restricted access America's Whiggish Religious Revolution: An Instance in the Progress of History
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America's Whiggish Religious Revolution:
An Instance in the Progress of History

A revolution in religious culture and politics began in Britain's North American mainland colonies during the 1770s. This unprecedented movement toward religious liberty, nonsectarianism, and public civility was never undone. There would be no retreat, no Thermidorian Reaction. While it is true that a handful of states took several decades to grant full political rights to non-Protestants, the progressive character of religious liberty during this period is undeniable. Unlike earlier periods of reform in America and Europe, when regime changes and confessional instability often made religious peace a transient thing, the Revolutionary era inaugurated a durable, if at times strained, period of religious coexistence. It survived both an unprecedented influx of Catholic immigrants to a Protestant country and the rise of radically innovative and powerful religious communities. In fact, rather than being exceptions to an early American tradition of religious tolerance, as some historians have argued and even more have implied, early outsider groups such as Roman Catholics and Jews reaped tremendous benefits.1 Describing the novelty of the circumstances facing American Catholics in 1784, the future bishop John Carroll wrote: "in these United States our religious system has undergone a revolution, if possible, more extraordinary than our political one."2

The tolerance that prevailed by the 1780s made almost all previous tolerationist regimes in the Western world, as well as in colonial North America, look halting and limited. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, European states were just getting around to making or expanding policies of toleration. Some of these same states had long traditions of inter-confessional peace, but almost always on the condition of legal inequality. Until the French Revolutionaries pulled the Catholic Church up by its roots, exclusionary establishments were universal. Toleration meant that religious minorities were "dissenters," as they had long been in much of British North America. By contrast, religious liberty in the new United States entailed an unprecedented commitment to the principle of religious equality, or at least substantive gestures in that direction. The American revolution in religious liberty was also distinguished by its durability. Changed social customs and formal legal arrangements proved crucial in this regard, as did the relative absence of anticlericalism and secularism. Yet it was the ineluctable force of widely accepted principles, particularly religious liberty and nonsectarianism—the consistency they demanded, the equity they extended, and the portability they provided—that made the revolution an enduring phenomenon.

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John Rubens Smith's 1812 sketch of Beth Elohim synagogue, Charleston, South Carolina. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-DIG-ppmsca 05439].

The move to enshrine religious freedom at the founding reflected the structure of inequality and discrimination that preceded it. Into the 18th century, general proscriptions on movement, speech, assembly, and writing restricted the circulation of religious ideas in the majority of colonies. Itinerant ministers could be jailed, church buildings could be restricted or prohibited, and dissenting worship could generally be made both difficult and degrading. Official recognition and public visibility were privileges that only established churches enjoyed. In addition to their substantial advantage in creating and controlling the physical spaces of worship, the established churches sometimes possessed a monopoly on political officeholding.

The new federal and state constitutions systematically unraveled the tangle of restrictions on dissent. They included provisions for mundane instruments of worship such as the right of all churches to hold property directly, hire and fire clergy, build respectable edifices, and accept contributions from their members. On the spectrum of rights granted in this period, religious freedoms were about as inclusive as the great common law privileges (such as the right to trial by jury) and far more inclusive than voting privileges. One of the extraordinary things about the American revolution in religious liberty was that it did not just provide for a universal right of individual judgment, or the rights of groups in specified areas, but instead protected the rights of almost all religious groups no matter what their particular circumstances.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the American revolution in religious liberty was the relative absence of anticlericalism...