The Framers’ Debates on Religion

The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution

Lesson I. Historical Background

Step 3. Toleration Timelines

A. Religious Persecution in Europe


Magna Carta

The first clause of the Magna Carta stated that “the English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.”

Gutenberg Bible

Johannes Gutenberg invents the western Printing Press and prints the Bible.


The Monarchs of Spain form the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition to imprison and kill deserters of Catholic orthodoxy, lasting 354 years. The Roman Inquisitions were established by Pope Paul III in 1542. See external timeline.

Protestant Reformation

Sixty one years after the invention of the European printing press, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther published 95 Theses in protest (hence “protestant”) of Catholic doctrine of indulgences (payment for the church to absolve one’s sins).

King as Head of Church

King Henry VIII becomes the supreme head of the newly formed protestant Church of England (Anglican), a separate Christian religion from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry executed anyone who refused to acknowledge his role as head of the protestant Church. 

Queen Mary I

King Henry VIII’s daughter Mary Tutor became the Queen of England. In fierce opposition to the English Protestant reformation started by her father, she changed the monarchy’s official state religion to Catholic. Queen Mary married King Philip II of Spain and had protestants killed, giving her the nickname, “Bloody Mary.”

Queen Elizabeth I

After Queen Mary I died, the English people lit bonfires of celebration throughout London. Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, became queen and changed the official church back to Anglican, resulting in the persecution of English Catholics.

B. Colonial America


Jamestown, Virginia

England begins colonization of the “New World” when founding Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The English Royal Charter of Virginia said the purpose of colonization was for the “propagating of Christian Religion” as understood by the Anglican Church of England. Five years later, in 1612, the Virginia Governor issued the “Laws, Divine Moral and Martial” known as the “Bloody Code,” allowing the colony to fine, imprison, or kill anyone who did not obey the colonial church of England.

Slavery Begins

Virginia begins the slave trade, beginning the 246 years of legally supported slavery until it ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.

Colonial Massachusetts

Puritans founded the Colony of Massachusetts in 1630. They sought to “purify” the English church through colonial laws, whereas, Pilgrims advocated for the disunion of the church and the colony. In 1647, the colony passed the Act Against Heresy, sentencing to death dissenters of the Puritan Church. That year the colony also enacted the Old Deluder Satan Act, mandating Bible classes for all children, and worship laws that required church doors remain locked for the duration of worship services. In 1661, the colony killed by hanging May Dyer and three other Quakers, leading King Charles II to issue an act of toleration that proclaimed, “We do here will and require and command that liberty of conscience be allowed to all persons.” However, from 1659 to 1681 the colony banned the celebration of Christmas to promote Puritanism and prevent materialism and drunkenness.

Colonial Rhode Island

Roger Williams founded the colonial Providence of Rhode Island as the first known government without an official state religion. Previously he was banished from Massachusetts for challenging Puritan doctrine and advocating for the rights of the indigenous people. He argued that it was “against the testimony of Christ Jesus for the civil state to impose upon the souls of the people a religion” and that forced religion “stinks in the nostrils of God.” In 1644, the year the English Parliament approved his colonial charter, Williams published the Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, further justifying his reasons for not creating a state-governed religion.

Colonial Virginia

The Colony of Virginia issues laws against Quakers (arrested, punished, banished), against Puritans (deemed heretics and expelled), and against Catholics (expelled; barred from political office; barred from proselytizing). In 1662 Governor Berkeley issued “Virginia’s Cure,” issuing fierce governmental control of Anglican clergy to regulate their ministries and prevent them from drinking and gambling.


In 1689, Philosopher John Locke publishes A Letter Concerning Toleration in England, arguing that American colonists should enjoy full religious toleration and liberty. His writings influenced the Framers’ work when forming the United States government.

That year, Following the Glorious Revolution, in which the British monarchy changed due to religious competition between Catholics and Protestants, the English Parliament passed another Act of Toleration.

Salem Witch Trials

The colony of Massachusetts arrested 160 residents and sentenced to death 20 people part of the Salem “witch” trials. In 1697, the colony issued an apology, a moment that is captured in the famous painting that is currently displayed in the Massachusetts State House entitled “Dawn of Tolerance.”

Lesson I. Step 3 of 9


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