Studying the Separation of Church and State in Early America

Studying the Separation of Church and State in Early America
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Bible Commonwealths in Early America

How is local governing rule determined? In early American history there were several locations where the local governing rule was based on the local faith of the colony. At the inception of the colonies in the area known as New England they were formed based on an ideal of Bible Commonwealth. Just as the colonies were to be an extension of England itself, so too were the New England colonies to be an extension of the Church of England. Local governments were set up under the rule of English law, but over time became more about Biblical law as more immigrants of other versions of Christian faiths came to the New World.

The reason that these new settlements were called Bible Commonwealths was because the Bible was the governing factor over every aspect of the citizen’s lives. The two main versions of the Bible that were used as law were the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible. Pastors and Ministers not only ran the local churches, but also became judges and governors in their local colonies. Common disputes such as neighbors' fence lines, animal control and family issues were all controlled by the local churches. In the image to the left is the front page of one of the written Commonwealth guides by John Elliot in 1659, his policy contains a basis of how to run a government based on the rules of the Old Testament.

To explore more of the different translational effects of the the two main bibles followed by early Americans, see Translation Effects: Geneva vs. King James.

Discrimination of Different Faiths


As the local churches gained more power over their followers, the culture of each colony was shaped by the local organized religion. The negative effects of this religious dominance help explain why, when the federal government was formed years later, power was given back to the people and taken away from the church. In the New England colonies, the Puritans gained a stronger foothold than that of the Quakers. The Puritan church expelled Quakers from those colonies, taking their homes and separating them from their families, if not all family members were labeled as Quaker. If the accused refused to leave, they might be killed. In order to ensure better conversion, dissenters were also fined and whipped to make them fall in line with the local faith.

Catholics were also subjected to religious discrimination by their more conservative neighbors. Catholics, by basis of religion alone, were not allowed to vote, could not worship in public, and were not allowed to hold public office.

In the Virginia colony where Anglicanism ruled, all citizens were required to attend church and to be catechized by a minister. If someone refused to do so, they could be killed. Colonists were also required to financially support the church just as they would a governmental institution. They were not allowed to associate with anyone who was not of their faith unless they were attempting to convert people of differing faiths.

At the onset of the eighteenth century more immigrants came in and so did differing religious views. The New World grew to contain Quakers, Puritans, Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Evangelicals and Deists. Each group fought against the others over which church held the power to govern the people in their area. As more people became expelled from their colonies over religious beliefs, more new townships were formed.

With the above history, it is quite easy to see why there would be a need for separation of church and state. The early colonists were, in part, coming here to create a better life for themselves. They brought their ideals of oppression and enacted them in local townships. Religious oppression has eased in today’s modern American culture when compared with that of the early Americans. This can be seen through modern diversity educational practices in Teaching Religion in Schools: Religious Rites and Ritual from Across the Globe.