by David Dean Bowlby. Landham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2012. 211pp. Cloth $65.00. ISBN: 978-0-7391-6874-5

Reviewed by J. David Holcomb, Department of History and Political Science, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. dholcomb [at]


Arguing that much of what has been written about the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment is ideology masquerading as history, David Dean Bowlby takes on the ambitious task of tracing the historical development of church-state relations from the colonial period to the framing of the religion clauses “without recourse to any ideological agenda” (p.xiii). In doing so, Bowlby joins a long line of historians seeking to undertake this project, many of whom he draws from regularly in his work. Bowlby initially asserts that both those that have embraced broad (separationist) and a narrow (nonpreferentialist) readings of the religion clauses of the First Amendment have missed the mark, but, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that his criticism is aimed primarily at the broad interpretation of the Establishment Clause adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Everson vs. Board of Education (1947). For Bowlby, some scholars and, in particular, U.S. Supreme Court justices, have placed too much emphasis on the Jeffersonian and Madisonian understandings of church-state separation as well as the “wall of separation” metaphor. Bowlby believes a better approach is to determine the intent of the religion clauses by studying, in Jefferson’s words, “that act of the whole people.” Utilizing Roger Williams’s metaphor, Bowlby concludes that this “generating history” reveals that the religion clauses were to work together to ensure religious liberty and protect the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the state.”

Bowlby embarks upon his project by tracing the development of church-state relations from the rise of Christianity to English colonization. This is well-rehearsed material, but Bowlby does a nice job of summarizing key events from biblical times through the Protestant Reformation in a clear and concise fashion. Appropriate attention is given to the church-state tensions arising from the dualism of the Western intellectual tradition as they are an essential background to understanding the church-state debates of the colonial and early national periods.

The “gradual growth” of a grudging toleration in 17th century New England is chronicled with a fairly judicious use of primary sources as well as a number of classic studies. The Puritan establishment is detailed, particularly in Massachusetts, where dissenters were given the opportunity to repent, or, otherwise, face “fines, whippings and [*336] imprisonment or banishment” (p.32). Roger Williams and his short-lived “lively experiment” in Rhode Island is given attention as well. While Williams is “now praised as the early leader in the drive for religious freedom, this was not the case in much of the colonial era” (p.30). Puritan leaders regularly disparaged Rhode Island and Bowlby suggests that little evidence exists that Williams had much influence among his contemporaries. Nonetheless, Bowlby concludes that a “gradual growth” of a limited toleration was increasingly granted in seventeenth-century New England, due to the efforts of Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers.

Due to their diversity and the limited institutional support for the Anglican Church, a more significant toleration was allowed for in the Southern colonies than in New England. Nonetheless, efforts to establish one sect of Christians “while granting a limited toleration to the rest” still met with vigorous opposition from dissenters and was “generally unsuccessful” according to Bowlby. Dissenters clamored for full freedom to exercise their faith and contended that compulsory taxation to support the Anglican Church was a violation of the freedom of conscience. Quakers regularly challenged the Anglican establishments in Virginia and Maryland where the post-English Civil War attempt to establish the Anglican Church ran headlong into the reality that “at least 75% of the inhabitants in Maryland were of the Presbyterian, Independent, Anabaptist, and Quaker sects” (p.75).

Bowlby likewise affirms the traditional narrative that the preeminence of economic concerns and the ethnic and religious diversity of the seventeenth-century Middle Colonies resulted in greater toleration. He effectively argues that, from the outset, attempts to enforce religious uniformity were continually frustrated by the economic realities of the colonial context. Bowlby illustrates this by providing a detailed account of the tensions between Reformed leaders and corporate directors over how strictly to enforce the religious establishment in Dutch controlled New Netherland. Ultimately, directors of the Dutch West India Company called upon Governor Peter Stuyvesant to show toleration to Jews, Lutherans, and other nonconformists. According to Bowlby, “the Directors were in no way going to risk the settlement of the colony and the failure of their enterprise over religious scruples” (p.86).

Eighteenth-century colonial America witnessed significant population growth and concomitant diversity that fostered calls for disestablishment and more thoroughgoing free exercise of religion. The rapid growth of dissenters and breakdown of the “town-church system” throughout the colonies was fostered as well by the religious individualism of the Great Awakening. Exemptions from religious laws were increasingly secured by dissenters, some of whom began to push for full disestablishment as the century progressed. “The modest degree of toleration granted to these dissenting groups would not be enough to satisfy them,” Bowlby concludes. “They fought for a full and free exercise of religion and against the maintenance of the established church” (p.127).

A careful analysis of the new state constitutional provisions regarding religion during the Revolutionary Era is [*337] provided by Bowlby as well. In doing so, Bowlby rightly notes the convergence of arguments for political and religious liberty during this period. A number of the new state constitutions provided for freedom of conscience and exemption from religious taxation while, at the same time, limiting “inhabitancy to theists” and “showing preference to Protestants.” Bowlby gives careful attention to the battles over disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia. Here he looks to the role of James Madison, and, to a lesser degree, Thomas Jefferson, culminating in the debate over the famous General Assessment Bill. Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance is highlighted along with a discussion of the more widely circulated Prince Georges County Petition both of which argued against religious assessments. In doing so, Bowlby argues forcefully that “the general feeling of the general populace as well as that of Madison” was that “religious establishment thwarts religious liberty” (p.139).

The state constitutional provisions regarding religious liberty reveal a “wide and disparate degree of religious establishment and freedom,” according to Bowlby. While Rhode Island and Virginia “offered the fullest religious freedom guaranteed by law,” five states maintained established churches (p.154). Despite this variation, Bowlby believes that the state constitutional provisions, and the debates surrounding them, are instructive for understanding the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. He concludes that the “traditional” meaning of establishment was “a state preference for one sect” yet, at the same time, he rejects the nonpreferentialist interpretation by arguing that “it was certainly not the intention to establish several religions even as they sought to prevent a single religious establishment” (p.149).

Bowlby’s last chapter examines the era of the framing of the Constitution and looks, in particular, at the ratifying conventions and the First Congress to glean greater insight on the meaning of the religion clauses. Bowlby provides evidence to suggest that Madison fundamentally believed that free exercise of religion and the resulting religious pluralism were the best protections against religious establishment. Yet again, with regard to the language of the religion clauses, Bowlby concludes, in contrast to Leonard Levy, that Madison merely understood no establishment to mean one “particular sect or denomination.” Nonetheless, Bowlby argues that the proposed versions of the religion clauses were generated from state ratifying conventions, not Madison himself, and that the final Congressional debates over the language of the First Amendment were “more about style than substance” (p.196).

In the end, Bowlby seeks to provide an understanding of the First Amendment that more accurately reveals the “generating history” that produced the religion clauses. Arguing that past U.S. Supreme Court justices have relied too much on the “wall of separation” metaphor and Madison’s and Jefferson’s understanding of no Establishment, Bowlby concludes that “Madison and Jefferson would have gone much further than most of their contemporaries in what they would not allow the federal government to do where religion was concerned.” According to Bowlby, “contrary to the arguments of many [*338] modern scholars and the dicta of Supreme Court justices, the religion clauses do not represent ‘a terse summation’ of the thinking of Jefferson and Madison on the subject. Instead, the clause should be thought of as ‘that act of the whole American people’” (p.195).

Bowlby provides a very useful and largely dispassionate summary of church-state relations from the colonial period through the framing of the First Amendment. The strength of his work is its breadth and objectivity. Bowlby largely provides a descriptive account until the conclusion where he does engage in analysis of the Court’s use of history and its reliance on Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor. Bowlby is certainly not alone in his criticism of the Court’s use of history in church-state cases. Nonetheless, he sees history as important as a guide to understanding the religion clauses and he makes a relatively compelling case that the religion clauses represented a broad consensus view that religious liberty was the ultimate concern and that no-establishment was a means to that end.

Bowlby has clearly been influenced by Thomas Curry who has argued that evidence does not exist for a nonpreferentialist reading of the Establishment Clause, but also that too rigid an adherence to the “wall of separation” metaphor would threaten to marginalize religion from public life. Bowlby’s extended analysis of Jefferson’s famous Letter to the Danbury Baptists, in which Jefferson utilized the “wall of separation” metaphor, occupies a considerable portion of his concluding chapter. Citing James Hutson’s fairly recent analysis, Bowlby argues that the letter was more about politics than an “authoritative interpretation” of the Establishment Clause. While similar claims have generated considerable scholarly debate, Bowlby seems unable to escape the allure of the metaphor as well as he declares in the first chapter, “the idea of a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state was not original to the era of the Constitution” (p.1).

What Bowlby appears to be arguing, however, is that the Court, in cases such as Everson, has placed too heavy an emphasis upon the Establishment Clause that would, in the words of Justice Rutledge, “create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid or support for religion.” For Bowlby, this seems to be the upshot of the “wall of separation” metaphor that reflects too narrowly the Jeffersonian concern to keep religion out of government. Bowlby clearly prefers the more evangelical argument raised by Roger Williams, concluding the book by claiming that “it is the ‘garden of the church’ that must be protected from the ‘wilderness of the world’ and not the other way around” (p.196). Noting that the First Congress passed national thanksgiving and days of prayer, appointed military chaplains, and affirmed the Northwest Ordinance, Bowlby asserts that “religion was not considered a threat to good government, but government had sometimes proven to be a threat to good religion” (p.196).

Bowlby provides a useful corrective to the tendency of some historians and Supreme Court justices to engage in “law office history.” Nonetheless, as persuasive as Bowlby’s historical [*339] narrative and conclusions may be, they are not likely to resolve the ongoing constitutional debate over the meaning and application of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The general claim that the religion clauses were to work together to achieve religious liberty is one that separationists and nonpreferentialists alike would embrace, yet differences will remain over what exactly the Establishment Clause forbids. Bowlby certainly didn’t set out to write a historical guidebook for justices, but some further reflection on the implications of his findings for church-state jurisprudence (as well as the limits of history in constitutional interpretation) would have enhanced the work’s value. These criticisms aside, Bowlby should be commended for making a valuable contribution to the extensive scholarship on American church-state relations and doing so in a thorough and fair-minded fashion.


Curry, Thomas J. 2001. Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hutson, James H. 2008. Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

Copyright 2013 by the Author, J. David Holcomb