The Cost of Free Religion: Religious and Economic Liberties in New England after the Great Awakening

“Religious liberty did not simply create a figurative free market of religion, but literally thrust American Christians into a burgeoning capitalist economy. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Erik Kim Nordbye Harvard Divinity School Contact Me

About this dissertation fellowship

The contest over religious liberty in 18th-century New England was primarily fought over compulsory ecclesiastical taxes. From this simple but neglected observation, I argue that the rise of religious voluntarism transformed the way that property was valued among a rapidly growing and influential movement of radical evangelicals. My dissertation follows these dissenters (Separates and Baptists) who withdrew from the colonies’ established churches in the wake of the First Great Awakening, and then went on to assault the economic foundation of those establishments. Working with legal documents, church records, and published tracts, I explore the significance of two discoveries: first, that these dissenters grounded their arguments against ecclesiastical taxes in the notion of a civil right to private property; and second, that their effort to fund religion without state support ignited vigorous debates over the practical meaning of stewardship. The property-based argument for religious liberty was timely, for in the 1760’s and 70’s their fellow American colonists prepared to go to war over the limits of legitimate taxation on private property. But the dissenters strained to hold together their views of property as simultaneously belonging to the individual and God. The resulting tension was, however, productive of astonishingly different visions of community: I argue that the religious and economic values forged in the fight over the proper relationship between church, state and economy found expression in both radical communal experiments and an influential model for Christianizing free markets. Thus, by concentrating on a point where the religious and economic values of property intersect, my research uncovers a thread connecting the political impact of the Great Awakening with the causes of the American Revolution, while also laying a foundation for a nuanced understanding the relationship between the economics of local congregations and modern American capitalism.