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19th Century Christian Benevolence and the Unwritten Constitution

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Master's thesis

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The purpose of this thesis is to examine how Christians, specifically pre-Civil War evangelicals of the 19th century, viewed their role in strengthening and maintaining the unwritten constitution observed most astutely by Tocqueville. By unwritten constitution, the author means the fundamental mores, values, and assumptions informing society and government. Disestablishment in the post-ratification years did not produce the unwritten constitution, but it did intensify the salience of it. A new and more vigorous form of maintenance, energized at the community level, was necessary to fill the vacuum left from the collapse of the hierarchical church-state structures. In one of his most prescient observations, Tocqueville unmasked the nexus between social consensus and political harmony and how the latter presupposes the former What keeps large numbers of citizens subject to the same government is much less the rational determination to remain united than the instinctive and in some sense involuntary accord that results from similarity of feeling and likeness of opinion. I cannot accept the proposition that men constitute a society simply because they recognize the same leader and obey the same laws. Society exists only when men see many things in the same way and have the same opinions about many subjects and, finally, when the same facts give rise to the same impressions and the same thoughts. This inquiry is limited to an examination of the American Bible Society ABS. Not only was it one of the earliest, largest, and most influential of all pre-Civil War benevolent associations, but it could credibly claim to be national in scope. The ABS illustrates how religious associations attempted to remedy the democratic ills highlighted by Tocqueville. The paper will focus on the perceived need for a national Bible society, the ABS organization and strategy, and how institutionalization pioneered a path for self-government in the democratic age.

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  • Government and Political Science
  • Humanities and History

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