On the legal side of the story, Britain’s former colonies, now states, undertook the intricate challenge of changing their laws to reflect their independence from Britain. In this process, they faced the challenge that many people still viewed religion as potentially dangerous to state stability and the public peace.
For this reason, some state constitutions limited religious freedom to those who behaved well, those who “demean themselves peaceably,” a phrase that long predated the Revolution. England’s King Charles II had used it in a speech to Parliament in the 1660s, and it had appeared in contexts related to religious toleration ever since.
During the Revolutionary War, John Dickinson, a member of the Continental Congress who helped write the Articles of Confederation, wanted to ensure religious liberty at the national level, but he proposed extending it only to those “living peaceably under the Civil Government.” Even those, like Dickinson, who wholeheartedly embraced the idea that a person’s religious conscience should be free, worried where its limits should be set.
Such limits were common. New Jersey’s 1776 constitution guaranteed religious freedom to all but permitted only Protestants “who shall demean themselves peaceably under the government” the right to hold office. Maryland’s 1776 constitution varied the language but strengthened the terms, explicitly excluding from protection those who “under colour of religion...disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State” or “infringe the laws of morality, or injure others, in their natural, civil, or religious rights.”
The same language also appeared in South Carolina’s 1778 constitution and in Virginia’s proposed 1779 “Bill concerning Religion.” Most influentially, the phrase recurred in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which, after laying out the terms of tax support for “public worship of God” and for “the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality,” guaranteed equal protection to “every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably.” As state leaders came to extend religious liberty, they presumed such freedoms were useful only insofar as they did not threaten the public peace.
While cautious state legislators worked to dismantle one system of religious liberty and replace it with another, those who advocated for religious freedom in ideological terms had a different job to do. They needed to distance the idea of religion from worries about public disorder and violence. They needed to believe that religious diversity — even disagreement — was compatible with a stable republic.
This ideological transformation was slower than its legal counterpart. It had roots in John Locke’s 17th-century writings, and it had been furthered during following decades by many thinkers who questioned connections between religion and the state. Among them were ministers on both sides of the Atlantic who theorized that if people’s reason was unrestricted by the state, they would naturally arrive at the conclusion that Protestant Christianity was superior — but even these thinkers tended to balk at the kind of unrestricted religious liberty that would ultimately take shape in the First Amendment. Yet these lofty discussions were often quite distanced from the nitty-gritty business of governing.
In Virginia, however, the two transformations came together. Although Thomas Jefferson is most closely associated with the state’s Statute on Religious Freedom, because he drafted the first version of it in 1779, the bill’s passage seven years later was the work of his friend James Madison. Madison was deeply steeped in the thinking of the Enlightenment, but he also had strong Protestant leanings and a thorough education from Princeton’s evangelical Presbyterian John Witherspoon. While Jefferson was in Paris, Madison guided Virginia’s process of religious disestablishment through the state General Assembly, and he also articulated most clearly the new version of religious freedom that would come to be cherished by many Americans.