To explain the history of Antidisestablishmentarianism in Cambridge I decided not to untangle the interwoven stories of religious pluralism, the Disestablishment movement and the history of Unitarianism in Cambridge. I think it is in the spirit of the lengthy title of this post. If you're just interested in finally learning what the word means, head to the bottom of the full post (appearing on Friday), but the full story is more complex and richer, which is why it's here.
This is by far the longest post you ever will find at Cambridge Considered. Because of this, I am serializing it, so this week, there will be a new piece every day, but after this week, they will appear on the blog as one post. See Monday's post here.
The Establishment of Religion in the Massachusetts Constitution
By the time of the American Revolution, there was significantly more religious diversity in Cambridge. A contingent of Anglicans settled in Cambridge on what's now called Tory Row and founded Christ Church in 1759. Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers had grown in number since the Great Awakening.1
The new state constitution reaffirmed principles of religious establishment that had been in place to one degree or another since the area was settled. Towns in Massachusetts were legally required to support public religious worship. Most did this through a property tax that all inhabitants paid towards building and maintaining church buildings and paying the ministers' salaries.2 Technically, individuals were allowed to choose which church would receive their support, if they attended a local church. If a person did not attend a local church, the share of their taxes that was alloted for church support would go to the majority church in the town.3 The Congregationalist churches that were a part of the group receiving support and fulfilling the towns' legal requirement to have a church were known as the churches of the Standing Order.
Minority groups were pleased with the system in which they were able to elect which church to support, and considered it a large step forward for individual rights of conscience and towards disestablishment.4 Still, both the Congregational clergy and Harvard, which was lead by Congregationalists, were receiving public support.
The main problem for religious minorities was that many religious groups did not have enough members in each town to support their own church, so they attended a church in a neighboring town. For example, the Catholics in Cambridge attended church in Boston; a group began raising funds to build a Catholic church in 1831, but it did not open until 1842.5 People who attended a minority church outside of their own parish had no control over where their church-supporting taxes went. The money went to the local church that was part of the Establishment, meaning that their own church would lose money and they would be forced to contribute to a church they did not attend or believe in. Slowly, non-established groups began founding their own churches. In Cambridge, the first Baptist church opened in 1817, the first Methodist church opened in 1818, and the first Universalist church opened in 1822; other groups continued to be forced to pay taxes to the First Parish Church.6
To modern ears, state establishment of churches may sound downright unconstitutional. In fact, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, prohibiting the establishment of religion, only applied to the federal government at the time. The original legal precedent for applying the First Amendment to the states was in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868.
2Harris, Mark. Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2004. Page 444.
5Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 57.
6Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001), 196.