American Disestablishment: The Conclusion


Oliver Cromwell (L), King Charles I (R)

By Miles Smith

I‘m incredibly grateful for Mr. Whittaker’s comprehensive, fascinating, fair, and gracefully written responses to my earlier piece. He has identified important points, and his thesis, that the Cromwellian settlement actuated a sort of broad or general establishment of Protestantism in England that eventually influenced a similar settlement in North America, should not be dismissed. Mr. Whittaker is certainly not wrong; The English Commonwealth was not by any means particularly reactionary by the standards of Protestant or Roman Catholic state establishments in the middle of the seventeenth century. Therefore, my main purpose here is not to contest each point Mr. Whittaker has made, but to identify areas of tension that remain between our core theses.

I see three main areas of divergence: the nature of toleration under the English Commonwealth, the endurance of the religious regime brought about by the English Civil Wars’ settlement, and, finally, the nature of freedom and toleration in the late British Empire in North America.

While the Commonwealth was not the cartoonish inquisition its detractors make it out to be, the Cromwellian regime by no means approached what eventually became the understanding of toleration in the American republic. Whittaker notes rightly that although “the Westminster Assembly provided blueprints for an established presbyterian church, functioning classes (presbyteries) only came into existence haphazardly in certain regions of England.” Instead, the church of England—shorn of its magisterial head and prelates—“devolved into a mishmash of polity and practice, Congregationalists and Presbyterians coexisting with the remnants of the Episcopalian ‘avant-garde conformists.’” This, argues Whittaker, allowed “for the growth of the Baptists as well as more radical groups like the Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, and Levellers.” Yet even if we allow for a burgeoning tolerance of low-church Protestantism, we must be careful to concede to Cromwell a commitment to toleration broadly. The very act of licensing the judicial murder of the monarch declared war on not only the Anglican establishment but on Anglican churchmanship as well. One can argue that Cromwell and the regicides were overturning the rule of an autocrat, but one must also acknowledge that they merely replaced an Anglican royal-ecclesiastic tyranny with a Puritan-republican despotism.

“One can argue that Cromwell and the regicides were overturning the rule of an autocrat, but one must also acknowledge that they merely replaced an Anglican royal-ecclesiastic tyranny with a Puritan-republican despotism. ”

Cromwell and the forces of the Commonwealth made it clear that subjugation of Scotland’s Presbyterian establishment was not merely political; it was necessarily spiritual. The anti-royalism of the English Commonwealth translated into a pronounced intolerance for state churches that did not share the Puritan commitment to Congregationalism and republican autocracy. The radical Kirk party gained preeminence in the Scottish Parliament after the killing of Charles I and quickly proclaimed his son king.[1] When Charles II arrived in England, Puritan army officers in Scotland stated that they fought “for the destruction of AntiChrist and the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”[2] Cromwell personally believed that Davis Leslie and the Presbyterian armies that fought for the Stuarts deserved to be conquered and punished for not fully comprehending the glories God brought through the religious settlement of the English Civil Wars. In Ireland, the situation was similar. Congregationalist toleration actually entailed decimation and subjugation. Sir Charles Coote, Cromwell’s major parliamentarian lieutenant and military deputy, earned a reputation as “an implacable persecutor of Presbyterians and prelatists and other friends of monarchy.”[3] Cromwell’s regime might have allowed certain fringe—relatively powerless—Protestant groups a measure of freedom in England, but the treatments of the Anglican hierarchies and the Presbyterians of Scotland leaves the impression that Cromwellian toleration was at best contingent on preceding political and religious subjugation.

Mr. Whittaker sees the Commonwealth’s settlement as enduring. While the restored English church never again pursued dissenters with the vigor that typified Charles I and Archbishop Laud, it still remained an influential and powerful establishment capable of exerting its will on monarchs as varied in disposition as Charles II and his nephew, William III. When the Prince of Orange and Dutch Stadtholder became sovereign along with his wife in 1689, William attempted to push through a moderate change in the 1673 Test Act, which mandated that Nonconformists serving the Crown had to take communion in Anglican churches. William proposed that the requirement be dropped, but both parliament and the Church of England balked. Civil service still required Anglican churchmanship. William III’s attempts to include moderate dissenters regularly failed. The Toleration Act exempted all trinitarian Christians in England from prosecution, but the sacramental test for civil office remained legally binding.[4]

William III’s successor and sister-in-law, Queen Anne, enjoyed a reputation for toleration in her own day and among subsequent generations of Whiggish historians, particularly compared to her Roman Catholic father, James II, and her uncle, Charles II. Anne certainly proclaimed herself a friend to dissenters and stated her commitment to maintain and preserve the Act of Toleration. Her most recent biographer, however, noted that despite promises of toleration, England—and, after 1707, Great Britain—clamped down on remaining loopholes dissenters used to continue holding civil office and exercising influence. Anne ended “occasional conformity,” which required dissenters to take communion in the Church of England once a year. Although uninterested in an Anglican tyranny, Anne supported curtailing the civil and public presence of dissenters. The Queen “strongly supported penalizing non-conformity” and believed that the Church of England could not be safe without a stricter regime governing dissenters. Majorities in parliament concurred.[5]

“Jefferson and his allies…made very clear that, in the new American regime, religious toleration meant more than the mere absence of state coercion.”

The Georgians who followed Anne proved loyal upholders of the Church of England. As their empire in North America grew, they granted some local colonies certain religious privileges. The colonies of New England, for example, committed themselves to continuing the Puritan establishment inherited since the early seventeenth century, but as the experiences of Roger Williams exhibited, the Massachusetts Bay Colony remained far from committed to actual religious toleration as North Americans would come to understand the term.[6]

Regardless, New England’s influence has been far too overstated in discussions on religion and North America, largely because of the influence of George Bancroft and others. Throughout much of Britain’s colonial empire, a royalist socio-religious regime remained firmly entrenched. Political independence might not have changed that at all, but Jefferson and his partisans saw independence as a chance to remake society entirely, to create their own Norvus Ordo Seclorum.[7] It was no general establishment that they proposed; it was a revolutionary restructuring of a hitherto legally Christian society. Ellis M. West rightly notes that, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Jefferson and his Baptist allies, along with their Presbyterian auxiliaries, made very clear that, in the new American regime, religious toleration meant more than the mere absence of state coercion. Religion, claimed dissenting Baptist Virginians, “ought not to be under the direction or influence of any human laws.”[8] Jefferson concurred, and Virginia’s disestablishmentarianism eventually spread across the American republic. Massachusetts finally gave up its Congregationalist establishment—the last of its kind—in 1833.

The idea of a general Protestant establishment, and, to be certain, cultural and social Protestantism, endured until the early twentieth century in the United States. But is this owed to the seventeenth century or to Cromwell? Can we imagine Cromwell, or Charles I, or Queen Anne, or even George III stating that religion should not be under the direction or influence of any human laws? Jefferson stated flatly that his entire conception of society, and of religion’s place in it, relied more on the Enlightenment than on even the British Whig tradition. In the final analysis, then, we must lay modern toleration—religion’s freedom from all legal coercion, interaction, and state influence—at the feet of Thomas Jefferson. Anything less than such toleration would have been deemed authoritarian to Jeffersonians and Baptists in the newly emancipated American Republic.[9]


[1] David Stevenson, “Reactions to Ruin, 1648–51. ‘A Declaration and Vindication of the Poore Opprest Commons of Scotland,’ and other pamphlets” Scottish Historical Review 84 (October, 2005): 257; Kirsteen A. McKenzie, “Oliver Cromwell and the Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms,” in Patrick Little ed., Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).

[2]  Paul Lay, Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate (London: Head of Zeus, 2020).

[3] David Seaton Reid, The History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Vol II (London: Whittaker and Co., 1837), 325.

[4] William A. Speck, “William III and the Three Kingdoms” in David Onnekink and Esther Mijers, Redefining William III: The Impact of the King-Stadholder in International Context (Routledge, 2016), 39-52

[5] Anne Somerset, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 202., 250

[6] John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking 2012), 310.

[7] Eric Nelson, The Royalist: Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1-28.

[8] Ellis M. West, The Free Exercise of Religion in America: Its Original Constitutional Meaning (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 74-75

[9]; Steven K. Green, Inventing A Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 170