The Evolution of Religion in the Massachusetts State Constitution
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This thesis evaluates the changes that took place concerning the inclusion of religion in the Massachusetts state Constitution from its inception in 1780 through the amendments of 1833. Christianity, specifically Protestantism, was a central part of Massachusetts’ culture at the onset of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence. Many of the inhabitants’ ancestors came to Massachusetts for the express purpose of either finding a place to practice their religion in peace or to provide an example of perfect Christianity for the rest of the world. Most religious groups at the time believed their religion was the one true religion. As more and diverse religious groups came to the shores of America, religious tolerance became an issue. Most religious groups were not sympathetic or even cordial to people of other faiths or denominations. William Marnell states that the “Puritans believed in religious liberty for Puritans alone.” There certainly was no room for allowing “dissidents” to have a voice regarding the operation of the community.
The events that led to the creation of the Constitution of Massachusetts were fraught with religious tension. The first attempt at creating a Constitution in 1778 failed due to a lack of emphasis on religion. Both the Constitutionalists and the Separatists wanted specific declarations in the Constitution regarding what the state would require of the people in terms of support (or lack there of) for local churches and ministers, requirements for church and religion class attendance, and religious observations by government officials. When Massachusetts finally established its Constitution in 1780, changes in society and popular thought spurred great debate among the people of Massachusetts. Mandatory taxation in support of community churches, religious requirements of government officials, and mandatory attendance of religious instruction were among the most fervently debated topics.
Even after the creation of the Constitution, the people of Massachusetts continually forced the legislation to look closely at the rigid laws concerning religious obligation. Court cases and petitions requiring interpretation of these laws flooded the General and Supreme courts. However, true change did not occur until 1833, more than fifty years later. The final blows to the Constitution in favor of the elimination of religion were fierce and unstoppable in the end. By the time Massachusetts removed religion from its Constitution, Massachusetts was far behind other state and federal laws. Many other states had removed the religious clauses from their laws and the federal government had refused to include one in its Constitution of 1787.
Life and culture in Massachusetts had changed. Religious tolerance was no longer the question of the day but rather the demand of the people. Massachusetts could no longer ignore that demand. In order to secure peace within its own realm, Massachusetts had to relieve the people of the burden of established religion. Massachusetts’ founders believed every person should live a God-centered, governmentally controlled life, however, after two centuries, the people of Massachusetts learned that the government could not make that decision for the individual.