University of Wisconsin–Madison

Religion and the Ratification of the Constitution

In a culture where religion was vitally important to most people, it is not surprising that religious concerns figured into the debate over the Constitution. Antifederalists throughout the country objected to the lack of an explicit provision protecting freedom of religion. Eleven state constitutions or bills of rights contained such a provision. Federalists argued, however, that the new national government under the Constitution had no power to endanger religious freedom. Although the phrase “freedom of religion” was widely used, it did not have a fixed meaning. For Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers, it meant that there should be no government favoritism of one denomination over another. Other clauses of the Constitution had implications for religious practice: the prohibition of a religious test oath for office-holding, the lack of a provision protecting conscientious objectors, and various issues dealing with slavery. While condemning slavery and the slave trade, the Quakers still generally supported the Constitution even though the Constitution seemingly accepted and even rewarded slaveholders. Additionally, the rhetoric of national salvation and damnation frequently appeared in the newspapers as well as heard in pulpits and in debates in the state ratification conventions.

We have arranged items from our volumes into themes that intersected with the religious communities and individuals through the United States during the ratification debates.