Leonard Woolsey Bacon.

A history of American Christianity online

. (page 18 of 34)
Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconA history of American Christianity → online text (page 18 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

1785, the total number of Catholics in the entire Union
was 18,200, exclusive of an unascertainable number, desti-
tute of priests, in the Mississippi Valley. The entire num-
ber of the clergy was twenty-four, most of them former
members of the Society of Jesuits, that had been suppressed
in 1773 by the famous bull, Domimis ac Rcdemptor, of
Clement XIV. Sorely against their will, these mission-
aries, hitherto subject only to the discipline of their own
society, were transformed into secular priests, under the
jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of London. After the
establishment of independence, with the intense jealousy
felt regarding British influence, and by none more deeply
and more reasonably felt than by the Catholics, this juris-
diction was impracticable. The providentially fit man for
the emergency was found in the Rev. John Carroll, of an
old Maryland family distinguished alike for patriotism and
for faithfulness to Catholic principles. In June, 1784, he
was made prefect apostolic over the Catholic Church in
the United States, and the dependence on British juris-
diction was terminated.

When, however, it was proposed that this provisional
arrangement should be superseded by the appointment of



a bishop, objections not unexpected were encountered
from among the clergy. Aheady we have had occasion
to note the jealousy of episcopal authority that is felt by
the clergy of the regular orders. The lately disbanded
Jesuits, with characteristic flexibility of self-adaptation to
circumstances, had at once reincorporated themselves
under another name, thus to hold the not inconsiderable
estates of their order in the State of Maryland. But the
plans of these energetic men either to control the bishop
or to prevent his appointment were unsuccessful. In
December, 1790, Bishop Carroll, having been consecrated
in England, arrived and entered upon his see of Baltimore.
Difficulties, through which there were not many prece-
dents to guide him, thickened about the path of the new
prelate. It was well both for the church and for the re-
public that he was a man not only versed in the theology
and polity of his church, but imbued with American prin-
ciples and feelings. The first conflict that vexed the
church under his administration, and which for fifty years
continued to vex his associates and successors, was a col-
lision between the American sentiment for local and in-
dividual liberty and self-government, and the absolutist
spiritual government of Rome. The Catholics of New
York, including those of the Spanish and French legations,
had built a church in Barclay Street, then on the northern
outskirt of the city; and they had the very natural and
just feeling that they had a right to do what they would
with their own and with the building erected- at their
charges. They proceeded accordingly to put in charge
of it priests of their own selection. But they had lost
sight of the countervailing principle that if they had a
right to do as they would with their building, the,
as representing the supreme authority in the church, had
a like right to do as he would with his clergy. The build-


ing was theirs ; but it was for the bishop to say what ser-
vices should be held in it, or whether there should be any
services in it at all, in the Roman Catholic communion.
It is surprising how often this issue was made, and how
repeatedly and obstinately it was fought out in various
places, when the final result was so inevitable. The hier-
archical power prevailed, of course, but after much irrita-
tion between priesthood and people, and " great loss of
souls to the church." ^ American ideas and methods were
destined profoundly and beneficially to affect the Roman
Church in the United States, but not by the revolutionary
process of establishing " trusteeism," or the lay control of
parishes. The damaging results of such disputes to both
parties and to their common interest in the church put the
two parties under heavy bonds to deal by each other with
mutual consideration. The tendency, as in some parallel
cases, is toward an absolute government administered on
republican principles, the authoritative command being
given with cautious consideration of the disposition of the
subject. The rights of the laity are sufficiently secured,
first, by their holding the purse, and, secondly, in a com-
munity in which the Roman is only one of many churches
held in like esteem and making like claims to divine au-
thority, by their holding in reserve the right of withdrawal.
Other and unwonted difficulties for the young church
lay in the Babel confusion of races and languages among
its disciples, and in the lack of public resources, which
could be supplied no otherwise than by free gift. Yet
another difficulty was the scant supply of clergy ; but
events which about this time began to spread desolation
among the institutions of Catholic Europe proved to be of
inestimable benefit to the ill-provided CathoHcs of Amer-
ica. Rome might almost have been content to see the

1 Bishop O'Gorman, pp. 269-323, 367, 399.



wasting and destruction in her ancient strongholds, for the
opportune reinforcement which it brought, at a critical
time, to the renascent church in the New World. More
important than the priests of various orders and divers
languages, who came all equipped for mission work among
immigrants of different nationalities, was the arrival of the
Sulpitians of Paris, fleeing from the persecutions of the
French Revolution, ready for their special work of training
for the parish priesthood. The founding of their seminary
in Baltimore in 1791, for the training of a native clergy,
was the best security that had yet been given for the
permanence of the Catholic revival. The American Catho-
lic Church was a small affair as yet, and for twenty years
to come was to continue so ; but the framework was pre-
paring of an organization sufficient for the days of great
things that were before it.

The most revolutionary change suffered by any religious
body in America, in adjusting itself to the changed con-
ditions after the War of Independence, was that suffered
by the latest arrived and most rapidly growing of them
all. We have seen the order of the Wesleyan preachers
coming so tardily across the. ocean, and propagated with
constantly increasing momentum southward from the bor-
der of Maryland. Its congregations were not a church ;
its preachers were not a clergy. Instituted in England
by a narrow. High-church clergyman of the established
ciiurch, its preachers were simply a company of lay mis-
sionaries under the command of John Wesley ; its adher-
ents were members of the Church of England, bound to
special fideUty to their duties as such in their several par-
ish churches, but united in clubs and classes for the mutual
promotion of holy living in an unholy age ; and its chap-
els and other property, fruits of the self-denial of many


poor, were held under iron-bound title-deeds, subject to
the control of John Wesley and of the close corporation of
preachers to whom he should demit them.

It seems hardly worthy of the immense practical sagac-
ity of Wesley that he should have thought to transplant
this system unchanged into the midst of circumstances so
widely different as those which must surround it in
America. And yet even here, where the best work of his
preachers was to be done among populations not only
churchless, but out of reach of church or ministry of what-
ever name, in those Southern States in which nine tenths
of his penitents and converts were gained, his preachers
were warned against the sacrilege of ministering to the
craving converts the Christian ordinances of baptism and
the holy supper, and bidden to send them to their own
churches — when they had none. The wretched incum-
bents of the State parishes at the first sounds of war had
scampered from the field like hirelings whose own the
sheep are not, and the demand that the preachers of the
word should also minister the comfort of the Christian or-
dinances became too strong to be resisted. The call of
duty and necessity seemed to the preachers gathered at a
conference at Fluvanna in 1779 to be a call from God;
and, contrary to the strong objections of Wesley and As-
bury, they chose from the older of their own number a
committee who " ordained themselves, and proceeded to
ordain and set apart other ministers for the same purpose
— that they might minister the holy ordinances to the
church of Christ." ^ The step was a bold one, and al-
though it seemed to be attended by happy spiritual results,
it threatened to precipitate a division of " the Society " into
two factions. The progress of events, the establishment
and acknowledgment of American independence, and the

1 Buckley, " The Methodists," pp. 182, 183.


constant expansion of the Methodist work, brought its
own solution of the divisive questions.

It was an important day in the history of the American
church, that second day of September, i 784, when John
Wesley, assisted by other presbyters of the Church of
England, laid his hands in benediction upon the head of
Dr. Thomas Coke, and committed to him the superintend-
ency of the Methodist work in America, as colleague with
Francis Asbury. On the arrival of Coke in America, the
preachers were hastily summoned together in conference
at Baltimore, and there, in Christmas week of the same
year, Asbury was ordained successively as deacon, as elder,
and as superintendent. By the two bishops thus consti-
tuted were ordained elders and deacons, and Methodism
became a living church.

The two decades from the close of the War of Independ-
ence include the period of the lowest ebb-tide of vitality
in the history of American Christianity. The spirit of
half-belief or unbelief that prevailed on the other side of
the sea, both in the church and out of it, was manifest also
here. Happily the tide of foreign immigration at this
time was stayed, and the church had opportunity to gather
strength for the immense task that was presently to be
devolved upon it. But the westward movement of our
own population was now beginning to pour down the
western slope of the Alleghanies into the great Mississippi
basin. It was observed by the Methodist preachers that
the members of their societies who had, through fear,
necessity, or choice, moved into the back settlements and
into new parts of the country, as soon as peace was settled
and the way was open solicited the preachers to come
among them, and so the work followed them to the west.^
1 Jesse Lee, quoted by Dr. Buckley, p. 195.


In the years 1791-1810 occurred the great movement of
population from Virginia to Kentucky and from Carolina
to Tennessee. It was reckoned that one fourth of the
Baptists of Virginia had removed to Kentucky, and yet
they hardly leavened the lump of early frontier barbar-
ism. The Presbyterian Church, working in its favorite
methods, devised campaigns of home missionary enterprise
in its presbyteries and synods, detailing pastors from their
parishes for temporary mission service in following the
movement of the Scotch-Irish migration into the hill-
country in which it seemed to find its congenial habitat,
and from which its powerful influences were to flow in all
directions. The Congregationalists of New England in
like manner followed with Christian teaching and pastoral
care their sons moving westward to occupy the rich lands
of western New York and of Ohio. The General Associ-
ation of the pastors of Connecticut, solicitous that the
work of missions to the frontier should be carried forward
without loss of power through division of forces, entered,
in 1 80 1, into the compact with the General Assembly of
the Presbyterians known as the " Plan of Union," by which
Christians of both polities might cooperate in the founding
of churches and in maintaining the work of the gospel.

In the year 1803 the most important political event since
the adoption of the Constitution, the purchase of Louisiana
by President Jefi'erson, opened to the American church a
new and immense field for missionary activity. This vast
territory, stretching from the Mississippi westward to the
summits of the Rocky Mountains and nearly doubling the
domain of the United States, was the last remainder of the
great projected French Catholic empire that had fallen in
1763. Passed back and forth with the vicissitudes of
European politics between French and Spanish masters, it
had made small progress in either civilization or Christian-


ity. But the immense possibilities of it to the kingdoms
of this world and to the kingdom of heaven were obvious
to every intelligent mind. Not many years were to pass
before it was to become an arena in which all the various
forces of American Christianity were to be found contend-
ing against all the powers of darkness, not without dealing
some mutual blows in the melley.

The review of this period must not close without advert-
ing to two important advances in public practical Christian-
ity, in which (as often in like cases) the earnest endeavors
of some among the Christians have been beholden for
success to uncongenial reinforcements. As it is written,
"The earth helped the woman."

In the establishment of the American principle of the
non-interference of the state with religion, and the equality
of all religious communions before the law, much was due,
no doubt, to the mutual jealousies of the sects, no one or
two of which were strong enough to maintain exceptional
pretensions over the rest combined. Much also is to be
imputed to the indifTerentism and sometimes the anti-
religious sentiment of an important and numerous class of
doctrinaire politicians of which Jefferson may be taken as
a type. So far as this work was a work of intelligent con-
viction and religious faith, the chief honor of it must be
given to the Baptists. Other sects, notably the Presby-
terians, had been energetic and efficient in demanding
their own liberties ; the Friends and the Baptists agreed in
demanding liberty of conscience and worship, and equality
before the law, for all alike. But the active labor in this
cause was mainly done by the Baptists. It is to their con-
sistency and constancy in the warfare against the privileges
of the powerful " Standing Order" of New England, and
of the moribund establishments of the South, that we are


chiefly indebted for the final triumph, in this country, of
that principle of the separation of church from state which
is one of the largest contributions of the New World to
civilization and to the church universal.

It is not surprising that a people so earnest as the
Baptists showed themselves in the promotion of religious
liberty should be forward in the condemnation of American
slavery. We have already seen the vigor with which the
Methodists, having all their strength at the South, levied a
spiritual warfare against this great wrong. It was at the
South that the Baptists, in 1 789, " Resolved, That slavery is
a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsist-
ent with a republican government, and we therefore recom-
mend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure
to extirpate this horrid evil from the land." ^ At the North,
Jonathan Edwards the Younger is conspicuous in the un-
broken succession of antislavery churchmen. His ser-
mon on the " Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave-trade,"
preached in 1 791 before the Connecticut Abolition Society,
of which President Ezra Stiles was the head, long continued
to be reprinted and circulated, both at the North and at the
South, as the most effective argument not only against the
slave-trade, but against the whole system of slavery.

It will not be intruding needlessly upon the difficult field
of dogmatic history if we note here the widely important
diversities of Christian teaching that belong to this which
we may call the sub-Revolutionary period.

It is in contradiction to our modern association of ideas
to read that the prevailing type of doctrine among the
early Baptists of New England was Arminian.^ The pro-
nounced individualism of the Baptist churches, and the
emphasis which they place upon human responsibility,

1 Newman, " The Baptists," p. 305. 2 Ibid., p. 243.


might naturally have created a tendency in this direction ;
but a cause not less obvious was their antagonism to the
established Congregationalism, with its sharply defined
Calvinistic statements. The public challenging of these
statements made a favorite issue on which to appeal to the
people from their constituted teachers. But when the
South and Southwest opened itself as the field of a won-
derfully rapid expansion before the feet of the Baptist evan-
gelists, the antagonism was quite of another sort. Their
collaborators and sharp competitors in the great and noble
work of planting the gospel and the church in old and
neglected fields at the South, and carrying them westward
to the continually advancing frontier of population, were
to be found in the multiplying army of the Methodist
itinerants and local exhorters, whose theology, enjoined
upon them by their commission, was the Arminianism of
John Wesley. No explanation is apparent for the revul-
sion of the great body of American Baptists into a Calvin-
ism exaggerated to the point of caricature, except the
reaction of controversy with the Methodists. The tend-
ency of the two parties to opposite poles of dogma was
all the stronger for the fact that on both sides teachers and
taught were ahke lacking in liberalizing education. The
fact that two by far the most numerous denominations of
Christians in the United States were picketed thus over
against each other in the same regions, as widely differing
from each other in doctrine and organization as the
Dominican order from the Jesuit, and differing somewhat in
the same way, is a fact that invites our regret and disap-
proval, but at the same time compels us to remember its
compensating advantages.

It is to this period that we trace the head-waters of
several important existing denominations.


At the close of the war the congregation of the " King's
Chapel," the oldest Episcopal church in New England, had
been thinned and had lost its rector in the general migra-
tion of leading Tory families to Nova Scotia. At the
restoration of peace it was served in the capacity of lay
reader by Mr. James Freeman, a young graduate of Har-
vard, who came soon to be esteemed very highly in love
both for his work's sake and for his own. Being chosen
pastor of the church, he was not many months in finding
that many things in the English Prayer-book were irrecon-
cilable with doubts and convictions concerning the Trinity
and related doctrines, which about this time were widely
prevalent among theologians both in the Church of Eng-
land and outside of it. In June, 1785, it was voted in the
congregation, by a very large majority, to amend the order
of worship in accordance with these scruples. The changes
were in a direction in which not a few Episcopalians were
disposed to move,^ and the congregation did not hesitate
to apply for ordination for their pastor, first to Bishop
Seabury, and afterward, with better hope of success, to
Bishop Provoost. Failing here also, the congregation pro-
ceeded to induct their elect pastor into his office without
waiting further upon bishops; and thus " the first Episco-
pal church in New England became the first Unitarian
church in America." It was not the beginning of Uni-
tarianism in America, for this had long been " in the
air." But it was the first distinct organization of it. How
rapidly and powerfully it spread within narrow geograph-
ical limits, and how widely it has affected the course of reli-
gious history, must appear in later chapters.

Close as might seem to be the kindred between Unita-
rianism and Universalism, coeval as they are in their origin

1 Tiffany, p. 347 ; McConnell, p. 249.


as organized sects, they are curiously diverse in their ori-
gin. Each of them, at the present day, holds the charac-
teristic tenet of the other; in general, Unitarians arc Uni-
versalists, and Universalists are Unitarians.' But in the
beginning Unitarianism was a bold reactionar}' protest
against leading doctrines of the prevailing Calvinism of
New England, notably against the doctrines of the Trinit}',
of expiatory atonement, and of human depravity ; and it
was still more a protest against the intolerant and intoler-
able dogmatism of the sanhedrim of Jonathan Edwards's
successors, in their cock-sure expositions of the methods
of the divine government and the psychology of conversion.
Universalism, on the other hand, in its first setting forth
in America, planted itself on the leading "evangelical"
doctrines, which its leaders had earnestly preached, and
made them the major premisses of its argument. Justifi-
cation and salvation, said John Murray, one of Whitefield's
Calv'nistic Methodist preachers, are the lot of those for
whom Christ died. But Christ died for the elect, said his
Calvinistic brethren. Nay, verily, said Murray (in this
following one of his colleagues, James Relly) ; what saith
the Scripture? " Christ died for all." It was the pinch
of this argument which brought New England theologians,
beginning with Smalley and the second Edwards, to the
acceptance of the rectoral theory of the atonement, and so
prepared the way for much disputation among the doctors
of the next century.^

Mr. Murray arrived in America in 1770, and after much
going to and fro organized, in 1779, at Gloucester, Mass.,
the first congregation in America on distinctly Univer-
salist principles. But other men, along other lines of

1 Dr. Richard Eddy, " The Universalists," p. 429.

2 Ibid., pp. 392-397. The sermons of Smalley were preached at Walling-
ford. Conn., " by particular request, with special reference to the Murrayan


thought, had been working their way to somewhat similar
conclusions. In 1785 Elhanan Winchester, a thoroughly
Calvinistic Baptist minister in Philadelphia, led forth his
excommunicated brethren, one hundred strong, and
organized them into a " Society of Universal Baptists,"
holding to the universal restoration of mankind to holiness
and happiness. The two differing schools fraternized in
a convention of Universalist churches at Philadelphia in
1 794, at which articles of belief and a plan of organization
were set forth, understood to be from the pen of Dr.
Benjamin Rush ; and a resolution was adopted declaring
the holding of slaves to be " inconsistent with the union
of the human race in a common Saviour, and the obliga-
tions to mutual and universal love which flow from that

It was along still another line of argument, proceeding
from the assumed " rectitude of human nature," that the
Unitarians came, tardily and hesitatingly, to the Univer-
salist position. The long persistence of definite boundary
lines between two bodies so nearly alike in their tenets is
a subject worthy of study. The lines seem to be rather
historical and social than theological. The distinction
between them has been thus epigrammatically stated : that
the Universalist holds that God is too good to damn a
man; the Unitarian holds that men are too good to be

No controversy in the history of the American church
has been more deeply marked by a sincere and serious
earnestness, over and above the competitive zeal and in-
vidious acrimony that are an inevitable admixture in such
debates, than the controversy that was at once waged
against the two new sects claiming the title "Liberal."
It was sincerely felt by their antagonists that, while the
one abandoned the foundation of the Christian faith, the


other destroyed the foundation of Christian morality. In
the early propaganda of each of them was much to deepen
this mistrust. When the standard of dissent is set up in
any community, and men are invited to it in the name of
liberality, nothing can hinder its becoming a rallying-point
for all sorts of disaffected souls, not only the liberal, but
the loose. The story of the controversy belongs to later

Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconA history of American Christianity → online text (page 18 of 34)