Salt and Light in America

Editor's Note: This article has been adapted from the preface of Biblical Patterns and Government.

Cornell University Professor Barry Alan Shain has determined that rather than a generic republicanism or seventeenth century libertarianism nourishing the root of American democracy, a much older religion did: Biblical faith. The preaching of this faith was a staple in the intellectual life of Colonial America. For a century before the earliest settlers arrived in America and for the 150 years of Colonial experience prior to the US Revolution, regular preaching was formative for the ideas of the American revolutionaries. Shain notes: “Americans in the late eighteenth century were not a people who had founded colonies and then a nation around a pervasive, indeed, almost monolithic commitment to classic ideas such as individualism, freedom, and equality. . . . Americans did not hold to a republican outlook that was anthropocentric and independent of a Christian or a rationalist faith in an omniscient God. . . . [E]ighteenth century Americans were a parochial reformed Protestant people whose thought was (to the contemporary republican apologist, inconven-iently) strikingly dependent on a Christian origin or natural ordering in the Cosmos.” Shain continues to note that the founders of the American republic were more interested in biblical dynamics than “in personal development through direct participatory political activity.”

Shain takes issue with the currently regnant secular paradigm that seeks to explain America’s origin in predominantly secular terms. His research leads him to believe that neither the ‘classical republican’ explanation nor the ‘libertarian individualistic’ model sufficiently explains America’s unique cradle. Although those features certainly “have their place in the totality of the Revolutionary drama,” Shain admits, nevertheless, “the defenders of each model have been guilty of greatly exaggerating the coherence, hegemony, and institutional strength in Revolutionary America of their preferred body of thought. They do so while virtually ignoring more powerful, though today less useful, influences on the speech and practices of the majority of European Americans; such as the reformed Protestant foundations of almost all the Colonies and their citizens; . . . The confusion is understandable because it is so easy today to forget that in the years 1765-1785 . . . America was a nation of Protestant and communal backwater polities . . . only in 1776 did republic, republican, and republicanism change from defamatory clichés to being taken generally as terms with affirmative connotations.”

Puritan theologies and sermons led to the colonization of the New World.[1] The charter documents of nearly all Colonial American settlements contain some overt reference to religious purpose. Prior to the Revolutionary War, nine of the thirteen original colonies had an established religion. The Mayflower Compact opened on an unadulterated religious note: “In the name of God. Amen. . . . Having undertaken for the Glory of God and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia . . .” Such civic purpose was rooted in Reformation beliefs. Similarly, the 1639 Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, sometimes referred to as the first written constitution in the New World, began: “For as much as it has pleased Almighty God by the wise disposition of his divine providence so to order and dispose of things . . . 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 . . . [we] enter into such Combination and Confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches . . .” Following this preamble, the colonists covenanted to hold two General Assemblies per year to elect a Governor and (at least six) magistrates for no more than a year, who were to “administer justice according to the Laws here established, and for want thereof, according to the Rule of the Word of God.” Magistrates were elected by ballot, with a Secretary who was only “for the time being” (and who could not himself nominate candidates) presided. The governor could serve no more than two consecutive years and was to “always be a member of some appointed Congregation.” Due public notice was to be given for the convening of these legislative assemblies, with a proviso that if the sitting politicians refused to do so, the Freemen could petition the lower magistrates to convene the assembly which could lawfully “proceed to do any act of power which any other General Court” could. Most of these tenets are best understood as Reformation theological notions.

The pastors of the early American colonies exposed their parishioners to the rich biblical ideas of Knox, Calvin, Beza, Althusius, and Rutherford[2] more than acquainting them with secular thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, or Rousseau. Despite the fact that the First Amendment was passed in 1791, Connecticut did not dis-establish the state-sponsored congregational church until 1818; nor did Massachusetts until 1833. Further, the 1783 Treaty with Paris began “in the name of the most Holy and undivided Trinity.” Religious establishments and regular pulpit exposition of political themes were customary features of the Colonial experience.

One of the most influential ideological sources for American politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was preaching, of all things. Yale Historian Harry Stout has proffered the following summary:

Over the span of the colonial era, American ministers delivered approximately 8 million sermons, each lasting one to one-and-a-half hours. The average 70-year old colonial churchgoer would have listened to some 7,000 sermons in his or her lifetime, totaling nearly 10,000 hours of concentrated listening. This is the number of classroom hours it would take to receive ten separate undergraduate degrees in a modern university, without ever repeating the same course! . . . Events were perceived not from the mundane, human vantage point but from God’s . . . Thus colonial audiences learned to perceive themselves not as a ragtag settlement of religious exiles and eccentrics but as God’s special people . . .   

Earlier commentators were quicker to admit more of the religious infrastructure than our contemporaries who are more concerned with other factors. For example, John Wingate Thornton believed: “One nationality, and that of a Protestant people, was essential to constitutional liberty in America.” Begrudgingly, even Perry Miller acknowledged concerning the preaching at the American revolution: “[A]mong the masses the Hebraic analogy was at least as powerful an incentive as the declaration of inalienable right.” David R. Williams surmises: “Old Testament imagery thus inspired Revolutionary zeal by tying personal identity to communal identity and tying them both into the larger cosmic identity of scripture.” Believing that “the rhetoric of the [Revolutionary] war was often political, but its passions were religious,” Williams reports: “Between 1740 and 1800, over 1800 sermons were published in Massachusetts and Connecticut alone . . . the weekly sermon was an important and often the only source of information as well as inspiration.” More recently, Donald Weber sought to disprove the strong Protestant underpinning among the Colonial American clergy who supported the Revolutionary War. However, as the documentaryevidence hijacked his preconceptions, he discovered that Jonathan Edwards, Jr. and others “preached throughout that critical interval on virtually every important event of battle of the war in a homely language that would have been grasped by most of his audience. In fact, Edward’s sermons incorporated every trope characteristic of whig political discourse.”

While the secular cant seeks to ward off much, if any, impact of real piety on politics, a longer stretch of history shows that religion and preaching have frequently shaped the basic moral issues facing various nations. Indeed, a vital enunciation of the faith may be the most common accent of political discourse – a statement that only comes as a surprise to an extremely secular audience.

I will consider this short work a successful tool if it provides a springboard for discussions of faith and politics from a biblical perspective. It will be an advance if we question some of the prevailing notions. If somehow, Christian thought about governmental matters can be anchored to biblical paradigms, and also be refined by historical and systematic theological factors, then hopefully one can at least avoid many of the mistakes of the past. Indeed, if most Christians could simply avoid the errors of the past and formulate matters of state avoiding those mis-steps, most of us would be better off.

Admittedly, repairing the public square is a large and multi-generational project. We also did not devolve into our problems quickly; neither will we necessarily resurface from serious structural problems too quickly. Nevertheless, Christians are called to practice what we preach: reliance on the sovereignty of God over the machinations of man or party, and a steady trust in the tools that God gives—prayer, his Word, and the sacraments—over placing confidence in princes, armies, or undeliberated quick fixes.

While each Christian may not be called to hold office, vote on legislation, or lobby, every Christian has at least two spheres of lasting influence: in the home and in the church. First, in one’s home, one may carry out thoughtful discussions, disciple and mentor other family members and friends, and seek to carry that small precinct for the candidate of choice. There is no reason to abdicate the home; nor should individuals as citizens be gagged. Second, in one’s church—though we do not recommend endorsements or simplistic voters’ guides (which always contain their own biases)—believers are called specifically: (1) to pass on to the next generation the faithful teachings of Scripture (2 Tim. 2:2) as they bear on political ideas, (2) to teach and disciple the youth as we journey through life (Dt. 6:1-5), and (3) to teach all things that Christ has commanded (Mt. 28:18-20). If we are also (4) to “take every thought captive” unto the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), we must strike the balance between the view of James Thornwell and others, who made it clear that the mission and thrust of the church should never be confused with political activism,[3] and Abraham Kuyper, who taught that there is not a single inch of the universe, over which King Jesus did not claim, “Mine!”

That mature and balanced posture might lead to many other advances. What is even more promising, though, than merely exploring is to find patterns that are sound, intransient, and more enduring than the enfeebled models of a few individuals, yesterday’s elite, or the agendas of a partisan caucus. Wisdom greater than our own is inevitably needed for that. Thankfully, God has not been silent on the most important matters of life. Politics is certainly one of those.

David Hall is the Senior Pastor of the historic Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Powder Springs, Georgia. He has authored and edited numerous works, including Calvin In The Public Square and On Reforming Worship.  

Related Links

"Don't Give Up on the Public Square" by David Hall

"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams

"Confessional Subscription and Political Discourse" by Carl Trueman

Secular Power, Authority, and Christian Obedience by James Boice

Calvin In The Public Square by David Hall


[1] For more development and details about this history, see the companion volume to this work, Christian Thought and Government (2020).

[2] For a fuller treatment of the thought of Calvin and his disciples, see my Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights, and Civil Liberties (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009).

[3] Two fine recent works clarifying this point are Michael Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011) and Kevin DeYoung, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).