Thanksgiving. By: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. (1914)

In the early Republic, religion took on a new role in society. In some segments of American society, religion became fervent. For example, in Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, dozens of ministers of different denominations congregated with approximately 15,000-20,000 in a week-long conversion session. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 596. Amongst the “heat, the noise, and the confusion” were ministers, sometimes six preaching at a time, shouting “sermons from wagons and tree stumps.” Id. Many in the crowd “fell to the ground moaning and wailing in remorse; and they sang, laughed, barked, rolled, and jerked in excitement.” Id.

Meanwhile, the states took varying approaches to dealing with religion in government. New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia “required officeholders to be Protestant,” while “Maryland and Delaware [required] Christians,” while “Pennsylvania and Souther Carolina officials had to believe in one God and in heaven and hell,” while “Delaware required a belief in the Trinity.” Id. at 583 citing James H. Smylie, “Protestant Clergy, the First Amendment and Beginnings of a Constitutional Debate, 1781-91,” in Elwyn A. Smith, The Religion of the Republic (Philadelphia, 1971), 117.

On the federal level, the Constitution of course provided protection for individuals to freely exercise their religion and also prohibited laws respecting an establishment of religion. U.S. Constitution, First Amendment. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the First Amendment created a “wall of separation between church and state.” Thomas Jefferson to Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge and Others, 1 Jan. 1802, Jefferson: Writings, 510.

The role that religion would ultimately play in American society was not clear in the early years of the Republic. The hysteria that surrounded some of the religious ceremonies like described in Cane Ridge made clear that religion would play a central role to many. Thomas Jefferson, and the drafters of the Constitution realized that while religion may play a central role to the lives of many Americans, it could neither be endorsed nor prohibited by the government.

This careful move by the Founding Fathers ensured that while religion would be freely exercised and even ubiquitous in society, it would not be a democracy characterized by religion and certainly not a theocracy. The system embraced individual freedom and excluded government involvement where unnecessary. Fortunately, this system has largely been preserved by subsequent generations of Americans. Current and future public officials would do well to ignore any populist notions of the role religion should play in society and be keen on preserving the status quo of this effective system.

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