The Christian Past in the Early Republic: Church History, Disestablishment, and American Exceptionalism

By: Paul Gutacker

September 27, 2017

Religious Freedom Research Project Summer 2017 Fellowship Reports

In my previous post, I explained how eighteenth-century histories of Christianity contributed to the separation of church and state in America. Proponents of disestablishment, from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to William Tennent and Isaac Backus, argued that the post-Constantinian corruption of Christianity proved that religion flourished when free from the influence of civil power. This historical argument carried the day, not only in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, but also in the disestablishment of state churches—by 1807, the only churches that continued to receive state tax support were three Congregationalist establishments in New England (Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts). Yet questions about the proper relation of church and state persisted, and Americans in the early republic continued to debate the meaning of Christian history for their political and religious life.

One illuminating example of historical debate in the early republic came from an unlikely source, the pen of William Findley (1741–1821). An immigrant farmer from Ulster, Ireland, Findley served as a Presbyterian chaplain in the Revolutionary War before serving for 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition to playing a leading role in early republic politics—Findley was a Jeffersonian Republican and ardent advocate of state rights—the statesman weighed in on questions of church and state. In 1812 he read a sermon by the Reformed Presbyterian minister Samuel B. Wylie, “The Two Sons of Oil.” In this sermon, published in 1803 and 1806, the Philadelphia minister called Christians to reject the authority of the U.S. Constitution. Wylie argued that because the Constitution failed to recognize the lordship of Christ it should not be given allegiance nor obeyed. Findley read Wylie’s sermon as a call to civil disobedience, and, to prevent it from gaining further traction, wrote a 360-page rejoinder. 

In his Observations on the Two Sons of Oil (1812), Findley argued that the U.S. Constitution was justified by the history of Christianity. He encouraged readers to familiarize themselves with the histories written by Edward Gibbon, Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, Joseph Milner, and Thomas Haweis, which gave a full account of “the corruption and tyranny of [Christian] councils and emperors.” Dozens of times throughout the book, Findley repeated his central point: The political establishment of religion was “contrary to the practice of the primitive church.” Findley told stories of religious persecution “under the tyrannical union of church and state, in the apostate christian church,” and, following Gibbon, argued that Christian emperors had been far more “absurd and inconsistent” in their religious persecution “than even the laws of the inhuman monsters Nero and Domitian.” He concluded that after the alliance of church and state, the true church of Christ had been found only among persecuted dissenters. In other words, Rev. Wylie’s call for religious establishment was nothing other than a return to the corruption, intolerance, and superstitions of the middle ages.

Findley also argued that the question of religious establishment represented a choice between Protestant and Catholic principles. While he acknowledged that the Reformation continued with state churches, Findley saw this as a mark of the Reformation’s incomplete recovery of primitive Christianity. As long as church and state went together, the Reformation remained unfinished. It was up to Americans to finish the job, and, if they were not up for the task, they might as well become Roman Catholics. Findley advised those Americans who wanted to surrender “our own judgment and reason” to go all the way and submit to the infallibility of the pope.

Findley’s use of church history is illuminating in several ways. First, his engagement with eighteenth-century historiography challenges the scholarly narrative that nineteenth-century Americans ignored the Christian past. Findley read widely in church history, encouraged his readers to do the same, and found this historiography crucial in explaining and justifying the shape of American religious and political life. Further, Findley’s defense of disestablishment in 1812 underscores the enduring force of the historical arguments made by Jefferson, Madison, and others in the 1770s and 1780s. As Americans in the early republic negotiated a new religious landscape, they turned, again, to the same narratives about post-Constantinian corruption, decline, and violence.

Finally, Findley’s narration of the Christian past reveals an important source for American exceptionalism—the belief that the United States enjoys a unique, even ultimate place in divine history. Church history, as narrated by eighteenth-century historians and reinterpreted in light of new political and religious realities, encouraged Americans to imagine their nation as exceptional. Against the backdrop of church history, the United States appeared as a land where the simplicity of primitive Christianity could be restored, the principles of the Protestant Reformation fulfilled, and the last vestiges of medieval darkness left behind. These narratives continue to resonate. In 2007 the Liberty Fund republished Findley’s Observations on the Two Sons of Oil, considering it an important text on the nature of freedom. Historians such as John Wilsey (American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, 2015) have shown the enduring quality of American exceptionalism; Findley’s book shows that such exceptionalism, whether in 1812 or 2007, derives some of its strength from the stories Americans tell about the Christian past.

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