The Disestablished Establishment: morality and nation in 1849

The First Amendment and the push for disestablishment from the 1780s to the Jacksonian Era redefined the history of the religion and more particularly Christianity in Protestant North America. Disestablishment seemingly separated American Christianity from its European and Old World counterpart. That was true in as much as the state no longer had an official role in litigating religious controversies or determining religious structures. It did not, however, mean that religious structures or peoples were precluded from influencing the state (or society). Even in the enthusiastically distestablismentarian American South, Protestant ministers wedded to the nascent Spirituality of the Church doctrine balked at a neutering religion’s place in society or its influence on the nation.

            In Fall of 1849, Louisiana governor Isaac Johnson, an Episcopalian, publicly and officially recommended the state celebrate a day of Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 29, 1849. Thanksgiving proclamations were routine in the Nineteenth Century. Churches observed them in various ways. New Orleans’ Second Presbyterian Church heeded the governor’s proclamation and gathered on November 29. Their minister, R.L. Stanton, delivered a discourse he called Ungodly Nations Doomed. While this was not Sunday service, nonetheless the church’s leadership acceded to the principle that a state official could on some level summon churches to participate in various ways in a civil function.

            In his sermon Stanton rejected any notion that he supported state establishment of religion. “Union of Church and State,” he argued, “is plainly not one of the ways in which God designed that nations should serve the Church. It never has been of service to the Church in any age.” Even if Christians granted “that some incidental advantages have grown out of it in some particular exigency,” it was still “that the evils of union have far outweighed them.” From the time of Constantine “to the present moment, the Visible Church has groaned under corruption, fraud, simony, moral impurities, and lifeless for malities,” which Stanton declared made the church’s “service a mockery of Heaven, wherever she has been yoked to the car of the Civil Power.”

            Stanton’s denunciation of state religion, however, did not lead him to the Jeffersonian notion of disestablishment or to an affirmation of individual religious liberty. He argued that the nation—nation not state—did in fact have duties to the church. It could support the church by “protecting Christianity wherever established.” This meant, according to Stanton, “securing its institutions from molestation, and supporting it against powers that would destroy it.” He illustrated his point with an example. “The Church is engaged in sending the Gospel to all nations of the earth, where now prevail various forms of false religion.” If nations did not “protect the institutions of Christianity, so that the Gospel may be planted—if they permit the followers of Christ to be persecuted, and missionaries to be murdered, as some of them have done—God will destroy them.” All idols, Stanton warned, would be abolished, “But Christianity He will establish.” What was demanded of the Civil Power, said Stanton, was “to protect the institutions of Christianity—to secure the lives, property, and interests of its professors from harm.” This protection of Christianity was according to Stanton “required of all nations, at all times. And this service they can render, in the legitimate exercise of their functions.”

            Southern Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century believed that the state could not referee controversies within the church, but it could protect the church from enemies without. Stanton’s understanding of religious liberty protections in this aspect seems ambiguous. He argued that Religious liberty was about protecting various Christian groups. The state should “guarantee full liberty of conscience, and the perfect freedom of religious worship—so that all persons and all denominations of Christians may serve God according to the dictates of their own consciences, being responsible to God alone for the manner in which they worship him.” The nation was “not at liberty to show any partiality, by favoring one denomination above another, in regard to any civil rights or immunities,” nor could the nation “justly interfere with their religious rights. They can, and should, secure to all persons and sects, untrammeled freedom of conscience in all religious matters.”

            The use of the more expansive term “all persons and sects” after the initial reference to various Christian denominations is possibly Stanton correcting himself within his own context. He ministered in a city with a sizable Catholic plurality and large Jewish community. Fears over Catholic cultural influence typically were milder in southern cities than in their northern counterparts. This did not mean that Stanton and his brother Protestants embraced an ecumenical pluralism. The state was charged he believed with upholding a Protestant and more particularly Reformed understanding of the sabbath. The duty to uphold the sabbath, Stanton argued, fell under a broader divine charge to the state to “put down vice and immorality, and encourage virtue and good order, in all proper ways.” Although it was “the duty of a nation to secure to the whole people religious liberty, it is their duty to check open and corrupting immoralities, even though they may be committed in the name of religion.” This statement provides one explanation for Protestant treatment of Latter Day Saints in the era, who many Protestants viewed as sexually licentious, but it also placed the onus of determination on the nation or the populace, which was hardly a morally static demographic.

            Stanton also warned of what he called “Fanaticism” which had “perpetrated the darkest crimes, under the garb of religious duties. “Open and unblushing immoralities” had “been taught as truths to be received and acted upon—tenets which, if carried out, would destroy the foundations of society.” Stanton conceded that governments had “generally deemed it their right and their duty to guard public morals and punish those who would corrupt and destroy public purity and order.” This was not government overstepping its rights; it was a chief way in which governments “may essentially serve the Church, by showing that ‘the powers that be’ are arrayed on the side of virtue.”  In order for nations to better guard public morality, “all who are in authority should be, personally, men of high moral standing—men of pure character and reproachless lives, whose example may be safely followed.” Nothing gave “such currency to vice in any form—nothing throws off the restraints of law so effectually—as for the lawmakers to trample upon their own enactments.” If those in authority showed insubordination, “the people, extensively, will follow their example.”

            Despite being deeply wedded to disestablishment and the Spirituality of the Church doctrine, southern Presbyterians saw church and state as operating in tandem for the spiritual and moral health of the commonwealth. Stanton’s views do not map neatly on to modern secularist or even contemporary Evangelical presumptions regarding religious liberty. Instead of litigating the morality of doctrinal validity of constitutional or religious practice regarding religious liberty, the better historiographic question would be to ask why and how these understandings changed.


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