“Presbyterians” and the Making of an Informal Establishment (Pt. 2)


By Thomas Whittaker

Note: This is the third installment in a conversation between Miles Smith and Thomas Whittaker. Smith’s essay can be found here, and the first part of Whittaker’s response can be read here.

So far, I have worked to argue that the English Reformed tradition had already become considerably less magisterial by the mid-seventeenth century. Next, I want to suggest that Cromwell’s move towards supporting a kind of multiple establishment had echoes in the early republic, first in the abortive attempts to create shared establishments that would support churches of various denominations, as was attempted by Jefferson’s enemies in Virginia, then by the creation of an informal evangelical establishment in which Presbyterians and Congregationalists played the central role.

After the Revolution, the state establishments that still existed had lost much of their coercive power. As we have already seen, many establishments were, before the Revolution, already in effect multiple establishments—this was the case not only in New England but also in New York.[1] In the South, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia all had maintained an exclusive establishment of the Church of England. But during and after the Revolution, discredited by their affiliation with the former overlord, the Anglican churches lost congregants to the rising evangelical churches, bled ministers back to England, and rapidly atrophied in all of the states in which they had been established.[2] But only in North Carolina did legislators move directly to disestablishment without considering a less exclusive form of establishment.[3]

The system that maintained the remnants of the Standing Order in Massachusetts until 1833 allowed citizens to avoid taxation for the support of the local church by submitting proof of membership of a different religious body. As it had since the seventeenth century, the state did not interfere with local church establishments. The decision of which church would receive state support was determined by the citizens of each town—it could in principle belong to any communion. And, as a result, the system began to break down in the 1820s with the birth of organized Unitarianism, which often caused unresolvable conflicts between congregations and their surrounding parishes. The Dedham Case in 1820 established that the “parish,” the entity that included all male residents of the town who were not members of a different church, could overrule the wishes of the members of the church in the choice of minister—a decision that made it relatively easy for Unitarians, joined by religiously apathetic citizens, to replace orthodox ministers with liberals.[4]

Presbyterians were generally not beneficiaries of colonial establishments, except in the multiple establishment in New York and in New Hampshire, where some towns had established Presbyterian churches and others shared Presbyterian-Congregational establishments.[5] But in the revolutionary period, Presbyterians were proactive in working to replace the Anglican establishments with a “general establishment” of Protestantism in their place, led by William Tennent in South Carolina.[6] This form of establishment was common in the South for a brief period in the early republic. In South Carolina, a strange “establishment” allowed denominations to become incorporated as “a church of the established religion of this State,” but offered no financial support. A multiple establishment went into operation in Georgia, where taxpayers were liable for the support of their own denomination starting in 1785, reaffirmed by the state constitution in 1789, and eliminated in 1798. In Maryland, a multiple establishment was quickly undermined by voters’ desire to avoid taxation, and the possibility of funding it was eliminated in 1810.[7] And, of course, multiple establishments in different forms persisted in New Hampshire (until 1817), Connecticut (until 1818), and Massachusetts (until 1833).[8]

When Virginians debated disestablishment in the 1780s, the options were not a rejection of church-state ties or the maintenance of the Church of England, but rather the former posed against the creation of a multiple establishment. Presbyterians lined up on either side—Hanover Presbytery eventually sided with the Baptists against any kind of establishment. But behind the scenes was a major cultural clash between the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains who were vocal partisans of disestablishment and a faction associated with Hampden-Sydney College in the Piedmont that was inclined to support Patrick Henry’s proposal for a general assessment for religion.[9]

The Overton window for multiple establishments in the states quickly came and went. But what replaced this concept was something that Jefferson and his allies considered just as bad. The Reformed, far from dwelling on their temporary alliance with Jefferson (in Virginia at least), became architects of what both their religious adversaries and historians have described (or derided) as an informal establishment—one created more by institutional mobilization and cultural power than by law, exercised in part through the panoply of interlocking associational life known as the “Evangelical United Front” or the “Benevolent Empire.”[10]

The organs of this institutional empire, founded in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, included such stalwarts as the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Sunday School Union, the American Education Society, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Most of these societies claimed, to varying extents, to be nonsectarian.[11] The Bible Society came the closest to this ideal, followed by the Tract Society. The others were closely associated with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

Even in the most nonsectarian of these organizations, the Reformed held pride of place. Disgruntled Baptists and Methodists frequently complained that they were excluded from decision-making power in organizations like the American Tract Society.[12] They were joined by Roman Catholics, Universalists, and Deists who thought that these societies’ decision to frame themselves as national, “American” institutions was presumptuous and intended to constitute a de facto national church.

Since 1801, Congregationalists had been cooperating with Presbyterians in the work of frontier church planting as part of the Plan of Union. In this arrangement, Congregational ministers in places like New York and Ohio participated fully in presbyteries and synods.[13] As a result, many Americans outside of the Reformed nexus tended to group them together as a single denomination and to lump the nefarious New Englanders into the category of “Presbyterians.”

In the 1820s, the claim that Presbyterianism was likely to be imposed as a national religion was common to those outside the Reformed orbit. Deists like George Houston surmised that “the Calvinistic clergy in this country” had constructed “a deep laid, well digested, undeviating design of introducing a church establishment of the Presbyterian description.”[14] Many critics saw the institutions of the benevolent empire as a sort of establishment in waiting, forming the backbone for a future “national religion.” The Quaker William Gibbons went so far as to claim in 1822 that “the Presbyterian clergy in New England, were plotting to establish their creed throughout the union; to have all other sects taxed to support their aggrandizement, and thus give the death-blow to civil and religious liberty in this country.”[15] These were the claims of some of the most severe critics of evangelicalism and particularly Reformed Protestantism. But a few decades into the nineteenth century, it had become common for evangelicals both to praise voluntaryism and to argue that the evangelical denominations, though divided, formed an invisible unity.

That there was, in effect, a national church in America—albeit one made up of many denominational parts—was the explicit claim of Robert Baird, the first comprehensive chronicler of American religious life, in his Religion in America (1844). An Old School Presbyterian, Baird lived for almost a decade in continental Europe, promoting temperance and the work of the Evangelical Alliance. In Religion in America, Baird divided American religious life into two parts: the “Evangelical” and the “Unevangelical.”[16] Writing for a European audience that was still leery of the American experiment with religious liberty, Baird attempted to convince his readers that the United States was indeed a Christian country. The great majority of American Christians, Baird informed them, were evangelical in character. Rather than the cacophony of competing, antagonistic sects that many Europeans imagined, the different denominations formed regiments in a united army of the Lord.

As Baird put it, “These communions, as they exist in the United States, ought to be viewed as branches of one great body, even the entire visible Church of Christ in this land. Whatever may have been the circumstances out of which they arose, they are but constituent parts of one great whole—divisions of one vast army—though each brigade, and even each regiment, may have its own banner, and its own part of the field to occupy.”[17]

These claims were not unique to Baird. A host of other Reformed thinkers echoed his claims. Congregationalists were the most vocal: Edwards Amasa Parks, Leonard Bacon, and Bela Bates Edwards made similar arguments to Baird. Methodists and even Baptists soon began to repeat them.[18]

For Baird, it was the voluntaryism of the American system that allowed religious life to flourish. The dissolution of church-state bonds served a pedagogical role in developing active religious agents: “Thus have the Americans been trained to exercise the same energy, self-reliance, and enterprise in the cause of religion which they exhibit in other affairs.”[19] By the 1840s, this view was de rigueur.

Three decades earlier, many Reformed Christians, especially New England Congregationalists, had been far more doubtful—yet most reconciled themselves to disestablishment when it came. Most famously, Lyman Beecher, who had opposed disestablishment in Connecticut in the 1810s, became one of its most vocal advocates. Yet, in the words of historian James Maclear, after re-establishment, Beecher continued “lecturing civil magistrates on their duties to the church as if nothing had happened.”[20]

Even without formal establishment, the voluntary system as it existed in the nineteenth century gave considerable leeway for government support of religion. Starting in 1819 with the Civilization Fund Act, the federal government directed tens of thousands of dollars for the work of Indian education. The funds went exclusively to missionary societies. In the early years of this model, more than half of the money went to the American Board, which was dominated by Presbyterians and Congregationalists, and additional funding went to the United Foreign Missionary Society, a similarly Reformed body that would merge into the ABCFM in 1826. Smaller amounts flowed to Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Moravian, and eventually Catholic missionaries.[21]

More broadly, the legal and educational systems reflected Protestant assumptions. Baird worked hard to prove the “Christian character of the government.”[22] Blasphemy laws remained on the books. Constitutional requirements in many states barred political office to non-Christians or non-Protestants. The common schools in New England and later elsewhere were “non-sectarian,” but fundamentally Protestant in orientation. The idea that the pattern of King James Bible reading and prayer in these settings could be sectarian practices seemed bizarre to most Protestants at the time, and few had any sympathy for the Catholics who protested that if the schools could not be divested of Protestant piety, the Catholics should have their own government schools.[23]

American evangelicals had come to a consensus that government should not promote any particular sect—that church and state ought to be separate. But that was not to say that religion and state could ever be sealed off from one another.[24] The ideology that the political scientist Benjamin Lynerd has called “republican theology,” in which a religious citizenry was considered necessary to the perpetuation of a virtuous, self-governing republic, was endorsed by evangelicals across the board, as well as by many non-evangelicals.[25]

The extent that Baird’s understanding of American religion mapped onto reality is a bone of contention for historians. If American Christians were as united in an evangelical consensus as Baird describes, why was there such frequent denominational division? How do we account for the youthful experience of the future Mormon leader Joseph Smith, who portrayed evangelical denominations (he mentions Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists) contending in an all-out war for souls? As Smith put it: “so great was the confusion and strife amongst the different denominations that it was impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”[26]

Perhaps the best way to account for Baird’s claims is as a compound of empirical truth and ideology. The missionary, tract, and Bible societies provided avenues for shared Christian endeavor that did genuinely create closer union between different bodies of evangelical Protestants. At the same time, Baird’s model of voluntaryist unity was a reading of his times profoundly influenced by his ideological presuppositions. And those presuppositions included both the novel products of American republican thought as well as the legacy of a much longer history of Reformed thought, modifying the magisterial tradition, that stretched back to the Interregnum.

In closing, I want to argue that there was a basic continuity between Cromwell, the multiple establishments of early America, and the voluntaryist model adopted in the nineteenth century. American evangelicals believed that they had created a system in which, as Oliver Cromwell intended, it seemed possible to channel “religious factionalism…into a new version of unity.” The experiment of the Interregnum, repeated in a very different time and space and with some important modifications, now resulted in one of the great expansions of Christianity in modern times. The role of the magistrate successively decreased, to be replaced by the role of civil society and particularly the voluntary society, but the understanding of an evangelical unity that crossed sectarian divisions and a Christian orientation to the state persisted.

An informal religious establishment based on voluntaryism tied to a set of shared Protestant assumptions would mark the American system until, in the mid-twentieth century, as David Hollinger has described, a liberalized Protestant mainline began to voluntarily relinquish its power in culture and institutional life, convinced that the American future would be both more secular and more inclusive of other religious traditions.[27]

Many evangelicals continue to affirm the dream of a Christian nation expressed largely in voluntary terms. At the same time, there has been an ecclesiological shift among evangelicals in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries that accords better with Baird’s vision than Baird’s own Presbyterianism ever could. For behind the understanding of Christian unity expressed by Cromwell and the Savoy Declaration and enacted, partially, in New England, was a congregational understanding of polity that took the church, properly speaking, to be local in form. The Standing Order could, in principle, allow local parishes to choose non-Congregational forms of government precisely because of the presuppositions of congregationalism—when episcopal congregations received state support in New England, they were taken not as members of a larger church, but on the same terms as other local churches. For good reason, congregational churches like the Baptists and Congregationalists were late in organizing denominational structures because they conflicted with their basic understanding of the church. Baird, as a conscientious Old School Presbyterian, could not affirm congregational polity. But at the same time, for Baird, denominational affiliation was more or less irrelevant to the project of national unity. The tendency in the contemporary evangelical church has been to minimize denominational distinctives, if not to become entirely non-denominational. The latter move is perhaps the natural culmination of the fusion of voluntaryism with the project of Christian nationhood and an expansive notion of the church’s invisible unity.


[1] Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment, 2nd. ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 11–17.

[2] Jon Butler, New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 139.

[3] Levy, The Establishment Clause, 52–53.

[4] Conrad Wright, “The Dedham Case Revisited,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series 100 (1988), 15–39.

[5] Levy, The Establishment Clause, 25.

[6] Levy, The Establishment Clause, 9–10.

[7] Levy, The Establishment Clause, 52–58.

[8] Jon Butler, “Why Revolutionary America Wasn’t a ‘Christian Nation,’” in Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America, ed. James H. Hutson (Lanham: Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 195.

[9] Rhys Isaac, “‘The Rage of Malice of the Old Serpent Devil’: The Dissenters and the Making and Remaking of the Virginia State for Religious Freedom, in The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: Its Evolution and Consequences in American Life, eds. Merrill D. Peterson and Robert C. Vaughan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 149; Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of the Founders: Religion and the New Nation, 1776-1826, 2nd ed. (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2004), 39.

[10] The terms were popularized by Charles Foster and Ronald Walters, respectively. Charles I. Foster, An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790–1837 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960); Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers: 1815–1860, rev. ed. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1997), 54.

[11] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 192.

[12] David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 151–60.

[13] Bradley J. Longfield, Presbyterians and American Culture: A History (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 58.

[14] The Correspondent 3 no. 21 (June 1828), 321–22.

[15] Vindex [William Gibbons], Truth Advocated: In Letters Addressed to the Presbyterians (Philadelphia, Pa.: Joseph Rakestraw, 1822), 119.

[16] Robert Baird, Religion in America; or, An Account of the Origin, Progres, Relation to the State, and Present Condition of the Evangelical Churches in the United States. With Notices of the Unevangelical Denominations (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1844), 269.

[17] Baird, Religion in America, 267.

[18] James Fulton Maclear, “‘The True American Union’ of Church and State: The Reconstruction of the Theocratic Tradition,” Church History 28 no. 1 (Mar., 1959), 53–58.

[19] Baird, Religion in America, 132.

[20] Maclear, “‘The True American Union’ of Church and State,” 51.

[21] The most comprehensive study of this system is still: Martha Letitia Edwards, “Government Patronage of Indian Missions, 1789–1832” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 1916).

[22] Baird, Religion in America, 120.

[23] The argument that separation of church and state in the nineteenth century was largely a mask for continued Protestant dominance and anti-Catholicism is made by David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[24] As Philip Hamburger argues, the extension of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” has largely served as a move to prevent the government from supporting Catholic institutions. Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[25] Benjamin T. Lynerd, Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[26] History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2], the Joseph Smith Papers, vol. A-1, Church History Library,

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-june-1839-circa-1841-draft-2/1.

[27] David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2013), 18–55.


Thomas Whittaker is a PhD candidate in the History of Christianity at Harvard University.