“[A] body corporate and politic”: Politics, Law, and Denominational Competition in the Early National Chesapeake, 1776-1826

Sponsor (advisor): Jonathan Sassi

My dissertation examines the process of disestablishment in Virginia and Maryland from the beginning of independence (1776) through the enactment of Jewish emancipation in Maryland (1826). Scholarship on religion and the state during the early republic tends to stress the increasing democratization, popularization, and evangelicalization of the religious marketplace. My dissertation, by focusing on the local experience of denominational formation and competition in specific communities, seeks to push this scholarship in a new direction by highlighting the ways in which the state remained the primary force in the religious marketplace – through incorporation laws, tests oaths, moral legislation, a general tax assessment to support Christian churches, and other actions. Politics  was a battlefield upon which differing denominations fought for souls by using the law to shape and reshape the religious marketplace in their favor and at their competitors’ expense.

The primary source core of my dissertation is a comparative study of six communities on both sides of the Potomac River. The political, economic, and cultural similarities between early national Virginia and Maryland allows, relatively speaking, apples to be compared to apples. This is the great benefit of comparing the Chesapeake states rather than say comparing Virginia to New York or, even, Maryland to South Carolina. Through this comparative study I seek to highlight the continuing role of the political economy of religion (the legal rules and regulations) in choosing who “wins” and “loses” in the religious marketplace as both states gradually dismantled their colonial establishments.

My dissertation, fundamentally, is meant as the beginning of a new interpretation of disestablishment, denominational competition, and church-state relations in the new United States.


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