Protestantism in America: A Narrative History by Jerald C. Brauer
Jerald C. Brauer is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor and Professor of History of Christianity, formerly Dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago. He is also Editor of The Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: Turning Point
New York streets were crowded with joyous throngs of cheering people pushing and shoving, trying to get a glimpse of the hero of the hour -- General George Washington. On that December day, 1783, long lines of soldiers stood at rigid attention, the winter sunlight glittering on polished buttons and cold steel. Strong winds sweeping up the Hudson whipped the flags and put the sting of freshness and vigor into the gathered crowd.
A great roar arose from the throng as Washington appeared on the steps, saluted his men, and briskly strode to the landing where a boat waited for him. Then as cannons blazed, guns boomed, and church bells resounded, the victorious leader took his departure. The revolution was an accomplished fact. Peace and victory went hand in hand -- a new nation was born, independent of the British Empire.
Effects of independence were evident in all the states. Men walked with heads held high -- they were now truly free men. But free men faced a mighty task of replacing English control with a government that would express the principles for which they had fought. They could no longer depend on Europe for guidance and strength. Gone were the ties with the Old World. How were they to bring order and peace among the thirteen independent and self-ruling states? What was to happen to the many Churches?
Nobody had a simple answer, but all men realized that something new had to be created. The various colonies had learned to work and to fight together against the English. They then banded together in a confederation of states, each retaining its independence but all cooperating on a few matters of general interest.
Just as the states had to find a new way of working together so all the Churches, no longer dependent on their European mother Churches, had to discover new methods of living and working in America. One year after the end of the war, over fifty Methodist ministers, the followers of John Wesley, met in Baltimore, December, 1784, to take action.
Still dependent upon the Anglican Church for sacraments, they felt that the time had come to go beyond the status of a mere society or club within the Church of England. The preachers were determined to form an organization independent of the Anglican Church. With no disrespect to their founder, they saw the necessity of developing a new Church in a new nation so that the gospel might be brought to all. One question uppermost in the minds of all was their relation to John Wesley. This was one of the chief topics of conversation among the preachers.
John Wesley had asserted his rights as a presbyter to ordain men for a, ministry in America, thereby denying the necessity of ordination by bishops alone. As a result he was denounced by the Church of England as an unfaithful priest. He sent Thomas Coke to America as a superintendent, or "bishop," with instructions on founding a new Church and with directions as to worship and general practice. Wesley was willing to launch a new American Church, but it was to be under his spiritual control.
While American Methodists held Wesley in great esteem and respect, they did not feel it necessary to follow all his instructions. Some they ignored, others they modified, and a few they followed. Wesley had appointed Francis Asbury co-superintendent with Coke, but Asbury felt that the American Methodists should elect their new leaders. The American brethren agreed with him, so he and Coke were elected to their office of superintendent. After election to office Asbury allowed himself to be set apart for the office of "bishop." He saw that if the Methodist Church was to grow in a new nation, it must control itself and not be subservient to its founder, John Wesley.
So a new Church was born at the same time as a new nation -- the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Confederation of American states, both independent of English domination. This new Church had bishops acting as superintendents, so it was called the Methodist Episcopal Church. It met in a series of local annual conferences and in a great triennial general conference. It worked out a series of strict rules on discipline, adopted a confession of faith, and provided for preachers who traveled from point to point serving many congregations -- the famous circuit riders. The Methodist Episcopal Church was organized and ready to move with the people as they went west. At this time it was one of the smallest Churches in America, but within a few decades it was to be one of the largest.
The Congregational Church was the largest and most influential Church at this point in American history. It had no institutional ties with England and possessed no central agency to give itself national representation. In face of the threat of Anglican bishops, the Congregationalists drew closer to the Presbyterians, with whom they felt a theological affinity. Out of this was to come a mutual plan of mission activity to cover the nation. The Baptists, of the same size as the Presbyterians, were in much the same position as the Congregationalists. They had no important institutional ties with England, and they vigorously opposed any national or central organization.
Meanwhile things were happening in other American Churches. Six months before Washingtonís departure from New York and before the Methodistsí Baltimore Christmas conference, an Anglican priest from Connecticut quietly sailed for England. The New England Anglicans were determined to have a bishop at any cost because they felt the Church could not do its work without bishops. In the winter of 1784, Samuel Seabury was consecrated bishop by three Scottish Anglican bishops because the English bishops refused to ordain him on the grounds that he could not take the necessary oath of loyalty to the crown.
But what of the rest of the Anglican Church in America? Its great strength was to be found in Pennsylvania, New York, and in the South, and these men distrusted their New England brethren because of their English sympathies during the war.
In 1782 the entire American Episcopal Church was stirred by an article from the pen of Dr. William White, of Philadelphia. He offered a plan to form a national Episcopal Church that did not necessarily require bishops. His drive for a nation-wide Church was ably backed by another famous patriot and Anglican priest, Dr. William Smith, friend of Benjamin Franklin and former head of the College of Philadelphia.
In accordance with Whiteís plan, a general convention was held in Philadelphia in 1785. There a constitution and name were settled upon -- the Protestant Episcopal Church of America. Out of this meeting came the selection of candidates for bishops, and by 1787 White and another man had been consecrated in England as bishops.
Two years later at Philadelphia, a great convention was held which healed the breach between the New England clergy and the other Episcopal clergymen. Again, the impact of the Revolution was noticeable. Laymen were active as voting delegates in all conventions. The second largest colonial Church was ready to act with the new nation.
The fresh vigor pulsating through the nation could not be channeled by a loose confederation of states; something stronger was needed to guide the energy in a creative direction. The Churches were no exception to this rule. The Methodist and Episcopal Churches quickly founded organizations capable of national extension. No longer would they be dependent upon the mother Churches of Europe. Advice they would take and influence they would accept, but direct interference was no longer to be tolerated. This was the general pattern among the Churches -- a turning point had been reached in American Protestantism.
The Presbyterians were no exception in this movement. One of the outstanding pro-Revolution Churches, they stood high in prestige and were rapidly growing in numbers. By 1780 it was evident that their organization, centering in a Joint Synod and ten presbyteries, was not sufficient.
Unlike their Scottish brethren, who developed an organization from the top down, the American Presbyterians, like the American government, was built from the bottom up. By 1788 they had approved the formation of a General Assembly to be composed of ministerial and ruling elders elected annually by the presbyteries. First had come the presbyteries, then the synods, and finally had come the national General Assembly. Simultaneously, the Presbyterians gave their followers a worship service, a catechism, and a confession of faith. They too stood ready to move with the American people, possessing a strong organization implemented by worship and doctrine.
What happened among two of the largest American Churches was closely paralleled by the smaller foreign-language American Churches. For some time the Lutherans under the leadership of the Mühlenberg family retained a fraternal and spiritual relationship to German Lutheranism. Cut off from Europe and dependent on themselves, they gradually adopted the English language and strengthened their own synodical organization. Each new wave of German immigrants increased both their problems and opportunities. They were, however, a Church independent of Europe. The Dutch Reformed and German Reformed, both dependent on the Church in Holland for funds and leadership, broke away from such ties and formed independent Churches. Everywhere the new spirit of freedom asserted itself.
The organization and independence of the Churches in the new confederation, though of great importance, was of far less consequence than another development in American Christianity. Slowly but steadily the Churches had been moving in a direction which some disliked, which others preferred, but which none could prevent -- the establishment of religious liberty.
In Puritan New England the Congregational churches were convinced that the Church played such an important part in the life of the community that the State should uphold and support it by law and with money. Six other states felt that way about the Church of England.
How could the Church make its full impact upon all of society unless it was part of that society by law? Men argued bitterly over the vexing question. The Puritans said that the holy commonwealth could truly be holy only if the State were based on Godís will as revealed in the Bible. It was the Church that provided the moral power to make the commonwealth holy. It conveyed Godís love and judgment to men and so made them instruments of his will.
So it was that all but four of the thirteen colonies had some one Church, such as the Puritan or Anglican, which was the only official Church. Such an "established" Church was supported by taxes levied by the State on everybody who lived in the community. Baptists living in Massachusetts paid taxes to keep up the Congregational churches.
Meanwhile a series of forces converged to bring about the greatest turning point in the history of American Christianity. No nation in the history of the world had ever established complete religious liberty, in which no one religion was publicly supported by taxes and where all religions were fully equal before the law of the land.
Pennsylvania stood as a beacon, a symbol of a group of colonies in America. This group was known as the Middle colonies. Situated between New England and the South, they became the seed-bed of the American ideal of religious liberty.
From the very beginning William Penn had determined to establish "a free colony for all mankind that will come hither."
He forthrightly stated: "I abhor two principles in religion and pity them that own them. . . . The first is obedience to authority without conviction; and the other is destroying them that differ from me for Godís sake."
Penn was determined that nobody should be forced to pay taxes to support a Church in which he did not believe, and he saw to it that the "Great Law" of Pennsylvania, adopted in 1682, guarded against such an unfair practice.
The law stated that no man or woman shall " at any time be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place, or ministry whatever, contrary to his, or to her, mind, but shall freely and fully enjoy his, or her, Christian liberty, in that respect, without any interruption or reflection."
Penn advocated this position on principle. He believed, as did all good Quakers, that true belief could not be enforced by law or constraint but could come only through Godís gracious spirit. The consequence of his stand was that all religious groups found freedom in Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia became a center, not only of the Quakers, who founded the city, but also of the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Out on the frontier, in the mountains and wilderness, hardy German Lutherans and Reformed as well as the militant Scotch-Irish Presbyterians were to be found. When the Roman Catholics were driven out of Maryland by the Protestants, the priests and some of the laity fled to Pennsylvania, where they found shelter.
Almost every Church of consequence found room to settle in the Quaker state. Relatively unknown and somewhat unusual groups such as the peaceful Mennonites, the hard-working Moravians, the very peculiar semimonastic Ephrata community, and the German Baptists, called Dunkers, all established settlements in Pennsylvania. All were non-English speaking; most used German.
Under such conditions the principle for which Penn stood was strengthened and deepened. He too hoped to build a community dedicated to the will of God, but he was sure it could be done in a way different from the establishment and support of only one Church. He was convinced that all Christian groups living and working together in harmony, though disagreeing at many points, could actually erect a state dedicated to Godís will.
Pennsylvania flourished. Some of Pennís ideals were not realized, particularly the belief that no force should be used against oneís enemies. The Scotch-Irish and the Germans on the frontier had to face the threat of the Indians and the encroachment of the French; hence, they used arms not only in defending themselves but in enlarging their holdings.
Though Pennís ideal of a peaceful commonwealth renouncing all war was not possible, his ideal of many types of Christians living and working together within one state was a pronounced success. Pennsylvaniaís green valleys bloomed; the rich, fertile soil produced abundant crops. Its great metropolis, Philadelphia, became the largest city in the colonies and was soon the economic center of the British American colonies.
Thus, Pennsylvania demonstrated what Rhode Island had earlier proved, that a sound, peaceful, and prosperous, as well as God-fearing, colony could be built on the basis of religious liberty.
What happened in Pennsylvania was paralleled in the other Middle-colony states. New Jersey and Delaware also contributed to the ideal of religious liberty. Both were somewhat under the control of their larger neighbors, New York and Pennsylvania, but they finally established themselves as independent colonies. Just as in Pennsylvania, many types of Christians flocked to Delaware and New Jersey. Swedish, Dutch, German, and English people brought with them the Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Quaker, and Roman Catholic faiths. Even some Puritans settled in those states. Together, all proved the principle so important in the development first of toleration and then of religious liberty -- where no single Church has a fairly substantial majority of the people it cannot hope to have a Church supported by law. This the Middle colonies learned by experience.
In New York the situation was at first different, but finally here also was established the principle of religious toleration. Settled first by the Dutch and then captured by the English, the Churches of these two people, the Dutch Reformed and the Anglican, held a privileged position in the colony. They were supported by public funds, and the Anglican Church was the State Church in six counties.
The large influx of people not interested either in Christianity or in the established Anglican Church made necessary a system of toleration. That is, though the Anglican Church was supported by the New York colonial government, it could not control the wishes of a great majority of people who were either indifferent to or openly hostile to the Anglican religion. Some toleration was absolutely necessary. But this did not come automatically.
In the fall of 1706 a Virginia Presbyterian, Francis Makemie, had stood before Governor Cornbury of New York. He had been invited to preach by New York Presbyterians as he traveled through the city on his way home. Could a minister of the gospel deny the request of fellow Christians? Certainly not! He had preached; so he stood accused of preaching to Presbyterians in a city where the Church of England was the official religion.
The governor demanded that he post money to assure his intent never to repeat his offense. This Makemie refused to do. Off to jail he went for six weeks until he was finally released on bail. At his trial, his lawyers argued that he had every right to preach in New York without first gaining the permission of the governor. The Anglican Church was not the official Church of the whole province.
His case ended with the plea that the State of New York was composed mostly of "foreigners and dissenters; and persecution would not only tend to the disuniting us all in interest and affection, but depopulate and weaken our strength." Why frighten away all such possible colonists by the threat of persecution? Let the gospel be preached by and to all these groups so long as it was done in good order. Francis Makemie was acquitted.
The Church of England remained the official religion in several counties, but it could not control the religious life of New York. Like all the other Middle colonies, New York found that no one religious group could control the religious life of the province.
The example and experience of the Middle colonies was not the only positive factor driving American Christians to seek yet more light on the perplexing problem of the relation between Christianity and the State.
Revivalism, coming out of the Great Awakening, tended to bypass the usual way of relating Church to State. It was not interested primarily in the State support of the Churches, it was interested only in the soulís relation to God. Was a man saved? Had he been deeply moved by his sin? Had he undergone the experience of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? As a result, was he living a pious or godly personal life?
All this was in a different direction from the sedate Church-State establishments. Revivalists also forsook the genuine theological interests of Jonathan Edwards. They were not concerned primarily with doctrines but with experience and proper living. Not interested in speculation or in institutions, they were suspicious of the clergy, who were constantly talking about true doctrine or about the Church as a visible institution to be supported by the State.
Thus the revivalists were usually opposed by some Presbyterians, the Anglicans, and most Congregationalists. The latter two groups felt it was necessary to expound true doctrine and to be of influence on society through the State support of the Church. Only in this way, they argued, would the full impact of the Church be possible. So they insisted on the Stateís suppressing all false forms of the Christian religion and on the recognition and support of their own beliefs.
Naturally the revivalists opposed this point of view. They contended only for the godly life which was born of the conversion experience. True life, not true doctrine, was basic. Thus they stood against any attempted control of religious life and experience by a minority of Christian believers.
Meanwhile, another movement developed in America which also worked against the favoring of any one Church. This movement was strong among a group of leading Americans which included Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. They were not opposed to Christianity, but they felt that there were only a few truths in it that were essential for men.
Franklin said: "I never doubted . . . the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and governíd it by his providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteemíd the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, thoí with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mixíd with other articles, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or conform morality, servíd principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another."
This type of belief was called deism. It was not interested in specific Christian beliefs or in speculation about Christian truth. It was interested in the moral principles of the Churches. Deists felt that Jesus was the greatest teacher who had ever lived, and that he taught in a clear fashion the moral laws on which the universe operated. There was no possibility of his being the Christ, or the Son of God, or of being a savior or redeemer of man. His function was to proclaim and make clear the laws which governed life.
Thomas Jefferson felt the same as Franklin and a number of others. To the extent that various Churches helped people to discover and follow the moral law, the deists respected them. To the extent that they insisted on the discussion of Christian beliefs about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, or the Church, these various Churches disagreed with each other and so produced disunity. This the deists rejected.
Jefferson attempted to find the heart of the Bible in the teachings of Jesus and compiled a book on the subject entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. If only all the Churches would stress the simple basic principles to be found in Jesusí teachings, which are also found in all great religions, then all dissensions would disappear.
The deists were opposed to the clergy of a State Church which tried to enforce its belief on all people. All religions held the central few truths, but these were not what the law enforced. Rather, a State Church demanded obedience to an entire body of doctrines which were not essential for religion; thus, the deists opposed that position and advocated freedom of the conscience. They were friendly toward all Churches that emphasized the teachings of Jesus but suspicious of all that spoke of the divinity of Jesus the Christ, the redeemer of mankind.
The mild deists such as Franklin and Jefferson were in agreement with the Christian revivalists on many things. Both wanted to destroy State-established Church relations as contrary to true religion. Both were suspicious of clergymen who controlled politics. Both emphasized that religion was not concerned with doctrine but with right living as outlined in Jesusí teachings. For the deist this was a very personal thing based on the reason of each man and the law of the universe. For the revivalist also religion was a very personal thing arising only out of a personal conversion from sin to righteousness through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus the first victories for religious liberty were won in those states where revival Christians combined with mild deists to overthrow the entrenched clergy. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island no longer stood alone.
At the time of the Revolution, Virginia was undergoing "an intense internal struggle for religious liberty." Almost since the beginnings of Virginia the Church of England was supported by land given by the State and by taxes collected from all the people. The Baptists and Presbyterians, as well as other Church groups, objected to the State support of the Anglicans.
Of all Churches, the Baptists were most faithful in their protest. They wanted no State support for any Church. During the war they sent a petition to the Virginia Government stating that "at a time when this colony, with others, is contending for the civil rights of mankind, against the enslaving schemes of a powerful enemy . . . the strictest unanimity is necessary among ourselves."
They asked that they "be allowed to worship God in their own way, without interruption, that they be permitted to maintain their own ministers, and name others, that they be married, buried, and the like, without paying the clergy of other denominations."
Up and down Virginia went the Baptist ministers gathering names in petitions pleading for religious liberty, for exemption from laws favoring the Anglican Church or any Church. They had to be reckoned with as they were a growing Church employing revival methods, and common people heard them gladly.
Meanwhile the Virginia Presbyterians were not inactive. In the years immediately before the war, their great leader, Samuel Davies, had led the fight to gain at least toleration for all Churches dissenting from the State establishment. Now, some Presbyterians favored support by taxation for all the religious groups in Virginia. But the Hanover Presbytery was opposed to such a plan and argued for complete religious liberty.
The Virginia debate raged with heat and intensity. Patrick Henry favored some kind of support by taxation for all religious groups. Washington was uncertain. Jefferson and James Madison joined with the dissenting forces to lead the fight against establishment.
In 1784, when it appeared that toleration for all groups but not genuine religious liberty would triumph, James Madison wrote the famous Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man. In it he said:
"Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The religion, then, of every man, must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man, and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. The right is in its nature an unalienable right."
As a result of the combined efforts of the dissenting Churches and the mild deists such as Jefferson and Madison, full religious liberty was established by law in Virginia in 1785.
The very, words of the act were taken from an earlier proposal of Thomas Jefferson. It stated:
"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinion, which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; . . . even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern. . .
"Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or afflict these civil capacities."
The precedent was set! A State had thrown off public taxes and support for a Church. Henceforth all Churches were equal before Virginia law. The State had no right to interfere with religious practices so long as they did not advocate immorality or treason. The Churches could expect no financial support from the State. What started as a principle in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania developed into a necessity in Virginia, and rapidly in the other states as well. Nevertheless, these states demonstrated their friendliness for the Christian religion through the payment of chaplainsí salaries and through the granting of tax exemption to religious institutions.
In the spring of 1787 an important convention met in Philadelphia. People gathered outside the doors of the convention hall as the delegates assembled. The crowd broke and made way for George Washington and James Madison from Virginia. A short time later Benjamin Franklin made his appearance.
The crowd buzzed in an excited manner. Nobody except the delegates was allowed inside. What was going to happen? Since 1781 the states had worked together under the Articles of Confederation. So many problems arose that the states were in a dangerous crisis. How could the government be improved so as to overcome their major problems? For this reason the Philadelphia convention was called.
In September, when the convention finished its work, the states were confronted, not with a few changes in the Articles, but with an entirely new Constitution for a Federal republic, a truly national government. Early in 1789 the required nine states had ratified the new Constitution, and George Washington was elected first President. The United States of America had been born.
Among the articles of the new Constitution and the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights were the following statements on religion:
"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Thus religious liberty was established for the national government by law. Many were dissatisfied with such an arrangement. Some states felt the necessity for a religious test for national public office. Again, the dissenting Churches led by the Baptists co-operated with the politicians to overcome the opposition.
In 1788, Massachusetts called a convention to debate the acceptance of the new Constitution. The Congregational Church was established by law in that state and was convinced that only the combined efforts of Government and Church, both supported by public laws, could produce a peaceful and godly commonwealth.
In answer to the objection against the lack of religious test for an officeholder under the new Constitution, Isaac Backus, outstanding Baptist minister, gave a stirring speech. In it he said:
"And I shall begin with the exclusion of any religious test. Many appear to be much concerned about it, but nothing is more evident, both in reason, and in the holy Scripture, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and therefore no man or men can impose any religious test without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . And let the history of all nations be searched, from that day until this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world."
Mr. Backus won his point. For years he had fought against unfair taxes levied by the State on all people to pay for Congregational churches and ministers. He could not defeat the system in Massachusetts, but he could see it prevented under the national Government. The state voted to accept the new Constitution, with its provision of religious liberty. It took almost another fifty years for Massachusetts to declare religious liberty within its boundaries, but the first irrevocable step was taken in 1788 at the urging of Isaac Backus, the Baptist minister.
So the great turning point both for the nation and the Church had been reached. Driven by necessity and by the truth derived from the Baptist and Quaker interpretation of Godís Word, the nation and Churches had decided for religious liberty.
This was utterly new in the history of Christianity. It raised a host of questions. How would the Churches survive? Where would money come from? Would not Christianity be greatly weakened, if not wiped out? How could the Churches relate their message of judgment and redemption to the State and society? What of the problem of religious instruction in the face of State indifference or perhaps hostility?
Indeed the Churches had searched Godís Word and will in history and had found a blazing new light. Henceforth they had to depend only on the sword of the spirit. If the nation was to be made holy, it could be done only by persuasion. Thus the Church faced at once its greatest threat and its greatest opportunity. Religious liberty brought many problems as well as many blessings.