Disestablished But Not Disconnected: Church, Society, and State in the Early Republic

Disestablishment in the newly-independent United States severed the institutional interdependence between the state and the visible church. Virginia’s disestablishment in the 1780s triggered a set of similar laws passed throughout the Early National Period. Massachusetts, the last state to maintain a state church disestablished Congregationalism in 1833. Social and cultural practices in the American republic nonetheless allowed a de-facto Protestant socio-civil establishment to continue well in to the Twentieth Century. Current conversations regarding so-called Christian nationalism variously litigate concepts as broad as the maintenance of a “soft” cultural establishment that maintains liberal democracy to outright theonomic, and theocratic, establishmentarian constructions. Conversations on the history of religion and the state in the United States often descend in to little more than politically partisan cacophony.

Although the politicization of conversations regarding church and state is probably inevitable, a better understanding regarding the meaning of disestablishment may help clarify scholarly and ecclesiastical conversations. In the Early Republic, disestablishment was seen as strengthening the liberties of the church in order to help it perform its spiritual mission to save souls and to observe the sacraments. Disestablishment did not, however, remove the church from the social or civil order, nor did Early Republic Protestants assume that the church was a merely spiritual institution that was not affected by social and political changes.

Presbyterian minister and King’s College—now Columbia University—professor John McKnight, like most Presbyterians in the United States at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, celebrated disestablishment as a definitive corrective of an unnatural misalliance that began with Constantine. Constantinian establishmentarianism was a “heterogeneous and incestuous connection between the kingdoms of this world, and the kingdom of Christ; which, from the reign of Constantine, down to the present day,” had been “the source of incalculable mischief, both to the interests of true religion, and the civil and religious rights of man.” Disestablishment renounced that connection. Church and state in the new American order each rested “on their own proper foundation, and exercised, “respectively, their particular and appropriate rights and prerogatives.”

Disestablishment’s benefitted church and state because it made clear their respective duties and limits. Disestablishment did not, however, disconnect them in their mutual goal to preserving human liberty and ordering human life. Governments were not separated from the societies they governed. There was, McKnight argued, a “close and intimate connection subsisting between” civil society and the church. That connection between them rendered a right understanding of their association necessary for the protection for the liberty of both. “Civil and religious liberty, though distinct, in themselves, will generally be enjoyed or lost together. The same enlarged views, and the fame liberal sentiments,” which tended “to secure the one, will equally tend to the promotion and establishment of the other.” The same spirit “of domination and lust of power, which aims at enslaving the bodies, will equally aim at enslaving the minds and consciences of men.” Communities religious and civil, “or bodies politic, will always be prosperous and happy, in proportion to the religion and virtue which they possess.”

Although disestablishment removed churches from the state’s sphere of control, it did not disconnect churches from society or the state entirely. Churches were affected by the same forces that influenced broader society. Disestablishment of church from the institutional civil government did not entail disconnection from the influences that affected both.  [1]

[1] John McKnight, A View of the Present State of the Political and Religious World (New York: Isaac Collins and Son, 1802).


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