Our Forgotten Birthright
The Pulpit’s Cry for Civil Liberty under God
As far removed as we are from our nation’s founding principles, it might surprise Americans to discover that Christian ministers once called on their congregations to exercise their civic duties through active engagement in the affairs of the state. This was not seen as an option, but rather an obligation on the part of pastors to preach the whole Word of God.
In the early years of our nation, the Supreme Judge of the world had not yet been relegated within the self-contained, self-absorbed walls of worshiping congregations. The Creator and Governor of the Universe was not only acknowledged as such, but His command to love our neighbors led Christian ministers from North to South and East to West to resound with the sentiments of promoting godliness in every venue of civil society.
A case in point can be found in a front-page article that appeared in the May 9, 1789 edition of the Gazette of the United States. The article reminded the public that, more than anything else, it was “the temporal blessings overflowing from our Religion” that had illuminated the path to America’s independence.
The summer of 1789 was, however, a time of pomp and parade as America’s military hero, George Washington, was poised to take his seat as the first U.S. President, and a surge of patriotism accompanied newly- elected representatives who would soon gather to take their seats in the first federal Congress. Yet, underlying all else, the fundamental sentiment of Americans remained one of ongoing thankfulness. Certainly, there was continued gratitude for the victorious soldiery that had recently secured American independence, but underlying that was an ongoing appreciation for the Christian pulpits that had led the cause.
Right on cue, in the midst of the inaugural year of our federal government, the country’s first national newspaper reminded Americans that “our truly patriot clergy, boldly and zealously stepped forth, and bravely stood as our distinguished sentinels to watch, and warn us against approaching dangers.” To then drive the point forward, the Gazette also strikingly warned, “that as our . . . clergy shall sink into contempt or neglect, however undeserved, the learned will decline the profession, and then adieu to religion, morality, and liberty.”
Such an acknowledgement resonated from the kind of humility that once adorned our nation, and it was the product of a very proactive Christian clergy. It was openly acknowledged that freedom in both church and state would be preserved to the extent that the Christian pulpit did not neglect its wider calling by relegating itself to a societal closet. To the contrary, an energetic public ministry must resonate from the duties of both its heavenly and earthly citizenship — the kind dual citizenship that Samuel Dexter laid out to his Dedham, Massachusetts congregation in 1738. As to their citizenship above, they were to exercise “the free and secure enjoyment of their religious privileges.” As to faithful citizenship below, they were to be “favored with good rulers, and from among ourselves, such as are accepted of the multitude of their brethren.”
Such sentiments — such principles — were the effect of a fully responsible Christian ministry as it was known throughout colonial times. Boston lawyer John Adams observed in 1765 that the foundation of American liberty had been first laid in England among the “Puritans” who there had embraced “that religious liberty with which Jesus had made them free.” Upon that freedom of all freedoms, Adams observed that the first New England settlers then based their own ministerial “ordination on the foundation of the Bible and common sense.” Consequently, when men such as Adams saw a new crisis brewing, the ministers of his generation were prepared to answer the historic clarion call, that “the pulpit resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty — Let us hear the danger of thralldom to our conscience, from ignorance . . . and dependence, in short from civil and political slavery.”
Although such patriotic fervor might seem trite, trivial, or even off limits to ministers today, it is an undeniable fact that our Lord used the fervor of the colonial clergymen to secure the freedom of worship we now enjoy. No less than the devout Presbyterian minister, John Witherspoon, who was president of the College of New Jersey, lent his voice conspicuously toward this end. In tying the duty of the Christian conscience to wider civic responsibility, Witherspoon explained to a Princeton assembly in 1776: “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver our conscience into bondage.”
Witherspoon certainly knew his history, and he knew his calling in light of that history. He knew the basic fundamental that Christian duty and civic accountability walk side-by-side, and at times, hand-in-hand. Such a calling is decidedly Christian. “Consider therefore” Witherspoon observed, “that the Christian character, particularly the self-denial of the gospel, should extend to your whole deportment.”
To Witherspoon, this was an all-obliging calling, adding that, “in times of difficulty and trial, it is the man of piety and inward principle that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier.” In the case of John Witherspoon, his internal compass directed him to offer his services as a delegate in the Second Continental Congress just in time to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Ministers such as Witherspoon understood the foremost obligation to maintain a clear conscience before God, and they knew that civic involvement is nothing else than the overflow of basic Christian charity toward our neighbors. This overflow can be evidenced from the earliest colonial times.
American citizens might recall the advice of pastor John Robinson to the Pilgrims upon their departure to America in 1620. Astutely, Pastor Robinson advised: “Whereas you are to become a body politick, using among your selves civil government, . . . let your wisdom and godliness appear, . . . not being like the foolish multitude who more honor the gay coat than either the virtuous mind of the man, or glorious ordinance of the Lord.”
Although Robinson was unable to personally accompany his congregation to America, from that point on, the pleasing effects of the preaching ministry in civil affairs was off and running in colonial America. His effect is evidenced in the Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact by which they formed their American “Civil Body Politic” later in 1620. The civic effect of the pulpit was also central to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut that strikingly affirmed in 1639, “the Word of God requires that, to maintain the peace and union of such a people, there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people.”
Such documents were heavily influenced, if not entirely drafted, by ministers who simply applied the precepts of Christian duty within their respective civil settings. Over time, the same effect was carried through into the various state constitutions adopted from 1776 and beyond. These documents not only acknowledged Almighty God as the source of earthly authority, but they often expressed gratitude for His providential guidance in directing them to establish quiet and peaceable governments.
The most salient point is that the people who formed self-governing communities were themselves fed a steady diet of societal responsibility from the Christian pulpits. Americans were constantly fed with what John Adams called “an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right” of an “envied kind of knowledge.” In America, every Sunday was a time when a vast majority of colonists would hear a sermon on the principles of life from Scripture. Year after year and decade after decade, the typical colonial American would be bathed in the principles of an abundant life and healthy living from a biblical point of view, and for the most part, they retained a decidedly biblical worldview.
In consequence, the public sermons delivered throughout the founding era were not expressions of disrespect for government, much less the support of lawless rebellion. Neither did they give Americans a sense of dependence upon, or an entitlement to, alms from those in power. The founding era pulpits resounded with constant reminders of the people’s foremost responsibilities — of their inescapable, indispensable duties to the Almighty in their every personal, familial, and civic capacity. In this way, they were taught to revere the God who had protected and delivered their ancestors before them.
George Duffield, the Presbyterian chaplain of the Continental Congress, saw “the sacred order” of ministers leading America’s path to continued freedom, stating they girded the citizenry of America “when her civil and religious liberties were all at stake.” He therefore lauded the intervention by an American Congress to preserve Americans’ historic freedoms. Drawing an analogy from Scripture, Duffield observed: “He that put the spirit of Moses on the elders of Israel, raised up senators and guided them in council to conduct the affairs of His chosen American tribes.” By this, he encouraged the American citizenry to cherish their every blessing in self-government.
The Congress’s other chaplain, William White, was equally instrumental in keeping resistance to British aggression within the bounds of godly civility. His sermon delivered in 1775 at Christ’s Church in Philadelphia, “On the Reciprocal Influence of Civil Policy and Religious Duty,” was a veritable civics lesson, particularly in teaching congregants the “aids which religious duties must bring to the support of government and the accomplishment of its righteous ends.”
The aforementioned accounts are but a few among piles of telling examples that illustrate how different the pulpits of the colonial and founding eras were from ours today. From those pulpits, Christ was boldly preached in a way that was unrestricted in either content or influence. Beyond the regular Lord’s Day sermons were the “occasional sermons” such as Fast-Day, Thanksgiving-Day, Artillery, and Election Sermons, that covered the entire spectrum of the Lord’s authority over the land. These were the times when political promises were few, but the effectual promises of God were widely proclaimed. The message of personal, familial, and civil stewardship found its broadest strokes, and the full counsel of God was received within its every right.
Because we are largely ignorant of the magnificent role of public pulpits in our past, we have lost the scope of their virtue and significance on the state of our nation. We have, instead, done our utmost to relegate them to societal insignificance, urging American pulpits to remain silent about matters pertaining to the civil realm, including the biblical qualifications for choosing civil magistrates and the ethics that should govern every aspect of their duties in office.
The time has come for the men in our pulpits to boldly embrace this legacy of our colonial clergy that was once regarded as an American birthright. Else the prophetic warning of America’s first national newspaper will be our lot: “as our . . . clergy shall sink into contempt or neglect . . . then adieu to religion, morality, and liberty.”