Protestant Social Teaching and the American Republic

In a 2009 article for Journal of Markets and Morality Stephen Grabill posited that although Protestant social thought was “a vibrant field” that was “ever expanding and alert to emerging issues,” it nonetheless lacked fundamental definition, systematic rigor, and coherence among its various branches. Put simply, argued Grabill, “neither magisterial Protestants nor evangelicals have a theologically unified body of social teaching.”[1]

The Davenant Institute’s forthcoming book Protestant Social Teaching seeks to redress in part the deficiency in both awareness and scholarly labour on the subject. The volume’s contributors come from a variety of Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Evangelical jurisdictions. In as much as there are identifiable churches birthed out of the Reformation traditions, and in as much as they share a wide variety of beliefs and commitments on the social and natural order, there is, and always has been, identifiable although perhaps not systematic Protestant social teaching.

In the United States, prominent intellectuals have argued that the Protestant socio-political foundations created an individualistic and liberal society. William Goetzmann set the United States’ socio-intellectual commitments downstream from Jonathan Edwards and argued that the Calvinist “covenant habit linked with the idea of individual responsibility for salvation persisted” in the minds of American intellectuals and ministers. Goetzmann argued that disestablishment, for example, was based fears that established churches were threats to the right of independent choice. [2]

Tropes and often cartoonish representations of Protestant social and theological thought hid the fact that there was a relatively unified body of what might be called natural theology and social teaching in Eighteenth Century North America. Although the Enlightenment certainly affected and influenced American thinkers, neither American society, nor Protestant social teaching, were innately individualistic or progressive on questions of gender, the family, or the broader natural order when compared to other Protestant or even Roman Catholic societies in the era. Individualism, as just one example, was a construction of the Jacksonian Era’s political machinations. The deistic inclinations of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin are well documented, as is Washington’s famous refusal to commune, but the majority of the churchmen, intellectuals, and politicians in the Revolutionary Era and the Early Republic attended orthodox Protestant churches. Of the fifty-five men who oversaw the creation of the Constitution, fifty-two were members in good standing of Protestant churches.[3]

The United States entered the family of nations in 1789 as a polity driven largely by a Protestant understanding of natural theology and social teaching, but little if anything was changed in the new republic regarding divorce law, marriage and family norms, gender expectations, and cosmology. Major changes that did occur in those areas came after the Second great Awakening, a movement that largely represented a distinct repudiation of historic Protestant theological doctrines and social teaching under the guise of revivalism.

It is not surprising, then, that much of what has been sometimes been seen as anemic or even poorly-argued Evangelical social teaching was more accurately the absence or rejection of actual Protestant social teaching. Davenant’s Protestant Social Teaching offers a major attempt to intellectually and rhetorically redress the perceived absence of Protestant social thought in academic settings and in the public square and promises to be an accessible reclamation of Protestant thought for pastors and laypeople.

[1] Stephen J. Grabill, “Protestant Social Thought,” Journal of Markets & Morality 12, Number 1 (Spring 2009): 1–3.

[2] William H. Goetzmann, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 24.

[3] Steven E. Woodworth, While God is Marching on: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 7.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

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