for the support of the clergy of the church of England, in this Province,’…

35.  That no other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit, than such oath of support and fidelity to this State, and such such oath of office, as shall be directed by this Convention, or the Legislature of this State, and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.

36.  That the manner of administering an oath to any person, ought to be such, as those of the religious persuasion, profession, or denomination, of which such person is one, generally esteem the most effectual confirmation, by the attestation of the Divine Being…”


The Constitution or Form of Government, etc.  1776  (Thorpe, 3.1700)

“55.  That every person, appointed to any office of profit or trust shall, before he enters on the execution thereof, take the following oath… 

‘I, A. B., do swear, that I…  will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the State of Maryland;’ and shall also subscribe a declaration of his belief in the Christian religion.”




Constitution or Form of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1780  (Thorpe, 3.1889-90, 1908)

We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably…  of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain, and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

3.  As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality:  Therefore, to promote their happiness, and so secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.

And the people of this commonwealth have also a right to, and do, invest their legislature with authority to enjoin upon all the subjects an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid, at stated times and seasons, if there be any on whose instructions they can conscientiously and conveniently attend.


Chapter 6

Article 1.  Any person chosen governor, lieutenant-governor, councillor, senator, or representative, and accepting the trust, shall, before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, make and subscribe the following declaration, viz.:

‘I, A. B., do declare, that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth…  as one qualification for the office or place to which I am elected.’



New Hampshire

Agreement of the Settlers at Exeter in New Hampshire, 1639  (Thorpe, 4.2445)

“Whereas it has pleased the Lord to move the Heart of our dread Sovereign Charles [I] by the Grace of God King etc. to grant license and liberty to sundry of his subjects to plant themselves in the Western parts of America.  We…  considering with ourselves the holy Will of God and our own Necessity that we should not live without wholesome Laws and Civil Government among us… do in the name of Christ and in the sight of God combine ourselves together to erect and set up among us such Government as shall be to our best discerning agreeable to the Will of God…  and binding of ourselves solemnly by the Grace and Help of Christ and in His Name and fear to submit ourselves to such Godly and Christian Laws as are established in the realm of England…  which shall…  be made and enacted among us according to God that we may live quietly and peaceably together in all godliness and honest.”


Constitution of New Hampshire, 1784  (Thorpe, 4.2454, 2460)

“6.  As morality and piety, rightly grounded on evangelical principles, will give the best and greatest security to government, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to due subjection: and as the knowledge of these, is most likely to be propagated through a society by the institution of the public worship of the Deity, and of public instruction in morality and religion: therefore, to promote those important purposes, the people of this state have a right to impower, and do hereby fully impower the legislature to authorize form time to time, the several towns, parishes, bodies-corporate, or religious societies within this state, to make adequate provision at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality:”

[See also this same paragraph in New Hampshire’s Bill of Rights, 1784, Article 61792, Article 6 and 1902, Article 6.]


Part II – The Form of Government

“…Provided nevertheless, that no person shall be capable of being elected a senator, who is not of the protestant religion…”

[The same was true for the House of Representatives and the Executive branch (see pp. 2462-3) and was also the case in the Constitution of 1792 (see pp. 2477,79,91]



New Jersey

The Fundamental Constitutions for the Province of East New Jersey in America, 1683  (Thorpe, 5.2579-81)

“16.  All persons living in the Province who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and Eternal God, and holds themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and quietly in a civil society, shall in no way be molested or prejudged for their religious persuasions and exercise in matters of faith and worship…  

Yet it is also hereby provided, that no man shall be admitted a member of the great or common Council, or any other place of public trust, who shall not [sic] profaith in in Christ Jesus, and solemnly declare that he does no ways hold himself obliged in conscience to endeavor alteration in the government…

Nor by this article is it intended, that any under the notion of this liberty shall allow themselves to avow atheism, irreligiousness, or to practice cursing, swearing, drunkenness, prophaneness, whoring, adultery, murdering or any kind of violence…

20.  That all marriages nor forbidden in the law of God, shall be esteemed lawful…”


Constitution of New Jersey, 1776  (Thorpe, 5.2597-8)

“19.  …that all persons, professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect, who shall demean themselves peaceably under the government, as hereby established, shall be capable of being elected into any office of profit or trust, or being a member of either branch of the Legislature, and shall fully and freely enjoy every privilege and immunity, enjoyed by others their fellow subjects.”


Constitution of New Jersey, 1844

We, the people of the State of New Jersey, grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He has so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations, do ordain and establish this Constitution:”



North Carolina

The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, 1669  (Thorpe, 5.2783-4)

“95.  No man shall be permitted to be a freeman of Carolina, or to have any estate or habitation within it, that does not acknowledge a God: and that God is publicly and solemnly to be worshipped.

97.  But since the natives of that place, who will be concerned in our plantation, are utterly strangers to Christianity, whose idolatry, ignorance, or mistake gives us no right to expel or use them ill; and those who remove from other parts to plant there will unavoidably be of different opinions concerning matters of religion, the liberty whereof they will expect to have allowed them, and it will not be reasonable for us, on this account, to keep them out, that civil peace be maintained amidst diversity of opinions, and our agreement and compact with all men may be duly and faithfully observed; the violation whereof, upon what pretence soever, cannot be without great offence to Almighty God, and great scandal to the true religion which we profess; and also that Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion may not be scared and kept at a distance from it, but, by having an opportunity of acquainting themselves with the truth and reasonableness of its doctrines, and the peaceableness and inoffensiveness of its professors, may, by good usage and persuasion, and all those convincing methods of gentleness and meekness, suitable to the rules and design of the gospel, be won ever to embrace and unfeignedly receive the truth…


The Mecklenburgh Resolutions, 1775  (Thorpe, 5.2786)

“2.  Resolved:  That we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people; are, and of right ought to be a sovereign and self-governing association, under the control of no power, other than that of our God and the General Government of the Congress…


Constitution of North Carolina, 1776  (Thorpe, 5.2793)

“32.  That no person, who shall deny the being of god or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”


Constitution of North Carolina, 1868  (Thorpe, 5.2800)


“We, the people of the State of North Carolina, grateful to Almighty God, the sovereign ruler of nations, for the preservation of the American Union…  and acknowledging our dependence upon Him for the continuance of those blessings to us and our posterity, do…  ordain and establish this constitution.

Article 1, Declaration of Rights

Section 1.  That we hold it to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”


Constitution of North Carolina, 1876  (Thorpe, 5.2836)

Article 6

“Section 8.  The following classes of persons shall be disqualified for office:  First, all persons who shall deny the being of Almighty God…”




Form of Government of Pennsylvania, 1682  (Thorpe, 5.3062-3)

“34.  That all Treasurers, Judges, Masters of the Rolls, Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, and other officers and persons whatsoever, relating to courts, or trials of causes, or any other service in the government; and all members elected to serve in the provincial Council and General Assembly, and all that have right to elect such Members, shall be such as profess faith in Jesus Christ, and that are not convicted of ill fame…”


Charter of Privileges Granted by William Penn, Esq. to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania and Territories, 1701  (Thorpe, 5.3077)

“…I do hereby grant and declare, that no person or persons, inhabiting in this province or territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the civil government, shall be in any case molested or prejudiced, in his person or estate, because of his or their conscientious persuasion or practice…

And all persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, shall be capable (notwithstanding their other persuasions and practices in point of conscience and religion) to serve this government in any capacity, both legislatively and executively…”


Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1776  (Thorpe, 5.3081-2, 3085, 3091)

“Whereas all government ought to be instituted and supported for the security and protection of the community, and to enable the individuals who compose it to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of existence has bestowed upon man;…

A Declaration of the rights of the Inhabitants

2.  …Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship…


Plan or Frame of Government

“Section 10.  …the house of representatives…  each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:

‘I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked.  And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.’

Section 45.  …And all religious societies or bodies of men heretofore united or incorporated for the advancement of religion or learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates which they were accustomed to enjoy, or could of right have enjoyed, under the laws and former constitution of this state.”


Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1838  (Thorpe, 5.3113)

Article 9, Declaration of Rights

“Section 4.  that no person who acknowledges the being of God and a future state of rewards and punishments, shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this commonwealth.”


Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1873  (Thorpe, 5.3121)

“We the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance, do ordain and establish this Constitution.



Rhode Island

Government of Rhode Island, 1641  (Thorpe, 6.3207)

“The General Court of Election…  1. It was ordered and agreed…  that an engagement by oath should be taken of all the officers of this Body now to be elected, as likewise for the time to come… 

‘To the execution of this office, I judge myself bound before God to walk faithfully and this I profess in ye presence of God.'”


Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 1663  (Thorpe, 3212, 3215-6)

“…they have freely declared, that it is much on their hearts…  to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments; and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles, will give the best and greatest obligations to true loyalty:  Now know ye, that we being willing to encourage…  and to preserve unto them that liberty, in the true Christian faith and worship of God, which they have sought with so much travail, and with peaceable minds…

…And that they may be in the better capacity to defend themselves, in their just rights and liberties against all the enemies of the Christian faith, and others, in all respects, we have further thought fit… to create and make them a body politic or corporate… 

…whereby our said people and inhabitants, in the said Plantations, may be so religiously, peaceably and civilly governed, as that, by their good life and orderly conversation, they may win and invite the native Indians of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God, and Saviour of mankind…


Constitution of Rhode Island, 1842  (Thorpe, 3222)

“We the people of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He has so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and to transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations, do ordain and establish this constitution of government.”



South Carolina

Constitution of South Carolina, 1788  (Thorpe, 6.3249-50, 32523255-6)

“III.  …to be elected by virtue of this constitution, they shall jointly in the house of representatives choose…  a governor and commander-in-chief, a lieutenant-governor…  and a privy council, all of the Protestant religion…

XII.  …and that no person shall be eligible to a seat in the said senate unless he be of the Protestant religion…

XIII. …No person shall be eligible to sit in the house of representatives unless he be of the Protestant religion…

XXXVIII.  That all persons and religious societies who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshipped, shall be freely tolerated.  The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed and is hereby constituted  and declared to be, the established religion of this State.  That all denominations of Christian Protestants in this State, demeaning themselves peaceably and faithfully, shall enjoy equal religious and civil privileges…

…And that whenever fifteen or more male persons, not under twenty-one years of age, professing the Christian Protestant religion, and agreeing to unite themselves in a society for the purposes of religious worship, they shall (on complying with the terms hereinafter mentioned) be, and be constituted a church, and be esteemed and regarded in law as of the established religion of the State, and on a petition to the legislature shall be entitled to be incorporated and to enjoy equal privileges.

…each society so petitioning shall have agreed to and subscribed in a book the following five articles, without which no agreement or union of men upon pretence of religion shall entitle them to be incorporated and esteemed as a church of the established religion of this State:

1st.  That there is one eternal God, and a future state of rewards and punishments.
2nd.  That God is publicly to be worshipped.
3rd.  That the Christian religion is the true religion.
4th.  That the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are of divine inspiration, and are the rule of faith and practice.
5th.  That it is lawful and the duty of every man being thereunto called by those that govern, to bear witness to the truth.”




Constitution of Vermont, 1777  (Thorpe, 6.3737, 3740, 3743)

“Whereas, all government ought to be instituted and supported… to enable the individuals who compose it, to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of existence has bestowed upon man…

III.  That all men have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God…  nor can any man who professes the protestant religion, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right, as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiment…  nevertheless, every sect or denomination of people ought to observe the Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.


Chapter 2

Section IX.  …And each member [of the House of Representatives], before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz.

‘I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked.  And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and new testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the protestant religion.’


Constitution of Vermont, 1786  (Thorpe, 6.37523757, 3760)

Chapter I, A Declaration of the Rights

“III.  …Nevertheless, every sect or denomination of Christians ought to observe the Sabbath or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.”


Chapter II, Plan or Frame of Government

XII.  The [House of] representatives…  shall each of them…  before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz.

You do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the rewarder of the good, and punisher of the wicked.  And you do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration; and own and profess the Protestant religion.

XXXVIII.  …And all religious societies, or bodies of men, that may be hereafter united or incorporated, for the advancement of religion and learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates, which they in justice ought to enjoy, under such regulations as the General Assembly of this State shall direct.”


The Constitution of the State of Vermont, 1793  (Thorpe, 6.3762)

 Chapter 1

“Article 3.  …Nevertheless, every sect or denomination of christians ought to observe the Sabbath or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.”




84. A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers, 1779

“…If any person on Sunday shall himself be found labouring at his own or any other trade or calling, or shall employ his apprentices, servants or slaves in labour, or other business, except it be in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity, he shall forfeit the sum of ten shillings for every such offence, deeming every apprentice, servant, or slave so employed, and every day he shall be so employed as constituting a distinct offence.†

† Report, p. 59. Text of Act as adopted is in Hening, xii, 336–7.
Bill was presented by Madison 31 Oct. 1785 and on 14 Dec. postponed to next session; at the Oct. 1786 session it was brought up again, amended by both House and Senate, and passed on 27 Nov. (JHD, Oct. 1785, 1828 edn., p. 12–15, 92; same, Oct. 1786, p. 16–17, 49, 52, 64, 127). The Act as adopted and the Bill as proposed agree except as noted below; Act was suspended until 1 July 1787 (Hening, xii, 410–11).”




Related Pages

Establishment Principle

General Equity

Against Separation from Impure Civil Governments

Church-State Relations

Civil Government

Unity of the Church


Social Covenanting


Scottish Church History

Ten Commandments

Two Kingdoms

Westminster Assembly