“[A] Body Corporate and Politic”: Property, Incorporation, and the Political Economy of Religion in the Chesapeake, 1783–1826

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:50 PM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Roy Rogers, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
After the American Revolution, the religious landscape of the new United States was transformed. Long established churches in New England and the South lost their legal preferences. Evangelicalism moved from the periphery to the center of cultural and religious life, while older denominations floundered. The reigning interpretation of this process stresses a cultural revolution as the cause of this transformation. Evangelicals, with their democratic orientation, rapidly gained adherents as American culture became popularized. More elite-oriented denominations shrank. My paper seeks to revise this interpretation by examining the oft-overlooked political-legal contexts that made the triumph of evangelicalism possible by linking changes in national religious and legal culture—the rise of evangelicalism and separation of church and state—with battles in state legislatures and the actions of local parishioners.

This project examines the fate of the former established Anglican-cum-Episcopalian churches in the Chesapeake. These states were broadly similar in many respects. Their post-Revolutionary religious settlements, however, were radically different. In Virginia Episcopalianism faced collapse, while in Maryland it maintained institutional cohesion. I argue, through an examination of denominational life in Fairfax Parish in Alexandria, Va., and St. Anne’s Parish, Md., that this outcome can be explained by a difference in each state’s political economy of religion: Maryland allowed for the incorporation of churches while Virginia did not. Incorporation allowed capital-intensive denominations to maintain institutional integrity, while the lack of legal protection sent such denominations into a sudden free-fall. My study show that more than cultural factors played a decisive role in denominational competition and in the rise of evangelicalism in the early republic; we must expand our interpretations to make room for these factors.