Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/09/2009 (7:12 pm)

TFJR: The Presence of God With His People

tfjr-final-2Continuing my review of sermons demonstrating the relationship in the minds of colonial Americans between Christianity and their government, called Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion (TFJR,) I offer an Election Day sermon preached by Samuel Dunbar on May 28, 1760 entitled “The Presence of God with his People.” Dunbar, a graduate from Harvard seminary and lifelong pastor of the First Church in Stoughton, MA, was renouned for his excellent oratory. Attending this particular sermon was the Governor of the Massachusetts-Bay colony, Thomas Pownall, Esq., and also the Lt. Governor, His Majesty’s Council for the colony, and the entire House of Representatives, as well as many private citizens from the area. Those who have been following this series may recall that this is the second sermon in the series that was preached in Boston on an election day; in New England, the job of electing officers to govern the people was taken as a deeply serious enterprise requiring the greatest piety as they sought wisdom and assistance from God.

Dunbar was a strict Calvinist, and no friend to the Great Awakening preachers that travelled around the New England countryside. He served as a military chaplain to British troops during the 1750s, and in later years was a staunch supporter of the patriot cause in the American revolution.

The transcript of the actual sermon may be found here.

The text for Dr. Dunbar’s sermon was II Chronicles 15:1-2: “And the Spirit of God came upon Azariah, the son of Oded. And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin, The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you.”

In the passage, King Asa had just successfully defeated a vast, invading army from Cush (the upper Nile region in Africa,) and was met upon his return by a prophet sending him encouragement and warning. The people of New England had about 14 years earlier defeated a French invasion in the northern colonies as part of what was called King George’s War (the signature battle in the colonies took place in Nova Scotia,) but beginning in 1754 they were again faced with the need for arms in the face of rising Indian attacks that we now call the French and Indian War. By 1760, British forces had successfully pushed the French north of the American colonies, having taken forts at Ticonderoga and Niagra and defeated the French General Montcalm outside of Quebec. Dr. Dunbar felt that the success of contemporary British forces mirrored the success of King Asa’s forces, and that the word of the prophet was appropriate encouragement and warning for the colonies. So, his message focused on the link between the piety of the people and the favor God granted them, particularly but not solely their armies.

The two central principles of the sermon were:

I. The presence of God with his People, is their only safety and happiness.

Dunbar did not claim that the presence of God was a guarantee against trouble, but rather that it was guarantee of final success; that when enemies gathered together to trouble a people who pleased God, their plots would never succeed no matter how great the odds in their favor.

This presence of God with his people preserves them in their greatest sufferings & dangers… This delivers them, in their lowest and most desperate circumstances… This lays restraint upon their envious and malicious enemies… This defeats the mischievous plots and devices of their enemies against them… This supplies them, with the comforts of life, so that they want no good thing… This directs them in all their darkness, and points out to them, the path of duty, the way of safety… This protects them, from all enemies and dangers, and is as a wall of fire, round about them, to keep them from harm…

This gives them success, in all their affairs. Success doth not constantly follow the probability of second causes. The Race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Oft-times the best human counsels are turned into foolishness, the wisest measures are disconcerted, the greatest preparations brought to nothing, and the cunningest politicians befooled; while on the other hand, weak and contemptible means are prospered, and the most improbable, meet with the greatest success. This is entirely owing to the divine governing providence. But when God is present with his people, he orders all things well for them, and prospers all their lawful undertakings. The smiles of God upon them, make every thing flourishing—God’s presence makes their land healthful, their fields fruitful, their merchandize gainful, and their armies successful…

This repairs the ruins, brought upon them, by the judgments of providence… This turns all the evils they meet with into real kindnesses to them… This favourable providential presence of God with his people, builds his house, and appoints the ordinances of his worship, among them.

II. Their enjoying the presence of God with them, depends upon their being with God.

Here Dunbar recommends keeping covenant with God by recognizing His hand in all matters, retaining a prayerful attitude of dependence, and diligently performing all religious observances.

God’s gracious providential presence with them performs great acts of favour for them, and their obediential presence with God, lies in performing religious duties to him. It implies in it, their keeping covenant with God. Their covenant relation to God constitutes them his peculiar people: and brings them into a state of nearness to him; for they, that are strangers from the covenant, are afar off from God: and their keeping covenant with God, being stedfast in it, abstaining from all sins forbidden, and doing all required duties, believing all revealed truths, and walking in all the commandments & ordinances of the Lord; and in all designing his glory, is their being with God. So also is their eying God in all providential dispensations. When they look thro’ second causes, and above visible instruments, and see the sovereign providence of God in all events, and adore the divine wisdom & goodness, power and righteousness, truth and faithfulness, in them, and compose themselves to a behaviour, comporting with them, they are with God. When they express a dutiful submission to, and a fiducial dependance upon God in all their wants, and fears, & dangers: when they maintain a prayerful frame of spirit, seeking of God the supply of their wants, direction in their streights, deliverance from their dangers, protection from their enemies, and other judgments, success in their enterprizes, and a blessing upon their labours: when they excite themselves to a thankful praising God for all his benefits: when they endeavour a wise and good improvement of all God’s dealings towards them: and when they conscienciously walk in obedience to his commands: then may they be said to be with God, and not to forsake him.

God’s people being thus with him, God will be with them. Not as if their being with God merited his being with them. By no means: for after all, they are unprofitable servants: and there are so many sinful imperfections attending them, in their abiding with God, such as, distrust and impatience, carnal confidence and undue dependance upon themselves or others, or means, neglect of humble believing prayer, or of holy thankful praises, that God might justly withdraw from them, and deny them his gracious presence. But, these infirmities notwithstanding, his people may humbly hope for his presence & blessing; for God is not strict to mark iniquity, where he sees sincerity.

He proceeds to warn the Governor directly, then His majesty’s council and the House of Representatives, then judges who sit on the bench, then pastors in the colonies, and finally the people themselves, observing that each of them stands to be judged finally and personally should they fail to fulfill faithfully the station to which they have been called, and emphasizing that their stations call for personal integrity, piety, and excellence. He is particularly forceful with the pastors:

Of all men in the world, we have need to be with God, and to give our selves to prayer, imploring his spirit, to give us a spiritual understanding in the mysteries of the gospel, & to lead us into all truth: his presence, to animate us in our holy work, and to carry us above all the discouragements we meet with, from the carnality and unbelief of our own hearts, from the temptations of satan, from the little visible success of our labours, from the unkindness of our people, and from the oppositions of an ungodly world: his help, to support us under our burdens, and to strengthen us to make full proof of our ministry: and his blessing upon our labours, that we may preach so, as to save our selves, and them that hear us. We had need be with God in our preaching… [and] in our lives, and like Noah that antediluvian preacher of righteousness, walk with God, and be exemplary in faith and purity, and all the vertues of a holy life; that all may take knowledge of us, that we have been, and are with God. If we are thus with God, we may hope, he will be graciously present with us, to assist, instruct, encourage, and succeed us, in our ministerial work.

But, if we forsake God, become strangers to prayer, and ashamed of the gospel of Christ, and the religion of the Bible: if we trust to the strength of our own reason, and the imaginary greatness of our learning; and preach for doctrines, the unscriptural conceits of our own brains, or the erroneous notions of others; if we corrupt the word of God, and preach another gospel; if we neglect or mislead the souls committed to our charge; and, by the badness of our lives, contradict and frustrate the end of our ministry, we have reason to fear, that God will forsake us utterly; and abandon us to the giddiness and wildness of our own fancies, to the blindness and pride of our own natural reason, to a reprobate mind, and to the delusions of satan: and that, having been wandring stars, the blackness of darkness for ever will be reserved for us; and that, in that outer darkness, we shall have our miserable portion, but just punishment, and be the subjects of a greater damnation.

The take from this sermon is very simple: to Dr. Dunbar, there was no arena of human life in which God’s presence was not a prerequisite for success. God’s presence was not something that was earned — indeed, nobody was worthy of it — but something that God graciously offered to those who committed themselves to His way, to preserve them and assist them through the ordinary difficulties of life. He did not say that God punished those who failed to commit themselves, but simply that He removed Himself from them at their own request, to allow them to suffer the consequences of their own ways. Judgment comes later, after death.

His sentiment would be echoed less than 30 years later by Benjamin Franklin in an appeal to the Constitutional convention in 1787, that they engage in prayer in order that they be aided by Providence in the composition of their new Constitution:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probably that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

10/22/2009 (9:34 am)

TFJR: Civil Magistrates Must Be Just

tfjr-final-2At long last, I continue my series of reviews of the Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion (TFJR), political sermons delivered in pre-Revolution America. This installment covers a sermon preached by Charles Chancey in Boston on election day, in May of 1747, before the governor, the ruling council, and the house of representatives of Massachusetts. The text of the sermon may be found here.

Charles Chauncy served as pastor of the First Church in Boston for sixty years, and was among the most influential pastors in New England. From 1762 to 1771 he was instrumental in combating the British threat to send an Anglican bishop to America, an issue that rallied Congregationalists across New England against the Crown.

Text

The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me; he that ruleth over Men must be just, ruling in the Fear of God.

II Sam. xxiii. 3.

I. That governments are necessary, and that some should rule over others, is evidently the will of God.

Governments are necessary to protect life, liberty, and property; this is necessary because of human sin. No particular system is God-ordained, but every people must choose its own style. It is evident in nature that some men are fit to rule, and others are not.

The present circumstances of the human race are therefore such, by means of sin, that ’tis necessary they should, for their mutual defence and safety, combine together in distinct societies, lodging as much power in the hands of a few, as may be sufficient to restrain the irregularities of the rest, and keep them within the bounds of a just decorum. Such a superiority in some, and inferiority in others, is perfectly adjusted to the present state of mankind. Their circumstances require it. They could not live, either comfortably or safely without it.

II. Rulers must be just, ruling in the fear of God.

A. Rulers must be just

1. They must be just in cooperation with their government’s Constitution. They must remain within the powers granted to them.

They have severally and equally a right to that power which is granted to them in the constitution, and to wrest it out of each other’s hands, or to obstruct one another in the regular legal exercise of it, is evidently unjust.

2. They must be just in the laws that they pass. Righteousness is the sole difference between rightful authority and tyranny.

They have an undoubted right to make and execute laws, for the publick good. This is essentially included in the very idea of government: Insomuch, that government, without a right to enact and enforce proper laws, is nothing more than an empty name.

And this right, in whomsoever it is vested, must be exercised under the direction of justice. For as there cannot be government without a right of legislation, so neither can there be this right but in conjunction with righteousness. ’Tis the just exercise of power that distinguishes right from might; authority that is to be revered and obeyed, from violence and tyranny, which are to be dreaded and deprecated.

Not only must they be just in the form of the laws that they pass, they must also be just in the execution of those laws, and in empowering others to execute them. There must be no favoritism, no self-seeking, no partisanship in their execution.

Augustine’s dictum that “an unjust law is no law at all” comes to mind. Dr. Chauncy would have disagreed, but would have agreed that an unjust law does severe damage to the reputation of the state and the law, and that such laws must be corrected by better rulers.

3. They must be just in their debts. The government must pay what it owes. And in justice to their station, they should be well-paid for their service.

The apparent intent of the Fed in conjunction with the President to repay US debt holders with inflated currency is a stark violation of this concept.

4. They must be just in respect to the liberties of subjects. They must respect and defend them.

Here, Chauncy uses the example of the Apostle Paul receiving deference when it was discovered he was a subject of Rome. So should rulers always defend the rights of their citizens, so that others will fear to intrude on them. In the modern day we might liken this to the appropriate use of the military to protect US citizens abroad. However, Chauncy also clearly means that the state must not intrude on the liberties of private citizens at home.

5. They must be just in preserving the peace and safety of the state. They must not permit undue disturbance among the people.

By this, he means that the state must be swift in putting down rebellion and in protecting citizens from thieves and highwaymen.

6. They must promote the general welfare of the people…

…by discouraging, on the one hand, idleness, prodigality, prophaneness, uncleanness, drunkenness, and the like immoralities, which tend, in the natural course of things, to their impoverishment and ruin: And by encouraging, on the other hand, industry, frugality, temperance, chastity, and the like moral virtues, the general practice whereof are naturally connected with the flourishing of a people in every thing that tends to make them great and happy.

Chauncy adds that rulers will account to Jesus for their execution of Justice, and the judgment for failure to do so faithfully will not be pretty.

In fine, it should be a constraining argument with rulers to be just, that they are accountable to that Jesus, whom God hath ordained to be the judge of the world, for the use of that power he has put into their hands. And if, by their unjust behaviour in their places, they have not only injured the people, but unhappily led them, by their example, into practices that are fraudulent and dishonest; I say, if they have thus misused their power, sad will be their account another day; such as must expose them to the resentments of their judge, which they will not be able to escape. It will not be any security then, that they were once ranked among the great men of the earth.

Chauncy also explains how necessary it is for rulers to possess sound faith. He explains that by no means is faith sufficient grounds to promote a man to governmental responsibility, but that such faith is one necessary condition of that promotion.

In the application of the lesson, Chauncy recognizes the Governor and other officers who were present, and exhorts them to more faithfully fulfill their duties. Apparently, Dr. Chauncy was concerned that the state of warfare and debt in the colonies was linked to their failure to enforce justice in public debts and business, to abuses of credit to the detriment of rich and poor alike, to an excess of vanity among the people, and to an excess of strong drink. Like any good Englishman of the time, he considered it the state’s role to enforce the public morals, both in what we would call social justice and in what we would call private morality.

By far the most crucial thing to notice about this sermon is that it was delivered preparatory to voting. They considered the selection of leaders a solemn duty before God, to be carried out in full awareness of their unity under Christ and of their duty to impartial and non-partisan justice.

09/24/2009 (9:45 am)

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The video to the left is from the recent sting operation by independent reporters regarding the Baltimore office of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. We all know the story by now; the reporters pose as pimp and prostitute, the workers give them advice how to game the tax laws. (You can read about how the project came about here.)

Yesterday, ACORN filed suit in Circuit Court for Baltimore City against Andrew Breitbart, the owner of the Big Government blog on which the films were presented, and against Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe, the two reporters who posed in the video. They seek punitive and compensatory damages for their ruined reputations, and they seek an injunction to stop the circulation of the videos. Good luck with the latter — they’re on YouTube and they’ve gone viral.

The two employees who were captured on video have been fired by ACORN. The organization has frozen hiring until an investigation is complete. Congress has cut off federal funding for the organization. ACORN claims damage was done to its reputation, and claims also that the two employees, Thompson and WIlliams, suffered “extreme emotional distress” as a result of the video. Also, the lawsuit claims that O’Keefe and Giles violated Maryland law by taping audio without the consent of the people being taped.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Put yourself in the place of a legitimate citizen organization. You’ve been visited by a hostile team of reporters who are aiming at ruining your reputation. They’ve discovered a pair of rogues working in one of your offices, and broadcast the video of these two clowns violating your organization’s clear intent and helping criminals establish businesses that hide their crimes and steal from the taxpayers. Your reputation has suffered, your donors are running for the hills, and you want compensation.

Why the hell are you concerned about the “extreme emotional distress” of the two human sewers that the reporters discovered? These two are the reason the reporters were able to ruin your reputation! You should be suing them! Sure, it makes sense also to sue the reporters to get compensation for the damage, but you should be suing these employees for every penny they earn for the rest of their lives, for bringing their garbage into your legitimate place of business and making your organization look like a criminal enterprise. You should be spreading memos throughout the organization with pictures and descriptions of those two, saying “If you do what these two did, expect to be fired, jailed, folded, spindled, mutilated, and have teams of flesh-eating lawyers gobbling the income from your estate for the rest of eternity.”

CNN’s story on the matter cites a relevant falsehood (without identifying it as a falsehood.) It says:

ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — said O’Keefe and Giles also attempted to capture similar videos at ACORN offices in other cities but failed.

What they do not say is that O’Keefe and Giles claim exactly the opposite — that they visited exactly five ACORN offices, and obtained exactly five videos of employees helping them break the law. They had no trouble finding ACORN employees to help them, because that’s what ACORN does: it helps people break the law.

So why is ACORN listing the pain and suffering of these employees in the lawsuit? Simply because the lawsuit is not aimed at producing justice. They know other employees are engaged in precisely the same activity. They hire them to do that. If they went after the employees like a sane organization would, they would lose all their employees overnight. So they can’t do that.

The purpose of the lawsuit, frankly, is to discourage honest people from attacking ACORN, so they can continue to operate without scrutiny. They want people to think twice before blowing the whistle on their criminal enterprise. And the purpose for listing the pain and suffering of criminals in the complaint is to throw more mud on the wall to see what sticks. If they manage to get a judge to award them compensation for the suffering of these two, all that much more pain for the reporters who dared to cross them. It can’t hurt their lawsuit, so they do it.

The lawsuit is not about justice, not even a little. The whole picture does not look like a legitimate organization seeking redress of real grievances. It looks like a criminal enterprise engaging in warfare.


ACORN has the right in the United States to sue in court to seek compensation for damages. That’s the legal side, and the rights of individuals, regardless of how vicious or immoral they might be, must be protected equally, or none of us are safe. Courtesy of one of my commenters, allow me to quote a conversation from the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, between Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law to be, William Roper:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Having said that, I want to be clear: I believe that what these reporters did was morally right. I believe that ACORN is a deeply corrupt organization, from top to bottom. I believe that ACORN’s employees were doing precisely what they were hired to do, and that they were fired solely for appearance’s sake. I do not believe any other conclusion is possible.

And I believe this lawsuit is an evil act.

The phrase that comes to my mind is from the prophet Isaiah, where he condemns the Israelites for fasting with wrong motives: he says they pray and fast in order to “strike with a wicked fist.” (Isaiah 58:4, New American Standard Version) That’s what ACORN is doing here. They got caught doing what they do. They are using the laws of the land to punish the righteous for exposing them, to make sure nobody else ever exposes them again without thinking twice. They want to perform their evil deeds in the dark, as evil people always do. So they use the laws to punish the righteous.

wrybob1This is not, by far, the only sort of misuse of the system we call “Justice.” Research has established that one of the greatest contributors to the costs of medical care is what we call “defensive medicine,” medicine that serves no purpose other than to protect the doctor, and more to the point, the insurer, against lawsuits. This has become necessary because people use the courts, not to get justice, but to get rich. They sue if the doctor makes an error (which is common enough, since doctors are human,) or if nature deals them a bad hand and they can blame the doctor somehow. They reason, “The doctor has lots, and I have only a little, so why shouldn’t I get some of it?” The sort of thinking that says “I should only ask for what is just” has vanished from our culture. So has the sort of thinking that says “I should offer what is just,” because lawsuits have driven that sort of thing underground. One does not admit error, because that puts you at risk in the lawsuit. We have become corrupt, and our corruption has broken the system of justice.

I’ve begun a series of articles reviewing theological thinking about politics in the American colonies before the American Revolution. It’s a bit boring, but the reason I’m doing it is so I can wrap my mind around what it might take to build, from the ground up, a society that honors God’s laws, that rewards righteousness and discards wickedness as though it were garbage. The current American system does not do that; it rewards wickedness, and protects it.

The system actually protects righteous people if the people are, on the whole, righteous. The reason the system protects wickedness is that the land is full of wicked people. We have become corrupt, and have earned our demise. We need to resurrect righteous thinking; we need to mark the money-grubbing that abuses the system as the evil that it is, and we need to resist that sort of thinking when it arises within ourselves. We need to call corruption by its name, and we need to root it out from among us, “…each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)

The cure begins in the mirror; each of us bears the responsibility to become righteous, and the responsibility to learn to think, speak, and act like righteous men and women. The only version of this that will bear legitimate fruit is the version that relies on God, Himself, to build righteousness in us. No counterfeit will produce anything worthwhile. The mere fact that one calls oneself “Christian” (or any other denomination) does not produce what’s needed. It’s just as easy for a Christian to get greedy or foolish as it is anybody else. What we’re after is not religious words, but godly behavior; not church attendance, but decency.

There can be no other foundation for a righteous nation; the laws that defend liberty, defend wickedness where wickedness is common. The only solution is to make wickedness uncommon.

John Adams’ name has risen in esteem recently, as historians rediscover the mark he left on the fledgling nation, so I’ll end this by recalling his warning issued to militiamen of Massachusetts in 1798:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.

We are no longer a moral and religious people, so ACORN is free to strike with wicked fists against the righteous who expose their criminality. This does not have to be, but the cure begins right there where you sit.

09/18/2009 (4:24 pm)

TFJR: Britain's Mercies, and Britain's Duties

tfjr-final-22Today’s entry in the review of pre-Revolutionary sermons introduces the Great Awakener himself, George Whitefield, the premier preacher of the Great Awakening. He preached the sermon “Britain’s Mercies, and Britain’s Duty; Occasioned by the Suppression of the late Unnatural Rebellion” at the New Building in Philadelphia, in August of 1746.

The “late Unnatural Rebellion” to which he referred was the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie, scion of the Stuart kings, to raise a rebellion in Scotland, with some minor help from the French. Charles had landed in Scotland, raised a small army, and beaten a roughly equivalent army of loyalists to secure a foothold; however, he’d thereafter been thrashed soundly, and had to flee to Ireland. Whitefield was exultant because the Stuart kings had, according to him, connections to Rome, and therefore were given to violence and barbarity and threatened to impose Catholicism and remove Protestant liberties (I cannot speak to whether this fear was sound or not). In their place on the throne were the Hanover kings, George II at that moment. Whitefield felt that King George was a model of toleration and wisdom, and that the British realm was the happiest and most free in the world under his leadership. It was his son, Mad King George III, against whom the colonies eventually rebelled and gained their independence.

Coincident with the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion, Britain and the colonies were also allies in the War of Austrian Succession (known in the colonies as King George’s War,) also involving enmity with France. That war was mostly fought in central Europe since it was primarily a land grab by Prussia against Austria (Britain was allied with Austria, and France with Prussia), but an unlikely band of colonials had recently captured a major French stronghold at Louisbourg, in Nova Scotia, and a French fleet sent to liberate it had been wrecked at sea. Britain’s involvement in the Austrian Succession war on the continent probably explains the momentary defeat of the loyalists in Scotland at the hands of the Jacobite rebels, since the experienced troops were all overseas.

125px-george_whitefield_preachingWhitefield’s sermon used Psalm 105:45 as a text: “That they might observe His Statutes, and keep his Laws.” It’s an explanatory clause at the end of a recitation of God’s goodness to the family of Abraham, claiming that God’s purpose in being good to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, was to encourage them to keep His commandments. Whitefield recited what he considered to be a similar set of Providential events, showing God’s favor on Britain and her colonies in the defeat of the Jacobites by British forces under the leadership of the young prince William, and really in the entirety of British history. On the basis of that Providence, he argues passionately for British subjects to devote themselves to keeping God’s commandments diligently.

The wonderful and surprizing manner of GOD’s bringing about a reformation in the reign of King Henry the Eighth — his carrying it on in the blessed reign of King Edward the Sixth — his delivering us out of the bloody hands of Queen Mary, and destroying the Spanish invincible Armada, under her immediate Protestant successor Queen Elizabeth — his discovery of the popish plot under King James — the glorious revolution by King William — and, to come nearer to our own times, his driving away four thousand five hundred Spaniards, from a weak (tho’ important) frontier colony, when they had, in a manner, actually taken possession of it — his giving us Louisbourg, one of the strongest fortresses of our enemies, contrary to all human probability, but the other day, into our hands (which may encourage our hopes of success, supposing it carried on in a like spirit, in our intended Canada expedition) — These, I say, with the victory which you have lately been commemorating, are such national mercies, not to mention any more, as will render us utterly inexcusable, if they do not produce a national reformation, and incite us all, with one heart, to observe GOD’s Statutes, and keep his Laws.

For our purposes, the most interesting feature is the connection in Whitefield’s mind between liberty and Protestant religion. To be sure, the liberty he values is mostly freedom from the influence and imagined tyranny of the Roman church (Catholicism), but it also includes the toleration of both political and religious conscience by the Crown. This is crucial to understanding the later introduction of the separation between church and state; Whitefield, like his later counterparts, had no notion of banning religion from public life, but simply of preventing an overbearing church hierarchy like Rome from controlling the government. Nearly all the later denunciations of religion by colonial writers of the period have such an overbearing hierarchy clearly in mind.

This sermon also illustrates the mindset of religious colonials in seeing the hand of God in the conduct of kingly policy, and in the fortunes of the nation. This was common for the time.

Whitefield was known for his spellbinding oratory, so it is likely that the impact of this particular sermon was greater than one might imagine upon reading it. University of Tennessee English Prof Michael Lofaro wrote of Whitefield that he “is central to the understanding of eighteenth century America. . . . The success of his itinerant ministry in the colonies indirectly hastened the break with England by increasing the number of dissenters and, by forming them into loosely affiliated, intercolonial, interdenominational ‘congregations,’ perceptibly encouraged American independence” (American Writers Before 1800, p. 1581, as cited in Sandoz, Ellis, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, p.120). Clearly, though, Whitefield considered himself a loyal subject of the British Crown.

The image of George Whitefield preaching is from George Whitefield: a biography, with special reference to his labors in America; Belcher, Joseph; New York : American Tract Society; 1857.

09/15/2009 (1:26 pm)

TFJR: Sebastian Castellio and the Origin of Liberty of Conscience

tfjr-final-21In this installation in the series exploring the theological foundations of a just rebellion, I depart for a moment from considering political sermons of the American revolutionary period to highlight the originator of the notion of Liberty of Conscience among European Protestants. The originator was a little-known writer named Sebastian Castellio, a student of John Calvin who later became one of his adversaries.

John Calvin, one of the most influential forces in the Protestant Reformation (his Institutes of the Christian Religion remains to this day a mainstay of Reformed theology,) established a unique Theocratic government in the city of Geneva in 1541, using his theology to guide the city’s political leaders until his death in 1564. Calvin considered it a Christian’s duty to conform to civil government regardless of how oppressive; he also considered all possible governmental forms (which, to him, included monarchy, autocracy, and democracy) to be consistent with scripture, which he considered the final rule of all questions.(1) Within his city, citizens were required to attend weekly sermons; dancing, lewd songs, theater, and inordinate displays of wealth were forbidden; and adultery, blasphemy, and heresy were punishable by death.

It was the execution of a famous heretic named Michael Servetus in 1553 that first prompted Castellio to oppose Calvin. Servetus, a forerunner of Unitarianism, apparently felt that the doctrine of the trinity, in particular, prevented Jews and Muslims from accepting Christianity, and since it was both incomprehensible logically and not particularly well-supported by scripture, ought to be abandoned. For this and other innovations, he was accused of heresy by Catholics and Protestants alike. Fleeing from a trial in France where he stood accused by Catholic leaders, he stopped in Geneva and was recognized while attending a sermon by Calvin; he was detained there and tried on a bill of particulars listing 40 separate charges by the city of Geneva. Though he was not a citizen of Geneva and thus technically not under their laws, the government, in consultation with governments of surrounding districts, found him guilty of heresy and burned him at the stake. Calvin himself plead that Servetus be beheaded rather than burned for mercy’s sake, but was rebuffed by the Geneva Council.

Calvin explained the then-common sentiment that heretics should be killed in these terms:

Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.

He published a defense of his burning of Servetus in February of 1554. A few weeks later, a well-known publisher in Basel, Switzerland released a pamphlet entitled De haereticis, an sint persequendi (“Whether heretics should be persecuted,”) 180px-sebastiancastelliocontaining excerpts from 25 Christian writers both ancient and contemporary — including Calvin himself — defending the notion that differences of theological opinion should be tolerated. It was published under the pseudonym Martinus Bellius, but it was soon determined that the collector and author was Sebastian Castellio.

Castellio had already introduced the notions that filled De Haereticis in the dedication of his Latin translation of the Bible to Edward VI, the young, Protestant king of England. In it, Castellio had argued that religions make slow progress, and that in the pursuit of change, Christians accuse each other of outlandish heresies mostly for the sake of gaining ground — while at the same time, they accept Turks and Jews, who disagree with the faith in far greater severity than any heretic. This mild ironic criticism is now considered the very first manifesto to religious toleration.

Castellio’s pamphlet De Haeriticis begins with a benediction addressed to Duke Christoph of Württemberg, in which he argues forcefully that the energy of Christian disputation constitutes disobedience to Christ and is spent on unimportant things:

If thou, illustrious Prince, had informed thy subjects that thou wert coming to visit them at an unnamed time and had requested them to be prepared in white garments to meet thee on thy coming; what wouldst thou do, if, on arrival, thou shouldst find that instead of robing themselves in white they had occupied themselves in violent debate about thy person – some insisting that thou wert in France, others that thou were in Spain; some declaring that thou would come on horseback, others that thou would come by chariot; some holding that thou would come with great pomp, others that thou would come without train or following? And what especially wouldst thou say if they debated not only with words but with blows of fist and strokes of sword, and if some succeeded in killing and destroying others who differed from them? ‘He will come on horseback.’ ‘No, he won’t; he will come by chariot.’ ‘You lie.’ ‘No, I do not; you are the liar.’ ‘take that’ – a blow with the fist. ‘You take that’- a sword-thrust through the body. O Prince, what would you think of such citizens? Christ asked us to put on the white robes of a pure and holy life, but what occupies our thought? We dispute not only of the way to Christ, but of His revelation to God the Father, of the Trinity, of predestination, of free will, of the nature of God, of angels, of the condition of the soul after death, of a multitude of matters that are not essential for salvation, and matters, in fact, which never can be known until our hearts are pure, for they are things which must be spiritually perceived. (2)

Castellio described a general evil in the Church wherein Christians engage in all manner of personal sin, but dispute with each other over matters of theology: questions of baptism, or free will, or the nature of God. He argued instead for Christians to look to their own character, and amend their moral conduct, and to stop shedding the blood of those who disagree — most notably, of heretics. He spends a great deal of time discussing what a heretic is, exactly, noting that in many cases a heretic is merely one who disagrees. However, he concludes that heretics do exist, and he calls them “obstinate ones,” men who cannot be persuaded of the truth. He cites the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30, in which the master advises his servants not to attempt to separate the wheat from the tares (weeds that look like wheat in their earlier stages of growth) lest they root up good wheat along with the weeds, and says that the angels will come at the end and separate them. He cites St. Augustine, who concluded on the basis of that passage that “…the office of collecting the tares to be burned belongs to another, and no son of the Church should think it his business.” And he quotes Calvin from the 1536 edition of his Institutes, advising that excommunicated Christians should be persuaded with “…exhortation and teaching, clemency and mildness, [and] prayers to God” rather than with violence, even as non-Christians should be persuaded:

Far be it that we should approve of the means which many have employed hitherto to force them to our faith by denying them fire and the common elements and all the offices of humanity, and [by] persecuting them with the sword and arms. (3)

Castellio concludes that it is better for Christians to reach each other by means of persuasion and love, to downplay their differences, and to set aside squabbling over non-essentials.

Let us who are Christians not condemn one another, but, if we are wiser than they are, let us also be better and more merciful.

These ideas all seem obvious to the modern mind, but they were striking and astonishing notions at the time, and a number of clerics reacted to his ideas harshly, including Calvin. So Castellio published another book anonymously, entitled “Contra libellum Calvini in quo ostendere conatur haereticos jure gladii coercendos esse” (“Against the book of Calvin which calls for coercion of heretics by the sword.”) In this, Castellio presents what may be the first argument for separating the power of civil enforcement from the offices of the Church.

Castellio wrote:

To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine, they killed a man. To protect a doctrine is not the magistrate’s affair (what has the sword to do with doctrine?) but the teacher’s. But it is the magistrate’s affair to protect the teacher, as it is to protect the farmer and the smith, and the physician and others against injury. Thus if Servetus had wished to kill Calvin, the magistrate would properly have defended Calvin. But when Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings.

Castellio’s argument seems to me to introduce three separate claims that are noteworthy:

  1. That Christians ought to meet differences of opinion regarding religious matters with reason, kindness, and mercy, and persuade rather than coerce;
  2. That matters of personal vice, like covetousness, greed, slander, hypocrisy, lying, foolishness, or unchastity, are at least as damaging to one’s Christian practice as are errors in doctrine concerning baptism, justification, faith, and so forth;
  3. That the state should not carry the sword to carry out the opinions of religious leaders.

The second of these is still a matter of dispute when one encounters modern disciples of Calvin. The first and the third, however, are the earliest precursors I have seen in the Western world to the modern notions that men should be free to speak their mind without fear of retribution by the government, and that government should not carry out the express opinion of the Church. We owe to Castellio a debt of gratitude for articulating, even pseudonymously, Christian notions essential to human liberty.

Notes:

(1) Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume 8, chapter 13, http://www.bible.ca/history/philip-schaff/8_ch13.htm, 1910 edition reproduced and edited by the Electronic Bible Society, Dallas, Tx, 1998. See http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/About.htm for a complete table of contents.
(2) Excerpted from “Spiritual Reformers of the 16th & 17th Centuries,” by Rufus Jones, published in 1914. Found at http://www.christasus.com/History/SebastianCastellio.htm.
(3) Quoted by Curley, Edward, “Sebastian Castellio’s Erasmian Liberalism,” University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, at http://www.sitemaker.umich.edu/emcurley/files/castellioerasmianliberalism.doc.

09/03/2009 (8:35 am)

TFJR: The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants

tfjr-final-2The next in our review of sermons from the American colonies during the period surrounding the American Revolution reviews Elisha Williams’ most famous essay: “The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants,” subtitled “A reasonable Plea for The Liberty of Conscience, and The Right of private Judgment, in Matters of Religion, Without Controul from human Authority. Being a LETTER, From a Gentleman in the Massachusetts-Bay to his Friend in Connecticut, Wherein Some Thoughts on the Origin, End, and Extent of the Civil Power, with brief Considerations on several late Laws in Connecticut, are humbly offered.” Boston, 1744. The full text of the essay can be found here.

The occasion for the brochure was a civil ordinance in the state of Connecticut declaring that ministers who preached outside their own parishes but were not expressly invited to do so could have their support and their authorizations to preach revoked. The purpose for the measure, championed by Standing Order clergymen (church and state were connected in pre-revolutionary Connecticut, with primary church leaders paid by the state), was apparently to put a stop to itinerant ministers spreading the Great Awakening by revivalist preaching in public. Williams argued forcefully that the civil authority had no power over church doctrine or practice, and that the law therefore violated both scripture and natural law.

Williams begins by explaining the general purpose and the limits of civil government; he says

The great end of civil government, is the preservation of their persons, their liberties and estates, or their property.

…and he observes that in order to obtain the benefits of societal protection and convenience, the free man surrenders only the power to decide for himself how best to protect his life and property, and the power to punish those who violate his property.

Next, he sets forth four primary principles pertaining to the civil magistrate’s role in religion:

I. The members of the civil state retain their liberty in all matters not pertaining to the protection of property and life.

II. The members of the state retain their natural liberty of judging for themselves in matters of religion.

III. The civil authority should protect its subjects in the employment of this right of private judgment in matters of religion, and the liberty of worshiping God according to their consciences.

IV. Every Christian has right to determine for himself what church to join himself to; the form of discipline in each church should be set by the members of that church.

A large portion of this lengthy essay was devoted to defending the second of these four principles. He observes that the Christian is to receive his Christianity from Christ alone, for which purpose the scriptures are sufficient. The Christian is enjoined by the scriptures to stand fast in his liberty. The civil authority has no power at all in establishing faiths, creeds, or orders of worship, nor in establishing any professions of faith, forms of worship, or church government. Even within the church, ministers have no power other than to teach the laws of God, and it remains for each believer to obey them personally. To give leaders in the church, or leaders in the government, power to make rules based on their view of what the laws of God really are (to settle matters of dispute regarding the meaning of scripture) is to give men authority over the scripture and to imagine them to be infallible. If practical matters require decisions to be made (for example, where or when to meet,) it is the congregation that ought to decide them. Thus Williams judges the conscience to be King over matters of religion, subject only to Christ Himself.

Within the defense of his second premise, Williams responds to several common defenses that might be raised to explain the magistrate’s role in church affairs. To those who might object that the magistrate must be involved in order to maintain the biblical injunction that things be done “decently and in order,” Williams observes that Christians can keep order among themselves without the magistrate’s help, and that the civil magistrate has no authority to settle matters of worship that have not been settled by Christ’s commands. To those who object that the magistrate should involve itself to preserve the “unity of the faith,” Williams replies that such unity cannot be achieved by passing laws, that in fact passing laws regarding religious conscience disturbs the peace rather than protecting it, that the best way to keep peace between differing sects is for the magistrate to protect the right of private judgment in religion, and that such matters are best settled by “calm and strong perswasion.”

Having established the principles governing the role of civil authority in matters of religious practice, Williams raises a series of objections to the statute of May 1742, “for regulating Abuses, and correcting Disorders in Ecclesiastical Affairs”:

I. The law is founded on the false principle that the civil authority has power to establish a form of church-government by penal laws.

II. The law improperly gives majorities in congregations power over the consciences of minorities by removing their power to hear whomever they wish.

III. The law invests inordinate power in ministers over a church and congregation.

IV. The punishment is unreasonable, and reduces ministers to begging bread.

V. The law punishes acts that are actually good.

VI. The law criminalizes even minor discussions because it is so vague.

VII. The civil authority has no competence or authority to approve or disapprove ministers of the gospel.

Finally, Williams notes that the Act of Toleration (an act of the British Parliament) gives every Christian liberty to hear whomever he chooses. This is ironic and inconsistent: the Acts of Toleration were an act of Parliament that presupposed the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion. Later, the American experiment would assert that the government lacks any right to even to express toleration, as the government has no power of judgment over religious matters whatsoever.

I was struck in this sermon by the of the phrase, “establishment of religion,” that appears in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Williams used the phrase to mean “pass laws affecting the faith and practice of Christian congregations, pertaining to their worship, statements of faith, or church government.” If the First Amendment uses the term similarly to Williams, then “Congress shall make no law effecting an establishment of religion” means the government may not tell any religious organization how to practice. The assertion that the First Amendment makes it improper for religious thinking to affect the formation of laws of conduct (for example, banning abortion based on a legislator’s religious convictions) would not be correct if Williams’ usage is the common usage of the time.

I was also struck by the iron-clad rejection of Catholicism in Williams’ essay, and this is a pattern that seems to touch every one of the sermons I’ve read so far. The preachers of the American colonies considered the Catholic Church to be the Whore of Babylon depicted in the book of Revelation, and wholeheartedly rejected the pattern of ecclesiastical dominance in politics as practiced in Europe. It must have been a point of some importance to them, because nearly all of them make a point of mentioning it.

I will leave you with a few thoughts from Rev. Williams:

And as all imposers on men’s consciences are guilty of rebellion against GOD and CHRIST, of manifest disobedience to and contempt of their authority and commands; so all they who submit their consciences to any such unjust usurp’d authority, besides the share which such persons necessarily have in the guilt of the usurpers, as countenancing and giving in to their illegal claim and supporting their wicked pretensions, they do likewise renounce subjection to the authority and laws of Christ.

Whenever the power that is put in any hands for the government of any people is applied to any other end than the preservation of their persons and properties, the securing and promoting their civil interests (the end for which power was put into their hands), I say when it is applied to any other end, then (according to the great Mr. Lock) it becomes tyranny.

And the truth is, the civil magistrate is so far from having a rightful power in these cases, to make laws for Christ’s subjects; that in doing so, he violates the fundamental privilege of the gospel, the birthright of believers, Christian liberty. 2 Cor. 3. 17. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty. Gal. 4. 31. We are not Children of the Bondwoman, but of the Free.

08/25/2009 (4:41 pm)

TFJR: Ninevah's Repentance and Deliverance

250px-boston_old_state_houseNext in the Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion: Ninevah’s Repentance and Deliverance, a sermon preach’d before His Excellency, The Governor, The Honourable Council And Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, on a Day of Fasting and Prayer in the Council Chamber, Dec. 3, 1740. By Joseph Sewall, D.D., Pastor of a Church of Christ in Boston.

And God saw their Works, the they turned from their evil Way, and God repented of the Evil that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not. Jonah 3:10.

Doctrine

1) If we would seek the Lord in a right manner, we must believe him; the threatnings (sic) and promises of his word.
2) It is the duty of a people to cry to GOD in prayer with fasting, when he threatens to bring destroying judgments upon them; and their rulers should be ready to lead in the right discharge of this duty.
3) Our seeking to GOD by prayer with fasting must be attended with true repentance, and sincere endeavours after reformation.
4) When a people do thus attend their duty, God will repent of the evil, and not bring destruction upon them.

Use

1) Learn that true religion lays the surest foundation of a people’s prosperity.
2) Abounding iniquity will be the destruction of a people, except they repent.
3) Let us then be sensible of the destroying evil of sin, and the necessity of true repentance.
4) Let us all be exhorted to turn, every one from his evil way; and to engage hearily in the necessary work of reformation.

The message specifically exhorts those who are political leaders in the colony that it is their responsibility to lead the people in repentance before God.

And as the judge of all the earth hath advanced you to rule over his people; so he declareth to you in his word, That they who rule over Men must be just, ruling in the Fear of God; and requireth you to lead in the work of reformation by your example, and by the right use of that power with which he hath betrusted you.

The message also notes a particularly bad time for the public treasury at a time of warfare, and accounts this to “the frown of Providence.” The pastor calls on the leaders to ensure that justice and equity be laid in the foundation of whatever measures they take to solve the crisis.

Finally, this message weighs against the claim made by modern critics disputing the Christian origin of American political theory that our nation’s founders were Deists. Deism is the belief that God set the universe in motion and then stepped away, leaving men to perform all the acts without His intervention. The pastor in this case takes the orthodox Protestant perspective that God is active in the affairs of men, and exalts or demolishes nations according to His pleasure, and specifically because of their righteousness or lack thereof. This position is the polar opposite of Deism, and was common among the pastors of the Revolutionary period.

08/24/2009 (4:30 pm)

TFJR: Government the Pillar of the Earth

The object of this series is to examine the political thinking of religious leaders in the colonies during the period leading up to the American Revolution.

benjamin-colman1First entry in the “Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion” series: notes on the sermon by Benjamin Colman, preached at the Lecture in Boston before His Excellency, Jonathan Belcher, Esq., Captain General and Commnder in Chief, etc., August 13, 1730.

This is a lecture illustrating the importance the British colonies laid on government in general, and in the Christian character of their leaders. The text was from Hannah’s inspired prayer upon dedicating her 4-year-old son Samuel (later, the Prophet Samuel) to the service of the temple. I Samuel 2:8: “For the Pillars of the Earth are the Lord’s, and He hath set the World upon them.”

Doctrine:

1) The governments and rulers of the earth are it’s pillars.

First, to Colman, a “pillar” is a type of foundation; he interprets passages speaking of “pillars” and passages speaking of “foundations” as though they are speaking of the same thing. He explains that it is clear that the earth does not sit on pillars — they understood Copernican cosmology — and made reference to “thrones of princes” and “bows of mighty men” from the same passage, drawing the inference that Hannah was talking about governments. He also referred to the passage in which Paul calls James and Peter “pillars of the Church” and others speaking of humans as foundations, making the case.

This is where the meat of the sermon lies, for me: he then recites all the virtues required of rulers if they are going to fulfill their role as pillars of the earth. Since government is the pillar on which human society rests, government must uphold virtue, order, and peace. Governors must be the best from among men, with clearly “superior gifts, powers and beauties of mind.” Their goal must be the public good; they must be wise beyond mere human achievement, based on Christ. They must excel in knowledge, wisdom, integrity, uprightness, faithfulness, devotion to the common weal, unselfishness, fortitude, patience, and humility. In short, they must rule with God’s wisdom and virtue.

2) The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s.

God is both the source of the governmental order and of the virtues of the governors. He sets them up and takes them down as He pleases.

3) He has set the world upon them.

Government is a divine idea, and man cannot flourish without it. “So the peace, tranquility and flourishing of places are made to depend on the wisdom and fidelity of their rulers, in the good administration of government.”

Here again we find some meat: the desire of any single human for power comes from human sin. The government does not rest on any individual, but rests generally on virtuous men, who in turn rest on God’s power.

Use:

Colman claims that the order of good government is an indication of divine wisdom. By contrast, he regards the influence of the Catholic Church on the governments of Europe as a demonic enterprise, usurping the rightful devotion of subjects from their proper leaders. He asserts the correctness of Reformed churches in directing their congregants’ allegiances back toward their own political rulers. I believe this exhibits a version of Kuypers’ notion of Sphere Sovereignty — the idea that for a church to invade the province of government, a governor to invade the province of the Church, or either to invade the privacy of a man’s home, was a violation of the natural order.

He also asserts that pursuing a role in leadership is a matter of obedience to God; it is wrong either to “pine after honour and power, or wickedly push for it like Absolom,” but likewise wrong to shrink back from it when the divine call is plain. Colman argues for contentedness in the face of God’s sovereign choices, and for devotion to duty according to one’s station.

Finally, he notes that the heavenly reward for righteous is to be made a pillar in heaven.

Fathers of our country, let me freely say to you, that the devotion and virtue of our humble, but illustrious ancestors (the first planters of New-England), laid the foundation of our greatness among the provinces: And it is this that must continue and establish it under the divine favour & blessing. Emulate their piety and godliness, and generous regards to the publick, and be acknowledged the pillars, the strength and ornament of your country!

But let me move you by a greater argument, even a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, which the Holy Ghost has set before you in a most illustrious promise;

Rev. iii. 12. Him that overcometh will I make a Pillar in the Temple of my GOD, and he shall go no more out: And I will write upon Him the Name of my GOD, and the Name of the City of my GOD, which is New-Jerusalem; which cometh down out of Heaven from my GOD: And I will write upon Him my New-Name.

Christ will erect a monumental pillar, that shall stand for ever, in honour of all them who in their station here, be they high or low, faithfully endeavour to uphold his church and kingdom.

Government is necessary for order; religion is necessary for governors. Order arises from the godly exercise of power by divinely ordered leaders. Reward is obtained by faithfully applying oneself to one’s proper station.

08/24/2009 (11:52 am)

Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion

America, at its roots, is a theological nation, begun by the religiously devoted and founded in perceived obedience to the law of God. The American Revolution was preached into existence from the pulpit, beginning with the Great Awakening in New England. It must be the case, then, either that the preachers who produced the American Revolution believed that rebellion against an unjust ruler was justified biblically and theologically, or that their rebellion was carried out in opposition to their religious convictions.

I find the latter explanation implausible. I do not completely understand the former, though. Although I imagine I can explain their thinking in terms more accurate than could about 98% of my fellow Americans, I am not satisfied that I understand them as well as I ought. I don’t say this out of obsessive desire for perfection, nor some confused intellectual snobbery; I want to know how liberty gets created, and what’s missing when it gets lost.

Consequently, I’m beginning a quest to understand the theological underpinnings of the American Revolution, as reflected in pre-revolutionary writings and general theological thinking. As I noted in my last post, I just borrowed a collection of politically-oriented sermons from the period, and I will proceed to read them for the next several weeks. I also intend to write about what I’m reading as I go, so my readers can share my learning and perhaps come better to understand the reasoning behind the first American Revolution.

The purpose will be ultimately to attempt to restore liberty to the American nation, first by correcting our theological thinking to grasp the essential nature of liberty, and then by directing our energy toward those goals which will most correctly achieve that sort of liberty here.

I do not expect that I will agree with everything that was preached in American during the revolutionary period. However, I do expect that I will learn a great deal about what they thought, and that my own thinking will be improved by theirs, as the level of learning in that culture was orders of magnitude more robust than what we’re taught in 21st century America.

Thus, the quest begins. I will post from time to time my notes from reading particular sermons, under the rubric “TFJR”, for Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion. I have created an article category “TFJR” in the sidebar under Topical Index; you will be able to obtain an exhaustive display of all articles created under that designation, in reverse chronological order, by clicking on that link. I hope you all enjoy the series, and are enlightened by it.