Disestablishment and Religious Dissent

Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833

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Carl H. Esbeck, Jonathan J. Den Hartog
  • Columbia, MO: 
    University of Missouri Press
    , November
     460 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The lack of a religious establishment is one of the distinct and innovative aspects of federal governance in the United States. But the federal government, strictly speaking, has never been disestablished: the structures of governance set up by the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution never established a favorable relationship with one denomination or religion. While studies of underlying intellectual trends provide insight into why this is, it is helpful to focus on institutions that were established and became disestablished: the states.

Such is the goal of Carl H. Esbeck and Jonathan J. Den Hartog’s Disestablishment and Religious Dissent. Chronicling church-state relations in the new American states from 1776–1833, this edited collection of essays takes a novel approach. Rather than grouping the colonies into broad regions (New England, Mid-Atlantic, South) with their similar perspectives on religion, this work takes a more granular approach, considering each of the thirteen colonies separately. The work also includes essays on later additions to the United States such as Kentucky, Tennessee, the Louisiana and Missouri Territories, Vermont, Maine, and Florida, each of which worked through its own disestablishment. Chapters are organized chronologically based on the date of their disestablishment, which, if difficult to pinpoint, refers to the ministerial assessment or religious tax. The resulting work is the most comprehensive description of disestablishment at the state level available today. Chapters are also helpful for their emphasis on primary materials that give, to use the editors’ words, “evidence and color” to the process of disestablishment in each state.

The book’s novel approach has both benefits and drawbacks. A clear benefit is the level of nuance provided to the concept of disestablishment. Church-state entanglements were myriad, including financial support for the state church; government control over various aspects of religious life, including the creeds, polity, and licensing of ministers; enforcement of mandatory attendance at worship services; use of the church to manage civil records of births, marriages, and deaths, and to administer distribution of tax revenue for the poor and widowed; and religious tests, which applied to both candidates for public office and voting rights for those who elected them. In this light, rather than being understood as an all-or-nothing proposition, disestablishment is more rightly seen as a convoluted spectrum of issues. Chapters on states thought to be open to various religions from the beginning such as Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania paint much more complex pictures of disestablishment; the cases become only more heated in the ensuing chapters.

The approach also provides the editors with the evidence to argue against some long-held perspectives on disestablishment in the United States. Ten findings are summarized in the introduction; each deserves fuller treatment in later studies and makes the introduction the most helpful and succinct aspect of the book, a useful text to assign in survey courses. Most notable is the lack of influence the nonestablished federal government had on disestablishment in the states and vice versa. Also of note is the argument that no one disestablishment is more important than another. While subsequent histories by historians and those described in Supreme Court decisions emphasize the outsized role of Thomas Jefferson and Virginia’s disestablishment in creating the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the editors argue that the sources show Virginia to be an oddity among state disestablishments. A third point is how primary sources show that most of the agitation for religious disestablishment happened by religious dissenters, mostly Protestants not in the favored church, instead of nonreligious individuals influenced by the Enlightenment.

The benefits described have their own drawbacks. The level of nuance and detail given to a granular approach means that the reader will be introduced to a dizzying array of people, places, and situations, each unique for their respective areas. It will easily overwhelm. The editors state in the introduction that readers will probably skip around in the book rather than read in sequence; this should be encouraged. In fact, it may be helpful to think of the book as a collection of self-contained articles from a roundtable with some brief introductory thoughts. The conclusions reached by the book are helpful, but they also complicate the narrative with less easily described processes of disestablishment. All good histories do this: making the simple more complicated. But if this book is to be heeded, then many textbook descriptions of church-state relations in the United States will need to be rewritten. Considering the careful, erudite nature of the work, many are likely to hope it will be so.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Roeber is adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carl H. Esbeck is Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia, Missouri.

Jonathan J. Den Hartog is Chair of the History Department and Professor of History at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.


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