Monday, Monday

November 24, 2003

That was a particularly incoherent thought yesterday.

Let me explain it a little farther, and in the process I will get a start on my think piece. One of the things that I write about is church and state. At the start of the nineteenth century many people followed Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story's lead when Story claimed that the First Amendment to the US constitution meant that the federal government could neither provide aid to any particular sect, no special grants for Presbyterians, nor provide aid for any general classification of Christianity, no federal equivalent to South Carolina's special status for Protestants. What Story said the US could do was support "Christianity in general," what others called the broad common principles of Christianity, without favoritism to any sect or subvariety.

The modern answer to this, of course, is that there is too much variety in Christendom for this to work. To use a classic 19th century example, if you protect the common Sabbath by preventing all work on Sunday, what does this mean for 7th-day Baptists who rest on Saturday, spend Sunday morning in worship, and then go about their business? Story ignored that, as did the people in the benevolent movements that spread over the country after the War of 1812. They simply asserted a common Christianity, claimed that they agreed in "all the important particulars" and were very careful never to name these particulars.

I link this claim, and its collapse, to the evolution of the Providential promise. National Providence, modeled on the deals between God and Israel in the Hebrew Bible, asserts that if a nation obeys God's wishes, then god will reward them, while if they avoid God's claims, they will be punished as a nation. While Christians generally deny personal Providence - in fact the Gospel of Matthew is pretty clear that personal success is negatively correlated with holiness - they often invoke general or national Providence. The classic American example comes in John Winthrop's Model of Christian Charity where he asserts that God has made a covenant with the Puritans, if they obey God's wishes they will be made into a great nation, if they disobey they will fade into ignomony. And, to raise the stakes, Winthrop asserts that all the eyes of the world are upon them; they are a "city on a hill" and their success or failure will be followed by similar success or failure everywhere else.

The Puritan notion of Providence came as a two-part deal: do well and be rewarded, do poorly and be punished. The interesting thing, for me, is that in the early 19th century we dropped the second part of that. A majority of Americans all over the country denied the claims of judgemental Providence, and Congress backed them up. There are a lot of examples, the famous one was the Sunday mails.

State law prohibited work or travel on Sundays except in cases of charity or necessity. In the early 19th century the travel restriction was increasingly under fire, people who travelled to services said they were travelling for charity, but then they stayed and were social afterwards - they blurred the lines. Many wanted to travel for pleasure, go on excursions, rather than sit listening to Puritan-style sermons all day. Immigrants, especially from Continental Europe, saw the day as a chance to relax with their families, often in parks or promenades or beer gardens. And, of course, rowdy artisinal culture had long seen Sunday as the day for recreations: ball games, contests, and just a wee bit of drink. (Monday, St. Monday, was the semi-official day off while folks recovered from their hangovers)

Starting in the War of 1812, the US mail began to travel on Sundays. The constitution is very clear that the US Mail can not be halted by state law; the post is an enumerated power. Mail coaches made noise coming into and out of town. The annoyance grew during the 1820s as the post road network expanded. It was made even worse in the mid 1820s when a new regulation stated that any time the post arrived, the post office had to open for an hour so folks could get their mail - even on Sunday morning. This was even more disruptive, and folks began to petition.

There had been one petition campaign against Sunday mails in 1813, with most of the petitions invoking Providence and warning that a decision made to aid the war effort would end up losing America the war. Congress repudiated Providence, cited expediency, was polite to the petitioners, and the mails continued. In 1828 Lyman Beecher formed the General Union for the Protection of the Christian Sabbath and started a new petition campaign. Some but not all of these petitions cited Providence. Congress again said no. The House cited expedience and apologized for disturbing the petitioners. The Senate cited expedience and scolded the petitioners for daring to involve Congress in deciding a religious question.

After a new round of petitions, all calling for an end to Sunday mails in strictly secular terms and many of them complaining about the Senate report, the House issued another report. Curiously, the same guy who had authored the Senate report a few months earlier had moved to the House and now authored (it was actually drafted by a friend of his) a new report. This new report claimed that Sabbatarian petitioners were trying to get Congress to decide on a contested matter of religious doctrine, pointed out that it would be a very bad idea to set the precedent of having a legislative body decide religious matters and then impose that decision on the nation, and concluded by using a reductio ab absurdim to claim that the Sabbatarian petitioners were starting down a slippery slope that would end with a re-creation of the old British establishment: mandatory attendance laws, only one sect to preach, those preachers paid out of tax revenue, and thought police to punish those who disagreed with the national orthodoxy. He saw Protestant Popery, and condemned it.

That was long. The point, for these purposes, is that the nation rejected the notion that they had to perform certain actions in order to receive Providential blessings. Or, more precisely, they rejected the notion that they would be punished if they did not follow the 4th Commandment. They wanted Providential blessings, they rejected Providential punishment.

We can write a wonderful sermon condemning the nation as a batch of self-indulgent children who want the goodies but not the work. We should also remember that the reason that Jackson, most of Congress, and Richard Johnson who chaired those committees and signed those reports denied the Providential requirements was that they did not want politicized religion. If the nation accepts as national policy that we will be punished for not following the "right" religion, then it becomes a matter of compelling national interest to choose the "right" religion. We choose that religion either by abdicating the choice to some religious body, forming a strong establishment of religion, or by having our magistrates and legislators decide what the national religious practices will be. That will soon lead to sabbath laws or no sabbath laws, strict or loose sabbath, attendance laws or no attendance laws, long sermons or short sermons, sermons condemning alcohol or sermons condemning strikes, all becoming matters to be handled in election campaigns. No one wanted to go there.

So, while we retain the belief in positive Providence, the blessings, and we call for those blessings any time a magistrate uses the traditional "God bless the United States of America," we reject negative providence for the same reason that the Jacksonians rejected it - we don't want any group to gain exclusive control and we absolutely do not want to politicize religious beliefs.

Despite the best efforts of folks who agreed with Joseph Story, Christianity in general became an ideal that was only powerful when invoked but not defined. People could claim that all agreed, but they could not come up with a legislated plan of action without raising worries about precedents and renewed establishments of religion.

What I need to do in this think piece is tie Providence to my thoughts about the rise of a self-identified Evangelical movement in the 1840s, a rise that with Sidney Mead I tie to Charles Hodge of Princeton and his theology of Unity in the Spirit. I need to check what Hodge says about historical Christianity, the act of publicly stating that Christ was the Messiah, as compared to the church invisible, the international and interdenominational community defined as those who are saved and will go to Heaven. The two overlap but are not identical, and Hodge urged practical unity between individuals on the basis of shared membership in the Church Invisible while at the same time urging them to forego all attempts to reconcile their worship practices or theologies - for to do so would mean that someone would be giving up a sincere belief solely for fellowship, and Hodge thought doctrines were more important than fellowship.

I want to tie Unity of the Spirit into the decline in negative Providence, probably on the basis that since good people should disagree about sincerely held doctrines, it would not be appropriate to call for any detailed national acts in fulfilment of any divine covenant. But, I need to re-read Hodge and think some more.

Thanks, I needed this think piece. I hope it was comprehensible.

If you are interested in learning more about the Sabbath Mails controversy, the easiest resource to find is Richard Rhodda John, Spreading the News. John wrote a very good history of the US Mails in the Early American Republic and has a good chapter on this. He has a better journal article, but that is harder to get to outside of a University Library. If you are a glutton for punishment, email me and I will send you more references.

Posted by Red Ted at November 24, 2003 10:37 AM | TrackBack