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Hall – The Continuation of the Covenant

Continuation of the Covenant:

Political sine qua non

David W. Hall

The Kuyper Institute

Philadelphia Society, Nov.
11, 2000 (Grand Rapids, MI)

1. The Role of Religion in 2000: As large
as ever

On September 15,
2000, the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot (“Hollywood Bashing And
the Politics of Amnesia”) observed: “You can’t say Al Gore hasn’t
learned from Bill Clinton. Among other things, he’s figured out that every
four years a Democratic presidential candidate needs a good Puritan makeover.
This is the key to understanding Mr. Gore’s latest amazing reincarnation as a
21st-century Cotton Mather. First he made his running mate the Democratic
Party’s premier Clinton-scold, . . . Then the veep unleashed Mr. Lieberman to
talk about God with more fervor than even Pat Robertson dares.”

Religion, and its emphasis on character, was
as prominent as ever for American elections —not more so—in this campaign:
(cf. op-ed at:

At the beginning of the campaign,
the Republican pre-primary debates contenders offered something close to altar
calls with George Bush confessing that Jesus Christ was the most influential
political philosopher for him. Shortly after the beginning of the new year, the
most highly pitched battle within the Republican party was concerned with
whether or not inter-racial dating was biblically forbidden at Bob Jones
University and whether that institution still anathematized the Pope as the
AntiChrist. That led to John McCain’s repudiation of the Christian Right (and
its consequent backfire). Discussion of religiously-tinged social issues
(capital punishment, homosexuality [CA, Prop. 22] abortion, school prayer) was a
frequent staple of this year’s elections at federal, state, and national
levels. Religion was paramount, and few issues were more pervasive.

Religion was center-stage at both conventions. While some commentators asked of the GOP convention, “Where are all
the conservative Christians?” (;
cf. also The Washington Post, 11/2), others realized that the warp and
woof of George Bush’s character was defined by his own conversion experience
in his 40s. Although the revivalistic demeanor exhibited in the GOP primaries
was sublimated before the press in favor of a kinder and gentler general
election campaign, still matters of the covenant were never far from the
surface. As soon as the GOP convention concluded, the first event was a prayer

This year’s Democratic Convention also
sought to present its members as the champions of religious fervor. Candidate
Lieberman talked more about his faith than any evangelical since Pat Robertson
in 1988. Meanwhile, just prior to the Democratic convention, President Clinton
was confessing his, well we’re not exactly sure what, at Willow Creek Church
(8/10); and it took a full month until the Weekly Standard’s Andrew
Ferguson would adequately critique that moment (9/12/2000), while many naÔve
evangelicals fawned over his faux confession. Still eager to play the
Cotton Mather, VP Gore canned Representative Loretta Sanchez’s Playboy
fundraiser in August because of its setting.

The final part of campaign:
from Labor Day on also saw many expressions of overt religion, with Joseph
Lieberman on
occasion equating environmentalism
and Al Gore using religion to inspire African American church goers to
“overcome evil with good,” supposedly by voting for him.

Exit polling data for
religious interest groups indicates that the Roman Catholic vote was nearly
split (50-47 favoring Gore), and that nearly 4 out of 5 evangelicals
(representing approximately 15% of the vote nationwide) supported Bush, a
reversal of the Clintonian gains in 1992 and 1996 among that segment and a
return to the levels of support given to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. (FN: With
about the same proportion (16%) representing labor unions, Gore was favored by a
62-34 margin.) Frequency of church attendance across denominational lines
predicted support for Bush (63% of more than weekly attenders supported Bush;
57% of weekly attenders supported Bush; 46% of monthly attenders supported Bush;
42% of seldom attenders and 32% of never attenders supported Bush. Wall
Street Journal
, 11/9/00).

Yes, religion was a large part of the
presidential Campaign this year—”big time” as Richard Cheney might say. It
was as large and as overt as anytime since 1976 —but probably not excessively
so—and probably for a very good reason and a corollary:

The REASON: Character is reassured by true
faith; [and] to the degree that character is in question, its validation by
religion or some authority necessarily increases. That is my thesis, but I also
hope to reacquaint an audience in the postmodern era with a few salient
observations about the customary role of religion in American politics,
especially during and leading up to the founding period.

1a. While some
sectors find this befuddling, still a healthy expression of religion in politics
is part of our history if not the recent moment. And whenever true religion is
introduced with integrity, it has positive value, stressing character.

Much of
the election of 2000 was styled a contrast between character, despite some
wishing that were not the case. That being duly noted, however, there was
equally something underlying the standard for character, a moral covenant.
Indeed, character may be indecipherable apart from a transcendent covenant. That
may also help explain why the notions of covenant and moral qualification were
so intertwined at the American founding.

In the eighteenth century, the same
kinds of interplay between religion and politics, covenant and character,
occurred as in the election of 2000. A survey of sermons from the period
predating the American Revolution indicates how perennial this dynamic is. The
following emphasized character under the rubric of covenant.

May 31, 1780—in a day when leaders and people understood the
“establishment” principle differently than we do today—the Rev. Simeon
Pastor of Boston’s West Church, addressed the Massachusetts House of
Representatives. What he did may shock our contemporaries! Preaching before the
“honourable Council and the honourable House of Representatives,” Howard
chose to discuss the character necessary for governors by expounding a
covenantal passage, Exodus 18:21: “But select capable men from all the
people–men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain–and appoint
them as officials . . .” His ideas were as compelling as they are relevant.
(SOURCE: John W. Thornton, ed., 1860, pp. 359-396;

thought that the phrase “capable men” implied at least that public leaders
would be “men that will hazard their lives in defense of the public.” Non
self-serving leadership was called for. They were also to be leaders whose
bodies or minds had not been broken by “the effeminating pleasures of luxury,
intemperance, or dissipation.”

leaders were also to fear God. If not, when pressured by various seductive
interests, they might too easily compromise if devoid of a sense of the eternal.
Howard asked, “But suppose him in a situation where he apprehends that
temporal infamy and misery will be the certain consequence of his practicing
virtue . . . can we expect that he will adhere to his duty? Will he sacrifice
everything dear in this life in the cause of virtue, when he has no expectation
of any reward for it beyond the grave? Will he deny himself a present
gratification, without any prospect of being repaid either here or hereafter?
Will he expose himself to reproach, poverty, and death, for the sake of doing
good to mankind, without any regard to God as the rewarder of virtue or punisher
of vice?” [Note: that principle might apply equally to ballot supervisors
and electors today
.] Howard did not expect such, however, realizing that the
eternal sits in judgment of the temporal.

observed that leaders were exposed to “more frequent opportunities of
committing injuries, and may do it with less fear of present punishment; and
therefore stand in need of every possible restraint to keep them from abusing
their power by deviating into the paths of vice.” However, he did not
recommend lenience; honesty was a prerequisite for office-holders.

claimed that elected officials implicitly covenant when they accept office
“faithfully to discharge the duties of it—and a man of truth will pay a
sacred regard to this engagement. He will not content himself with receiving the
honors and emoluments of his office while he neglects the duties of it.”
Howard asserted: “A man of truth will not undertake an office for which he
thinks himself incapable, because this would be promising to do what he is
conscious he is incapable of doing; . . . Having solemnly engaged to use his
power for the public good, he will never employ it in encouraging and supporting
. . . measures to promote his own selfish and private views.” Howard expected
“men of truth” to avoid deceit, insincerity, dissimulation and Machiavellian
craftiness, and to avoid pleasure and self-interest.

office is a public trust, and anyone who does not hold it in fidelity to the
common good, argued Howard, disqualified himself. In contrast, when a public
official procured pleasure or advantage for himself, it would invariably
“weaken and disgrace the government . . . by sapping the foundation of public
credit, producing uneasy jealousies, disaffection, divisions, and contempt of
authority among the people, and leading them by example to the practice of the
same insincerity, falsehood, and dishonesty towards one another . . .”

preached that, “A man governed by this appetite will be guilty of any enormity
for the sake of gratifying it. . . . The indulgence of this vice debases the
mind, and renders it incapable of anything generous and noble; . . . destroys
the principles of benevolence, friendship, and patriotism, and gives a tincture
of selfishness to all its sentiments . . . it blinds and perverts the judgment,
and disposes it to confound truth and falsehood, right and wrong. A civil ruler,
under the direction of this principle, will oppress and defraud his subjects
whenever he has it in his power.” The ethics of the covenant, thus, were not
only alive in commerce but in politics.

warned: “The people’s appointing their own rulers will be no security for
their good government and happiness if they pay no regard to the character of
the men they appoint. A dunce or a knave, a profligate or an avaricious
worldliness, will not make a good magistrate because he is elected by the
people.” Giving hints about the enduring heritage of the Protestant
Reformation, the same sermon maintained, much like Samuel Rutherford had before
him: “The magistrate is properly the trustee of the people. He can have no
just power but what he receives from them. To them he ought to be accountable
for the use he makes of this power.” That is OT covenantal theology surfacing
in early American politics.

Howard articulated Calvin’s—actually his lieutenant, Beza’s–limitation of
legitimate government in these words: “This is the sole end for which God has
ordained that magistrates should be appointed—that they may carry on his
benevolent purposes in promoting the good and happiness of human society; and
hence their power is said to be from God; that is, it is so while they employ it
according to his will. But when they act against the good of society, they
cannot be said to act by authority from God, any more than a servant can be said
to act by his master’s authority while he acts directly contrary to his

Other examples of covenantally rooted character were preached
with regularity.

One customary feature of early
American preaching was the persistent demand that the character of governors
match biblical standards. In 1747, Charles Chauncy argued that “Civil
Magistrates must be Just, Ruling in the Fear of God.” Taking his sermon from 2
Samuel 23:3, he elaborated the biblical attributes requisite for civil leaders.
Many other sermons charted similar territory.[2]

same approach is noted in other sermons, e. g., one by Samuel Cooke [from
Thornton, op. cit.] in 1770,[3]
which argued for checks and balances as follows: “In the present imperfect state, the whole power cannot with safety be
entrusted with a single person; nor with many, acting jointly in the same public
capacity. Various branches of power, concentring in the community from which
they originally derive their authority, are a mutual check to each other in
their several departments, and jointly secure the common interest.” Cooke also
preached the following from the same sermon to John Hancock and Samuel Adams:
“Rulers are appointed guardians of the constitution in their respective
stations, and must confine themselves within the limits by which their authority
is circumscribed.” Cooke announced that a free state could not continue unless
its branches and connections remained at liberty.

modern historian credited Cooke’s 1770 sermon with the following praise:
“Many of the principles on which the Declaration of Independence rests are
already here: Civil government is an ordinance of God; only the people have the
right to choose who will rule them; government must contain a balance of power
with built-in checks; people have a ëright’ to good government; a ruler will
not forget that his subjects are ëby nature equal’ to himself; the people
will be subjected to no restrictions not founded on reason; laws must be clear
and explicit . . .”[4]

the centennial of the 1776 Revolution, an editorial reminded Americans that
those sermons before the Revolution bore the “footprints of the rebellion. At
first, dealing with general principles, they, as the oppressions of the
mother-country increased, applied them to the existing state of things, till the
governor became alarmed at the outspoken truths he was compelled to listen
The clergy and their sermons were prime educators in resistance theory. After
Boston’s Tea Party and before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence,
a host of sermons prepared a people in utero. Indeed, because of the
pioneering work of earlier leaders (who were quite religious and covenantal),
the “clergy were actually in advance of the civil authorities in their

In a 1966 work, Harvard historian Alan
Heimert theorized that American scholars of the previous dark age of absolute
secularism frequently failed to acknowledge the deeper influence of religion in
general and evangelical Calvinism in particular on the American founding.
Heimert introduced his groundbreaking study by relating his World War II
experience. Having served in Tokyo as part of the U. S. Army’s Far East
Psychological Warfare section, Heimert learned to analyze propaganda texts in
view of political ideology. With that background, when he returned to Harvard in
1955, he began to study early American texts and contended that the founding
era’s Federalist-republican literature was based not so much on
“Enlightenment premises as in eighteenth-century religion–its homiletics as
well as its doctrines.”[7] His study led him to
conclude that the “contribution of eighteenth-century Calvinism to the making
of the American public mind has been allowed to remain unappreciated.”[8] American politics from the
period were more linked to “New Light” awakenings than to the Enlightenment.
Calvinist ministers were widely reputed to have altered Connecticut’s
government, preparing them for the Revolution by the 1740s.[9]
These Calvinists rooted their politics in religious concepts, not so much in
social contract.[10]

thinkers Samuel Adams and Jonathan Mayhew argued against the innate goodness of
man: “Ambition and lust for power . . . are predominant passions in the
breasts of most men. . . . power is of a grasping, encroaching nature . . . [it]
aims at extending itself and operating according to mere will, whenever it meets
with no balance, check, constraint, or opposition of any kind.”[11]
The forerunners of the American Revolution assumed Calvin’s view of human
depravity and then moved logically to limit government’s scope. That is
character limited by covenant.

For one of the finest
illustrations of the enduring impact of Calvinistic-covenantal thinking on the
shape of Americal politics, which is also the hottest topic on CNN, see the
DIGRESSION on the Electoral College in Appendix B below.

Numerous scholars have noted how
rumors of Anglican attempts to lodge a bishop in America heightened tensions in
the decade prior to the Revolution.[12]
Chief, however, among the influences leading to the Revolution was the suasion
of Calvinistic preachers.[13]
Samuel Adams’ Calvinism frequently animated him, and the preaching of the day
has been described this way: “The Bible was raked with a fine Calvinistic comb
for every quotation seeming to give divine sanction for resistance to Great
Britain.”[14] The Puritan and
Calvinistic clergy, according to C. H. Van Tyne’s earlier study, “had a
large part in planting the predominant American political ideas which were
antagonistic to those dominant in England. . . . This spirit [of fierce liberty]
the dissenting clergy communicated to a people far more influenced by what they
heard in the House of God than we in these degenerate days [ed., nearly a
century ago] can comprehend.”[15]

Numerous other ideas of
Calvin—besides the legitimacy of resistance—crop up in early American
preaching. Abraham Williams argued that human government was necessitated by the
“Depraved Nature of Man,” as expressed in “Envy, Ambition, Covetousness,
and Sensuality so much prevailing.”[16] In a 1762 sermon,
Williams even seemed to provide a glossary that helps us interpret key
constitutional phrases. His Boston election day sermon defined the “law of
nature,” a phrase that would later appear in the Declaration, as “the Law
and Will of the God of Nature, which all Men are obliged to obey.”[17]

Other sermons a
generation before the American Revolution reinforced the political tradition of
Calvinism. Though considerably more tolerant than Calvin and Beza, Williams
sounded exactly like Genevans of the sixteenth century when in a 1744 sermon he
preached, “The ground of obedience cannot be extended beyond the ground of
that authority to which obedience is required.”

Another echo of Calvin was heard in Benjamin
Colman (1673-1747). In a 1730 sermon, Colman preached [as earlier evangelicals
had] that, “Civil government is of divine institution.” Moreover, he
explained that God “commissions and entrusts” certain rulers by his
sovereign will. The providence of God was a continuing reality in earthly
politics, as it “disposed persons and offices” at God’s beckon. Colman
called on political officials to “consider their obligations to be pillars in
the places wherein Providence hath set them.”

Colman also acknowledged the
“devotion and virtue” of the New England settlers before him. From their
example, he drew this lesson: “As government is the pillar of the earth, so
religion is the pillar of government. Take away the fear of God’s government
and judgment and human rule utterly falls, or corrupts into tyranny.”

Thundered from Pulpits.

This pre-Declaration period, John Adams noted, was
the period when the minds and hearts of the people were persuaded “before a
drop of blood was shed.”[18]
The sermons (We are indebted to Professor Ellis Sandoz for the reprinting of
many of these.) and discussions of the 1760-1775 period reveal the formative
impact of Huguenot ideals on the American Revolution. The
beginning of New England is, therefore, long prior to the shot heard round the

preaching in the first half of the 18th century was quick to revert
to the political themes of earlier covenant theology, the idea that God makes a
covenant with a federal group and holds the community responsible for obedience
to the terms stipulated. Don’t forget, the Latin for “federal” is foedus,
which is also translated as a covenant. A survey[19]
of Connecticut sermons from the period (1674-1830) dealt with topics near to the
heart of earlier Calvinistic Puritans:

“Civil Rulers are God’s Ministers” (1712, John
Woodward); also “Civil Rulers are the Ministers of God” (1749, Jonathan

“Practical Godliness, the Way to Prosperity” (1714,
Samuel Whitman)

“God’s Providence” (1722, William Burnham)

“Obedience to the Divine Law” (1724, Samuel

“Jesus Christ Doth Actually Reign” (1727, Timothy

“The Legislature’s Right” (1746, Samuel Hall)

“Civil Government the Foundation of Social Happiness”
(1750, Noah Hobart).

Until the end of
the Revolutionary period, Connecticut legislatures were addressed with sermons
on topics such as

  • “Christ, the Foundation”

  • “Civil Rulers an Ordinance of
    God” (1774),

  • “Christian and Civil
    Liberty” (1776), and

  • “The Importance of
    Religion” (1778).

  • The Connecticut legislature was
    enjoined to view “Prayer [as] Eminently the Duty of Rulers.” (as late as

The influence of this tradition
on the founding of America cannot be ignored without misunderstanding
adequately explain our politics.

began even earlier and preserved the tradition of preaching to the legislatures
until the nineteenth century (from 1634-1884). Various preachers from the Mather
family addressed the legislatures into the early eighteenth century.

  • Samuel Cheever preached
    “God’s Sovereign Government” (1712),

  • John Hancock preached “Rulers
    Should be Benefactors” (1722),

  • Jeremiah Wise preached
    “Rulers are Ministers of God” (1729),

  • John Webb preached “The
    Government of Christ” (1738), and

  • Nathanael Eells preached
    “Religion is the Life of God’s People ” (1743).

  • With additional charges to view
    “God as the Strength of Rulers” (1741) and

  • “Good Rulers the Fathers of
    their People” (1748).

became accustomed to hearing many of the discoveries first proclaimed in Geneva
repeated from the Old North Church pulpit. If the common man accepted these
sermons on political themes as normal, so did sitting legislatures who
did not fret about an iron curtain of separation.

As the Revolution approached, these
election day sermons became more and more pointed, frequently itemizing the
tyrannical abuses of England. This American genre focused on the sovereignty of
God to ordain, structure, and appoint government. Along with Vermont’s Peter
Powers, most believed that “Jesus Christ [was] the True King and Head of
Government” (1778). Likewise, listeners were urged to keep their covenant and
to elect righteous candidates, while limiting the sweep of governors. Samuel
West, in 1776, held that government stemmed from human depravity. He reasoned
that it would not be necessary “had men persevered in a state of moral
Later in his election day sermon, he enunciated the Calvinistic maxim:
“Unlimited submission and obedience is due to none but God alone. He has an
absolute right to command; he alone has an uncontrollable sovereignty over
Human rulers, however, did not deserve the same kind of submission. West
preached that both reason and revelation agreed in teaching that “obedience to
rulers is not limited, but that resistance is not only allowable, but an
indispensable duty in the case of intolerable tyranny and oppression.”[22]
West also taught, as Protestant Reformers had earlier, that the duty of
magistrates included being “patrons and promoters of religion and piety” and
making “suitable laws for the maintaining public worship and decently
supporting the teachers of religion.”[23]
Much like the Reformation tradition before him, West noted that the law of
nature could not be “contrary to the will of God,” and directly compared it
to the Law (in terms used by Jesus in Mt. 5:17-20) as unchangeable and not
abrogated until the smallest jot or tittle passed away.[24]

The more one studies such sermons,
“the more one realizes that it was neither miracle nor accident that at the
end of the century Americans were able to create a workable constitution.
Sermons like these surely played a role in making New Englanders politically
alert and critical. When the need came to make a constitution and have it
ratified, there existed already in the Puritan colonies the tradition of close
scrutiny of the nature of government.”[25]


ready appropriation of the name and covenant of Israel to American contexts in
the eighteenth century was typical for areas dominated by the Protestant
Reformation. The challenge is to understand how and why the Protestant founders
of America applied numerous OT texts to their own political landscape, before
evaluating its merit. From the Reformation to the American founding, a
consistent application of Israeli political norms is evident. Not only Zwingli
and Calvin but also most continental Reformers thought that the revelation of
God to Israel was pertinent to matters in Switzerland, Germany, France, Holland,
Scotland, and England.

That idea sailed over intact with the
Puritans to Plymouth.

Winthrop. The
leading Governor of Massachusetts Bay during its settlement, John Winthrop,
endorsed “the practice of Israel where some rulers [were] of thousands, and
some [were] but of tens.” Winthrop, John Cotton, and others all esteemed
Mosaic jurisprudence as possessing transcultural applicability.

The earliest American records are
fraught with references to the OT scriptures and precedents. If challenged or if
lacking in precedents, the earliest Massachusetts Council limited itself by this
rule: “in Cases where there is no particular expresse Lawe provided, there to
be guided by the word of God, till the General Court gives particular Rules in
such Cases.” Most, if not all, of those were from the OT.

Cotton’s “Abstract of the Laws of New England”[26]
reveals the degree to which the early American Christians followed John Knox in
appropriating OT texts to their own situation. This early law code, which
originated with John Cotton (although it was later modified) and was
commissioned under Winthrop’s administration, called for magistrates to be
elected according to OT principles, with magistrates meeting the qualifications
from the Book of Exodus. Warrants to call for the General Court were patterned
after the practice in Joshua’s time, and the powers of governors were: (1) to
provide for the good of the people (Num. 11:14-16); (2) to organize appeals from
lower courts (Dt. 17:8-9); (3) to preserve religion (Ex. 32:25-27); and (4) to
oversee defense and “with consent of the people to enterprise wars” (Prov.
24:5). The extent to which these early New Englanders followed OT patterns,
being unwilling to form governments based on their own notions or agreements
alone, is seen in this code’s stipulation to have judges in each town as in
ancient Israel. Apparently, they saw no reason not to apply OT texts to the
formation of their own governments. The covenant was very vital in early
American political documents.

Various officers and judges were
elected in our colonies—all on OT patterns—and the lower magistrates were
also to assist in maintaining the purity and unity of religion. As the book of
Proverbs taught, “Just weights and measures” were to be observed. Low, fixed
taxes were assigned to certain commercial transactions, and estates were passed
on within families without state interference or taxation “according to the
law of nature delivered by God.” Various infractions closely followed the
covenantal code in Exodus 21-23, with crimes divided into “capital” and
those which were “less heinous” and punishable by fine. The capital offenses
were borrowed exactly from divine revelation in the OT, not from custom or
tradition. Lesser crimes were distinguished from capital crimes, but even these
less severe offenses were normally patterned after Mosaic norms. The
“Abstract” ended by citing Isaiah 33:22, “The Lord is our Judge; The Lord
is our Law-giver; The Lord is our King; He will save us.”

Nathaniel Ward would later resume this
task, using Cotton’s earlier work as he began drafting (1639) what would
become the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.
Ward, like Cotton, believed: (1) government was to be limited, (2) the best way
to limit government was to spell out the freedoms of individuals, and (3) the
laws and liberties of individuals were to be found in a transtemporal source, i.
e., the Old Testament. The result was a pattern of government similar to many of
the other post-Reformation treatises. Its acceptance in Massachusetts (along
with New Haven Colony’s approval of
Cotton’s “Moses’ Judicials”) indicates the extensive and broad support
of this revealed set of norms, popularized first by Continental Calvinists and
later by British Puritans.

This 1641 law code, one of the earliest
American rehearsals for the Declaration of Independence, stated that no
person’s life, honor, family members, or goods were to be confiscated by the
government. All people were permitted access to judicial remedy. Forced service
was not condoned, nor were landowners required to yield part of their
plantations to the governor. Only wars for protection were allowed. Contrary to
the evolution of estate laws today, all “lands and heritages shall be free
from all fines and licenses,” following OT practice.

Interestingly, inheritance rules
were so crucial that even those separated from the church were granted liberty
to make their own wills. Citizens were not to be imprisoned prior to trial and
sentencing. Double jeopardy was disqualified, and many other provisos directly
stemming from hapless British experiences were included. As it progressed, the Body
of Liberties
grew more explicitly religious: “Civil Authority has power
and liberty to see the peace, ordinance, and Rules of Christ observed in every
church according to his word,” so long as it was done in a manner that did not
require the civil governor to determine doctrine. Further, neither custom nor
tradition should authoritatively define morality; instead the colony invoked
transcendent moral norms, i. e., “anything that can be proved to be morally
sinful by the Word of God.”

Following the OT custom, The
Body of Liberties
stipulated that should a person die intestate, the
oldest son would receive a double portion of the estate. Servants could even
flee from “tyranny and cruelty” to a safe place, much like the Levitical
Cities of Refuge (Lev. 20). Christian foreigners who were fleeing tyranny were
to be welcomed. “Bond slavery” was outlawed, and any temporary or voluntary
slaves were to have “all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of
God established in Israel concerning such persons.” As in Geneva a century
earlier, capital sentences were warranted for offenses stipulated by the OT.

leading American intellect of the seventeenth century instructed citizens on how
to view their governors, invoking the exact terminology employed earlier by
Samuel Rutherford and the Westminster divines for the role of governors:
“Infant-Boston, thou hast those whom the Bible calls
nursing fathers.
As Mather described Connecticut, he reminded readers that the early governor
Edward Hopkins desired to pattern that colony after the OT with decentralized

As early as 1651, one of Cotton’s
contemporaries, John Eliot, had gathered together several congregations of
American Indians (one at Natick, Massachusetts) and had begun a translation of
the Bible into their language. Moreover, Eliot also sought to organize them into
a new civil structure. Accordingly, the Massachusetts General Court had
permitted the Indians several courts to judge their own affairs. Under John
Eliot’s leadership, he instructed these American Indians concerning God’s
written norms for government. He read them Exodus 18, the passage so relied upon
by Calvin, Althusius, Buchanan, (
and others, and these Indian Republicans then chose leaders of hundreds,
fifties, and tens just as the Mosaic pattern prescribed.[29]In
clearly covenantal language that was more akin to language of Canaan and
Calvin’s Geneva than to modern Washington or Paris—and fraught with phrases
that would become commonplaces—they affirmed this covenant in the mid
seventeenth century: “We are the sons of Adam; we and our forefathers have a
long time been lost in our sins, but now the mercy of the Lord beginneth to find
us out again; therefore the grace of Christ helping us, we do give ourselves and
our children unto God to be his people. He shall rule us in all our affairs. The
Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Law-giver, the Lord is our King [note, this
was the citation that concluded “Moses’ Judicials”]. He will save us, and
the wisdom which God has taught us in his book shall guide us.”[30]

Whither these ideas? And can we appropriate
any lessons from their emphasis on covenantal character?

On the eve of the American Revolution,
there was no less appeal to the OT for contemporary norms. In 1775, the second
President of the United States attended the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church
in Philadelphia. The preacher on that occasion, The Reverend George Duffield,
preached a revolutionary sermon that made quite an impression on John Adams.
Adams wrote to his wife on June 11, 1775, that Duffield’s preaching was
reminiscent of the fiery expositions he had been accustomed to back in
Massachusetts. Duffield applied the prophecy of Isaiah 35 to America and “gave
us as animating an entertainment as I ever heard. He filled and swelled the
bosom of every hearer. . . . by this you will see that the clergy this way are
but now beginning to engage in politics, and they engage with a fervor that will
produce wonderful effects.”[31]

Such fiery preaching, with such
unambiguous theological and ethical conviction, was the kind sponsored by early
congressional fast and thanksgiving services. James Hutson also comments that
for a decade, from the first proclamation of a national fast in June 12, 1775,
to August 3, 1784, “Congress adopted and preached to the American people the
political theology of the national covenant, the belief that the war with
Britain was God’s punishment for America’s sins and that national confession
and repentance would reconcile Him to the country and cause Him to bare his
mighty arm and smite the British. . . . Covenant theology had legitimized this
approach for generations.”[32]

Lutz, Herbert Foster, and others have observed the American embrace of covenant
theology before the implementation of Enlightenment ideals. Although secular
reconstructions are prone to credit Enlightenment and early modern British
thought as providing the ideological platform for America, it is more likely
that the American foundation was firmly established in many western minds long
before the wide acceptability of Social Contract theory.

history professor Herbert Foster noted that Calvin’s ideas of calling,
compact, constitutional law conveyed by covenants, and federal representatives
were “embodied in a series of documents which formed the working basis of
successful constitutional governments in a series of Puritan states” including
Geneva, Holland, Scotland, and New England.

Donald Lutz has claimed that much of
the United States’ constitutional tradition was already mature before the
Constitution was ratified.[33] By this, he means that
much had stemmed from English common law, but much also was derived from the
religious contributions we have been reviewing. Although not specifying the
Calvinistic contributions, Lutz recognizes that “the Amer-ican constitutional
tradition derives much of its form and content from the Judeo-Christian
tradition as interpreted by the radical Protestant sects that made up a high
percentage of the original European settlers” in America.[34]
Lutz notes that “by 1641, much of what will become American constitutional
government is already operating under the early foundational documents.”[35]

From the middle of the seventeenth
century until the American Revolution, American clergymen had been declaring
that citizens were given inalienable rights of life, liberty and property.
Slowly and inexorably, a political tradition was growing on American soil. The
significance of those reiterations is “great and cannot be overemphasized.”
Alice Baldwin claimed: “No one can fully understand the American Revolution
and the American constitutional system without a realization of the long history
and religious associations which lie back of these words. . . . for a hundred
years before the Revolution men were taught that these rights were protected by
divine, inviolable law.”[36] The steady drumbeat of
covenantal background rhythm would build to a roar of tympani thunder on July 4,

Alice M. Baldwin put it this
way: “To the men of New England who had been nourished from their youth on the
elections sermons and who had been thoroughly enlightened by their pastors in
theoretical and practical politics, it was but natural to turn to the ministers
when they needed someone to express their ideas of government. . . . Thus the
clergy had an immense opportunity to push home their cherished convictions and
to help in forming the new political institutions.”[37]
Baldwin also noted that these Calvinist views of law “escaped many who write
of the Revolutionary philosophy. It is fundamental to any understanding of
American constitutional thought.”[38]

Earlier in the twentieth century,
Baldwin lamented that the abiding influence of the New England clergy had been
minimized. She also concluded that notions like government by consent and
fundamental rights were accepted as divine law, going so far as to assert,
“There is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had
not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.”[39]

a particular hermeneutic was dominant in American political thought from its
founding, throughout colonial development, during the Great Awakening and
leading up to the American Revolution. Indeed, critical documents like the
Declaration of Independence, the U. S. Constitution, and various congressional
proclamations exhibit a thorough acceptance of the Reformation’s covenantalism
at the foundation of the American Republic. It also apparently continued into
the early nineteenth century.

1c: Religion has always been a big factor
in elections
: A short review of the involvement of
evangelicals in an earlier presidential race from the mid 19th
century might benefit many. The subsequent century’s reliance on evangelical
religion further corroborates how widespread the founders’ approval of
religion was. It certainly did not shrink nor disappear in the century after the
American founding.

Carwardine’s excellent 1993 study, Evangelicals
and Politics in Antebellum America
makes several points that reflect an
earlier surge. Among his points, three bear special highlighting: (1)
Evangelicals in the mid-nineteenth century were not hamstrung from political
involvement; (2) Evangelicals focused on moral issues; and (3) Evangelicals led
to a crucial re-alignment of the traditional two-party system. They may have
made the difference in many states this week, particularly in toss-up states
like FL, AR, MO, and my own state of TN, where over half of the voters
retaliated against their favorite step-son because of his boss’ misbehavior.
Nationally, moral issues were of prime importance among the electorate.

His thesis is: “Evangelical Protestants were
amongst the principal shapers of American political culture in the middle years
of the nineteenth century. . . . [and] deeply engaged in the processes which
tore political consensus apart and which opened the door to armed conflict.”[40] Speaking of the large
public role manned by evangelicals, Carwardine reminds that elections seemed to
converge with revivals. Evangelicals were quite committed to electing other
righteous believers to office, and encouraged politicians to focus on issues of
moral character. Amidst the promise of politics as transformation, evangelicals
also lapsed into flinging “accusations of personal immorality at an opposition
they portrayed as flouting all established moral rules.”[41]

He is dubious that “the extraordinary popular
interest in politics, the huge electoral turnouts, and the impressive
mobilization of the electorate in that era could have occurred without the
engagement of evangelicals, and their organizational structures, in the new
Similar to late twentieth century evangelical resurgences, Carwardine and others
note the evangelical impact in increasing voter turn-out: “At the same time
the level of voter turnout at elections was one of the most impressive in the
whole of American history. In presidential elections between 1840 and 1860
average turnout in the North as a whole never dropped below 72 percent, and even
the less passionately fought non-presidential contests regularly achieved
participation levels of over 60 percent.”[43]
He even suggests that elections appeared to “supersede religion as the
principal source of popular excitement.” Evangelicals became political
crusaders on a range of issues, encompassing “free-soil” to slavery issues.
The effectiveness of evangelical involvement is noted: “Examination of
campaigns for the presidency, where excitement and turnouts tended to be highest
of all, confirms that evangelicals possessed a realistic sense of their
political authority as voters and as molders of political agendas.”[44]

Carwardine reminds a secular age that, “ministers
customarily offered prayer at the opening of . . . conventions, which were often
accommodated in churches. Some regarded their party as a political church and
its activists as a hierarchy of quasi-evangelists. . . . Political `sermons,’
triumphalist and doom laden, redolent with biblical imagery and theological
terminology, were a feature of the age.”[45]

Some evangelicals were so identified with a
particular party as to speak of Martin Van Buren (1848)
as a sort of political divinity, whose political resurrection has been
vouchsafed as a providential boon to rescue the country from peril. They faced,
on the other hand, the forces of darkness, `false Christs,’ `political
sinners’ groaning in the `anxious seat,’ those `second only, in the
violations of trust, to him who sold his Lord and Master for thirty pieces of
silver.’ A Free Soiler in 1848 bluntly asserted `that God Almighty was the
leader of the free soil party, and that the Devil was the leader of the two
opposing parties,’ while the Democratic candidate for the governorship of New
Jersey in 1850, George F. Fort, believed the `powers of hell’ had been let
loose against him and that `the
himself’ had an interest in his defeat.[46]

To remind both exponents and opponents of evangelical political
involvement of earlier efforts, Carwardine avers that, “much of the passion of
the campaign was religious in origin, as an analysis of campaign propaganda,
especially of the Whigs, and of the state of mind of the evangelical community
will make clear. For pious evangelicals the election of 1840 was not a campaign
devoid of issues, nor was the economic collapse their main preoccupation; the
contest between Whig and Democrat had a profound religious significance, Whig
propagandists encouraged evangelicals to turn Harrison into a spiritual and
religious symbol, and the campaign was thereby invested with a strong moral

Not only were evangelicals politically charged in
the antebellum period and not only did they attempt to focus on moral issues,
but they became a third force.[48]
Carwardine sees this evangelical participation as a major factor, which
generated a new political re-alignment, compelling political leaders to address
their concerns.[49]

which began small soon led to laudatory optimism: “Evangelicals watched with
wide-eyed wonderment what Daniel Eddy called a `political earthquake’ and
James W. Alexander [called] a `political rage.’ . . . A northern correspondent
of the Southern Christian Advocate
marveled at this `strange and wonderful’ chapter of the country’s history.
William Brownlow declared `the hand of God . . . is visible in this thing.
Divine Providence has raised up this new Order to purify the land.'”[50]
Many ministers were introduced to political involvement. Indeed, these
mid-nineteenth century crusades attracted ministers, editors of church
periodicals, and leading laymen.[51]
While it is always possible to misuse religion for partisan purposes, it is an
equally undeniable part of our history that covenantal accents have frequently
shaped political discourse.

This evangelical surge did lead to re-alignment. In
the decade prior to the Civil War: James Rollock, an ardent Presbyterian was a
gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania in 1854; “In the Virginia contest of
1855 prominent Presbyterians were known supporters of Flournoy, whom Wise
sneeringly dismissed as “
the Presbyterian Elder
.” Robert J. Breckinridge and Andrew B.
Cross represented the most influential of a substantial Presbyterian
contribution to the American party in Maryland.”[52]

Evangelicals did take a leading role in shaping
popular attitudes in the mid-nineteenth century. Ministers “addressed
political meetings, peppered their representatives with private and public
protests, and filled the columns of church newspapers with diatribes against an

The opponents of this evangelical uprising confirm its potency. Democrats
wailed that the 33rd Congress [1854] took on “the semblance of an
ecclesiastical council more than that of a legislative assembly.” They were
concerned over the engagement of ministers as “viceregents of the Almighty . .
. as a left-handed attempt to put the state in subordination to the dictates of
the church.”[54]
These Democrats complained against “the fanatical Methodist and Baptist
preachers . . . hurling their anathemas at us from their pulpits on Sundays and
from the stump on week days.” Henry Ward Beecher was notorious for taking
leave of his congregation to be employed by a political party’s national
committee to speak up to three times a week, reaching tens of thousands.[55]

The election of 1856 presaged late twentieth century “culture wars,”
with one minister putting it: “Truth and falsehood, liberty and tyranny, light
and darkness, holiness and sin . . . the two great armies on the battlefield of
the universe, each contending for victory. There could be no cessation of
hostilities . . . till righteousness triumphs.”[56] On election day, a
marriage between Republican politics and religion was witnessed in this song:
“Think that God’s eye is on you;/ Let not your faith grow dim;/ For each
vote cast for Fremont/ is a vote cast for Him!” (Idem)

Although it would be difficult to sustain a proof
that the Republican party was “the political expression of pietistic
Protestantism,”[57] evangelicals were a force
with their postmillennial impetus. Both
friends and critics recognized the role that the church played in the “unholy
and fratricidal war . . . [which] began with hard-shell Reformed Presbyterians,
and soft-shell new-school Presbyterians, and with Baptists, Methodists, and such
Carwardine concludes:

Like these earlier parties, the Republicans acquired their essential
moral energy from evangelical Protestantism, and their unique fusion of religion
and politics drew on established modes of mobilizing revivalist enthusiasm. . .
. Most strikingly, the movement’s pious Protestant supporters went further
than evangelicals had ever done before in identifying the arrival of the kingdom
of God with the success of a particular political party. When during the climax
of the campaigns of 1856 and 1860 ministers officiated with equal enthusiasm at
revival meetings and at Republican rallies, it was clear that religion and
politics had fused more completely than ever before in the American republic.[59]

Such studies confirm that religion was
expressed publicly and persistently for over a century after the American
Revolution so long was its shadow. Religion and evangelical involvement
buttressed ñ rather than repressed ñ the founding of the nation. If it was
beneficial once, what compelling argument has been made to demonstrate that it
is less necessary or less salutary today? (Source:
Savior or Servant, 286-289;

one agrees with this hermeneutic or not, viewing the nation as the heir to
Israel’s political promise seems to be a legitimate part of our history.

  1. Moreover,
    that the separation of church and state was not as inflexible as the
    previous century thought, is vindicated by a perusal of the
    fast/thanksgiving proclamations in the Journals of the Continental Congress.

discussion about the role of governors and covenantal obligations at our
founding period understands that they did not arise in, nor were they crafted
in, a theological vacuum. To accurately understand the theology that affected
it, it should be compared to other similar congressional proclamations. To do so
is an exercise in reviewing how pervasive covenantal thought was in
America in a day gone by.[60]

Moreover, many other acts and
proclamations of the Continental Congress indicate that they were at ease with
public religion rightly expressed. A rather specific theological matrix is also
detectable from the wording of explicitly religious bills between 1775-1785.
These provide essential context for meaning to understand certain phrases in the
Declaration of Independence and other founding documents.

A survey of the eight congressional
proclamations for days of fasting is instructive, especially to those who have
been catechized in certain dogmas.[61]
Indeed, the religious worldview of the 1770s betrays the following key
theological assumptions, which were apparently unchallenged at the time: (1)
sinful depravity was often an underlying cause of evil and immorality; (2)
repentance was necessary to stay the hand of God’s judgment; (3) atonement was
needed to pacify the wrath of the sovereign God; (4) God’s providence was at
work in the course of human events; and (5) true (often “reformed”) religion
was essential for liberty. Such theological non-negotiables were incompatible
with anything other than scriptural religion, which was still a descendant of
Geneva’s previous molding.

In the first proclamation for a fast
(June 12, 1775), Congress called not for a moment of silence, but for a “day
of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” The specific aim was to
“confess and deplore our many sins,” an idea far from today’s purely
secular worldview, and to beseech God to “forgive our iniquities.” God’s
providence was mentioned no less than four times in this single bill, and God
was described by that Congress as possessing “immutable justice,” again, a
far cry from muted religion or agnosticism. Besides praying for the people’s
representatives who met in assemblies, this proclamation also specifically asked
its citizens (Congress ordered the bill to be read in newspapers and hand
bills.) to pray, “That virtue and true religion may revive and flourish
throughout our land” and that God would “graciously interpose” to restore
“invaded rights.” That this proclamation was incompatible with Deism or
agnosticism (much less with many forms of rigid separationism) may be seen from
its conclusion, urging that “Christians of all denominations assemble for
public worship and abstain from servile labor and recreations on said day.”
The Congress declared a sabbath in OT fashion, even employing phrasing contained
in Puritan confessions which defined lawful sabbath behavior.

Then, a few months prior to the
adoption of the Declaration of Independence in March 1776, Congress (which did
not intend to establish a federal denomination) called for “true penitence of
heart” and reverent devotion to stir public acknowledgement of God’s active
providence. Citizens were also summoned, almost as the Genevan Council of Two
Hundred had done two centuries earlier, to “confess and deplore their offenses
against God.” It was feared that their actively judging God had permitted the
British to “subvert our invaluable rights [note; several times the phrase
“invaluable” was preferred over “inalienable” as used in the
Declaration] and privileges.” The 1776 fast proclamation urged people to pray
for “pure undefiled religion universally [to] prevail” and repeated the
recommendation that “Christians of all denominations” abstain from servile
labor on the fast day. That this proclamation was based on clear theological
notions may also be seen by its urging citizens to seek to “appease [God’s]
righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ,
obtain his pardon and forgiveness.” Such explicit notions would be challenged
in the future and altered over time, but their abundance indicates that they
were not problematic in 1776. Indeed, this symphony of proclamations is one of
the better interpreters of the theological slogans in the Declaration, whose
adoption was sandwiched between this March 1776 act and later acts in the same

In December 1776, Congress called for
another day of fasting and humiliation, once again highlighting the providence
of God, who was “the arbiter of the fate of nations.” It is fair to note
that this Congress believed that individuals had limited ability to establish
their own destinies because “the arbiter” of entire nations controlled human
events. Further fitting with the received Calvinism, this December 1776
proclamation called for “repentance and reformation,” even forbidding
swearing and immorality. Each state, in this proclamation, was allowed to set
the day as it saw fit to “implore Almighty God [for] the forgiveness of the
many sins prevailing among all ranks.” Such a bill today would predictably
attract litigation by ACLU legal squads.

No proclamation for fasting and prayer
was issued in 1777; under duress of war, Congress combined fasting with
Thanksgiving that year. In 1778, however, Congress called for yet another day of
“fasting, humiliation, and prayer” to implore God for mercy and forgiveness
and to avoid immorality and evil. This proclamation also called for the nation
to “be a reformed and happy people,” and asked God to bless the schools and
seminaries to “make them nurseries of true piety, virtue, and useful
knowledge.” The Congress’ call for true piety was hardly the kind of
neutrality that opposed public expression of all religion. A year later, the
congressional proclamation would include numerous biblical references.[62]
That later act also reaffirmed belief in God as the “Supreme Disposer of all
events,” and admitted that his judgments were “too well deserved.” In
addition, these congressional evangelists also asked the citizens to pray toward
a specific goal: that God, “our kind parent and merciful judge through time
and through eternity” would “extend the influence of true religion.” Most
of these theological affirmations are unthinkable apart from a broad Calvinistic

In March 1780, Congress again
reiterated its view of God as “the sovereign Lord,” and prayed that he would
“banish vice and irreligion among us, and establish virtue and piety by his
divine grace.”[63]
This proclamation went so far as to forbid labor and recreation on that declared
sabbath, although the enforcement mechanism is by no means clear. Earlier
Genevans and Zurichers could have adopted the same declaration.

In what would become a customary part
of these bills, the March 1781 proclamation asked the citizenry to pray for
“all schools and seminaries of learning . . . [that] pure and undefiled
religion may universally prevail.” This explicit statement, besides calling
for true repentance, also asked that such repentance would “appease [God’s]
righteous displeasure, and through the merits of our blessed Savior, obtain
pardon and forgiveness.” With James Madison’s approval, the Congress of 1782
measured itself against the still applicable “holy laws of our God,” and
denounced “arbitrary power” which had sought to steal “invaluable” (the
original “unalienable” was stricken to give way to this preferred idiom)
privileges. Moreover, the 1782 proclamation asked God to “diffuse a spirit of
(emphasis added) to “make us a holy, that so we may be
an happy people.” In light of the continental and British Puritan history of
the previous century, “reformation” had definite connotation. The standard
of holiness summoned was that of the Scriptures, and this Congress even desired
(in the words of Isaiah 11:9) that “the religion of our Divine Redeemer, with
all its benign influences, may cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.”

Thanksgiving proclamations of the
Continental Congress strummed the same strings. The first was signed by
President Washington and forwarded to the individual states. In November 1777,
the Congress combined elements of thanksgiving “to their divine benefactor”
with notes of contrition, making “penitent confession of their manifold
sins.” This Thanksgiving proclamation also pled for forgiveness “through the
merits of Jesus Christ.” They viewed ministerial training academies as
“necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety .
. . to prosper the means of religion for the promotion . . . of that kingdom
which consisteth ëin righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,'” a
clearly Trinitarian reference. (Rom. 14:17) No attempt was ever made in any of
these to express pluralism (e. g., by citing the Koran)
or to invoke any other sacred canon. A sabbath was declared again by the 1777

Congress even interrupted its
proceedings on occasion, as it did on July 5, 1778, to attend divine worship
corporately, with chaplains officiating and preaching to the assembled
Later, on October 12, 1778, Congress entertained a resolution (which was
defeated) endorsing that “true religion and good morals are the only solid
foundations of public liberty and happiness.”[65]
In view of the earlier and manifold references to theology, this defeat may be
the exception to the rule, for the following month they once again endorsed
God’s “overruling providence,” and called for “penitent confession of
our sins, and humble supplication for pardon, through the merits of our

The next Thanksgiving proclamation
(October 1779) urged that God “grant to his church the plentiful effusions of
divine grace and pour out his holy spirit on all ministers of the gospel.”
Moreover, they supported education as a means to this end: to “spread the
light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth.” This
Congress asked for God’s mercy, and prayed that these states would be
established “upon the basis of religion and virtue.”

The Thanksgiving proclamation of 1781,
authored by Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon, again invoked the blessing
of Isaiah 11:9 and pled with “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10) to
“incline our hearts . . . to keep all his laws.” It was not common law alone
that guided, but God’s law. The next year, the Scotsman of Knoxian descent
would also lead the Congress in committing to “a cheerful obedience to his
laws,” and the practice of “true and undefiled religion [James 1:27] which
is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.”

In October 1783, a New Jersey student
of Witherspoon, Elias Boudinot, led the Congress in affirming “our dependence
on that Almighty Being,” who was yet again asked to “smile upon our
seminaries and means of education to cause pure religion and virtue to flourish,
to give peace to all nations, and to fill the world with his glory.”
Instrumental in these great ends was the continuation, for which Congress was
grateful, of “the light of the blessed gospel.” This evangel
was the settled faith of the vast majority, and nowhere did it seek to repudiate
its covenantal legacy.

Toward the end of the Revolutionary
hostilities, Congress called for a day of prayer and thanksgiving in which
people would “assemble in their respective churches and congregations” to
celebrate the “mercies and praises of their all-bountiful Creator, most holy
and most Righteous, for his innumerable favors and mercies.” In words that
reflected the sincere piety of the day, this declaration of August 1784 also
asked support of the seminaries for the following purposes: “to raise up from
among our youth, men eminent for virtue, learning, and piety to his service in
church and state; to cause virtue and true religion to flourish; to give to all
nations amity, peace and concord, and to fill the world with his glory.”[66]

State Governments

The adoption of constitutions by various states
within a decade of the Declaration of Independence indicates a similar
pervasiveness of religion. A convention of representatives in New York on April
2, 1777, provided for free expression of religion and the separation of
jurisdictions in their state constitution. The same constitution exempted
ministers from serving in the military or in other state office.[67]

The original South Carolina constitution
(1778), however, was most explicit. See it on our web site [summary at].
See Appendix A below.

This leads me to ask: “What kind of Wall
of Separation was Erected during the Continental Congress? Clues from Popular
Preaching and Congressional Proclamations are strong.

Along with: (1) the religious content of
Congressional proclamations for fast and thanksgiving days, 1774-1789, when we
also consider (2) a summary of forgotten religious endorsements by Congress,
1774-1789 (including chaplaincies, prayers, printing of Bibles, and seals); (3)
evidences of religious expression from state charters from the period; (4) the
practice of election sermons given to sitting legislatures; —all point to
this: the wall wasn’t stacked too highly with bricks, 20th century
revisions notwithstanding.

Many founding fathers thought
legislators or rulers should be “nursing fathers,” as described in Isaiah
49:23. Sources ranging from the Westminster Confession to Rutherford, Buchanan,
and Beza transmitted a durable tradition of state-sheltered religion. In
Calvin’s day, the magistrate was expected to support the Decalogue and squelch
heresies. A century later, Scottish and British Puritans urged the governors to
reform the religion and sponsor Synods to adopt measures toward that end. Early
Colonial American charters established an undefined but fairly well known,
generic Protestantism. Edward Dorr preached “The Duty of Civil Rulers to be
Nursing Fathers to the Church of Christ” to the General Assembly of
Connecticut in 1765, only reinforcing a similar sermon from 1744 by Elisha
Williams, one time president of Yale, who summoned the civil magistrate to
“take Care for the Support of Religion . . . in order to their approving
themselves as Nursing Fathers.”[68]

American orators in the Revolutionary
period still identified America with the “New Israel.”[69]
Far from being a secular errand in the wilderness as claimed by some
after-the-fact revisionists, they saw God’s providence in daily events. Hardly
based on pluralistic models, American colonists had a strong religious identity
that even superseded the rights of Englishmen.[70]

Late into the eighteenth century, the
groundbreaking interpretations of Calvin and others were still being popularized
by American sermons, some in rather official locales. On December 11, 1783,
Congress had appointed a day of thanksgiving “for the restoration of Peace and
establishment of our Independence, in the Enjoyment of our Rights and
Privileges.” In a service for that occasion at the Third Presbyterian Church
in Philadelphia, George Duffield (who was a Chaplain of Congress as well as
pastor of the church) resorted to an OT passage (Is. 66:8) to make this point
about God’s providence extended to America: “Nor was military prowess only
given. He that put of the Spirit of Moses on the elders of Israel [cf. Ex. 18],
raised up Senators and guided them in council to conduct the affairs of his
chosen American tribes.” Clearly, the biblical basis for republicanism and the
institution of a “senate” was the same for these founding fathers as it had
been for Huguenots centuries earlier.

concentration of drawing on OT metaphors and precedents just prior to the
Revolutionary War supports the vitality of the OT covenant prior to 1800.
Jonathan Clark, citing these and other examples, has shown that God’s dealing
with nations at the time of the founding of America was an accepted doctrine.
References to the OT, particularly to Pharaoh and the Red Sea, were employed
until the end of the seventeenth century, revived in Scotland or
Ireland—usually whenever it was needed to oppose a king—and “canonised
[by] the Founding Fathers of the American republic.”
It was “seemingly impossible to theorise upon the nature of the state or the
monarchy,” writes Clark, “without casting their origins, existence and
maintenance in scriptural terms.”[72]

Sum: Religion
at the Founding was seen as a partial guarantor of character. It was essential,
and thus a certain spillover was acceptable. Our first election of the 21st
century did not so much expand the role for religion as it revive an older—and
likely saner—paradigm. A moral covenant derived from a transcendent basis is
still necessary.

The only reason that the free interplay of
religion in politics is noticed or attributed as ëunprecedented’ is because
we have endured (and are likely resurfacing from) an atypical phase of history,
an anomaly. Our toleration, in other words, is so low that the slightest
exposure seems, like bats exiting a cave at noon, relatively blinding. However,
when measured by a longer stretch of our own history, such exposure is neither
deserving of the Surgeon General’s warning nor is it abnormal. The immediate
previous generation, in other words, may not be the norm for the future.
Religion was important in 1960 (JFK and Houston ministers) and before that. Its
return does not so much herald a new day, much less an ominous peril, as a
return to normalcy. Admittedly, it looks different—relatively speaking—from
what we have grown accustomed to. We have become habituated to viewing it one
way. However, when compared to a longer stretch of history, it was at quite
normal levels this year.

ILLUSTRATION: A friend of mine loved his
wife for all 28 years of their marriage. Last year, an advanced colon cancer was
discovered in her. My friend’s wife has gone through quite an ordeal—with
grace all the way, I might add. Due to her chemotherapy, she lost much of her
hair. Bill became equally enchanted with Susan’s beauty, because it was
radiant and far greater than her hairdo. In the process, he forgot what she
looked like before chemo. After she ceased those treatments, and she is some
better, her full beauty has returned. No one in his right mind would think that
the husband should demand a return to the recent condition of chemotherapy as
the norm for beauty or define the re-pristinated state as ugly.

Perhaps we can love the beauty of the return
to normalcy. Our bride is more beautiful than ever. The religion of the founders
worked—vitally for them; it should not shock us that a return to pristine
beauty is as healthy as it is aesthetically pleasing.

The Covenant is still needed for character.

Appendix A:

South Carolina Constitution (1778) required state officers to be “of the
Protestant religion,” and elections were held in the parishes, far from
excluding religion from the public square. The explicit detail of this 1778
South Carolina constitution may stun moderns. It legislated as follows:

all persons and religious societies who acknowledge that there is one God, and a
future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be
worshipped, shall be freely tolerated. The Christian Protestant religion shall
be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established
religion of this State. That all denominations of Christian Protestants in this
State, demeaning themselves peaceably and faithfully, shall enjoy equal
religious and civil privileges.

South Carolina Constitution further guaranteed protection for Anglican churches
already formed and stipulated that new Protestant congregations could gain
similar guarantees whenever at least 15 families “professing the Christian
Protestant religion” agreed to unite. In addition to “equal liberties,”
that constitution, almost in Swiss style, continued to state the requirements
for legal recognition of a new or existing church. It required as follows:

society so petitioning shall have agreed to and subscribed in a book the
following five articles, without which no agreement for union of men upon
presence of religion shall entitle them to be incorporated and esteemed as a
church of the established religion of this State:

  • That there is one eternal God, and a future state of rewards and

  • That God is publicly to be worshipped.

  • That the Christian religion is the true religion

  • That the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are of divine
    inspiration, and are the rule of faith and practice.

  • That it is lawful and the duty of every man being thereunto called by those
    that govern, to bear witness to the truth.

early South Carolina Constitution even mandated that ministers were to
“subscribe” to an additional vow over and above the aforesaid five articles,
viz: “That he is determined by God’s grace out of the holy scriptures . .
. to teach nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation but that which
he shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved from the scripture; that he
will use both public and private admonitions, as well to the sick as to the
whole within his cure, as need shall require and occasion shall be given, and
that he will be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the same; that he will be
diligent to frame and fashion his own self and his family according to the
doctrine of Christ, and to make both himself and them, as much as in him lieth,
wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ . . .”
children of the Reformation thought it appropriate for the state to support
religion in this fashion when the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

that South Carolina Constitution, far from religious neutrality, prohibited
“reproachful, reviling, or abusive language” used “against any church,
that being the certain way of disturbing the peace, and of hindering the
conversion of any to the truth, by engaging them in quarrels and animosities, to
the hatred of the professors, and that profession which otherwise they might be
brought to assent to.”

B: The Electoral College, a Present Testimony to the Founders’ Theological

week, more than any time in over a century, Americans have been confronted with
a lasting fingerprint from the American founders’ view of humanity. Their
anthropology was formed by certain theological notions that led them to certain
political considerations. Several thinkers have offered opinions for the
philosophical rationale for the Electoral College (EC). George Will opines that
it is needed to prevent mob rule and also to force consensus rather than
factionalism (Washington Post, 11/2/00, A 29
“The Framers’ Electoral Wisdom” by George F. Will
). Jude Wanniski suggests that the unique origin of the EC rests in a
unique evolution. America, he suggests, is the only nation to grow from a state.
Thus, Wanniski believes that the EC was an important guarantor to the interests
of the individual states as they merged into a nation. Richard Brookheiser
(“Bush Wouldn’t Be the First ëMinority’ President,” WSJ 11/10/00)
argues that the EC has the potential to diminish voter fraud. See Palm Beach.

of these are likely. Furthermore, an additional argument for the EC (in what
will surely become a hot topic in our nation) is that it slightly minimizes the
sway of a few large states. For example, by simply carrying the largely liberal
bastions of CA, NY, FL, PA, and IL, any candidate could marshal nearly 2/3 of
the requisite votes to become president, all the while satisfying only the most
liberal of Americans.

the strongest rationale for the EC is that our nation was intended to be a
Republic, ruled by representatives. Our constitution, unlike another nation at
the time of the founding (France), is not purely democratic. Even if foreign to
most modern citizens—not to mention shocking to some on election night—the
historic and constitutional reality is that America was not formed to be, and is
not at present, a strict democracy. We are still a constitutional republic, and
we elect federal representatives to express the popular will.

such, our origin testifies to an old notion that may be at odds with modernity.
Indeed, the EC may be the latest, or the most urgent, reminder that our country
was founded by those with a different outlook and view of human nature than what
we have today. Rather than seeking to ignore that origin, much less to revise it
and shape it to the current will, it should be understood as a lasting testimony
to a theological notion of the day: human depravity.

all the helpful explanations for the EC above, this one is rarely mentioned,
likely because of our peculiarly anti-Calvinist myopia. Below is a rationale
that many founders could adopt.

human beings, even upstanding ones, are prone either to the abuse of political
power or to following the enthusiasms of demagogic mob rule, some kind of civil
buffer must be created to insure calmness, deliberation, and wisdom. Much like
their Calvinistic forebears—who loved to inject collegial groups at every
level of government in order to minimize the sway of a charismatic
individual—the American founders interposed a unique mechanism to elect the
Presider. Each state, treated as its own free state, could vote as it saw fit.
Thus, the election was never a pure democracy. Representatives elected other

the point: America was purposefully designed to avoid strict democracy. The
founders feared mobocracy, sought coalitions (George Will), hoped to minimize
dominance by large states, and looked for protection from demagoguery.

such, that fact flies in the face of revisionists, who want to conform the past
to the subjective present. The EC remains as a testimony to this fact: the
American founders did not trust unaided human nature to benefit society. Why?
The most likely answer is because they did not trust man. Where did they find
that idea? In the writings of the dominant Calvinists of the day and the
centuries leading up to the Constitutional Convention. No other philosophy seems
to suggest the necessity of the EC, and no other nation conceived this idea.

EC, after all, is rather unique to American politics. It is unique, and its very
uniqueness requires some anthropological explanation. The best one is that the
original intent of the US Constitution betrays the Calvinistic ethos of the day.
Human depravity was so unquestioned that it was embedded in the way we elected
the Chief Presider, certainly one of the most essential and significant acts of
our republic.

if history is allowed to speak, the EC is to pure democracy what the First
Amendment is to a strict separation of church and state.

citizens may prefer pure democracy and strict segregation of church and state,
but the vestige of the EC does two things: (1) first, it proves the original,
and (2) second, it documents the variation since the founding. The same is true
of the meaning of the First Amendment, displaying the role of religion.

may wish to reject the past and the EC, but all should agree on this: the EC
reflects the testimony of the past, complete with its view of human nature’s

human nature has changed, the EC might better be preserved.

again Dick Morris (
has called the EC a “pleasant anachronism” and urges direct democracy like
Ross Perot wanted. If not persuaded by now, add to this argument that the new
Junior Senator from New Arkansas wants her first legislative fiat to be the
introduction of a bill to amend the constitution to abolish the EC, and those
three testimonies alone may be sufficient to argue for the preservation of the


Simeon Howard (1733-1804; Harvard, class of 1758) succeeded the well-known
patriot-preacher, Jonathan Mayhew, as Pastor of West Church
(Congregationalist) in Boston. Howard delivered this sermon to the Council
of Massachusetts Bay on May 31, 1780. A few months later, the Council
elected John Hancock as its first governor.

T. H. Breen, The Character of the Good
Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideas in New England, 1630-1730
York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970), 8-10, summarizes the qualifications
before 1730 as wealth, piety, moderation, wisdom, and justice.

The Rev. Samuel Cooke (Harvard, class of 1735; d. 1883) preached this sermon
to Her Majesty’s Council, the militia, and the Massachusetts House of
Representatives in Cambridge, MA in 1770. Among the Councillors elected at
that meeting were Samuel Adams (clerk) and John Hancock, whose signature has
become famous.

A. W. Plumstead, ed., The Wall and the
Garden: Selected Massachusetts Election Sermons, 1670-1775
University of Minnesota Press, 1968), 324-325.

W. P. Breed, Presbyterians and The
(1876; rpr. Decatur, MS: Issacharian Press, 1993), 55-56.

W. P. Breed, Presbyterians and The
(1876; rpr. Decatur, MS: Issacharian Press, 1993), 56.

Alan Heimert, Religion and the
American Mind
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1966, vii.

Alan Heimert, Religion and the
American Mind
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1966, 15.

Alan Heimert, Religion and the
American Mind
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1966, 12.


Cited in M. Stanton Evans, The Theme
is Liberty: Religion, Politics and the American Tradition
DC: Regnery, 1994), 99.

John Adams noted this as well. Cf. his Works,
X: 286.

Historical Review, vol. 19 (1913-1914), 44, 48.

C. H. Van Tyne, op. cit., 59, 58.

C. H. Van Tyne, op. cit., 64.

Contained in Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds. American
Political Writing During the Founding Era
(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,
1983), vol. 1, 6.

Contained in Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds., vol. 1, 7.

Diary of John Adams; cited by Martha Lou
Stohlman, John Witherspoon: Parson,
Politician, Patriot
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 91.

Cf. R. W. G. Vail, “A Check List of New England Election Sermons,” Proceedings
of the American Antiquarian Society
45 (Oct. 1935), 233-266.

Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds. American
Political Writing During the Founding Era
(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,
1983), vol. 1, 413.

Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds., op. cit., vol. 1, 422.

Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds. op. cit., vol. 1, 432.

Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds. op. cit., vol. 1, 432.

Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds. op. cit., vol. 1, 414.

A. W. Plumstead, ed., The Wall and the
Garden: Selected Massachusetts Election Sermons, 1670-1775
University of Minnesota Press, 1968), 226.

Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1798, rpr. 1835). This
was likely the end of Cotton’s Moses’
, since they were never adopted. Instead, with Nathaniel
Ward’s amendments, the Body of Liberties was adopted in 1641. Later, this
document was revised to form the 1648 Laws
and Liberties of Massachusetts
which asserted, “As soon as God had set
up political government among his people, Israel, he gave them a body of
laws . . . These were brief and fundamental principles, yet withal so full
and comprehensive as out of them clear deductions were to be drawn to all
particular cases in future times.”

Cotton Mather, The Great Works of
Christ in America
, vol. 1 (1702, rpr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust,
1979), 97. Cf. Samuel Rutherford,
Lex Rex
(1644, rpr. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1982),
69, 105.

Cotton Mather, The Great Works of
Christ in America
, vol. 1, 143.

Cotton Mather, The Great Works of
Christ in America
, vol. 1 (1702, rpr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust,
1979), 564. Much of Eliot’s thought may be found in his Christian
Commonwealth; or, The Civil Polity of the Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

In association with Eliot’s mission work among the Indians, David Edwards
notes that the official seal of Massachusetts contained the missionary words
from Acts 16:9: “Come over had help us.” David L. Edwards,
Christian England: From the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 246.

Cotton Mather, The Great Works of
Christ in America
, 1: 564. Mather more fully recorded that these
American Indian groups elected a plurality of civil officers who “held
courts for issuing such controversies as happen among them.” Following an
initial hearing, if “either party dislike the judgment given, he appeals
to a superior court, which consists of some of the most esteem’d of each
place . . . and from this court an appeal lies to the English court.”
Cotton Mather, The Great Works of
Christ in America
, vol. 2, 378. These Indian republics also limited
terms to an annual election.

Maurice W. Armstrong et al, eds.,
The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History
The Westminster Press, 1956), 85.

James H. Hutson, Religion and the
Founding of the American Republic
(Washington, DC: Library of Congress,
1998), 53.

Donald S. Lutz, “The Origins of American Constitutionalism: The Colonial
, Center for Law and Religious Freedom, 1987, 1. Lutz reports
that the “Pilgrim Code of Law” included numerous oaths to be taken by a
range of petty office-holders. Op. cit., 17. The Pilgrim oaths, in the early
seventeenth century were quite similar to the plethora of oaths required in
the Geneva Edicts of 1542 and 1578. It is possible that the latter were
modeled after the former.

Donald S. Lutz, “The Origins of American Constitutionalism: The Colonial
, Center for Law and Religious Freedom, 1987, 3. Lutz’s study
of the early colonial charters sees commonality in their geographical and
social setting, and also in their commitment to the Scriptures. Op. cit.,
10. He does not, however, specifically identify their rooting in the
Calvinistic Reformation. Alice M. Baldwin, The
New England Clergy and the American Revolution
(Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1928), 26, noted that Thomas Hooker was preaching as early
as 1638 that “the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by
God’s own allowance,” and that since the power to elect governors rested
with the people, they also had power to limit or recall them.

Donald S. Lutz, “The Origins of American Constitutionalism: The Colonial
, Center for Law and Religious Freedom, 1987, 11. Lutz pegs
this 1641 date as prior to Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Blackstone. Charles
Hyneman and Donald Lutz, eds. American
Political Writing During the Founding Era
(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,
1983), vol. 1, 158. Herbert Foster, op. cit., 80, also notes the early use
of “covenant” in Calvin and Farel’s 1537 attempt to have all citizens
and inhabitants observe a fixed confession. Foster also abbreviates
Calvinism as consisting of three main elements: (1) “constitutional
resistance through divinely ordained representatives,” (2) compact, and
(3) fundamental written law.

Alice M. Baldwin, The New England
Clergy and the American Revolution
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1928), 39. Connecticut Calvinistic preachers played roles similar to those
in Massachusetts. Theology was preached in every village and parish for over
a century before the American Revolution. Some Connecticut towns even taxed
the citizens to support the clergy, and the “great majority of the people
were Congregationalists, or Presbyterians, as they were sometimes called. A
few were Anglicans and Baptists.” Alice Mary Baldwin, The
Clergy of Connecticut in Revolutionary
Days (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1936), 2. Baldwin also notes that the annual election sermons had
prepared citizens for generations and that certain teachings “especially
prepared their people for the Revolution and for the framing of new
governments.” Op. cit., 5.

Alice M. Baldwin, op. cit., 134.

Baldwin, op. cit.,
19. Alice M. Baldwin, The New England
Clergy and the American Revolution
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1928), 173-182, provided an illustrative number of covenants from the
American founding.

Alice M. Baldwin, The New England
Clergy and the American Revolution
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1928), 170. Of interest, Baldwin also includes a helpful appendix detailing
the numerous clergymen from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut
who served on various provincial congresses and conventions. Op. cit.,

Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and
Politics in Antebellum America
Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. ix.

Ibid., p. 50.

Ibid., pp. 50-51.

Ibid., p. 54.


Ibid., pp. 51-52.

Ibid., p. 53.

Ibid., p. 55.

Ibid., p. 132.

“Evangelical Protestants actively participated in this process of
political realignment, taking initiatives that forced politicians to address
both sets of issues.” Richard Carwardine, op. cit., p. 133.

Ibid., pp. 218-219.

Ibid., p. 223.

Ibid., p. 236.

Ibid., p. 236.



Ibid., p. 269.

Ibid., p. 277.

Ibid., p. 319.

Ibid., p. 322.

It has also been suggested that the Continental Congress intentionally
exploited these “politico-religious sermons” by setting aside national
days of prayer and fasting. Cf. Alice M. Baldwin, The
New England Clergy and the American Revolution
(Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1928), 123.

All references, identified by date, are taken from the Library of
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789
(Washington, DC:
Government Printing Office, 1906-1913).

The references are to Ecclesiastes 9:11, Exodus 9-11, Psalm 18:2, and John

Deleted from the final adoption, although sincerely held by some, was the
call to revive patriotism and eschew hedonism that rendered “us forgetful
of our country and of our God.”

Similarly in October 1781, Congress processed to corporate worship in a
Dutch Lutheran church to thank God for the surrender of the British army.

In April 1785, an attempt was thwarted to set aside a section in every town,
“immediately adjoining [the school] to the northward for the support of
religion.” Although supported by some delegates, mainly from Rhode Island,
Maryland, and New York, the motion to set aside a locale for a religious
center in every town failed.

[66]Behind the
various Thanksgiving Day proclamations was a decidedly “conservative
Protestant perspective” and the “covenant idea.” Cf. Charles W. Dunn,
ed., American Political Theology
(New York: Prager, 1984), 13.

Most of these citations are taken from the Yale Law School Avalon Project,
located at

James H. Hutson, Religion and the
Founding of the American Republic
(Washington, DC: Library of Congress,
1998), 60.

Jonathan C. D. Clark, The Language of
Liberty, 1660-1832
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 58.

Jonathan C. D. Clark, The Language of
Liberty, 1660-1832
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 154.

Jonathan C. D. Clark, The Language of
Liberty, 1660-1832
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 56.

Jonathan C. D. Clark, The Language of
Liberty, 1660-1832
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 58.

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