2. The Varieties of Establishment and Disestablishment
3. A False Start: Declining Profits as Explanans of British Abolition
4. “This Free, Christian Country!”: Abolition and Establishment in Great Britain
4.1. Early Critiques of English Slavery: Anglican Traditionalists against “Slaves to Gold” in the Rising Merchant Class
4.2. Granville Sharp, English Civil Law, and the Beginning of National Antislavery
4.3. After Somerset: British National Identity and Protestant Liberty
5. The Role of Church–State Union in Comparison to Antebellum Southern Disestablishment
5.1. The Irreligious Early South
Unhappiness with Anglicanism antedated colonial settlement, and the minds and hearts of many Englishmen who immigrated to the colonies had turned or were turning away from it as a source of spiritual guidance and ecclesiastical authority. The trend that had already started in England was only increased and made more dramatic by the impact of the local colonial environment. The pioneer found a vacant new land within which he began to build; and in his zeal for change and expectations of a new destiny, hereditary authority was suspect. Material and institutional developments were products of his own handiwork. Having escaped from the framework of English society, the immigrant would not build it again in its entirety. The pull of the colonial climate of opinion made complete identification with the religious establishment as it existed in England with its taxes, tithes fees, and compliance with the dictates of its leading ecclesiastical statesmen impossible in the colonial communities unless rigorously backed by the power of the state.
Amidst the more free-wheeling environment of the colonial parishes the church’s traditions, system of government, and institutional demands seemed archaic, out of place, and frequently irrelevant. Indeed religion in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America underwent changes which broke with traditions on a scale reminiscent of the great Protestant schism of the sixteenth century.
5.2. Slavery Acknowledged as Wretched in the Early South
Slavery is not a national evil; on the contrary, it is a national benefit. The agricultural wealth of the country is found in those states owning slaves, and a great portion of the revenue of the government is derived from the products of slave labor—Slavery exists in some form everywhere, and it is not of much consequence in a philosophical point of view.(quoted in Tise 1987, p. 97)
In most of these cases, the individual judges protest that the standards they are forced by state or federal law to propound are cruel and arguably not to be prized as a normative measure for an ideal society. Hence, Judge Ruffin in State v. Mann also states that “I most freely confess my sense of the harshness of this proposition [of unbounded power of the master over his slave]. I feel it as deeply as any man can. And as a principle of moral right, every person in his retirement must repudiate” the principle which state law binds him to adopt; “greatly to be desired,” he continues, are statutory changes “much more rationally” based on the humanity of slaves. But that will have to come later, as the world of the here and now is hard, and hard to change. Justice Taney similarly states that “It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted”—a difficult task presumably because moral sentiment had grown more favorable to the rights of blacks. Yet for both Ruffin and Taney, moral progress was not to be incorporated into the law of the state absent the clear decree of statutory or constitutional law; until then the cold logic of morally indifferent positive law had to prevail. For many in Southern elite society in the period before the 1830s (when sentiment would begin to change), an unchristian principle beset the very heart of the slave owning states.[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.(Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 )
5.3. The Failure of Christian Abolition
5.4. The Resulting Dominance of the “Spirituality of the Church” and Church–State Separationism
5.5. Avoiding Misunderstanding: Levels of Early Southern Disestablishment; The Late Arrival of Slavery as a Positive Good; and Secessionist Calls for a Church–State Union
5.6. A Study in Contrasts: The Insights of Frederick Douglass
One is struck with the difference between the attitude of the American church towards the anti-slavery movement, and that which occurred in England, where the church, true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating, and improving the condition of mankind, came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and restored him to his liberty. There the question of emancipation was a high religious question. It was demanded in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God…The anti-slavery movement there was not an anti-Church movement, for the reason that the church took its full share in prosecuting the movement.(Douglass 1852 quoted in Bridges 2008, p. 251)
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See Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), where the Supreme Court voided a modest state-provided salary supplement to poorly funded religious primary and secondary schools.
Since 1959, faith schools are eligible for direct state financial support, and 17% of all French schoolchildren attend private schools—the vast percentage of which are religious schools—with the number in some regions rising to as high as 40% (Butrymowicz 2018).
This claim is historical. In recent cases, the British courts have repudiated historically central elements of the Christian establishment. See infra, footnote 16.
Eamon Duffy, for example, argues that the tensions between pope and emperor expressed by Gregory VII “changed the world” in the way they served to highlight a rather bold division between the two spheres (Duffy 2011, p. 61). And Joseph Strayer famously maintained that the Gregorian Reform constituted the origin point of the modern secular state (Strayer 1970, p. 22).
In the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri advanced in de Monarchia one particularly fascinating approach that comes close to a strict separation of church and state. See Davis, “Seeds of the Secular State: Dante’s Political Philosophy as Seen in the “De Monarchia” (Davis 1991). For a discussion of Anabaptists and Mennonites on church–state separation, see (Joireman 2009).
See, for example, Pope Gelarius’s declaration of two swords, the state and the church, in his letter Famuli vestrae pietatis to Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus in 494.
See also Khyati J. Joshi, White Christian Privilege—the Illusion of Religious Equality in America, for an additional discussion of separating national identity and Christian thought and its legacy (Joshi 2020).
See also Seymour Drescher, Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective (Drescher 1987).
These acts aimed at assisting the competiveness of the planters in the British colonies against non-British production.
For salutary neglect as a deliberate strategy, see (Rothbard 1990, p. 17).
To be sure, there remained a “traditional Anglican justification for slavery,” found in the Old Testament and in Paul” (Swaminathan 2009, p. 34). The point is that this view came to be either rejected or deemphasized by the Anglican priests most associated with the Tories.
See also R. v. Lilburne, 4 St. Tr. 1269 (1649) per Lord Keble: “the law of God is the law of England”.
Rothbard describes aspects of Whig ideology as informed by a “radical libertarian” ethos (Rothbard 1990, p. 17).
The decision did not technically outlaw all slaveholding in England. James Oldham has argued that the ruling only had the legal effect of denying the use of force to compel a slave to leave Britain and did not establish an elimination of all legal slaveholding in England (Oldham 1988, p. 48).
Such became memorialized in English law in Somersett against Stewart in Loff 1, 98 ER 499, where Hargrave’s accounting of the case is cited (Somersett against Stewart 1772).
The English Constitution has been construed by courts over the past one hundred years in ways that have disestablished this connection between Christian propositions and the common law. In Johns, and Anor, R. (on the Application of) v Derby City Council and Anor, EWHC 375 (Admin), 28 February (2011), the court held that “the aphorism that ‘Christianity is part of the common law of England’ is mere rhetoric; at least since the decision of the House of Lords in Bowman v. Secular Society Limited it has been impossible to contend that it is law.” In Bowman v Secular Society Limited, AC 406 (1917), the court declined to reject a legacy to support an organization promoting secularism and the rejection of religion.
In fact, Steven Wise called it, in the subtitle of his book on the trial, “the landmark trial that led to the end of human slavery” (Wise 2006).
A term frequently used by Swaminathan in Debating the Slave Trade, passim.
Note the work’s full title, The Law of Retribution; or, A serious warning to Great Britain and her colonies founded on unquestionable examples of God’s temporal vengeance against tyrants, slave holders, and oppressors; and that of another of his work published during this period: The Law of Liberty: Or, Royal law, by which all mankind will certainly be judged! (Sharp 1776d).
The book became so popular that it went through nine editions between 1789 and 1794 and was published in cities across Great Britain.
To be sure, elements of the Anglican establishment could be lumbering in their support of full freedom. Note, for example, that when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts gained control of the Codrington plantation in Barbados in the early 1800s, it “viewed it as an opportunity to showcase kind and benevolent governance of slaves” (Swaminathan 2009, p. 210), rather than as an opportunity to model a case study in freedom through manumission. This reflected a relatively large degree of support, after the elimination of the Slave Trade, for amelioration and not immediate abolition, a program which was imposed as binding law on all Crown Colonies (that is, those without a locally elected assembly) in 1824, along with strong encouragement for colonial assemblies to do the same. At one low point in Anglican history, the Church of England even endorsed redacted Bibles purged of Exodus and other elements emphasizing liberation (Zehavi 2019). Worthy of note, however, is the influence the newly created bishops in the West Indies exerted in the early 1830s: these bishops, historian Robert Moore writes, “reported confidentially to the Archbishop of Canterbury that slavery was cruel, unproductive and unable to be used in service of God. Their opinions were pivotal in strengthening the resolve of the British Government to abolish the institution” (Moore 2010, p. 4).
For additional work on the role of religion in English antislavery mobilization, see (Turley 1991).
The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act required phased-in, compensated manumission across the British Empire with the exception of territories then administered by the East India Company, St. Helena and Ceylon, to which the Act would be extended in 1843.
Of course, not the only role. As Caroline Quarrier Spence relates, “Abolition passed Parliament in 1833 for a variety of reasons” including “economic hardships for sugar production in the 1820s, the Great Reform Act’s expansion of the electorate,” the incorporation of Irish representatives following the Union with Ireland, and the burdens of slave revolts in the West Indies (Spence 2014, p. 197).
See also, Daniel J. Pratt Morris-Chapman, “John Wesley and Methodist Responses to Slavery in America” (Morris-Chapman 2019).
See (Painter 2001).
See (Cross 1902).
See (Banner 1998).
Snay discusses how a major stimulus to this development on the part of Southern divines was the emergence of strident condemnations of slavery by Northern leaders of national denominations, which Snay dates to the mid-1830s (Snay 1993, p. 15 and passim). “The close association” between a growing number of Northern ministers from this time on and “religion and abolitionism heightened” among Southern planters their “preexisting suspicion of Southern clergymen” (Snay 1993, p. 35). In turn, many Southern ministers of these same denominations felt that this increasingly forceful abolitionism by their Northern clerical brethren “had jeopardized their standing in society and the cause of religion in the South,” given the culture created by the slave owning classes. Hence, “the religious critique of abolitionism in part reflected the attempt of [Southern] ministers to differentiate Southern religion from that of Northern reformers” (Snay 1993, p. 35).
To be sure, Larry Tise has documented that the proslavery religious argument was present in Southern circles much earlier (Tise 1987). But the point is one of relative weight, with religion playing “a major role in the proslavery crusade” in the South only from the 1830s (Snay 1993, p. 53). As Eugene Genovese remarks in review of Tise’s work, in the late 1810s “the proslavery vanguard in the South was only beginning to gain momentum” among clerics (Genovese 1988, p. 672). This vanguard would also come to seize on scriptural exegesis such as the so-called curse of Ham derived from Genesis 9: 18–27.
Also of note is how Frederick Douglass lived out the value of forgiveness for slave owners as individuals, a point also advocated by Sharp. In 1877, Douglass met his former slave owner Thomas Auld. The two “parted as friends… personally reconciled” (Blakemore 2018).
It is arguable too that the organizational establishment of England, which ensures the presence of senior bishops in the House of Lords, weakens the pull of the “spirituality of the church” theology and its flight from political affairs. This form of establishment arguably expresses the subtle message that political judgments can benefit from the voice of the church, and that the church has a responsibility to have its voice heard in the affairs of state. Note by way of contrast the prohibition on ministers serving in most Southern legislatures in the antebellum period.
Concerning Mays’s emphasis on mutual toleration and respect, Barbara Dianne Savage recounts that
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