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Relationships of church and government included conflict and change in 18th and 19th centuries

Contributed • Feb 17, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The conflicts between colonists and the British crown in the 18th century leading to the American Revolution were not solely about secular matters, such as the Boston Massacre and the Intolerable Acts, a Tusculum University professor says.

Jeffrey Perry, an assistant professor of history, also said religious differences played an important role in the simmering conflict that eventually led to the colonies declaring their independence and creating the United States.

“Wrapped up into this issue is the idea of the bishop question as colonists referred to it,” he said. “Throughout the 18th century, there had been a fear among some colonists that the Anglican Church intended to establish a bishop in the colonies.”

The concern among colonists was that Britain was going to appoint someone from London who would be in charge of church affairs in the colonies. The belief was that such an appointment would negatively impact the local economy and decision-making.

Tensions between the two sides increased in 1761, when an Anglican minister in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built an opulent mansion that led colonists to conclude the house was going to belong to a bishop.

“This idea that the Anglican Church is going to try to re-exert control over its colonial churches is hovering in the background, especially for folks in the Mid-Atlantic and New York, and of course, in New England, where you did now have Anglican churches,” Perry said.

Perry delivered his remarks during the second of four presentations for the 2019 Theologian-In-Residence series at Tusculum. The series continues Tuesday, Feb. 19.

Discussing the Revolutionary War, Perry said it was problematic for churches. Ministers observed a loss of manners and the rise of sinful behavior by soldiers and civilians during this period. In addition, many churches were destroyed and services were interrupted during the fighting.

The colonial Anglican Church lost about 75 percent of its clergy members, many of whom returned to Britain due to their loyalty to the crown. Nonetheless, the Anglican Church still remained the established church in Virginia in the immediate aftermath, but that was soon to change.

“The religious laity, as well as the religious leadership, see the post-war period as one for renewal,” Perry said. “Churches were well-positioned to encourage moral responsibility and self-sacrifice for the common good.

“The idea of self-sacrifice for the common good clashes with the other main idea that comes out of the revolution, which is individual liberty. Republican virtue was seen as a way to perhaps temper this excessive individualism — liberty run amok.”

Dr. Perry noted there was some rebound for churches after the war, with the Philadelphia Synod increasing significantly from 153 churches to 215 between 1774 and 1788. The Anglican Church in the United States, which became the Protestant Episcopal Church after the war, experienced growth, but it took time because of its past association with Britain.

Presbyterians also enjoyed increases in their membership rolls and in the number of churches.

Church membership overall was still extremely low compared to what it would be 30-50 years later. That worried church leaders, who were facing a prevalence in deism, individualism and atheism, and they tried — and in many cases succeeded — to confront this issue in subsequent years.

As America moved into the 19th century, the denominations that became dominant were the Methodists and Baptists. In 1784, there were 15,000 Methodists in the United States, but that number grew to 150,000 by 1810. Baptists rose from 35,000 to 170,000 during the same period.

“The Methodists’ leader, John Wesley, was a Tory, and when the Revolutionary War broke out, he recalled all of the Methodist ministers back to England,” Perry said.

“And they all went, except for Francis Asbury, who stayed behind, supported independence and began to incorporate this English idea of a circuit rider, circuit system into the United States. Because of the way the circuit riders worked, they were able to gain members at a pretty substantial rate.”

Baptists, on the other hand, were not centrally organized and accepted anyone into their churches, he said. Perry said that denomination’s approach was for people to organize churches themselves instead of having a large hierarchical structure that connected members from one church to another. Instead they used a voluntary governing association of churches, he said.

In the wake of the Revolutionary War, the states began the process of ending the direct connection between government and churches, as the Articles of Confederation directed the states to revise their founding documents.

Perry highlighted Virginia, where the process lasted six years and became more urgent in 1779 when Thomas Jefferson wrote his bill for establishing religious freedom, which was not passed by the state Assembly.

He said Jefferson’s bill aligned usually disparate groups, including classic liberals, such as the future president, who believed in the inherent natural rights of individuals on which the government cannot intrude without cause, and evangelicals, who espoused a message of brotherhood and love.

The debate accelerated in 1784 and 1785 when Jefferson was in France and James Madison had become deeply engaged in this issue, Perry said. In 1785, Madison wrote the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Assessments,” which contended everyone has an unalienable right to religious freedom and liberty of conscience.

Perry said Madison contended any entanglement of church and state harms both institutions, an argument that resonated with Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, who did not want the established church to continue to have special privileges.

Jefferson’s bill was reintroduced and passed in 1786, and Madison later used the ideas in that law in the drafting of the Constitution.

The First Amendment to the Constitution says in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Perry said this amendment applied only to the federal government and not the states, meaning it was up to each state to decide its own fate.

“The process of separating church and state was a legal process that occurred at the state level and in state legislatures, but it was also an ideological and cultural process as Americans sort of redefined their relationships with both state governments and their local churches,” he said.

Perry said New England was slow to warm to this concept, with Connecticut dissolving its church-state establishment in 1818 and Massachusetts coming 15 years later. Once Massachusetts made that decision, no states had a direct linkage between church and state, he said.

“What the Constitution does is it individualizes religious belief in a legal sense in that it is part of the private sphere,” Perry said, “so the government cannot intrude on an individual’s religious belief. This is part of a larger construction of public and private in American life.”

He said this creation of public and private separation takes a step forward in the U.S. Supreme Court with Chief Justice John Marshall in a case where he upheld the right of Dartmouth College to remain private even though the state of New Hampshire wanted to make it a public institution.

For more information on the series, call the Institutional Advancement office at 423-636-7303 or email [email protected]

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