The Framers’ Debates on Religion
The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution
Lesson I. Historical Background
Step 2. Forced Religion
Welcome and Overview
Long before the United States became its own country, European monarchs often imposed the death penalty on heretics. Heretics were those who attempted to persuade others to believe differently than the government required. Those in power believed at the time, it was better for one person to die than to draw others down to hell, too.
The official state church run with tax money was known as the established church and there were consequences for not conforming to the established church. In the most severe cases, you could be executed, but in other cases, you could receive a heavy fine for not attending Sunday services.
When Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church to get a divorce, he established the Church of England and required everyone in England to accept its teachings. Bloody religious conflict ensued for the century following Henry’s reign as the monarchy switched between rulers who upheld the Church of England and others who wanted a Catholic country. This caused political instability and many people lost their lives.
Even when that dispute was for the most part settled, not all Protestants wanted to conform to the rules and membership of the Church of England. They wanted to form different Protestant denominations.
In 1689, Parliament passed the Act of Toleration, which gave permission for some Protestants to worship outside the established church if they swore loyalty to the Crown. This meant that the established church was still considered the best religious path, but some other paths were permitted, as long as it was Protestant Christian, and not Catholic.
In the same year, John Locke whose ideas greatly influenced the American founders, argued in his Letter Concerning Toleration that Americans should enjoy religious toleration. In 1689, it was unclear how this law should apply in the American colonies.