Equal right and equal privilege: separating church and state in Vermont.

Author:Balik, Shelby M.

Vermont was going godless. That was what Aaron Cleveland was forced to conclude at the end of his 1808 mission a tour. Reporting back to the Connecticut Missionary Society, he wondered about the possible consequences of the law, passed the previous year, that had ended public support for churches. The legislators who passed the law, he wrote, were "infidels, Baptists, and nothingists" who aspired to "outlaw all religion." But they were also the state's "most popular and leading men," and Cleveland wondered if they might use their power to take their secular aims to unprecedented lengths. If they did, no law protecting religious worship or public morality would be safe from repeal. "Even the observance of the Christian Sabbath stands on slippery ground," Cleveland fretted, "as it respects the Legislature of Vermont." (1)

Vermont became, in 1807, the first New England state to end religious taxation. (2) For many--particularly Congregationalists--publicly funded worship had been the bedrock of a broader system that ensured a moral and pious society. With religious taxation came automatic membership in a spiritual community (even for those who had not joined a church in full communion), along with all of the privileges and obligations that membership entailed. Among the most important privileges were access to regular worship and the spiritual and moral edification that only communal observance could foster; among the most important obligations was the submission to the community's moral standards, which in turn ensured public peace and order. Without public support for worship, observers like Cleveland wondered, would the finely balanced system of personal privileges and public obligations fall apart? Would the state simply become in different to religion, or would it turn openly hostile. Having ended religious taxation, would it continue along the same vein until it dismantled every law that protected churchgoers and punished blasphemers, adulterers, and drunks? And if the state should abandon its guardianship of religious authority, what would be the fate of public morality and order?

The answer, which Cleveland could not have predicted at the time, was that Vermont would do nothing of the sort. Although the state ended, compulsory religious taxation, it did not proceed to sever its ties with churches or with religion more broadly. In fact, it retained old laws and even enacted new ones that not only provided general support for worship, but in many eases also actively promoted religious institutions. Most importantly, while the state showed no de jure preference for Congregationalism as a denomination, it continued to privilege de facto the town-church model of religious organization and community, inextricably associated with the old Congregationalist establishment.

This does not square with the story we think we know about post-revolutionary disestablishment. The Revolutionary War and its attendant rhetoric of liberty and equality stirred a national debate over the proper extent of religious toleration. Americans grappled with the implications of religious disestablishment, in the nascent republic, where it seemed that churches alone could compel moral behavior. (3) Those who favored state-sponsored religion warned that should it be dissolved, public morality would disappear also. But as the story is usually told, the revolutionary principles won out, and disestablishment proceeded apace. Most studies off disestablishment in revolutionary America posit this event either as the end of a long struggle for religious liberty, or as the beginning of a new era of freedom of conscience; either way, as Nathan Hatch put it, the language of establishment and dissent became "anachronistic" in the United States after 1800. (4) The exception came in the New England states, where debates over the church-state relationship raged through the early nineteenth century. There, many continued to argue that simply ending state support for churches would result in a religious free-for-all, or--worse--secularization. But here too, the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality effectively discredited any system that required individuals to finance ministers or churches that contradicted their own beliefs, and so disestablishment prevailed in the end.

Or did its Vermont's example suggests that we need to rethink this familiar stoP). Because even as lawmakers there celebrated religious liberty they hesitated to sever church-state ties outright. There was, as it turns out, no decisive moment of disestablishment, which progressed in a halting and contested struggle that took decades to complete. (5) Disestablishment was in fact a legal fiction that masked ongoing state support for religion This is not to suggest that disestablishment never happened, but rather that legislative reform did not by itself sever the relationship between church and state, as both supporters and detractors believed it did. Whereas the laws that ended religious taxation convinced citizens that they had achieved religious liberty, religious inequalities persisted. (6) Vermont's case shows us that we should reexamine very closely how disestablishment played out elsewhere, and consider the possibility that public officials, instead of cutting ties between church and state, merely shifted them as the relationships between religious and civil institutions assumed new forms.


Establishment in New England rested upon the longstanding Puritan assumption that neighbors should pray together. The Congregationalist system, known as the New England Way, originated with the seventeenth-century Puritan settlers, who founded churches that kept watch over all town residents, even though only baptized and converted Christians enjoyed the privileges of full communion. Under this system, each church was an independent polity: a "covenanted community" of believers who united to improve their own spiritual and moral well-being. Although Congregationalists modified the New England Way over the ensuing 150 years, the town-church model persisted and bound together civil and spiritual interests. (7)

Vermont was the first New England state after Rhode Island to join the union without some constitutional basis for religious establishment, but even though its constitution did not link church and state, such a relationship surely existed. Indeed, a religious establishment persisted for thirty years after the territory first organized in 1777. As elsewhere in New England, Vermont's establishment supported the Congregationalist ideal of the covenanted community by requiring each town to supply its own minister and support public worship consistent with the spiritual orientation of the majority of its inhabitants. Accordingly, each town could levy taxes to pay for ministerial salaries and meeting house construction and repair. But beginning in the 1780s and 1790s, new sects like the Methodists, Freewill Baptists, and Universalists joined the regular Baptists' rallying cry to abolish the town-church system. They succeeded in their efforts because of two confluent trends that rendered establishment increasingly untenable. On a practical level, frontier Vermont's spiritually and geographically scattered populations had difficulty supporting town churches. And on an ideological level, the language of religious liberty fueled the fire, framing the debate as a war against spiritual tyranny and lending revolutionary fervor to the struggle for freedom of conscience.

From the beginning, Vermont was more socially and religiously diverse than other New England states, and this diversity challenged the town-church ideal. White settlement in Vermont started in the mid-eighteenth century as migrants arrived from across southern New England, New York, and elsewhere. Settlers included the more prosperous holders of the Wentworth grants in the Connecticut Valley along with those of more humble origins, who moved after the American Revolution to escape poverty and debt in southern New England. Congregationalists were (and, through the early nineteenth century, remained) the most populous denomination. But they had a late start. Bennington organized the first town church in 1763, and the pace of church building picked up slowly thereafter. Congregationalists added four more churches in the 1760s, sixteen during the 1770s, and seventy-six over the next two decades, most clustered in southeastern Vermont. (8) The Baptists also started slowly but eventually became Vermont's fastest-growing sect. In 1796, Isaac Backus reported that the number of Baptist churches in Vermont had grown from two to fifty in sixteen years. Still, despite this growth, their numbers did not surpass the Congregationalists' through the early nineteenth century. (9)

Soon Methodists, Universalists, and Freewill Baptists also found footholds in Vermont. (10) Methodists, who first moved into the state in the 1790s, established thirteen circuits, containing 2,529 members, by 1804, when Vermont joined the New England Conference. (11) During the same period, the Universalists expanded from a disconnected sprinkle of congregations to a more organized constellation of churches. In 1804, the New England General Convention created the Northern Association to oversee its growing following in New Hampshire and Vermont. (12) The Freewill Baptists, whose early growth concentrated in New Hampshire and Maine, organized their first Vermont church in 1800. Within a decade, they had added twenty-one more within two-quarterly meetings. (13) By the second decade of the nineteenth century, these three denominations had joined the regular Baptists as New England's leading dissenters.

The dissenters' success was significant not just for the doctrinal challenges they posed to the Standing Order, but also because their ecclesiastical arrangements clashed with the town-church legacy. These sects, along with the Baptists, employed itinerants to...

To continue reading