Samuel B. Wylie and the Invention of Secular America

The election of Thomas Jefferson renewed attention to the question of church and state relations in the Early Republic. Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist association gave the American republic’s political lexicon the phrase “separation of church and state” but that term was not analogous to the constitutional settlement on disestablishment, which was more narrowly limited to precluding a federally sponsored national religious establishment. A year after Jefferson’s correspondence with the Connecticut Baptists, a pamphlet appeared curiously entitled Two Sons of Oil.

The book-length essay’s name came from two oil-anointed offices inferred from the biblical book of Zechariah: civil minister, and religious minister. Two Sons of Oil’s author, Samuel B. Wylie, was a Reformed Presbyterian—popularly termed Covenanter, from their theocratic Scottish predecessors—minister and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His pamphlet, Rev. Steven Wedgeworth (my fellow Ad Fontes blogger) noted, opened a debate on the “Constitution’s compatibility with Christianity and the proper bounds of religious uniformity in the newly founded republic.” More importantly, the presence of divines like Wylie in prominent churches and universities—he pastored a church in Philadelphia for half a century, and taught and then served as Provost at the University of Pennsylvania for two decades—challenged “certain ‘Christian’ understandings of early America and the Constitution.” Wylie’s public debate with William Findley, himself a descendant of Scottish Covenanters, also posed problems “for attempts at a coherent theory of secularity, natural law, and the common good in our own day.”[1]

Wedgeworth provides a helpful explanations of Wylie’s thoughts, and shows how Wylie could be both a convinced “theocrat” as well as a convinced believer in disestablishment. While he never countenanced sedition or even a change to the republic’s fundamental laws broadly, Wylie argued that he (and any Covenanter) could not support the United States because, among other things, the federal constitution did not explicitly recognize the existence of God, and because the United States sanctioned slavery. [2]

Essays like Wedgeworth’s are good works of political theology, and useful additions to the historiography of religion and the Early Republic and not simply to the study of politics. Beginning with the 1800 presidential campaign, religious observers and writers worried about the rise of public irreligiosity associated with the personal and political beliefs of Thomas Jefferson. William Linn, former chaplain of the House of Representatives, went so far as to warn Christians against voting for Jefferson. Linn’s objection to Jefferson “being promoted to the Presidency” was “founded singly upon his disbelief of the Holy Scriptures; or, in other words, his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.” Theodore Dwight, the brother of Yale president Timothy Dwight IV, saw a dark post-Jefferson regime “governed by blockheads and knaves” where “ties of marriage with all its felicities” were “severed and destroyed,” and where 2our wives and daughters are thrown into the stews; our children are cast into the world from the breast and forgotten.” In a United States ruled by Jefferson’s Republicans, “filial piety is extinguished, and our surnames, the only mark of distinction among families, are abolished. Can the imagination paint anything more dreadful on this side of hell?” [3]

Although Linn and Dwight did not share Wylie’s Covenanter political theology, they shared a belief that Jefferson’s rhetoric and politics represented a departure from the religious politics of his two Federalist predecessors. Historiographic assumptions regarding a secular founding understandably focus on Jefferson, but neither the Constitution, nor prominent clerics and intellectuals at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century assumed a state-enforced secular republic. In fact, they assumed the United States’ republican social and civil framework and state institutional apparatus framework relied on public Christianity. Washington was comfortable with religion in political life, and even Madison, the most convinced of disestablishmentarians, worked tirelessly to create federal chaplaincies for the Senate, House, and other federal institutions. [4]

Scholars devoted to the idea of a secular founding argue, like Steven K. Green in Inventing a Christian America, that a Christianized American republic was a creation of religious activists. “The myth of America’s religious origins arose incrementally, not as a comprehensive account, over a forty-year period, roughly from 1800 to 1840.” Green did not deny the presence of Christian influence in the Founding Era altogether. “A handful of people during the founding period, orthodox clergy in particular… never abandoned their belief in an active superintending providence or their willingness to think in biblical types.” Green’s statement presupposes that orthodox clergy and those who affirmed religion’s public place in American politics were a handful, or a fringe minority. That Wylie’s work elicited a response from a sitting congressman, and that it went through several editions, indicated that his message appealed to more than a mere political or social fringe, and status as a professor at an elite university meant that his intellectual credentials were secure. [5]

Wylie, Dwight, and Linn’s response to Jefferson’s accession creates a problem for Green’s secular thesis. Wylie and his brethren were not trying to contrive a story of a Christian America. Instead, they were fighting a rear-guard action against the beginnings of a new regime wherein the United States’ religious roots played a negligible role in its creation. 1800 saw the invention of a secular America, not a Christian one. There was no need to invent an explicitly Christian founding, largely because the Christian socio-civil foundation of the republic was already largely assumed. Claims that Virginia’s disestablishment and that state’s particular brand of irreligious and even secular politics informed the Constitutional era have been, as Mark David Hall rightly notes, massively overstated. [6]

Covenanter theology that underpinned Wylie’s arguments was never supported by a majority of American statesmen in the Founding Era or Early Republic. Nonetheless, the perception that Jefferson was enforcing secularism on a Christian socio-civil milieu created the circumstances whereby political theology was rightly understood not as a reactionary response to the Republican administration but as an intellectual and political pursuit that had long defined Colonial North America and the Early National United States. The incompatibility of Covenanter theocracy, specifically, with the longue duree of colonial and subsequently Constitutional practice in the United States did not and does not mean accepting the invention of a secular Founding.

[1] Steven Wedgeworth, “‘The Two Sons of Oil’ and the Limits of American Religious Dissent.” Journal of Law and Religion 27, no. 1 (2011): 141–61; William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, 9:34.

[2] Wedgeworth, “‘The Two Sons of Oil’ and the Limits of American Religious Dissent,” 147-48.

[3] William Linn, Serious Considerations on the Election of a President: Addressed to the Citizens of the United States (New York: John Furman, 1800), 12; Theodore Dwight, An Oration, Delivered at New-Haven on the 7th of July, A.D. 1801: Before the Society of Cincinnati, for the State of Connecticut Assembled to Celebrate the Anniversary of American Independence (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1801), 29.  

[4] Miles Smith, “The Chaplaincy: a Public Role of Christianity in the United States” at Providence: A Journal of Christianity and Foreign Policy (Nov 2022).

[5] Steven K. Green, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 201.

[6] Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019), 66.


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