Defending Religious Freedom: Lessons From Pennsylvania’s 1873 Constitution Convention

John M. Broomall (1816-1894)

I came across these speeches from Pennsylvania’s 1873 Constitutional Convention when I was researching the evolution of the preambles in state constitutions. There are many wonderful speeches from various nineteenth-century constitutional conventions, but these comments seem particularly germane to current events. In the name of “religious liberty” conservative Christians are slowly but persistently undermining the very barriers put in place by the founders to protect religious freedom. Their view of religious liberty privileges a certain type of Christianity, sanctions discrimination if done under the guise of religion, and advocates state support and recognition of religion. In other words, it is the opposite of true religious freedom.

A well-coordinated movement to have “Almighty God” recognized in the state’s constitution culminated in a proposed amendment at the Constitutional Convention of 1873. Thus, the following addition to Pennsylvania’s preamble was presented to the delegates: “recognizing the sovereignty of God, and humbly invoking His guidance in our future destiny.” While the majority clearly favored this kind of addition to the constitution, several delegates spoke up in defense of the state’s long-standing secular preamble which the framers wisely established in 1790. (1) The handful of delegates who defended the traditional preamble, as well as those who had framed the constitutions of 1790 and 1838, were deeply religious, but they understood that separating religion and government was good for both church and state.

Since some of these speakers were long winded I included only the most substantial sections of their speeches. These men believed that religious liberty was a right that belonged to everyone, and thus could not be overridden by majorities. They also drew on the lessons of history that inspired the founders to separate religion from government. It is separation that protects both the state and the church and establishes the religious freedom that we all benefit from.

Here are excerpts from their speeches (2):

John M. Broomall:

…First, the words reported by the committee have no use there; no proper function. To those who believe in a Supreme Being, and I trust we all do—there may be those who do not, but I confess that I have not met them—to those who believe in a Supreme Being the phrase is useless, is unmeaning. To those who do not, (and while I doubt whether there are those who do not, I am not prepared to deny the possibility of their existence)—to those who do not; it is a pretence to something that I am afraid our proceedings too often show we do not always feel.

Let us bear in mind that we are proposing not to change the Constitution ourselves, but to submit certain propositions to the people for their adoption or rejection. Are gentlemen willing to submit to a majority of ballots the question of the existence and attributes of the Deity? I am not. What a question it is: The being and attributes of the Creator; the existence of a law-giver above all legislators, of law above all human laws, a law that sets aside all human laws when they conflict with it; a law that binds the individual not as a member of society, but as a man, and that commands him not to obey the civil law when it conflicts with this higher law. We propose to submit to a majority of ballots these great questions, whether there be a Ruler of the Universe, and whether we are responsible for our conduct to that Ruler of the Universe!

I know there was a day in the history of the world when it was supposed that councils called by men could settle the question of the being and attributes of God so as to bind the Great Ruler of the Universe; but we have long outlived that day. Now, those questions are for man, not as a citizen, but as a being responsible to his Maker—a child under the guardianship of his Father.

…Who asks that this question should be decided in our organic law at all? Who asks those questions to be decided here? Who submits to us the question? Who authorizes us to settle it? How can any delegate dare decide for his constituents whether there be a God and whether they own Him responsibility for their conduct? Who asks this decision? Whom will it bind? Do gentlemen who advocate this proposition say that they have authority from the Being most interested in the question, if we are to believe their doctrine, to suffer that question to be raised here and decided by an election mob? Do they pretend to say that that great Being has authorized them to submit His powers and His existence to that kind of tribunal?

Sir, it is quite time, at this late day, that it were understood that Christianity asks no aid from human governments; that religion can stand a great deal of crushing out without being injured, but when it is taken to the arms of the civil power, it falls degraded and dishonored. It was for this reason, and after the experience of centuries, that our forefathers divorced forever all church and State, and suffered religion to stand where it should stand, upon the consciences and the convictions of men!

Look at the history of the world and see whether we dare propose to return to the old state of things! What was the condition of Christianity before the Roman emperors allied it to the government? As pure an emanation from heaven as ever blessed the earth. What was it after? A very demon of hell! And it is so always. Wherever religion rests alone, where it was intended to rest, upon the consciences and convictions of men, there it is an angel of purity; wherever it is joined with the civil arm and rests upon coercion, it is a curse to the country in which it is.

I could multiply examples on this point. Let us look at one closer to our own times. You know, sir, and every gentleman here knows, that in this counry [sic] the denomination of Episcopalians has produced as pure christianity and as many christians in proportion to the numbers as any other sect in the country, let it come from where it may. Contrast its condition here with its condition in England, where it is wedded to the civil power. There its officers are electioneered for as politicians electioneer for petty borough, town and county officers. Its benefices are sold in the market, sometimes for money, sometimes for political influence; and wherever it gets an opportunity to put its heel upon any system of christianity that is not favored by the government it does so ask the Catholics of Ireland; ask the Dissenters of England! Why is it that an organization so beneficent there is and engine of corruption and oppression there? It is polluted by the favor of the government.

…What was Puritanism in England before it came over to Boston? You could not imagine a better and brighter sample of the christianity of the Sermon on the Mount than that. But when it came to Boston and allied itself to the civil power of the State, what did it become? It turned itself to murdering Indians, hanging Quakers and banishing Baptists to starve in the wilderness.

It is not the fault of religion that this occurs. It is the fault of the government in undertaking to support religion. It is the unholy alliance. I say again, Christianity asks nothing form the government but to be let alone. It has shown in the history of the civilized world that it can bear the iron heel of oppression and survive it, that it can bear any amount of persecution and opposition, but that the smile of power pollutes it, changes it from an angel of light to an embodiment of hell.

It was well that our ancestors had some schooling, some experience in this business. They came away from a government that fostered religion with the civil arm, and they were very careful to put such provisions in their Bill of Rights and in their Constitution as would forever prevent any such foul combination, any such assistance as that; and the fact that they did not put the provision now proposed in the Constitution argues greatly in favor of leaving it out with me, because they were not only purer patriots than we ought to claim to be, but they were probably better christians, and they certainly did know what to put in the Constitution of the State and what to leave out, being fresh from the terrible ordeal of experience.

Now, I do not intend to occupy the time of the Convention, for I am not at all well, but I desire to say only that the law of christianity, the law of religion, depends in no way upon the same foundation with the laws of the State. The laws of the State, the laws of human government, depend, as a last resort, always upon coercion, and the moment you aid or pretend to aid the cause of religion by coercion, let it be with even the weight on the one side of a smile or the weight of a frown on the other, you destroy its beneficence; you render it, instead of what it is, something that is a curse to the country in which it is. Religion depends upon the consciences and convictions of men, of each individual man; every man must judge it for himself; he is responsible alone, not for anybody else, but for himself. ‘Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind’ is the command; not be persuaded in the mind of a State Convention; not be persuaded in the mind of the State or of the government, but in his own. Hence I say that all favor shown to the cause of religion by the State is a disadvantage to it. Never yet did the civil arm extend itself to aid the cause of religion without polluting it, without destroying its usefulness, and therefore I will vote to keep out everything of the sort here lest we degrade a holy cause, lest we drag it down from its high position of resting upon the consciences and convictions of men and make it rest upon the mere arm of power. Sir, would you enforce with the sword a proposition of the kind you put here? I imagine not. Yet the sword is the ultimate resort of all civil government.

…Now I have only one other sentence to utter, and it is this: In the name of the religion that I revere, in which I was educated, and for which I have supreme honor and supreme regard, I ask that this Convention will withhold its hand. All it asks is to be let alone; but if you will touch it, better touch it to punish, better touch it to crush than to aid, because you can do it less damage by putting upon it the iron heel of oppression than you will by clasping it in the unholy grasp of the civil power. (pp. 761-3)

George W. Woodward:

Mr. Chairman: I do not rise to enter into this discussion at all, but simply to refer to one point in the remarks of the gentleman from Delaware. (Mr. Broomall.) In all that that gentleman said by way of deprecating a union of church and State, I do most heartily concur, but not exactly for the reasons that the gentleman has stated. I think all such unions of church and State are more injurious to the church than the State; but whether to the one party or to the other, I always applauded the sentiments of our forefathers which separated them, and I trust we shall always keep them separate in this country of ours… (p. 763)

David Craig:

It does not make any difference what Constitution is attempted to be amended in this way, the principle is the same…Now, sir, there is a difficulty in their minds, and that difficulty is the action in the French Assembly which declared that there was no God…whenever you open the door to vote upon it one way you must admit that the question may be decided the other way, that the vote may as readily be that there is no God, as that there is. Well, sir, put it upon the ground of majority, and let there be one many to-day in the State of Pennsylvania who does not believe in the sovereignty of God, and by what right do you undertake to disfranchise you. Oh! they say, it is a question of majorities is only a question of force, and not a question of right.

If you may to-day disfranchise any man because he does not believe in the existence of a God, to-morrow you may disfranchise a man because he does not believe in the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures, and the next day because he does not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. This is the logical conclusion to this kind of legislation brings us. it is a question of the strongest denomination, if you make it a question of majority; and how else are you to determine it than by a vote of the majority?

…This is a question for every man’s judgment and conscience. It is not to be determined by a majority for me. It is a question which I am to settle for myself, and if I govern my conduct by the laws and rules of society that is all that society can ask of me. The Constitution is a matter for all the people; and when I say ‘all,’ I do not except any. A man who does not believe in the existence of God has as much right to participate in the government of the country as the man who does believe in it. No man has a right to call another in question about it. It is simply not the subject of legislation, and whenever we make it the subject of legislation, we make a mistake….(pp. 766-8)

Abraham B. Dunning:

….Sir, this proscriptive principle that has crept into the religious world, of the right of human governments to force a religion upon the people, is very much like that sort of religion spoken of by Paul, the great apostle of the Gentiles, when he said that he in all good conscience persecuted the Church of Christ, and he did it because he was brought up in the straightest sect of Pharisees, and he verily believed he was doing God service when he was on his way to Damascus with his pockets filled with letters from the authorities to take and capture every man who acknowledged the christian religion. Sir, there have been thousands of men from the days of Paul down to the present time who believed they were doing God service when they persecuted the men or the church or the community that did not subscribe to their ideas of faith. That has been true from the time the first creed was ever introduced into the world, and it is true to some extent to-day.

Therefore, I oppose the introduction of anything into the Constitution that shall bind the conscience of any man. Let every man stand free to act upon the principles that animate his heart, with a clear judgment and a just conscience before God. (pp. 769-70)


  • The preamble to Pennsylvania’s 1790 and 1838 constitutions read: “We, the people of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, ordain and establish this constitution for its government.” (constitutions II, 1548 and 1838: 1557). The final version of the 1873 constitution read: “We, the people of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance, do ordain and establish this constitution.” (II, 1570)
  • Debates of the Convention to Amend the Constitution of Pennsylvania: Convened at Harrisburg November 12, 1872; adjourned November 27, to Meet at Philadelphia, January 7, 1873, IV (Harrisburg: Benjamin Singerly, State Printer, 1873)