Joel A. Nichols


Religious Liberty in the Thirteenth Colony: Church-State Relations in Colonial and Early National Georgia

Joel A. Nichols

At the time of America’s constitutional origins, there was not a singular understanding of the proper relationship between the government and religion, but rather multiple understandings. Those multiple understandings are best understood through a close investigation of the experiences in each of the original states. This Article seeks to add the experience in Georgia—the thirteenth colony—to the larger discussion regarding the status of religious liberty in the various colonies and states in the eighteenth century.

From its founding in 1732 throughout the eighteenth century, Georgia was a place of both religious tolerance and religious pluralism. Georgia’s Royal Charter provided for liberty of conscience for all, and for the free exercise of religion by all except Roman Catholics. The Charter did not establish the Church of England or any other church. (Although the Church of England would later be established by law in 1758, it was, in practice, a weak establishment with little real ecclesiastical presence.) Between the Revolution and 1800, the new State of Georgia had three constitutions (1777, 1789, and 1798), each of which explicitly addressed religion and provided for varying levels of free exercise (including liberty of conscience) and disestablishment.

These principles of religious liberty that were reified and realized in the governing documents stemmed from the necessity of recognizing a variety of religious beliefs, for from early times the colony contained adherents of a number of religious faiths. These included Jews, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others—who formed, according to one author, “a rich generation of religious ferment in the colony.” This admixture of religious adherents was welcomed—indeed, invited—to the new territory. And the various worshipers were not asked to conform to, nor required to support, the Church of England, but instead received governmental funding and support for their own endeavors (including land grants, salaries for ministers, and some control over church and civil governance).

By analyzing Georgia’s law and experience, this Article seeks to unearth and illuminate those principles of religious liberty valued in early Georgia. This Article reveals that early Georgians cherished liberty of conscience, free exercise, direct (but non-preferential) governmental support for religion, respect for religious pluralism, and non-discrimination on the basis of religion. Further, while Georgians gradually moved toward recognizing the value of disestablishment, there was never an intellectual adherence to a strict Jeffersonian ideal of “separation of church and state.” By adding Georgia’s experience in church-state relations to the larger conversation about religious liberty in the early Republic, this Article opens the conversation to a fuller discussion of the multiple understandings of religious liberty present from the beginning.