Lane Library

Religion in America

Religion was a dominant feature of life in colonial and frontier America. After 1800 the frontier moved rapidly westward from the Atlantic seaboard. Ordained ministers and itinerant preachers of many different sects accompanied the migration, establishing churches, schools and colleges with a missionary zeal that assured the early presence of congregations and educational institutions wherever settlements occurred. In a process repeated over and over during the development of the country, these varied social ingredients were united within a uniquely American frame of government to produce dynamic communities where religion was often an agent of progress. For instance, from 1858 to 1882, the medical school founded by Cooper was the medical department of a sectarian institution - first the University of the Pacific founded by the Methodists, and later the University (City) College established by the Presbyterians. A striking example from modern times of constructive social change fostered by a religious group is the leadership of African American churches and their ministers in the movement for desegregation and equal opportunity.

In contrast to the strife created in Europe by restrictions on religious worship during the Reformation (1500-1700), religious free enterprise in the United States after the founding of the Republic in 1778 led to vigorous competition among the many religious groups with relatively little sectarian conflict. The First Amendment of the Constitution (1791) is responsible for this tolerable state of affairs. Although the Amendment has not entirely eliminated either religious discrimination or political intervention by religious partisans, it has controlled them, and has been an effective bulwark against the harsher forms of religious repression which drove many of America's most resourceful immigrants from the Old World to the New in colonial times.

The spectacle of bloody religious conflict during the European Reformation convinced the framers of our Constitution that government dominated by religion is incompatible with a free society - a principle still widely ignored among nations in today's world. James Madison (1751-1836), in A Memorial and Remonstrance, which he addressed to the General Assembly of Virginia in 1785, made an historic plea for separation of religion and government. He referred to the Reformation era in these words: "Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion." [7]

Madison recognized that the question of church-state relationships was one of the most crucial and potentially disruptive issues facing the First Congress of the new American Republic. Resolution of the question was urgent for the reason that, after the War of Independence (1775-1783), establishments of religion had been promptly authorized by six of the original 13 states (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia); and also by Vermont which was admitted to the Union in 1791 as the 14th state. An "establishment of religion" meant that taxes were collectible in each of these states to provide for the public support of one or another Protestant sect chosen in accordance with state law. These arrangements were already in sharp contention among competing religious groups, and European experience during the Reformation foretold divisive escalation of the controversy.

Fortunately for future generations of Americans, and as an example to the world, the First Congress of the United States in 1789 took an unprecedented and definitive step. It mandated separation of church and state by adopting the First Amendment to the Constitution, proposed by Representative James Madison of Virginia. The Amendment reads (in part) "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof... ."

This statute has been of immeasurable benefit to American society by guaranteeing freedom of religion and erecting a "wall of separation between Church and State". In spite of persistent efforts to breach the wall, the Amendment has served its purpose well. (The first ten Amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified in 1791). [8]

In spite of the First Amendment, the Americans were incorrigibly religious. Alexis de Tocqueville, an observant young Frenchman who visited America in 1831, wrote: "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." He also observed: "Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions....". [9]

For another keen observer's view of religion in America at the same period, one may turn to Domestic Manners of the Americans by Mrs. Frances Trollope, British gentlewoman, member of the Church of England and mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope. Her unsuccessful commercial venture in the department store business in Cincinnati in the late 1820's brought her within 35 miles of Elias Cooper, living then as a boy of ten on his family's farm near Somerville, Ohio. The "gossipy pages" of Mrs. Trollope's chapter on Religion are unsparingly critical of the coarseness and arrogance of the society she encountered in the raw New World of the Andrew Jackson era: She wrote: [10]

I had often heard it observed before I visited America, that one of the great blessings of its constitution was the absence of a national religion, the country being thus exonerated from all obligation of supporting the clergy; those only contributing to do so whose principles led them to it. My residence in the country has shown me that a religious tyranny may be exerted very effectually without the aid of the government, in a way much more oppressive than the paying of tithe, and without obtaining any of the salutary decorum, which I presume no one will deny is the result of an established mode of worship....

The whole people appear to be divided into an almost endless variety of religious factions, and I was told, that to be well received in society, it was necessary to declare yourself as belonging to some one of these. Let your acknowledged belief be what it may, you are said to be not a Christian, unless you attach yourself to a particular congregation. Besides the broad and well known distinctions of Episcopalian, Catholic, Presbyterian, Calvinist, Baptist, Quaker, Swedenborgian, Universalist, Dunker, etc., etc., etc.; there are innumerable others springing out of these, each of which assumes a church government of its own; of this, the most intriguing and factious individual is invariably the head; and in order, as it should seem, to show a reason for this separation, each congregation invests itself with some queer variety of external observance that has the melancholy effect of exposing all religious ceremonies to contempt.

It is impossible, in witnessing all these unseemly vagaries, not to recognize the advantages of an established church as a sort of headquarters for quiet unpresuming Christians, who are contented to serve faithfully, without insisting upon having each a little separate banner, embroidered with a device of their own imagining....

I believe I am sufficiently tolerant; but this does not prevent my seeing that the object of all religious observances is better obtained, when the government of the church is confided to the wisdom and experience of the most venerated among the people, than when it is placed in the hands of every tinker and tailor who chooses to claim a share in it.

Mrs. Trollope's caricature of the uncouth and egalitarian Americans resonated well with public opinion in Victorian England, and it scandalized the Americans. This assured a good market for her book on both sides of the Atlantic, compensating her financially for the bankruptcy of the exotic bazaar she unaccountably built in the riverboat town of Cincinnati. As to her caustic views on religion among the provincials, she clearly did not share their distrust of state religion. For their part, the pragmatic Americans created a religious Babel which served to prevent any sect from gaining undue influence over government or from enforcing conformity.

The influence of religion on community life in America was more pervasive in the day of de Toqueville and Mrs. Trollope than at present. And it remained so until after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 when it began to diminish. Darwin's research was an historic turning point for it materially loosened the hold of religious dogma on the mind of western man, and "pricked the great bubble of belief in which the world of 1859 had its being". [11] He injected a rational view of man, based for the first time on credible scientific observation, into the main stream of secular discourse, and since then religion has been increasingly demythologized. On 12 February 1909, fifty years after publication of Origin of Species, David Starr Jordan, distinguished zoologist and President of Stanford, gave a resumé of the work and influence of Darwin at a symposium in San Francisco honoring the hundredth anniversary of the birth of two of the greatest men of the nineteenth century - Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Of Darwin he said: "The chief and essential contention of Darwin, that species are formed by natural processes, is now absolutely established. That animals and plants today, man included, are descended from the animals and plants of earlier periods by natural lines of descent with modification, is one of the certainties of modern science". [12]

In the fall of this same year (1909) the first students entered the newly established Medical Department of Stanford University, made possible by the advocacy of President Jordan. We will continue now to pursue the objective of placing the West's pioneer medical school, the precursor of Stanford's Medical Department, within the context of American history of which it is a memorable chapter. We have already told how the westward movement of the frontier swept Cooper and Lane to a fateful rendezvous in San Francisco. We shall next endeavor to throw more light on the religious milieu and Quaker heritage that we have identified as the source of the common ideals that united them and the Doctors Gibbons.

In the above discussion we have referred to religion as a pervasive feature of American life in the colonial and succeeding period, and have alluded to the determining influence of Quakers on the early history of Stanford medical school. For a perspective on these subjects we will now consider the European roots of religion in America, and the English origin of the Society of Friends.

Lane Library