Schaff on Non-Establishment

schaffA Prussian immigrae, Phillip Schaff (1819-1893) was committed to the idea of uniting Lutheran and Reformed churches which began in Germany under the aegis of Prince Frederick William IV. Dr. Schaff is perhaps better known for his voluminous writings on Church history and the ancient fathers. His contribution alongside John W. Nevin in making “Mercersburg Theology”(1) is also significant as a traditional Protestant answer to American revivalism. Initially scandalized by the proliferation of enthusiastic sects, Schaff gradually found a silver-lining in American disestablishment, concluding God’s Providence set aside the United States to play a crucial role in forging an Evangelical Christendom by voluntaristic means. His change of opinion on freedom of religion is worth study, answering questions perhaps vexing for Anglicans-abroad who normally are ambivalent about their Republican advantages and not-too-distant past with Royal Supremacy. 

The following quote was taken from Thomas A. Howard’s essay, “Philip Schaff: Religion, Politics, and the Transatlantic World” (see Journal of Church and State – March 22, 2007). Further research might commend Schaff’s anthological writings on the same subject,  America: A Sketch of the Political, Social, and Religious Character of the United States of North America with introduction by Perry Miller, published by Harvard Press (1961). Howard writes,

“More fundamentally, Schaff began to retard sectarianism as a necessary stage toward a higher, integrative level of historical and religious development. In this interpretation, the religious freedom allowed by American law and society represented a major improvement upon European state-churchism: “America may be an improved continuation of Europe; … [A] new age of humanity and church is to be expected by all.” The disintegrative cultural forces unleashed by religious voluntarism, while certainly worrisome, nonetheless could lay claim to a legitimate, indeed divinely sanctioned, place in a progressive historical drama in which the United States played a key role. In Schaff’s own formulation:

“[W]e must regard the present distraction and fermentings of Protestantism as the necessary transition state to a far higher and better condition, a free unity in spirit and in truth, embracing the greatest variety of Christian life. But first the religious subjectivity and individuality of the sect system, with all its accompanying infirmities, must freely and fully develop themselves…. Now America tends toward this consistent carrying out the religious and political principle of Protestantism; that is, the practical application of the universal priesthood and kingship of Christians.”

“Although the exact shape of the future remained unknown (and Schaff often pointed beyond temporal events, to an eschatological realm), the United States possessed superlative significance for the unfolding of events in sacred history. His adopted land held “extra-ordinary” prospective importance for church history” as the site where “the ultimate tare of the Reformation will be decided.””

The absence of religious voluntarism constituted a less developed stage in history. While Schaff regarded unity as a necessary goal for Christians, this must be a “free unity” enacted by free people, and not a coerced unity achieved under “the cold step-motherly arm of the nominally Christian state.”  While in his 1854 lectures he conceded that, theoretically, a Christian state could be a positive force, it was nonetheless “very hazardous for the church to expect too much of that union, and to put her trust in the temporal arm.” In subsequent publications, his rejection of “the evils of state-churchism” and “the despotism of a state church” became more pronounced.  In an article, “The State Church System in Europe” (1857), he stated the matter bluntly:

“The glory of America is free Christianity, independent of the secular government and supported by the voluntary contributions of a free people. This is one of the greatest facts of modern history. Its significance can only be fully estimated by a careful comparison with State-churches of Europe, over which it makes gigantic progress. Whatever be the defects and inconveniences of the separation of Church and State, they are less numerous and serious than the troubles and difficulties which continually grow out of their union, to both parties…. [O]n the Continent generally, it [Protestantism] is almost entirely supported and ruled by the State, and this has a natural tendency to secularize religion as much as possible and to convert it into a sort of moral police.”

Assessments of American religious dynamics from the standpoint of established state churches were inherently questionable, a regressive stage of history passing judgment on a more progressive one. Schaff, therefore, felt it necessary to emphasize the distinctly novel conditions in America, particularly those in the religious sphere. “

Schaff’s providential yet optimistic assessment of America as a “New Israel”– or crucible for resolving the divide within the European Reformation– reveals a reasonable discomfort with the Erastian order both in Germany and elsewhere. Moreover, Schaff gives American Episcopalians plenty to ponder as it pertains to their own the Mother Church, namely, England. This subject of Providential calling touches not only the USA but “emancipated” Anglican provinces who first left behind royal supremacy and parliament, namely, the Scottish episcopalians. Speaking of episcopal succession from Scotland, it should be no surprise Bp. Seabury took a similar view like Schaff regarding the opportunity American liberty might provide:

“If they consent to impart the Episcopal succession to the Church of Connecticut, they will, I think, do a great work, and the blessing of thousands will attend them. And, perhaps for this cause, among others, God’s Providence has supported them, and continued their succession under various and great difficulties, that a free, valid, and purely ecclesiastical Episcopacy may from them pass into the western world”.

It is amazing a tiny mustard seed like the Scottish Episcopal church (and their liturgy) would grow into such a tremendous tree through Seabury and the PECUSA, later ushering the Lambeth Conferences in the late 19th century and consequent 1920’s BCP revisions. Indeed, any good Independence Day sermon ought to deal with these questions, or those “circumstances” mentioned by the 1789 Preface,

“But when in the course of Divine Providence, these American States became independent with respect to civil government, their ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included”.

Not only were the state prayers altered, but the Convention,

“could not but, with gratitude to God, embrace the happy occasion which was offered to them (uninfluenced and unrestrained by any worldly authority whatsoever) to take a further review of the Public Service, and to establish other alterations and amendments therein as might be deemed expedient”.

The 1789 Preface is mostly a condensed version of the 1785 original which credits not only the changed circumstances of civil but religious freedom as well. It then goes on to explain the American revision as a basic adoption of the 1689 liturgy which attempted something ‘broadly Protestant’. The 1785 says,

“By comparing the following book, as now offered to the Church, with this preface and notes annexed, it will appear that most of the amendments or alterations which had the sanction of the great divines of 1689, have been adopted, with such others as are through reasonable”

Thus, the American BCP might be thought of the first of several 19th-century projects to unify Protestants, be it Ireland or the Reformed Episcopalians in the USA and UK. Anyhow, the Preface stands in the same spirit as the ‘mature’ Schaff, especially where it speaks upon ‘divine providence’ and virtues of ‘religious liberty’ (e.g., the 1785 preface).

We might also  note how the 37th article in the 1801 version of Articles neither condemns establishment nor applauds disestablishment. It stands rather neutral, and this might be a wink not only to the Church of England but remaining state or local establishments immediately after the Revolution. Likely, this topic merely scratches the surface, but it is one I hope to return upon as I explore the significance of our American condition, finding a way to embrace it as eventually did Dr. Schaff. 

1. There is a kindred nature between the German Reformed and Anglican church happened by the marriage of Elizabeth to Frederick V of Old Palatine. The following links may be of further interest: the Royal Issue and To All British Protestants.

11 responses to “Schaff on Non-Establishment

  1. You can just see the German idealism oozing, but Dr Schaff was right about the providential place of America for the good of the Church.


  2. Charles, these are fine thoughts. I wonder what Schaff would say now if he were able to comment on the American sect system today.


  3. Good to hear from you Andrew! Indeed, he would be horrified, especially what befell the Evangelical and Reformed church in the UCC. However, at the time of his essays, Schaff was hopeful, arguing that unity cannot be achieved without integrity to the organic past. His main concern was ignoring the significance of the Reformation (which for him was both catholic and patristic) by usual suspects like liberals. I tend to agree since I think unity can only happen by confessional means. It must be honest progress.


  4. Note to self: While American and English Latitudinarians have differed respecting providential conditions best suited for ‘Home Reunion’, they usually agree that Anglicanism, generally speaking, is most capable of comprehending historical Dissent. William R Huntington and Charles F.D. Maurice are sometimes considered generally representative of advocating one condition or another. In Wright’s Quadrilateral at One Hundred, their approaches to Providence are described,

    “Maurice’s view was that the church and nation were coterminous. The idea of disestablishment was, for him, a denial of the divine order. The divine order mandated tha the nation embody the law and the church embody the life-giving principle; on could not exist without the other in the divine plan. In addition, the existence of an established church guarded against the formation of sects which could not witness either for a common humanity or for Christ as head of the human race. Huntington, on the other hand, saw the division of church and state as a safeguard against the interference of the state in the church. It was his contention that only when the church is free from the state can it fully realize its catholicity.” p. 70

    Huntington believed the severing of cords to England permitted Protestant Episcopals to better embrace the example of 1689, improving the odds of making a national church. From his Church Idea, Huntington says,

    “At no time since the Reformation has the Church of England been in actual fact the spiritual home of the nation. A majority of the people of Great Britain are today without her pale. Could a system which has failed to secure comprehensiveness on its native soil, hope for any larger measure of success in a strange land?”

    “But what if it can be shown that the Anglican system has failed in just so far as it has been untrue to the Anglican principle? And what if it can be shown that here in America we have an opportunity to give that principle the only fair trial it has ever had?” p. 156

    There is a something of an agreement on shortcomings in the English system where, upon commenting on the 1920 Lambeth Report, the Rev. Edwin Palmer admits a deficiency in “english christianity” without considering non-conformity in relation to the CoE.

    “What is called Anglicanism is the result of this meeting of the English character with Christ’s life offered to it through His Church. It might have been English Christianity, but alas! the Church of England has not succeeded in keeping within itself all the English reactions to Christ’s life as it has been poured out into England. Still, undoubtedly Anglicanism is a Christianity which is typically English” p. 26

    Dean Stanley was much the same mind regarding his comments about Dissent in the Preface to Church and Chapel (ed. R.H. Hadden),

    “It has been that with regard to the non-juroring element in the Church of England the true policy of the Church is not, and ought not to be, suppression, but toleration combined with full liberty for development of the more Protestant and liberal tendencies within its pale. In like manner, the true policy with regard to the nonconforming elements outside the pale is not either repression, which indeed belongs altogether to the past, nor even absorption into the Church itself, but a full recognition of the value, the excellence, in some instances the almost indispensable necessity, of such forms of ecclesiastical government, of religious doctrine, of practical organization, as the nonconformists supply…”
    “…Just in the same way as we complain of the blind zeal which stimulates some leading nonconformists, which would wish to sweep away every witness to a larger, more national Christianity than is possible in a congeries of small narrow sects, so it would be lamentable if any attempt were made on the part of the Church of England to obliterate those standing testimonies which the different branches of nonconformity have borne to truths that from time to time have faded away, or have never been developed in the Church itself”…
    “…Tulloch has well brought out is the fact behind these [formal standards] has been, almost from the first, a large, diffusive, expansive, progressive school of Christian thought which refuses to be numbered with any of the contending factions that have raged within or without teh Church…but which nevertheless has formed the backbone of the National Church through all its varying vicissitudes, the life-blood which has nourished it, and kept it alive, when it was well-nigh perishing of the fever or the consumption brought on by the activities of the failings of its other constituent elements…That succession has never entirely failed; and its very existence for so long a period is a pledge that the Church of England is capable of supporting and sending forth those who, from a wider point of view, and from a more generous appreciation of the excellences of contending sects, can afford to allow each one of them a place in the Divine economy of the church, and in the national fabric of the English commonwealth.” pp. xxx-xxxv.

    I believe it’s evident– esp. following the church crisis of 1832, the general retreat of royal authority thereafter, and the consequential weakening of the Empire– Anglicans in England and Abroad were forced to seek substitutes to maintain their particular national system and principle(s). Apparently, there was a great drive to re-engineer church along Protestant Episcopal lines– with Lambeth pursuing an American model of polity mainly through the Quad and later BCP revision. So, there might be something to Schaff’s observations about American exceptionalism. Anyhow, this is a fascinating episode in Anglo-Saxon church history as it explores the possibility of an ethnic church functioning by free association (almost like a Methodist Society*) rather through a unified Imperial head?

    *The similarities between Lambeth, or primacy of Canterbury, and early Wesleyan polity are striking. Speaking of the making of the United Society at Bristol in 1744, Wesley describes their political working following an apparent dislike of ‘open meetings’,

    “I therefore determined first, that for the time to come, none should be present but those whom I invited; and second, that I would only invite a select number out of every circuit. This I did for many years, and all that time the term ‘conference’ meant not so much the conversation we had together as the person that conferred– namely, those whom I invited to confer with me from time to time. So that all this time it depended on me alone, not only what persons should constitute the Conference, but whether there should be any Conference at all. This lay wholly in my own breast; neither the preachers nor the people having any part or lot in the matter”. [p. 134, John Wesley (ed. Albert Outler)]


  5. thewhitechrist

    Charles- You lost me in this article when I read that Schaff actually believed in the fallacy of ‘development of doctrine.’ “…Schaff began to retard sectarianism as a necessary stage toward a higher, integrative level of historical and religious development.”

    This is, of course, exactly the rationale that Rome put forward for centuries to legitimize their accretions to the ‘faith once given to the fathers.’ It is derived quite clearly (as Dr. Farrell pointed out, in his ‘God, History, and Dialectic’ ) from the ‘filioque’ – that ‘outward and visible sign of an inward metaphysical depravity.’

    Clearly, you are correct in assessing the fact that the BCP as delivered to St./Bishop Tikhon could have (and should have) formed the basis for an ‘English Orthodoxy’ which would have been the restoration of true English Catholicism, unlike anything that Rome has offered, post-Vatican II.

    But that does not make Schaff’s views any less heretical, and/or papist in nascent form… for, as the BCP clearly noted, ‘the Church of Rome hath ERRED…”

    – Fr. John+


  6. Hello Fr. John, Not sure if that was me or part of the quote from Thomas Howard. In this case, ‘pluralism’ would be a better term than ‘sectarianism’. The latter kind of implies an irrational intransigence and inability to cooperate, imo. I’ll try to find a quote from Schaff on sectarianism which he had a very dim view, btw.


  7. Just read Chris Beneke’s book, Beyond Toleration Oxford University 2006. Nothing too spectacular, but Beneke makes the case the 19th-century witnessed a cultural convergence among Protestants. However, this mutual tolerance was challenged, if not ultimately overthrown, by the emergence of Roman Catholicism and Mormonism. Beneke thinks pluralism “worked” among Protestant churches originating from Britain, mostly due to commonalities in essential doctrine. Later sects that arose in the USA lacked these historical similarities. I thought the following quote might be interesting respecting what makes freedom of religion ‘viable’. It reminds me much of John Jay’s commentary regarding the origins of our republic,

    p. 220, “No one should be misled by this study into thinking that the tradition of religious pluralism was an exclusively American phenomenon. In many ways, the eighteenth century American culture was derivative, the offspring of mainly British ideals and British standards of conduct. The oft-cited appeals for toleration made by liberal Englishmen, such as the philosopher John Locke, were all written before 1730. In fact, many solutions posed to the problem of religious difference in eighteenth-century America– the most important of these being the distinction between the essentials and non-essentials of belief– had already been a part of northern European vocabularies for several generations. Toleration was often imposed, or at least encouraged, by London. Much of America’s religious diversity was English in origin and so were some of the greatest advocates of ecumenicism in the colonies”.

    Thomas Bray’s reaction to Quakerism is curious in this respect. Bray felt Quakers were the exception to the rule, equating them to a ‘heathen nation’ worthy of conversion. Indeed, this was the case when one of their number, George Keith, embraced notions of church ordinances and ministry through exposure to Baptist doctrine. Interestingly, Keith (leaving the “Keithites” with Baptists) eventually converted to Anglicanism, becoming a missionary in Pennsylvania for Bray’s SPG. Outreach and cooperation with Baptists was not unusual given the example of Thomas Clayton at Christ’s Church Philadelphia, who invited the Pennsylvania Baptists to join the Church of England where they might continue much of their belief yet under a more primitive settlement. So, we see something of emerging lines of toleration where Baptists are treated as ‘orthodox Dissent’ while Quakers lumped with the Indians as part of the missionary field.


  8. Interesting. See Wesley’s comments on the role of Methodism in relation to Providence.


  9. Pingback: Penitential Office in the 1928 BCP | River Thames Beach Party

  10. Pingback: Penitential Office in the 1928 BCP | Anglican Rose

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