Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.

Chapter X. Relation of Church and State in the United States.

In the year 1620 a little ship of 180 tons' burden was beating up against the wind along the shore of Cape Cod in the Bay of Massachusetts. Exclusive of the crew, this ship had on board just 100 souls. From a human point of view there could be nothing more insignificant, nothing more forlorn, than this weather-beaten vessel with its storm-tossed passengers on the desolate coast of what was then the unbroken wilderness of New England. But, looked at in the light of after events, we see in this ship a new ark of salvation for mankind. To parallel this event, we must go back to the days when the ark landed the patriarch Noah and his sons on the Mountain of Ararat, or to the days when Abram heard in Ur of the Chaldees the voice of God saying unto him: Get thee out from thy country and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee of. [Gen. xii.: I.] Or, if these stories of Noah and Abram seem to us legendary [235/236] and without basis in fact, then to find an event of greater importance than the beating of the Mayflower into the Bay of Massachusetts we must go back to the day when a little band of men and women gathered together in an upper chamber in Jerusalem to wait for the promise of the Lord.

The men and women in that ship had in their keeping the future history of the world. They were destined to shape the policy and inspire the heart of a new people; to create a nation in which church and state were at last to be absolutely one. In which the principles of human government as these principles were expounded by Jesus of Nazareth were to be the foundation stones of a great national polity.

Four months before they sighted Cape Cod these people had sailed out of the port of Plymouth in the south of England for the purpose of seeking a new home in a strange land. They were driven to this enterprise by the desire to find a place where they might worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. They were men and women who were unable to conform to the religious life of the country of their nativity. As we have already heard, the state religion, as established by [236/237] the Elizabethan settlement, was a compromise intended to include all but the extreme Catholic and the extreme Puritan. For a while this effort to comprehend the whole nation in the ecclesiastical establishment was successful; but in the nature of things this state of absolute equilibrium could not last long. If the people of England had been without reason or conscience they might have followed the Kings and Queens of England in every vagary of religion, and rested content in the religious life which was marked out for them by the royal will. But, being men of thought and feeling and sturdy independence, the Islanders were certain sooner or later to rebel against the authority that sought to regulate their consciences, and to curb the exercise of their reason and their will. When the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth the extreme Catholics renounced their membership in the Church of England. [Making of New England, John Fiske, chap. 11.] When James I., in 1607, uttered his famous tirade against the Puritans, who sought relief from some of the forms of the church, saying with royal spleen: I will make them conform, or I will harry them out of the land, then the Puritan saw it was time for him to escape from bondage, and [237/238] he separated himself from the church of his fathers. The leader of this band was William Brewster, of the town of Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire. Before Brewster, men called fanatics had refused to conform to the doctrine and discipline of the established church; but these, like all forerunners, had to go each his own way, and left no permanent result behind them. William Brewster was a Puritan who hoped to reform the church from within, and he remained in the church until the action of James made the church too narrow to contain men of his type. He gathered together a company of men and women who met on Sunday for divine service in his own drawing room at Scrooby Manor. The pastor of this congregation, for congregation it had become, was John Robinson, a native of Lincolnshire. This man had no ordination other than that which came to him from God and from the choice of his fellow-men. He was learned, gentle, pious, and, for his age, tolerant, and, out of the abundance that God had given him, he ministered to the people. Among those who gathered together every Lord's Day in the drawing room of Scrooby Manor was William Bradford, a lad of seventeen, already remarkable [238/239] for his intelligence, his piety, and his weight of character. He was destined to take a leading part in the stirring events to come. The meetings of this little congregation could not go on unmolested. Already the Stuarts were preparing for their doom by seeking to drive their subjects into their own way of thinking and believing. The wrath of the King was hot against such men as Brewster, Robinson, and Bradford. And these followers of Jesus, remembering the words of the Lord, "When they persecute you in one city, flee ye unto another,"--sought safety from the anger of James by flight into Holland. [St. Matthew, x.: 23.] Under the guidance of Robinson, they made a settlement in Leyden, where a residence of eleven years welded them into a compact organic body.

But these men were not only Christians; they were also Englishmen; and they desired their children to be born Englishmen, and to live under English law. In the course of the centuries England had developed an institution that reconciled law and liberty. This institution was representative government. The ancient democracies had failed to secure both law and liberty because they knew of no way for the people [239/240] to act except in the mass; and the mass is at last the mob, and the mob is the natural prey of the leader. The imperial system was the necessary outcome of the effort to extend the democratic rule of Rome over Europe. The only way that Rome could rule was by having the central government send agents out to rule the people. This is imperialism pure and simple, as we see it in the Empire of Russia and in the Roman Catholic church to-day, and it was the system that prevailed all over the continent of Europe until the nineteenth century. But in England another system of government was devised. Instead of the central government, sending agents to rule the people, the people sent agents to rule the central government. The English people kept in their own hands that power of the purse without which no government can exist. "No taxation without representation," is the watchword of English civilization, and marks the difference between modern and ancient democracy.

The English exiles at Leyden craved the possession and exercise of their political, as well as of their religious, rights and duties; indeed, with them their religious included their political rights. Moved by these considerations the Pilgrims secured [240/241] a charter and set sail for the new world. Before landing on the shores of their future country these men had made for themselves a written Constitution, had chosen governor and councillors, and had organized both a church and a state. In this organization the spiritual power was supreme and the state was a function of the church.

This settlement of the congregation of Leyden at Plymouth attracted to that region the thought of the Puritan element in England, which was growing more and more restless and refractory under the limitations of the English establishment. In the early years of Charles I. a large company of Puritans determined to migrate and establish a Puritan church and state in the land which God had provided for them. These men followed in the wake of the Pilgrims of Leyden and settled upon the shores of Massachusetts bay. Before leaving England this new band of Puritans elected John Winthrop as their governor, and, like the men of Leyden, migrated, not as individuals, but as an organized state. They were perfectly conscious of what they were doing and of the far-reaching significance of their action. They believed that God was calling them to lay the foundations of a new and great [241/242] Kingdom--a Kingdom in which God should be the absolute ruler and His word the only law. The ideal of the Puritan was a Mosaic theocracy adapted to the form and principles of English constitutional law. This union of religious enthusiasm with the forms of practical government gave stability to the Puritan state, and is the secret of Puritan domination in America.

It was not the purpose of these founders of the Puritan commonwealth to grant either liberty of thought or liberty of action. Their conception of the church and of the state forbade their entertaining the notion of what we call religious liberty. In their estimation it was treason to doubt the plenary inspiration of the Bible, or to question the doctrines of the church. They endeavored to secure the absolute identity of church and state by limiting political privileges to the members of the church. We cannot in this lecture enter minutely into the history of this Puritan state-church. It is easy to speak scoffingly of the bigotry and narrowness of the Puritan, to tell lurid stories of the whipping of heretics, the hanging of women, and the burning of witches; but it is not so easy to measure the moral value and the spiritual potency of that conception [242/243] of the state which looks upon it as the instrument of divine justice; which teaches that officers of the state are the vicegerents of God. Such a conception is the only one that can make the state other than a merciless machine. If the state is not divine it is brutal.

And when to this conception you join that other pregnant doctrine of which the Puritan was the exponent, which declares the sacredness and the right of the common man; when you make every man's destiny an expression of the eternal will of God,--then you have a foundation for government which cannot be shaken. Every man in the Puritan conception is a church-state in himself. In the man the spiritual power must be supreme. Conscience, not interest, must be the guide of life. Each man is a divinely inspired, divinely guided, political and spiritual power, and the state is simply a federation of these political and spiritual units in a general government. Each man is to have his voice heard and his vote counted in the consideration and determination of the affairs of state. This union of Teutonism and Hebraism; this marriage of Mosaic theocracy to English democracy, is the contribution of English Puritanism to the political life of the [243/244] world, and the modern state is the offspring of this union. It does not matter that the Puritan church-state as the Puritan conceived it did not outlast the lives of the first generation. That was a foregone conclusion. In the very nature of things a government based upon the Calvinistic interpretation of Holy Scripture must be short-lived. But, while the Puritan church-state failed as an institution, it endured as an idea. The Puritan influence dominated all other influences in American life from the landing of the Pilgrims down to the close of the Civil War. The south contributed to the American commonwealth administrative ability; the middle Atlantic states were the seat of commercial activity and kindly philanthropy, but Puritan New England was the breeding place of spiritual enthusiasm and high moral purpose. It was the belief of the Puritan that was the motive power of the American Revolution. It was the stern conviction of the Puritan that not King George, but God, was the rightful sovereign in America, not the Parliament of England, but the people of the united Colonies, were the sole keepers of the purse and the only source of political power; and it was this conviction of the Puritan that sustained the people of the country through the long years of the Revolutionary War.

[245] It is curious to remark how, up to the days of the Civil War, and in a measure beyond that period, each section of English North America reflected the character of the first settlers. The south was colonized by adventurous sons of the nobility and gentry of England, who came to secure for themselves estates in the new land which were denied them in the old. These men lived, not in towns, but on plantations; each man was a sovereign lord in his own domain, having servants and slaves under him. This potentate kept his chaplain to look after his spiritual affairs, as he kept his overseer to look after his temporal affairs; but he himself looked sharply after both chaplain and overseer. He believed in church and state, with the church in dutiful subjection to the state. The south was the natural home of the English establishment; the clergy came in the wake of the gentry, and the parish church was built beside the county court house. The southerner called the name of his new countries after the name of his queens and his kings. Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia all express the notion that the king is the source of authority and the state an entity in and of itself. This southern gentry had all [245/246] the virtues and vices of its class. It was given to command; it was brave and adventuresome; it was proud and arrogant; it differentiated the poor from the rich, the landowner from the landless, and put all power in the hands of the landlord; it made labor servile, and subjected the great mass of the laborers to absolute ownership and control of the ruling class.

The southern colonies gave to the nation generals and governors, but not priests nor prophets. Its clergy were the servants of the gentry rather than the servants of God, and the questions that agitated the church in the south were not questions of doctrine or discipline; they were questions of clerical salaries and ecclesiastical status.

The Puritan and southern conception of the relation of the state and the church gave rise to distinct and hostile civilizations which struggled for the mastery on American soil for nearly a century. When at last these two conceptions came into collision the Puritan prevailed over the southern and reduced it to subjection. As in the Revolutionary, so in the Civil War, it was the New England Puritan that gave the spiritual enthusiasm and moral purpose to the struggle. It was Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, John G. Whittier, Owen Lovejoy, [246/247] and John Brown that were the prophets and martyrs of the cause. The south in the person of Lincoln gave administrative ability, but the spirit that sustained and guided the contest was the spirit of New England.

The Middle Atlantic states were settled very largely for commercial reasons. It was the canny Hollander, intent on gain, that cast anchor on the shores of Manhattan island and the canny Hollander reigns there still. He was something of a Puritan himself, but his puritanism had never been able to quite get the better of his prudence. His struggle with Spain had been a struggle for existence,--not so much for political and religious liberty as for the right to live. When once the Hollander was free to do as he pleased he turned his attention to commerce and made riches the goal of his ambition. He had neither the political training nor the stiff-necked fanaticism of the English Puritan, but he had a commercial genius which gave him in a single generation the commercial leadership of the world. The commercial instinct of the Hollander made him see at once the vast commercial advantage of the Island of Manhattan, and there he planted his colony and gave a character to that island which it has not [247/248] lost to this day. The city on the Island of Manhattan is fast becoming the center of the world's exchanges and the commercial capital of mankind. With this spirit of commercialism the spirit of Puritanism is now in deadly conflict, and upon the issue of that conflict depends, not only the spiritual welfare of the people of America, but also the spiritual history and spiritual welfare of the world for ages to come. The warfare that is waging to-day is the warfare between the merchant and the minister; the minister, who believes in God, the merchant, who believes in gain; the minister, who believes that man is a person, the merchant who believes that man is a thing.

Our study of history has shown us that there are only two possible relations of church and state. Either the church must be in subjection to the state, or the state to the church; that is, either spiritual or material interests must prevail. In all great formative periods it is the spiritual interests that are supreme; in all times of degeneration and decay material concerns have the upper hand. To speak of the separation of church and state is to speak of the separation of soul and body. If the state is without a church it is without warrant in the conscience [248/249] of man; if the church is without a state it is without power in the life of the world. The church without the state is a disembodied spirit; the state without the church is a putrefying corpse. When the church is true to itself and true to its God it becomes the conscience of the state. Then the state must be in subjection to the church, or the state must perish. When the church forgets its high calling, and becomes simply a function of the state, then both church and state go down in one common ruin.

The present separation of the religious from the civil and political life of the nation is cause for grave apprehension for the future of the American people. A glance at the religious phenomena of our time and country will reveal strange and startling facts.

Were a Paul of Tarsus to visit us as he visited the Athenians, he would cry to us, as he did to them: "I perceive that in all things ye are very religious." The outward forms of religion are in evidence with us as they were with the Athenians of the Apostolic age. The Athenian still paid homage by cult and ceremony to the gods of Olympus. He was careful to have the twelve major and all the minor divinities represented by the altars of his city; and, [249/250] lest he should have overlooked someone of the heavenly hierarchy, he built an altar to the unknown God. As in Athens, so to-day every phase and form of the great Christian cult is represented in the religious life of America. In this year of grace, the nineteen hundred and fifth, there are 28,689,028 persons enrolled as Christians upon the books of the various ecclesiastical bodies. [The World Almanac.] These persons are included in 143, more or less, religious corporations which are in competition for membership. The two great sections of Christendom, the Protestant and the Catholic, divide this Christian membership unevenly between them, about two thirds of the Christians of the country are registered in the Protestant societies, and about one third in the Catholic churches.

The Protestants are mainly included in seven great denominations, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans; Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal.

The Catholics are for the most part emigrants and children of emigrants, who have come into this country since the middle of the last century and who derive their notions of life and government from [250/251] Latin and Celtic, rather than from English, sources. Maryland was, indeed, settled by English Catholics dissatisfied, as were the Puritans, with the settlement of Elizabeth. But the Catholics of Maryland, like the Catholics of England, were never sufficiently numerous or important to influence to any degree the polity either of their church or their country. The Catholic church in America to-day is Celtic, Latin, and South Germanic, and embodies the tone and temper of these races rather than of the English. In the Catholic body we have among us the mediaeval church and the mediaeval Empire. In the government of this vast organization the people have no voice. Power is centralized in the hierarchy; the hierarchy centers in the Pope, who appoints his bishops and sends his legates to rule his people. The Pope and the Czar are the last representatives in Europe of the ancient imperial system of ruling church and state.

The Lutheran body is composed of emigrants and children of emigrants from Protestant Germany. It represents the German love of the Fatherland, and the conservative theological thought of the German people.

Passing to the other Protestant denominations, we [251/252] find that the Methodists are the most numerous and the most democratic. The Methodist body owes its origin to that great movement among the English people; led by a simple priest of the Church of England, which broke up the repose of the English establishment, which revived religion and reformed the world. The Methodists in America are the converts and descendants of the converts of those heroic circuit riders who in the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries traveled from settlement to settlement in the wilderness preaching the pardoning grace of God. To these preachers the middle west owes its Christianity and civilization, and the middle west is the chief 'home of Methodism to this day. The Baptists and the Disciples of Christ form really one great body, and have their principal habitat in the mountainous region of the south. It is in that region that you find to-day a survival of the stern, hardshell, close-communion Baptist, who holds immersion necessary to salvation, and looks upon the unimmersed as outside the covenanted mercies of God. In the north the Baptist communion includes much of the culture and wealth of the country, and, while still practicing the Baptist forms, does not exclude the rest [252/253] of Christendom from membership in the church of Christ.

The Presbyterian church represents the sturdy Scotch element in American life. It is strongly English in its political tendencies, and Calvinistic in its theology. Its membership is evenly distributed over the country, and is made up largely of the successful men of business. The Congregational body, together with its offspring, the Unitarian, has its headquarters in Boston, and is most numerous in New England. It is the direct heir of the Puritan, and is the church of the scholar, the reformer, and the mystic. The Episcopal church is the daughter of the Established Church of England, with which it is in communion. It looks to Oxford for its theology, and to the hierarchy of England as the source of its spiritual life. It holds that Episcopal ordination is necessary to the validity of the ministry, and maintains the position of isolation among the Christian churches which is the characteristic of the English communion. It claims to keep the middle way between Romanism and Protestantism, and hopes to bring the whole world to accept its position of compromise. It is divided into two parties, the high and the broad, or conservatives and liberals. [253/254] The high church party is strongest with the clergy, and the broad with the laity. This church centers in New York, and its stronghold is the Atlantic seaboard. It is the church of the banker and the lawyer, and leads the conservative element in social and political life. The smaller Christian bodies are the representatives of certain narrow phases of discipline or doctrine, and are not influential in the life and thought of the country.

We find thus, upon examination, that we have 28,-000,000 of Christians, officered by 114,000 men divided into eight principal camps; and, when we consider the promise of Jesus that He would be with two or three of His followers, and that He would grant their prayers,--we cannot help asking, What are these Christians praying for to-day? Are they asking for justice in the state, for purity in social life, for honesty and fair dealing in business, for mercy toward the weak and pity for the erring? Are they praying for peace upon earth and good will toward men, And, if so, why are their prayers not answered? Why are we to-day in the hand of the political spoiler? Why are our cities reeking with impurity? Why are our politics our shame and reproach? Why is our society a society of broken [254/255] homes and childless women? Why are the weak crying for succor, and the sinner dying for want of pardon?

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