08/25/2009 (4:41 pm)
Next 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.
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.
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.
8 Comments »
Comment by Frank Capitanio
Interesting. I love the articles, Phil. Thanks for your work!
I have a question, however, that I’ll keep short, since you’re not done with your series yet and you’re building your argument.
I just wondered how you define the nation’s founders? Are the pastors prevalent at the time the nation’s founders? Are the framers of the constitution? Or those who were the most outspoken representatives of the Revolution? No doubt Jefferson and Franklin were Deists, and some site them as examples of our Deistic founding principles, since they were some of the loudest voices framing much of our political thought. I happen to believe it was a mixed bag among all the founders, some being strong believers (there were members of the American Bible Society) and some being outright Deists…Thoughts?
Comment by Phil
I have not seen the evidence pointing to Jefferson or Franklin as Deists, and have seen evidence to the contrary. Jefferson was raised as an Episcopalian, and as an adult held no church affiliation, but he always identified himself as a Protestant.. He claimed he would have been a Unitarian if there had been Unitarian churches in Virginia. Keep in mind that 18th century Unitarians were actually fairly orthodox Christians (except they denied the Trinity, hence “UNItarian”), and not the strange New Age mishmash that Unitarian-Universalist has become in the late 20th century. Furthermore, his declaration in the Virginia legislature against slavery marked him as one who believes, as did Dr. Sewall in this lecture, that God will punish nations for their wickedness, which is an anti-Deistic notion. He was skeptical, however, and thought that the miracles in the New Testament were probably embellishments by the Apostles, which some say is Deist-like. So I recognize Jefferson as a skeptic, but I do not agree that he was a Deist.
Franklin apparently toyed with Deism as a young man, but later in life become a member of a Presbyterian church. People signed statements of faith in order to become church members in those days, and a signed statement was not considered a formality, but a declaration of personal fealty reflecting on one’s character and reputation. For Franklin to sign a Presbyterian statement of faith was pretty much a public declaration that he was not a Deist. Franklin was by all accounts a sexually immoral man (“A father of his country, and of half of France…”) and he apparently doubted the deity of Christ, but was never very vocal about any religion. I think the charge of Deism comes from private discussions that show up in personal letters with friends, but I find it hard to assert that some ideas they toyed with privately constitute the surest guide to their true beliefs; I think their public actions and statements are a better indication.
As to the rest, I’ve heard that of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 53 had also signed orthodox statements of faith at their home churches. To say that even a large proportion of the nation’s founders were Deists rather than orthodox Christians is simply not consistent with the documentation we have from the period.
Comment by darkhorse
“As to the rest, I’ve heard that of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 53 had also signed orthodox statements of faith at their home churches. To say that even a large proportion of the nation’s founders were Deists rather than orthodox Christians is simply not consistent with the documentation we have from the period.”
Without reopening the “Myth of a Christian Nation” discussion completely, doesn’t it seem likely that, at the time, you HAD to sign statements of faith to get anywhere in society? I think it’s probably difficult to rule out Deism on that basis…
Comment by Frank Capitanio
Interesting…I’ll have to read up a bit more about it. I understand what you’re saying about Jefferson’s public stances as opposed to his private correspondences and one shouldn’t necessarily believe that it was all one smooth way of being (I’m deist in private so my public stances will always reflect Deism). However, I’ve read a good amount of what Jefferson wrote and it was certainly NOT christian in any sense, and while he may not have been explicitly deist, I’m not sure what you’d call it when he was adamant about Christianity being a myth, no more real than the mythology of greece, and when he rewrote the New Testament taking out all miracles, including the Resurrection. From what I read, I’d say him being “a skeptic” sounds almost too much of an understatement. As to how it affected his public policy, however, I have not idea and am not as read up on that…he was very much an advocate of the separation of church and state. And I have read about the other signers of the Declaration…
A note on Unitarianism: It never was, in any way, orthodox Christianity. They don’t simply deny the trinity into a kind of modalism (as the one-ness movement does). They advocate the belief that there is only one God and only ONE expression of God, as creator and sustainer. Unitarians believe that Jesus is subordinate to God and was a good teacher who reflected God’s will, but was not God by any means. It reflects the merge of Enlightenment thinking and Christianity. This foundational belief was true among those calling themselves Unitarian Christians in the 16th century onward.
I’ve read that what makes Unitarian Universalists “New Agey” today was the combination of Universalism with Unitarianism and the introduction of Transcendentalism to the movement in the late 1800s.
Comment by Frank Capitanio
One more question, Phil: When we’re talking about the founders, do we mean those who drafted/signed the Declaration of Independence or those who drafted the Constitution/Bill of Rights? As in, would it make a difference if the Declaration was signed or drafted by devout Christians, as an agreed break from England, and the Constitution (the re-forming into a new nation) drafted by non-Christians? Just wondering who, exactly, we’re talking about. thanks!
Comment by Frank Capitanio
Sorry, Phil! One more (you really should have a delete/edit button for those of us who can’t get their thoughts together! Just wanted to know what the argument is…We’re trying to establish whether there can be a just rebellion, right? I don’t want to slide into the “We were/were not founded as a Christian nation” argument if that’s not what you’re going for.
Comment by Phil
doesn’t it seem likely that, at the time, you HAD to sign statements of faith to get anywhere in society? I think it’s probably difficult to rule out Deism on that basis…
Not at all. Thomas Jefferson signed no statement of faith, and was a leading man in his region. Same with Thomas Paine, who was an avowed atheist. The societal pressures were different in different places in the colonies, but there were plenty of folks who dissented without serious harm to their careers. These guys really did believe in liberty of conscience.
Moreover, given the social climate of the time, the mere fact that a man had signed a statement of faith that claimed things he simply did not believe, WOULD have finished that man’s career. They did not take oaths as lightly then as we do now.
Comment by Phil
Just wondering who, exactly, we’re talking about. thanks!
I’m after the general mind of the colonies as a whole, actually, but particularly the theological mind prior to the rebellion, since the opinion of the Church was a much more potent force then than it is today. Naturally, those who were deeply involved in 1) leading the rebellion, and 2) thinking about the form of government the nation was to take in the wake of the rebellion, seem more significant (Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin…) . However, these men were products of their times, culture, and education, so it pays to understand what ideas were caroming around the colonies before they acted. So what I’m after is, what exactly were the foundational ideas that these men took for guiding principles, when they decided that England had overstepped her God-ordained bounds and offended them beyond repair. What was the basis of their political thinking? And for that, I’m probing the published sermons of the era, particularly the ones that were widely read.