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The “Nation with the Soul of a Church”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Sidney E. Mead
The University of Iowa


The apt phrase, “a nation with the soul of a church” was coined by G. K. Chesterton in answer to his question, “What Is America?” the title of the autobiographical essay in which he relates how he came to appreciate what the United States was all about. Being irked, and then amused by the kinds of questions asked him when he applied for entrance into the United States, he was led to ask what is it that “makes America peculiar?” He concluded that it was the fact that

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence… It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, and that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived.

Research Article
Church History , Volume 36 , Issue 3 , September 1967 , pp. 262 - 283
Copyright © American Society of Church History 1967

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1. Bond, Raymond T. (ed.), The Man Who Was Chesterton (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1960), 125.Google Scholar

2. Ibid., 131.

3. Ibid., 132.

4. America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social, and Religious Character, 80–1. This work was first published in 1855. Reference is to the edition edited by Perry Miller and published by the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press in 1961.

5. Barker, Ernest, “Christianity and Nationalism” [1927], in Church, State and Education (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957), 131.Google Scholar Hereafter cited as “Barker.”

6. Barker, 132. The quotations in the following two paragraphs are taken from this book, pp. 133–136.

7. Barker, 136.

8. I quote from the edition published by the Congregational Board of Publication, Boston, 1860, 39–40.

9. Barker, 138. Temple, William, Citizen and Churchman (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1941), 68.Google Scholar

10. Barker, 138–139.

11. Brinton, Crane, The Shaping of the Modern Mind (New York: Mentor Books, 1953), 5961.Google Scholar

12. American Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 50.Google Scholar

13. Barker, 140.

14. The Secular City (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1965), 105.Google Scholar

15. America, 88.

16. New Yorker Magazine, Feb. 26, 1966. 112.Google Scholar

17. See Miller, Perry & Johnson, Thomas H., The Puritans (New York: American Book Co., 1938), 187.Google ScholarMiller, Perry, Errand Into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard Univ. Press, 1956), 146147.Google Scholar

18. See the Cambridge Platform of 1648, chap. X., Sect. 3, in Walker, Williston, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1960 [first published 1893]), 217.Google Scholar

19. p. 29.

20. Jackson, Robert H., The Supreme Court in the American System of Government, (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 23.Google Scholar

21. Religion in America (New York: Harper & Brother, 1845), 119.Google Scholar

22. Mr. Justice Black's dissenting opinion in Zorach v. Clauson, in Tussman, Joseph (ed.), The Supreme Court on Church & State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 270271.Google Scholar Hereafter this book is cited as “Tussman.”

23. Granted that “the fact is that the line which separates the secular from the sectarian in American life is elusive,” as Mr. Justice Brennan noted in his concurring opinion in the Schempp & Murray case; in Frommer, Arthur (ed.), The Bible and the Public Schools (New York: Liberal Press Books, 1963), 86.Google Scholar Hereafter this book is cited as “Frommer.”

24. “The Commitment of the Self and the Freedom of the Mind,” in Miller, Perry et al. , Religion & Freedom of Thought (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1954), 59.Google Scholar 24A. Hassard, John R. G., Life of the Most Reverend John Hughes D.D., First Archbishop of New York, With Extracts from His Private Correspondence (New York. D. Appleton and Company, 1866), 226.Google Scholar

25. Quoted in Smith, H. Shelton, Handy, Robert T., & Loetscher, Lefferts A., American Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), Vol. I, 394.Google Scholar

26. Whitehead, A. N., Adventures of Ideas (New York: Mentor Books, [first published 1933]), 25.Google Scholar Compare Whyte, Lancelot Law, The Next Development in Man (New York: Mentor Books, 1949), 220221Google Scholar: “The universality of the formative process, once recognized and accepted, casts its spell over man. Every element finds its place in the system of nature, and every particular form symbolizes a general form. Man is himself the supreme symbol, the richest of natural systems. Words are symbols spoken by man, but in the unitary world every form is a symbol and speaks to man.”

28. Ibid., 83.

27. Jefferson, Thomas, “Notes on Virginia,” in Blau, Joseph L. (ed.), Cornerstones of Religious Freedom in America. Revised ed. (New York: Harper & Row, Torchbooks, 1964), 82.Google Scholar

29. Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York: Baker & Taylor Co., 1891), 101102.Google Scholar

30. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963, 96–97.

31. The Man Who Was Chesterton, 129.

32. America, 45–46.

33. “The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. Such a sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation, and thereby create that continuity of a treasured common life which constitutes a civilization. ‘We live by symbols.’. The flag is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences, however large, within the frame work of the Constitution. This Court has had occasion to say that ‘… the flag is the symbol’ of the Nation's power, the emblem of freedom in its truest, best sense … it signifies government resting on the consent of the governed; liberty regulated by law; the protection of the weak against the strong; security against the exercise of arbitrary power; and absolute safety for free institutions against foreign aggression.’” Mr. Justice Frankfurter, opinion of the Court in the Gobitis case, 1940. In Tussman., 83.

34. Barker, 147.

35. Barker, 142.

36. Theology, of Culture, edited by Kimball, Robert C.. (New York: Oxford University Press, Galaxy Book, 1964), 42.Google Scholar

37. Ibid., 47.

38. Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (New York: Doubleday & Co., Anchor Books, 1960), 7481.Google Scholar

39. Whitehead, , Adventures of Ideas, 26.Google Scholar

40. p. 85.

41. Criterion II I (Winter, 1964), 7.

42. Adventures of Ideas, 25.

43. In Frommer, 65.

44. In Tussman, 203.

45. Theology Today, XX (Oct. 1963), 313.

46. Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the prophet, Joseph Smith, stated this effect very clearly. “If,” she argued, “I remain a member of no church all religious people will say I am of the world; and, if I join some one of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error. No church will admit that I am right, except the one with which I am associated. This makes them witnesses against each other; and how can I decide in such a case as this, seeing they are all unlike the church of Christ, as it existed in former days!” Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Lamoni, Iowa: Reorganized Church of Jesua Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1912), 12.Google Scholar

In this context it is not surprising that when the “personages” first appeared to Joseph Smith, he says, “ I asked the personages who stood above me in the light which of all the sects was right—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong.”

47. As did also Thomas Paine, who said in the second paragraph of The Age of Reason (1794)Google Scholar that “The circumstance that has now taken place in France, of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary; lest, in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.”

48. Paine complained in Part 2 of The Age of Reason that “all my opponents resort more or less to what they call Scripture evidence and Bible authority to help them out. They are so little masters of the subject as to confound a dispute about authenticity with a dispute about doctrines;…”

49. Quoted in Mead, Sidney E., Nathaniel William Taylor 1786–1858 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), 44, 4546.Google Scholar

50. The Infidel: Free Thought and American Religion (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1961), 16, 203.Google Scholar

51. Theology Today, XX (October, 1963), 313–21.Google Scholar

52. “The Memory of Our Fathers,” in Sermons Delivered on Various Occasions (Boston: T. R, Marvin, 1828), 301302, 304, 305.Google Scholar

53. Nor did many of his contemporaries. “The American civil religion was never anticlerical or militantly secular. On the contrary, it borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two.” Bellah, Robert N., “Civil Eeligion in America,” Daedalus, Winter 1967, 13.Google Scholar

54. Theology Today, XX (Oct. 1963), 314.Google Scholar

55. A Plea for the West (Cincinnati: Truman & Smith, 1835), 10.Google Scholar Beecher's sentiment was shared by most of the evangelicals. To take one example, his contemporary, S. S. Schmucker, president of the Lutheran seminary at Gettysburg, argued that “this country … is the chosen theatre of God for the free, unbiased development of humanity, and the settlment of the highest questions regarding its privileges, capacities and duties, in social, political and religious life.” The American Lutheran Church, Historically, Doctrinally, and Practically Delineated (Springfield: D. Harbaugh, 1852), 235.Google Scholar

56. Basler, Roy P. (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), IV, 193194.Google Scholar

57. Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, 97.

58. “Can Christians Really Unite?”, in Dominion, Jan, 1966. 21, 19.Google Scholar

59. Ibid., 19.

60. Tillich, Paul, The Protestant Era, translated by Adams, James Luther. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 56.Google Scholar

61. Our Country, 208–210, 214, 222.

62. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, translated by Bower, Anthony (New York: Vintage Books), 1958. 299.Google Scholar

63. Ibid., 305–306.

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