"Freedom of Religion"

Psalm 30 - 2 Kings 5:1-14 - Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Homily for Morning Prayer, July 7, 2019 (Dr. Suzanne Bowles)


Our topic today is freedom of religion in one particular aspect that is often overlooked today.   Most people, certainly in America today, think of freedom of religion as meaning freedom of worship with perhaps some overlap with freedom of speech.  But I want to focus on a freedom which we take for granted and that is freedom from having to pay taxes for the support of a state church.

From the 400s (when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire) the main way of funding churches was through taxes.  Upside: no stewardship campaign!

In 1689 the English Parliament passed the Toleration Act.  This granted freedom of worship to all Protestants.  Prior to this, going back to the break with Rome, the Church of England was the only church.  All others were illegal.  Their adherents had to meet in private homes.  Now other Protestant denominations could worship publicly in their own buildings.  However, everyone regardless of religious affiliation still had to pay taxes to fund the Church of England (still the case today).

In the 13 colonies that later became the United States the religious scene was a very mixed bag.  The C of E was not the established (state-supported) church in all colonies.  The C of E was established in only VA, SC, and parts of NY.  Some colonies, including NJ, had no state religion at all. MA and CT had a state supported church, but it was not Anglican.  It was Congregational.

After independence the idea of a state or established church was seen as iequitable In 1786 VA disestablished the C of E.  In 1780 MA still kept a mandatory church tax but allowed the individual to designate a church other than Congregational if so desired.  The only remaining states with a church tax were CT & MA.  CT abolished theirs in 1818 and MA in 1833.

Wait a minute, you’re thinking.  What about the First Amendment?  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  That was ratified in 1791.  But it was seen at the time as applying only to the federal government, not the states.

These were the arguments for and against the notion of a state-established religion.

  • Pro: an established church promoted public order and reminded people of their duty to God; the good works that the church did (e.g. run schools) benefitted the whole society so everyone should pay for it.
  • Con: religion is a personal choice and a matter of individual conscience; why should anyone be forced to contribute to a church to which he/she doesn’t belong to.

People who held the “pro” view were predicting doom and gloom, but the opposite proved true.  The churches in America in the 19th century, now forced to rely solely on voluntary contributions, entered a period of incredible expansion and vitality. As the country expanded geographically the Gospel was preached everywhere – on the frontier and in eastern cities.  This became known as the 2d Great Awakening.  These same churches and individual Christians also began an incredible period of social reform, e.g. hospitals, orphanages, prison reform, treatment of the mentally ill, etc.  many of the organizations they founded still exist today.

In conclusion, let us remember the freedoms we enjoy and all those who fought and sacrificed for them.