Renewing Vision, Restoring Landmarks (8)
America may once have been one nation under God, but that seems hardly the case any longer.
The skylines of our eastern cities in, say, 1760, were, in their way, just as striking as they are now, perhaps more so. But what drew the eye then, and gave the horizon its definition, was a very different sort of edifice from those that mark it today – not skyscrapers but church spires – and beneath that contrast lies a fundamental shift in the spiritual perspective of the American population during the more than two centuries that have intervened.[i] -- Patricia U. Bonomi
To promote a secure society?
In the beginning of the American colonial experience governments were established as instruments of God, means whereby His sovereign purposes could be pursued in ordering and maintaining just and righteous societies. Colonial leaders and rulers were not in the least squeamish about associating their governments with divine providence or ordering their communities according to divine precepts and judgments. Indeed, they indicated that government could not succeed, nor could society thrive, apart from an acknowledgement by rulers and subjects alike that God is the Lord of civil society.
Our colonial forebears would scarcely recognize our present preoccupation with the separation of Church and State as being anything even remotely in line with their original intentions. And they most certainly would not recommend this arrangement as a way to promote a safe, secure, and prosperous society.
America was at one time what our Pledge of Allegiance declares: One nation, under God. In our day, however, when secularism has become the practical religion of most Americans, this claim can only be an expression of nostalgia, lamentation, willful ignorance, or wishful thinking. America is no longer one nation, under God; rather, as we have seen, we are a nation of competing visions of the good life, materially defined, and competing ethnic, moral, and political interest groups, each with its favorite “deity” and supporting “liturgies” and lifestyles.
Americans have lost the vision and moved the landmarks set by our colonial forebears with respect to the relation of government and the public square to matters of transcendent faith. And advocates of the secular religion of immanentism seem determined to secure and maintain the new status quo at all costs.
Colonial government under God
It is not difficult to demonstrate the understanding of our nation’s founders with respect to the relationship between civil government and God. Let’s examine some actions taken by early colonial government which, I think, demonstrate quite well the claims set forth in the preceding section (all spellings are as in the original documents):
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1638, 39)
Forasmuch as it hath pleased the Allmighty God, by the wise disposition of his divyne providence...and well knowing where a people are gathered together 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 at all seasons as occation shall require; do therefore associate...and... nter into confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purety of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.[ii]
The New England Confederation (Massachussetts, Connecticut, and New Plymouth, 1643)
We all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.[iii]
The Carolina Constitution (1669)
- Held that no man could be a citizen unless he acknowledged God, was a member of a church, and used no “reproachful, reviling or abusive language” against any religion.[iv]
The First Continental Congress, opening prayer (1774)
Be Thou present, O God of Wisdom, and direct the counsel of this honorable assembly. Enable them to settle all things on the best and surest foundations, that the scene of blood may be speedily closed, that order, harmony, and peace, may be effectually restored, and truth and justice, religion and piety, prevail and flourish among the people. Preserve the health of their bodies and the vigor of them in this world, and crown them with everlasting glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, thy Son and our Savior, Amen.[v]
The Second Continental Congress, Articles of War (1775)
It is earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers diligently to attend divine service; and all officers and soldiers who shall behave indecently or irreverently at any place of divine worship shall...be brought to court-martial.[vi]
The Declaration of Independence (1776)
Signers appealed “to the Supreme Judge of the world” and expressed a “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence” as it acknowledged that the rights being taken from the colonists by the English king had been given to them as an endowment from their Creator.
The Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin addressing the Chair (1787)
In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor... And have we now forgotten this powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?
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 man.” And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable 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. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel... I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of heaven and its blessing on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business.[vii]
These excerpts demonstrate that our colonial forebears understood and accepted the teaching of Scripture concerning the relationship between civil governments and God. We might consider just a few Biblical texts which can be seen to support the positions taken in the documents above.
Psalm 2, for example, depicts God’s Son as King of all the nations, and calls on rulers and kings to embrace and submit to him lest they perish in their own foolish ways. Romans 13:1-4 describes civil government as a servant of God, established on earth to fulfill the good purposes of the Deity, to guard civil order from those who, by their wickedness, threaten to undo it, and to punish those who do evil and reward those who do good (1 Pet. 2:13, 14). By offering prayers for the civil government Christians may hope to live peaceable and dignified lives, according to the will of God (1 Tim. 2:1-3).
Religion and politics, then and now
It was not merely that colonial rulers brought their faith into the realm of government. Colonial preachers were equally active in shaping the laws and officials by which the colonies would be ruled. In this regard there was no more powerful political tool in colonial America than the sermon. Not only on Sundays, but at mid-week, on special public occasions, and even on election day, ministers gathered their flocks to proclaim the will of God for their society in clear and Biblical terms.
Harry Stout has remarked, “The colonial sermon was prophet, newspaper, video, Internet, community college, and social therapist all wrapped up into one. Such was the range of influence on all aspects of life that even contemporary TV and personal computers pale in comparison.”[viii] The volume, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, provides 54 examples, covering nearly 1600 pages, of the vast literature in this genre extant from the period.
This is a far cry from what we see today, when government has, by defining the terms of the tax-exempt status of churches, all but gagged those who would bring political exhortation and instruction from the pulpits of the land.
Having established such an extreme interpretation of the “separation of church and state,” and gained the acquiescence of preachers in their view, the advocates of a materialist worldview are quick to resist any attempts to return to the vision and practice of our forebears, not just in the churches but in all the arenas of the public square. Just how severe secular authorities can be with respect to this matter can be seen from a 1991 case argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In the case, Commonwealth v. Chambers, justices ruled that because the prosecuting attorney mentioned seven words from the Bible in the courtroom (a statement lasting less than five seconds) the conviction of a man for brutally clubbing a 71-year-old woman should be overturned.
Yet American government maintains a certain ambivalence toward religion, as can be seen by the presence of chaplains in legislatures, the use of prayers to open and close meetings, and the practice of taking oaths of office by swearing on the Bible. These can hardly be construed as “religious” actions, however; for the most part, they represent cultural carry-overs and political decisions designed to provide the appearance of devotion without the demands of it. The religion of secularism is a “big-tent” faith, as long as visitors agree to comply with the rules of the house.
The subjugating of God and divine revelation to the purposes and agenda of the secular state has had serious consequences for the nation, as well as for the different branches of government. Under the religion of secularism an ethic of relativism and pragmatism has come to pervade the halls of government, affecting all aspects of political life in America. It remains to be seen whether the present outcry and push-back against such practices, which came to expression in Congressional elections last November, will have any real staying power.
Owning our blame
Christians must bear some of the blame for the loss of a transcendent vision for the workings of American government. By failing to bring our Christian worldview into all aspects of life, including government, we have forfeited the vision and landmarks of our forebears and turned the ship of state over to captains and navigators who no longer believe in the North Star or the sextant, and who intend to govern the nation by whim and power alone.
The role of religion in politics and government has not changed since the early days of the American experiment. What has changed is the type of religious involvement society is willing to accept, as well as the particular religious world view which presently holds forth in the halls of government. Christian convictions have been replaced in the public square by secular ideals. Religion of transcendence has yielded to one of mere immanence. And the effects of this have been devastating on the peace, order, and stability of society.
Questions for Study or Discussion
- Do you think pastors should be allowed to preach on political subjects? Why or why not? Should preachers hold back from delivering such sermons for fear of losing their church’s IRS tax-exempt status? Why or why not?
- Can you think of some reasons why Christians have, for the most part, allowed the high priests of secularism to define the terms of “separation of church and state”? Would Christians define this differently?
- What has been your own experience of trying to inject God or the Bible into political conversations?
- Suggest some ways that Christians might begin to engage politicians on the subject of this installment – the moving of the ancient landmarks of American government.
- Talk with some of your church leaders about how your church might play a more formative role in helping to shape decisions in the political arena. How do they respond to such an idea?
For more insight to this topic, get the book, God and Government, by Charles Colson, from our online store. Or read the article, “God and Government: Biblical Foundations of Good Government,” by Chuck Edwards.
[i]Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 3.
[ii]Cited in Barton, p. 230.
[iii]Ibid., p. 79.
[v]”Holy Parson for Liberty,” Christian History, Issue 50, p. 22.
[vi]Journals of Congress (1823), Vol. 1, p. 90, June 30, 1775.
[vii]Cited in Marshall and Manuel, The Light and the Glory, pp. 342, 343.
[viii]Harry Stout, “Preaching the Insurrection,” Christian History (Issue 50, No. 2), p. 12.
Renewing Vision, Restoring Landmarks (7)
Shall we be ruled by the Law of the Creator, or the laws of fallen creatures?
Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is entirely a dependent being.1
In 1620, as the English Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower approached the shores of the New World, they discovered that they were faced with a serious problem. Having been driven to the north by storms at sea, they were outside the legal boundaries of the Virginia Company, under whose jurisdiction and laws they were to have been governed upon arrival. Some of the crew and other passengers were noising troublesome threats and concerns about what their conduct might be once ashore.
The Pilgrim leaders had to make a decision. How would they be governed? To what laws would they look to restrain the inherent violence of sinful men and to aid them in constructing a good society? In their answer they laid down a boundary for the practice of the law in English America, a boundary which in our day has been largely discarded. The Mayflower Compact provided the cornerstone for the legal framework that would guide the development of pre-Revolutionary American jurisprudence.
The Pilgrim view of law
Here is the Compact which those Pilgrim leaders led passengers and crew to adopt on November 11, 1620, while they waited aboard the Mayflower for the weather to permit them to go ashore:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc., having undertaken, for the glorie of God, and the advancemente of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and countrie, a voyage to plant the first colonie in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutualy in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.2
We note immediately that the Pilgrims committed to ordering their society according to a transcendent vision of life, “for the glorie of God, and the advancement of the Christian faith.” These were the overarching principles that would guide them in framing just and equal laws for the general good of the colony. Whatever laws they crafted would be in accordance with divine precepts, as an expression of their covenant relationship with one another, and for the fitness, convenience, and good of the entire colony. To any and all such laws as may be required they pledged their mutual submission and obedience.
In this declaration we see the foundations of a democratic society, established under God and on the basis of divine precepts and historical precedent.
The Pilgrims did not come to this decision in a vacuum. Their experience of law was firmly grounded in the tradition of English common law, the unwritten laws of precedent by which English judges had kept order in England for hundreds of years. This pattern of law is founded on the example of Biblical case laws, which had, for centuries, guided the Christian Church and Christian monarchs in ordering their communities and nations in a manner consistent with divine precepts. Certainly, those Biblical laws were not, in every case, directly adopted; nor were they, in many cases, faithfully obeyed. Nevertheless, longstanding practice throughout the Christian world was to base the law of the land in the Law of God and His Word, and the Pilgrims apparently saw no reason to depart from this practice.
Thinking about Biblical Law
It is inevitable, when Christians think about Biblical Law, that they consider that their obligation to the Law of God, as revealed in the Old Testament, goes no further than the Ten Commandments, and perhaps not even all of them (Sabbath laws are routinely ignored among contemporary Christians).
But Scripture actually teaches us to believe that, with the exception of statutes and precepts relating to the duties of priests (which have been superseded by our great High Priest, Jesus Christ), the civil laws of the Old Testament contain valid principles which should figure into our own moral and social practice.
Indeed, our society today acknowledges as much, even as secular and postmodern thinking continues to increase. We know, for example, that the Ten Commandments prohibit stealing (Ex. 20:15). Civil statutes related to the eighth commandment also require that we show good faith in protecting and preserving our neighbor’s property and wellbeing (cf. Ex. 21:33, 34; Ex. 22:7, 8, 14, 15; Deut. 24:14, 15; etc.). No one today would support the elimination of such laws merely because they have their foundation in Biblical law. Nor would anyone insist that keeping such laws was a means of salvation. Biblical Law outlines a way to ensure that “justice and only justice” (Deut. 16:20) will guide the jurisprudential practice of people living together in community, and the Pilgrims and other colonists understood this very well.
English common law – the basis of colonial law – traces its origins back to this kind of thinking. Concerning these laws William Blackstone, the most highly regarded legal scholar of the colonial period, wrote, “These regard man as a creature, and point out his duty to God, to himself, and to his neighbour.”3 So it’s not surprising that the English Puritans would determine and covenant together to follow divine precept and historical precedent in writing laws which they considered “most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie.”
Biblical Law in colonial America
In fact, up and down the colonial seaboard lawmaking proceeded along these same lines. Biblical law and English common law guided the thinking of judges, lawyers, and legislators as they enacted statutes and ordinances to order life in colonial society. It is not hard, for example, to discern the Biblical basis for the following colonial statutes:
- Pennsylvania, April 25, 1662
That all marriages, not forbidden by the law of God...shall be encouraged.
That all treasurers, judges, masters of the rolls, sheriffs, justices of the peace...whatsoever relating to courts or trials of causes...shall be such as possess faith in Jesus Christ and that are not convicted of ill fame...4
- Virginia, 1631/32
Whereas notwithstanding the many good laws before this time made and still in force prohibiting swearing, cursing, profaning God’s holy name, Sabbath abusing, drunkenness, fornication, and adultery...therefore, as all swearing, cursing, and profaning God’s holy name is forbidden by the Word of God, be it enacted by the Majesty’s Lieutenant Governor, Council and Burgesses of this present General Assembly and the authority thereof it is hereby enacted that no person or persons whatsoever shall from henceforth, swear, curse, or profane God’s holy name.
And forasmuch as nothing is more acceptable to God than the true and sincere service and worship of Him according to His holy will, and that the holy keeping of the Lord’s day is a principal part of the true service of God...be it enacted...that there shall be no meetings, assemblies, or concourse of people out of their parishes on the Lord’s day, and that no person or persons whatsoever shall travel upon the said day, and that no other thing or matter whatsoever be one on that day which tends to the profanation of the same, but that the same be kept holy in all respects...5
Again, we may wince at thinking laws being put in place in our communities today that seek to legislate how we use our Sundays; however, we must try to understand the mindset of our forebears as they sought the best ways for maintain order and piety within their colonies. The point is not that every civil statute of Biblical Law should be enacted as the law of the land; rather, Biblical Law provides principles to guide us in the best ways to love God and our neighbors.
This transcendent view of law was still firmly in place by the time of the Constitutional Convention, even though it was beginning to be tempered by the doctrine of “natural law,” as explained by, among others, John Locke. James Wilson, a signer of the Constitution, wrote, “Human law must rest its authority ultimately on the authority of that law that is divine.” And Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The law...dictated by God Himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries and at all times”.6
Even the courts of the land, following the adoption of the Constitution, upheld the notion that American law was undergirded by Biblical truth. Consider the following excerpts from various court decisions:
- People v Ruggles, 1811 (New York Supreme Court)
The people of the state in common with the people of this country profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice.
- City of Charleston v S. A. Benjamin, 1846 (South Carolina Supreme Court)
Christianity is part of the common law of the land, with the liberty of conscience to all. It has always been so recognized...If Christianity is a part of the common law, its disturbance is punishable at common law.
Yet how this has changed! Consider these two court decisions concerning the use of the Lord’s Day. Surely these give us some idea of how long the transcendent vision of our forebears guided jurisprudential thinking in America:
- City of Charleston v S. A. Benjamin, 1846
The Lord’s day, the day of resurrection, is to us, who are called Christians, the day of rest after finishing a new creation. It is the day of the first visible triumph over death, hell, and the grave.
-McGowan v Maryland, 1961 (United States Supreme Court)
The reasoning for making Sunday a day of rest is to allow people to recover from the labours of the week just passed so that they may physically and mentally prepare for the week’s work to come.
We would hardly expect to encounter such language or logic in legal decisions today.
American law today
Law today is no longer understood to be a fixed point in the moral universe. Using a strictly immanentistic outlook, today’s legal scholars treat law as an ever-evolving phenomenon. Consider these two quotes, the first, an opinion of Justice Earl Warren in the case, Trap v Dulles, the second a quote from Justice Charles Evan Hughes. They provide excellent insight to the way law is regarded in the new religion of immanence that guides American life:
[Law] must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.7
We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.8
Even more suggestive about the way law and life are viewed in America today is this infamous “mystery clause” excerpt from the 1992 Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood v Casey:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Law in America today is no longer tethered to fixed moorings. The Republican leadership of the 112th Congress was so concerned about this that it determined to have to Constitution read in full at the opening of Congress and to insist that all bills submitted for debate be accompanied by citations giving the Constitutional basis and authority for such laws. It remains to be seen whether such attempts to “reconnect” American law, even with its own founding documents, will have any lasting effect.
Restoring legal boundaries
Clearly, Christians and their churches need to begin taking steps to restore the ancient legal boundaries upon which our nation was founded. But, given the widespread indifference – even antipathy – among Christians toward Biblical Law generally, this promises to be a daunting challenge.
We must renew discussion and consideration of the holy and righteous and good Law of God – as revealed in Scripture, understood by prophets and apostles, fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ, and applied through the ages by faithful believers in many lands – including our own colonial forebears. We may expect calls for such a reconsideration of Biblical Law to be greeted with skepticism, if not scorn, even from within the ranks of the Body of Christ. But we must make and pursue them nonetheless.
The weight of Scripture and history is on the side of those who insist that Scripture and the Law of God present a clearer, more compelling, and more just vision of the good society than what our modern makers of law will ever be able to describe, and that the moral and social boundaries outlined there can help us to achieve a more just and orderly society.
For more insight to this topic, get the book, Pathway to Freedom: How God’s Law Guides Our Lives, by Alistair Begg, from our online store.
Or read the article, “Teaching the Law of God in the Church,” by T. M. Moore.
For study or discussion
- Why do you suppose the Puritans and other colonial Americans were willing to trust the Scriptures to guide their thinking about legal matters?
- Does your church make a point to teach the Law of God? Why or why not? See if you can find out from church leaders.
- Read through the Ten Commandments. In what ways can you see that our society today still depends on the wisdom of these ancient words? Does this suggest there may be more wisdom in other sections of the Law of God? Why or why not?
- Read 1 Corinthians 9:1-14. Paul freely drew on civil and ceremonial laws of ancient Israel in justifying his ministry and rights. What does this suggest to us about the value of such statutes?
- How might you begin to become better informed and more consistent in reading and living by the Law of God yourself? Would Jesus commend you for this (cf. Matt. 5:17-19; 22:34-40)?
1 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 39.
2In Smith, et al, p. 96.
3 Blackstone, p. 44.
4 Foundations of Colonial America, Vol. 2, Part 1 (New York: Chelsea House, 1983), p. 1146.
5 Foundations of Colonial America, pp. 2078, 2079.
6 Cited in David Barton, Original Intent (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders Press, 1996), p. 327.
7 Cited in Barton, p. 204.
8 Cited in Cal Thomas, Uncommon Sense (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1990), p. 15.
Renewing Vision, Restoring Landmarks (6)
Has education become the new religion of secular America?
For Americans today education means, above all, schools, and we have elevated schools into something of a secular religion.[i]
---Robert N. Bellah
There are few subjects concerning which Americans can find so many different reasons to disagree than education. Public or private? Whose morality? Politically correct or traditional? Values clarification or family values? More funding or more accountability? Core curriculum or high-tech? Arts and sciences or just sciences? No child left behind? And on and on.
We put a lot of stock in the education we give our children. Perhaps Robert N. Bellah is correct: Is good schooling, as the secular religion, the way to salvation? Our American forebears would heartily have endorsed the importance of education for a properly functioning society. But they recognized both a broader scope of responsibility and a firmer foundation for education than what characterizes education in America today.
Aspects of a Biblical approach to education
Let’s begin by looking briefly at some aspects of a Biblical approach to education. In the Biblical idea of education, the family and the community together shared the responsibility for preparing their members for life in society under God.
Primary responsibility for the education of children lay with parents. We can see this in a number of passages that have a bearing on the education of children. In Genesis 18:19, for example, God commended Abraham, as the head of his household, because he instructed all the members of his household – a considerable community – in the knowledge of God and how to keep His Word.
The family played a central role in the instruction of children in ancient Israel, as family heads were commanded to make the most of both formal and informal opportunities to teach their children the commandments of God (Deut. 6:4-9). Fathers and mothers alike took a hand in shaping their children for virtuous living, in the Old Testament as well as in the New (Prov. 1:8, 9; Eph. 6:4).
The almost-universally abandoned doctrine of en loco parentis – that teachers in schools stood in the place of parents to do their bidding – was based on this Biblical ideal of the central role of the home in the education of the young.
The Bible also has much to say about the role of the believing community in this important work. Psalm 78:1-8, for example, represents a kind of community covenant to take responsibility for teaching the children the Word and works of the Lord.
The same commitment is identified in Psalm 145:4. Spiritual leaders bore the primary responsibility in the New Testament for shaping the lives of those in their care (2 Tim. 2:2; Eph. 4:11-16; Titus 2:1-10, 15), but all members of the community were responsible to teach, admonish, and encourage one another in the life of good works (Col. 3:16; Rom. 15:14; Heb. 10:24).
In the Biblical model of education, therefore, family and community share the responsibility of instructing children and one another in the ways and works of the Lord, so as to fit their offspring and themselves to take a responsible role in securing the blessings of God – righteousness, peace, and joy – for themselves and the community as a whole. These ideals played a prominent role in the shape of education in pre-revolutionary colonial America.
Education in colonial America
Robert N. Bellah observed that, in colonial America, “It was the whole community that educated: the home, the church, the voluntary association, and local politics had an educative function at least as important as that of the school”.[ii]
The training and shaping of children in colonial America was not left to some elite caste of educators who were presumed to know best concerning how such endeavors should be pursued. The education of children was of interest to the whole community, beginning with the family, for the wellbeing of the whole community depended on the proper instruction of the young.
We have already seen something of the role of the family in the education of children during the colonial period. The family’s role was based on the educative role of the church. The church stood at the center of the colonial community as the touchstone of truth and wellspring of moral instruction. And, in the church, the sermon was the supreme instrument of teaching and learning. Harry S. Stout writes, concerning the New England experience,
Twice on Sunday and often once during the week, every minister in New England delivered sermons lasting between one and two hours in length. Collectively over the entire span of the colonial period, sermons totaled over five million separate messages in a society whose population never exceeded one-half million and whose principle city never grew beyond seventeen thousand.
The average weekly churchgoer in New England (and there were far more churchgoers than church members) listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a lifetime, totaling somewhere around fifteen thousand hours of concentrated listening.
These striking statistics become even more significant when it is recalled that until the last decade of the colonial era there were at the local level few, if any competing public speakers offering alternative messages. For all intents and purposes, the sermon was the only regular voice of authority.[iii]
Today, all manner of media compete with the preaching of the Word as sources of opinion and instruction. Further, the role of preaching in churches these days has been greatly reduced, as pastors and church leaders give into congregational pressure for fewer, shorter, and “lighter” messages, and more variety of instructional venues (Sunday schools, Bible studies, etc.).
It is almost impossible to think of a congregation of Christians today enduring for more than a week or two a sermon such as was typically preached to farmers, shopkeepers, mothers, children, and small town professionals by such Puritan lights as Jonathan Edwards.
Lest we should think that it was only in New England that the local church was expected to play a central educative role, here are some statutes from the colony of Virginia. Each gives us some insight into the way community leaders thought about the role of the church in the wellbeing of society and, as part of that, the education of future generations:
- March 5, 1623/24
Whoever shall absent himself from divine service any Sunday without an allowable excuse shall forfeit a pound of tobacco and he that absents himself a month shall forfeit 50 pounds of tobacco.
- February, 1631/32
That the statutes for coming to church every Sunday and holy days be duly executed. That is, that the church wardens do levy one shilling for every time of any person’s absence from the church, having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent.
Every minister in this colony having cure of souls shall preach one sermon every Sunday in the year, having no lawful impediment.
It is also thought fit that, upon every Sunday, the minister shall, half an hour or more before evening prayer, examine, catechise, and instruct the youth and ignorant persons of this parish in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Belief, and in the Lord’s prayer and shall diligently here instruct and teach them the catechism, set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, and all fathers, mothers, masters, and mistresses shall cause their children, servants, or apprentices which have not learned the catechism to come to the church at the time appointed, obediently to hear, and to be ordered by the minister until they have learned the same.[iv]
We may wince at the idea of local government enforcing church attendance and ministerial and parental educative duties, but such was the norm in early America. Church, family, and state cooperated to ensure that instruction in spiritual values was conducted and observed by all responsible parties.
Similar statutes to those from Virginia exist throughout the 17th and 18th centuries for all the colonies. Moreover, the colonists seemed to find no problem incorporating religious instruction into the formal schooling they provided their children. Here, for example, is a qualification for a teacher for a New York City school (City of New York, November 27, 1702):
Be it enacted by his Excellency the Governor, Council, and Representatives convened in General Assembly, and by the authority of the same, that there shall be hereafter elected, chosen, licensed, authorized, and appointed one able, skillful, orthodox person to be schoolmaster for the education and instruction of youth...[v]
And here is an earlier (1682) teacher’s contract for the schools of New Amsterdam:
When the school begins, one of the children shall read the morning prayer, as it stands in the catechism, and close with the prayer before dinner; in the afternoon it shall begin with the prayer after dinner, and end with the evening prayer. The evening school shall begin with the Lord’s prayer, and close by singing a psalm...He shall instruct the children on every Wednesday and Saturday, in the common prayers, and the questions and answers in the catechism, to enable them to repeat them the better on Sunday before the afternoon service, or on Monday, when they shall be catechised before the congregation.[vi]
When the colonists turned to building colleges, they incorporated their Biblical view of education into the work of higher education as well, as we can plainly see from the following:
- From Rules of Harvard College (1643):
Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17.3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.[vii]
- From the Statutes of 1728 concerning the purposes of the College of William and Mary:
There are three things which the Founders of this College proposed to themselves, to which all its Statutes should be directed. The First is, that the Youth of Virginia should be well educated to Learning and good Morals. The Second is, that the Churches of America, especially Virginia, should be supplied with good Ministers...The Third is, That the Indians of America should be instructed in the Christian Religion, and that some of the Indian Youth that are well-behaved and well-inclined, being first prepared in the Divinity School, may be sent out to preach the Gospel to their Countrymen in their own Tongue...[viii]
- From student rules of Yale College, 1745:
All Scholars Shall Live Religious, Godly and Blameless Lives according to the Rules of Gods Word, diligently Reading the holy Scriptures the Fountain of Light and Truth; and constantly attend upon all the Duties of Religion both Publick and Private.[ix]
There can be little doubt but that our colonial forebears, in seeking to provide education for their children, turned to the Biblical model of family and community involvement in helping to shape children, through all levels of instruction, for godly living in community. How far we have drifted from that vision and those early landmarks!
Education as salvation
The education of children in America today pursues an entirely different vision – equally religious, but immanentistic rather than transcendent – from that of our colonial forebears. Daniel Boorstin summarized what has come to be state of American education today: “If there was to be a new American religion of education, the universities were its cathedrals, just as the high schools later would become its parish churches.”[x]
What is the “message” of this new religion? Educational philosopher John S. Brubacher writes,
Salvation by the acquisition and application of knowledge is on the way to becoming the religion of modern man. Hence, in the long run, it is to such studies as biology, psychology, and sociology that students will have to turn for the answers they formerly found in the church.[xi]
Brubacher continues, “In its capacity as a secular church, the university can continue to be what the church has always been – the conscience of society”.[xii]
When we consider the Darwinian, postmodern, deconstructionist, and even Marxist tendencies prevalent among so many members of the higher education caste, the idea that secular education should serve as the conscience of our society should be troubling to all believers in Jesus Christ.
As in so many other areas of life, the ancient vision has been set aside, and the ancient boundaries of the field of education, set down by the Founders of this country, have been moved. It falls to the members of the Christian community to consider the present state of our work in educating future generations, and to ensure, to the best of our ability, that the vision and boundaries of education, revealed in Scripture and practiced by our forebears, come once again to characterize our own work in this field.
For more insight to this subject, get the DVD, Four Centuries of American Education, by David Barton, from our online store. Or read the article, “What’s Happening to Christian Education?” by Charles Colson.
[i]Bellah, et al, p. 146.
[ii]Bellah, et al, p. 147.
[iii]Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 3, 4.
[iv]In W. Keith Kavenagh, ed., Foundations of Colonial America, Vol. III, Pt. 2 (New York: Chelsea House, 1983), pp. 2263-2266.
[v]Kavenagh, Vol. II, Pt. 2, p. 1420.
[vi]In D. Bruce Lockerbie, ed., A Passion for Learning (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 244.
[vii]In Smith, et al, p. 125.
[viii]In Edwin S. Gaustad, ed., A Documentary History of Religion in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), pp. 202, 203.
[ix]In Gaustad, p. 204.
[x]Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 478.
[xi]John S. Brubacher, On the Philosophy of Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1982), p. 133.
[xii]Brubacher, pp. 134, 135.
Renewing Vision, Restoring Landmarks (5)
Let’s not throw the Puritan baby out with its bathwater.
There is a longing, among millions of Americans now reaching middle age, for a sense of community that they believe existed during their childhoods and does not now exist.
A threat to community?
Human beings are communal creatures; that is, we thrive only in the society of others, where interdependency, cooperation, honest competition, and trust work together to help us realize our fullest potential.
This, at least, is the message of the new communitarians, a group of scholars and activists who proclaim the saving efficacy of community and call Americans to join their ranks. The new communitarians have a strong appeal to people who sense they’ve lost something significant, but haven’t a clue as to how to get it back.
The new communitarians promise a reconstructed society of mutual support, encouragement, freedom, and prosperity. Their vision of revived communities includes everything that was best from their growing-up memories, together with all the newest innovations their fertile minds can concoct. They have the ears of politicians and community activists.
The new communitarians have only one fear: A revival of Puritanism. Is Puritanism, as the new communitarians think, a threat to community?
The Biblical idea of community
In this installment of our series we want to take a brief look at the Puritan idea of community – what they believed and how they practiced community in the generations prior to the American Revolution. I hope we will see that the longing for a renewed experience of community in our day has nothing to fear, and much to learn, from the vision and practice of our colonial forebears.
Let’s begin by examining briefly the Biblical idea of community, which provided the guidelines for the Puritan communities of colonial New England. The Biblical idea of community describes a society of self-giving men and women who relate to one another as brothers and sisters through their mutual relationship with and submission to Jesus Christ as Savior and King (cf. Matt. 19:27-30, Lk. 18:28-30, and Mk. 10:28-31). The “unity” in the Biblical idea of community is established on the basis of devotion to Christ, while the “common” in community comes to expression in the form of mutual nurture, love, and care.
The bonds of a Biblical idea of community are thus established vertically, through a relationship with Jesus Christ, and horizontally, by a strong sense of mutual participation in Him and in His Body, the Church.
In Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-35 we see a picture of the first Christian community in action. The early Christians enjoyed one another’s hospitality, shared their possessions with those in need, learned and grew together, and otherwise worked hard to create a caring and nurturing society.
The Apostle Paul elaborated the Christian understanding of community in 1 Corinthians 12:12-25, where he explained that each member of the society has a stewardship responsibility toward God and the other members of the community, to identify the gifts with which he has been endowed by the Lord, and to employ those gifts for the benefit of his neighbors and the edification of the society as a whole.
The day-to-day activities of Christian communities, that is, the way that Christians were expected to relate to their neighbors in community, are summarized in a series of “one-another” phrases, scattered throughout the New Testament. Taken together, these passages help us to understand how the leaders of the early Christian movement understood the nature of community and the responsibility of members for creating and maintaining nurturing and caring societies.
Thus, members of the Christian communities were to work hard at loving one another, following the example of God Himself (1 Jn. 4:7-11). They were to give thought to how they might spur one another on in doing good (Heb. 10:24). Members of the community were to share in one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), to teach and counsel one another (Col. 3:16; Rom. 15:14), to provide encouragement to one another (1 Thess. 5:11), and to submit to one another in love (Eph. 5:21).
This bare outline of the New Testament idea of community leads us to wonder whether such an ideal is really attainable. Can self-centered, sinful people really achieve this kind of community?
Consider the example of the Church in Corinth: Here was a New Testament community divided into factions. Members were dragging one another to court. As a community they tolerated gross immorality among their members. They abused the Lord’s Supper. They acted, for the most part, like children, like babes in Christ, rather than like mature and loving members of a thriving community.
Paul wrote to them about a “thorn in his flesh.” I’ve often wondered whether he might not have meant them! Here was a society of believers whose example was a far cry from what the community of Christians in Jerusalem experienced, or what the apostles taught as exemplary community behavior.
But here is how the Church at Corinth was described in about 90 A.D., in the generation following the apostles. In these observations from Clement of Rome we can see that the Corinthians overcame their sinful and self-serving tendencies and ways to forge a model of Christian community extolled by all:
For who has stayed with you without making proof of the virtue and steadfastness of your faith? Who has not admired the sobriety and Christian gentleness of your piety? Who has not reported your character so magnificent in its hospitality? And who has not blessed your perfect and secure knowledge? For you did all things without respect of persons, and walked in the laws of God, obedient to your rulers, and paying all fitting honour to the older among you.
On the young, too, you enjoined temperate and seemly thoughts, and to the women you gave instruction that they should do all things with a blameless and seemly and pure conscience, yielding a dutiful affection to their husbands. And you taught them to remain in the rule of obedience and to manage their households with seemliness, in all circumspection.
And you were all humble-minded and in no wise arrogant, yielding subjection rather than demanding it, “giving more gladly than receiving,” satisfied with the provision of Christ, and paying attention to his words you stored them up carefully in your hearts, and kept his sufferings before your eyes. Thus a profound and rich peace was given to all, you had an insatiable desire to do good, and the Holy Spirit was poured out in abundance on you all.
You were full of holy plans, and with pious confidence you stretched out your hands to Almighty God in a passion of goodness, beseeching him to be merciful towards any unwilling sin. Day and night you strove on behalf of the whole brotherhood that the number of his elect should be saved with mercy and compassion. You were sincere and innocent, and bore no malice to one another.
All sedition and schism was abominable to you. You mourned over the transgressions of your neighbours; you judged their shortcomings as your own. You were without regret in every act of kindness, “ready unto every good work.” You were adorned by your virtuous and honourable citizenship and did all things in the fear of God. The commandments and ordinances of the Lord were “written on the tables of your heart.” All glory and enlargement was given to you, and that which was written was fulfilled, “My Beloved ate and drank, and he was enlarged and waxed fat and kicked.”
The Christian idea of community provides a powerful model for how societies can be havens of nurture and care, where human beings can flourish and the whole society can prosper and be at peace. The example of the Corinthians indicates that, given the right vision, incentives, and guidance, the Christian model of community can come to fruition, even in what might seem like a hopeless situation. In the communities of colonial Puritans, many aspects of this Biblical model can be discerned.
Puritan community life
The Puritans of colonial New England knew something about this kind of society. Helena M. Wall is not exactly a friend of the Puritans. Her book, Fierce Communion, attempts to portray Puritan community life as intrusive and oppressive. But her view of the matter is skewed by her narrow approach, looking only at court records for her conclusions (as we have seen, there is no shortage of other contemporary materials from which to formulate our understanding of colonial communities). Nevertheless, her study shows us aspects of the Puritan view of community that certainly are lacking in our society today.
She observes, first of all, that the members of New England society all accepted the preeminent right of the community to regulate the lives of its members and to measure individual actions by their effect on the larger group. Communities, that is, were governed by laws, interpreted and enforced by trusted rulers, who understood how to balance the needs of individuals and the interests of the society as a whole.
Far from constituting regimented and dictatorial societies, however, community life in Puritan New England was a matter of covenant. Edmund Morgan writes,
Quite apart from his individual relationship to God through the covenant of grace, every Christian participated in a social relationship to him through a social covenant. The Christian’s family, church, and state had each promised to give outward obedience to God in every respect. Consequently every Christian was bound to obey God not merely as a sanctified man (in order to prove to himself that he was saved) but as a member of each group to which he belonged.
Think back on what we saw from Thomas Shepard about our covenant relationship with God. In Morgan’s comment, and in Shepard’s sermon, we can see that this idea of “covenant” was not merely a theological concept to be affirmed, but a doctrine of faith to be practiced in every aspect of life. Community life as a covenant relationship entailed mutual respect, the duty to contribute good works of righteousness, and the responsibility of embodying the life of God to one’s neighbors.
Colonial communities relied on the idea of stigma to help them maintain order. Here is how Helena M. Wall puts it:
Steady oversight by neighbors both exploited and exacerbated the nearly excessive concern of colonial Americans with reputation and good name, their sensitivity to issues of shame and public humiliation. These concerns protected the community in many ways: fear of discovery and public scorn undoubtedly deterred many from transgression and richly punished those who were not deterred.
As we might expect, therefore, colonial communities wielded a great deal of authority over the lives of their members. Helena M. Wall writes,
Thus the community sought, as a legitimate part of its responsibility, to organize and determine the conduct of private life in colonial America. Individual desires, personal relationships, family life: all gave way to the demands of community. The colonists valued order, stability, harmony, and Christian cooperation. They strove to create communities that would uphold these values and that would be powerful enough to enforce them in the face of resistance and weakness.
Helena M. Wall resents the strong note of authority in Puritan practice, and what she regards as the stifling of individual liberty this entailed. However, we should remember that the whole notion of liberty and individual rights, enshrined in the American Constitution, arose in large part (as we shall see) from just such communities as these. Today, according to Alan Ehrenhalt, “Authority and community have unraveled together.” We do not need to look very far to see how true this is.
Members of colonial communities also understood the importance of helping one another:
In the absence of more formal institutions, colonial Americans cared for their poor, sick, disabled, aged, even their prisoners, by boarding them in the homes of families or neighbors... Private individuals as well as officials relied on neighborhood bonds for different kinds of help... Neighbors asked each other for advice as well as practical help, even in close family matters.
Today, Americans’ sense of wanting to help one another, to work together on various projects, or even to socialize with their neighbors has fallen off precipitously. Here again is an area where today’s communitarians might find encouragement and example from our Puritan forebears as they take up the challenge of restoring a greater sense of community to the nation.
To restore community
There is today a strong desire on the part of many people to recover a stronger sense of community in America. Robert N. Bellah has observed, “...there is no pattern of a good society that we or anyone else can simply discern and then expect people to conform to. It is central to our very notion of a good society that it is an open quest, actively involving all its members... the common good is the pursuit of the good in common.”
However, in the light of what we have seen about the Biblical ideal of community and the Puritan example of that ideal in practice, we have to wonder whether Bellah is being rather too selective in searching out models for the restoration of community life in America.
Amitai Etzioni insists, “We hold that a moral revival in these United States is possible without Puritanism; that is, without busybodies meddling into our personal affairs, without thought police controlling our intellectual life. We can attain a recommitment to moral values – without puritannical excesses.” There certainly were “excesses” in the Puritan practice of community; nevertheless, as we have seen in brief, there are plenty of good ideas in the Puritan experience that might help to clarify our vision and practice in restoring a sense of community to the nation.
In that respect, Alan Ehrenhalt’s advice for those seeking to renew the vision and practice of community in America seems more sensible:
What we badly need to do, once our rebellion against the 1950s has run its course, is to rebuild some anchors of stability to help us through times of equally unsettling change. For that to happen anytime soon, the generation that launched the rebellion will have to force itself to rethink some of the unexamined “truths” with which it has lived its entire adult life.
It will have to recognize that privacy, individuality, and choice are not free goods, and that the society that places no restrictions on them pays a high price for that decision. It will have to retrieve the idea of authority from the dustbin to which it was confined by the 1960s deluge.
A door of opportunity
Certainly the growing interest in recovering a stronger practice of community in America represents an open door for churches to make a contribution to seeking the shalom of their own communities (Jer. 29:5-14). Jesus referred to His followers as the light of the world, and Paul said that, as such, Christians should expect to be able to bring goodness, righteousness, and truth to bear in every area of life (Matt. 5:13-16; Eph. 5:1-14).
Our Biblical heritage, coupled with the example of our forebears in this country, can equip Christian leaders and their churches to play an active, positive role in recasting the vision for community and restoring the best aspects of the ancient landmarks of community that our secular and materialist society has cast aside.
The early Christian settlers of this continent had a strong sense of the importance of community. Particularly was this so in the New England colonies. Yet that sense of community has been lost today. Believers need to understand the important role that they can play in helping to restore a sense of community among their neighbors and within the nation.
For study or discussion
1. How would you describe the sense of community among the people in your city? What are some indicators that the idea of community is alive and well or struggling and in decline in your community?
2. In what particular ways does your own church embody the principles of Christian community outlined here?
3. What opportunities exist in your community for Christians to be involved in recovering the lost vision and restoring the ancient landmarks of community life?
4. Meditate on Jeremiah 29:5-14. Jeremiah was writing to people in a fallen land, where there was not much sympathy with anything having to do with God. How did he instruct them about working for the shalom of the city to which God had sent them? How might we apply these ideas in our day?
5. Does the Church bear any responsibility for the decline of community life in America? Explain.
For additional insight to this topic, get the book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, by Eric O. Jacobsen, from our online store. Or read the article, “Ideas, Associations, and Making Good Cities,” by Robert Driscoll.
Alan Ehrenhalt, “Learning from the Fifties,” in The Wilson Quarterly, Summer, 1995, p. 16.
1 Clement 1.2-3.1 in Kirsopp Lake, tr., The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 9-13.
Helena M. Wall, Fierce Communion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. ix.
Morgan, p. 10.
Wall, p. 13.
Wall, p. 12.
Ehrenhalt, p. 17.
Wall, pp. 14, 15.
Cf. Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” in Journal of Democracy, January, 1995, pp. 68 ff.
Robert N. Bellah, et al, The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 9.
Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993), p. 1.
Ehrenhalt, p. 29.
Renewing Vision, Restoring Landmarks (4)
The essence of the social order lay in the superiority of husband over wife, parents over children, and master over servants in the family, ministers and elders over congregation in the church, rulers over subjects in the state.
--Edmund S. Morgan
The family under assault
The breakdown of the American family is only the most startling evidence of the collapse of a transcendent worldview today. Yet this is a very recent phenomenon. As David Popenoe has observed,
"In 1900, the percentage of all American children living in single-parent families was 8.5 percent. By 1960, it had increased to just 9.1 percent. Virtually no one during those years was writing or thinking about family breakdown, disintegration, or decline." 
How times have changed. Today the idea of “family” that, for over three centuries, was taken for granted by generations of Americans, needs to be defended against redefinition by state and federal governments. But not even the Congress and President will be able to shield the family from the ongoing assault that the forces of postmodern thinking are bringing against it. If the family and the blessings it brings to society are to be preserved, it will require not merely defending a traditional idea, but recovering a lost vision and restoring the ancient boundaries of family life that have been moved during the last generation.
The decline of the American family
Let’s consider briefly what has become of the American family since 1960. David Popenoe continues his analysis:
Most estimates are that only about 50 percent of the children born during the 1970-84 “baby bust” period will still live with their natural parents by age 17. Just as divorce has overtaken death as the leading cause of fatherlessness, out-of-wedlock births are expected to surpass divorce later in the 1990s. They accounted for 30 percent of all births by 1991; by the turn of the century they may account for 40 percent of the total.
This prophetic insight has already been realized. Clearly, the family is an idea and an institution in trouble. Several factors have contributed to this, and many of these can be traced to the worldview of immanence that has gained ascendancy over the past generation: Pop culture, the increase of pornography and the easy acceptance of adultery and divorce, compromise of morality and teaching within the churches, and a general sense on the part of many that “looking out for number 1” is the primary purpose of all our lives.
The consequences for family life of these developments have been harmful in many ways. Reports of spousal and child abuse are more common. Homosexuals now insist on the right to marry, adopt children, and be families in the fullest sense of the law. Teen violence and sexual adventurism are increasingly common, as are teen dependence on legal drugs. Morality continues to drift away from its transcendent moorings. Divorce is as likely to be the end of a marriage as death (perhaps we should vow, “until divorce us do part”?). And the practice of a deep and personally transforming spiritual life is becoming less common, even among those who profess faith in Christ and attend church regularly.
Is there a connection between these trends and the breakdown of the family? Again, David Popenoe:
"The collapse of children’s well-being in the United States has reached breathtaking proportions. Juvenile violent crime has increased sixfold...Reports of child neglect and abuse have quintupled since 1976...Eating disorders and rates of depression have soared among adolescent girls. Alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers, although it has leveled off in recent years, continues at a very high rate. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have declined nearly 80 points...Poverty has shifted from the elderly to the young...In my many years as a sociologist, I have found few other bodies of evidence that lean so much in one direction as this one: on the whole, two parents – a father and a mother – are better for a child than one parent." 
He goes on to say, “Because the causes of the decline of marriage and fatherhood lie mainly in the moral, behavioral, and even spiritual realms, the decline is mostly resistant to public-policy and government cures.”
The religion of immanence has taken powerful hold in the populace, and it is eroding the viability of family life like a spiritual cancer, unchecked.
Biblical insights on the family
In the Biblical worldview the family is central to an ordered and flourishing community. The Scriptures offer many clear instructions and guidelines for how a family should be maintained in order to know the maximum blessing of God. The Biblical ideal of the family is outlined in a number of passages. Husbands and wives are called to submit to one another in mutual love and service, and to raise their children to know and love the Lord (Eph. 5:21-6:4).
The family is the base where children learn wisdom and from which people move out to serve God and bring forth His goodness and blessings in all their relationships, roles, and responsibilities (Gen. 1:26-28; 18-25). In the family children learn proper deference to others, so that mutual respect and service obtain within communities and respect for law and others is the norm (Ex. 20:12, 14). In the Biblical view of the family the commandments and promises of God provide the foundation for all of life and culture, guiding each member of the family how best to live in love for God and neighbor and to contribute to a just and well-ordered society (Deut. 6:4-9; Prov. 31:10-31; Col. 3:18-21).
In many ways, the loss of a transcendent religion and its accompanying vision of the family have been the cause of the breakdown of this foundational social unity and the source of many troubling social ills.
A well-ordered family
Our colonial forebears held fast to this transcendent view of the family as of first importance for success in the new societies they were seeking to build. Cotton Mather wrote that families were the “nurseries of society”, “the very first society that by the direction and providence of God is produced among the children of men.” Well-ordered families were central to colonial churches and communities.
Consider the following journal entries, which are representative of the colonial attitude toward the family. The first is from one of the sons of Mary Fish, a fifth-generation descendant of the first pilgrims. The second is from Samuel Sewall, for over ten years the Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Here we can see what our colonial forebears considered to be the heart and soul of a well-ordered colonial family:
"She taught us prayers and hymns and every morning heard us read in the Bible and other religious books adopted to our age. In mild weather we usually resorted to the parlor-chamber, the best chamber in the house... Here, while our mother combed the hair and adjusted the dress of one, the other read or recited passages of Scripture or hymns or sacred poetry." 
It falls to my Daughter Elisabeth’s share to read the 24 of Isiah (sic), which she doth with many tears not being very well, and the contents of the Chapter, and sympathy with her draws tears from me also.
A well-ordered family was understood to be the key to a well-ordered society. This is clear in this observation from Benjamin Wadsworth:
"Without Family care the labour of Magistrate and Minister for Reformation and Propagating Religion, is likely to be in a great measure unsuccessful. It’s much to be fear’d Young Persons wont much mind what’s said by Minister in Publick, if they are not Instructed at home: nor will they much regard good laws made by civil authority, if they are not well counsel’d and govern’d at home." 
The American Founders believed that what children learned in the home would transfer to their lives in society. In his catechism on the Ten Commandments John Cotton wrote, with respect to the fifth commandment, “What is meant here by Father and Mother? The correct answer: All our superiors, whether in family, school, church, or commonwealth.” It’s not hard to see, from an understanding such as this, how the breakdown of the family affects the entire social order.
A primary concern of colonial American life, therefore, was the maintenance of well-ordered families. And, contrary to what we sometimes hear about early American society, the operative agent in seeking such well-ordered families was not discipline, but love.
The Puritan view of love
Puritan family relations are often presented as rather cold and impersonal. Yet the evidence indicates that their view of love must have made for a much more enjoyable, secure, and happy home life than we may otherwise think. Consider the following excerpts from some of the Puritan leaders of the day:
- John Winthrop, in a letter to his wife: “My sweet spouse, let us delight in the love of each other as the chiefe of all earthly comforts”.
- Mary Fish’s husband-to-be in a letter to her, just prior to their wedding: “Happy, Happy Hour will that be, my Dearest of created Blessings, that shall unite our happy souls and bodies in the blessed Bonds of marriage and enable us to walk through all the scenes of this life mutually supporting, blessing, and assisting each other in the way of Duty, until we shall at last be called of this stage to enjoy an Eternity of Happiness in the world of blessed spirits above.”
- Mary Fish, on raising children: “Always view them as children – flowers just opening – Reason and all Faculties but in the bud, to be tenderly and discreetly handled and wait patiently, in the way of repeated instruction, hoping and looking for full, ripe fruit, but not before the season”.
-Anne Bradstreet, in a poem to her husband:
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of Gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
Such sentiments were more the norm than among our colonial forebears than we are often led to believe, and the issued from lively faith and diligent practice of the religion of Jesus Christ.
Within such a framework of love, the colonial home was a center of spirituality, nurture, duty, industry, and love. Even single men and women had to live with a family, to protect them from the temptations of living alone. Boys learned to become productive members of the community at home. Girls were taught how to manage a household and care for children. All family members understood the importance of faith in God and the hope of heaven. And, as we shall see in our next installment, families practiced mutual accountability for the sake of maintaining a stable community and a safe society.
Restoring the family
David Popenoe writes,
"In order to restore marriage and reinstate fathers in the lives of their children, we are somehow going to have to undo the cultural shift of the last few decades toward radical individualism. We are going to have to re-embrace some cultural propositions or understandings that throughout history have been universally accepted but which today are unpopular, if not rejected outright. Marriage must be re-established as a strong social institution." 
While he is certainly correct, it is unlikely that anything like this will occur as long as the religion of immanence – a devotion to material prosperity and sensual experience – is providing the guiding moral convictions and practices of our day. Only by recovering the transcendent spiritual vision of our forebears will we be able to find the will, strength, and wisdom to restore the ancient landmarks of a well-ordered family life.
The family as our forebears knew it has begun to crumble and disintegrate in our day. And, with the breakdown of the family, the erosion of community life and the crack-up of society as a whole are not far behind. The family was the backbone of colonial society. And the colonial family was grounded in the transcendent vision of a Biblical world view. It is that vision that we must first recover before we shall be able to restore the ancient boundaries in the homes of our nation.
For study or discussion
- What evidence do you see that the family is coming unglued in our day? Should Christians be troubled by this?
2. Read The Manhattan Declaration and contemplate its teaching about the family. Sign this document and send it along to others to consider: http://www.manhattandeclaration.org/home.aspx
3. In what ways does your church work to strengthen the family as the foundational institution of society?
4. Why do you think people have such a negative view of the Puritans, especially given the representative quotes we’ve seen in this installment?
5. What should be your role in seeking to renew the lost vision of family life and to restore the ancient landmarks established by our forebears?
For additional insight to this topic, get the book, The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home, by Jack and Judith Balswick, from our online store. Or read the article, “Revival at Home,” by Charles Colson.
Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family (New York: Harper and Row, 1944, 1966), p. 19.5.
David Popenoe, “A World Without Fathers,” The Wilson Quarterly, Spring, 1996, p. 13.
Popenoe, p. 14.
Popenoe, p. 15.
Popenoe, p. 28.
Cited in Morgan, p. 143.
Ibid., p. 133.
Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel, Jr., The Way of Duty (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1984), pp. 7, 8.
Cited in Morgan, p. 137.
Cited in Morgan, p. 30.
In Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1977), p. 182.
Cited in Morgan, p. 51.
Buel and Buel, p. 89.
Buel and Buel, p. 53.
Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” in Gunn, p. 185.
Popenoe, p. 27.
Renewing Vision, Restoring Landmarks (3)
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated.[i]
A change of convictions
As we have seen, colonial Americans were motivated by a vision that grew out of eternal convictions. Their daily choices and decisions were, by and large, framed by eternal truths and grounded in an awareness of the proximity of heaven.
Americans today operate on the basis of a different dream. At the same time, however, we are, as a people, no less religious than our forebears. Boston University sociologist Peter L. Berger has observed:
No one will propose that the United States is not a modern society; indeed, in some respects it may be more modern than any other. Yet, by all conventional criteria, it continues to be an intensely religious country...Not only is the religious status quo maintained, but more Americans than ever go to religious services, support religious organizations, and describe themselves as holding strong religious beliefs.[ii]
The change in the American dream, therefore, reflects nothing so much as a change in the religious convictions of Americans. We are still a religious people. It’s just that the religion to which we adhere today is not the same as that of those who established the ancient boundaries of our nation.
The religion of the Founders
Let’s take a look at the essential religious convictions of our colonial forebears. The problem in seeking to do this is not that there is so little representative material from which to choose. Quite the opposite: There are thousands of sermons, books, diaries, and official documents, any number of which could give us an overview of the essential religious beliefs of pre-revolutionary Americans.
For our purposes we will examine in some detail one brief document, a sermon entitled, “The Covenant of Grace,” which was published in 1651 by the eminent New England pastor, Thomas Shepard.[iii] A sermon is a particularly good source for our investigation, for the sermon was the most common and most influential medium of public information in all of colonial America. Let’s examine a few excerpts from this sermon in order to outline the essential convictions of pre-revolutionary colonial American Christians.
First, here is Shepard’s description of the essence of Christian experience:
The blessed God hath evermore delighted to reveal and communicate Himself by way of Covenant...The Lord can never get near enough to His people, and He thinks He can never get them near enough unto Himself, and therefore unites and binds and fastens them close to Himself, and Himself unto them, by the bonds of a Covenant... [He] makes a sure and everlasting Covenant, according to Grace, not according to works; and that shall hold His people firm unto Himself, and hold Himself close and fast unto them, that He may never depart from us.
Christianity, as Shepard understood it, is a covenant, initiated by God, and designed to secure His people to Himself and to keep them near. This covenant is all of grace, as it is God Who “communicates Himself” and holds us fast to Him in an eternal relationship of love.
While the Christian life was thus understood to be all of grace, it included certain specific responsibilities to be carried out by those who are the beneficiaries of God’s grace:
And is not this Covenant then worth thy looking into and searching after? Surely never was there a time wherein the Lord calls His people to more serious searching into the nature of the Covenant than in these days...was there then ever a more seasonable time and hour to study the Covenant, and so see the sin, repent of it, and at last to lay hold of God’s rich grace and bowels [mercies]in it, lest the Lord go on and fulfill the word of His servants, and expose most pleasant lands to the doleful lamentation of a very little remnant, reserved as a few coals in the ashes, when all else is consumed?
Christians are expected to be “looking into” and “searching into the nature of the Covenant.” They must give themselves to diligent study thereof, with a view to discovering and repenting of their sin, and laying hold on the riches of God’s mercy so that the blessings of God, rather than any “doleful lamentation”, may rest upon their land.
As they study and learn what this covenant requires of them, God’s people should expect to turn away from their sin, which only leads to judgment, and to fear the Lord and live in good works before Him:
As particular persons, when they break their Covenant, the Lord therefore breaks out against them: so, when whole churches forsake their Covenant, the Lord therefore doth sorely visit them...And therefore no wonder if the Lord makes His people’s chain heavy by sore affliction, until they come to consider and behold this sin, and learn more fear (after they are bound to their good behavior) of breaking Covenant with God again.
This covenant between God and His people is a place of safety; straying from it brings the wrath and discipline of the Lord against any who “break out from a long-suffering God” and transgress His laws and ordinances:
Nay, is not the time come wherein the Lord of hosts seems to have a quarrel against all the world, and especially His churches and people, whom He goes on to waste by the sharpest sword that (almost) was ever drawn out? And is it not the duty of all that have the least spark of holy fear and trembling to ask and search out diligently what should be the reason of this sore anger and hot displeasure, before they and theirs be consumed in the burning flames of it?...Because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances, and broken the everlasting Covenant...And hence, if acts of hostility in desolating kingdoms, churches, families, and persons break out from a long-suffering God, they may easily see the cause, and that the cause and quarrel of God herein is just.
By abiding within God’s covenant the believer comes to understand God’s purposes and acts, which, seeing and enjoying, he finds to be the path of blessing, comfort, and hope. The covenant and its gracious obligations allow the Christian to “fasten” upon God, to know His presence and to understand and submit to His gracious Word:
What is a Christian’s comfort, and where doth it chiefly lie, but in this: that the Lord hath made with him an everlasting Covenant, in all things stablished and sure?...The Covenant is the midst between both God’s purposes and performances, by which and in which we come to see the one before the world began, and by a blessed faith (which makes things absent, present) to enjoy the other, which shall be our glory when this world shall be burned up and all things in it shall have an end...Where then is a Christian’s comfort but in that Covenant, wherein two eternities (as it were) meet together, and whereby he may see accomplishments (made sure to him) of eternal glory, arising from blessed purposes of eternal grace? In a word, wherein he fastens upon God, and hath Him from everlasting to everlasting, comprehended at hand near and obvious in His words of a gracious Covenant?
Within the framework of this covenant the believer finds his reason for being and pursues the mission God has given him to bring to light the glory of God to the whole world:
The good Lord enlighten the minds of all those who seek for the truth by this and such like helps, and the Lord enlighten the whole world with His glory, even with the glory of His Covenant, grace and love, that His people hereby may be sealed up daily unto all fulness of assurance and peace, in these evil times.
As we shall see over the course of subsequent installments, no area of life was excepted from the bonds, requirements, and promises of God’s gracious covenant, which He accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ, applies by the Holy Spirit according to God’s Word, and which believers lived as a gracious and glorious experience during America’s formative years.
American religion today
How does the religion of our founding Fathers compare with the American religion today? Harold Bloom is a religious critic, who, after a comprehensive study of the most prominent expressions of religion in the United States today – including elements of evangelicalism – wrote a book summarizing his findings. The book is entitled, The American Religion.[iv] Here is his summary of the argument of his book:
I argue in this book that the American Religion, which is so prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian. It has kept the figure of Jesus, a very solitary and personal American Jesus, who is also the resurrected Jesus rather than the crucified Jesus or the Jesus who ascended again to the Father. I do not think that the Christian God has been retained by us, though he is invoked endlessly by our leaders, and by our flag-waving President [George H. W. Bush, at the time of this writing] in particular, with especial fervor in the context of war. But this invoked force appears to be the American destiny, the God of our national faith.[v]
Mr. Bloom concludes that American Christianity has “ceased to be Christian.” Jesus is a personal God whose resurrection gives us eternal life, but concerning whose death for bringing an end to sin and ascension to the right hand of God for the progress of His Kingdom, Christians today have, apparently, little use.
Elsewhere in his book Mr. Bloom observes, “the Calvinist deity, first brought to America by the Puritans, has remarkably little in common with the versions of God now apprehended by what calls itself Protestantism in the United States”.[vi] If we’re not worshiping and serving the God our Fathers served, the God of a gracious covenant, then which “god” are we serving? Have we substituted a form of “near Christianity” for the faith our forebears cherished, and for which they lived and died? Are we living another gospel?
Mr. Bloom – a non-Christian – is one of a growing number of religious critics – both non-Christian and Christian – who have attempted to identify the primary attributes of the faith that dominates American life. At least five attributes keep coming to the surface in their studies:
- an obsession with the self, with what’s “good for me”: Christian faith is good because it has personal application to bring comfort, security, and a sense of wellbeing to one’s soul;
- zeal above all for life in this world: material prosperity, personal peace and happiness, meaningful relationships;
- pragmatism, or, the view that whatever it takes to achieve the first two items is probably OK;
- a “this-worldly” approach to faith, that is, a faith that is guided more by what happens in the here and now or by immediate impressions, needs, or concerns, than by eternal truths;
- little interest in spiritual truth or other intellectually demanding occupations: Christians today are not much given to “looking into”, “searching into” or studying their faith for its applications beyond our own personal experience.
Americans are a religious people, it is true. But the religion held by her intellectual, political, moral, cultural, and even her spiritual leaders is not the same as that which motivated and sustained the Founders of this nation, at least, according to Harold Bloom and others. The religious vision of America’s Christian Fathers has been set aside and a new vision has been embraced in its place.
And with that change of vision and convictions has come a change of nearly everything else in the American way of life.
For study or discussion
- How would you summarize the idea of Christianity as a covenant relationship with God, taught by Thomas Shepard? How much of this view of the faith resonates with your own experience
- Think back over those five dominant elements of the American religion today: obsession with the self; materialism and a desire for experience; pragmatism; immanentism as opposed to transcendence; a distaste for study and true spirituality. To what extent would you say that these elements have become part of your own religious experience?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Hardly at all Very significantly
- Do you think it is possible to restore the vision of the American religion which our Founders held? What do you think it might take for that to happen?
- What do you think is likely to become of America if we continue to drift away from the ancient boundaries established by our forebears?
- Talk with some of your church leaders about their vision of the Christian faith. Does it sound more like that which Shepherd described, or what Bloom identified?
For more insight to this topic, get the book, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, by Thomas Kidd, from our online store. Or read the article, “Small Vision, Small Faith,” by T. M. Moore.
[i]Peter L. Berger, A Far Glory (New York: The Free Press, 1992), p. 29.
[ii]Berger, p. 36.
[iii]In Gunn, pp. 171-174.
[iv]Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
[v]Bloom, p. 32.
[vi]Bloom, p. 259.