Setting the Stage
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To understand accurately what early Americans meant by the free exercise of religion, one must first understand their thinking on religion, community, government, and freedom, because it was different from the way that Americans today understand them. One must also understand the various policies and laws dealing with religion that were in effect in the colonies and that early Americans wanted to change after they gained independence from England. Finally, early Americans did not distinguish between “the free exercise of religion,” “religious freedom,” “religious liberty,” and “liberty of conscience,” but all of these terms were distinguished from “religious toleration,” which was considered to be an inferior kind of religious freedom.