Church, Society, and State in the Early Republic

Disestablishment did not, however, disconnect them in their mutual goal to preserving human liberty and ordering human life. Governments were not separated from the societies they governed. There was, McKnight argued, a “close and intimate connection subsisting between” civil society and the church. That connection between them rendered a right understanding of their association necessary for the protection for the liberty of both. 

Disestablishment in the newly-independent United States severed the institutional interdependence between the state and the visible church. Virginia’s disestablishment in the 1780s triggered a set of similar laws passed throughout the Early National Period. Massachusetts, the last state to maintain a state church disestablished Congregationalism in 1833. Social and cultural practices in the American republic nonetheless allowed a de-facto Protestant socio-civil establishment to continue well in to the Twentieth Century. Current conversations regarding so-called Christian nationalism variously litigate concepts as broad as the maintenance of a “soft” cultural establishment that maintains liberal democracy to outright theonomic, and theocratic, establishmentarian constructions. Conversations on the history of religion and the state in the United States often descend in to little more than politically partisan cacophony.

Although the politicization of conversations regarding church and state is probably inevitable, a better understanding regarding the meaning of disestablishment may help clarify scholarly and ecclesiastical conversations. In the Early Republic, disestablishment was seen as strengthening the liberties of the church in order to help it perform its spiritual mission to save souls and to observe the sacraments. Disestablishment did not, however, remove the church from the social or civil order, nor did Early Republic Protestants assume that the church was a merely spiritual institution that was not affected by social and political changes.

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