08/24/2009 (4:30 pm)
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.
First 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.”
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.
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.
4 Comments »
Comment by Horatius
I am not sure this sets very square with me intuitively. I think many of the founders would have looked at government, not as a positive good, but rather as a necessary evil.
Societies do need governments and systems of laws in order to function. There is no getting around it. However, by giving the government the power to defend your liberties, you are also giving them the power to potentially take them away. That leads into the idea that the choices for this government (the politicians) must be of the highest mental and moral character. This concept in not even new to revolutionary times. Plato argues for something similar in his “Republic.”
I think this idea that the founders looked at government not as a good thing in of itself but rather as a necessary evil is borne out by how they set up the government. They went through an immense amount of trouble when setting up the government to circumscribe the power of the government they were creating.
I remember arguing in a Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire class (with a Professor who was filling in for the regular one for the semester. He was actually a religious studies professor who had been drafted.) His argument that the introduction of Christianity was one of the key factors in the Fall of the Empire. He spoke of Christianity operating not unlike a “shadow government” within the State, sometimes at cross purposes. Some Emperors, such as Theodosius or Constantine, used this system to their advantage.
My argument at the time was that a state sanctioned early Christian religion, was actually a good thing for the empire because it not only injected a new sense of energy into the nation, but also gave a more unifying influence since a majority of the problems affecting the empire stemmed from fragmentation of the empire along with the arrival or emergence of many “barbarian” tribes. The “Us vs. Them” mentality is a very powerful force.
His counter argument was that early Christianity was more of an anarchic (or more fragmentary) influence on the empire. Rather than tying peoples loyalties to the state when it was desperately needed to stave off collapse, instead it actually loosened their ties to the empire by tying them more to their religion.
I think what he was trying to say was that, at least in the case of the major Judeo-Christian faiths, their loyalty is to their God first, the state a distant second. If the state’s aims do not conflict with the religion, everything is peachy. However, once the state comes into conflict with the religion, the people will follow God rather than secular goals, because that is where their prime loyalty lay.
I think this more easily flows into how the Founder’s set up the government. I have always felt that in the context of how the US was founded, that the First Amendment was not protecting the Government from the Faith, but protecting the Faith from the Government.
I think however, that this was not intended to be a symbiotic relationship. They did not look at government as a way to advance the precepts of their Faith, but as something that had to be neutered in such a way that it could only do what it was supposed to do, and leave people free to do what was most important to them in their day to day lives.
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Comment by Phil
It’s only one example, and note the date: it’s from 1730. But it does represent a common theological point of view from the period. I’m not making this up, it’s a real sermon from a well-known preacher of the era.
Comment by Horatius
Oh, I am not saying that you are making it up. I am merely arguing against the point it tries to make in relation to what the founder’s eventually tried to do.