University of Wisconsin–Madison

Clergy and the Constitution

Ministers’ insights and opinions on the Constitution mattered during the ratification debates. Federalists and Antifederalists alike viewed clergymen as influential opinion-makers. In a letter to George Washington, Massachusetts Federalist Benjamin Lincoln noted that it was advantageous to have the support of the clergy since “they have in this State a very great influence over the people and they will contribute much to the general peace and happiness.” During the Massachusetts Convention, New York Antifederalist Charles Tillinghast fretted over the influence that ministers “commonly have on the minds of the more ignorant, tho not less virtuous part, of the community; and I make not a doubt, but they will use their utmost exertions as well in, as out of [the Massachusetts] Convention, to make proselytes to the new faith.”

Though generalizations are difficult, the surviving historical record indicates that clergy may have leaned Federalist in their perspective on the Constitution. Historian James Smylie’s analysis of the forty-four known clergymen who participated in eight state ratifying conventions reveals that only twelve voted against ratification. Of these twelve votes, nine were by clergy who had no known formal education. Among the various denominations, only a majority of Baptist clergymen voted against ratification—eight of thirteen ministers.

This apparent Federalist bias appears in the documents below, which are divided into two sets. The first set, “Clergy on the Constitution,” explores the opinions of individual clergymen (grouped by denomination) regarding the Constitution. The majority of these clergymen favored the Constitution. The second set of documents, “Concerns over Clergy Involvement,” contains mostly Antifederalist objections to clergymen mixing unduly in politics.

Clergy on the Constitution

Baptist

Congregationalist

Episcopal

Presbyterian

Lutheran

Unitarian

Concerns over Clergy Involvement

The Role of the Clergy in the Massachusetts Ratification Convention