Separation of Church and State Law

Introduction to “The History of Religious Freedom In America”

Jerald Finney
Copyright © December 31, 2012

Click here to go to the entire history of religious liberty in America.

Note. This is a modified version of Section IV, Chapter 1 of God Betrayed: Separation of Church and State/The Biblical Principles and the American Application. Audio Teachings on the History of the First Amendment has links to the audio teaching of Jerald Finney on the history of the First Amendment..

“[B]y the dawn of the American Revolution all the colonies were approaching or had reached a readiness to separate Church and State. Only Rhode Island had traveled no road and followed no route to reach that destination; Rhode Island had been there from the start. For Pennsylvania the route was short and direct; full civil rights had to be granted to Catholics and to disbelievers in the Trinity for full civil liberty to be achieved. In the other colonies … far reaching and profound changes in attitude were necessary before the … concept could become a possibility” (William H. Marnell, The First Amendment: Religious Freedom in America from Colonial Days to the School Prayer Controversy (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964), p. 93).

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 peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (U.S. CONST. amend. I).

Until the colony of Rhode Island was founded, it was unusual for a civil government to provide for freedom of conscience even though God desires nations to provide for religious liberty under Him. Nonetheless, God’s people have always, regardless of the persecution of those who refuse to march lockstep with union of religion and state, come together as local churches, preached the Gospel, and helped their fellow man. Paul wrote in the midst of persecution:

  • “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Co. 4.8-9).
  • “We, having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak” (2 Co. 4.13).

In the preceding verse, Paul quoted a portion of Psalm 116.10 which says in its entirety, “”I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted:” Tied up in the liberty given believers by Christ is speaking (“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16.15)), and associating or meeting together (“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” (He. 10.25a)). Furthermore, God gave mankind the Bible, which in certain times past, was banned and burned. The First Amendment was written and ratified with the intent of protecting God’s churches, the exercise of religion or Christianity (freedom of religion or freedom of conscience), the preaching of the Gospel (freedom of speech), the coming together to worship God (freedom to assemble), the dissemination of literature, mainly the dissemination of God’s Word (freedom of press), and the right to petition the civil government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment was the culmination of a long spiritual warfare between established churches and dissenters, mainly the Baptists. God’s power moved mightily during that period of conflict. Many believers suffered persecution. The roots of the struggle in America were embedded in New England, spread to the south, to Virginia, and then to the new nation.

Revisionists have obscured the true history of the First Amendment. Revisionism is not new. Of course secularists, and especially atheists, must revise in order to support their outlandish positions. Catholics and Protestants, including the Puritans, consistent with their biases have long revised in order to further their agendas. Good examples are the claims made by the Presbyterians and the Honorable William Wirt Henry near the close of the nineteenth century. Mr. Henry “told of Virginia’s leadership in bringing in religious liberty but made no allusion to the Baptists, and said it was ‘under the leadership of Patrick Henry that religious liberty has been established as a fundamental part of the fundamental law of our land’” (Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (Harrisonburg, VA.: Sprinkle Publications, 2007; First Published Lynchburg, VA.: J. P. Bell Company, 1900), p. f.). As a result of Mr. Henry’s assertions, Charles F. James—a Baptist, who had preached that “at the date of the [American] Revolution the Baptists were the only denomination of Christians which, as such, held to the idea of religious liberty, and that, of the political leaders of that day, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were chiefly instrumental in establishing that principle in the laws of our land” (Ibid., p. e.)—set out to do a thorough historical study of the Baptists in Virginia. His studies and written work which followed set the record straight, a record which can be verified by honest historical study.

Secular revisionism has influenced the development of the modern concepts of the First Amendment. Influential constitutional “scholars” such as Leo Pfeffer, since they have no concept of God or His sovereignty, have removed the most important aspect of debate from the equation—the spiritual aspect. Pfeffer misrepresents spiritual matters because he does not understand them. He relegates the spiritual to the merely “ideological.” He attributes Madison’s positions on the issue of separation of church and state to his reliance on John Locke, and quotes Locke; then, even though Locke, in the quotes cited by Pfeffer, talks of government interference with the care and salvation of souls which belongs to God, Pfeffer never mentions God in his discussion but rather emphasizes Locke’s “social contract theory.” He overemphasizes the influence of rationalism and deism in gaining the First Amendment. He falsely proclaims that the “first four presidents of the United States were either Deists or Unitarians.” He asserts that the Great Awakening “emphasized an emotional, personal religion” which appealed directly to the individual, stressing the rights and duties of the individual conscience and its answerability exclusively to God (Leo Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1953), pp. 81-93). He, like all secular scholars, simply did not get it even though he did mention God. He had no choice but to mention God, since a controversy over what God taught in the Bible was at the center of the issues. He simply did not and could not examine that true history of what went on to bring about the First Amendment. Lost men and saved men who were spiritually ignorant have led the way in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The First Amendment, in what is called the establishment clause, forbids Congress to establish a church and reinforces the establishment clause in the free exercise clause by forbidding Congress to prevent the free exercise of religion. Thus, the religion clause of the First Amendment which consists of the establishment and free exercise clauses, especially when read in the context of the entire Amendment, is a legal statement of the principle of religious freedom, or soul liberty, or separation of church and state which conforms to biblical principles. Bible-believing Christians, based upon their spiritual beliefs, fought the fight which resulted in the First Amendment. They made the spiritual Bible-based arguments which gradually convinced others to accept separation of church and state. By practicing their faith despite persecution, they paid the price. They suffered persecution; they did not deny Christ and their faith in order to avoid persecution. “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Ti. 3:12).

Many of the early colonists were Protestants who thought Luther and/or Calvin were correct in their beliefs concerning church and state. Others, the Anglicans, brought the state-church concepts of England to the colonies. Dissenters believed in and fought for separation of church and state. The First Amendment was primarily the result of a spiritual warfare between those holding opposing Scriptural interpretations, the established churches versus the dissenters, primarily the Baptists.

  • “Of the Baptists, at least, it may be truly said that they entered the conflict in the New World with a clear and consistent record on the subject of soul liberty. ‘Freedom of conscience’ had ever been one of their fundamental tenets.  John Locke, in his ‘essay on Toleration,’ says: ‘The Baptists were the first and only propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.’ And the great American historian, Bancroft, says: ‘Freedom of Conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first a trophy of the Baptists.’ Bancroft’s History of the United States, Vol. II., pages 66, 67.
  • “The history of the other denominations shows that, in the Old World, at least, they were not in sympathy with the Baptist doctrine of soul liberty, but in favor of the union of Church and State, and using the civil power to compel conformity to the established church….
  • “The Reformation which began with Martin Luther corrected many errors of faith and practice among those who came out of the corrupt and apostate church, but not all. It was left to the sect once ‘everywhere spoken against’ to teach their Protestant brethren the lesson of soul liberty, and this they did in the school of adversity in the New World” (James, pp. 14-15).

At times, persecuting established churches in the colonies became persecuted churches. When that happened, the persecutors generally became dissenters seeking religious tolerance or religious freedom.

The First Amendment to the Constitution resulted from “a factual relationship that was rapidly solidifying when the Constitution was amended by the Bill of Rights.” The First Amendment was the final product of a long struggle by men who believed strongly in the God of the Bible and who were willing to die rather than bow down to false religion. Their spirit was fused into the ordering of the affairs of the United States. “A wall of separation which would bar that spirit from making itself felt in secular concerns can never be built, because it would have to bisect the human heart” (Marnell, pp. xii-xiii). William H. Marnell correctly observed that:

“[t]he First Amendment was not the product of indifference toward religion. It was not the product of the deism which prevailed in the Enlightenment, however much the spirit of deism may have been present in certain of the Founding Fathers. Above, all, it was not the product of secularism, and to translate the spirit of twentieth-century secularism back to eighteenth-century America is an outrage to history. The First Amendment was rather a logical outcome of the Reformation and its ensuing developments. It was so far removed from secularism as to be the product of its exact opposite, the deep-seated concern of a people whose religious faith had taken many forms, all of them active, all of them sincerely held. It was so far removed from indifference toward religion [specifically Christianity] as to be the result of its antithesis, the American determination that the diversity of churches might survive the fact of political action” (Ibid.).

The dissidents in the colonies, chiefly the Baptists, were able to gain a foothold, and they played it for all it was worth. The theology of the founding era, initially under the leadership of Roger Williams (who was not a Baptist and who turned from his Baptist affiliations soon after founding a church in Rhode Island. See Book Review: Did Roger Williams Start The First Baptist Church In America? Is the “Baptist Church the Bride of Christ? What About Landmarkism or the Baptist Church Succession Theory By Jim Fellure and Baptist History IN AMERICA Vindicated: The First Baptist Church in America/A Resurfaced Issue of Controversy/The Facts and Importance By Pastor Joshua S. Davenport.) and John Clarke, successfully challenged the doctrines of the established churches concerning the relationship of church and state. Among the results were the establishment of the first civil government in history with religious liberty, the government of the colony of Rhode Island, and later the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which required religious freedom for churches and freedom of conscience for individuals. The First Amendment allowed churches to operate under God without persecution. The First Amendment did not apply to the states.

Primarily due to the efforts of our Baptist forefathers, a time came, as Baptist pastor and historian John Callender said in 1838, when:

  • “[e]xperience has dearly convinced the world, that unanimity in judgment and affection cannot be secured by penal laws….
  • “Indulgence to tender consciences, might be a reproach to the Colony [of Rhode Island], an hundred years ago, [that is in 1738, one hundred years before Callender wrote this], but a better way of thinking prevails in the Protestant part of the Christian church at present. It is now a glory to the Colony, to have avowed such sentiments so long ago, while blindness in this article happened in other places, and to have led the way as an example to others, and to have first put the theory into practice.
  • “Liberty of conscience is more fully established and enjoyed now, in the other New-English Colonies; and our mother Kingdom grants a legal toleration to all peaceable and conscientious dissenters from the parliamentary establishment. Greater light breaking into the world and the church, and especially all parties by turns experiencing and complaining aloud of the hardships of constraint, they are come to allow as reasonable to all others, what they want and challenge for themselves. And there is no other bottom but this to rest upon, to leave others the liberty we should desire ourselves, the liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free. This is doing as we would be done by, the grand rule of justice and equity; this is leaving the government of the church to Jesus Christ, the King and head over all things, and suffering his subjects to obey and serve him” (John Callender, The Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode-Island (Providence: Knowles, Vose & Company, 1838), pp. 108-109).

By the time the First Amendment was added to the United States Constitution, only New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut had established churches. In 1833 Massachusetts became the last state to disestablish.

Baptists wanted religious freedom. Some probably could foresee the ideal of a church under God, a civil government under God, with neither church nor state over the other. But few knew how to have a civil government under God without establishing a church. Why? Fifteen hundred years of history had witnessed “Christian” establishments made up of church-state or state-church unions. Therefore, one should not be too hard on those early Protestants in America who continued those unions, since, according to Isaac Backus:

“[many things] prove that those fathers [the leaders of the Puritans in Massachusetts] were earnestly concerned to frame their constitution both in church and state by divine rule; and as all allow that nothing teaches like experience, surely they who are enabled well to improve the experience of past ages, must find it easier now to discover the mistakes of that day, than it was for them to do it then. Even in 1637, when a number of puritan ministers in England, and the famous Mr. Dod among them, wrote to the ministers here, that it was reported that they had embraced certain new opinions, such as ‘that a stinted form of prayer and set liturgy is unlawful; that the children of godly and approved Christians are not to be baptized, until their parents be set members of some particular congregation; that the parents themselves, though of approved piety, are not to be received to the Lord’s Supper until they be admitted set members,’ &c., Mr. Hooker expressed his fears of troublesome work about answering of them, though they may appear easy to the present generation” (Isaac Backus, A History of New England With Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists, Volume 1 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, Previously published by Backus Historical Society, 1871), pp. 37-38).

Nor should one be too critical of those leaders of the founding era who struggled with the question of how to construct this nation. They produced the best governing document of any nation in history, but that document had some serious flaws which would play out to the detriment of the nation and individuals, families, and churches within the nation. Nonetheless, because of great revivals which began shortly after ratification of the Constitution, huge numbers of people were saved and those regenerated individuals were responsible for at least postponing the spiritual and moral decline of America.

How can a civil government be under God without entanglement with the church? A civil government can choose to be under God. Since God was directly over only one nation, the nation Israel, the only way God chooses to speak to a Gentile government prior to His second return is through His Word, the Bible. Therefore, for a nation to be under God, the leader(s) of that nation must understand and apply biblical principles including those principles concerning church, state, and separation of church and state. As has been shown, only born-again believers have the power, through the Holy Spirit, to understand the Word of God. Only regenerate leader(s) of a civil government can operate the government according to those principles laid down for Gentile nations in the Bible. In America, the people choose the leaders. Therefore, America will have a regenerate leadership only if America should have a population made up of a majority of knowledgeable active Christians who choose Christian leaders.

The Constitution provided for separation of church and state, but the Constitution and the amendments thereto, even when the Declaration of Independence is considered, failed to proclaim that this nation is to be under God and that the purpose of this nation is to glorify God. The primary declaration that a nation can make in its constitution to place itself under God is that its purpose is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ through laws, prayers, and proclamations consistent with biblical principles. That nation can model its laws, including its constitution, after biblical principles and seek God’s direction in all things, including lawmaking, enforcement, and judging. In such a nation, prayers should be made at all civil governmental functions in Jesus’ name. One of the principles a nation under God must proclaim, as does the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, is that every man has free will, as ordained by God, and that, since God wants every man’s love, men are free to choose to worship the one true God, any false god or gods, or no god at all. A civil government under God must also legislate criminal law making certain acts concerning man’s relationship with man—but not acts dealing with man’s relationship with God—criminal, according to God’s Word, and provide for judging and enforcing those acts by the civil government.

The chances of a civil government being under or remaining under God’s principles before the return of Christ are non-existent as shown by the Bible and by all history. No civil government will have (a) leader(s) who believe(s) and implement(s) principles in the Word of God except in the unlikely situation where the leader(s) is (are) saved, and no civil government so structured will long remain under God. Godly leaders are inevitably replaced with carnal Christians and/or the unregenerate who cannot and will not lead according to God’s Word.

This chapter will succinctly summarize the true history of religious liberty in America, initially pointing out some of the misleading teachings of secular and Christian revisionists. Ultimately, Christians can accomplish nothing with lies (Read James R. Beller, America in Crimson Red: The Baptist History of America (Arnold, Missouri: Prairie Fire Press, 2004) and James R. Beller, The Coming Destruction of the Baptist People: The Baptist History of America (St. Louis, Missouri: Prairie Fire Press, 2005) for a thorough discussion of the theology behind the lies of the Christian nationalists, whom Beller calls catholic Reformed, and a discussion of Christian nationalists other than Peter Marshall and David Manuel.).


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