The Impact of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia’s Religious Diversity on America’s Constitution
On Tuesday, April 30, 1789, a crowd gathered at the Federal Hall Building in New York City. General George Washington had taken his place near the banister of the second-floor balcony. Those gathered below had come to witness the inauguration of America’s first President. Washington looked down on the people, a microcosm of the nation’s multitude of religious faiths. Those who stood shoulder to shoulder in the street were Quakers, Congregationalists, Catholics, Jews, and others from more than a dozen faiths. A hushed crowd strained to hear the presidential oath of office. Yet, the multi-religious crowd heard no profession of Washington’s faith. Article Six of the new Federal Constitution ensured there would be no religious test required of any leader in the new republic. A short time later, the First Amendment would protect the religious practice of all American’s and ensure no one religion would dominate government power.
As a result of the religious diversity of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the new Federal Constitution had to include Article Six and the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights in order to protect the religious freedom of all. The religiously persecuted sects (Catholic and Quaker) had fled to the American colonies to avoid ill-treatment, only to then perpetrate the same oppression on others.
In the past, most kings and clergymen in most of Europe had sought to keep people from other faiths out of power. Catholics wanted to prevent Protestants, and Protestants wanted to keep Catholics from gaining power. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia’s experience with religiously-motivated power struggles and the oppression of minority groups gave the authors of the Constitution a clear picture of the necessity of the “no religious test” clause and the First Amendment’s free exercise and anti-establishment clauses in the Federal Constitution.
In the literature on the issue of what drove Article Six and the First Amendment’s inclusion in the Constitution and Bill of Rights was an influential man, Joseph Story. In 1833, Story, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, published Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, which dissects the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Story argued that the religious history of both England and the colonies made those at the Constitutional Convention uneasy. Without the “no religious test” clause in Article Six, it would not be difficult for one religion to gain enough power at the national level to institute religious test requirements and secure absolute power. Therefore Article Six, “cut off for ever every pretense of any alliance between church and state in the national government.”
As for the First Amendment, Story used transcripts from the constitutional convention’s debates on religion’s bloody past, both international and domestic, as the primary motivator for the Amendment’s ability to “cut off the means of religious persecution.”
Taking the opposite position to Story was Garrett Ward Sheldon’s essay “Religion and Politics in the Thought of James Madison.” Sheldon argued that the intent of the First Amendment was the promotion of all forms of Christianity, not protecting non-Christians from persecution.
Others like Howard L. Lubert see the Founders’ choice of church-state separation as a way of preserving the dignity of faith. In Lubert’s essay “Benjamin Franklin and the Role of Religion in Governing Democracy,” he revisits the conundrum that Pennsylvania’s Quaker government found itself in during the Revolutionary War. The pacifist Quaker colony chose to support the war effort by providing money for food. This, Lubert said, meant that “the Quakers appeared hypocritical,” because they claimed to be pacifists yet supported a war. For this reason, according to Lubert, church-state separation is important for preserving the reputation of the faith.
However, Sheldon and Lubert both fail to engage the religiously diverse backgrounds of the states fully. Since their colonial establishment, the states had been impacted by religious diversity. The religiously diverse population of the nation necessitated the protection of the federal government from religious ideology with Article Six and the First Amendment’s free exercise and anti-establishment clauses. Without these checks in place, those in power could easily preserve the mistreatment of people from minority religious groups. The delegates were aware of the failures of the states. Sadly, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia were guilty of the abuse of religious minorities.
Pennsylvania was the first state examined for its religious diversity and intolerance. William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681. Penn’s father was an Admiral in the Royal Navy and a war hero. During Admiral Penn’s commission, he paid out of his pocket for supplies with the understanding that he would be reimbursed. The repayment did not come in the Admiral’s lifetime.
For a long time Admiral Penn’s son, William Penn, had been living beyond his means. Over a million pounds in debt, Penn needed a way to raise capital. He petitioned King Charles II in 1681 for repayment of the debt owed to his father with a charter for a colony. Once granted the charter, Penn launched a hugely successful marketing campaign. At the time immigration to the American colonies was down, yet Penn was able to entice enough investors and immigrants to place almost fifty ships of people and supplies in the new colony from 1682 to 1683.
Penn’s motives for establishing the colony were not strictly financial. He wanted to establish a religiously tolerant colony. Penn’s vision was of many religions living in peace; He called this a “Holy Experiment.” Pennsylvania soon became home to large numbers of Quakers and Catholics. While Penn was a savvy businessman and interested in religious liberty, part of his success was the fact that many Quakers left England due to heavy persecution. The jailing of Quakers was common, as was corporal punishment that included whipping, tongue mutilation or branding. The jailing was so rampant that up until 1698 an estimated 15,000 suffered incarceration, and more than 400 died while imprisoned. In spite of the poor treatment, not everyone wanted to leave England. Those Quakers who stayed behind did so because they thought the persecution was a sign that they were “God’s chosen people.”
Penn established the religiously tolerant colonial government in tandem with Quaker religious beliefs. Penn’s 1682 Frame of Government of Pennsylvania stated, “Government seems… a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end.” In other words, in his view, religion had an important place in government.
However, Pennsylvania legislators made changes over the years to the Frame of Government. In 1696, the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania added a residency requirement for voting, an attempt to keep the growing non-Quaker population from the polls. Additionally the Frame mandated that elected people “will make and subscribe the declaration and profession of Christian belief…” with an exemption for Quakers, who “instead of an oath make their solemn affirmation or declaration.” By 1698, all political offices were held by Quakers. Minority faiths had their rights suppressed, including the right to petition for the chance to exercise their religion.
The religious power struggle did not end with the war for independence. The 1776 Constitution of the state of Pennsylvania required elected officials to make a declaration of belief in the God of the Holy Bible. This requirement was not taken lightly by the Jewish population who in 1783 and 1787 attempted to have the religious requirements for office removed from the state’s constitution. These religious tensions would not have gone unnoticed by Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
Maryland was the next state examined for its religious diversity and intolerance. When the colony was first envisioned, Sir George Calvert wanted Maryland to be a Catholic refuge. Earlier, Calvert had worked for King James I from 1609 to 1620 as royal commissioner to the Virginia colony. During a visit to Virginia, he explored the Chesapeake Bay. In 1625, Calvert resigned his position in the King’s court because he had converted to Catholicism. James I accepted the resignation and gave Calvert the title of Baron of Baltimore. Calvert then petitioned King Charles I for a charter establishing the colony of Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay area, the area he had explored many years earlier. Calvert, however, died before receiving the charter. Therefore, it was granted to Calvert’s son Caecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, in 1632.
The Catholics left England because, like the Quakers, they suffered persecution. King Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic Church, confiscated the church’s land, and established himself as the head of the Anglican Church. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Catholic nobility and statesmen had to give an oath, swearing allegiance to the queen over the pope.
Lord Baltimore had a second motive for establishing the colony: money. As a result, the colony marketed itself as religiously tolerant. The premise was that a religiously tolerant colony would attract more immigrants who wanted to buy land, than if the colony limited immigration to Catholics. Maryland passed a Religious Toleration Act and was also home to a large number of Quakers.
However, in spite of the Calvert’s best efforts to maintain religious harmony, on two separate occasions the Religious Toleration Act was repealed. The first repeal was in 1654 when the Protestant controlled-government was able to rescind the act. At the same time, the legislators attempted to ban Catholics from living in the colony. Maryland’s colonial government reinstated the act in 1658. The second repeal was a the succession of Protestant co-rulers King William and Queen Mary to the throne.
Finally, the crown took Maryland from the Calvert family. In 1692, the colony’s new royal governor effectively removed all Catholics and Quakers from office by imposing a religious test and an oath. Early in the 18th century, Maryland officially adopted the Church of England as the colony’s sponsored church. In 1718, anyone who would not take the Oath of Supremacy (Catholics and Quakers) lost the power to vote. It was not until 1776 that Maryland’s new government changed its laws, making it possible for Catholics to vote and hold public office.
Virginia was the last state examined. Unlike Maryland and Pennsylvania, the colony of Virginia was an economic enterprise. This is evident in Virginia’s first charter granted by King James I in 1606. The charter makes no mention of spreading the Christian faith. It is not until the 1612 Third Charter of Virginia that Christianization of the native population is mentioned. However, by 1607 the first Anglican Church opened to parishioners in Jamestown. It soon became Virginia’s established church and remained so until 1786. “[Virginia’s] General Assembly legislated for…[the established church to be]…supported… through taxation, and protected against competition.” Quakers and Baptists were the religious people Virginian Anglican’s most often took issue with. By 1662 Virginian laws imposed fines on ship captains if they brought Quakers immigrants into the colony. Additional laws against dissenters (Baptists and Quakers), ranged from fines for not attending the established church to banishment if apprehended, for a third time, in groups larger than five.
Without change, the delegates believed, the cycle of religious persecution and power monopolies like those seen in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia would continue. In 1787, at the Constitutional Convention, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a delegate from South Carolina, suggested an addition to the constitution, “no religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office under the authority of the United States.” The clause went to the committee of five. Ten days later the clause read, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the United States.” The delegates voted to include the clause in the Constitution.
Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew of their states’ religiously turbulent past and continued religious tensions within the states. Daniel Carroll was among Maryland’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Carroll came from a catholic family. Under the limiting property laws in England, Carroll’s ancestors had turned over their property to the Crown, rather than convert to Protestantism. In colonial Maryland, the family endured the suppression of their rights. In Carroll’s own lifetime he had gone from not having the right to vote to holding an elected office and representing Maryland at the Constitutional Convention. Maryland was the only state to split their vote on Article Six.
Pennsylvania voted unanimously in the affirmative for Article Six. The state’s keystone delegate was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s parents raised him in a faith-based tradition. Franklin’s father sent him to the Latin School for a year with aspirations of his son growing up to be a Puritan minister. The schooling did not take. At the time of the Constitutional Convention Franklin was an old man. In his lifetime Franklin had witnessed the mistreatment of minority faith groups within his own state. He was also aware of the ongoing fight to remove the state constitutional requirement for elected officials to declare belief in the God of the Holy Bible. Franklin and his fellow state delegates united in their support of Article Six.
The last state examined was Virginia. One of Virginia’s delegates at the Constitutional Convention was the aforementioned-James Madison. Raised in an Anglican home, Madison had a strong personal faith. After graduating Princeton University, he briefly considered becoming a minister before deciding to study law. In 1776, Madison was elected to the Virginia Convention, where he worked to ensure church and state separation. In 1786, Madison and Thomas Jefferson secured the passage of the Statute for Religious Freedom that dissolved Virginia’s established religion. In 1787, Madison’s work on the Constitution ensured that those who represented the nation could be as religiously diverse as the nation’s population.
In spite of Article Six passing so easily, the Constitution was not without criticism. In The Godless Constitution, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore remind the reader that in 1787, “one of the most powerful criticisms of the Constitution… was [its indifference] to Christianity and God.” Article Six of the Constitution also establishes the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.” At the convening of the Constitutional Convention, nine state constitutions had a religious prerequisite for those elected to office, and nine had an established church. After the ratification of the Federal Constitution states began to slowly follow the precedent and changed their constitutions to be more like the Federal Constitution.
Where Article Six ended in the separation of church and state, the First Amendment picked up. Madison crafted the opening of the First Amendment carefully. He wanted to make clear that Congress did not have the ability under the enumerated powers, or the necessary and proper clause to change what followed, “Congress shall make no law.”
Madison understood religions fickle interpretations, “… religion… may become a motive to oppression as well as a restraint from injustice.” He had seen for himself, in Virginia, how those in power were able to strip the rights of others away. Madison knew if enough people supported it, a state-sponsored church would be adopted. Therefore, the wording had to be clear; the government would never be able to establish a church or infringe on the rights of citizens to exercise their faith.
It was not a need for the preservation of faith’s reputation that religion and government were separated by the constitution. Nor was it to promote all forms of Christianity. If this had been the goal of the constitution, it would have been written with wording as clear as the early colonial documents and state constitutions. The purpose of Article Six and the First Amendment was to prevent power monopolies by faith groups that could then wield the nation’s power to persecute its citizens based on faith. The religious power struggles that bloodied most of Europe had followed immigrants to the colonies and lasted, in most states, until the ratification of the Federal Constitution. Clearly the states understood the intention, because states followed the precedent of Article Six by removing religious oaths and the First Amendment by dismantling state sponsorship of churches.
Before stepping out onto the Federal Hall balcony in April of 1789, to become America’s first president, George Washington had been the president of the Constitutional Convention. The states had grown from colonies that had failed to accomplish interfaith religious harmony, the goal of Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Washington knew of the religious tensions within the states that had created a need for Article Six and knew of Madison’s drafting of the Bill of Rights. Article Six and the First Amendment made religion an establishment separate from the government, allowing Washington, born and raised in the Anglican Church, to hold the highest office in America.