Massachusetts Constitution, 1780




The struggle for religious freedom and disestablishment in Massachusetts is equally interesting and of greater duration than the events in Connecticut. Beginning in 1631, the General Court decreed that unless one were a Congregationalist, he could not vote or be in politics. This decree was one of the major factors of Roger Williams’ banishment to Rhode Island. In 1638, the General Court ordered a tax on all who did not voluntarily contribute to the Congregationalist minister’s support. In 1672, the General Assembly ordered banishment for “broaching and maintaining damnable heresies,” which essentially constituted anything contrary to the teachings of the established church. Although toleration was extended to all Protestant Christians in 1691, it did not extend to Roman Catholics.

From about the turn of the Eighteenth Century up until the time of the Revolutionary War, non-established religious sects succeeded in some of their efforts to chip away at the wall of church establishment. However, by 1776, according to General Court decree, anyone choosing to settle a town along the frontier had to build a Congregational church and support its minister. Thus, Baptists and nonconformist settlers often had to build two churches and support two ministers. This only contributed to the great strife between Congregationalists and nonconformists.

Although the Congregational Church was still highly favored, changes in attitude were apparent. In 1779, the town of Pittsfield sent a Congregational minister and a Baptist minister to the constitutional convention. In 1780, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted the following constitution and Declaration of Rights. The Declaration of Rights was largely the work of John Adams. It is highly possible, from the contents of clause II, that Adams was influenced by the Virginia Declaration. Although this Declaration of Rights is a rather conservative document, it was a big step for Massachusetts, who had struggled for more than a century to obtain religious freedom. It was not until 1831 that the Massachusetts state legislature voted in favor of disestablishment. In 1833, the third article of the 1780 Declaration of Rights was finally replaced. The new article promoted religious freedom and prohibited any form of establishment.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group


The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government is to secure the existence of the body-politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity, their natural rights and the blessings of life; and whenever these great objects are not obtained the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity, and happiness.

The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.

We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence, or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other, and of forming a new constitution of civil government for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His discretion in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain, and establish the following declaration of rights and frame of government as the constitution of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.




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Art. II. It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator, and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace or obstruct others in their religious worship.

Art. III. As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and mortality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness, and secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall from time to time authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.

And the people of this commonwealth have also a right to, and do, invest their legislature with authority to enjoin upon all the subjects an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid, at stated times and seasons, if there be any on whose instructions they can conscientiously and conveniently attend.


Provided, notwithstanding, That the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic, or religious societies, shall at all times have the exclusive right of electing their public teachers and of contracting with them for their support and maintenance.

And all moneys paid by the subject to the support of public worship and of the public teachers aforesaid shall, if he require it, be uniformly applied to the support of the public teacher or teachers of his own religious sect or denomination, provided there by any on whose instructions he attends; otherwise it may be paid toward the support of the teacher or teachers of the parish or precinct in which the said moneys are raised.

And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law: and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.

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Art. XIX. The people have a right, in an orderly and peaceable manner, to assemble to consult upon the common good; give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.

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Article I. Any person chosen governor, lieutenant-governor, councillor, senator, or representative, and accepting the trust, shall, before he proceed to execute the duties of his place of office, make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:

“I, A. B., do declare that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth; and that I am seized and possessed, in my own right, of the property required by the constitution, as one qualification for the office or place to which I am elected.”

And the governor, lieutenant-governor, and councillors shall make and subscribe the said declaration, in the presence of the two houses of assembly; and the senators and representatives, first elected under this constitution, before the president and five of the council of the former constitution; and forever afterwards, before the governor and council for the time being.

And every person chosen to either of the places or offices aforesaid, as also any person appointed or commissioned to any judicial, executive, military, or other office under the government, shall, before he enters on the discharge of the business of his place or office, take and subscribe the following declaration and oaths or affirmations, viz:

“I, A. B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge, profess, testify, and declare that the commonwealth of Massachusetts is, and of right ought to be, a free, sovereign, and independent State, and I do swear that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the said commonwealth, and that I will defend the same against traitorous conspiracies and hostile attempts whatsoever; and that I do renounce and abjure all allegiance, subjection, and obedience to the King, Queen, or government of Great Britain, (as the case may be,) and every other foreign power whatsoever; and that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate hath, or ought to have, any jurisdiction, superiority, preëminence, authority, dispensing or other power, in any matter, civil, ecclesiastical, or spiritual, within this commonwealth; except the authority and power which is or may be vested by their constituents in the Congress of the United States; and I do further testify and declare that no man, or body of men, hath, or can have, any right to absolve or discharge me from the obligation of this oath, declaration, or affirmation; and that I do make this acknowledgment, profession, testimony, declaration, denial, renunciation, and abjuration heartily and truly, according to the common meaning and acceptation of the foregoing words, without any equivocation, mental evasion, or secret reservation whatsoever: So help me, God.”

I, A. B., do solemnly swear and affirm that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent on me as ____________, according to the best of my abilities and understanding, agreeably to the rules and regulations of the constitution and the laws of the commonwealth: So help me, God.”

[Provided always, That when any person, chosen and appointed as aforesaid, shall be of the denomination of people called Quakers, and shall decline taking the said oaths, he shall make his affirmation in the foregoing form, and subscribe the same, omitting the words “I do swear,” “and abjure,” “oath or,” “and abjuration,” in the first oath; and in the second oath, the words, “swear and,” and in each of them the words, “So help me, God;” subjoining instead thereof, “This I do under the pains and penalties of perjury.”

And the said oaths or affirmations shall be taken and subscribed by the governor, lieutenant-governor, and councillors, before the president of the senate, in the presence of the two houses of assembly; and by the senators and representatives first elected under this constitution, before the president and five of the council of the former constitution; and forever afterwards before the governor and council for the time being; and by the residue of the officers aforesaid, before such persons and in such manner as from time to time shall be prescribed by the legislature.

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Source: the federal and state constitutions, colonial charters, and other organic laws of the united states 956-71 (Ben: Perley Poore, 1878)