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  • Brian Kallback

Christian Leadership in the 1850s

As America becomes increasingly pluralized and diverse, discussing the role of Christianity in early America can seem, much like white pants after Labor Day, a bit out of fashion. Commentators from across the woke community discount the role of the Founding Fathers, as well as the influence their faith had over their works. Whether seeing a God in their Enlightenment mentalities or holding faith for the Protestant version, the Founding Fathers were impacted by a Supreme Being. As such, they were members of their generation, which held a Protestant worldview behind the machinations of life. In The position of Christianity in the United States, in its relations with our political institutions, and specially with reference to religious instruction in the public schools (1854), Stephen Colwell writes that:


“The Christians of the United States have received from their Fathers the most important trust ever committed to men. The political institutions of this country, springing from Christian liberality, Christian civilization and intelligence, designed solely to promote human well-being, are being placed in their hands as implements to be employed for human welfare. They contain powers safe only in the hands of those who are under Christian influences – powers fraught in their proper or improper exercise, with more of good or evil for the human family, than were ever before entrusted to Christian hands.”[1]


Colwell’s language throughout portrays his belief in the foundational trust that American leaders have to lead by their Christian faith, which will lead to well-being of the population. The idea of pluralism was not discounted or dismissed. In fact, Colwell writes that only a nation built on such Christian ideals and tolerance would be open to inviting members from other communities into America. In today’s highly polarized immigration atmosphere, that is quite a statement to hold in times when someone’s faith can open them up to the bigotry and suspicions of the secular.


The times when Colwell was writing were intense, violent, and fraught with controversy. The 1850s were the lead-up to the eventual American Civil War. Through compromises and legislation, the states were able to hold themselves together. And yet, one spark could have ignited the blaze of war. Christianity was used by both sides of the struggle as a means of glorifying and defending their positions, specifically concerning the topic of slavery. Inherent in the teachings of Christianity is the notion of right versus wrong, that there is an inner conscience inside all of us to know what is morally acceptable. However, in the years prior to the Civil War, Christians on both sides of the slavery debate believed their fights to be “self-evidently moral”[2] Slaves came to regard the religion of their masters as hypocritical, as [the masters’] “moral failings made them suspicious of the religion they professed”[3]


Ultimately, Christianity is based on the selfless sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Throughout history, attempts have been made to subjugate others in the name of Christianity. In each case, it has unsuccessfully tarnished the image of Christ the servant. During the 1850s, people on both side of the Civil War and slavery debates felt Christ was in their corner. Yet, Jesus Christ is about serving others and He serve His Church. Anything less than that standard falls short, regardless of what historical period is being discussed.

[1] Stephen Colwell, The position of Christianity in the United States, in its relations with our political institutions, and specially with reference to religious instruction in the public schools, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854): 69. link.gale.com/apps/doc/CY0101287643/SABN?u=vic_liberty&sid=bookmarkSABN&xid=5d2748ca&pg=3 [2] Matthew Bowman, “Violence and atheism in the age of abolition.” Church History 89, no. 4 (December 2020): 859. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0009640720001407. [3] Ibid, 862.


Bibliography


Bowman, M. “Violence and atheism in the age of abolition.” Church History 89, no. 4 (December 2020): 857–874. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0009640720001407.


Colwell, S. The position of Christianity in the United States, in its relations with our political institutions, and specially with reference to religious instruction in the public schools. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & co., 1854. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CY0101287643/SABN?u=vic_liberty&sid=bookmarkSABN&xid=5d2748ca&pg=3

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