Our Distinctly Protestant States
Secular utopias they were not
Archie P. Jones, in an old edition of the now defunct Contra Mundum, aptly described the quality of the American states at the founding: “The peoples or societies of the several states were distinctly Christian and Protestant in their religious profession, culture (or subcultures), ethical and moral values, education, laws, and politics.”
Indeed, the states were the building blocks upon which the federal—compound, rather than consolidated—republic was constructed; distinct states were presupposed. And behind them stood more than a century and a half of colonial history that conditioned them. They did not spring ex nihilo from the Revolution, much less any single “founder.”
Nationalism, and specifically Christian nationalism, variously serves as a prompt for renewed conversation on the so-called new right and a scare term on the hysterical left. Particular characterizations of the nation are leveraged for one position over the other. All too frequently, constructed narratives hinge on a few choice quotes from a few select “founders.” Recall that episode of Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom wherein Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) triumphantly and smugly employs disjointed quotes from the Bible, the Constitution, and American “founders” to prove that America has nothing at all to do with Christianity. Apparently, secularity, neutrality, and pluralism always defined America’s design.
But rather than looking to the founding moment to determine the character of the resultant nation, we should look to the preconditions of the same in colonial life via (documented) social history. The Revolution was intended to preserve the colonial way of life, not overthrow it. Federalist No. 2, the Declaration of Independence, and a host of other period documents make this much clear. (Otherwise, no one “tenacious of their liberties” would have gone along with secession.)
Patricia Bonomi’s classic, Under the Cope of Heaven (1986), argues that Christianity, specifically the Protestant variety, influenced the formation of every colony, albeit each developed according to its own denominational or multi-denominational flavor. Per Bonomi, contrary to a scholarly “declension paradigm,” Christianity was not experiencing decline in the late eighteenth-century. Rather, it remained an integral part of nearly every aspect of colonial life. It was then that “ecclesiastical structures stabilized” and “churchgoing became more regular,” leading to an “ascending vitality” in American religion (i.e., Christianity).
Secularist, religious neutrality or pluralism was utterly foreign to the American colonies, even if a measure of well-bounded toleration was present—and even if some colonies with more denominational plurality championed a broader spectrum of toleration than others.
The range of possibilities was far more limited by the shared religious core which spanned across denominational lines, from Presbyterians to Congregationalists to Anglicans to Baptists to Quakers, and even to the Catholic minority. And the predominant expression of Christianity in early America was undeniably, fundamentally Protestant.
If my people who call on my name…
A regular retort to Christian founding narratives is the absence of any explicit invocation of God in the federal constitution.
Now, as mentioned above, if the states were to serve as the moral centers of the republic, those moral centers were largely conditioned by Protestantism, and the federal constitution acted as a treaty between the several states, then this could be expected. It must be remembered too that the federal constitution is primarily a structural document and that the bill of rights was a later addendum.
What would be more compelling for this retort is if the state constitutions ignored God too. Unfortunately for the secularists, the state constitutions are rife with God-talk. Even before we get to the state constitutions, we could point to the Mayflower Compact (1620), which was dedicated to the “advancement of the Christian faith,” and the Charter of New England, granted by James I in the same year, which commanded the “in Largement” of the same religion. Both doubtless conditioned the American milieu, but admittedly predate the founding of the republic. Massachusetts’ charters of 1629 and 1691, as well as the Body of Liberties (1641) are similarly situated. William Penn’s Frame of Government (1682) also falls into this category, and it offers further support on this point. However, for the sake of argument, we can bracket out the colonial data and focus merely on America at its formal inception.
Looking to the founding period alone, the “one God” is acknowledged by the South Carolina constitution. The “Almighty” is invoked by North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Vermont. The “Supreme Being,” the “Creator,” and the “Great Legislator of the Universe” is namechecked in Massachusetts’ founding document. Similarly, the “Governor of the Universe” is called upon in Pennsylvania’s and Vermont’s constitutions. Pennsylvania, along with South Carolina, also refers to the inspirer of scripture (both Testaments). Divine Providence is recognized by New York.
Such acknowledgement of the Divine was not mere window dressing, as many erroneously suppose. Nine of the thirteen original state constitutions featured religious tests for public office (and some of them limited officeholding and civil participation generally to Protestants). These tests were variously comprised of affirmations of the Trinity, the inerrancy of Scripture, the eternal destiny of man, and the like, even though Article VI, Clause 3 of the federal constitution required no such tests at the national level.
Consider Delaware’s constitution of 1776:
Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall take the following oath, or affirmation, if conscientiously scrupulous of taking an oath, to wit: “I, do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”
In North Carolina’s constitution of the same year, it was declared that
[N]o person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.
Georgia also limited its elected officials to adherents of Protestantism. New Hampshire, in 1784, provided religious tolerance for all Christians but also reserved governance for Protestants. Massachusetts (1780), South Carolina (1778), and Vermont (1777) did the same. The middle colonies, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were laxer insofar as they favored only general Christianity. (In the latter case, the Catholic aristocracy could not afford to alienate their predominantly Protestant populace.)
In those states where no thorough colonial establishment had existed, full religious liberty as it would be recognized today, wherein no civil privilege (or penalty) applies to one group over another, was still limited to Protestants.
Article 18 of New Jersey’s first constitution states:
That no person shall ever, within this Colony, be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping Almighty God in a manner, agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; nor, under any presence whatever, be compelled to attend any place of worship, contrary to his own faith and judgment; nor shall any person, within this Colony, ever be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or any other rates, for the purpose of building or repairing any other church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right, or has deliberately or voluntarily engaged himself to perform.
This is as robust as religious liberty gets in the founding era. The consciences of citizens of New Jersey, regardless of creed, were insulated from almost any coercion or forceable support of any one sect. At the time, parish taxes for ministry maintenance and the like were still a staple of New Jersey’s northern neighbors like Massachusetts.
In the immediately subsequent paragraph of the New Jersey constitution (Article 19) the same document bans religious establishments. But then it adds the qualification that
no Protestant inhabitant of this Colony shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right, merely on account of his religious principles; but that all persons, professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect. who shall demean themselves peaceably under the government, as hereby established, shall be capable of being elected into any office of profit or trust, or being a member of either branch of the Legislature, and shall fully and freely enjoy every privilege and immunity, enjoyed by others their fellow subjects. [emphasis added.]
This was largely in keeping with the Fundamental Constitution for the Province of East New Jersey in America (1665) which upheld religious freedom for the colony’s Christians. It stated, in part, that
All persons living in the Province who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and Eternal God, and holds themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and quietly in a civil society, shall in no way be molested or prejudged for their religious perswasions [sic] and exercise in matters of faith and worship; nor shall they be compelled to frequent and maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever.
At the same time, “no man shall be admitted a member of the great or common Council, or any other place of publick trust, who shall not profaith [profess] in Christ Jesus.” And further,
Nor by this article is it intended, that any under the notion of this liberty shall allow themselves to avow atheism, irreligiousness, or to practice cursing, swearing, drunkenness, prophaness, whoring, adultery, murdering or any kind of violence, or indulging themselves in stage plays, masks, revels or such like abuses.
As John Fea acknowledges, the state’s constitutional convention in 1776 deliberated little about religion and more or less “codified the existing pattern of church-state relations in the colony” as they had been for “more than a century.” Whilst freedom of conscience and practice was extended to all, civil rights and office holding were limited to Protestants. The message was clear: though all Christians were welcome in New Jersey, Protestants would remain at the helm of its civil affairs.
No Denomination Nation
Even where Protestantism wasn’t explicitly assumed, Christianity—at least the general Christianity described in Updegraph v. Commonwealth (Pa. 1824), Vidal v. Girard’s Executors (1844), and Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S. (1892)—was wholeheartedly privileged. At the time, “general” Christianity meant, we might say, non-denominational Protestantism.
The inhabitants of Vermont agreed in 1793 that everyone had a right to worship God according to conscience and their own theological persuasions. No one could be compelled to attend or support religious worship. Unlike the New Jersey constitution, Vermont also prohibited civil penalties “on account of religious sentiments [or] peculiar mode of religious worship.”
But the last line of Article 3 (covering religious freedom) reads: “Nevertheless, every sect of denomination of Christians ought to observe the sabbath or Lord’s Day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.” (Vermont was also zealous of its internal regulatory power: [Article 5]: “That the people of this state by their legal representatives, have the sole, inherent, and exclusive right of governing and regulating the internal police of the same.”)
It was not until the 1961 supreme court case Torcaso v. Watkins that state religious tests were formally deemed unconstitutional. Under the original model, the ban on federal religious tests did little more than perpetuate denominational neutrality as the states funneled up, so to speak, public servants according to the denominational specifications of their home state. Even today, there are few politicians that jump directly from obscurity to federal elected positions without passing through local and state politics.
It was noted earlier that nine of the thirteen states included religious tests, whether generally Christian or explicitly Protestant civil favoritism, in their constitutions. New York and Virginia did not, even as they legally and politically favored Christianity in other ways and were dominated by a culturally Christian aristocracy for a century (perhaps especially in New York). That’s eleven. The other two did not draft new constitutions at all, which says more about the abstainers than meets the eye on first blush.
The call for state constitutions in the lead up to the break with Britain was answered by nearly all the original thirteen, save Connecticut and Rhode Island. These latter two retained their colonial charters for constitutional purposes until much later. That status quo ante was sufficient for their purposes. We will turn to them briefly now. Connecticut, a bastion of the Congregational establishment, differed little in this regard than what could fairly be dubbed the antithesis of the New England way, Rhode Island.
The Longstanding Standing Order
Connecticut featured one of the most enduring establishments. Since its Puritan founding the relationship of church and state had mirrored that of Massachusetts. No town could be incorporated without a rightly constituted Congregationalist church. In turn, political participation was limited to church members in good standing. Congregational clergymen were supported by parish taxes. Connecticut exhibited a mutually supportive church and state, operating like “two twins,” to quote the Cambridge Platform (1648). It was a continuation of what had begun in the Bay colony. Indeed, Yale was established in 1701 to counter perceived liberal shifts at Harvard—and, eventually, Newark was founded in 1666 in reaction to allegedly complacent New Haven.
The Connecticut charter of 1662, which replaced the Fundamental Orders (1639), was considered sufficient for that “body politique and corporate” until 1818 when a new constitution was adopted and the so-called “Standing Order” of Congregationalist dominance was definitively disbanded. The old charter even had an eye toward evangelism:
[F]or the directing, ruleing and disposeing of all other matters and things whereby our said people, Inhabitants there, may bee soe religiously, peaceably and civilly Governed as their good life and orderly Conversacon may wynn and invite the Natives of the Country to the knowledge and obedience of the onely true God and Saviour of mankind and the Christian faith, which in our Royall intencons and the Adventurers free profession is the onely and principall end of this Plantacon.
But even under the new, purportedly disestablishment constitution, in that allegedly enlightened age which traded ‘theocracy’ for ‘toleration,’ the people of Connecticut presupposed Christianity.
Article I, Section 4 says that “No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship [emphasis added].” The prior section protected the “exercise and enjoyment or religious profession and worship,” but only “provided, that the right hereby declared and established shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness.”
This was no dechristianization. In the same year, Connecticut’s highest court published a ruling in Fox v. Abel (1818), with dueling opinions, on the state’s Sabbath law. At issue was not the constitutional validity of laws requiring all secular business to cease on the Sabbath. Rather the only question in play, as one justice put it, was “whether service of civil process before day-light on Sunday morning is a violation of the statute entitled, ‘An act for the due observance of the Sabbath, or Lord’s day.’” At length, the justices considered whether the common law and laws of the state contemplated a natural Sabbath day or merely solar Sabbath day. Non-lawyers may not find this reading particularly riveting, but the point is that it speaks to the thoroughly Christian milieu of a period of constitutional revision.
Returning to the text, Article 7 of the 1818 constitution maintained the “duty of all men to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe,” though it protected the right of each citizen to do so according to conscience. Yet again, however, this was limited to “every society or denomination of Christians in the state,” and by this time, all Christians—not just Protestants—were promised equal civil “rights and privileges,” and spared the parish tax. Until 1818, membership in a Congregational church had been a precondition for voting and office holding in the “land of steady habits.”
The shift in Connecticut politics, from 1776 to 1818, was doubtless owed to the growth of Unitarianism/Universalism—and the concomitant decline of orthodox Calvinism—and mass immigration of dissenting sects like Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists. Arguably, however, the collapse of the Federalist party in New England, following the notorious Essex Junto which culminated in the Hartford Convention (1814-1815), accounted for the demise of the Standing Order more than anything else. Refugees of the Federalist party rehabilitated themselves politically within the new Tolerationist Party which called the 1818 convention to create a new constitution. The point, however, is that even amidst this socio-religious and political upheaval, a stark cleavage from Connecticut’s thoroughly Protestant past was not contemplated. The inhabitants of Hartford and New Haven were still thoroughly and self-consciously Christians in a land conditioned by Protestantism of the hottest kind.
Roger’s Not-So-Radical Island
What of Rhode Island, the supposed colonial bastion of religious liberty? Today, it is regular Baptist practice to fawn over Roger Williams—a rabblerouser by any metric—as the forerunner of their hard-won “soul freedom,” a maximalist religious liberty. Rhode Island also clung to its colonial charter in 1776. What did it entail exactly?
For our purposes it is worth highlighting that the 1663 royal charter—Cromwell had granted one in 1644 which was nullified at the Stuart restoration—pledged the inhabitants and their colonial mission to not only the earthly guarantor of the document (i.e., “Charles the Second… Defender of the Faith”) but the king of kings, Christ himself.
Further, the colony was dedicated not to indiscriminate religious liberty but to preserving for its inhabitants “that libertye, in the true Christian ffaith and worshipp of God,” and to ensuring the “capacity [of Rhode Islanders] to defend themselves, in theire just rights and libertyes against all the enemies of the Christian ffaith.” Not unlike John Winthrop’s famous Model of Christian Charity (1630), the charter spoke of the inhabitants of Rhode Island “pursuing, with peaceable and loyal minds, their sober, serious and religious intentions, of godly edifying themselves and one another in the holy Christian faith and worship as they were persuaded.”
Nor was the 1663 document a departure from its precursors in sentiment, content, or tone. The Portsmouth Compact (1638), which formalized the reactionary, Antinomian venture in Narragansett territory, was sworn “in the presence of Jehovah,” and submitted the “persons, lives, and estates” of the new “Bodie Politick” to “our Lord Jesus Christ” and “those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His Holy Word of truth.” Exodus 24:3, 2 Chronicles 11:3, and 2 Kings 11:17 were all cited in support of this proclamation.
In liberal lore, that compact decisively severed church and state. Today it would likely be invoked as grounds for a complete divorce between politics and religion. Thenceforth, Williams’ colony became a beacon of separationism, all the while, and in fact, its founding documents only ever contemplated intra-denominational Christian tolerance, which accommodated well the fissiparity of Pocasset, Providence, Portsmouth, and Cranston. Would today’s pluralists seriously predicate their utopia on citations from theocratic-monarchical Israel?
To boot, in the eighteenth century, Rhode Island was among those states, including Maryland, North Carolina, and New Hampshire, that did not permit non-Christian voting until well into the nineteenth century (1842).
Rhode Island was certainly tolerationist by seventeenth-century standards, but hardly a pluralist society of religious liberty maximalism. Roger Williams, the mythical father of our modern socio-religious free-for-all, would hardly have tolerated Satanic shrines in the state house or drag queen demonstrations in the public library.
Considering the sketch above, we might affirm a Christian founding, a Christian past and character, of our nation according to the shared religious sentiments of its constituent parts, our (broadly) Protestant states. And the states were, within the original constitutional formulation, the moral (and religious) centers of the republic.
In 1905, Supreme Court Justice David Brewer presented a series of lectures at Haverford College entitled, The United States a Christian Nation, an expansion of the last paragraph of his majority opinion in the Holy Trinity case mentioned earlier. Surveying colonial charters and early state constitutions, the Justice surmised that “[t]his republic is classified among the Christian nations of the world.” But in what sense could it be so called? Obviously not in the sense that any particular form of Christianity was federally or nationally established. Nor were all citizens committed Christians. And yet,
it is not exaggeration to say that Christianity… was the principal cause of the settlement of many of the colonies… Beginning in this way and under these influences it is not strange that the colonial life had an emphatic Christian tone.
By evidence of the charters and constitutions of America, Brewer concluded that the republic, even in the early twentieth-century, was properly called a Christian nation. What we have reviewed above is the abundant evidence that America at its founding was, at root, not merely a Christian nation, but a Protestant nation. (Brewer’s claims were decidedly mild in this regard.) As Barry Allan Shain has so artfully demonstrated, the predominant and shared vision of the good in early America was “reformed Protestant and communal, rather than secular and individualistic.” Michael Zuckerman has done related, but distinct work sketching the township life of eighteenth century New England, predicated top to bottom on its Protestant past.
The sects and factions that dominated the socio-political life of the early republic were predominantly of Reformation heritage. Their theological commitments, for better or worse, conditioned the early character and trajectory of the nation. Any who deny this are simply not paying attention to the historical data. Secularist pluralism has no place in the historic, American errand into the wilderness. And until we recognize this, we might toil in the wilderness forever.
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