- Church-State Relations in the Early American Republic, 1787–1846 by James S. Kabala
Studies of church and state in the early United States have undergone an important change in recent years. Rather than focusing exclusively on narrow constitutional issues surrounding the First Amendment, historians have started asking broad questions about the relationship between religion and public life. Moreover, historians focus these questions on the state-level where Americans held some of their most significant legal and political debates before the Civil War. James S. [End Page 171] Kabala’s Church-State Relations in the Early American Republic, 1787–1846, is a useful contribution to this scholarship.
The book centers on the rise and development of a “Protestant non-sectarian consensus” between the years 1787 to 1846. Kabala explores the political and legal consequences of ecumenical cooperation, primarily among the nation’s Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Each of these denominations had members willing to downplay doctrinal differences in order to advance the moral principles and doctrines that they shared. Americans who accepted agreements of this sort could celebrate religious freedom while still adhering to a Christian moral framework for public life that was decidedly Protestant. This consensus thus proved challenging to the civic rights of non-Protestants in the early republic such as Jews and Catholics, as well as Unitarians and freethinkers. Moreover, Kabala argues, this consensus marginalized Americans who wanted either established religion or an end to religion’s social influence. As a result, Americans well into the nineteenth century maintained a vibrant place for Protestantism in public life without relying on formal state power or ceding ground to secularism.
According to Kabala, believers forged the “Protestant non-sectarian consensus” in debates over a range of issues, which he explores in five largely thematic chapters. The issues include controversies surrounding government funding for religious education to Native Americans, Sunday mail delivery, chaplains in legislatures and the military, government-sanctioned fast and thanksgiving days, and state laws regarding blasphemy and court participation. Kabala ultimately concludes that the “emergence of this non-sectarian Protestant consensus was the most important development in church-state relations” in the early American republic (p. 8).
The concept of a “Protestant non-sectarian consensus” describes a relationship between early national religion and public life that will seem familiar to readers of other recent books such as Steven K. Green’s The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2010), and David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York, 2011). Kabala’s attention to popular debates differentiates his book from similar studies that focus heavily on court cases and constitutions. Indeed, Kabala follows his subject through an impressive number of pamphlets; newspapers; and, to a lesser extent, sermons written from diverse religious positions. This book’s greatest strength comes from Kabala’s identification of this vast popular literature. His effort to synthesize these sources is commendable.
Kabala’s organizing concept is not without problems, however. The author has a tendency to use the phrase “Protestant non-sectarian consensus,” or versions of it, as analytical shorthand. Thus at various places in the book, the consensus described by Kabala seems already present in American life by the late 1790s, then again in the 1820s. In other sections of the book, however, the consensus is still in a process of formation that culminates in the 1840s. As a result, Kabala’s usage of [End Page 172] his concept seems too static for the complicated and nuanced story that he otherwise tells in clear detail. This criticism aside, Kabala introduces his readers to a cast of writers and a set of viewpoints that help expand our understanding of churchstate debates as they occurred inside the early republic’s legislative halls and courtrooms but also beyond.