Christ Between Secularism and Theocracy: Samuel Smith Harris’ John Bohlen Lectures on Church and State, 1882

During Adventide 1882, Samuel Smith Harris, second Episcopal bishop of Michigan, delivered the John Bohlen Memorial Lectures on the relationship between church and state, at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. Harris hailed originally from Alabama, and served as a young man in the Confederate army. His episcopacy proved popular and he restored the reputation of the church in a diocese scandalized by the corruption of its previous bishop, Samuel A. McCoskry. Harris argued that while the question of how church and state related to each other vexed Christianity, he proposed that Christ provided the best blueprint with His “render unto Caesar” discourse from the three synoptic gospels. [1]

Gilded age social considerations prompted Harris’ lectures and the wider Episcopal Church’s attempts to clearly state the relationship between church and state. “Such burning questions as relating to religious and secular education, to labor and capital, to the standard of public morality, to the administration of justice and charity, such are the questions that are standing in the outer court of our forum.” If Episcopalians and Protestants in general were “to try them, we must, first of all, establish some common philosophical ground where all the contesting interests may meet on equal terms.” Harris avowed that “the gravest interests, both of politics and religion, are awaiting at this moment the discovery of some middle ground, where they may be reconciled and harmonized.”

Christ’s answer to the Pharisees, argued Harris, posited a middle way between the secularist and theocratic forces of First Century Palestine. The relationship Christ proposed “between Christianity and civil society” was “unsatisfactory to all parties in that day.” “To the secularist Herodian, not less than to the theocratic Pharisee, it indicated a modus vivendi between civil and ecclesiastical authority that appeared to be both unintelligible and intolerable. The bishop stated that the “the antagonism between the two opposing ideas which they represented is not yet extinct.” The world, he lamented, had not yet “learned altogether to accept the marvelous reconciliation of it that is implied in the answer of Jesus.”

Jesus’ answer, Harris argued, still carried authority in the Nineteenth Century. “For more than eighteen centuries of Christian history,” the bishop said, “grave problems of civil allegiance and social order have emerged along the line of the great movement which he instituted.” Prophets and statesmen were still trying “to find the principle which shall effect a final solution of them. I believe that the search need not be abandoned as unavailing.” Jesus Christ himself, the bishop declared, “laid down the principle which the world has so long been seeking, and that a reverent and humble search for it now will not be wholly unrewarded.” What Harris called the “civil and religious well-being of our fellow countrymen” depended on Christ’s declared principles regarding church and state. “We must look to the recognition of it for the development of a genuine Christian statesmanship in our land.”

True Christian principles on religion, in Harris’ political economy, promoted religious liberty and religion. Various Christian sects mistook the relationship between church and state at the expense of religion or liberty throughout history, claimed Harris.

“For instance, the Papist would define the State as a creature of the Church; the Erastian would make the Church a department of the State ; the Puritan would regulate the State on Church ideas; the Hobbist would rule the Church on reasons of State; the Quaker would abolish Church organization; and the Mennonite would suppress the office of the civil magistrate.”

Harris’ argument led him to support disestablishment, but to also offer that government had a role in protecting religion in a republican order. That view was not controversial in the Nineteenth Century, but demographic changes, as well as the place of Roman Catholicism in Gilded Age society, made questions of religion and civil order important, prompting Harris’ lecture and other prelates’ statements regarding church and state in the same era. [2]

[1] “Bishop M’Coskry Deposed” The New York Times, September 4, 1878;

[2] Samuel Smith Harris, The Relation of Christianity to Civil Society (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1883), 1-13.


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