The New England Pulpit and the American Revolution - When the American Pastors Preached Politics, Resisted Tyranny, and Founded a Nation on the Bible

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Puritan Board Freshman
This book, written by Alice Baldwin, book was originally published in 1928 and was re-released by Devoted Books in 2019 with new editing and a new foreword by Joel McDurmon. I found this book to be a very edifying, instructive, and enjoyable book to read and I strongly recommend it. I've summarized some key points, and with a bit of commentary of my own, below.

General Points:

One of the main points of the book is that New England ministers (especially those in Massachusetts and Connecticut) had preached on political theory and natural rights derived from God for many decades leading up to the American War of Independence, and thus, by the time the war came, the people throughout New England were very much inclined to fight for independence. These ministers included Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists. Some of these ministers included, by way of example: Jonas Clark, Jared Eliot, Jonathan Mayhew, John Wise, Samuel Cooper, John Davenport, Stephen Johnson, Naphtali Daggett, Andrew Eliot, Richard Salter, Ezra Stiles, and Solomon Paine.

Interestingly, the majority of Anglican ministers supported the British and were opposed to the movement for independence. Not surprisingly, some of the loyalist pastors criticized these New England ministers for not confining "themselves to Gospel truth" and for having "unlearned the Gospel and has substituted Politiks in its Stead". Loyalists referred to these New England ministers as the "black regiment".

One major theme of the New England ministers is the idea of government by "compact" or covenant and natural rights. These ministers believed that any government is obligated by the law of God to protect its citizens’ natural rights. Natural rights are derived from the nature and character of God, as revealed in the Bible. These natural or fundamental rights include: the rights to life, liberty and property, as well as the freedom of religion. The Bible helped to reveal the law of nature.

Another theme that permeates the book is that civil magistrates are constrained by the constitution (which itself must incorporate these natural rights), and any act or law that contradicts that constitution is null and void and the people are not obligated to obey that law. The rebel in that case is the magistrate, not the person disobeying an unjust law.

In the Foreword by Joel McDurmon, he emphasizes how different these New England ministers’ preaching was as compared to modern day American pastors, who rarely if ever discuss politics from the pulpit, often because of 501(c)(3) concerns. He noted that the Bible and Christianity had a tremendous impact on the founding of America, particularly when examining the decades leading up to the War for Independence.

Chapter One - Discussion of the educational background of New England ministers. Most were graduates of Harvard or Yale. Ministers often gave lectures and talks aside from the regular Sunday sermons. Election sermons were very common and quite influential. Ministers often wrote letters, pamphlets and newspaper articles. Ministers often quoted ancient historians in their writings and John Locke was a particularly significant source. However, the Bible was the most commonly relied upon source, especially for writings discussing political theory and related issues.

Chapter Two - There was discussion here of the covenant of redemption (among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the covenant of works (broken by Adam and Eve), and the covenant of grace (through Christ). These ideas impacted the New England ministers and their view of political theory. Namely, the government must abide by its compact or covenant with the people, which is manifested in the constitution which constrains the ability of that government. These ministers had a very high view of natural law and believed it was synonymous with the law of God. John Davenport stated: "the Law of Nature is God's law". Baldwin states, "The law of nature was an unwritten law but the revelation in the Old and New Testaments helped to make clear the law of nature. She states that "a government ... which exercises its authority unconstitutionally acts illegally".

Chapter Three - The main theme here is that civil government is of divine origin. God intends for the government to have the good of the people at heart and if it did not, then the government was not sanctioned by God. The government is also limited for the purposes for which it was created. The compact relationship between the government and the people is emphasized in this chapter, particularly since the government is not coming immediately from God but rather mediately through the people. According to Baldwin, the New England ministers' believed that the government is established by the people and rests upon their consent; the magistrates are chosen by the majority and strictly limited in power to what is allowed by God. The power of the magistrate cannot be used against the rights and liberties of the people. Baldwin maintains that according to the New England ministers, the magistrates are bound by law and that law is determined by divine law.

Chapter Four - This chapter includes additional discussion of Divine limitations on the power of government. Charles Chancy, Gerhom Bulkeley, and Cotton Mather are quoted on that topic. The ministers emphasized the need for the consent of the governed in order for that government to have authority. The influence of Locke is palpable.

Chapter Five - Per Baldwin, the ministers argued that civil liberty is a natural right. However, liberty does not mean license and most of the New England ministers agreed that the people are bound to follow the dictates of the government where the government is acting in accordance with law. There was some disagreement among the ministers regarding distinctions of rank within society and the extent to which these need to be maintained after the government is formed. There as a lot of concern about the desire for "levelism" - ignoring or trying to remove distinctions of rank and dress. The ministers also spoke out regarding various ecclesiastical government controversies. Congregationalists and Baptists in particular were vociferously against the authority of church councils. They believed these councils (which sounded like the equivalent of a presbytery) should be advisory only and not have any authority over a local church. There is some discussion of a failed effort to form a synod in Massachusetts and similar effort in Connecticut that was only partially successful.

There was also discussion in this chapter regarding liberty of conscience. The context appears to be liberty of conscience regarding the choice of one's religion and probably Christian religion. It's hard to tell what extent these ministers were stretching the concept here. It seems unlikely they'd argue for a liberty of conscience to worship false gods or idols, for example, but it's unclear in the book. There is a quote in this chapter from Samuel Rutherford in which he criticized the idea of liberty of conscience as expressed by the New England ministers.

Also discussed in this chapter is the influence of George Whitfield. Baldwin noted his tolerance for many different forms of church government and creeds, the emphasis on religious experience, and the legitimacy of breaking church canons at times. Also mentioned was the general push-back from many ministers to Whitfield and the Great Awakening movement such as efforts by some ministers to restrict or prohibit itinerant preachers. For example, Yale College passed a law allowing for expulsion of students for certain criticisms of college officials (such as calling them unconverted).

Chapter 6 - This chapter focused on the ministers' views on freedom of religion. There is some time spent discussing an influential pamphlet written by pastor Elisha Williams entitled, "The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants, a Seasonable Plea for Liberty of Conscience and the Right of Private judgment in matters of Religion, without any control from Human Authority". Baldwin goes on with additional discussion of the influence of John Locke, with ministers maintaining that magistrates and their subjects "are bound by the constitution and a law violating natural and constitutional rights is no law and requires no obedience."

This chapter also concerns church-state relations. There was significant opposition by the New England ministers to requirements to pay taxes that were used to fund the local churches. Baptists and other so-called "Separatists" were very outspoken in their opposition to this wide-spread policy. Many of these New England ministers were motivated by the danger of an established Anglican church.

There was also discussion in this chapter of various ecclesiastical disputes and the ministers' views on them, including minister's opposition to a decision by the Consociations of New Haven and Hartford declaring a local minister’s ordination void.

Chapter 7 - The New England ministers viewed the British government after 1688 and their own colonies as the nearest to their ideal of what government should be. The Glorious Revolution was founded on Biblical ideals. This was in contrast with the arbitrary nature of the French government, this came to the fore during the French-Indian war. Baldwin describes the ministers’ vociferous opposition to the Excise Bill in 1754 and the Stamp Act in 1765. One minister noted that, "A friend to the constitution is a friend to God". Here we also see some emphasizes by the New England ministers on the right to a trial by jury, taxation only with representation, and opposition to courts of admiralty. The ministers spoke of rights which were "antecedent to all earthly government, derived from the great Legislator of the Universe".

Chapter 8 - More discussion here of the ministers quoting Locke on the right of resistance "to every encroachment upon natural and constitutional rights." There was a general encouragement from the clergy to resistance to unconstitutional power. Some ministers also began to preach on a more strict and complete separation of church and state. Rev. Isaac Skillman wrote a particularly radical pamphlet insisting that the King was the rebel, not the colonists. Baldwin also discussed the close relationship between Benjamin Franklin and Rev. Samuel Cooper.

Chapter 9 - Some ministers continued to speak out against the establishment of religion. In addition, some ministers preached and wrote on the subject of natural equality - meaning "the equality of freedom and action which they imagined men to have possessed before the foundation of society and government, when no on had authority over another - a freedom that could be limited only by consent and always for the common good." Many of the clergy were quite adamant that the colonies were back in a state of nature in light of the British government's failure to meet its compact with the colonies, thereby giving the colonies the right to set up a new government. The sacredness of compacts was a common theme among these ministers.

Chapter 10 - Many of the New England clergy played influential roles in the drafting of state constitutions, particularly in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The ministers often served on various committees that debated and drafted the state constitutions.

Chapter 11 - The New England ministers played an integral role practically speaking in helping the colonial war efforts. This included: fighting on the battlefield; recruiting efforts; encouraging disheartened colonial troops; serving as chaplains for the colonial army; and urging church-members to observe non-importation agreements. Some ministers would have a loaded musket with them at the pulpit for protection and in case of attach. Baldwin relates the account of Rev. Joseph Lyman changing the views of the entire town of Hatfield, Connecticut. The town was dominated by Tories until Lyman "preached the doctrine of liberty and resistance ... Sunday after Sunday, as well as in town meetings."

Appendix - This part of the book includes excerpts of covenants from this time period, including town covenants, church covenants, and ministers' covenants with their congregations. Also included are various excerpts of the clergy's sermons and writings.

In reading this book, I now have tremendous admiration for these New England ministers and am so very grateful for all that they did to secure American independence. Based on the analysis and numerous excerpts in this book, they were Godly, determined, and Biblical in their advocacy for independence and opposition to arbitrary government power. I do have some concerns about some of the concepts expressed by the clergy regarding freedom of religion, as I don’t believe, at least the modern version of that, is consistent with the Bible. However, it’s possible these ministers had a different concept of freedom of religion in mind that was perhaps more focused on freedom of religion among the various orthodox Christian sects.
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