Separatism a term used to denote the disposition and practice by which persons withdraw from established communities or dissent from settled and common views or beliefs. This article is concerned with the religious, or more specifically the ecclesiastical, form of separatism only.
The strict meaning of the phrase "religious separatism," which is also its only admissible meaning, makes it denote a tendency to break away from accepted religious views or a settled Church organization without sufficient cause. The imperfections and faults of the Church constitute the ordinary plea by which the action resulting from such tendency is defended; but as separatists never attempt to purify the Church from within, it is evident that the real motives by which they are actuated are personal indifference towards the Church, an alienation from the Church through the influence of rival institutions, or other reasons found in themselves. History shows that pride and perverse views have been the usual motives from which separatists have acted. All true reformers have continued in their churches until thrust out, e.g. Luther, Wesley, etc.
The term separatist (q.v.) occurs for the first time in the history of Protestantism, though it applies to movements in the ancient and Middle Age churches as well (e.g. Donatism). Separations on the grounds already indicated were not unknown in any period of the history of the organized Church. In Protestantism the churches of England and Scotland furnished several kinds of separatists during the 16th and 17th centuries, especially the Independents and the Brownists (q.v.). The term, however, became a party name for the first time in Germany, being originally employed in the Wetterau, then in Wurtemberg, and subsequently in Bremen. In the latter place, a Lutheran student of theology named Theodore Schermer became the head of a small clique (1699) which taught a kind of purgatory, rejected infant baptism and all public worship, and recommended the disuse of the Lord's supper because of the abuses attendant on its observance. They led a retired and pious life, wholly apart from the Church. The most able refutation of their peculiar views was written by J.W. Jäger, of Tübingen (1715). Other minor separatist movements occurred about this time, which are involved in the disputes growing out of the Pietist controversy.
The congregations of the Inspired (q.v.) demand special notice in this connection. These persons denounced all ecclesiastical organization as a work of the devil, which they cursed through inspiration of the spirit, and resolutely avoided. They justified their separation by various reasons; 1, that the Church is corrupt and has been divorced from Christ; 2, the ministrations of unregenerate persons are without effect; 3, only spiritual ties can bind a Christian to the Church; 4, infant baptism has no support in Scripture; 5, an inward and powerful impulse led them to withdraw from public worship, and secured to them a wondrous rest and peace of conscience; 6, separation insures exemption from many temptations; 7, it is favorable to the cultivation of an impartial love for all pious persons, and for them only; 8, it secures solitude, quietness, love for the cross, and a self-denying temper, all of which are necessary to the welfare of the soul. They argued that only separation could deliver from the chilling and baleful influences existing in the Church, and declared that persons once earnest to purify the Church had, without exception, sunk into indifference and spiritual sloth because they had not come out from the mystical and apocalyptical Babylon. Their opponents replied by showing that in the Savior's parable the wheat and tares were made to grow together until the harvest; that Christ and the apostles did not avoid the services of the corrupt Temple, though they superseded it when its work was done; and that Protestantism had not assumed an independent organization by its voluntary action, but only when necessity, consequent on its expulsion from a Church corrupt in its very principles, had compelled that measure. God's kingdom is a leaven; but the separation of the good from the bad is reserved for the day of judgment. The simple duty of each individual is to guard himself and his surroundings from the evil. On the Inspirationists see Weissmann, Introd. in Memorab. Eccles. Hist. Sacroe (Stuttg. 1719), pt. 2, saec. 17, p. 1264 sq., No. 9. On the Separatists generally, Schlegel, Kirchengesch. d. 18ten Jahrhunderts, 2, 1054 sq.