UU Minute #72

Parish vs. Church in Massachusetts

The First Amendment, ratified with the Bill of Rights in 1791, provides that
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Originally, this applied only to the national congress. States were not so constrained.

In Virginia, the statute of religious freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and enacted in 1786, provides that no taxation can support a church. In Massachusetts, the state constitution, written by John Adams and adopted in 1780, provided for every town to tax their citizens
"for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality."
Massachusetts’ system of Standing Order churches drew a distinction between the church and the parish. The church consisted only of those who had been admitted to church membership – which generally entailed having a verified experience of religious conversion in the church. The parish, on the other hand, consisted of the residents of a town who had not joined another religious group such as the Episcopal Church. All members of a parish, whether or not they were also members of the town’s Standing Order church, were taxed to fund the “worship of God” and the “maintenance of public Protestant teachers.”

When a new minister was to be selected, the church voted – for this was their spiritual leader. The parish also voted, for this was their publicly-funded “Protestant teacher of piety, religion and morality.”

Usually, the church would vote to call a minister, and the parish would, pro forma, sanction the church vote. But the emergence and spread of liberal congregationalists – increasingly accepting the label “Unitarian” – produced splits between church and parish. Sometimes the church was liberal and the parish conservative; more often the parish was liberal and the church conservative.

NEXT: Which Church is the Dedham Church?

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