J.C. Ryle and Religion in America

In 1885, J.C. Ryle, then Bishop of Liverpool, wrote a series of Disestablishment Papers addressing calls by Liberal politicians and Non-Conformist ministers to disestablish and disendow the Church of England. William Gladstone, a liberal High Church Anglican, disestablished the Church of Ireland over the furious protest of Queen Victoria and the Conservatives between 1869 and 1871. Ryle’s Evangelical commitments might have made him willing to engage in prayer services with Non-Conformists but he rejected the theoretical framework on which disestablishment rested. A fierce committed churchmen, he argued—in sometimes sensational language—that disestablishment would lead to en masse social and religious anarchy. Ryle’s criticisms were immoderate but not untypical of Anglicans whose political and social inheritance came from the aristocracy and the Tory Party. Ryle’s uneven observations helped uphold the Church of England’s establishment. His widely read pamphlets reinvigorated Evangelicals in the Church of England. His short essays also included observations on religion in the United States. Ryle’s comments on the republican religious order in the United States cut to the heart of the tensions regarding constitutionality of entirely separating religious from the state’s institutional life.

            American disestablishmentarians offered a variety of reasons to pursue their innovative settlement on religion. Removing religion from the fundamental law of the Union contrasted starkly with historic Protestant practice. Appeals to prudence, like those of James Iredell of North Carolina, took a realistic view of North America’s religious diversity. A national church would not command the allegiance of even a plurality of citizens. Iredell’s appeal to prudence certainly helped carry the day for the constitutional religious milieu. Other Protestants, however, appealed to tropes cooked up by English dissenters. During the Eighteenth Century Non-Conformists in North America and Great Britain concocted a historiography whereby the Church of England turned into a latitudinarian monstrosity. This narrative was most useful to proto-Revivalist Calvinists in North America like George Whitfield.

            Ryle rejected Evangelical claims about church purification by means of disestablishment out of hand. “I will not waste words on those who tell us that the English clergy, after Disestablishment, would preach better, and write better, and speak better, and work better than they do now.” He added that there was no evidence “that the American Episcopalians over the water who have no connection with the State, are a bit better preachers and workers than the clergy of the English Establishment.” Finally, he rejected the foundation of Evangelical historiography. “English Nonconformist ministers, as a body” were not at all superior “in preaching or in working, to the clergy of the English Established Church.”

            To the bishop’s refusal to concede the innate superiority of Non-Conformist Puritanism he joined rhetorical criticism of the notion that Americans had entirely separated religion from the state or from civil ceremony. The United States, he argued, did not “entirely separate religion and the State. The American Congress, I believe, has a chaplain, and is opened with prayer. The army and navy, the prisons and reformatories of America have chaplains, I have no doubt.” Practice regarding religion, society, and the state in the United States, argued Ryle, only showed that “our shrewd cousins see the utter uselessness of trying to carry out the principles” of disestablishment to “their logical results.” Americans were “obliged to act with splendid inconsistency. In practice even a new country like America, not fettered by old precedents, finds it impossible entirely to ignore God.” American practice illustrated that the constitutional disestablishment had not make religion “purer,” and it more importantly it certainly did not actualize Jeffersonian separation.


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This