The Free Exercise of Religion in America: Its Original Constitutional Meaning

By Smith, Miles | The Journal of Southern History, May 2020 | Go to article overview

The Free Exercise of Religion in America: Its Original Constitutional Meaning


Smith, Miles, The Journal of Southern History


The Free Exercise of Religion in America: Its Original Constitutional Meaning. By Ellis M. West. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. Pp. xiv, 317. $89.99, ISBN 978-3-030-06051-0.)

The question of the meaning and limits of religious freedom in federal politics and in United States society has been debated since the promulgation of the Constitution in 1789. The more specific question of what exactly the free exercise of religion meant has become increasingly important and remains an important point of constitutional debate in the twenty-first century. Ellis M. West's The Free Exercise of Religion in America: Its Original Constitutional Meaning offers a comprehensive and informative narrative of the initial constitutional meaning of religion's free exercise and the Revolutionary generation's motivations for creating the free exercise clause.

West makes clear this work is a constitutional history and accordingly focuses most of his energy on legal and political correspondence during the Revolution and its aftermath, during the Constitutional era, and during the initial years of the early republic. Scholarship regarding free exercise has often been strictly legal in its scope. West urges a broader paradigm than mere legality in his work. Constitutional laws created to govern religion, he notes, were not meant to preclude specific laws but entire categories of laws in the early national era.

The text is divided helpfully into sections based on geography. The work begins with Virginia. The case of Baptist churches in Virginia forms a sizable part of West's treatment. He takes seriously the constitutional ramifications of what the Virginia General Assembly--led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison--granted to Baptists. He adds to the historiography by exploring and analyzing the possible constitutional consequences of what the Baptist petitions and the petitions of their supporters actually requested.

Religious exercise in the mid-Atlantic states never took on the same importance as in Virginia. State churches were less powerful, and the longtime presence of Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey encouraged a lackadaisical enforcement of what laws the states had and disinterest in confronting religion politically. Put simply, state governments and state actors ignored religious questions. …

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