A Populist Religious Movement

Stories of religious disestablishment in America usually revolve around discussion of the origins and meaning of the establishment clause of the federal Constitution. But the story of disestablishment, at least in the early Republic, was much more a state-centered event. This is true for the simple fact that the First Amendment did not originally apply to state governments. As law professor Carl Esbeck recently noted, "The American disestablishment occurred over a fifty to sixty year period, from 1774 to the early 1830s" and was "entirely a state-law affair," completely independent of the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
Thus the blame or the credit for disestablishment cannot be placed on the small, elite group of largely Enlightenment thinkers gathered in Philadelphia to draft a new national constitution. Rather, disestablishment was a populist movement, in which religious rather than Enlightenment influences were predominant. As Esbeck puts it, "At the state level, where the work of disestablishment did take place, the vast number of those pushing for it were not doing so out of rationalism or secularism. Rather, they were religious people who sought disestablishment for (as they saw it) biblical reasons." Once one turns, in an attempt to account for widespread state disestablishment, from the elites to the grassroots, religious thought becomes central.

There were four basic steps in the acceptance of the disestablishment ideal in the world of American religious thought. First, in the New England Puritan community, the heart of establishment in America, there was a bitter controversy over something called the Halfway Covenant, a standard of church membership, and this led to two main factions that, for different reasons, both became influential for disestablishment. Second, dissenting religions supported disestablishment for both theological and practical reasons, and these religions rapidly grew in size and influence because of their resonance with the ascendant ideologies of democracy and republicanism during and after the Revolution. Third, after the Revolution New England was affected by the Calvinist struggle with liberalism, and this forced a rethinking of establishment in its former stronghold. Finally, the ascendant idea of disestablishment was reinforced by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening.

I Jonathan Edwards, the Halfway Covenant, and the Shaking of the Puritan Way

The Great Awakening sowed seeds of disestablishment that were not fully reaped until the Second Great Awakening. These seeds were not always intentionally sown. A prime example of this is Jonathan Edwards and his rejection of the Halfway Covenant. The Halfway Covenant was an innovation created to keep alive New England's covenant with God in the face of growing numbers of marginally religious citizens. After the first generation of Puritans or so, it became apparent that not all in the community were capable of being faithful to the covenant of grace promoted by the church. This posed a civic problem, as the Puritan ideal was that the society and the church would basically be coextensive, making both part of a united covenant with God.

A disturbingly large population began to emerge who could not make the needed testimony of conversion. Their children would thus be ineligible for baptism and remain outside of church and outside of the covenant. This meant that the community of believers and larger society would gradually drift further apart. The solution was the Halfway Covenant. This covenant created two tiers of church membership. It allowed socially upright, but not regenerate, citizens to attend church and allowed their children to be baptized and obtain church membership. Thus the community at large was linked together and was able to retain its covenant relationship with God.

The leaders and participants of the Great Awakening of the 1740s challenged some of the fundamental assumptions of the Halfway Covenant. Spiritual conversion was posited as a prerequisite for any covenant with God. The church was viewed as consisting of only those who were renewed. Large numbers of unconverted church members, it was argued, caused spiritual lethargy and compromise within the church. These new emphases caused the "new lights" of the awakening to challenge the legitimacy of the Halfway Covenant.

The most prominent figure to openly challenge the Halfway Covenant was Jonathan Edwards. He moved the covenant from being a nexus between person, church, and society to being one that simply connected the converted individual and the church. Those who "were not in his sense visible saints were not saints at all." He rejected the idea of "halfway" church members, who could have the privilege of either Communion or the baptism of their children. Edwards' covenant theology struck directly at the core of the Puritan covenant of the larger community. Edwards' early preaching had talked of God's covenant with New England. But later in his life he questioned whether any covenant existed outside God's covenant of grace with His church.

It would be a mistake to overstate Edwards' influence in his own time. He was fired from his church for preaching against the Halfway Covenant. And the traditional standing order, with its interconnection between church and state, remained largely in place. But his dismissal freed up time for him to write his major theological treatises, which did have an ongoing influence. Edwards' speaking and writing contributed to the division of the New England religious community into at least three factions in regard to the covenant.

The largest group continued to favor the traditional standing order that linked church and state under a single covenant. But this paradigm began to be challenged by a small but energetic and growing group of Separatist and Baptist radicals who followed Edwards' points to what they considered their logical conclusions: that no church or churches should be established. The final group was where Edwards himself stood, rejecting the Halfway Covenant, but accepting a continued role for the state in promoting the church's interest. This last group dwindled over time as it became clear that if Edwards' logic was right, then so were the full Separatists, and if he was incorrect, then the standing order was correct.

Edwards stood on dwindling middle ground. But the two groups he helped solidify would both contribute, in their own ways, to disestablishment. We take up the fate of the first group, the established standing order, below. But first we will look at the new and growing group of dissenting religions that shared Edwards' conclusions regarding the covenant and took these conclusions to their logical, or at least radical, disestablishment conclusions.

II Religions of Equality: The Success of Populist Religion

The churches most favorable to disestablishment, the Baptists and Methodists, were also those with the greatest democratic or populist spirit. Their polity was not necessarily democratic—the Methodists had a hierarchical structure—but the message was one of equality of believers, individual responsibility, and direct biblical authority. These latter points, the authority of the Bible and the individual believer's responsibility to interpret it for himself or herself, were the most revolutionary in civic terms. If each person had a responsibility to read and interpret the Bible personally, then no one else could do that for him or her. Thus, the government had no role in legislating on religious matters, because this immediately undercut the role and authority of the priesthood of believers.

This was, at least in part, the theoretical, theological impulse to disestablishment harbored by these groups. The practical impulse was likely even greater. These groups, at least prior to the Revolution, were community outsiders, and the laws of establishment constantly restricted and hemmed them in—or at least forced them to go through religious tax exemption procedures that were burdensome and often unfairly applied.

But because the core of these dissenting groups found a resonance in the burgeoning democratic and republican impulses in the larger community, these groups flourished. Between 1770 and 1790 Methodists grew from about 20 churches to a little over 700, a growth multiple of more than 35. The Baptists went from around 150 to 850, a more modest but still impressive multiple of nearly 6. By contrast, the Presbyterians had a much slower rate of growth, going from 500 to 725, or a growth of less than 50 percent. The Congregationalists went from 625 to 750, about a 20 percent growth rate. The Anglican/Episcopal churches actually lost ground, dropping from about 350 to 170, a decline of 50 percent, although this can be attributed in good part to these churches' connections with the losing side of the war.

By 1790 the populist groups, who for both theological and practical reasons supported disestablishment, had grown to an equivalent size of the established churches. But they had reached that point with tremendous momentum, and that momentum continued into the early to mid nineteenth century. By 1860 the populist churches—one can no longer call them dissenters, as that implies the existence of a long-vanished center—outnumbered the former establishment churches by three to one.

So in good part the theological shift was not the change of theology within existing churches, as it was the rapid growth of what had been theologically eccentric churches. Dissenting theology had become mainstream because it had become more successful at marketing itself than the former mainstream community. Christian preachers such as Elias Smith and Alexander Campbell and the Methodist "Crazy" Lorenzo Dow bound up individual, revival religion with a radical Jeffersonian political message of the rights of the people. They railed at priest craft and political tyranny in consecutive breaths.

A citizenry effulgent with a republican sense, having just freed itself from political tyranny, was most open to churches that communicated spiritual things in these same terms. Thus these populist churches grew explosively, and with them the commitment to disestablishment spread across the country. Much is often made of the practical impulse to disestablishment of these minority religions. Nobody likes to be persecuted, and those experiencing it often develop a theory of minority rights. But that the impulse was also theological and principled is supported by the fact that these churches retained their disestablishment ideals long after they had become the majority.

III Puritanism and Liberalism: Establishing Unorthodoxy

The populist religions swept the new country in the early 1800s, leaving the former establishment religions in a majority only in southern New England. Connecticut and Massachusetts retained their establishments for some decades after the other states had given up theirs. Connecticut did not disestablish until 1818, and Massachusetts hung on until 1833. But the Congregationalists were still dominant in southern New England, even in 1850, and thus the disestablishment of New England cannot be fully explained by the rise of populist religions.

What else led to the demise of the standing order in New England? The rest of the story lies in the sequel to the establishment's rejection of Edwards' critique of the Half-way Covenant. The standing order had continued the two standards of church affiliation. There were the full "communicants" and the socially upright but unregenerate Halfway Covenanters, or mere "members." This latter group grew in size and influence over time. But by their very nature the members were concerned less with theological orthodoxy than the communicants.

It has been noted that from the early to mid 1800s the theology of the New England clergy became more liberal and "feminized," more focused on sentiment and feeling than on propositions and systems of truth. This has been explained, at least in good part, by the effects of clerical disestablishment. Disestablishment caused clergy, or so the theory goes, to become more responsive and attuned to their congregants, who were largely women. Thus the liberalization and feminization of New England theology was accomplished.

This story can perhaps be better told with the same facts, but with the causes and effects reversed. It is apparent that the feminization and liberalization of influential portions of the New England clergy was well under way between 1820 and 1830. Yet disestablishment did not occur in Massachusetts, where much of this liberalization was centered, until 1833. The so-called "cause" of liberal theology actually occurred well after that liberalization was under way.

It makes more sense that liberalization, rather than being an effect of disestablishment, was in fact one of its causes. A better explanation for growth of the liberal, feminized theology is the ultimate effects of the dual church membership scheme, the Halfway Covenant, on the standing order. As the "members" grew in number and influence, they caused the clergy to develop a theology that was softer and more acceptable to "unregenerate" ears. If leaders in government and commerce had to be church members to retain their standing in the community, it was not long before they shaped those churches according to their own interests and tastes. Soon there was an outbreak of "diluted" theologies, including Unitarianism, Universalism, and basic biblical liberalism.

While never having a numerical advantage statewide, these unorthodox groups did gain the upper hand in some important locales, including Boston. As the New England establishment was never a centralized, statewide establishment, but based on parish level preference, the orthodox could only watch in dismay and chagrin as the standing order system was used to turn over certain tax-built churches to Unitarian and Universalist groups. As unorthodoxy became established, some orthodox Congregationalists suddenly found themselves allied with their old dissenter foes in opposing establishment.

Establishment in New England became a victim of the Halfway Covenant, but not before that covenant had itself victimized the theology of the Congregational churches. The attempt to bring the world nearer the church through the Halfway Covenant had in actuality brought the church nearer the world and its philosophies, much as Jonathan Edwards had predicted.

IV Conclusion: The Second Great Awakening Seals Disestablishment

The spread of disestablishment as outlined above was sealed and affirmed by the nation's experiences during the Second Great Awakening of the early to mid nineteenth century. This religious revival was based on voluntary gatherings at which the individual and his or her experience was made the norm, subject only to the authority of the Bible as understood by the laity. The movement's theology and experience reinforced the existing views that the state should not impose or support religious systems or views. It exalted the notion that religious morality could best be promoted through spiritual revival and influence, rather than through legal coercion.

Events in the city of Rochester related to Charles Finney's revivals illustrated this point in microcosm. In the mid to late 1820s the city experienced a growth in commerce and industry. This created the need for a number of laborers too numerous to live with employers' families, as had previously been the practice. This caused the family-based moral restraints to loosen. The city fathers became concerned with the increasing drunkenness, violence, and dissipation found within the city. They had tried a number of legal measures, including temperance laws and Sunday laws, to stiffen the moral fibers of the community. These efforts essentially failed.

Then one of the city fathers, merchant and land owner Josiah Bissell, invited Charles Finney to come to Rochester in the autumn of 1830 for a series of revival meetings. The meetings were attended by a wide range of citizens, including large numbers of Bissell's peers from the wealthy merchant and manufacturing classes. The results were dramatic. A new informal but highly effective moral influence was created in the town. This was not the direct control of law but of the internal restraint of an awakened morality and the positive peer pressure of moral coworkers and employers. Those who did not fit in with the new moral environment moved on to other places.

The moral change was felt not just in Rochester, but throughout other areas affected by the revival. As one historian succinctly put it, "In 1825 a northern businessman dominated his wife and children, worked irregular hours, consumed enormous amounts of alcohol, and seldom voted or went to church. Ten years later the same man went to church twice a week, treated his family with gentleness and love, drank nothing but water, worked steady hours and forced his employees to do the same. . . . That transformation bore the stamp of evangelical Protestantism." As important, this kind of vital and spiritual transformation became associated with voluntary and private efforts of churches and religious leaders unconnected with legal measures or tax support.

This experience of the power of the voluntary church in turn strongly affirmed the theological shifts that had already moved the country to disestablishment. With the confirming experiences of the Second Great Awakening, disestablishment became the American way just as surely and as fully as establishment had been the Puritan way.

Attorney Nicholas P. Miller is a longtime advocate for religious freedom. He heads up the International Religious Liberty Institute, based at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and with Liberty editor Lincoln Steed cohosts a regular weekly television show called the Liberty Insider.

1 The precise meaning of "disestablishment" is much debated, and it is a term with many possible variations of meaning. For the purposes of this paper, we will use the term to describe simply a decision by a state to discontinue formal recognition of a state church and/or to discontinue financial support for a particular church or churches, accepting that churches should be supported by private, voluntary means.
2 "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution [emphasis added]).
3 Carl H. Esbeck, "Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic," Brigham Young University Law Review No. 4 (2004): 1590.
4 Ibid.
5 As Nathan Hatch put it, "The rise of evangelical Christianity in the early republic is, in some measure, a story of the success of the common people in shaping the culture after their own priorities rather than the priorities outlined by gentlemen such as the framers of the constitution" (Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 9.
6 Mark A. Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 37-48.
7 Ibid., p. 45.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid., p. 47.
10 Ibid., p. 23.
11 Ibid., p. 48.
12 Hatch, pp. 6, 10.
13 "In a culture that increasingly balked at vested interests, symbols of hierarchy, and timeless authorities, a remarkable number of people awoke one morning to find it self-evident that the priesthood of all believers meant just that—religion of, by, and for the people" (ibid., p. 69).
14 These and the following figures are taken from Noll, p. 166, Table 9.3.
15 Hatch, pp. 36-37, 68-71.
16 Noll, p. 168, Table 9.5.
17 Christopher Grasso, "The Fall of the Massachusetts Standing Order and the Rise of the Boston Brahmins," Reviews in American History 27.4 (1999): 541-547.
18 Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: The Noonday Press, 1977), pp. 22-28.
19 Ibid., pp. 97-104.
20 Ibid., pp. 98, 105.
21 Grasso, pp. 543, 544.
22 Ibid., Noll, p. 168, Table 9.5.
23 Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 3-14.
24 Ibid., p. 45.
25 Ibid., pp. 58-60.
26 Ibid., pp. 75-88.
27 Ibid., pp. 116-128.
28 Ibid., p. 8.

Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.