The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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The Constitution and Separation of Church and State

Some historical references to the constitutional principle of separation of Church and state

Researched and edited by Jim Allison


January, 1833

"The remaining part of the clause declares, that 'no religious test shall ever be required, as a qualification to any office or public trust, under the United States.' This clause is not introduced merely for the purpose of satisfying the scruples of many respectable persons, who feel an invincible repugnance to any test or affirmation. It had a higher object; to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government".

Source of Material:

Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States by Joseph Story Vol III, Page 705-707. Da Capo Press Reprints in American Constitutional and Legal History series, Da Capo Press NY 19700. Joseph Story's Commentaries were originally written in 1833)Vol. III, by Joseph Story, page 705.

March 13, 1833

Colonel Johnson not only proved himself a heroic soldier, but a profound and honest statesman. He has not only won the blood stained laurel, but the civic wreath. He not only merits our esteem and admiration for breasting the battle storm -- for risking his life in the deadly breach; but, also, for the firm, patriotic, and undeviating course that has marked his political life; and especially is he entitled to our love and gratitude, and to the love and gratitude of all good men,-of all who love their country---for his able, patriotic, and luminous report on the Sunday mail question. . . . I will hazard the declaration that Colonel Johnson has done more for liberal principles, for freedom of opinion, and for pure and unadulterated democracy, than any [other] man in our country -- by arresting the schemes of an ambitious, irreligious priesthood. Charge him not with hostility to the principles of religion, because he opposed the wishes and thwarted the designs of the clergy -rather say that he has proved himself the friend of pure religion, by guarding it against a contaminating alliance with politics. His strong and discriminating mind detected and weighed the consequences that would result from such a measure. He sifted the projectors of this insidious and dangerous scheme, and resolved to meet them full in the face, and by means of reason and argument to convince the honest and silence the designing. The honest he did convince--the designing he did defeat, though, strange to tell, did not silence: their obstinacy can only be equaled by their depravity. Their perseverance, however, can accomplish nothing, so long as the people prize their liberties, and can have access to the Constitution and Johnson's Reports.

That man who can contemplate the misery and degradation that have ever resulted to the many from a union of the ecclesiastical and secular powers, must be a stranger to every patriotic feeling, callous to every noble impulse, and dumb to all the emotions of gratitude, not to admire and revere, honor and support, the man who had the honesty and moral heroism to risk his popularity by stemming the current of public prejudice; by exciting the bigot's wrath, and provoking the vigilant and eternal hostility of a powerful sect, whose influence is felt, and whose toils are spread, from Maine to California, and from Oregon to the Atlantic. But the same determined spirit. the same sacred love of country, that prompted Colonel Johnson to face the country's open foe on the battle-field, urged him with equal ardor to grapple with its secret enemies in the Senate chamber.

He who considers the influence which those reports are calculated to exert over the destinies of this republic as trifling or of small importance, is but little acquainted with the history of the past, and consequently but ill qualified to judge of the future.

Colonel Johnson had been instructed by the philosopher and faithful historian, as well as by the teachings of his own mighty mind, that " human nature is never so debased as when superstitious ignorance is armed with power."

He knew full well that whenever the ecclesiastical and secular powers were leagued together, the fountains of justice were polluted--that the streams of righteousness were choked up, and that the eternal principles of truth and equity were banished the land-- that the people were degraded -- their understandings enthralled, and all their energies crushed and exhausted. He knew full well that all the evils combined, which convulse the natural world. were not so fatal to the prosperity of a nation as religious intolerance; for even after pestilence has slain its thousands,- the earthquake swallowed up its victims, and the desolating whirlwind swept the land.--yet may a new and better world spring from the desolation; but when religion grasps the sword, and superstition rears her haggard form, hope has fallen forever. Do you call for the evidence? The histories of Spain, of Italy, and of Portugal are before you. They tell you these state were powerful once. What are they now! "Infants in the cradle, alter pears of nonentity."

Colonel Johnson had not only a regard for the political, but also for the religious, welfare of his country, when he drafted these reports. He had been instructed, by the history of the past, that in proportion as a sect becomes powerful, from whatever cause, it retrogrades in piety, and advances in corruption and ambition. He was aware that the Christian religion no longer partook of the character of its Founder, after the civil arm was wielded in its behalf. After it was taken into keeping by Constantine, that royal cut-throat-- that anointed parricide -- that baptized murderer -- from that time to the present, with but few intervals, it has been wielded as a political engine, prostrating the liberties and paralyzing the energies of the nations.

We hazard but little in predicting that the Reports of the Kentucky statesman, calculated as they are to guard us from a like curse. will survive the flourish -- will be read and admired -- honored and revered by the freemen of America, when the edicts of kings and emperors and the creeds of councils, shall have been swept from the memory of man.

Source of Material:

"Tribute to Col. Richard M. Johnson, Author of the Sunday Mail Reports Adopted by Congress in 1829 and 1830", by Mr. Ely Moore. From speech at Masonic Hall, New York, March 13, 1833, recommending Mr. Johnson as a candidate for the Vice-Presidency, published in Authentic Biography of Col. Richard M. Johnson, by William Emmons (Henry Mason, New York, 1833). pages 64-68. American State Papers Bearing On Sunday Legislation, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Compiled and Annotated by William Addison Blakely, Revised Edition Edited by Willard Allen Colcord, The Religious Liberty Association, Washington, D.C. 1911, pp 269-270.

September, 1833

Direct references to separation to be found in the writings of James Madison

" I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others".

Letter to Rev. Jasper Adams, September 1833.

June 1835

Immunity of Religion

We have seen that the connexion of Christianity with civil government has been, for fifteen centuries, invariably productive of the most flagrant abuses and the grossest corruptions. We have shown that there is, and there can be no middle ground between perfect liberty of conscience and despotism--since to give government power to protect Christianity for instance, is to give it power to declare what is Christianity, and what is necessary for its protection--in other words to give it unlimited power. We have shown also that opinion, faith, belief, are involuntary; that no human power can rightly interfere with them; that the object of civil government should be the regulation and promotion of human happiness here on earth; and that it should confine itself to the conduct of individuals, and regulate the duty of man towards man; but should not interfere with the relation between man and God. We have shown that most of the states, in framing their constitutions, have been influenced by these considerations; that in our country, Christianity has no connexion with the law of the land, or our political institutions; but that although a vast majority of the people of the United States are Christians, they have refused to give the general government power to make any laws on the subject, and have guaranteed to every man liberty of conscience, without discrimination or preference of any sect.

Christianity requires no aid from force or persecution. She asks not to be guarded by fines and forfeitures. She stands secure in the armour of truth and reason. She seeks not to establish her principles by political aid and legal enactments. She seeks mildly and peaceably to establish them in the hearts of the people.

Source of Information:

Immunity of Religion, "American Quarterly Review 17, No 34 (June 1835) 319-40. Author is unknown, but it is believed to be one of the following, Thomas Cooper, Randell Hunt, Joseph Hopkins or Peter S. Du Ponceau. Religion and Politics in the Early Republic, Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate. Ed Daniel L. Dreisbach, The University Press of Kentucky (1996) pp 123-150.

June 12, 1844

Speech and Resolutions Concerning Philadelphia Riots.

Public Meeting

Mr. Lincoln .. . at a meeting of the whigs convened for the purpose of investigating the causes of the Philadelphia riots, said that he had not yet seen an account of this affair which he could rely upon as true--(I should like to know how he is to judge of the correctness of any report.). . . . Mr. Lincoln however was incorrect in stating that the Catholics demanded the exclusion of the Bible from the public schools . . . all they wanted was the privilege . . . of introducing and using their own translation.

Mr. Lincoln expressed the kindest, and most benevolent feelings towards foreigners; they were, I doubt not, the sincere and honest sentiments of his heart; but they were not those of his party. . . . Mr. Lincoln also alleged that the whigs were as much the friends of foreigners as democrats; but he failed to substantiate it in a manner satisfactory to the foreigners who heard him. . . .

Source of Information:

"Speech and Resolutions Concerning Philadelphia Riots," June 12, 1844, Sangamo Journal, June 20, 1844 (resolutions); Illinois State Register, June 21, 1844, The Collected Works Of Abraham Lincoln, The Abraham Lincoln Association. Springfield, Illinois. Vol. I, Roy P. Basler, Editor, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, (1953), pp 337-338.


"To the 1st Article of the amendments of the Constitution of the United States, we may very well refer to ascertain the then acknowledged sense, 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' This was, the general law for all the union, as standing under the legislation of Congress. There could be no union of church and state; no religion established by law; nor could there be any law prohibiting any man from worshiping God as he pleased."

South Carolina Supreme Court 1846, in the Case Known as City of Charleston V Benjamin

March 27, 1854

"The reason more generally urged, is the danger of a union of church and state. If the danger were real, we should be disposed to take the most prompt and decided measures to forstall the evil."

33rd Congress 1st Session March 27, 1854, discussion of HR 124 involving Chaplains

March 27, 1854

"Everyone will notice that this is a very great change to be made in so short a period - greater than, we believe, was ever before made in ecclesiastical affairs, in 65 years, without a revolution or some great convulsion. This change has been made silently and noiselessly, with the consent and wish of all the parties, civil and religious. From this it will be seen that the tendency of the times is not to a union of church and state, but is decidedly and strongly bearing in an opposite direction. Every tie is sundered; and there is no wish on either side to have the bond renewed.

33rd Congress 1st session March 27, 1854 discussing HR 124

March 27, 1854

"Two Clauses of the Constitution are relied on by the memorialists to show that their prayer should be granted. One of these is in the Sixth Article, that 'no religious test shall ever be required as a quantification to any office or public trust under the United States. Another article supposed to be violated is article 1st of the Amendments."

33rd Congress 1st session mar 27, 1854 discussing HR 124

September 17, 1856

"The manifest object of the men who framed the institutions of this country, was to have a State without religion, and a Church without politics -- that is to say, they meant that one should never be: used as an engine for any purpose of the other, and that no man's rights in one should be tested by his opinions about the other. As the Church takes no note of men's political differences, so the State looks with equal eye on all the modes of religious faith. The Church may give her preferment to a Tory, and the State may be served by a heretic. Our fathers seem to have been perfectly sincere in their belief that the members of the Church would be more patriotic, and the citizens of the State more religions, by keeping their respective functions entirely separate. For that reason they built up a wall of complete and perfect partition between the two."

Source of Information:

"Religious liberty," an address to the Phrenakosmian Society of Pennsylvania College, Delivered at the Annual Commencement, 17 September 1856, U.S. Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black, Essays and Speeches of Jeremiah S. Black (New York: D Appleton, 1885), 53. "Sowing Useful Truths and Principles: The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson and the "Wall of Separation", By Daniel L. Dreisbach, Journal Of Church and State, Volume 39, Summer 1997, Number 3, pp 492.

See Part VII of this topic for additional reference materials.
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