The first disestablishment: limits on church power and property before the Civil War.

Author:Gordon, Sarah Barringer
Position:Continuation of II. Enthusiasm and Regulation through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 337-372
  1. A Regulated Market for Faith

    As disestablishment took root, denominations competed for members. Mobility in the population and among preachers made for great excitement, especially when a revivalist came to town or camp meetings drew worshippers from afar. As the capacity to choose among denominations or ministers settled in to common experience, the focus on individual moral capacity grew commensurately. Debate grew hot over the moral responsibility of individuals and their ability to experience God's grace directly. Fervent abolitionism was one aspect of such debates, but others also erupted after believers had been freed from the restraints imposed by established religion. (153) In cultural and spiritual terms, the one-size-fits-all approach to disestablishment produced a (very) rough equality of opportunity among religious actors. With no official machinery dedicated to advancing or hindering individual faith and practice, the growth in new voices, new methods, new doctrines, and, especially, popular appeals to individual conscience, all meant stunning change.

    Parishioners felt new power to vote not only with their feet, but also with lawsuits. When they left, fired a minister, or split into factions, the resulting legal battles echoed the waves of conversions that characterized the Awakening. What the contestants may not have recognized at the time, but is evident in retrospect, is that disestablishment created space for growth, but also set limits on how much wealth and power a religious organization could acquire. General incorporation statutes imposed boundaries on real and personal property, while lay control of church corporations undercut the power of the clergy. Together, these new rules sculpted both the fabulous growth in popular religious life and the way that disputes were conceived and resolved. In what follows, I focus on just the most prominent examples of the relationship between religious enthusiasm and disestablishment. (154)

    Religious developments also focused on lay empowerment. Baptist and Methodist preachers, many of them appealing to common people in simple language, reaped a rich harvest in the South and West in the early nineteenth century. Across the North, evangelicals, Unitarians, transcendentalists, and liberal Protestants elevated individual religious experience. Upstate New York was so afire with successive waves of popular religious enthusiasm that it became known as the "burned-over" district. (155)

    Evangelical preacher and recovering lawyer Charles Grandison Finney, for one, claimed that individual Christians were capable of achieving their own salvation without the aid of clerics. In theological terms, they were charged with the individual duty to experience holiness, rather than a collective mandate to obey doctrine. (156) Personally, when faced with a difficult question, Finney "spread the subject before God, and soon made up [his] mind what to do." (157) He threw out the collected wisdom of the fathers, in other words, in favor of his own inspiration. Like the Presbyterian Finney, most Baptists and many Methodists also trusted individual conscience over the collected wisdom of elders, be they religious or political. (158) As one scholar put it, "humans [now] had a direct channel to God, unmediated by civil or ecclesiastical authorities." (159)

    To this generation, intellect seemed a poor substitute for intuition; genuine and unscripted experience occurred outside the purview of scholars. Access to the spirit was the key, rather than immersion in theological debates or learned discourse. Enthusiastic preaching, dreams, visions, and long-suppressed folk beliefs and practices all sustained the conversions of everyday folk, no matter how rough their education: "[L]arnin' [sic] isn't religion, and eddication [sic] don't give a man the power of the Spirit," declared one anonymous evangelist. (160) The phenomenally successful Methodist itinerant Lorenzo Dow exemplified the popular spirit; he preached anywhere and everywhere--shaking, crying, pleading--in ragged clothing and with wild gesticulations and frequent convulsions. (161)

    Thanks to general incorporation statutes in many states, religious communities did not need sophistication or political influence to acquire legal protection. All they needed was a simple form, and generally a small sum to defray filing costs, in order to achieve legal recognition as an incorporated society. The power of the corporate form allowed untutored leaders such as Lorenzo Dow (or Joseph Smith, for that matter) to organize existing believers and new converts, and to win the same level of legal recognition that went to more established religious bodies. The simplicity of the system appealed to ordinary folk because of the ease with which the statutory provisions could be satisfied'. The efflorescence of such organizations testifies both to the effectiveness of the new preaching and the appeal of the roughly level playing field achieved by incorporation. (162)

    The power to choose, therefore, was expressed in both religious doctrines and corporate organization. Each affected the other, bringing the new corporations into immediate engagement with the aspirations of congregants. Religious doctrine and congregants' own convictions were united in the new organizations; or, if a group disagreed about what its goals and commitments truly were, then the power to leave and create a new corporation came quickly into play, bringing with it a destructive potential. Churches, like the new country, found themselves pulled apart by the great religious and political questions of the age. (163)

    The power of the common people to decide their own religious allegiances implied that slavery--to name the most hotly and frequently debated question--was a violation of God's law of freedom of conscience. "[P]rofessed piety toward God is ... base and spurious," proclaimed one abolitionist minister in 1832, "[if] not united with benevolence for men." (164) At the same time, the presence of enslaved persons in the pews highlighted and challenged the antiauthoritarian assumptions of lay empowerment.

    The contrast between what disestablishment accomplished and what it left untouched was stark: legal constraints on the body to coerce belief were eliminated, yet coercion of the body in slavery survived and eventually deepened and spread. The disparity was a matter of deep religious import. (165) As one dedicated abolitionist put it in language drawn directly from political life, a true church in America had to embrace freedom for all: "[A] church ought to be an anti slavery Society (for certainly [the bible] is both an Anti Slavery Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments)...." (166)

    With escalating virulence, slaveholders fought back against such emancipatory religious theories and their proponents; by the second quarter of the nineteenth century, slave revolts had been kindled in the pews of new evangelical movements, which were then brutally suppressed in reprisal. (167) Across the South, especially in Virginia, lay control had been common even before disestablishment. After the Revolution, the slaveholding laity recreated religious authority by encouraging "voluntary" submission to divine governance. Virginia slaveholders, that is, deployed their reconstituted power within a disestablished church to ensure that older patterns of dominance were reinscribed and updated. In this way, slaveholders and their supporters ostensibly catered to the egalitarian aura of disestablishment, while also providing a familiar protective privilege for slaveholding. (168)

    Yet the direct connection between God and the individual had other more genuinely equalizing, even antiauthoritarian, effects. The religious experience of farmers or laborers--as opposed to the abstractions of elite clerics--gained credence in disestablishment. The common people, explained one radical evangelist, had followed Jesus even as "the monarchical, aristocratical and priestly authorities cried 'crucify him!'" (169) When individual spirituality acquired pride of place, traditional clerical authority, much like traditional modes of funding for religious institutions, became vulnerable to a more popular model. The emerging relationship between disestablishment and individual religious experience generated support for lay stewardship of religious organizations, especially because ordinary people could be trusted to recognize the divine in their lives.

    This focus on individual capacity to discern God's will also played out in attacks on civil commands. The potential for anarchy was evident even among highly educated young men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. As Emerson's compatriot Bronson Alcott said,

    Church and State are responsible to me; not I to them. They cease to deserve our veneration from the moment they violate our consciences.... Why would I employ a church to write my creed or a state to govern me? Why not write my own creed? Why not govern myself? (170) Contests between anarchy and government in religion (as well as politics) found expression in both legal disputes and judicial resolution of such conflicts. Often, courts privileged individual conscience by upholding the actions of lay trustees, even against long-established religious traditions.

  2. Going to Law

    Creating a legal framework for religious institutions meant that law in turn became fundamental to the understanding of what it meant to be a religious institution. This shift occurred in litigation as well as through legislation. Litigation over new methods and unorthodox beliefs wracked churches across the new nation. Lay control of church property meant that disagreements over individual conscience often migrated into courtrooms, where judges faced bitter fights between congregations and their ministers, fights between two (or more) factions in a congregation, or even challenges from one or more congregations to a bishop or general...

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