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  • Obbie Tyler Todd

What was Christian Republicanism?



As the most celebrated intellectual and moral movement in the early United States, republicanism was ironically one of the most difficult to define. Although some spelled it with a capital “R,” most Americans did not associate republicanism with a particular party. Even Timothy Dwight, the so-called Federalist “Pope” of New England, once described himself to George Washington as “so independent a republican, and so honest a man, as to be incapable of a wish to palm myself upon the world under the patronage of another.”[1] Dwight eventually dedicated his epic poem Conquest of Canaan to the first president, “The Saviour of his Country,” whom he portrayed as a modern Joshua.[2] But republicanism was not necessarily synonymous with patriotism. Swiss-born Presbyterian pastor John Joachim Zubly believed that Christians should resist unjust taxes and even published a sermon on the eve of the Revolution entitled The Law of Liberty. Zubly was elected to the Second Continental Congress from Georgia but opposed American independence, giving up his seat. He was a so-called “Whig-Loyalist” despite “being borned and bred in a Commonwealth” and hoping that his fellow Americans would “not be unacquainted with republican Govt.”[3] As historians have noted, republicanism did not preclude monarchy though it did transform it.[4] Nevertheless, for most loyalist clergy, “anarchy” became a code word for republicanism.[5]


The republicanization of American Christianity was distinct from the so-called “democratization of American Christianity” as outlined by Nathan O. Hatch. Although, as its opponents often noted, republicanism carried with it many egalitarian forces, the moral energy of republicanism brought Christians together for various causes and compelled them to centralize authority as much as it brought them to de-centralize authority. The republican ethos animated high Calvinists and low church revivalists alike. As one of the chief opponents of the revivalism and popular religious movements of the Second Great Awakening, Horace Bushnell disavowed the “extreme individualism” of his generation. Yet, the father of American religious liberalism also exhorted the students at Andover Seminary, “We shall be men of the nineteenth-century, not of the first — republicans, men of railroads and commerce, astronomers, chemists, geologists, and even rationalizers in the highest degree.”[6] For some, republicanism meant returning to a more classical era. For others, it meant embracing the present.


Republican values like personal morality, individual responsibility, freedom, and equality were embraced so thoroughly by American evangelicals as they preached the importance of faith and the rebirth that republicanism often became a watchword for evangelicalism. However, like the evangelical tradition itself, republicanism was not a homogenous movement and influenced both sides of the religious establishment. For instance, Devereux Jarrett was an Anglican minister in Virginia who welcomed and even imitated the emotional preaching of the Methodists. Nevertheless, despite his evangelical sympathies, Jarrett did not approve of the populist and anti-authoritarian spirit of the age, which he identified as republicanism, lamenting in 1794, “in our high republican times, there is more levelling than ought to be.”[7] As the spirit of the age swept over the American people, the lower orders of society no longer yielded an instinctive deference to the religious authority and nobility as they did in patriarchal England. On the other hand, evangelicals in the Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in America reconfigured in 1789) identified more strongly with republicanism. By 1853, Episcopal clergyman Calvin Colton boasted that the “genius of the American Episcopal Church is republican.” Rev. John Alonzo Clark declared, “Every one now begins to see that the principles of our [Episcopal] church are in most delightful harmony with republican government.”[8] Republicanism was thoroughly embedded in early American evangelicalism, extending its reach into the older, more formalist denominations.

Between the revolutionary and Civil War eras, republicanism was more assumed than defined, and it was not the intellectual property of white males only. Historians have demonstrated how black founders such as Bishop Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church “often presented themselves as the consummate representatives of republicanism.”[9] Congregationalist Lemuel Haynes, the first African American ordained in any denomination, urged “true republicanism” upon his hearers and acknowledged “that civil authority is in some sense, the basis of religion.”[10] As "Old Republican" John Randolph once suggested in a screed to the House of Representatives, even slave-owning whites expected that their republican values would be passed on to their slaves in some way, so long as black republicanism did not conflict with white supremacy. On the other hand, abolitionists like Baptist David Barrow believed that republicanism prohibited slavery. In a 1798 Circular Letter explaining his departure from Virginia to Kentucky, Barrow insisted, “I wish that all masters, or owners of slaves, may consider how inconsistently they act, with a Republican Government, and whether, in this particular, they are doing, as they would others should do to them!”[11] According to Barrow’s logic, republicanism was but an extension of the second commandment to love thy neighbor. Despite lacking a universal definition, the republican ideal was so powerful that it shaped both sides of the slavery debate, taking Christian form. Even Baptist Basil Manly Sr., who owned forty slaves, confessed, “Slavery seems to be utterly repugnant to the spirit of our republican institutions.”[12] Nevertheless, Manly opposed both emancipation and colonization and virtually any effort to limit slavery.


With such a wide spectrum of political, theological, racial, and social beliefs under the same ideological umbrella, sometimes the best way to describe republicanism was by its appearance: you knew it when you saw it. Or, rather, when you didn’t. When Presbyterian-turned-Catholic Fanny Calderon de la Barca, the Scottish-American wife of a Spanish ambassador, visited the legislative hall in Mexico City in 1839, she described it as “as anti-republican-looking an assembly as I ever beheld.”[13] Indeed, republicanism even had its own sound. Shortly after the Revolution, officials in the colony of Sierra Leone believed that the preaching of black American Dissenters like Moses Wilkinson and David George was too “republican” and therefore subversive to public order.[14] Ultimately, even though republicanism was derived from the Greek and Roman republics and crossed international waters, it was mostly understood to be an American phenomenon. The people of the United States had not invented republicanism nor could they always agree upon its meaning, but they were perfecting it with the help of the church. And when the vast majority of Americans spoke of American Christianity or republican religion, they meant the Protestant church. “There is no religion on the face of the earth, consistent with republicanism but the Protestant,” declared minister William Cogswell.[15]


Republicanism was, like Protestant Christianity, meant to be seen and heard. In an 1844 sermon to Congregational ministers in Massachusetts, Edwards Amasa Park announced, “This connection between sacred things, and freedom in civil, is well understood by transatlantic observers of our republican experiment.” Just as the Puritans had sought to display pure and undefiled religion before the eyes of an apostate Anglican church, the world was once again invited to witness free religion take place in America. But this time it had a name: republicanism. In Park’s view, not just the United States but American Christianity itself was a “republican experiment.” In the same sermon, Park offered his own concise definition: “This is American Christianity. It is in sympathy with the broadness of our lakes, the expanse of our prairies, the length of our rivers, the freeness of our government, the very genius of our whole social organization. A narrow-minded religionist is no true countryman of ours.”[16] Although distinct, Christianity and republicanism coalesced in the American mind because they both helped explain the American experience, from its lakes to its rivers to its “social organization.” In some sense, the citizens in America were as free from kings and tyrants as its Christians were free from “popery” and sin as its settlers were free from boundaries and barriers. Each of these freedoms mutually re-enforced the importance of the others.


For this reason, Mark A. Noll has noted “the unusual convergence of republicanism and Christianity in the American founding,” identifying a so-called “Christian republicanism” that dominated and even molded the church. “American Christians,” Noll insists, “despite substantial conflict among themselves, took for granted a fundamental compatibility between orthodox Protestant religion and republican principles of government. Most English-speaking Protestants outside the United States did not.”[17] Noll is by no means the only scholar to identify the wedding of republicanism with American Christianity in the new American nation. In The New England Soul, for example, Harry S. Stout concluded that during the Revolution, “The American people, it was clear, were bound by ties of common ideology, not a common religious faith.”[18] James P. Byrd has argued, “By the end of the Revolution, colonists had shaped not one republican Bible but many republican Bibles.”[19]


More than simply a school of political thought, republicanism was a moral philosophy rooted in the Ancient Greek and Roman republics that ultimately sought to answer the question “how should a people live inside a republic?” This question might seem a bit simpler today than it appeared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. America was, in the words of Edwards Amasa Park, a “republican experiment.” Although, as historians have often noted, the New England colonies composed “quasi-republics” under the rule of the English crown, the United States became something much different once it shed monarchial authority and ratified a Constitution.[26] That a people could elect their own representatives and presidents and that power could be vested in (white male) citizens was an idea that many in Europe believed was neither practical nor tenable. As a result, Christian and non-Christian thinkers frequently responded to the accusation that republics could not last without some form of monarchy or oligarchy.[27] From the pulpit, the response was the same: Christianity was vital to the survival of a republic. Republics might come and go, but a Protestant republic was God’s will and could not be shaken.


For instance, when famed Puritan-turned-Presbyterian preacher Lyman Beecher preached against intemperance (which he often associated with Roman Catholicism), he stressed the fact that Christianity was “indispensable” to a healthy republic. “It is admitted,” he declared, “that intelligence and virtue are the pillars of republican institutions, and that the illumination of schools, and the moral power of religious institutions, are indispensable to produce this intelligence and virtue. But who are found so uniformly in the ranks of irreligion as the intemperate?”[28] In other words, without intelligence and virtue, the republic would fail. And without Christianity, intelligence and virtue would disappear. For American Christians, the answer to the question of virtue — and the only hope for the United States — was Christianity.[29]

“The best place to begin to understand the views of the revolutionary generation is with a look at the word ‘virtue,’” explains Thomas E. Ricks in his First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. “This word was powerfully meaningful during the eighteenth century.” According to Ricks, “The founders used it incessantly in their public statements. The word ‘virtue’ appears about six thousand times in the collected correspondence and other writings of the Revolutionary generation, compiled in the U.S. National Archives’ database, Founders Online (FO), totaling some 120,000 documents. That’s more often than ‘freedom.’”[30] Americans were a people seemingly obsessed with virtue. Therefore, a better way of asking the republican question would be “how should a people live virtuously inside a republic?” If Americans could not be a certain kind of people, they would not be a people at all.[31] As Gordon S. Wood has shown, republicanism encompassed all spheres of an individual’s life, including both private and public virtues. On one hand, while admirable and serviceable to the greater good, virtues like prudence, frugality, and industry still allowed people to promote their own interests. On the other hand, “the virtue that classic republicanism encouraged was public virtue.” Wood explains, “Public virtue was the sacrifice of private desires and interests for the public interest. It was devotion to the commonweal…Republicanism thus put an enormous burden on individuals. They were expected to suppress their private wants and interests and develop disinterestedness — the term eighteenth century most often used as a synonym for civic virtue.”[32] A republic demanded a moral standard from its citizens that was not required in a monarchy. In this sense, to be an American was both a privilege and a responsibility. The relationship between liberty and virtue was somewhat circular: virtue was made possible by liberty, and liberty demanded virtue. In 1802, Savannah pastor Henry Holcombe pointed to this vital connection in Georgia’s Analytical Repository when he stated, “I need not prove, for it is evident, that without religion there can be no virtue; and it is equally incontestable, that without virtue, there can be no liberty.”[33]


Americans during this time conceived of the virtuous person as the individual who sought to promote the well-being of others above their own. In fact, other than single words like “liberty” and “virtue,” no phrase was invoked more often by the Revolutionaries themselves than “the public good.”[34] With virtue as its guiding principle and the public welfare as its goal, republicanism was not so much a codified list of beliefs about the political nature of a republic so much as a set of moral ideals and values that permeated the American mind. Between America’s founding in 1776 and its rupture in the Civil War, republicanism quite naturally became the ethos of American Christianity. The exalted virtues of the classic, non-Christian republics were adopted as inherently Christian, and the teachings of Christianity were cast in a republican frame. Republicanism was Christianized, and Christianity was republicanized. This process gave birth to a distinctly American faith.

[1] According to Robert J. Imholt, “John Cosens Ogden was the first to dub Dwight the ‘Pope of New England.’” (Imholt, “Timothy Dwight, Federalist Pope of Connecticut,” The New England Quarterly Vol. 73, No. 3 (Sept., 2000): 388. [2] Timothy Dwight, The Conquest of Canaan; A Poem, in Eleven Books (Hartford: Elisha Babcock, 1785). [3] John J. Zubly, The Law of Liberty: A Sermon on American Affairs (Philadelphia: Henry Miller, 1775). William Allen Benton, Whig-Loyalism: An Aspect of Political Ideology in the American Revolutionary Era (Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1969). Zubly, “Tues. 24,” in The Journal of the Reverend John Joachim Zubly, ed. Lilla Mills Hawes (Savannah: The Georgia Historical Society, 1989), 43. [4] Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 98–99. [5] Gregg L. Frazer, God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), 69. [6] Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916), 20–21. Bushnell, God in Christ: Three Discourses, Delivered at New Haven, Cambridge, and Andover (Hartford: Wm. James Hamersley, 1867), 295. [7] In John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 147. [8] In Allen C. Guelzo, For the Union of Evangelical Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 48. [9] Richard S. Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 149. [10] Lemuel Haynes, A Sermon Delivered at Rutland, West Parish (Rutland: John Walker, 1798), 7. [11] Carlos R. Allen, Jr., “David Barrow’s Circular Letter of 1798,” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 3 (July 1963): 450. [12] Basil Manly Sr., “On the Emancipation of Slaves,” in Soldiers of Christ: Selections from the Writings of Basil Manly, Sr., & Basil Manly, Jr., ed. Michael A. G. Haykin, Roger D. Duke, and A. James Fuller (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2009), 63. [13] Alan Taylor, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2021), 12. [14] John W. Catron, Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016), 218–19. [15] Leo P. Hirrel, Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 76. [16] Edwards A. Park, A Discourse Delivered in Boston before the Pastoral Association of Congregational Ministers in Massachusetts (Andover: Allen, Morrill, & Wardwell, 1844), 17, 11. [17] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 54, 57, 73–92. [18] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 325. [19] James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 11. [20] Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1956), ix. [21] James Marsh to S. T. Coleridge, March 23, 1829, in The Remains of the Rev. James Marsh, D.D. (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1843), 137. [22] Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 5. [23] According to Holifield, “His admiration for the ‘universal philanthropy’ in Jesus’s ethics enabled Jefferson to call himself a Christian. Yet he was indifferent to most of the concrete moral teachings of Jesus; he found in pure Christian ethics a plea for universal benevolence, but it is hard to find much discussion of specific New Testament admonitions and prescriptions.” (E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture 1795–1860 [Durham: Duke University Press, 1978], 61.) [24] Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 7. [25] In Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap, 1967), 1. [26] John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 216. Michael Winship also calls colonial Massachusetts a “puritan quasi-republic.” (Michael P. Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018], 267.) [27] Jonathan Maxcy, “A Discourse, Delivered in the Chapel of South Carolina College, July 4th, 1819,” in The Literary Remains of the Rev. Jonathan Maxcy, D.D., ed. Romeo Elton (New York: A. V. Blake, 1844), 289. [28] Lyman Beecher, Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance (New York: American Tract Society, 1827), 56. [29] According to Philip Schaff in 1855, “The greatest American statesmen and orators have on various occasions thrown the weight of their voice into the scale of virtue and piety, and have repeatedly and emphatically declared that Christianity is the groundwork of their republic, and that the obliteration of the church must involve the annihilation of all freedom and the ruin of the land.” (Philip Schaff, America: A Sketch of its Political, Social and Religious Character, ed. Perry Miller [Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1961], 35.) [30] Thomas E. Ricks, First Principles; What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country (New York: Harper Collins, 2020), 5–6. [31] This theme of virtue was also inherent in the ancient Greek and Roman literature. According to Carl J. Richard, “The connection between the classics and virtue was deeply ingrained and implicitly understood.” (Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 37.) [32] Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, 104. [33] Henry Holcombe, “Address to the Friends of Religion,” Georgia Analytical Repository, September–October, 1802, 230. [34] Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 55.

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