Churchified America and Americanized Churches: Francis Wayland’s “The Recent Revolutions in Europe,” 1848

In the summer of 1848, Francis Wayland, president of Brown University and perhaps the preeminent Baptist intellectual in the United States, preached a sermon at Brown’s chapel that focused on the revolutions that overtook Europe beginning in February of that same year. Parisians overthrew Louis-Philippe, who oversaw the liberal and constitutional Kingdom of the French. This so-called July Monarchy, named after the July Revolution that overthrew the last Bourbon king, Charles X, looked and worked much like Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy. Only moneyed capitalists and landed aristocrats enjoyed the franchise, but in many ways the Kingdom of the French between 1830 and 1840 granted wider religious freedoms than contemporary Britain did. Louis-Philippe reigned as a bourgeoise king who reflected middle class values, and proved to France’s least autocratic ruler yet. Nonetheless Paris rose and overthrew him, triggering another French revolution.

Francis Wayland, an ordained Baptist minister, was in American terms hardly a political progressive, but contemporary American intellectuals were so deeply wedded to liberal republican ideology that any society that did not affirm American style liberalism was regarded as a societal powder keg inevitably headed towards revolution. Wayland took as his text Psalm 2:10-12.

Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way,
when his wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

The minister and professor told Brown’s students that “within a few months, events have occurred on the continent of Europe unparalleled in importance in the history of civilization.” Wayland, and many Americans saw in these unparalleled happenings the inevitable and final triumph of human freedom. John O’Sullivan, a prominent journalist, nine years earlier confidentially declared that the “gates of hell’—the powers of aristocracy and monarchy”—would not prevail against “the everlasting truth on the first page of our national declaration.” O’Sullivan saw America as a churchly and eschatological country, shorn of Christian doctrinal commitments, that would save the world through liberal democracy. “The far reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness.” In the United States “magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High—the Sacred and the True.” The republic’s floor would be “a hemisphere—its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation a Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God’s natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood—of ‘peace and good will amongst men.’” For O’Sullivan, America was a liberal democratic messiah nation. [1]

Professor Wayland thought more seriously about theology than an irreligious secularist like O’Sullivan, but he nonetheless saw God working in democratic revolutions, and that thinking Christians should treat revolutions as prompts to turn their attention not merely to politics, but finally to God.

“Ideas on the subject of civil government, that have swayed the minds of men for ages, have, by almost universal consent, been pronounced false in theory and mischievous in practice; and other ideas, their exact contradictories, have occupied their place, and assumed their authority. As in individual, so in social man, the material act obeys the spiritual will. A change in political opinions must be followed by a change in political organization. Hence it may, with some confidence, be predicted that with the present year will commence a new era in European history. Combinations once irresistible have become powerless; and combinations, the outlines of which can scarcely be discerned in the dimness of the future, must henceforth give form and pressure to the destinies of man. At such a crisis, our thoughts are naturally turned upward to the throne of Him ‘by whom kings reign and princes decree justice; who stilleth the noise of the seas, the noise of their waves, and the tumult of the people.’”[2]

While Wayland did not share O’Sullivan’s theological—or non0theological—commitments, he nonetheless shared O’Sullivan’s belief that the powers of the Old World were directly responsible for revolutions in Europe. That democracy and liberal governance were not a universal human right did not occur to him. Wayland believed that “for some years past, the moral and political condition of Europe seemed covered with gloom. The lessons taught by the first French revolution appeared to have been forgotten, and civil and spiritual despotism was regaining its ancient ascendency.” In fact, Europe experienced a pronounced period of peace and even prosperity in the aftermath of the Congress of 1815. Austria’s Prince Metternich crafted a series of treaties that restored most of Europe’s monarchs to their thrones. Americans saw this as a betrayal of revolutionary promise, but Europeans accepted the restorations as the best governments their receptive societies could realistically expect. That Europe did not have American style freedoms, for Wayland, was not a concession to a realistic appraisal of particular peoples and their particular histories. A lack of American-style freedoms indicated that the eschatological hope for universal liberty for mankind was not realized. Wayland’s hope for Europe, therefore, was not as far away from O’Sullivan’s desire to immanentize the eschaton through America.  [3]

The American Baptist proposed that Europe was gloomy because it held still to the “doctrine that the authority to rule mankind had been conferred by God upon a few families in perpetual succession; that the people are made for the rulers, and not the rulers for the people, and that government exists simply for the purpose of maintaining these relations unchanged forever, seemed gradually to be assuming the place of an acknowledged truth.”  Wayland prized the theory that government must have the consent of the governed. Presbyterians and Episcopalians like Alexander Vinton roundly rejected that government needed the people’s consent for validity, but for Wayland that was a non-negotiable aspect of valid governance. “The assumption of such an authority, of course, took for granted the right to use all the means necessary for sustaining it. Hence governments claimed the right to control opinions on all such subjects as they chose.” Walyland also argued that the “church was coming every day into closer league with the state. There was scarcely a country on the continent in which the gospel of Jesus Christ could be preached without danger of fine or imprisonment, unless the preacher first subjected his reason and conscience to the dictation of the government.” Erastian “intolerance” was not, he warned, “at all confined to countries where Popery was the established religion. The descendants of the reformers themselves had come to need a second reformation.” Put simply, ministers in Protestant state churches and Roman Catholics in Wayland’s mind did not, and could not, actually teach the Gospel. [4]

“Political opinions,” he feared, “were even yet more strictly under the guardianship of the state.” The minister hardly knew a “country on the continent, France only excepted, in which the principles of constitutional liberty could have been freely discussed; and even in France, the range of political discussion was daily becoming more and more restricted.” Political prisons in Austria “were crowded with men of blameless lives and elegant accomplishments, who, like Silvio Pellico, had been arrested and condemned without even the form of trial, for the crime of longing after liberty.” The Roman Catholic Church, “from the principles of her constitution essentially inimical to the right of private judgment, seemed to be rapidly extending her power, and involving nation after nation more and more securely in the meshes of her diplomacy.”[5]

O’Sullivan and Wayland, while undoubtedly approaching the subject of liberal revolution through different mediums—journalism and theology—nonetheless arrived at analogous conclusions. Whereas O’Sullivan churchified America, Wayland Americanized the church. While both rejected the church-state establishmentarianism of the Old World, both simultaneously blended the political order and Christianity in ways that might have made even state church ministers uncomfortable.

[1] John L. O Sullivan, “The Great Nation of Futurity,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review, vol. 6, issue 23, 426–430.

[2] Francis Wayland, “The Recent Revolutions in Europe,” Sermons Delivered in the Chapel of Brown University (Boston: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1850), 294-296.

[3] Barbora Pásztorová, “Metternich’s Peace Management, 1840–48: Anachronism or Vision?” Austrian History Yearbook 53 (2022): 75–89.

[4] Francis Wayland, “The Recent Revolutions in Europe,” 295-96.

[5] Ibid.


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