Patriotic Jesus: Bishop Theodore Dehon on the Duty of Patriotism in the Early Republic

Christopher Edwards Gadsden, rector of St Philip’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina and later bishop of South Carolina, published a comprehensive biography of Theodore Dehon in 1833. Dehon served as the second Episcopal bishop of South Carolina. When he died in 1817, he left a substantive corpus of sermons and lectures on a variety of subjects, including religion’s  place in patriotic expression. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Dehon particularly focused on Christian love of country.

Dehon, explained Gadsden, “thought patriotism was a duty.” He based his conception of patriotism on Christ’s expressions of love and laments for Jerusalem in the Christian Gospels.

[Dehon] recollected how much it was cherished by the people of God, and that ardent expression of the man after God’s own heart, than which history furnishes nothing more touching, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.’ ‘By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down; we wept when we remembered Zion.’ ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land!’ He could not agree with the celebrated Soame Jenyns , that this sentiment was contrary to the genius of the Christian religion, for it is recognized by its blessed author in his own conduct, who wept for the fate of his country, on one of the only two occasions on which he is recorded thus to have exhibited his humanity , and never spoke more affectingly than when he address ed it: ‘Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thee together, as a hen doth gather her chickens under her wings , and ye would not.’ It will be recollected also, that he came first to his own, and though they received him not, he charged his apostles to go first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The patriotism of our bishop was formed on this perfect model. It was a quiet, profound sentiment, as a deep stream, which silently pursues its course, never to injure, but unceasingly to do good in different places and in different ways.

Christopher E. Gadsden, An Essay on the Life of The Right Reverent Theodore Dehon, D.D. Late Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese South Carolina (Charleston, SC: A.E. Miller, 1833), 240-41

The bishop ultimately grounded his conception of patriotism in Christ’s social and civil relationship to Jerusalem, rather than in the discourse with the pharisees about duties to Caesar in the synoptic Gospels.

According to Gadsden, Dehon displayed his patriotism in a variety of ways. “He expressed his love of his country eminently by prayer for it, and by a good life, which are acceptable to the God, who giveth rain and fruitful seasons, and who is King among the nations.” Dehon believed it was his duty to cherish his country “to the whole extent of his influence, the interests of religion and knowledge.” The union of public education and religion became a goal for Dehon because he “considered that the virtue and happiness of a community were inseparably connected; that there was no moral virtue distinct from true religion. Knowledge without religion, the bishop feared, “was liable to abuse; and that religion without knowledge had a precarious foundation.” Dehon “was a zealous advocate of free schools.” When the South Carolina General Assembly proposed to abolish public schools, Dehon “endeavoured to avert this result.” He supported state schools, and also believed that religious groups should have a role in their formation and curricular composition. The bishop “promoted the measure proposed by the Bible Society, recommending to the Legislature that, in these schools, the Holy Bible should be invariably used.” He even had a plan to deal with “passages, in that book, unsuitable to a young mind.” They “might be easily omitted by a judicious instructor.” There were, he warned “too many children who probably would grow up in ignorance of it, unless they read it at school.”


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