An Enduring Contest: American Christianities and the State

By Kathleen Flake, in American ChristianitiesCatherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin, eds., (Univ. of North Carolina, 2011).

From their beginnings in a new-to-them world, the experience and ideals of British and Dutch North Americans required them to confront the issue of church-state relations. The nature of their response, as a matter of law, varied according to their experience in their homelands and their purposes in crossing the Atlantic. Initially, all colonists imported religious establishments, of course. No other form of government was conceivable as they mapped their new terrain with old forms. The vast majority of seventeenth-century immigrants were children of the Protestant Reformation, whether British or Continental, and came from societies that had substituted their own religious establishments for Catholic Christendom. Their assumptions about the necessary integrity of church and state were complicated, however, by broad philosophical currents and increasing Protestant sectarianism that raised new concerns about the origins and prerogatives of individual conscience. Moreover, toleration was beginning to be considered a necessary predicate to peace and, among more radical thinkers, a moral good in its own right. Thus, in their intent to maintain a unified moral vision, America’s seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Christianities were overtly establishmentarian. But, in their radical sectarian diversity and dawning sense of human dignity, they carried the seeds of disestablishment with them across the Atlantic.

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