In 1799 a law was enacted allowing the minister of a dissenting sect to recover from the town treasurer the taxes that had been paid for the support of religion by members of his congregation. A Methodist minister tried to recover his share of the taxes under this law, but he failed because he was not “settled.” He had preached in various places, from Pittsfield to Springfield, and consequently the law did not touch his


A few years later a peculiar construction was put upon the law that allowed individuals to support any public teacher of piety, religion and morality. The Supreme Court decided that ministers of unincorporated societies were not public teachers. The decision affected a large number of dissenting societies but few of which had been incorporated.

All these difficulties placed in the way of religious liberty, served only to make the dissenters more zealous in their opposition to any state interference in religious matters. They were now strong and well organized and it was only a question of a short time when the church establishment would be overthrown.

In 1811 the “religious freedom" act was passed. It was like the act passed in Connecticut twenty years before. Under this act any one could leave the Congregational church and attend a Baptist, Episcopal or any other church. His taxes went to the minister whose instructions he attended. He, however, had to file a certificate with the town clerk that he had joined a new society.

In 1820 an effort was made to amend the Bill of Rights so as to include the provisions of the religious freedom act of 1811. An amendment to this effect was prepared but was rejected by a large majority.

The Unitarian ascendency is the last chapter in the history of the struggle between the churches and state in Massachusetts. The Bill of Rights gave to the parish or town not to the church the exclusive right of electing the minister and contracting with him for his support. “This well-meant provision was the cockatrice's egg out of which those great judges, Parker and Shaw, successively sitting thereon, afterwards hatched dire mischief to the churches." The Congregational church of Massachusetts now rested on popular suffrage. Any change, therefore, in the beliefs and opinions of the voters, was sure to manifest itself in the church, and, particularly, in the selection of a pastor. In 1818 it happened, in the little town of Dedham, that the pastor of the First church resigned to accept the presidency of a college. The orthodox Congregationalists had for a long time been in the majority here, and the town was supplied with a Congregational minister. But public opinion had been changing, and it was here first learned that the Standing Order, built on popular suffrage, must change as the sentiment of the people changes. The citizens of the town, as distinct from the church, decided to exercise the rights guaranteed to them under the Bill of Rights of 1780, and accordingly chose a minister for the town. They elected a Unitarian. The majority of the church true to Congregational orthodoxy, refused to accept the new minister. The matter was brought to the Supreme Court where the case was decided in favor of the parish. “Whatever, said Chief Justice Parker, the usage in settling a minister, the Bill of Rights of 1780 secures to towns, not to churches, the right to elect the minister in the last resort.2 The Unitarian minister was given charge of the parish. Here was a Congregational church, the state church, under laws made by Congregationalists themselves, turned over to a sect with which the early Puritan would have had no sympathy. To the Unitarians, professing a doctrine that they hardly dared bring to the light, this orthodox church with all its funds was transferred. In this way many other churches of the Standing Order, with all their property, were turned over to the Unitarians. The first church of old Plymouth itself was in this way made Unitarian. Bishop Burgess has said that in 1843 there were one hundred and thirty Unitarian Congregational churches in Massachusetts hardly twenty of which were Unitarian in their origin.'

1 Buck, p. 41.

1 Chas. E. Stevens, Essay on Church and Parish.

2 Buck, p. 52.

The old Calvinistic state church that had withstood all attacks so long, was now superseded in many places. The reaction of the laws intended to make it secure had brought on its ruin. Massachusetts was now willing to give up the struggle it had carried on so long. In 1834 the Bill of Rights was amended, and “the ancient policy of the Commonwealth, derived from the mother country, steadily maintained for two hundred years, was entirely abandoned.” 2

During the last period there have appeared two forces to aid in the dis-establishment of the chureh. (1) The examples set by the Federal government, and by many of the states, doubtless had great weight in determining the future policy of New England. (2) In Massachusetts the change in the belief of the citizens manifested itself in the church. Congregationalism began to give way to Unitarianism. The unfavorable turn of events which the state experienced in the execution of its laws was all that was needed. Massachusetts was now ready to join with her sister states in her attitude toward the church.

While many forces contributed to bring about the separation of church and state in New England, there is none so prominent as the work of those who were once dissenters. The Baptists, Episcopalians, Quakers and others, fought a good fight in behalf of freedom. Their labors never ceased until the victory was

New England was now ready to “render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's and unto God the things that are God's."



BurgessPages from the Ecclesiastical History of New England, pp. 121-2. ? Buck's Massachusetts Ecclesiastical Law, p. 64.

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