1.2.1. New England (1787-1833): The End of State Religion

  • The early national era also marked the demise of state-sponsored religion in New England.  A schism developed between “old light” Congregationalists, who adhered to a Calvinistic view of an austere God and a humanity divided at birth between those destined and not destined for heaven; and Unitarians who believed that “ethical conduct and sober respectability were sufficient for grace.”  Battles between “old lights” and Unitarians for control of many Congregational parishes, and the associated right to control church taxes, occupied much time of the New England courts. 
  • New dissenting sects, most notably Baptists, also grew during the era.  The newcomers, together with disgruntled “old lights” and Unitarians who had lost battles for local control, coalesced and eventually procured the repeal of colonial-era laws requiring church attendance and giving the power of taxation to local parishes.

The End of State-Supported Religion

Barnes v. Inhabitants of First Parish in Falmouth – Massachusetts, 1810 (6 Mass. 401); Adams v. Howe – Massachusetts, 1817 (14 Mass. 340); Oakes v. Hill – Massachusetts, 1830 (10 Pick. 333)

  • Barnes, Adams and Oakes were milestones in the demise of state-supported religion in New England.  In Barnes, a Universalist minister sued to force parish members who preferred a more conservative leader to pay his salary out of parish taxes.  Massachusetts’s supreme court sided with him, rejecting the parish dissenters’ argument that their freedom of religion required freedom from taxation.  
  • The legislature responded to Barnes by passing a law exempting dissenters from taxes, and in Adams the court reluctantly upheld the law, stating that if the legislature wished to “pass laws … which may have a tendency injuriously to affect the regular public worship, it is not for the judiciary power to control their course.” 
  • In Oakes, Marcus Morton, one of the first Democrats to join the court, suggested that Massachusetts was now tending toward “entire separation between civil power and religious … which is now claimed and in a great degree enjoyed in this country.”  Soon after, in 1833, the legislature fulfilled Morton’s prediction by abolishing state support of religion altogether.

The Battle Over Religious Freedom and Blasphemy

Commonwealth v. Kneeland – Massachusetts, 1838 (20 Pick. 206); Hale v. Everett – New Hampshire, 1858 (53 N.H. 9)
  • Kneeland was the most celebrated New England civil rights case of the early 1800s.  Abner Kneeland, an atheist, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to 30 days in jail for stating that “the Universalists believe in a god which I do not” and believe that God “is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.”  Kneeland’s defenders argued that he was not trying to provoke believers but only to defend his own beliefs. 
  • Was public expression of atheism to be permitted?  Lemuel Shaw, speaking for a majority of Massachusetts’s supreme court, said no.  Shaw noted that a statement of disbelief in God without more would not be blasphemy, but he concluded Kneeland could have intended “to impair and destroy the veneration due to [God.]”  Marcus Morton, who dissented, argued for limiting blasphemy to situations where a speaker actively tried to provoke devout Christians and create a disturbance.  Morton expressed a concern of many liberals that too broad a definition of blasphemy would destroy true freedom of religion and would harm free speech in the bargain.
  • Twenty years after Kneeland, New Hampshire Chief Justice Charles Doe used a case involving a dispute between church factions over disposal of church property to review the law of blasphemy and New England’s tradition of entanglement between church and state.  Doe noted that although church and state had largely separated, the traditional belief that Protestantism was the true religion of the region continued to manifest itself in the form of anti-Catholic sentiment against recent Irish and French Canadian immigrants.  Like Morton, Doe argued that religious sentiment could best be fostered by limiting blasphemy to “malicious” assaults on public opinion about Christianity.  



Rhode Island

New Hampshire



1780:  Each town must levy taxes to support a local church; religious freedom extended to believers in God only

1811:  Dissenters allowed to use their taxes to support own sect

1833:  State support of religion ended

1818:  New constitution ends state-supported religion

(Rhode Island never had a policy of state-supported religion)

1776:  Religious freedom extended to believers in God only

1791:  Each town must tax to support a local church; dissenters are exempted from taxation on a limited basis

1804-07:  Some sects (Baptists, Universalists) exempted from religious taxes

1819:  Toleration Act:  state support of religion ended



1820:  Statehood; constitution provides for complete religious freedom, no state support of religion

1781:  Each town must tax to support a local church

1807:  State support of religion ended

Congregational Church, Easton, Connecticut - courtesy Doug Kerr and Wikimedia Commons

“The great error lies in not distinguishing between liberty of conscience in religious opinions and worship, and the right of appropriating money by the state.  … The object of public religious instruction is to teach and to enforce by suitable arguments, the practice of a system of correct morals among the people, and to form and cultivate reasonable and just habits and manners; by which every man’s person and property are protected from outrage, and his personal and social enjoyments promoted and multiplied.” – Justice Theophilus Parsons, in Barnes

 Whether [principles of state-supported religion] are consistent with the natural rights of man … whether civil power can ever, righteously or advantageously, be exerted to enforce the worship of … whether the forced observances of the external rites and ordinances of religion tend to promote a devotional spirit and sincere piety – are questions … unsuitable for judicial investigation.” – Justice Marcus Morton, in Oakes

Abner Kneeland - courtesy New York Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons

“Anger towards God, indignity to him, to our Saviour, or the Holy Ghost, a disposition to scoff at religion, do not seem to me to be the subjects of human punishment … [they] cannot be reached by a human tribunal.  But if made known, they would not be the subject of punishment, because they inflicted no injury upon any human being … It is only the only the injury to civil society which can give civil government jurisdiction of them.” – Justice Marcus Morton (dissenting), in Kneeland


“[Blasphemy] was to be understood only in the qualified sense that the divine origin and truth of Christianity being in fact generally admitted by the people, the public sentiment on that subject should not be maliciously assailed. … [This] divested of all legal meaning the phrase that Christianity is law. … There has been a greater change in the prevalent ideas of New England Protestants in regard to the attributes of the Deity, in a century, than among the Jews for thousands of years.  And if the court should assume to put a stop to that innovation, they would usurp the spiritual jurisdiction of the extinct inquisitions of the ancient Catholic, Episcopalian, and Calvinistic churches, and there would be an end of the religious liberty so solemnly and amply guaranteed.” – Chief Justice Charles Doe (dissenting), in Hale