Family Worship and Christian Nationalism in the Early Republic

John Stark Ravenscroft served as bishop of North Carolina from 1823 to 1830. He hailed from an old Virginia family noted for their Tory sympathies during the American Revolution. Although he was born in Virginia, Ravenscroft’s earliest memories were from Scotland, where his family moved when he was two years old. He shuttled between Scotland and Virginia until he was twenty-eight, along the way attending William & Mary and receiving legal training from two of Virginia’s intellectual luminaires, St George Tucker and George Wythe. He settled finally in southern Virginia. In 1810, he encountered a separatist revivalist group called the Republican Methodists. He threw off his irreligiosity and became an enthusiastic revivalist Wesleyan, but quickly began to doubt whether all Christian sects, including his own, were valid. He eventually joined the Episcopal Church and although he harbored doubts about some aspects of Calvinism—he particularly disliked the Westminster Confession—he nonetheless remained a convinced Protestant. Richard Channing Moore, Virginia’s openly Evangelical bishop from 1814 to 1841, overlooked whatever imperfections he saw in Ravenscroft and ordained him.

            Ravenscroft never became a serious theologian, but he enthusiastically embraced his pastoral duties. Families in particular formed what he believed was the most important part of Christian ministry, and he particularly worried about what he saw was laxity towards family worship in his diocese. “The observance and cultivation of family religion,” he argued, increased and advanced “true godliness” in society at large. Without the “root and spring, under God, of ‘all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works,’ hope is vain for the Church and the state; we shall sink into a nation of infidels.”

            Family religion in the Episcopal context of the Early Republic generally denoted the reading of shorter forms of Morning and Evening prayer by the head of the household. Ravenscroft tied family worship explicitly to the health of the church and the state. The decline in the practice harmed the families of devout Christians and their secular neighbors. “That the practice has declined in the families of professing Christians; that it is abandoned in all others, is known by all who hear me at this moment.” Ravenscroft lamented the fact that non-believers—or the non-devout—historically might have participated in some form of Christian devotion but no longer did. Even non-church-attending citizens, Ravenscroft hoped, understood that Christian practice was a societal good, whether they were spiritually committed to Christianity or not. The consequences of the decline in family worship, the bishop declared “are the bitter fruit of increasing crime and profaneness” which were “recorded in every court, and witnessed by every Sabbath.” Here again the bishop attached the moral denigration recorded in courthouses and on the sabbath—civil and religious decay—to the failure of the Christian family.

            Ultimately, the future of the civil, social, and spiritual health of the American republic rested on Christian families, according to Ravenscroft. Would the United States’ potential decay  be so, “were the principles of our holy religion early and carefully instilled into the minds of the rising hope of this great and growing Christian nation?” If the fear of God, and the reverence of his most holy name, and the observance of his worship, and the knowledge of his life-giving precepts” were “inculcated and manifested in our families,” the result would be seen throughout the world. “Awake, then, from this torpor, ye Christian fathers and mothers!!” North Carolina’s prelate thundered that if Christians awoke from “this deadly delusion of adulterated religion, which is so fast swallowing up the dearest hope you can entertain of a happy eternity, with those who are dearest to you here.” Christian fathers and mothers as well as right religious practice for families, Ravenscroft proposed, held the key to the civil, social, and spiritual health of Americans and the American republic.[1]

[1] John Stark Ravenscroft, The Works of the Right Reverend John Stark Ravenscroft Vol. I (New York: Protestant Episcopal Press, 1830), 111-112.


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