Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 6


Philadelphia from the Jersey side of the Delaware River, late 18th c.

For earlier installments in this series click here.

It is now time to turn to the text of the Constitution.  What does it say about religion?

The preamble of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 states:

We, the representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, in general convention met, for the express purpose of framing such a government, confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain, by perfecting the arts of government) in permitting the people of this State, by common consent, and without violence, deliberately to form for themselves such just rules as they shall think best, for governing their future society, and being fully convinced, that it is our indispensable duty to establish such original principles of government, as will best promote the general happiness of the people of this State, and their posterity, and provide for future improvements, without partiality for, or prejudice against any particular class, sect, or denomination of men whatever, do, by virtue of the authority vested in use by our constituents, ordain, declare, and establish, the following Declaration of Rights and Frame of Government, to be the CONSTITUTION of this commonwealth, and to remain in force therein for ever, unaltered, except in such articles as shall hereafter on experience be found to require improvement, and which shall by the same authority of the people, fairly delegated as this frame of government directs, be amended or improved for the more effectual obtaining and securing the great end and design of all government, herein before mentioned.

If you have been following along with this series, you should not be surprised by this reference to “the great Governor of the universe.”  This is similar to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable Rights or the similar reference to “Nature’s God.”  These are traditional eighteenth-century references to a providential God who rules over the earth and the universe and presides over human governments.  I don’t think we should read anything more into this statement.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 begins with a “Declaration of Rights.”  Article 1 states “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which was written a couple of months earlier and affirmed in the same building–the Pennsylvania State House–the Pennsylvania Constitution does not state that the rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness come from a “Creator.”  (But perhaps the framers believed that this was already covered in the preamble).

Article 2 of the Declaration of Rights focuses specifically on religion:

That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

This is pretty boilerplate stuff for Pennsylvania.  Religious freedom is afforded to everyone who “acknowledges the being of a God.”  Of course it is worth noting that religious freedom is NOT afforded to people who do not believe in God.  Most likely the framers could not imagine a scenario in which someone who did not believe in God would have a need for religious freedom.

Compare this statement with the two previous (pre-American Revolution) Pennsylvania governments.

William Penn’s 1682 Frame of Government was loaded with religious language, but on the issue of religious freedom the proprietor wrote:

That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.

This statement says a bit more about God than the 1776 Constitution. Religious freedom is afforded to those who believe in a providential creator-God.

The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, which served as the source of government from 1701 and 1776, states:

BECAUSE no People can be truly happy, though under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences, as to their Religious Profession and Worship: And Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship, who only doth enlighten the Minds, and persuade and convince the Understandings of People, I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

In this statement Penn says a little bit more about God, but the religious freedom protection is basically the same as the 1682 Frame of Government and the 1776 Constitution.  Religious freedom is afforded to those “who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World….”

In our next installment we will discuss the Pennsylvania Constitution’s religious “test oath.”  Stay tuned.