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Noah Webster's views on the Separation of Church and State

Research and Writing by Tom Peters

Noah Webster (1758-1843) wore many hats during the course of his life: lexicographer, educator, author, publisher, editor, lawyer, and political commentator. His most famous work was An American Dictionary of the English Language which was instrumental in fashioning a distinctively American English dialect. His early work included A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, the first volume of which was his famous "Blue Backed Speller," a school book so popular it has never been out of print. In the 1780s he wrote extensively in favor of a new federal constitution, and later urged the Constitution's ratification.

Webster was well know for his religious and political conservatism, which makes him one of the most frequently quoted authors in religious right literature. Especially toward the end of his life, Webster's writings betray a deep sympathy for the "Christian nation" ideal. Understandably, however, most accomodationist literature is silent on Webster's views during what we have designated as the founding period in America (1776-1800); during these years Webster was anything but an accomodationist. On the contrary, during these years he was a passionate defender of separation of church and state.

As a young man Webster was a radical federalist that believed in a strong central government, the elimination of class distinctions, and the disestablishment of religion. His early writings are adamant on these subjects. In 1783, for example, Webster wrote a series of articles for the Freeman Chronicle, a popular political journal. In the November 3, 1783 edition of the Chronical Webster denounced religious establishment in no uncertain terms:

In his biography of Webster, Harry Warfel quotes additional passages from this same article to summarize Webster's early view:

In a 1980 study of Webster, Richard M. Rollins documents at length how Webster's views changed over the course of his life. Here is Rollins description of Webster's beliefs circa 1783:

Accomodationists frequently point out the Biblical matter in his educational works to prove that Webster thought it was important to teach the Bible in school. Webster may well have embraced this idea toward the end of his life, but he took quite a different tack in his earlier publications. As his biographers note, the first edition of his spelling book contained far less Biblical material than previous spellers; he seems consciously to have reduced the importance of the Bible in education. This impression is confirmed by his own words. In the preface to his "Blue Backed Speller" (the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, 1783) he notes that the Biblical passages he selected for inclusion do not include the name of God:

Similarly, he reduced the amount of Biblical material in his reader (volume three of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language). According to Warfel, Webster complained that:

Webster, in other words, used the Bible when he thought it was appropriate for spelling or reading instruction, but downplayed it's religious content in education, and condemned its overuse in no uncertain terms. This is hardly the work of a man who was comfortable with teach Christianity in the classroom.

In 1808 Webster underwent a profound religious conversion that changed both his politics and his religious outlook (some biographers say that changes in Webster's beliefs can be detected as early as 1801). After this time Webster becomes skeptical of democracy, distrustful of government, and far more sympathetic to an alliance between church and state. After 1810, for example, he increased the amount of Biblical material in his speller and reader, and wrote many works suggesting that Christianity was necessary for the survival of America. As noted above, accomodationist publications quote almost exclusively from this second period of Webster's life. David Barton, for example, in his The Myth of Separation, takes all his Noah Webster quotes (or at least the ones we can trace back to specific works) from either Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) or his History of the United States (1832). Both these works were written long after his religious conversion and reflect only his later thinking.

It's important to keep Webster's conversion in mind when assessing his contribution to the founding of America. Put simply, Webster was a separationist during the critical years when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were being written, debated, and ratified. The only contribution he could have made to the debate during these years would have been a separationist one. Accordingly, accomodationists cannot quote Webster's later writings as if they prove something about the Constitution. They don't. All they prove is that the later Webster was different from the early one. And without question, it was the early Webster that agitated in favor of the Constitution and Bill of Rights during the 1780s and 1790s.

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