EDMUND S. MORGAN'S ARGUMENT ON THE SEPARATION
OF CHURCH AND STATE IN MASSACHUSETTS BAY

The Puritans were interested in establishing a degree of separation of church and state because: (1) they had been persecuted by the English government and wanted to ensure their own freedom of religion in Massachusetts Bay, (2) they disagreed with the Catholic/Anglican idea that the church should be should be universal, encompassing every member of the community. This implied a division between the institutions of society (government) and the institutions of the church.

  1. Institutional separation of church and state:
    1. In England, church and state were entwined at every level of society.
      1. The Anglican church was headed by the King.
      2. Anglican bishops sat as full voting members of the House of Lords in Parliament.
      3. Parish wardens handled social welfare concerns: providing for the poor, orphans, inheritance, marriage, family. They were empowered to impose punishments (fines, fees, etc.) and to enforce these against private individuals.
    2. Massachusetts Bay sought to establish an institutional separation of church and state.
      1. Congregational independence was instituted so that no government could tell a congregation what to do; church members controlled the affairs of the church.
      2. Ministers were barred from holding public office.
      3. Town governments were created to handle social welfare concerns (towns also distributed town property, maintained meeting houses for the local church, and held town meetings to decide issues of importance to the citizens).

  2. Coercion and Punishment: Spiritual v. Temporal
    1. In England, the state was empowered to use both temporal and physical compulsion and spiritual methods to enforce compliance with its wishes.
      1. In England, the king had the power to remove priests and bishops from their spiritual offices.
      2. In Massachusetts Bay, the government had the right to imprison or banish ministers who broke the law or committed heresy, but the government could not remove them from their spiritual office. An imprisoned or banished clergyman could retain the his spiritual office if the church wanted to retain him
    2. Likewise church used both methods to enforce its wishes.
      1. Excommunication caused loss of political rights, legal rights, business relationships. Persons who were excommunicated would eventually be imprisoned if they did not repent. Thus, church could remove from office politicians who had misbehaved in office or committed a private moral wrong.
      2. In New England, excommunication resulted in the loss only of church privileges. Persons who were excommunicated retained political and legal rights and they did not go to prison. Politicians could be excommunicated for behaving sinfully in office, but they lost only their church privileges, not their right to hold office.

  3. Puritans did not believe that the state was wholly secular.
    1. Church and State had both been created by God to enforce his will on Earth.
      1. These institutions had different roles to play and were given different tools and methods to do their jobs, but both had a divine task.
      2. Puritans still believed state should enforce compliance with the one true religion (Puritanism).
    2. Everyone in Massachusetts Bay was taxed to support the local churches, even those who were not church members.
      1. Church attendance was compulsory for everyone and could be enforced by the state. New churches could not be organized with out the approval of the colonial government.
      2. Until 1647, church membership was required to obtain the right to vote (although once suffrage was obtained, it could not be removed by excommunication).

HIS 338: Religion in American History
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Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
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