Religious Background to the US Constitution

England passed a Bill of Rights in 1689 that granted religious freedom to Protestant dissenters, and the American colonies soon followed this example. At the time of the American Revolution most colonies still mandated religious tests to vote or hold office, as well as religious taxes. Prior to the outbreak of the Revolution ten colonies had an established religion that was supported by taxes (only Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware did not). Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Caroline, Georgia, New Jersey and New York had established the Church of England (which become the Episcopal Church after the Revolution). Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire established the Congregational Church. Physical persecution of religious dissenters had ended by 1776 and was replaced with a movement towards religious freedom and tolerance. The newly independent states crafted new constitutions, and these constitutions varied from state to state and region to region.

Southern Colonies: Maryland granted religious freedom to all Christians, authorized taxes to support Christian religions, and required an oath of belief in Christianity to hold office. Virginia passed a Declaration of Rights in 1776, followed by a Bill of Religious Freedom in 1785. North Carolina granted religious freedom to all, though office-holding was restricted to Protestants. South Carolina established Protestantism, expressed “toleration” for theists, allowed nonconformists to be exempt from religious taxes, and restricted office-holding to Protestants. In 1777, Georgia granted religious freedom to all, requiring that legislators be Protestant but did not mandate religious tests

Middle Colonies: In 1777 New York disestablished the Episcopal Church, allowed free religious exercise, and abolished religious tests. New Jersey abolished mandatory Sunday church attendance and religious taxes but restricted office-holding to Protestants. Pennsylvania still required that office-holders be Christian and take an oath of belief in the Bible. Delaware required officials to take an oath pledging support of the government by Orthodox Christians and abolished religious tests.

New England Colonies: Connecticut passed an act of toleration in 1784 and required dissenters to pay taxes to their churches. Massachusetts passed a Declaration of Rights in 1780, authorized support of Protestant churches, and mandated compulsory attendance on Sundays at some church. New Hampshire passed a Bill of Rights in 1784 that included religious freedom but still did not offer legal status to nonconformist churches and that required religious taxes.

The struggle for religious freedom and against religious establishment in Virginia significantly influenced the role of religion in the drafting of the Constitution. It set a precedent for both political leaders and the legislature. Perhaps the most notable member of the Virginian delegation was the young James Madison, often called the “father of the Constitution.” Madison introduced the original draft of the Bill of Rights, was chairman of the House conferees resolving disputes between the House and Senate over the final draft of the First Amendment, and served as majority leader of the House in Representatives at the time of the passage of the First Amendment.

Revolution necessitated a new state constitution in Virginia. George Mason and James Madison lead the convention in 1776 that eventually led to the passage of a Declaration of Rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights established the “natural right of human beings to practice religion according to the dictates of their conscience” as a fundamental law of Virginia. Though this advanced the principle of toleration, it failed to change the status and privileges of the Episcopal Church. Mandatory financial support for the Episcopal Church was permanently suspended in 1779; in 1784 Episcopalians and Presbyterians united to fight for financial support from the state. Patrick Henry proposed a resolution for people to “pay a moderate tax…for the support of the Christian religion or some Christian church, denomination, or communion of Christians, or some form of Christian worship”, which was disguised as an educational measure. Madison headed opposition against this bill (Memorial and remonstrance against Religious assessments), ultimately succeeded in enacting Thomas Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Liberty, stating the “No man shall be compelled to frequent of support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” The struggle for religious freedom in Virginia encouraged Madison to fight, unsuccessfully, for disestablishment at the Constitutional Convention.



  • How did the presence and progression of religion in colonial America provide a foundation for religious influence on the Constitution?
  • What connection, if any, can be made between the struggle for religious freedom in Virginia and the inclusion an amendment addressing religion in the Bill of Rights?
  • In what way did the newly-independent state legislatures influence the discussion of religion during the drafting of the Constitution?
  • What role did religion play in the ratification process?
  • What can we infer about the nature of political debate in this time period given that religion is seldom found in the language and subject matter of the Constitution?  How significant is the seeming “insignificance” of religion?