February 26, 2020

A Very Long Word

Stephen Nichols
A Very Long Word

What is disestablishmentarianism? On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols surveys the relationship between church and state throughout the centuries.


What is the longest word in the English language? It’s disputed, at least if you consult YouTube videos showing people reading what they claim to be the longest word. But I have a word for you. It might not be the longest, but it’s very long. It’s disestablishmentarianism. By my count, that’s ten syllables. What is disestablishmentarianism? Well, first we need to know what establishmentarianism is. For that, we need to go all the way back to Constantine in the 300s. Constantine not only legalized Christianity, but he enacted laws that made it preferential to be a Christian. Here we have the beginnings of an established state church. This rolls on through the Middle Ages. By the time we get to Christmas Day 800, we see a zenith of this establishmentarianism: Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor.

Through the Middle Ages we had an established church. This was true for the Reformers, too. We sometimes use the designation “Magisterial Reformers.” That’s not to say that the Reformers were grand or authoritatively magisterial. But whether it was Calvin and the Calvinists or Luther and the Lutherans or the Anglicans or the Presbyterians, there was a view at the time of an interdependence of church and state. During the time of the Reformation, the group that was opposed to establishmentarianism were the Anabaptists. But it’s really in the modern age that we begin to see disestablishmentarianism. A key figure was William Penn, the Quaker. In 1681, King Charles II deeded land to Penn. The next year he settled his province, “Penn’s Woods,” which later became a colony and then a state. If you translate Penn’s Woods into Latin, you get Pennsylvania. It was established as a colony of religious freedom.

But most of the colonies had an established, tax-supported church. Even after the Revolutionary War, as these colonies became states, they continued the establishmentarian practice. In fact, Massachusetts had a state-supported church, the Congregational Church, until 1835.

But back in 1786 Thomas Jefferson wrote a key piece of legislation, titled the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.” It promoted the idea of religious freedom. Then the Constitution of the United States was written in 1787 and enacted in 1789, and in 1791 the first ten amendments were ratified. Famously, the first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That’s where we find the “Establishment Clause”—there will be no “establishment of religion”—and the “Free Exercise Clause,” which promotes the freedom of religious expression.

We sometimes hear the expression “separation of church and state.” That’s actually not in the Constitution; it came in a letter. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson, who was president at the time, wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association. He interpreted the First Amendment as, “Thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” This expression has been interpreted in many ways since then, but it is not found in the Constitution. But we do have  disestablishmentarianism as part of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

We have a long history for a long word, and there are many opinions about this word of many syllables: disestablishmentarianism.