In January 1861 Bishop Stephen Elliott spoke to an ecclesiastical council in Savannah, Georgia to address how he and his diocese would respond to the eminent secession of his state from the United States. The bulk of Elliott’s speech was an explanation of why he believed he and his diocese were bound to the state of Georgia and not the United States. While we cannot affirm or sympathize with Elliott’s support for slaveholding or the Confederacy, his reasons were based in a distinctly Protestant and not Roman Catholic episcopal tradition. Bishops were bishops because they ruled a diocese, not because they were ontologically set apart from humanity, as Rome would have it. “The animus of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States,” declared Elliott, “clearly is, that the Bishop shall go with his jurisdiction.” An episcopal bishop was “a Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, not because he is a Bishop of the Church Catholic, but because he is the Bishop of Maine, or of New York, or of New Jersey, as the case may be.”
In addition to his explanation of Protestant episcopacy in the United States, Elliott also posited the American Anglican position on church and state. He noted that while, as a Church The Episcopal Church had no share in producing the political and social “condition of things which exists around her, she is nevertheless involved in that condition, and cannot, by any means, be made independent of it.” Every member of the Church was also a member of the American Commonwealth. “And being members at the same time of the Church and of the Commonwealth, the circumstances and relations of the one must affect the circumstances and relations of the other.”
It was true, the bishop explained, that “under dominion of infidels as in the times of the primitive Church, the Church of Christ and their Commonwealth were two societies independent,” but that was only because “a state of antagonism existed between Christianity and Paganism, which absolutely forbad any mutual dependency between them.” But since the commonwealth “in our times, is, if not professedly, at least practically, Christian, it is almost impossible to draw any line which can separate the relations of the Church from the relations of the Commonwealth.” The actions of the Commonwealth were the actions of the citizens of that Commonwealth, and because the citizens who made up the body of the Church also formed state legislatures, there had to be even in the United States “inevitably, a mutual relationship and dependency. It cannot be got rid of, without abolishing the whole framework of constitutional and canonical law which binds together the Protestant Episcopal Church of this country.”
Practically, this meant that the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States undeniably affirmed federal disestablishment of religion, but did not, and canonically and doctrinally could not, affirm the particular articulation of federal disestablishment adopted by Thomas Jefferson and his Baptists and Presbyterian allies in Virginia which institutionally separated the relations of the church from the relations of the state. It was in fact this difference in understanding of religious liberty that made Anglicans affirm a more traditional Protestant understanding of the civil order. Because the Episcopal Church was, said Elliott, independent of the Commonwealth,” she was therefore “free to establish such relations with the civil authority as she might deem best.” The church, not the state, set the terms of its relationship with civil authority. Episcopalians in the Nineteenth Century did not view themselves as absolutely bound by religious terms set by the American republic, precisely because even a so-called disestablishmentarian government only operated as such so long as there was not mutual antagonism between the Commonwealth and Christianity. If that changed, Anglicans’ unquestioning acceptance of the republic’s terms would have to change as well.