Eighteenth-Century Religious Liberty: The Founding Generation’s Protestant-Derived Understanding

Barry Alan Shain

in The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States

Published in print November 2010 | ISBN: 9780195326246
Published online January 2011 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

 Eighteenth-Century Religious Liberty: The Founding Generation’s Protestant-Derived Understanding

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This article discusses the liberty accorded to religion. In the eighteenth century, religious liberty, like any other understanding of liberty, enjoyed multiple, contested, and evolving meanings. From Jefferson to Lincoln, the definitions for liberty were cloaked in confusion and puzzlement. Although the eighteenth century is marked by massive transformation in the declared goals served by the public in support of Christianity, the evolving sense of religious liberty for those in dissent remained closely linked with two Christian concepts, logically dependent on the first and interchangeable with the latter. The first is Christian liberty, which made freedom possible and different from license. The second is freedom of religious conscience, which rebutted blind obedience and the requirement of an implicit religion. On the political level, religious liberty was a debated issue as well. Within this context, the invocation of equal religious liberty was introduced. This equal religious liberty, forwarded by the dissenting Protestants, sought for equal legal standing amongst Protestants. In the context of Christian worship, it meant the separation of Church and State. Liberty, which forms the component part of religious liberty, forms the focal point of this article. The restrictions and objectives of liberty are examined, along with the concepts that undergirded the religious elements of religious liberty; the relatively constant understanding of spiritual or Christian liberty; and the changing and expanding senses of freedom of religious conscience that made equal religious liberty different from the narrow spiritual goals of the earlier eighteenth century.

Keywords: liberty; religion; religious liberty; Christian liberty; freedom; religious conscience; equal religious liberty; equal legal standing; Church and State; spiritual liberty

Article.  16932 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; US Politics ; Politics and Law

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