Religious Corporations and Disestablishment, 1780-1840

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



This chapter challenges the idea of “church autonomy” from government interference by investigating the legislative and judicial implementation of disestablishment in the states from the 1780s to 1860. Widespread legislative and constitutional limits on the capacity of religious organizations to acquire and hold property, coupled with the imposition of lay control of church affairs though the election of trustees, imposed strict constraints on religious power to protect individual freedom of conscience. After disestablishment, in this environment of intense regulation and oversight, religious life flourished and lay involvement increased. Taking seriously the focus on individual freedom of belief as a key component of disestablishment, this chapter rebuts the argument that American history supports broad autonomy for religious institutions. Instead, it reveals a legacy of strict oversight combined with concern for individual liberty of belief.


history of disestablishment, church autonomy, church property, incorporation, religious institutions

Publication Title

The Rise of Corporate Religious Liberty