New School Presbyterians, Social Reform, and the Relationship Between Church and State

Dr. Miles Smith is an Assistant Professor of Government, History & Criminal Justice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He previously taught at Texas Christian University and Hillsdale College. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.

New School Presbyterianism, birthed by the coerced theological association stemming from the 1801 Plan of Union between the Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches in the United States, began the infusion of Puritan pietism into American Presbyterianism. Infused with the millenarian idealism of New England Congregationalists, New School Presbyterian ministers began to envision the United States as a godly commonwealth. The question of moral reform has motivated and also divided Presbyterians in the United States since the creation of the American republic. In the twenty-first century, Evangelically-oriented Presbyterians likewise have pursued moral and social reform as a key part of the church’s mission. Modern moral and social reformers pursue a similar socio-moral mission, but few have reckoned with the intellectual foundations of socio-moral reform in Calvinist churches. Moral and social reformers such as the Rev. George Duffield IV, like the English Puritans and their North American successors, believed that some sort of establishmentarianism and unitary religious order was necessary for social and moral form. He asserted that national sins—which included abridging God’s natural law—solicited the specific judgement of God. Twenty-first Evangelical social and moral reformers typically reject establishmentarianism and a codified Christian order in favor of a priori liberal capitalist presumptions regarding religious liberty. Duffield’s work offers a useful window into how moral and social reform has been rhetorically pursued in the past, what that past might mean for Reformed ministers and thinkers in the twenty-first century.

George Duffield IV, a Presbyterian in Carlisle affiliated with New School ideology, co-opted moral covenantal language into his sermons during the upheavals both natural and political in the years that followed the War of 1812. Duffield pastored a church outside of the burgeoning American cities and blamed the War of 1812 on the avarice of American financial speculation. “Judgments,” he recalled, “followed in rapid succession, and in various forms, until, at last, the nation was involved in War, the most terrible of all; and that war was prosecuted, until the government was on the very verge of bankruptcy.” [1] The war caused men to turn back to God but only for a time. “Former sorrows were forgotten, and again men began to vie with each other in their pursuit of wealth.” Duffield argued that indifference of the knowledge of God guaranteed that the people of the United States regularly incurred the wrath of the Divine.

Duffield warned that “in almost every section of our country,” “the reigning sins of the land appear. Even the remote villages on our borders are not exempt from them. We may read them in our own Borough.” He quoted the prophet Isaiah: “For our transgressions are with us, and we know them.”  Duffield further applied the reproaches of Old Testament prophets—in this case Ezekiel—to his own era. “Ye have made your iniquity to be remembered, in that your transgressions are discovered, so that in all your doings your sins do appear.” American sins were too numerous and universal merely to state, said Duffield, but there was “one strictly national, that commenced in the adoption of the federal constitution, which is the want of an acknowledgement in it of a Supreme Being, and of a divine revelation.” The disestablishmentarian constitution rendered the United States “in form at least entirely atheistical.” Duffield declared that such an omission was “a great sin, to have forgotten God in such an important national instrument, and not to have acknowledged Him in that which forms the very nerves and sinews of the political body.” The Almighty led the American republic “through all the perils of the revolutionary struggle, and had established us in peaceful and plentiful security, and then, to have been forgotten, in the period of prosperity, certainly demerited his rebuke.” Duffield inferred that the United States enjoyed the specific favor of God in the revolution, reinforcing the notion that the United States, and not the visible Church, was the New Israel.

Six other social problems formed the foundation of the national sins Duffield believed earned the United States the ire of God. Immoral politicians, financial speculation, usury, the consumption of alcohol, and a lack of proper observation of the Christian sabbath each demanded the action of Christians and the state. The fact that the United States government carried mail on Sundays particularly infuriated sabbath-observing New Schooler and Congregationalists. “The highest authorities of the country have legalized the profanation of the Sabbath, by the transportation of the mail on that day; and have positively refused to hear the remonstrances of the Christian part of the community on that subject.” Much of Sunday mail pertained to the United States Army, but that did not keep a sizeable number of Protestant ministers from protesting to John Quincy Adams and his successor, Andrew Jackson.[2]

Social ills stemming from widespread alcoholism certainly plagued the Early National United States. Capitalism’s excesses pushed sustenance farmers away from cities and contributed the populist surge that elected Andrew Jackson. Evangelical New School ministers waded into fray and urged the church to take a leading role in the reformation of society. Often, however, New Schoolers co-opted the church into the roles traditionally reserved to the state and vice versa. Duffield, for example, argued that political officials shirked their duties if they simply punished public drunkenness. They needed to help spiritually reform drunkards as well. Historic confessional Protestantism saw spiritual reform as the province of the church. Duffield’s notion of the United States as a new Israel led him to theological novelties that abrogated historic Reformed church-state distinctions. The temptation for modern Reformed churches remains the same as it was for Duffield, but few modern Reformed proponents of social reform have dealt with the history and ideological breadth of reformist ministers in the United States. Engagement with historic American Presbyterian sources will be a necessity as major Protestant groups interact with and engage the benefits and limitations of social reform in the twenty-first century.

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[1] All Duffield quotes are from George Duffield, Judgment and Mercy: A Sermon (Carlisle, PA: George Philips, 1820), 5-23.

[2] James S. Kabala, Church-State Relations in the Early American Republic, 1787–1846 (New York and London: Routledge, 2016), 39.

Thomas Smyth and Nineteenth Century Confessionalism

Dr. Miles Smith is an Assistant Professor of Government, History & Criminal Justice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He previously taught at Texas Christian University and Hillsdale College. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.

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In 1789 Presbyterians in the new United States met and amended the Westminster Confession to more closely align with the American republic’s increasingly disestablishmentarian understanding of church and state. Thomas Jefferson’s violent hatred of the doctrine of the trinity and historical Protestantism dovetailed nicely with the anti-Anglican dispositions of the majority of Virginia’s population, which by 1790 attended Baptist or Methodist churches. Virginia’s Presbyterians, eager to remove the Church of England’s privileged institutional opinion, joined their low-church brethren in supporting disestablishment. Jefferson, however, proved less interested in religious freedom and more interested in attacking Christian orthodoxy. Athanasius’ defense of the Trinity, he told a friend, was “the hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, [and] had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs.” Virginia Presbyterians realized their mistake too late when Jefferson tried to install noted religious skeptic Thomas Cooper as the primary religion professor at the new University of Virginia. The appointment infuriated Presbyterians in Virginia like John Hartwell Cocke and John Holt Rice. The latter used his pulpit and the widely circulated Evangelical Magazine which he edited to mobilize respectable opinion. Jefferson chose another candidate and the controversy died, but Presbyterians subsequently confronted the dilemma of how to reconcile the consequences of their support for culturally and politically driven disestablishment with their belief in robust ecclesiology. Thomas Smyth, minister of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church, confronted that tension. At various times and in various works he seemed to take different positions. Smyth’s confessional commitments, however, ultimately anchored his public statements from the pulpit in accordance with the Old School Presbyterian Church, even as he used other writings to reach views that sometimes varied with the Old School orthodoxy.[1]

The maintenance of the appropriate place and power of the church in North American republican society concerned Presbyterians. The interaction of a churchmanship formulated in Europe and in Great Britain and steeped in magisterial and monarchical tradition presented a paradox for the libertarian religious realities of the United States constitution. Many Presbyterians were heavily Americanized, and they sought to make the church both consistent with the Confession and familiar for American churchgoers. The most effective way of perpetuating the church proved to be aggressive catechesis. More importantly, the Westminster Confession bounded the beliefs of American churchmen, even those whose dispositions regarding the civil order and politics were heavily influenced by their personal experiences and societal moments. Such was the case of Smyth, a well-known Irish-born pastor in Charleston, South Carolina.

 In 1840 Thomas Smyth wrote An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church. Rev. Smyth ostensibly wrote the catechism for family use, bible classes, and individual members. Yet it served a surprising wider purpose than mere catechesis. Smyth’s work helped preserve a cosmopolitan and transnational understanding of Calvinist churchmanship during a time when Evangelical and low-church innovation challenged the necessity and observance of the sacraments in Protestant worship.

Unlike his fellow South Carolinians John B. Adger or James Henley Thornwell, Smyth did not embrace the notion of high churchmanship as readily or as enthusiastically as a de facto panacea for Reformed churches. Still, he emerged as an intellectual and minister far more willing to maintain Calvinist sacramentalism than the so-called Evangelicals of his day. In many ways this was a struggle for Smyth. Like many Evangelicals he loved the United States’ republican liberties. He also saw republicanism as divinely ordained. Unlike other Old School Presbyterians, he did not see the ecclesiastic and civil realms as entirely separate, although he did not believe that the state should support a specific church. Smyth disagreed especially with the notion put forward by Charles Hodge that the Christian Scriptures did not put forth any natural framework for ecclesiastical structure. He also agreed with Adger and Thornwell that Presbyterianism was divinely instructed but went one step further and argued that nature and human association favored both Presbyterianism and republicanism. He defended his natural law argument for both against those who regarded “any alleged connection between the systems of ecclesiastical and civil government” as merely a “visionary dream, concluding, that because politically distinct and separate, their moral and intellectual relations are equally independent.” To such minds—like Hodge in his own time and John Knox and others historically—he presented “the considerations offered in the following work, and asks for them a candid and impartial hearing.” His “following work” was his Ecclesiastical Republicanism, which explained the history of divinely imprinted republicanism found in both Jewish and Christian civil and ecclesiastic history. Smyth’s arguments stemmed from his extreme dislike of Roman Catholicism and what he called high-churchism, both undoubtedly products of his upbringing in Ulster. Unlike Scotland, Presbyterianism did not enjoy state sanction in Northern Ireland. Smyth developed an intense dislike of Britain’s Anglican monarchy and Ireland’s Roman Catholic prelacy. Interestingly, however, Smyth’s views on slavery remained relatively moderate. [2]

A commitment to confessionalism kept Smyth’s diverse and Americanized notions of the relationship between church and state from impacting his understanding of doctrinal teaching or sacramental observation. His 1841 catechism affirmed the generally accepted understanding among Old School Presbyterians that “the Christian church is entirely separate and distinct from civil society, in its nature, objects, and ends. The church was “spiritual in its nature” and had as its reference the souls of men as its object.” He also affirmed scripture, rather than the natural order, as the source of the church’s government.[3]

Smyth’s writings developed over the course of the 1850s. Historian Brooks Holifield argued that Smyth “flatly repudiated” the notion that religion and politics had nothing to do with each other, a position that placed him at odds with Thornwell and others. Holifield also noted however that Smyth rejected the reformism common among Evangelicals of the era. Smyth confronted a paradox and tension that confronted Reformed churchmen throughout the United States’ history. He resolved it by relying on the confession to guide his ecclesiastic practice, even as he intellectually questioned Old School orthodoxies on the civil order and the church in his writings.[4]

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[1] Thomas Jefferson to James Smith, 8 December 1822; Clement Eaton, The Mind of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1964), 7.

[2] Thomas Smyth, Ecclesiastical Republicanism (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1843), 7.

[3] Thomas Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1841), 30-31.

[4] E. Brooks Holifield, "Thomas Smyth: The Social Ideas of a Southern Evangelist," Journal of Presbyterian History 51 (1973): 24-39.

 

John Williamson Nevin and the Problem of American Evangelicalism: A Brief Review of The Anxious Bench

Dr. Miles Smith is an Assistant Professor of Government, History & Criminal Justice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He previously taught at Texas Christian University and Hillsdale College. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.

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Very few ministers in the Presbyterian Church circa 2019 know the writings of John Williamson Nevin. Even fewer quote him on a given Sunday morning. But in the Nineteenth Century anyone in ministry in a Reformed church in North America not only knew who Nevin was, but most likely had a strong opinion on his writing. Nevin was a Presbyterian divine and intellectual who challenged the prevailing excesses among so-called Evangelicals and revivalists active during the early Republic. His 1846 work The Mystical Presence urged a return to Calvinist views on the Eucharist and challenged the Zwinglian understanding of the Lord’s Supper held by some prominent Presbyterians of the era, such as his one-time colleague Charles Hodge. Arguably his most important work, The Anxious Bench (1843), denounced the demagoguery, emotional coercion, and doctrinal deviation associated with revivalist movements that occurred during the so-called Second Great Awakening.[1]

Nevin studied at Union College in New York and received his divinity training at Princeton Seminary, then closely affiliated with the College of New Jersey (modern day Princeton University). From 1830 to 1840, Nevin taught at what is now Pittsburgh Seminary. During his time in Pittsburgh, Nevin read the works of August Neander and other Protestant scholars. Nevin worried about the increased Puritan and Wesleyan influence on Reformed churchmanship and sacramentalism. Nevin especially saw appeals to emotion in order to gain dubious immediate “conversions” as a direct assault of the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments more generally. Inherent in the so-called Evangelicalism of the day was a penchant for showmanship and celebrity that conflated enthusiasm and passion with entire working of the third Person of the Trinity. Holy scripture and its un-inspired but ecclesiastically authoritative auxiliaries, creeds, confessions, and catechisms, should form the core of Protestant churchmanship, not emotionally driven opinions or narratives that hinged on no other authority than that of the speaker’s enthusiasm. “Who shall assure us,” asked Nevin, that every conversion made at a revival meeting—wherein many of the supposed convertees never went again to church or exhibited marks of piety—was  “to be regarded with confidence, as the genuine fruit of religion? It is marvelous credulity, to take every excitement in the name of religion, for the work of God’s Spirit.” Emotionally driven faux-conversions places enormous demands the charity of devout Christians when they were “asked to accept in mass, as true and solid, the wholesale conversions that are made in this way.”[2]

During the ten years that followed Nevin’s move to Pittsburgh, he spent much of his intellectual and ministerial energy on reorienting Reformed churches towards their historic fraternity with Lutherans and other sacramental Protestants. Nevin joined the German Reformed Church in 1840 in order to take a position as a professor at Mercersburg Seminary, but he remained well within the world of Reformed theologians. Presbyterians and the continental Reformed churches, Nevin knew, shared more with Lutherans than they did with New England’s Puritan Congregationalists and Wesleyans. Their revivalist and doctrinal deviations from historic Protestant doctrines became more worrisome to Nevin as revival upon revival swept across western New York and Pennsylvania. In their wakes they left a trail of heterodoxy and new churches such Joseph Smith Jr.’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Swedenborgians (precursors to Oneness Pentecostals), Millerites, Shakers, and other groups. Religious cacophony and religious demagoguery, a sort of “Evangelical” Führerprinzip, emerged wherein churches were driven by popularity and raw human will power.

Nevin and other orthodox sacramental Protestants watched in horror as word and sacrament were replaced by enthusiasm and successive “new measures” utilized by revivalist ministers to gain converts. Inevitably the newness of the measures would wear off, and revivalists would try and replicate the success of the preceding measures with even newer and often more outrageous measures, many of which took the form of unhealthy emotional coercion. The listeners who attended the revivals grew, said Nevin, “obtuse to the stirring show,” and felt themselves in “no connection with what is going forward, except as they find an opportunity, from time to time, to fall in with the catch of some familiar revival-song, which they shout forth as boisterously as anybody else.” Nevin argued that “fanaticism has no power to make God’s presence felt. It is wild, presumptuous and profane, where it affects to partake most largely of the power of heaven.” “No wonder,” Nevin wrote exasperatedly, “that the religion which is commenced and carried forward under such auspices, should show itself to be characteristically coarse and gross.” [3]

The Anxious Bench’s warnings went largely unheeded and North American religiosity proved increasingly driven by what Europeans called schwarmerei, or unbridled enthusiasm. Nevin went on to serve as president and professor at what is today Franklin & Marshall College. He authored several other well-received works of theology and church history. He and Philip Schaff collaborated regularly and Nevin encouraged his colleague to complete his magnificent eight-volume History of the Christian Church. A small but welcome reclamation of Nevin by Reformed historians and theologians has occurred in the twenty-first century. Jonathan G. Bonomo’s 2015 Incarnation and Sacrament contextualizes and explains the debate over eucharistic theology between Hodge and Nevin. D.G. Hart’s John Williamson Nevin: High-Church Calvinist is an excellent biography and primer on the robust ecclesiology that typified Nevin and other Reformed clerics in the United States during the Nineteenth Century. Bonomo and Hart’s works, one hopes, will not be the last on this useful and fascinating figure in the history of North American Reformed churches.

[1] For more on the eucharistic controversy see Linden J. Debie, Coena Mystica: Debating Reformed Eucharistic Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013); George W. Richards, “The Mercersburg Theology: Its Purpose and Principles,” Church History 20 (1951): 42-55; Richard E. Wentz, John Williamson Nevin, American Theologian (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (Chambersburg: The German Reformed Church, 1844), 35-36.

[3] Nevin, The Anxious Bench, 109-110.