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Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate

By Smylie, James H. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate


Smylie, James H., The Catholic Historical Review


Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the ChurchState Debate. Edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 1996. Pp. xix, 220. $42.95 clothbound; $16.95 paperback.)

Daniel Dreisbach teaches in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at the American University,Washington, D.C. He offers here a well-edited, interesting, and useful collection of documents from the early part of the nineteenth century discussing the relation of religion and politics. For his purpose, Dreisbach focuses on a sermon by the Reverend Jasper Adams, The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States (1833), with its extensive notes, responses from Chief Justice John Marshall,Justice Joseph Story, and President James Madison, and a long, critical review, of uncertain authorship, entitled "Immunity of Religion." He offers some historical comments and perspective of his own on a debate which is with us still.

Adams, related to the Adamses of Massachusetts and a Congregationalist turned an Episcopal priest, was a professor, moral philosopher, and president of Charleston College. He preached his sermon during a period of "freedom's ferment" with the emergence of Jacksonian democracy, the disestablishment of religion in Massachusetts in 1833, an attempt to establish a Christian party in politics, and a controversy over the delivery of mail on Sunday. Living in South Carolina, Adams had to deal with the controversy over Thomas Cooper, president of South Carolina College, regarding the latter's vocal criticisms of orthodox Christians.According to Adams, these were uncertain times for religion and the Republic. In his sermon he acknowledged that the writers of the Constitution of the United States intended to reject the Constantinian establishments of the Old World. But the issue was larger than the relationship between the churches and the various states of the union and the federal government. Adams claimed that Americans did not intend to disestablish Christianity as the religion of the nation. He found evidence of this in the practices of the people, in the common law, and in the Constitution itself. Although largely silent on religion, the Constitution did acknowledge that it had been written in the "year of our Lord, 1787" and contained an explicit recognition of the sanctity of Sunday. Christian faith and life was essential for the nation's good health. He argued that American civil, legal, and political institutions should provide for a nonpreferential support of the various forms of Christianity and toleration for all other religions. He buttressed his arguments with lengthy footnotes. Unfortunately, Adams is short on suggestions on what should be done with popular, noisy denominations and cults unlike, for example, the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, the difficulty of administrating (as in Massachusetts) nonpreferential support of multiplying religious communities (together with more and more Catholic immigrants), a coalition of Christians who claimed that it knew what was the Christian thing to do for the nation's good, and radicals like Cooper who were sowing seeds of doubt about Christianity itself. Moreover, Adams does not give much attention to the case of a Jewish merchant who went to the synagogue on Saturday, but wanted to do business on Sunday.

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