Free Church in a Free State: Philip Schaff on Disestablishment

In his 1888 Church and State in the United States Philip Schaff argued that what made Christianity in the American republic unique was that it was a “FREE CHURCH IN A FREE STATE, or a SELF-SUPPORTING AND SELF-GOVERNING CHRISTIANITY IN INDEPENDENT BUT FRIENDLY RELATION TO THE CIVIL GOVERNMENT”[1] The relationship of church and state in the United States, Schaff said, secured “full liberty of religious thought, speech, and action, within the limits of the public peace and order. It makes persecution impossible.” Schaff’s undeniable support for disestablishment stopped short of an antagonistic Jeffersonian wall of separation. “Religion and liberty are inseparable. Religion is voluntary, and cannot, and ought not to be forced.”

Voluntarism, according to Schaff, fed robust religiosity in the United States. “Liberty, both civil and religious” was what he called “an American instinct.” Native-born Americans “suck it in with the mother’s milk; all immigrants accept it as a happy boon, especially those who flee from oppression and persecution abroad.” Far-reaching religious liberty in the United States would have been “impossible on the basis of a union of church and state, where the one of necessity restricts or controls the other.” Religious liberty in the American union did not require an antagonistic state policing the church, and it did not require Jeffersonian or anabaptist antagonism towards Christian interaction in the civil sphere either. American religious liberty required “a friendly separation, where each power is entirely independent in its own sphere.” Churches in the United States therefore had “nothing to do with the state except to obey its laws and to strengthen its moral foundations.” The state had “nothing to do with the church except to protect her in her property and liberty; and the state must be equally just to all forms of belief and unbelief which do not endanger the public safety.”

The United States’ disestablishmentarian religious regime, Schaff declared, strengthened civil and religious liberty as well as true religious practice. State and religion had different duties in different spheres of human society. Church and state were “equally necessary, and as inseparable as soul and body, and yet as distinct as soul and body.” The church was instituted “for the religious interests and eternal welfare of man; the state for his secular interests and temporal welfare. The one looks to heaven as the final home of immortal spirits, the other upon our mother earth.” The church reigned through love and the state reigned through justice. The church was governed by the gospel and the state was governed by law. The church exhorted and used “moral suasion; the state commands, and enforces obedience.” The church enacted punishments through “rebuke, suspension, and excommunication; the state by fines, imprisonment, and death.”

Schaff’s praise of American disestablishment stopped short of the hard and irrevocable separation proposed by Thomas Jefferson in his famous 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut. He conceded that religion and the state did at times interact. That interaction hinged on the necessary partnership between church and state in upholding civilization. Church and state, Schaff noted, met “on questions of public morals, and both together constitute civilized human society and ensure its prosperity.” While he praised disestablishment, he did not allow the church to escape from its civilizational and social mission, or from what he saw as its necessary charge to assist the state in ensuring the health and prosperity of human civilization.


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1 All caps in the original.

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