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.


[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.