Americans who are interested in narrating the interrelated stories of American religious freedom or the separation of church and state invariably start their stories in one of three locations. Many start with the Pilgrims, the celebrated group of Calvinist separatists who fled England (via Holland) in search of freedom of conscience in the New World in 1620. Others, ironically, start with the Puritans, who left England in protest against the established church in order to found their own pure society in the area of Boston in 1628. Yet others begin their tale with Thomas Jefferson, who fought religious establishment in his home state and gave a model to the rest of the country through his constructing of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786.
While these three starting places have some merit, each have their own problems. The Pilgrims created a small separatist colony with only an interest in their own religious freedom, and regularly denied freedom of conscience to others. Similarly, the Puritans came to the New World not so much seeking religious freedom generally, but for the purpose of creating their own model society which they hoped would attract attention back in England. The Puritan penchant for denying freedom of conscience and for blending church and state is well documented in the stories of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, among others. Jefferson’s push for religious freedom and for the disestablishment of churches in Virginia and elsewhere in the newly formed United States marks a more general application of both principles, but with an enactment date of 1786, this occurred quite late, after the beginning of the Revolution. The Jefferson story also lacks any real explanatory power with regards to what caused American colonists to seek religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
A fourth option exists that has largely been ignored, and when historians have examined it, they have explored it for reasons not related to religious freedom or the separation of church and state. In 1725, a relatively unknown but promising minister in the Church of Scotland, John Glas, repudiated the National Covenants, which pledged that the ministers of the church would fight to keep Calvinist Presbyterianism as the only religious polity and faith of Scotland. These covenants were important to the Church, as they helped to establish Presbyterianism as the official religion of Scotland, and it repudiated the Episcopal polity of the Church of England, which the crown had attempted to force upon the region. Glas came to view the national covenants as heresy when confronted by a question in the Scottish catechism that asked how Jesus carried out the office of a King. Glas came to the position that only Christ held the power of Kingship over the church, and that the integration of church and state was unknown in the New Testament. Furthermore, Glas also rejected the use of coercive force in support of religious reformation, and embraced pacifism. Glas founded a new congregation of about one hundred people who held like-minded ideas, but remained inside the Church of Scotland and under its jurisdiction until 1730, when he was stripped of his ordination and excommunicated. Glas’ churches (which became known as Glasites in Scotland, and Sandemanian outside of Scotland), slowly expanded throughout the area, and into England, Wales, Ireland, and British India.
In 1764, Glas’ son-in-law, Robert Sandeman, boarded a ship for America and upon arrival, established several churches, starting in Danbury, Connecticut. When the American Revolution began in 1775, members refused to fight for either the British or the American side, claiming freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and pacifism as their core values, which would be violated if they fought for either side. Politically speaking, however, they favored the British, because they felt that the Americans were violating Romans 13 through their rebellion. The Sandemanians were heavily persecuted in America during the Revolution, but unlike other so-called “Loyalist” religious groups such as the Anglicans and the Methodists, they remained in America to face persecution as a sign of approval from God. After the war, most of the Sandemanian churches became aligned with or were absorbed by groups with similar doctrines, including such groups as the Christian Connexion and the Disciples of Christ. These denominations and their derivatives, such as the Churches of Christ, the Congregational Christian Churches, and the United Church of Christ, have largely been responsible for the limited but ongoing historiography of the Glasite/Sandemanian churches. While the Glasites became extinct through absorption in the United States in the late 1800’s, the last Glasite church in the United Kingdom finally closed in 1999.
As noted above, limited historiographic work on the Glasite movement has been conducted, and most of that work has been done to fulfill the needs of the various denominations that either absorbed congregations or who trace doctrinal innovations from the movement. While some work on Glasite positions during the Revolution has been conducted in the United States, no substantial work has been done on the political theology of the Glasites in Great Britain or Ireland, nor has any substantial historiographic investigation into on how the Glasites in Great Britain, who refused to fight on behalf of the empire, were treated. Because the Glasite churches were established before the start of the Revolution, and had a large but often unrecognized impact on the development of the first truly “American” churches in the United States, their beliefs must be fully known and taken into account to understand American religion. Specifically, because Glasite doctrine calls for freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and for the right to not bear arms for the state in times of war, investigation of Glasite history and political theology is needed in order to correct the current narrative regarding these issues in American history.
During the project, I will travel to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in order to conduct research on Glasite/Sandemanian history and political theology. My research will be largely archival in nature. Major archives with pertinent information regarding the Glasties are located in: Dublin, Ireland; Dundee, Scotland; and London, England. Additional research will be done by conducting site visits to the former locations of Glasite/Sandemanian meeting places, documenting these locations photographically and geo-spatially, and conducting brief visits to local government and historical archives.