The role of religion in Americans’ lives began to change not long after the War of 1812. In fact, the state of Connecticut “disestablished religion in 1818.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 165. It should be noted that the First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the First Amendment “restricted the federal government only, not the states.” Id. This would change in the 20th Century when the Supreme Court “incorporated” the freedoms of the Bill of Rights, through the Fourteenth Amendment (not passed until 1868), to the states. Id.
The Republicans supported the goal of disestablishment altogether. After the War of 1812, Republicans used the issue to their advantage, winning over many who had previously identified as Federalists. Id. at 165. As the Republicans came into leadership positions, they fostered an environment for disestablishment.
In 1817, New Hampshire separated church from state, and Connecticut followed suit in 1818. Id. Only Massachusetts remained with an establishment of religion, which would not be disestablished until 1833. Id. When Connecticut disestablished religion, Lyman Beecher, “the prominent revival preacher,” fell into depression and said: “It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable.” The Autobiography of Lyman Beecher, ed. Barbara M. Cross (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), I, 252-53.
This was a significant development. Since Constantine, the Roman emperor, made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire, Western Civilization had connected church and state. Id. Americans were changing that, making religion “purely voluntary.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 165.
This development would nurture an environment where religion would flourish. Americans would organize with each other, participating in increasing numbers in religious activities and organizations. Some may argue that this trend continues to today, at least to some extent.
During the 1810s and 1820s, America was developing into a country that both was more secure in its religious liberties. But also, the population was becoming increasingly religious. While the reasons for Americans’ increasing religiosity can be endlessly debated, the protection of religious activity and the shift from religion being associated with the state to being independent helped shape a more inclusive, diverse society.
Americans were learning to respect each other’s religious beliefs while also leaving government separate from their religious activities. To modern Americans, this development seems natural, but it is a right that should not be taken for granted, as governments can change their religious affiliations, just as Constantine changed the Roman affiliation from paganism to Christianity.