The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State

The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State

The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State

The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State


Traditional understandings of the genesis of the separation of church and state rest on assumptions about "Enlightenment" and the republican ethos of citizenship. In The Religious Roots of the First Amendment, Nicholas P. Miller does not seek to dislodge that interpretation but to augment and enrich it by recovering its cultural and discursive religious contexts--specifically the discourse of Protestant dissent. He argues that commitments by certain dissenting Protestants to the right of private judgment in matters of Biblical interpretation, an outgrowth of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, helped promote religious disestablishment in the early modern West.

This movement climaxed in the disestablishment of religion in the early American colonies and nation. Miller identifies a continuous strand of this religious thought from the Protestant Reformation, across Europe, through the English Reformation, Civil War, and Restoration, into the American colonies. He examines seven key thinkers who played a major role in the development of this religious trajectory as it came to fruition in American political and legal history: William Penn, John Locke, Elisha Williams, Isaac Backus, William Livingston, John Witherspoon, and James Madison.

Miller shows that the separation of church and state can be read, most persuasively, as the triumph of a particular strand of Protestant nonconformity-that which stretched back to the Puritan separatist and the Restoration sects, rather than to those, like Presbyterians, who sought to replace the "wrong" church establishment with their own, "right" one.The Religious Roots of the First Amendmentcontributes powerfully to the current trend among some historians to rescue the eighteenth-century clergymen and religious controversialists from the enormous condescension of posterity.


Nicholas Miller's argument is that a long-standing and distinct religious tradition contributed much more directly to the religion clauses of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment than historians have been ready to acknowledge. the standard picture has been that while religious motives were not entirely absent in the church-state considerations of America’s colonial and early-national generations, pragmatic considerations were everywhere much more important. Miller does not question the presence of these pragmatic considerations.

After all, most of the colonies eventually came to include Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Baptists—not to speak of a diverse sprinkling of Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Mennonites, deists, Lutherans, German Reformed, and more—among their inhabitants. Given such a pluralism of religious adherence, and given the search for a polity that could enable a religiously pluralistic population to make common political cause, what was there to do but concede religious freedom and decree the separation of church and state?

Yes, says Miller, but such pragmatic thinking was far from the whole story. in a diligent search for precedents and careful attention to actual historical connections linking generation to generation, Miller has identified a skein of deep conviction about the free rights of conscience that stretches in a continuous line from the early days of the Protestant Reformation to the American founding era. the skein began when the first Protestants, in particular Martin Luther, proclaimed that individuals enjoyed an intrinsic right of private judgment when interpreting and applying the Christian Scriptures. Luther swiftly backed off from a full-scale defense of this right when his own biblical interpretations were challenged. But others did not. Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a surprising number of voices continued to insist on the right, including many long forgotten except by experts, but also some much better known like John Milton and William Penn.

In Miller’s account, dissenting Protestants who objected in principle to the church establishments that almost all European Protestant regimes . . .

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