The Promise and Peril of Disestablishment: Baptist and Reformed Political Theology in the New Republic


Rotunda (North Entrance), University of Virginia, Charlottesville

By Miles Smith

In the late winter of 1819, Thomas Jefferson fumed over another disappointment regarding the recently-chartered University of Virginia. For five years, he tried to find a teaching appointment for his intellectual comrade and correspondent, Thomas Cooper, in his beloved Commonwealth. Through a series of characteristically subtle machinations, Jefferson won Cooper an appointment as the first official faculty member at the new state university. Jefferson, then seventy-five years old, rode down from Monticello to the “academical village” three miles away in Charlottesville to see Cooper installed.[1]

The creation of a state university served as the crowning achievement in Thomas Jefferson’s effort to remake the royal colony of Virginia. Complete with a noble governor and a state church in 1776, it became the officially secularized Commonwealth of Virginia with the Union’s first officially secular state university in 1819. The initial, and most important, step towards freeing the New World from Christianity’s institutional grasp, at least in Jefferson’s mind, was removing state churches from North America, or at least from Virginia. Keenly aware of the massive growth of Baptist churches in the Virginia backcountry and Presbyterians’ dislike of the established Church of England, Jefferson shepherded disestablishment through the Virginia General Assembly. Presbyterians’ alliance with Jefferson and desire to conform Reformed churchmanship to the culture of the day created space for innovation within Reformed political theology. This ultimately led to Presbyterianism’s socio-civil rapprochement with Baptists and Methodists and the creation of a new socio-religious category: American Evangelicalism. Reformed churchmen with magisterial antecedents co-opted Deists, Baptists, and heterodox Anglicans to increase their social profile in the new American republic. In 1789 the Presbyterian synods of New York and Pennsylvania successfully led the charge to change the language of the Westminster Confession concerning the relationship of the church and the state.[2] By 1810, however, many Presbyterians regretted their alliance of convenience with Thomas Jefferson. Baptists remained convinced Jeffersonians.[3]

This essay briefly attempts to explore the major formational differences between Baptists and Reformed Christians in the American republic on the question of church and state. I do not mean to question disestablishment in the federal constitution and hope to move past the questions of constitutionality in general. The relevant question, and perhaps the operable disagreement between Baptists and the Reformed—in this case Presbyterians—remains, “What did each group want out of the new disestablished order?” In other words, given their differing theological and political commitments, why did both Baptists and Reformed make common cause in bringing an end to state churches in the United States?

The essential difference between Baptists and the Reformed hinged on precisely what each thought disestablishment meant. “Baptists,” argue Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, “hoped that the American Revolution would bring about full religious freedom.”[4] Baptists’ subsequent commitment to the complete dissociation of church and state for the purpose of liberty stemmed from their belief in the possibility of complete religious freedom. For Jefferson and his Baptists allies, freedom meant complete separation of religion from all civil institutions, although that ideal proved difficult to actualize. Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists didn’t establish a constitutional “wall of separation” of church and state. It did, however, reveal what Jefferson meant by freedom of religion: church and state in separate spheres, neither touching the other. Jefferson, note Hankins and Kidd, demonstrated in the Danbury letter the partnership between “skeptical or liberal Christian politicians, and legions of Baptists in the cause of religious liberty.”[5] Yet even Jefferson’s partisans admitted that he sent the letter as a political statement and was not particularly interested in the niceties of what made for religious flourishing. The conviction of Baptists and the Reformed that this separation protected religious bodies in the United States relied upon a robust belief in federalism and a broadly conservative social order within which the state respected traditional intermediate institutions. Jefferson’s politics seemed to preclude the belief that a people might, through democratic electoral processes, choose to keep a state religious establishment. Healthy majorities in Connecticut and Massachusetts favored keeping state religious establishments to 1818 and 1833 respectively. This did not mean, however, that religious minorities were oppressed. Even in staunchly establishmentarian Massachusetts, Baptists, in theory, could obtain exemptions from the church tax. Most cities and towns favored keeping their state Congregationalist church. Even this relatively tolerant arrangement, however, fell short of what Jeffersonian partisans desired. “Led by Baptists, non-Congregationalists were determined to eliminate [Massachusetts’] system, called the Standing Order.” [6]

Thomas Jefferson

Baptists needed disestablishment to mean more than merely disestablishing the Anglican Church. They needed to de-fang the socio-religious order that regarded their emotionally-charged worship as unusual at best and heretical at worst. John Leland, a Baptist minister in Virginia, recorded happenings at Baptist tent revivals along the James River in the Summer of 1785. “At Associations, and great meetings,” he saw souls awakened, in his words, “who afterwards give clear, rational accounts of a divine change of heart.” Certain exercises—typically physical convulsions often resulting in the new convert falling to the ground and writhing uncontrollably—”were not confined to the newly convicted, and newly converted, but persons who have been professors a number of years.” These converts and enthused Believers “at such lively meetings, not only jump up, strike their hands together, and shout aloud, but will embrace one another, and fall to the floor.” Leland had “never known the rules of decency broken so far as for persons of different sexes, thus to embrace and fall at meetings.” He admitted that these apparently spiritual confirmations of revivalist preaching were not “seen in all parts of the state, at times when God is working on the minds of the people.” Instead, “under the preaching of the same man, in different neighborhoods and counties, the same work, in substance, has different exterior effects.”[7]

Jefferson’s politics seemed to preclude the belief that a people might, through democratic electoral processes, choose to keep a state religious establishment.

The relationship of preaching and the workings of the Holy Spirit in the individual formed a preeminent piece of Baptist understanding of the relationship between individuals and institutions in general. Baptist political theology rested on removing all coercive influences to human conscience. To Baptists, an Anglican bishop or a Presbyterian session remained just as authoritarian as any Roman Catholic Pope. Christ’s rule in the soul of individual believers formed a bedrock component for Baptist ecclesiological and political thought in the United States. W.B. Johnson termed this a Christocracy. For Johnson, Christocracy contained the divine principle of theocracy without authoritarian intermediary institutions. His proposal never sought a sort of benign anarchy which his intellectual opponents—Anglican and Presbyterian—accused him of seeking. Instead, he affirmed “the form of government of which Christ is the head, and under which he requires his people to receive all their principles of action from, and to frame all their doings according to, his laws and precepts contained in the bible.” This led to an undeniable preference for democracy in the church and in the broader political order.[8]

William Bullein Johnson

In this way, the egalitarian political, social, and religious impulse of Baptists in the United States never became radical in the modern progressive sense of the word, with its emphasis on institutional action. Baptist radicalism remained thoroughly American and consistent with the Jeffersonian republican establishment on religion in the American republic. Baptists associated republicanism with democracy, and upheld democracy in church governance. James R. Graves, a noted Baptist intellectual from New England, argued that “the silent yet potential influence of Republican Church Government overcame the aristocracy, and monarchism of America, and bequeathed republicanism to this continent.”[9] Republican church government meant congregationalism devoid of the coercive sacramental power and state power of the Calvinist establishment in New England. Congregational democracy, Graves noted sympathetically, overthrew the “aristocratic tendencies in Carolina and New York, the High Church in Virginia, the Theocracy in Massachusetts, and the monarchy in all America.”[10] Graves illustrated that freedom of religion in the Baptist context relied on the American order not to protect religion from the government, but to protect the government, and by proxy society, from overbearing religious overlords. “The American mind” wrote Graves, needed only to be “thoroughly imbued” with the church’s past authoritarianism. The knowledge of democratic congregationalism’s virtues would sound the “funeral knell of hierarchical despotism, and the Divine right of the clergy to legislate for the Churches of Christ.” [11]

Baptist political theology rested on removing all coercive influences to human conscience. To Baptists, an Anglican bishop or a Presbyterian session remained just as authoritarian as any Roman Catholic Pope.

Reformed Christians in the United States divided on the place of church and state. Congregationalists in New England detested disestablishment, but most Presbyterians in the Middle and southern states tolerated it; Carolina and Virginia Presbyterians initially even thrilled at it. But their enthusiasm proved illusory. Presbyterians displayed an intellectual schizophrenia, taking their cues from the experiences of being an immigrant minority more than from long-time Reformed practice. John Holt Rice, a leader of Virginia’s Presbyterians, argued that he and his coreligionists wanted “no blending of Church and State; no establishments; no grand dignitaries of the hierarchy, clothed in the pomp and splendor of the world.” Rice’s main concern, a consequence of being a Presbyterian in officially Anglican Virginia, was that “the censures of the Church shall create no temporal disabilities.”[12]

Presbyterian laypeople and ministers shared Rice’s concerns, and the standard story of American Presbyterianism is that they helped lead the way for true religious freedom, typically with Anglicans serving as the oppressive bogeyman. Presbyterians, however, were not universally committed to religious freedom, nor were they committed to universal religious freedom à la Jefferson and his Baptists allies. During the debates over the creation and promulgation of the federal constitution, Patrick Calhoun, an Irish Presbyterian, benefitted from his state’s 1778 constitutional decision to create a general Protestant establishment in place of an exclusively Anglican state church. Calhoun believed that removing the Church of England settled the question of religion definitively, and he worried about the effects of wholesale freedom of religion in the new republic. He warned the South Carolina General Assembly that “too great latitude” was being allowed by the new constitution.[13]

Religious liberty as a political ideology and rhetorical commitment remained a mainstay of Presbyterian commentary in the Early Republic. They seemed far less committed to the actual practice. Alexander McLeod declared that it was “the duty of the civil ruler also to protect the Church, and to afford her support.” He admitted that the “practical application of this principle must, indeed, be regulated in some degree by existing circumstances” but maintained that “to reject it entirely from theory and practice would be a declaration of hostilities against God.” [14]

Adherence to the Americanized Westminster Confession allowed Presbyterian ministers to authentically affirm the secularized federal political state. But almost no serious Presbyterian intellectual believed that the church could not speak to to civil society. More importantly, they believed that the church by necessity spoke authoritatively in an institutional context to society and to the constituent states of the American Union. Roger Sherman and other Calvinists in the Early Republic conceived of religious liberty differently than Baptists, allowing for and working towards actualizing religion’s influence in civic and social institutions in the newly independent republic. Mark David Hall rightly notes that conceding federal disestablishment did not concede en masse social—or even institutional—disestablishment. “Sherman’s theological views,” Hall writes, differentiated him from Jefferson or Madison, and “he favored closer cooperation between church and state” than the deistic Virginia disestablishmentarian.[15]

Tolerance for some sort of social establishment by Sherman and others clashed with the notion of complete religious freedom espoused by their southern brethren. This double-mindedness of Presbyterians stemmed from their desire to make their churchmanship more palatable to the republican citizenry of the United States. James Iredell, a North Carolina judge who served as a delegate to that state’s ratifying convention, revealed the inconsistency of the Reformed when he argued that, if the federal government admitted “the least difference” among religions, “the door to persecution is opened.” When a fellow delegate asked him if this meant the pope or a Roman Catholic cardinal could hold federal office in the United States, Iredell brushed his concern away by noting that no pope could ever fulfill the constitutional qualifications for the presidency or any other federal office. His dodge revealed his lack of imagination, prescience, and consistency. By conceding that a Roman Catholic holding office might be objectionable, he revealed his own distaste for complete religious liberty, even among federal office holders. He also showed the groundwork for how complete religious liberty and disestablishment quickly turned against religion in politics at all. When the western half of North Carolina became the new state of Tennessee in 1796, the state constitution—largely written by frontier Presbyterians—included provisions removing the right of clergymen to hold office.[16]

All too often, scholars have treated political disestablishmentarianism—also describable as anti-Anglicanism—as the product of long-settled Reformed political theology. While most Reformed thinkers—Anglican, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian—conceded disestablishment at the federal level, they never united on what exactly disestablishment meant for the republic’s socio-political order. Jefferson’s known deism and the agnosticism of his prominent partisans terrified Reformed ministers who weren’t his political partisans. William Linn, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania and one-time chaplain of the United States House of Representatives, warned Christians in print of the dangers of Jefferson assuming the executive. Linn admired Jefferson’s political career and his talents, but remained convinced in principle that Jefferson should not serve as the chief magistrate. “My objection to his being promoted to the Presidency is founded singly upon his disbelief of the Holy Scriptures; or, in other words, his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.” Linn believed that, while the morality of the president might be negotiable, the maintenance of the Christian religion was not. Atheists and Deists “ought not to be honored and entrusted with the office of chief magistrate.” Interestingly, Linn also believed that atheism and deism formed the source of Jefferson’s racism. When Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, hinted that he suspected blacks were innately inferior to whites, Linn exploded and accused Jefferson of believing in polygenesis. “Would a man who believes in a divine revelation,” Lynn asked, “even hint a suspicion of this kind?”[17]

Jefferson Bible – Smithsonian Museum of American History

Reverend Lynn was not an establishmentarian New England Congregationalist who had never experienced religious oppression. He was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian reared in Donegal, where Presbyterianism was rare and suppressed. Linn understood the innate inconsistency of Jefferson and Iredell’s position, and he rejected it. Disestablishment had limits. So, too, did freedom of religion.[18]

Presbyterians discovered unforeseen, and in their minds unwanted, consequences of disestablishment and en masse religious freedom when Jefferson moved to make Thomas Cooper the first professor of religion at the University of Virginia. The appointment enraged Virginia Presbyterians. John Holt Rice, a well-regarded minister in Richmond and the intellectual leader of Calvinists in the state, wrote an article in the magazine he edited denouncing Jefferson and Cooper’s potential employment. Merrill Peterson noted that Holt “did not call for a Calvinistic university but for one where religion had a respectable place in the curriculum, in the faculty, in divine worship.”[19] Holt considered a university without religion an aberration. Peterson explained Holt’s position: “a university conducted without preference as to religious sect was one thing, a university without religion, or indeed motivated by rationalistic zeal against orthodoxy, quite another.”[20]

Rice and his partisans undeniably believed their position was consistent. But it was not, and there is no way of rescuing these men  from their own inconsistency. Rice sought to influence the workings of a state institution, having previously argued that the “religion of the meek and benevolent Savior, was not designed to be an engine of state; an instrument of erecting a despotism to control the consciences of men” or to “crush every manly independent feeling of the soul, and extinguish every spark of liberty.” Presbyterians, Rice said, were “not a society of Jesuits: we have no secret articles of faith, to be executed, when some deep, subtle contrivance shall have enabled us to procure an establishment of Presbyterianism.” [21]

The disconnect between Jefferson and his former Presbyterian partisans over what constituted religious freedom in the political order became almost comical during Rice and Jefferson’s dispute over religion at the University of Virginia. Rice pleaded that he was not a Jesuit, while Jefferson accused him and his fellow Presbyterians of being exactly that. The most “restive” opposition, Jefferson bewailed, was from Presbyterian “priests” who dreaded “the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light; and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversion of the duperies on which they live.” In this opposition, he sneered, “Presbyterian clergy take the lead. The tocsin is sounded in all their pulpits, and the first alarm denounced is against the particular creed of Doctor Cooper; and as impudently denounced as if they really knew what it is.”[22]          

That a freedom of religion might include a freedom to not practice religion at all, or to be agnostic, seems never to have occurred to Presbyterians in the Early Republic. It did, however, occur to Jefferson.

If Rice actually believed in total disestablishment, complete separation of church and state, and absolute freedom of religion like James Iredell, Jefferson, and the latter’s Baptists partisans, he had no constitutional, intellectual, or legal foundation from which to argue against Jefferson appointing whoever he wanted to teach at the state’s university. It is clear he did not actually believe in Jeffersonian disestablishmentarianism, and neither did most Presbyterians in the Early Republic. Like many Christians in the historical record, they adopted popular and innovative contemporaneous political and social rhetoric. Their assumptions about the consequences of disestablishment, however, were neither well-considered or even consistent with their own tradition. That a freedom of religion might include a freedom to not practice religion at all, or to be agnostic, seems never to have occurred to Presbyterians in the Early Republic. It did, however occur to Jefferson. In his work on Jefferson and education in Virginia, Pulitzer-winning historian Alan Taylor noted that “Jefferson dedicated the University to ‘the illimitable freedom of the human mind,’” but the third president always “assumed that the free pursuit of truth always led to his conclusions.” Baptists remained open to Jefferson’s notion of religious freedom, including freedom from religion. After all, they experienced brutal persecution from other Protestants—Anglicans, Calvinists and Lutherans—in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Presbyterians served as useful allies in Jefferson’s war against the church of England, but they refused to admit the actual consequences of what that support meant. Like Jefferson, they assumed that freedom of religion always led to their conclusions.[23]


[1] Seymour S. Cohen, “The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Cooper: A Previously Unpublished Manuscript of Dumas Malone” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 147  (2003): 39-64.

[2] For more on the nature of these changes, see Eric Hutchinson’s essay in this issue.

[3] Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (London and Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 309-10.

[4] Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 59.

[5] Kidd and Hankins, Baptists in America, 59.

[6] Ellis M. West, The Free Exercise of Religion in America: Its Original Meaning (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), 165.

[7] L.F. Greene, The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland: Including Some Events in His Life (New York: G.F. Wood, 1845), 115.

[8] Kenneth E. Roxburgh, “Creeds ad Controversies: Insights from William Bullein Johnson” in Ian M. Randall, Toivo Pilli, and Anthony R. Cross ed., Baptist Identities: Interbational Studies from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 144.

[9] Greene, The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 115.

[10] Greene, The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 115.

[11] J.R. Graves ed., The Little Iron Wheel: A Declaration of Christian Rights and Articles, Showing the Despotism if Episcopal Methodism (Nashville: South-Western Publishing House, 1856), 5. 50.

[12] John Holt Rice, The Duties of a Gospel Minister (Madison, MS: Log College Press, 2018), Kindle Locations 208-210.

[13] THe Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution Vol IV (Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott, 1866), 312.

[14] Alexander McLeod, Messiah: Governor of the Nations: A Discourse (Glasgow: Stephen Young, 1804), 25-6.

[15] Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 6-7.

[16] Jonathan Elliott ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols (New York: Burt Franklin, 1888).

[17] William Linn, Serious Considerations on the Election of a President: Addressed to the Citizens of the United States (New York: John Furman, 1800), 12.

[18] Roll of Ministers and Licentiates in Alfred Nevin, History of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and of the Philadelphia Central (Philadelphia: W.S. Fortescue and Co., 1888).

[19] McLeod: Messiah: Governor of the Nations, 25-6

[20] Merrill Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: a Biography (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 978.

[21] John Holt Rice, The Duties of a Gospel Minister (Kindle Locations 211-212).

[22] Thomas Jefferson to José Corrêa da Serra, 11 April 1820,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-1213.

[23] Alan Taylor, Thomas Jefferson’s Education (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).