Many of the colonists had come to America from various countries that had state churches, such as Germany, (the Lutheran denomination) England (the Anglican denomination) France and Spain and Italy (the Catholic denomination.)
Some colonies had already established official denominations. There was a groundswell in America against an official denomination.
In Massachusetts, where the Congregational denomination was the official religion, a Baptist pastor named Isaac Backus, contended with John Adams, who was to become our second president, for freedom from denominational control. The idea seemed so unrealistic that Adams said, “You might as well expect a change in the solar system as to expect us to give up our established churches.”
About that time there was to be an election for a Congressional seat. Baptist pastor John Leland was a 5-1 favorite to defeat James Madison, who became know as the Father of our Constitution. The two met beneath an old oak tree in Richmond, Va., at the corner where two streets crossed that today bare their names Leland and Madison Avenues. Their conflict was over the issue related to a denomination becoming the official state denomination under the new Constitution. Leland argued there was no restriction in the Constitution against it. Madison promised Leland, who really didn’t want to run for office, that it he would withdraw he would propose a Bill of Rights guaranteeing there would be no official denomination.
Leland withdrew and Madison kept his word. When the first congress convened in January 1789, early in the meeting Madison proposed the first Ten Amendments to our constitution. The first one put restraints on congress asserting in part: “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion (assuring there would be no official state sponsored denomination), or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (affirming all denominations would have equal freedom of expression in the market place of ideas).
This is the separation of which Thomas Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association dated Jan. 1, 1802, assuring them Baptists and all denominations were protected from government control. The next day, Jefferson attended church services held in the House of Representatives, Jan. 2, 1802, and for years thereafter.
Madison was amenable to the idea of separation in that his mentor was the Rev. John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian minister who was an intimate friend and confidant of President Washington, a signer of the Constitution and Commissioner of the Congress.
As evidence of this freedom that same Congress appointed chaplains for both houses, authorized chaplains for the military, appropriated funds to evangelize native Americans and concluded the inauguration of President Washington with a worship service in St. Paul’s Chapel, an Anglican Church.
On the day they approved the First Amendment, they called on President Washington to declare a day of “public prayer and thanksgiving.”
The freedom afforded by the amendment allowed the two primary text books in the public schools to be the Bible and the Watts Hymnal.
The original Bill of Rights placed restrictions on the state, not the church. The role has now been reversed.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.