A 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.