Clergymen and the Constitution: Religion and the Ratification Debate
Spring 2015 History Colloquium with Dr. Spencer McBride
The Kinder Forum held its final History Colloquium of the 2014-15 academic year on Friday, April 10, with Dr. Spencer McBride, Documentary Editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, delivering a lecture on activist-clergymen’s participation in the contentious, national dialogue about the potential impact of the Constitution on religious life in the United States as well as religion’s potential impact on the nascent U.S. government.
Dr. McBride opened his lecture by examining Federalists’ and Anti-Federalists’ conflicting and highly politicized responses to the clergy’s presence during the period of ratification. For instance, while Anti-Federalists openly criticized pro-ratification clergymen for acting out of ecclesiastical self-interest, Federalists presented these same public figures as evidence of consensus Christian support for the U.S. Constitution. Furthering the contradiction, Dr. McBride noted, was how both sides also used the religious landscape’s diversity of opinions to forward their respective agendas, with Federalists, for example, directing the public to trust the judgment of pro-Constitution clergy while at the same time decrying Anti-Federalist clergymen for operating beyond the scope of the pulpit and cultivating an “unholy alliance of church and state.” Dr. McBride then went on to describe how attempts to control the narrative of the Constitution’s relationship with the nation’s providential mission were similarly divisive, with Anti-Federalist clergymen denouncing centralized government as a tyrannical abandonment of this mission and Federalist clergymen drawing on a series of biblical allusions to depict ratification as a necessary step in the process of consummating the United States’ divinely appointed symmetry with Israel. Dr. McBride concluded by examining the fundamental disagreement among clergymen and politicians regarding whether public morality could exist without religion. Focusing specifically on the question of religious tests as a safeguard against officeholder corruption, he noted how Madison, among others, thought the tests would foster an un-constitutional hegemony among national leaders while Anti-Federalists argued that prohibiting the tests would destroy religious life in the United States, leading to a future religious landscape where Protestantism was not the dominant faith.
Spencer W. McBride is a historian and Documentary Editor of The Joseph Smith Papers. He earned his Ph.D. in History at Louisiana State University in May 2014, where his research focused on the intersection of religion and political culture during the American Revolution and in the early American republic. His book manuscript, The Pulpit and the Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America, is currently under review at the University of Virginia Press. In addition to editing forthcoming volumes for the Documents Series of The Joseph Smith Papers, he is at work on a new book, tentatively titled When Joseph Smith Ran for President: The Politics of American Religious Inequality. Born and raised in California, McBride currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife, Lindsay, and their three children.