Origin of the Establishment Clause


I have recently downloaded a copy of Joseph Tracy’s 1840 history, “The Great Awakening.” It’s a free download from Google Books, and it’s a pretty rough copy. It is quite apparent that it was copied by a machine, but with that consideration it is still quite readable and enlightening.

Within the first few pages it was revealed that the Great Awakening, a Christian Revival that took place in the existing churches in both England and the English colonies, had caused a major paradigm shift in the general population. That is because they were the spiritual descendents of a church culture that practiced baptismal regeneration at infancy. In other words, they believed that conversion took place during infant baptism, and that it was presumed that church members were “saved” unless they were excommunicated due to gross immorality or heresy.

In Europe, where this error had centuries to become entrenched, many laws were passed that required that a person had to be a member of a church in good standing in order to be a fully vested citizen. Therefore, if a Bishop or a priest was to deny a man the sacrament of communion because that man was a known reprobate, he could sue for damages since he was baptized in the church, and had the right to its sacraments, and whatever civil rights that would be lost otherwise.

In England, a man appointed to any civil or military office must “qualify,” by receiving the Lord’s Supper in the established church ; and many received it to ” qualify ” themselves for office, who neglected it all the rest of their lives. The clergyman who withheld the Lord’s Supper from one requesting it, inflicted a civil injury, and was liable to prosecution ; and, if prosecuted, must show to the court that he had good grounds for his decision, or suffer the consequences. When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, left Georgia to return to England, a prosecution was pending against him for debarring a young lady from the Lord’s Supper. Under such laws, the Lord’s table must be open to all who have been baptized, who have learned the creed and catechism, and have not committed any crime which a civil court would judge ” scandalous.”¬† Joseph Tracy, “The Great Awakening,” 1841. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, p. 2

Under such a linkage between church and state, the state was able to keep the church from doing its job of making true disciples of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul eloquently stated, “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” 2 Corinthians 3:6. The letter of the civil law disabled the ministry because it became the way that people obtained, in their minds, eternal life.

Just as Martin Luther’s assertion that regeneration is by faith alone altered much of Christendom, the reemergence of personal faith as the acceptable emblem of Christianity drained the letter of the law of its power. When men like George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennant and Jonathan Edwards began preaching and publishing sermons that espoused the new birth, a spiritual rebirth that brought with it the evidence of a changed life, opposition arose from the leaders of the state churches in the colonies and in England. Their legitimacy was being challenged, just as the King would be later on.

The Church of England was the official state church for some of the colonies during the time of British rule. Virginia. New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland were all Church of England, while New Hampshire and Connecticut were officially Congregational and Massachusetts was Protestant under a system that allowed each community to have its own official church. The Catholic Church did not qualify. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island had no state church.

As we have laid a foundation for what the state of mind may have been when the First Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified, let us examine it closely:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In those first ten words, in which we find the establishment clause, it is important to notice that it does not say, “Congress shall make no law respecting THE establishment of religion.” If that were the wording, it could be thought that this means Congress cannot establish a church. No such thing was on anyone’s mind at that time. There were plenty of churches for people to choose from. A new “National Church” being formed would be hard pressed to draw members without force, and that was unthinkable in such a revolutionary climate. The establishment clause says, “Congress shall make no law respecting AN establishment of religion,” and that makes all the difference.

The colonies had laws respecting AN establishment of religion everywhere ONE church got preferential treatment over the others. Nine of the thirteen colonies had laws respecting AN establishment of religion in some form, and those knots were not entirely untied until 1834.

That letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists that some people like to quote when they want to invoke the “separation of church and state,” pertains specifically to the Connecticut state laws that respected AN establishment of religion over other establishments of religion. The Congregational Church had the power to tax the citizens, including those who did not support the Congregational Church, and the Baptists were right to be sore about it. That was the “Wall of Separation” Jefferson spoke of in his letter. The state of Connecticut gave ONE church the power to tax. That letter was written in 1802, and it was 1818 before that was changed.

Today, this idea has been turned on its head to the degree that laws are routinely made that prohibit the free exercise of religion on the basis that the government must not be neutral to religion, but be opposed to it in order not to perceived as ESTABLISHING a religion. When it is ruled that a teacher cannot have a Bible on her desk, because it appears that the government is establishing a religion, it is actually taking a position against religion itself, and not a particular establishment.

But let us look at the text again: “Congress shall make no law respecting an ESTABLISHMENT of religion.” That word, establishment, means something when you refer to it as one of many, as in an establishment of fine dining, an establishment of recreation, an establishment of legal services, or an establishment of religion. It refers to a specific organization, not an idea or a concept. A Bible on a teacher’s desk is not a religious establishment any more than a dictionary on the same teacher’s desk is an educational establishment.

When a law is made that says you cannot have a Bible on your desk, it is actually making a law respecting an IDEA of religion. It is the ideas in that book, the Bible, as opposed to any other book, like a dictionary, that are being hidden behind that “Wall of Separation.” Is that what Jefferson was talking about? Absolutely not. He was opposed to an ESTABLISHMENT of religion having the governmental authority to tax.

Another word we need to look at is RESPECTING. “Congress shall make no law RESPECTING an establishment of religion.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, RESPECTING is defined this way: about or relating to (something) : with respect to (something).

In our American culture today, the word, RESPECTING, has a very limited meaning. Most people would probably  see it only as an extension of RESPECT, which is defined as:

a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.

a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way

a particular way of thinking about or looking at something.

This could lead to a very antagonistic view of religion. After all, if “Congress is to make no law admiring or understanding that an establishment of religion is important,” that would make it sound like religion was bad or dangerous, and not worthy of being protected at all.

So, in reality, the First Amendment says, in today’s language, “Congress shall make no law in regard to one particular religious organization, or prohibiting anyone from practicing their religion; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It seems obvious that the popular misinterpretation of the establishment clause is either caused by a basic misunderstanding of the English language, or deliberate deception by people with governmental authority and power. After all, being able to make laws in regard to how people practice their faith and share their ideas is a tremendous power. It cripples the church, and keeps it from doing its scriptural duty to make disciples of Jesus Christ. As stated earlier, the letter kills.

If Christians are to continue to be a free people, it is imperative that we have another Great Awakening. But this time it must reach far outside of our church buildings. We have the power to convert others, taking those who were once our enemies and making them our friends. Historically, this has been done under all forms of government: kings, emperors, and dictators brutal and benign. The only difference is the price that must be paid.

Today you have an opportunity to change the world of tomorrow with relatively little risk. I am talking about evangelizing children. They are very impressionable, which is why everyone tries to reach them with their products, ideologies, habits and entertainment. But what they really need is to know that God loves them, and that He has a plan for their lives, if only they will believe. It is not enough to throw money at them in the form of food, clothes, shelter, education, and healthcare. To paraphrase Jesus, what does it profit a child to gain all the world’s goods and lose his soul?

I urge you to get involved in reaching children with the Gospel. Today’s overworked, harried parents yield their children to others who offer to help. Let’s not fail them. Let’s give the best thing we can, eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Child Evangelism Fellowship is the world’s largest children’s ministry, reaching millions of children with the Gospel in 192 countries. And they are probably working in your community. Seek them out and do what you can to change the future for the children where you live. You don’t have long. In a few more years, they will be harder to reach and less likely to listen. Act NOW. Find a chapter in your area. And if you are my neighbor, learn more about us here, and then pray and ask the Lord what you should do.