While Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) has undeniably contributed to a robust understanding of American culture, his description of American political principles misinterprets the origins of the separation of church and state. Tocqueville focuses on Puritan influence on American political thought, concluding that Puritans’ love of liberty inspired American religious liberty and American political and legal principles. That conclusion contradicts the American notion of separation of church and state as well as the Puritan notion of liberty. In Book I, Chapter 2, he calls the Puritan flight from England and settlement in New England America’s “point of departure.” He claims that:
When, after having attentively studied the history of America, one carefully examines its political and social state, one feels profoundly convinced of this truth: there is not one opinion, one habit, one law, I could say one event, that the point of departure does not explain without difficulty.
He later calls Puritanism a “political theory.” Tocqueville reasons that American religion, law, politics, and society could all be explained by Puritan influence. While Puritanism surely impacted American politics and law, Tocqueville overemphasizes its influence, providing insufficient recognition to Roger Williams’s Rhode Island religious liberty experiment and John Locke’s theory of toleration. Tocqueville’s description of American political foundations overlooks the competition between Lockean separation and Puritan combination of church and state. In reality, Roger Williams and John Locke, not the Puritans, founded and advanced the American theory of separation of church and state.
Puritanism and Liberty
Puritans famously combined church and state. But, contrary to Tocqueville’s argument, they did not lay the groundwork for separating the two. The American balance between church and state, or religion and state, cannot be attributed to the Puritans. From the start, Puritans fearlessly combined the two. For instance, when William Pynchon and a group of Puritans founded Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1636, they established an “Articles of Agreement.” Its first article stated their intent to procure a “Godly and faithful minister with whom we purpose to join in church covenant to walk in all the ways of Christ.” Nowhere did the document establish a government. Springfield, through the 1636 agreement, would be ruled by the church. The only law needed was God’s law in the Bible, as interpreted by the Puritans.
John Winthrop, the leading Puritan in America in the mid-seventeenth century, provides another example of law, politics, and the Bible collapsed into one. In his 1644 essay “Arbitrary Government Described,” he defended himself against accusations of usurpation of government power. He declared, “the officers of this body politic have a rule to walk by in all their administrations, which rule is the Word of God, and such conclusions and deductions as are, or shall be, regularly drawn from thence.” According to Winthrop, government has the right to enforce any legal requirement that can be justified as biblical.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s accusations against Winthrop could be cited as evidence of a Puritan penchant for liberty and even some level of separation of church and state. Although they briefly accused Winthrop of exceeding his authority, they did not oppose the elevation of the Bible to civil law. Puritan legal questions only required the magistrate to decide if biblical commands had been violated. In the mid-1630s, Roger Williams, one of the first pioneers of religious liberty in America, fled persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony merely because of a slight disagreement about theology. Anne Hutchinson’s 1637 trial illustrates Puritan law and politics’ biblical boundaries. The official proceedings in the “Trial and Interrogation of Anne Hutchinson” record Winthrop and his associates accusing Hutchinson of violating the biblical command that women not teach men. Hutchinson’s defense did not appeal to natural rights or anything outside of the Bible. All rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, would be interpreted biblically. This was a Puritan consensus.
Winthrop further articulated his governing philosophy the following year. In his 1645 speech “On Liberty,” John Winthrop describes two types of liberty: “natural” and “civil.” Natural liberty applies to all animals and has no moral scope. It inevitably disregards authority. Civil liberty, on the other hand, only exists by virtue of authority. Civil liberty requires that government legislate what is moral. It’s source of moral knowledge is “the covenant between God and man,” i.e. the Bible. Since morality is the “proper end and object of authority,” good government must be based upon one interpretation of the Bible.
Later versions of Puritanism were not the primary foundation to American’s eighteenth and nineteenth century law and politics either. In “The Legacy of Puritanism,” Dr. Emory Elliot argues that “By the 1730s, what remained of American Puritanism was split into three Protestant sects.” The Methodist, Episcopalian, and Congregationalist denominations all sprang from Puritanism. The new denominations, except for a small conservative minority, rejected strict Calvinism, retaining similar “imagery” and rhetoric while fundamentally changing Puritanism into something vastly different from its former essence. The revised Puritanism of the Great Awakening abandoned the solemn strictness of the seventeenth century, eventually transforming into the revolutionary natural rights-based political Protestantism of the 1760s and onward.
Roots of the Founding
Strong Puritan influence in the Founding, especially on morals, cannot be reasonably denied. But John Locke’s political philosophy, completely separate from Puritanism, provides a distinct contribution to the Founding as well. Moreover, it offers the arguments on natural rights and religious liberty that dominated at the time. In his “Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), Locke, following in Roger Williams’s footsteps, considers “toleration to be the chief distinguishing mark of a true church.” If the church shows no toleration, it is a political institution seeking control rather than the salvation of souls. Locke and Williams’s reasoning rejects the core Puritan premises that government exists to enforce God’s law and that the church and state should be united.
Locke’s impact on American political and religious beliefs powerfully emerges in Congregationalist sermons in the 1760s. Congregationalists originated from the Puritan tradition, and their evolution indicates that natural rights theory impacted the church, not vice versa. Reverend Abraham Williams, a Harvard-educated Congregationalist minister in Sandwich, Massachusetts, delivered “An Election Sermon” in 1762, interpreting the existence of the “State of Nature,” natural rights, God’s natural law, and other explicitly Lockean references. In 1768, Reverend Daniel Shute, another Harvard-educated Congregationalist minister, delivered “An Election Sermon” to his congregation in Massachusetts Bay Colony. He exclaimed, “Life, liberty, and property are the gifts of the creator,” again quoting Locke in the midst of a political sermon.
Early American colony charters and state constitutions are often cited as evidence that church and state were closely intertwined. From the arrival of the Puritans in the New World to about the time of the American Revolution, the colonies frequently combined church and state in their charters. But 1776 and the following years induced new state constitutions and radical religious liberty reforms. When Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, only six of the thirteen original states still supported churches within the state, and another two would end support by 1846. A careful examination of those states’ constitutions in 1835 reveals little room for established state churches. States favored Protestantism, but, by Tocqueville’s time, the few state constitutions with legal requirements for religion within a state did so quite generally. For example, the New York Constitution of 1821 dictates, “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state…but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this state.” The other eleven states admitted to the Union by 1835 intermingled church and state even less. These states, with the sole exception of Louisiana, explicitly proscribed establishment of a state church. By Tocqueville’s time, America’s trajectory had long headed for separation of church and state.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson’s arguments against providing preachers with state money in 1785-86 illustrate the impetus behind the domino effect of state constitutional provisions establishing rigid separation of church and state. In his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” Madison famously notes, “We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no mans [sic] right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” In section 5, Madison invokes the reasoning of Locke’s beginning in the “Letter Concerning the Toleration of Religion.” Madison observes that government officials are not “competent” to judge “Religious Truth.” And, if they interfere in religious matters, they will “employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy.” Likewise, in the 1786 “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” Jefferson emphatically inscribes, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” Madison and Jefferson’s arguments contain no Puritanism, nor do they indicate Puritan roots. The very essence of Puritanism—the combination of the church and civil society for the glory of God and fulfillment of biblical commands—contradicts the very reasoning that won the American religious liberty debate at the national and state levels.
Madison, named Episcopalian Bishop of Virginia in 1787, represents how Locke’s political theories caused reformation of church doctrine. During the American Revolution, when Episcopalians were still Anglicans, northern Anglicans generally sided with England, and southern Anglicans typically sympathized with the American cause. Episcopalian doctrines did not cause a political dispute. A political dispute caused doctrinal disputes. The American victory made Madison the politician into a religious leader.
Like the other two main denominations descending from Puritanism, Methodism was politicized during the American Revolution. Even the Methodist Church emphasizes the Revolution’s transformative power over Methodism. The church records, “The American Revolution profoundly impacted Methodism. John Wesley’s loyalty to the king and his writings against the revolutionary cause did not enhance the image of Methodism among many who supported independence.” Worse yet, the Methodist Church was young and small. Its first pastors’ conference, with ten pastors, had taken place in 1773. Needing to reconcile the church with American animosity toward loyalists, Wesley reorganized the Post-Revolutionary church, culminating in a church constitution in 1808. Once again, Lockean political principles had permeated religious beliefs.
Tocqueville aptly notes the political nature of Puritanism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but he mistakenly treats Puritanism as the foundation of church and state’s relationship in America. Americans, largely due to their Puritan heritage, believed in hard work, good morals, and church attendance. Most of their religious beliefs connected to Puritanism directly or indirectly. But, after the Puritans’ departure from England, many of the Puritans began departing from Puritanism. Roger Williams pioneered the separation of church and state, anticipating Lockean separation. As Lockean political principles spread throughout the New World, political Puritanism was replaced by Lockean toleration combined with more individualized religious beliefs, as evidenced by Revolutionary Era preaching. Lockean individualism replaced Puritan communalism, meaning the individual, not the state, was responsible for the soul’s condition. From the 1630s to the American Revolution, separation of church and state divided the American people. But, by the 1780s, the trajectory was set. Americans and their posterity would separate church and state. From state constitutions to Supreme Court jurisprudence, separation of church and state would sweep across America and pervade its law and politics.
Daniel Keller is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Baylor University.