America’s Revolution Against Toleration: The Rise of True Religious Liberty

Postwar Politics (>1783)

September 2, 2019
by Brian Patrick O'Malley Also by this Author


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In 1793, a widely circulated American editorial observed, “A few years ago, to say of any man that he was ‘a friend to toleration,’ was to place his temper in the fairest point of view.” By the 1790s, people knew better. “Now every friend to the rights of man perceives that toleration was founded on usurpation and oppression.” The writer described a “revolution” in “the minds of the enlightened.”[1]

Toleration, in this context, meant permitting the exercise of religion other than the established national or state religion, but only while still paying tithes to the national or state church. Also certain honors, like holding public office, were reserved only for members of the established church.[2] Toleration, as Americans then understood it, was inherently unequal both in terms of tithes and in the limits that it imposed.

While the revolution against toleration was pioneered by luminaries like James Madison and Benjamin Franklin, the leader who most promoted this revolution in American thinking was Welsh economist and clergyman Richard Price. America’s founding generation adored him. During the Revolutionary War, Price delivered sermons and published pamphlets defending the American cause. Grateful for his efforts, the Continental Congress offered Price American citizenship in 1778, along with a post as a financial advisor. Price politely declined the honor, but the offer illustrated American admiration for the Welshman.[3]

Before the tumult of the Revolutionary War, American colonists associated toleration with tax support for an established church. England’s Toleration Act (1689) stipulated that non-Anglican Protestants still owed their tithes to the Church of England. Baptists, Quakers and others “dissenting” from the official church still owed their tithes to the established denomination, whether Congregationalist in much of New England or Anglican in much of the South.[4]

In 1760, Congregationalist minister and future Yale president Ezra Stiles tried to prove that colonies with Congregationalist establishments were more lenient than Episcopalian establishments. In colonies with Anglican establishments, Stiles wrote, taxes supported only the Church of England “and dissenters are not exempted from contributing.” Stiles overestimated the ease with which New England Baptists and Anglicans could redirect their tithes from the local Congregationalist cleric to a pastor of their own denomination. Stiles thought “other sects scarcely know that they are tolerated dissenters, so happy and mild is our dominion.”[5]

Stiles recognized a distinction between “toleration” and “liberty.” Liberty meant no establishment, that is, no tax-supported denomination. A person was free to give as much or as little as he wished to the church of his choice. Rhode Island, for instance, enjoyed “universal equal protestant liberty” because no denomination could “enforce their ministerial contracts at law.” New Jersey and Pennsylvania had “universal liberty as in Rhode-Island.”[6] Baptist doctrine shaped Rhode Island. Quakerism shaped Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—colonies with no religious establishment. Stiles acknowledged religious liberty in certain colonies, but only in passing; his focus was on proving that Congregationalist toleration was better than Anglican toleration.[7]

Richard Price, left, and Ezra Stiles. (New York Public Library/Library of Congress)

In the 1760s, Presbyterian and Congregationalist debates with Anglicans made toleration an ominous word. The prospect of an Anglican bishop in the colonies worried the Calvinist denominations. In 1768, Boston Congregationalist minister Charles Chauncy warned that pro-bishop Episcopalians wanted to extend “no other privilege to dissenters but that of a bare toleration.” A 1769 essay, probably by William Livingston, denounced “laws that secure to English dissenters” nothing more “than a bare toleration under intolerably burdensome impositions.”[8]

Some Americans tried to redefine “toleration” in a way that precluded tax support for an established church. In 1765, North Carolina Lt. Gov. William Tryon, the acting governor, remarked, “I never heard Toleration in any Country, made use of, as an argument to exempt Dissenters from bearing their Share of the Support of Established Religion.” In 1770, a baffled defender of New England’s Congregationalist establishments complained, “In Virginia and Maryland all denominations pay ministerial rates to support the episcopal clergy, and did any man ever complain that the paying this tax was inconsistent with the act of toleration, or liberty of conscience?”[9]

In the 1760s, Americans struggled with the limits of toleration. In 1776, Americans accelerated their rejection of toleration. In May 1776, the Continental Congress urged the colonies to found new governments. In what became the first state constitutions, Americans began dismantling toleration. On May 15 the Virginia Convention assigned a committee to draft a Declaration of Rights as a preamble for a Virginia Constitution. The committee entrusted the work to George Mason. In one article, Mason wrote that “all Men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion.” The committee edited Mason’s draft and presented it to the Virginia Convention. On May 29, the Convention ordered the printing of the Declaration as a leaflet for the perusal of the delegates. For many years, the draft version was more well-known than the actual Declaration of Rights.[10]

The committee retained the word “toleration” from Mason’s draft. In later years, James Madison speculated that Mason “inadvertently” used the term toleration, based on its familiarity from English law. For Madison, toleration was not enough.[11] Madison, twenty-five, was a delegate from Orange County. He long remembered being “young and inexperienced,” and was reticent around his distinguished colleagues. He drafted an amendment to the article on religion and asked Patrick Henry to present it.[12]

Madison’s first proposal was too radical for the Convention. He proposed a second revision and enlisted another intermediary, Edmund Pendleton, his cousin and a staunch Anglican. Madison’s idea prevailed. Virginia lawmakers ratified the Declaration of Rights with an assertion that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion,” with no mention of toleration.[13] James Madison and Virginia’s rejection of toleration was largely unknown outside Virginia. The Virginia Gazette published the committee’s preliminary version on June 1, and newspapers around the country reprinted the preliminary draft.[14]

The Declaration of Rights appeared in four Virginia editions of the state constitution from 1784 to 1805, but United States Congressional compilations of the state constitutions did not include Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. Jonathan Foster’s 1811 edition of The Constitutions of the United States, According to the Latest Amendments was the first edition to include the Virginia Declaration of Rights.[15]

On January 11, 1777, Presbyterian minister William Tennent III spoke before the South Carolina House of Assembly in support of a petition from Dissenters. The petitioners objected to exclusive tax support for the Church of England and called for equal civil rights for Protestants of every denomination. Claiming Protestant dissenters “stand upon the same footing with the Jews,” Tennent explained, “No body molests them. But would it, Sir, content our brethren of the Church of England, to be barely tolerated? That is, not punished for presuming to think for themselves.”[16] Despite Tennent’s denunciation of toleration, state lawmakers ratified the 1778 South Carolina Constitution with the provision that all monotheists “shall be freely tolerated.” The 1778 Constitution also designated the “Christian Protestant religion” as “the established religion of this State.” Despite a declared establishment, the 1778 Constitution eliminated tax support for churches.[17]

Writing under a pseudonym in 1778, New Jersey Gov. William Livingston compared his state’s “free constitution” to “British tyranny.” The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 did not eliminate religious tests altogether. Consistent with the colonial regulations excluding Catholics, the 1776 Constitution opened public office to every denomination of Protestant. In comparison, toleration in England ostensibly excluded Protestant Dissenters from military offices and most public offices. The New Jersey Constitution prohibited tax support for church and clergy, while England forced Dissenters to support the established church.[18]

Livingston wrote of toleration, “I call it persecution, because it is harassing mankind for their principles.” Livingston asked, “For what are the civil disqualifications, and the deprivation of certain privileges . . . but so many punishments?” Livingston explained, “As contradistinguished indeed from actual prohibition, a permission may doubtless be call’d a toleration.” An English dissenter enjoyed the exercise of religion, but with “penalties and forfeitures,” he “certainly does not enjoy it freely.”[19]

In December 1778, Thomas Paine wrote, “The toleration act in England, which granted liberty of conscience to every man, in religion, was looked upon as the perfection of religious liberty.” Paine called toleration “a species of tyrannic arrogance.” Paine declared, “In America we . . . do not grant liberty of conscience as a favor but confirm it as a right.” By rejecting toleration, Paine believed Americans “have in point of justice exceeded every part of the known world.”[20]

In the pamphlet Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, Benjamin Franklin assured immigrants that in America, “serious Religion, under its various Denominations, is not only tolerated, but respected and practised.” Franklin published the essay sometime before March 1784.[21]

From 1776 to 1784, American disparagement of toleration was varied. Livingston mentioned “civil incapacities” (banning religious dissenters from office) but he also mentioned fines and forfeitures. Tennent focused specifically on religious taxes. In 1784, Welsh clergyman and economist Richard Price focused anti-toleration on religious tests.[22] In his 1784 opus, Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution, and the Means of Making it a Benefit to the World, he included a chapter on religious liberty. He wrote, “In liberty of conscience I include much more than toleration.”[23] According to Price, “Toleration can take place only where there is a civil establishment of a particular mode of religion; that is, where a predominant sect enjoys exclusive advantages . . . but at the same time thinks fit to suffer the exercise of other modes of faith and worship.”[24] He expressed his disappointment at religious tests for office in several American states. Eligibility for office, Price believed, should extend to people of every religion. Price wrote, “Montesquieu was probably not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States . . . deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?”[25]

Price sent a bundle of the pamphlet to Richard Henry Lee, President of the Continental Congress, for distribution to every member seated in that body, and sent copies to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington, who may already have received it from Lee. Thousands of other Americans had opportunities to read Price’s Observations. American publishers printed the book in Boston in 1784; in New Haven, Trenton, and Philadelphia in 1785; and Charleston in 1786. Newspaper publishers through the United States published Observations in serial form.[26]

The widespread publication of Price’s Observations prompted Americans to link toleration with religious tests. In a 1786 essay for The New-York Packet, “S.” wrote, “Though the United States of Holland enjoy the honor of having first introduced into Europe, a spirit of religious tolerance, neither this power, nor Great Britain, can vie with the American States in this article; as those of their subjects who are not of the established religion, are deprived of the advantages of sustaining offices of government.”[27]

American clergymen echoed Price’s message. In a 1786 sermon, Congregationalist preacher Thomas Barnard of Salem, Massachusetts, described an inglorious past: “The road to civil distinction and honours was barred against all, who were not of the same religious profession with the majority: One Church reigned supreme, and suffered others to exist only by toleration.” Perhaps Barnard read Price’s Observations in January 1785 editions of the local paper.[28]

In a July 4, 1787 sermon before the militia of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, Episcopalian cleric Uzal Ogden observed, “Some powers it is true, as England, and Holland, boast of their religious toleration; but if a subject is not of the established religion in those countries, can he sustain any office of government? Their spiritual liberty therefore is defective.” Ogden had an opportunity to read Price’s remarks on toleration in the local paper.[29]

In 1784, Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush published a pamphlet urging the revision of a Pennsylvania law passed on October 1, 1779. The 1779 law was not an explicit religious test, as it did not require a voter or an officeholder to espouse or disavow a certain doctrine. (England’s Test Act [1673], for instance, required officeholders to disavow the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation.) The 1779 test law was still a violation of conscience for many Pennsylvanians, as it implied a willingness to participate in a war of defense. This requirement disenfranchised Quakers and German pacifists like the Mennonites.[30] No Pennsylvanian could vote or operate a school without taking the pledge. In his pamphlet denouncing the law, Rush begged state lawmakers to “open the doors of freedom in Pennsylvania to all her children, by revising the test-law.”[31]

Rush sent a copy of his pamphlet to Richard Price. In a letter acknowledging receipt of Rush’s pamphlet, Price confessed the news of the 1779 test act made him regret his “utopian” optimism for the United States. Price feared he “made myself ridiculous by what I have said of the importance of this revolution.” Despite his disappointment, Price hoped the United States “will become those seats of liberty, peace and virtue, which the enlightened and liberal parts of Europe are ardently wishing to see them.”[32]

Rush sent Price’s letter to The Pennsylvania Packet with a note explaining the letter’s provenance. In his note, Rush wrote of Price, “His invaluable writings during the late war, in favour of the liberties and independence of America, rendered his name dear to every lover of liberty and republican forms of government.” The Philadelphia paper published the letter on September 22, 1785 with Rush’s note as an anonymous introduction.[33]

Pennsylvanians responded swiftly to the circulation of Rush’s pamphlet and Price’s letter. On March 4, 1786, the Pennsylvania General Assembly ratified a law that effectively nullified the 1779 test act. The 1786 law declared every adult white male, who was not an active Loyalist during the war, “a free citizen of this Commonwealth . . . intitled to all and every rights and privileges thereof, any law of the Commonwealth to the contrary notwithstanding.” In deference to objections of religious pacifists, the new law implied no requirement to do violence.[34] Rush, a physician, used a graphic surgical reference to tell Price the part he played in overturning the law: “Your letter to me upon . . . that unjust law was the instrument that cut its last sinew.”[35]

Newspapers throughout the United States published Price’s letter, often with Rush’s introduction or a similarly laudatory note. For instance, a writer for The Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, perhaps publisher George Richards, composed an introduction to Price’s letter patterned after Rush’s note, offering that if states adopted “the sentiments of the venerable Doctor in this letter,” the decision “will reflect a glory on our republican governments, and render them respectable to every free country.”[36]

Price’s Observations, and his exchange with Benjamin Rush, prepared the Constitutional Convention to ban religious tests for federal office under the new Constitution. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina advocated the ban on religious tests in a speech to the Convention, though the precise day of its delivery is now known. Pinckney declared “the prevention of Religious Tests” was “a provision the world will expect from you, in the establishment of a System founded on Republican Principles, and in an age so liberal and enlightened as the present.”[37] The speech incorporated the words of Rice and Rush. Price wrote of “the enlightened and liberal parts of Europe;” Pinckney spoke of the “liberal and enlightened” age. Rush mentioned “republican forms of government;” Pinckney referenced “Republican Principles.”[38]

On August 20, 1787, Pinckney submitted a list of legislative proposals to the Constitutional Convention. Pinckney’s legislative blueprint included the provision, “No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office under the authority of the United States.” Pinckney’s proposals emerged from the Committee of Detail on August 30, minus Pinckney’s ban on religious qualifications for office. Pinckney moved to add the article, “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the U. States.”[39] Roger Sherman of Connecticut thought religious tests had become so unpopular that banning them outright was unnecessary. Sherman thought “the prevailing liberality” was “sufficient security against such tests.” (That prevailing liberality, of course, was shaped by Richard Price.) Despite Sherman’s confidence, two delegates seconded Pinckney’s motion, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and Pinckney’s second cousin, Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina.[40]

On September 12, 1787, the Constitutional Convention’s Committee of Style presented a draft Constitution featuring the final version of Article VI, clause 3. The Convention approved the final draft of the Constitution on September 15 and delegates signed it on September 17. Article VI stipulated that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”[41]

Maryland delegate Luther Martin disapprovingly informed his state’s legislature that the ban on religious tests “was adopted by a great majority of the convention, and without much debate.” Martin claimed only some delegates were “so unfashionable” as to want “some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” To Martin’s chagrin, religious tests had become passé.[42]

The rejection of toleration became a founding ideal of the republic. In 1790, George Washington assured the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”[43] Baptist preacher John Leland implicitly linked toleration with religious tests. In 1790, Leland wrote, “The very idea of toleration is despicable, it supposes that some have a pre eminence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians. Test oaths, and established creeds, should be avoided as the worst of evils.”[44] Explaining popular sentiment in Vermont, Congregationalist Rev. Samuel Williams wrote in 1794, “It is not barely toleration, but equality, which the people aim at.” Calling attention to the ban on religious tests in the 1793 Vermont Constitution, Williams wrote, “No man is chosen to, or excluded from civil offices, on account of his particular religious sentiments . . . . The people are under no obligation to support any teachers, but what they choose to lay themselves under.”[45]

Americans even expected immigrants to flee toleration as well as persecution. In 1791, Pennsylvanian Tench Coxe wrote, “Nothing can be more rational, than that persons of sincere piety should seek a country in which the assertion of mere toleration is deemed as absurd, as the denial of religious liberty is thought to be criminal.” Also in 1791, Alexander Hamilton predicted that manufacturers would “flock from Europe” to enjoy “what is far more precious than mere religious toleration—a perfect equality of religious privileges.”[46] In 1803, Bermuda-born Revolutionary War veteran and American jurist St. George Tucker observed that many countries no longer tortured heretics but still attached “civil incapacities” to any “dissent from the national religion.” Tucker wrote that “ceasing to persecute by more violent means, has in such nations obtained the name of toleration.” Tucker then offered an extensive quotation from “the elegant Dr. Price.”[47]

In his later years, James Madison tried to establish his pioneering work in the rejection of toleration. Madison mentioned it in an autobiographical essay and in a letter to George Mason’s grandson. Historians recognize Madison’s contribution now. In his lifetime, alas, Madison’s prescience as a trendsetter was underappreciated.[48]

Americans rejected toleration and the establishment of state religion. It was a revolutionary break from the practice of much of the world. With the 1791 ratification of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment prevented a national church and any tax support it would expect. Even before the Bill of Rights, Article 6 of the Constitution opened federal office to people of any religious persuasion. Article 6 eliminated the insult of exclusion that was often a hallmark of toleration.[49]


[1]Federal Gazette (Philadelphia), February 19, 1793; General Advertiser (Philadelphia), February 21, 1793; State Gazette of South-Carolina (Charleston, SC), March 22, 1793.

[2]Exclusion from public office was unevenly enforced in Britain. Some non-Anglicans in the eighteenth century served in municipal offices and Parliament; James E. Bradley, Religion, Revolution and English Radicalism: Non-conformity in Eighteenth-Century Politics and Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002 [1990]), 79-80.

[3]The Virginia Journal, and Alexandria Advertiser (Alexandria), October 13, 1785;Carl B. Cone, Torchbearer of Freedom: The Influence of Richard Price on Eighteenth Century Thought (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1952), 88-89, 104.

[4]Check “Proviso for Tythes,” in Primary Resource, “An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certain Lawes” (1688), Encyclopedia Virginia,

[5]Ezra Stiles, A Discourse on the Christian Union . . . (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1761), 125, 127, Early American Imprints, Series 1 (Charles Evans), No. 9018; 89; Derek H. Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-178: Contributions to Original Intent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 28-30.

[6]Stiles, Discourse, 125, 126.

[7]Ibid., 125; Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 25, 30-31.

[8]Charles Chauncy, The Appeal to the Public Answered, in Behalf of the non-Episcopal Churches in America . . . (Boston: Kneeland and Adams, for Thomas Leverett, 1768), page 202, Early American Imprints, Series 1, No. 10853; Sir Issac Foot, “A Kick for the Whipper, No. 39,” New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy, March 13, 1769.

[9]Legislative Journals, May 3, 1765, The Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. 7, ed. William L. Saunders (Raleigh: Josephus Daniels, 1890), 43; The Pennsylvania Chronicle, and Universal Advertiser(Philadelphia), March 19, 1770.

[10]Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 4, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1906), 342, 357, 358; James Madison, “Madison’s Amendments to the Declaration of Rights,” May 29-June 12, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed April 11, 2019; James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 1, ed. William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 171-172, 178.

[11]James Madison, “James Madison’s Autobiography,” ed. Douglass Adair, William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 2 (1945): 199; James Madison to George Mason, December 29, 1827, in James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, Vol. 9, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), 293.

[12]Madison to Mason, December 29, 1827, Hunt, Writings, 9: 293; Madison, “James Madison’s Autobiography,” 199;Madison, “Madison’s Amendments,” especially note 5; Daniel L. Dreisbach, “George Mason’s Pursuit of Religious Liberty in Revolutionary Virginia,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108 (2000): 12-18,; Irving Brant, James Madison, Vol. 1, Virginia Revolutionist (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941), 247; Richard Brookhiser,James Madison (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 24-25; Jeff Broadwater, James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 8-9.

[13]Madison, “Madison’s Amendments,” and note 9; Brookhiser, James Madison, 24; Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776, Avalon Project,

[14]Madison, “Madison’s Amendments;” R. Carter Pittman, Review of Sources of Our Liberties by Richard L. Perry, ed., Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 68 (Jan. 1960): 110-111; Jeff Broadwater,George Mason, Forgotten Founder (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 90.

[15]Pittman, Review, 110; Pennsylvania Packet, December 13, 1787.

[16]William Tennent, Mr. Tennent’s Speech on the Dissenting Petition . . . (Charles-Town [Charleston]: Peter Timothy, 1777), pages 14, Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 15612.

[17]Constitution of South Carolina-March 19, 1778, art. 38, Avalon Project,

[18]New Jersey Constitution, 1776, arts. 18 and 19, Avalon Project,; Cato [William Livingston], “For the New-Jersey Gazette,” New-Jersey Gazette, February 18, 1778 (Livingston’s Cato); William Livingston, The Papers of William Livingston, Vol. 2, ed. Carl E. Prince (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1988), 234-235.

[19]Livingston’s Cato.

[20]“A Serious Address to the People of Pennsylvania on the Present Situation of their Affairs,” The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser(Philadelphia), December 1, 1778; The Independent Chronicle (Boston), February 26, 1778; Thomas Paine, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. 2, Eric Foner, ed. (New York: Citadel Press, 1945), 285.

[21]Benjamin Franklin, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America” (before March 1784), Founders Online, National Archives,; Bernard Peach, Richard Price and the Ethical Foundations of the American Revolution(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1979),26.

[22]Livingston’s Cato; Tennent, Mr. Tennent’s Speech, 14.

[23]Richard Price,Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution (1784), in Richard Price: Political Writings, D. O. Thomas, ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 130.

[24]Ibid., 131.

[25]Ibid., 136-37.

[26]Cone, Torchbearer of Freedom, 104, 111; American Mercury (Hartford, CT), February 7, 1785; Falmouth Gazette (Falmouth, Mass. [Maine]), March 19, 1785; Massachusetts Spy: Or, Worcester Gazette (Worcester, Massachusetts), April 21, 1785; Richard Price, The Correspondence of Richard Price, D. O. Thomas, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1983-), 2: 271n1.

[27]The New-York Packet, April 3, 1786.

[28]Thomas Barnard, A Sermon, Preached at the Ordination of the Rev. Aaron Bancroft . . . (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1786), 20, Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 19494; Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), January 18, 1785.

[29]The New-Jersey Journal, and Political Intelligencer (Elizabethtown), July 18, 1787;The Political Intelligencer and New Jersey Advertiser (Elizabethtown), March 19, 1785.

[30]Benjamin Rush, Considerations Upon the Present Test-Law of Pennsylvania: Addressed to the Legislature and Freemen of the State, Second Edition(Philadelphia: Hall and Sellers, 1785 [1784]), 3 (pages not numbered), Early American Imprints, Series 1, No. 19230, 3; Charles II, 1672: An Act for Preventing Dangers which may happen from Popish Recusants, British History Online,

[31]Rush, Considerations, 4-6, 8, 15, 18, 23.

[32]The Pennsylvania Packet, September 22, 1785.

[33]Ibid.; The Carlisle Gazette, and the Western Repository of Knowledge (Carlisle, Pennsylvania), October 3, 1785.

[34]Price, Correspondence, 3: 22n1; Benjamin Rush to Richard Price, Philadelphia, April 22, 1786, in Price, Correspondence, 3: 22.

[35]Rush to Price, October 15, 1785 and April 22, 1786, The Founders’ Constitution, Vol. 4, Article 6, Clause 3, Document 8,

[36]Pennsylvania Packet, September 22, 1785; The Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser (Alexandria), October 13, 1785; The Newport Mercury, October 1, 1785; The Connecticut Journal (New Haven), October 5, 1785; The Falmouth Gazette, October 15, 1785; Massachusetts Spy, October 20, 1785; The Vermont Gazette (Burlington), November 21, 1785 (without elaborate introduction).

[37]Charles Pinckney, “Observations on the Plan of Government Submitted to the Federal Convention, In Philadelphia, on the 28th of May, 1787,” The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Max Farrand, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), 1: 122 (Farrand’s Records).

[38]Ibid.; Pennsylvania Packet, September 22, 1785; Virginia Journal, October 13, 1785.

[39]The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution . . . , Jonathan Elliot, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Printed for the Author, 1836), 1: 250 (Elliot’s Debates); Farrand’s Records, 2: 488.

[40]Farrand’s Records, 2: 335; Elliot’s Debates, 5: 498; on Charles Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney being second cousins, see note 15 at, Enclosure: James McHenry to Philemon Dickinson, September 3, 1800, Founders Online, National Archives,

[41]Farrand’s Records, 2: 590n8, 603, 663; Elliot’s Debates,1: 311-312, 317-318.

[42]Elliot’s Debates, 5: 498; Luther Martin, Genuine Information (1788), Founders’ Constitution, Vol. 4, Article 6, Clause 3, Document 18, in original).

[43]George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, August 18, 1790, Founders Online, National Archives,

[44]John Leland,The Virginia Chronicle . . . (Fredericksburg: T. Green, 1790), 40, Early American Imprints, Series 1, no. 22617.

[45]Samuel Williams, The Natural and Civil History of Vermont . . . (Walpole, NH: David Carlisle, 1794), 336, Early American Imprints, Series 1, No. 28094.

[46]The Daily Advertiser (New York), July 22, 1791, reprinted in Tench Coxe, A View of the United States of America . . . (Philadelphia: William Hall [and Wrigley & Berriman], 1794), 202; Alexander Hamilton, Report on Manufactures, December 5, 1791, Founders’ Constitution, Vol. 5, Amendment 1 (Religion), Document 56,

[47]St. George Tucker, Blackstone’s Commentaries, 1APP. 296-97, 2App. 3-11, Founders’ Constitution, Vol. 5, Amendment I (Religion), Document 59,

[48]Madison, “James Madison’s Autobiography,” 199; Madison to Mason, December 29, 1827.

[49]In Torcasov.Watkins (1961), the Supreme Court ruled religious tests at any level of government violated the First Amendment; Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 35.


  • Thanks for a very interesting piece. One note–the Benjamin Rush writing you quote here was actually his second attack on this subject. On June 21 1776, during the committee of inspection debates over the new Constitution of Pennsylvania, Rush very loudly raised objections to the religious tests being proposed for candidacy in the PA constitutional convention. Some consider his statements the first public oration in the never-ending American debate over separation of church and state. I covered this on pages 151-153 of my new biography of Rush; but, interestingly, it was originally documented not by Rush himself, but by a fellow committee member, druggist Christopher Marshall, who completely disagreed with Rush and wanted the religious test (which required candidates for the convention to swear “I profess faith in God the Father and in Jesus Christ his eternal son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed evermore; and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”) Despite Rush’s plea– “there are many good men who do not believe in the divinity of the Son of God. I am not one of that class. But no man whose morals are good should be exempted because he will not take that declaration”–the test passed. This was one of the reasons–along with excess democracy–that Rush and John Adams so worried that the PA Constitution could have any impact during the writing of the later federal constitution.

  • Very informative article. I was formerly unfamiliar with religious “toleration,” believing that since so many peoples/sects emigrated to the colonies due to the religious intolerance they suffered in their home countries that the colonies were free of any type of test or unfair laws and mandated tithing to a state religion.

    This change is further proof that our founding generation had far reaching vision.

  • I can’t speak for Luther Martin on this matter, although I’m a huge admirer of his. But Maryland was an interesting case in this narrative because they had such a relatively high number of Catholics. It was founded by Catholics and fell into a century of intolerance under the Anglicans until the 1777 state constitution. That’s when Daniel Carroll rose to prominence -he previously would have been even barred from office – and, ultimately, went to the constitutional convention with Martin. Thomas Fitzsimmons of Pennsylvania was the only other Catholic there. Carroll’s brother, John, became the first bishop under a U.S. episcopal conference, which in itself was mired in scandal because they were afraid of having a foreign bishop presiding over the U.S. and creating an atmosphere of xenophobia toward Catholics again. But the new regime after the convention was palpably felt among Maryland Catholics. I can’t remember the writers of the letters, but they knew that they were finally free and built the first monastery at Port Tobacco. Although its presence has not been continuous there is still a monastery for religious sisters there until this day.

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