Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
Being an American and being a Christian are often linked together. In fact, for years churches in America have had an ongoing debate about the relationship of patriotism and faithfulness.
In 1843, a young professor named Philip Schaff left his job at the University of Berlin and came to teach at a small German Reformed seminary in Mercersburg, Pa. At first he did not like America, especially its chaotic religious practices. He lamented the ways in which religions "competed" with each other. He thought that the separation of church and state was a mistake because there were no external constraints to maintain religious order.
Over time, however, Schaff changed his thinking. In 1854, he spent a sabbatical year back in Germany, and while he was there he gave some lectures to help Germans understand America. ["America: A Sketch of the Political, Social, and Religious Character of the United States"]
Schaff came to believe that the voluntary pattern of American religion served Christianity and the nation well. He became a leading scholar of American church history and applauded "the moral, yea Puritanical earnestness of the American character, its patriotism and noble love of liberty in connection with deep-rooted reverence for the law of God and authority, its clear practical understanding, its talent for organizations, its inclination for improvement in every sphere, its fresh enthusiasm for great plans and schemes of moral reform, and its willingness to make sacrifices for the promotion of God's kingdom and every good work."
In his zeal for his adopted country, which he thought was being strengthened by German immigrants, Schaff also believed that Americans had a divine calling to promote the "Kingdom of God." He was sure that Americans did not earn this responsibility, just as ancient Israel did not deserve to be God's chosen people, but he felt that America had been entrusted with "enormous responsibility." Although he was certain that Americans were not "one whit better" than their European forebears, he noted that Americans were "full of ambition and national pride, and firmly resolved to soar above the Old World." He observed with amusement that Americans were "restlessness" and "agitation" personified, because "even when seated they push themselves to and fro on their rocking chairs."
Those of us in the United Church of Christ might do well to remember some of Philip Schaff's words about our country. Americans are blessed, but we have not earned our blessings. And furthermore, we have "enormous responsibility."
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.