Religious liberty is one aspect of American life that almost every citizen of the United States cherishes. Common is the pastoral prayer in any Protestant congregation that includes gratitude for the liberties that Christians enjoy, which permits them to worship free from government oversight or regulation. Even more typical is the Thanksgiving Day service in which ministers and church members openly acknowledge the benefits of a system of government that guarantees individuals the right to worship God according to the freedom of conscience.
Yet, the downside of religious liberty is not always noticed. This is not to say that Christians in the United States miss the ways in which American society seems to celebrate moral licentiousness by permitting all manner of lewdness and vulgarity in the media, popular culture, and advertising. Such freedom of expression is, of course, bound up with religious liberty, at least as some interpreters of the first amendment read it. What is missed, however, by those legitimately thankful for the liberties granted to believers in the United States is that such freedom involves a religious culture in which no single authority or institution has the power to regulate belief across the land. In other words, religious freedom, as America has come to experience it, is a remarkably egalitarian affair, in which ways of deciding whether one religion is better than another are left completely to the whims of the populace. No governmental or cultural agency can determine that a denomination’s teachings or practices fail to meet an acceptable standard of religion. To be sure, this is a very good thing. American Protestantism has made some genuine contributions to the history of theology thanks to the nation’s abandonment of the state-church system, which in Europe often prevented theologians and ministers from developing genuine insights into the teaching of Scripture. But the downside of escaping the state’s heavy hand in religion was that questionable religions gained as much right to cultural and political legitimacy as did historic Christianity. Sometimes these novel faiths became even more popular than the different Protestant denominations.
The negative effects of religious liberty were particularly noticeable during the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. The freedom of conscience granted to individual Americans was a major factor in the emergence of new religions that would, over time, attract followers from all over the world. Religious liberty was not alone responsible for these new faiths. The popularity of ideas about the dawning of the millennium, combined with democratic notions about the rights of people to decide for themselves what constituted religious truth, were also important features of the context that generated new religions. Together these conditions at once made the United States one of the most religious nations in the West while also setting the stage for new religions that departed significantly from orthodox Christianity.
Relatively familiar to most Americans is the religious significance of the first amendment to and the sixth article of the U.S. Constitution. The first restrains Congress from passing any laws that would establish any one faith as the official religion of the republic. The sixth article of the Constitution stipulates that no religious test may be required for holding public office in the federal government. At the time of ratification, these measures were fairly innocuous since they recognized a parity among the different Protestant denominations that then dominated colonial religious life. However, the consequences of the new nation’s lack of religious standards would soon become glaring.
Two factors were particularly important for testing the limits of America’s religious liberty. The first was a strain of millennial optimism that generated some amazing ideas about the fate of the new nation in God’s plan of salvation. A carry over from New England Puritanism was a conception of America as a chosen nation, a place where many of the seeds planted in the Protestant Reformation would come to fruition and eventually launch the millennial reign of Christ. This optimism was not simply a hope for the conversion of many persons but also included the extension of democracy and technological progress (for example, the telegraph and railroads) across the continent and eventually around the world. A secular version of this millennialism also gained influence among many citizens. From this perspective, the United States was a novus ordo seclorum, a new order for the ages, in which the errors and prejudices of past forms of government would be corrected and a just and equitable political order would be established.
Closely linked to these religious and secular versions of millennialism was a second factor that showed the negative consequences of religious liberty. Despite the checks that the Constitution put upon raw democracy in the United States, the sovereignty of the people was an incredibly appealing notion to men and women who had been bound by deference and custom to nobility and cultural superiors. In religious environments such popular sovereignty took off like wild fire because the only institutional authorities to keep it in check were clergy and denominational structures, which had yet to mature in ways that would keep pace with the new nation. But religious liberty meant that citizens of the United States would not need to defer even to the small religious authority maintained by church officials. Americans could start a new church if they wanted. After all, it was a free country. As Nathan O. Hatch observed in his path-breaking study of the nineteenth century, The Democratization of American Christianity, “Increasingly assertive common people wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evident and down-to-earth, their music lively and singable, and their churches in local hands.” He adds that it was “this upsurge of democratic hope that characterized so many religious cultures in the early republic.” Hatch also observes that this was an important factor in helping such populist Protestant denominations as the Methodists and Baptists attract many more members than the historically learned and formal churches such as Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.
Another consequence of the new religious environment in the United States was the rise of new religions. One of the most notable to emerge in the early nineteenth century was Mormonism. Begun in 1830 by Joseph Smith (1805–1844), following the publication of the Book of Mormon, the Church of the Latter-day Saints became a concoction of distinctively American themes. Smith emerged as a prophet of Jesus Christ, who stood ready to lead his followers into a new age of salvation history. The Book of Mormon itself bore the influence of the King James Version, which Smith knew well. And it allegedly granted to the United States its own special revelation: The land had ancient roots in pre-Columbian immigrants who supposedly left the gold plates that Smith discovered and translated. No matter how far its specific teachings deviated from those of historic Christianity — the doctrine of eternal progression, which assumes man will evolve to divinity, a belief in pre-existent souls, a deviant Christology — Mormonism in several respects reflected the religious context of the nineteenth century. It was a religion that circumvented inherited religious structures, appealed to people without social standing or political clout, and attempted to link America’s history to the history of Israel and the early church.
Another religion that illustrated the peculiar religious qualities of nineteenth-century America was that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The movement’s founder, Charles Taze Russell (1852–1916), who sold men’s clothing in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, tapped the millennial speculations and democratic impulses of the era. This layman’s reading of the Bible established that the second coming of Christ had already taken place in 1874 and that the end of human history would occur some four decades later. Taze lived to see that the world did not end in 1914, but this did not prevent his message, which condemned the churches for false-teaching, the government for abusing its power, and businesses for exploiting the working man, from gaining a considerable following. Indeed, like Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses proved that people unrestrained by preachers and teachers of the Word were capable of combining a smattering of Christian conviction with conspiratorial views about their society to concoct fairly sensational new religions.
Of course, one lesson from the examples of these nineteenth-century cults is that with freedom in religion comes the potential for great abuse. But the more important moral to this story is a complicated one about the value of religious authority. The American experiment did have the side effect of unleashing the possibility of religious anarchy. But the new political and social order did not undermine the legitimate authority of pastors and churches. In fact, the series of new religions to spring up in the United States is proof of God’s wisdom in providing His church with pastors and teachers whose duty is to divide the Word rightly. To be sure, the authority of the church can be abused — and the Reformation was an attempt to correct such mischief. But the exploitation of authority in no way undermines the legitimacy of church authority. As much as the disestablishment of religion in the United States removed the state’s sanction of pastors and churches, it also cast into bold relief the need for a learned ministry that could shepherd God’s flock. As John Calvin wrote in book four of the Institutes: “Neither the light and heat of the sun, nor food and drink, are so necessary to nourish and sustain the present life as the apostolic and pastoral office is necessary to preserve the church on earth.”