Leaving Christendom Behind: The Historiographic Roots of American Religious Freedom

By: Paul Gutacker

July 21, 2017

Religious Freedom Research Project Summer 2017 Fellowship Reports

In his famous 1785 petition, Memorial and Remonstrance, James Madison argued against a proposed law in Virginia that would fund preachers with tax assessments. As part of his extended case for disestablishment, the statesman turned to history, arguing that “ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.” Madison encouraged readers to look to the past and trace what “almost fifteen centuries” of religious establishment had produced in the Christian church: “pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” He concluded that theologians of every Christian denomination were in agreement on one point: the Christian faith “appeared in its greatest lustre” in the primitive age before it was joined to the state.

Madison’s appeal to the Christian past hints at a previously unnoticed element of American disestablishment. While scholars have traced disestablishment to Lockean liberalism, republican ideology, and the experience of religious dissenters, the literature has neglected church history as a key source for American religious freedom. However, as my research for the Religious Freedom Research Project’s summer fellowship finds, eighteenth-century Protestant accounts of the history of Christianity contributed to revolutionary era debates over religious disestablishment. The historiography prescribed in American seminaries and colleges—especially the accounts written by Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Joseph Priestley—also enjoyed a reputation among the statesmen who advocated for disestablishment. While these widely-read accounts varied in their historical and theological interpretations of the Christian past, they agreed on several points crucial for the debate over religious establishment: first, these historians all argued that a “pure” primitive Christianity was corrupted by the post-Constantinian alliance between civil and ecclesiastical power; and second, they narrated the subsequent history of this alliance in Christendom as producing false religion, intolerance, and violent persecution.

The importance of these narratives for American disestablishment is evidenced by the ways in which leading advocates for religious freedom recommended these historical works and reproduced their interpretations of church history. Thomas Jefferson, for example, repeatedly recommended the reading of Mosheim, Hume, Gibbon, and Priestley, while James Madison selected these historians for inclusion in the Congressional Library. When Jefferson and Madison wrote against established religion in the 1780s, they frequently invoked the narratives embedded in this historiography, as evidenced in Madison’s 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance. Not only statesmen, but also ministers used church history to demonstrate the evils of religious establishment. Sermons by William Tennent, John Leland, Isaac Backus, and other revolutionary era ministers trumpeted the corruption and coercion that resulted from Constantine’s conversion and the subsequent alliance between church and state. In other words, church history provided a crucial point of congruence between religious dissenters and political leaders who otherwise did not share their evangelical theology. The compelling historical narrative that the Baptists shared with Jefferson and Madison strengthened their cooperation against religious establishment.

Further, during the early decades of the nineteenth century, as the disestablishment of state churches continued, church history continued to play an important role in denominational competition. In Massachusetts, for example, Baptists and Congregationalists exchanged sermons and published treatises claiming each to be the inheritors of early Christian practice. Dozens of Baptist publications reproduced sections of Gibbon, Hume, and Mosheim, arguing that the established Congregational church continued the corrupt and oppressive legacy of post-Constantinian Christianity (or, rather, “antichristianity”). Massachusetts’ Congregational ministers responded with their own historical arguments, citing the church fathers, asserting their own apostolic pedigree, and seeking to discredit Baptists’ reading of Christian history. Other inter-denominational arguments in the early republic—over church polity, Trinitarian theology, Calvinism, Restorationism, and more—saw American Protestants arguing over the meaning of the Christian past. As disestablishment continued and Americans began to negotiate the religious free market, they found tradition and historical precedent all the more useful in justifying their own denominational particularity.

Historical discourse surrounding religious freedom, in sum, shows that leading eighteenth-century historical narratives contributed to the separation of church and state in America. The most cutting-edge historiography presented the Christian past as a story of decline from primitive purity into medieval intolerance, violence, and superstition, and blamed this largely, if not exclusively, on religious establishment. These accounts of Christian history that predominated in the early republic, in other words, funded the American experiment in religious voluntarism. In addition to illuminating a previously unexplored source for religious freedom, these findings raise questions about religious freedom as it played out in the new nation. If disestablishment depended on narratives about the corruption of pure Christianity into medieval error, how did this problematize offering religious freedom to Roman Catholics? To what extent did nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism in America emerge from the historical basis for disestablishment?

The study also suggests new lines of inquiry in the development of American religious and political life throughout the nineteenth century. How did these powerful historical narratives create new opportunities—for example, encouraging the rise of Restorationist movements—as well as new problems for American Protestants? In what ways did these narratives contribute to the development of American exceptionalism? With anti-Constantianism assumptions reified in American political thought, what role could tradition and history play in American theological life? Hopefully, further research will address these questions.

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