Hierarchy, Not Binary: Early Republic Episcopal Conceptions of Sacred and Secular in the Civil Order

Early Republic and Early National Protestant conceptions of the sacred-secular distinction in some ways were less a binary or a distinction than values in a single divine hierarchy. Few religious leaders in the United States denied that the government was secular, but their reception of that term cannot be seen to be understood as implying that the political order was irreligious. Put simply, Early Republic Protestants believed that the federal government, and all state governments after 1833, were secular in as much as they were not, nor did they officially maintain, de jure state church or churches. Secularism, however, did not remove religion from the political or social orders, nor did it free the secular magistrates from their duty to acknowledge divine prerogatives and rulership.

Antebellum Episcopalian articulations of the church’s duty to society, and to government, included admonition for civil government to acknowledged God’s rulership over earthly powers. When New Jersey formed a constitutional convention to revise the state’s charter in 1844, the state’s Episcoal bishop, George Washington Doane, reminded churchmen that they needed to pray for society’s secular rulers, and subsequently advising laypeople and the secular civil magistrates to honor God in their efforts. “The people of the State of New Jersey…have authorized, by their representatives, a Convention, to frame a Constitution for the government thereof.” Constitution-making, Doane declared, “was the greatest of secular trusts. Upon their fidelity and wisdom, the welfare of the present, and every future, generation of our people, must essentially depend.” The wisdom to form a just government, and the fidelity to maintain constitutional liberties, both “from God,” according to the bishop. He quoted the Bible’s declaration that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” Unless the Lord built New Jersey’s constitutional house, the labours of the lawmakers, “is but lost.” He continued with scriptural admonitions: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” Christians had to make “’prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men,’ but, most especially, ‘for kings, and for all that are in authority.’” Prayers for rulers and the necessity of declaring God’s dominion of secular civil like was “a precept acted out in every Liturgy of every land, through every age.” The American religious order had not, warned Doane, escaped God’s commands despite disestablishment. It was, he counseled “not less incumbent upon us to pray for those who have in charge from us to embody, for our use, the fundamental principles of government, and lay the ground-plan of the laws by which our rulers shall be ruled.”

Doane saw the Episcopal church’s role towards the state as being essentially a disestablished but nonetheless official chaplain towards the state. Church and state were separated, but both were authoritative in their respective roles towards each other. He noted that Episcopal rectors served as early chaplains to the federal congress. Episcopalians were not free from obendience to the state. They had to, the bishop stated, submit themselves to government for the Lord’s sake. But submission did not mean silence or a concession that the divine government of God over secular affairs had been overturned in the United States’ constitutional order.[1]

[1] William Croswell Doane, George Washington Doane, The Life and Writings of George Washington Doane, D.D., LL.D. (New York: D. Appleton, and Co., 1860), 339-40.


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