I would like today to introduce you to one of the more remarkable books I have read recently. It is an old and largely forgotten book, but vital to understanding the role the Bible ought to play in politics and government, in national issues—in fact, a role the Bible did play directly in the shaping the American mind and laying the foundations for American resistance to tyranny, and the willingness to fight and die for independence and the rule of law. I would like to introduce you to Alice Baldwin’s The New England Pulpit and the American Revolution, the lost and nearly buried history of when America’s pastors openly preached politics, resisted tyranny, and founded a nation on the Bible.
A few older scholars I’ve talked with knew of this book, and they all love it. But none of the younger generation had ever heard of it. When I told them some of what it contained, it blew their minds. “Wow,” was the common reaction.
The book was originally published in 1928 under the title The New England Clergy and the American Revolution. Dr. Baldwin was one of the few female academics of her day, and she shined in the role. The scholarship is top-notch, and the message absolutely compelling and convicting. One of the many remarkable aspects of it is that Dr. Baldwin was not a partisan and had no religious or political agenda. She was largely a secular academic who had only a family interest in congregational history. She worked from the perspective of a secular academic, and since part of her book was originally her doctoral dissertation, it had to meet the rigorous standards of that guild. Nevertheless, this “secular” version of the history, because it thoroughly and honestly considers all of the original sources, could almost pass today for Christian Reconstruction propaganda. What we have here is a secular, academic witness to the truth of the influence of biblical law in American history.
The book was long out of print, and the original printing was poor to begin with. Our new edition is completely re-typeset, and when you see the length and depth of her footnotes, you’ll understand the crazy amount of work I went through to get this to you in a modern, readable version. But it was a labor of love: the scholarship and the message are far more than worth it.
This book is an absolute must for homeschool curricula. But it is far more than that: anyone interested in the Bible’s influence in American history must absolutely start here. And anyone, like me, interested in recovering full-orbed, biblical worldview preaching in American pulpits today needs to read through this to get a view of what we have lost, and to see something of how full biblical preaching and teaching ought to look. Any comparison to our own time will be highly convicting indeed—and we need that badly.
To get just a flavor of the scholarship and message, here is an edited excerpt from my Foreword:
We have a terrible problem in our land today, and the truth contained in Dr. Baldwin’s book is a welcome antidote—should we be willing to take it. The problem is that our pulpits and preachers today have abandoned the fullness of what Christ commanded us: to disciple nations and to teach them all of His commandments. That Great Commission includes the call, which our forefathers ably demonstrated, to speak truth to the public realm: to call out rulers, governments, laws, abuse, and to demand liberty and justice. In all our preaching today about iniquity and sin, we neglect to address inequity and tyranny.
And worse: should one dare to mention that broader social and political scope of the Great Commission today they are likely to be harangued not only by humanists and leftists, but by the vast majority of Christians and clergy. The response will be almost unanimous, almost in perfect chorus: “Christians should not preach politics!” “We should preach the ‘Gospel’ only!” . . .
Dr. Baldwin’s wonderful book illustrates how preachers of a bygone, but crucial and formative, era thought and practiced just the opposite. After mountains of research in colonial sermons, tracts, pamphlets, and other publications, she relates how the substantial pulpits of colonial America rang constantly with teaching on all aspects of the public square: good rulers, good laws, good forms of government, the blessings of liberty. We especially hear of those choice values of biblical order that became the hallmarks and battle cries of American independence. These are best summarized in Baldwin’s own Conclusion:
Out of reading and discussion, preaching and practice there had grown up a body of constitutional doctrine, very closely associated with theology and church polity, and commonly accepted by New Englanders. Most significant was the conviction that fundamental law was the basis of all rights. God ruled over men by a divine constitution. Natural and Christian rights were legal rights because a part of the law of God. . . .
Probably the most fundamental principle of the American constitutional system is the principle that no one is bound to obey an unconstitutional act. The present study reveals that this doctrine was taught in fullness and taught repeatedly before 1763. . . . No single idea was more fully stressed, no principle more often repeated, through the first sixty years of the eighteenth century, than that governments must obey law and that he who resisted one in authority who was violating that law was not himself a rebel but a protector of law.
She in fact goes so far as to note that we cannot properly understand the nature of the American system without understanding the message preached by the American pulpit constantly over the decades leading up to independence. Commenting on the classic paraphrase of “life, liberty, and property,” she proclaims,
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 behind these words; without realizing that for a hundred years before the Revolution men were taught that these rights were protected by divine, inviolable law.
And it will surprise many . . . just how these great preachers derived their doctrines.
The Bible and the Law of God
Baldwin’s work is a phenomenal way to learn of the true influence of Christianity and the Bible in the founding of this nation. It serves as a flat refutation of the critics of secularists who wish to eradicate and bury our Christian heritage. Baldwin writes,
It must not be forgotten, in the multiplicity of authors mentioned, that the source of greatest authority and the one most commonly used was the Bible. The New England preacher drew his beliefs largely from the Bible, which was to him a sacred book, infallible, God’s will for man. Of necessity it colored his political thinking. His conception of God, of God’s law, and of God’s relation to man determined to a large extent his conception of human law and of man’s relation to his fellows. If his ideas of government and the rights of man were in part derived from other sources, they were strengthened and sanctioned by Holy Writ. This was of course especially true of the clergy. They stood before the people as interpreters of God’s will. Their political speeches were sermons, their political slogans were often Bible texts. What they taught of government had about it the authority of the divine.
This reality leads Baldwin into a study of the political and governmental concepts these men actually derived from Scripture, as summarized above, and chief among them is the application of God’s Law to life. . . . [T]he preachers turned to the written revelation of God’s Law, including Old Testament law, to make it clear:
The revelation in the Old and New Testaments helped to make clear the law of nature and to disclose its full extent. In the Old Testament God gave to man a “positive law.” It was true that some of its statutes applied to the Jews only, but there were also great moral principles which applied to all phases of man’s activity, now as formerly, and were equally binding. Thus even in that part of Old Testament law which no longer applied to Christians and in the history of God’s dealings with His chosen people there were many examples for men of today.
To be sure, the relationships between terms, and the uses to which they were put, were not always uniform or even purely biblical, but in large measure, the most important doctrines of American liberty arose from a biblical understanding and application of God’s Law. Thus Baldwin could conclude that “There was no conflict in their minds between the divine and natural law. They were the same”; and thus, “from the law of God they derived their political theories.”
Application of Biblical Law
These men held the Bible in high esteem, and as a result, they expected to see it applied in all areas of life, including politics and government. As such, they required their governing officials to be Christians, and not only Christians, but ardent students of that divine book, the Bible, and its laws. Baldwin relates this understanding and how the preachers of the era were at the forefront of making it a real-world demand:
Rulers must study carefully the law of God, both natural and revealed. In the Bible are found all the maxims and rules of government: there the natural laws are made clearer, there the ruler learns his due authority and its limitations, there the people learn how far they must submit.[R]elationships between God and government, between God and people, and between government and people, were established through the biblical concept of covenant—a theme which surfaces frequently in this study. This, too, was derived directly from Old Testament revelation, and formed the basis of both theology and government for the New England minister:
His theology depended upon it, it was the foundation of his church government, he believed it to be at the root of all God’s dealings with men. When he searched the Bible he found, so he believed, that even the Jewish government, which was peculiarly God’s own, rested on compact. . . . The charters were considered compacts, and when men set up new towns they drew up a town covenant.
She further relates how this concept had deep historical roots going all the way back to the covenant theology of the earliest colonists. Yet even as late as 1780, one of the more prominent preachers, Samuel Cooper, was preaching this doctrine—with explicit reference to the ancient Hebrew republic—before the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Governor John Hancock.
But the application of biblical law did not stop at theoretical constructs or generalities. Preachers routinely went on to preach on specific principles with real-world consequences—including armed resistance and civil disobedience where necessary. In fact, echoing the teachings of Reformers from centuries before them, many of these preachers decreed laws, or even whole governments, invalid should they defy biblical order or biblical laws. For example, as Baldwin summarizes, Elisha Williams preached in 1744 that
[G]overnments which did not originate from the people and in which they did not make their own laws were not, properly speaking, governments at all, but tyrannies and “absolutely against the Law of God and Nature.”
Examples abound. Stephen Johnson’s Fast Day Sermon of 1765 was one of the more potent. As Baldwin relates it, “No obedience was due to any edicts which were unconstitutional. . . . Where executive and legislative authority exceed the bounds of the law of God and the constitution, then their acts are ipso facto void.” This was hard-core nullification doctrine long before it was cool.
A Call to America’s Pulpits
As we compare, once again, their day and ours, we can hear an eerie note of correspondence, and it is not flattering. The harmony with our own day comes not in the fierce cries from the pulpit against tyranny, courts, taxes, and legislation, but rather from the loyalists who supported the tyranny! And what was their demand of the clergy at the time?
It was none other than the cry of our own clergy today: “Don’t preach politics!” Stick to “the Gospel” only! Indeed, [one loyalist writer] complained that “The Clergy had quite unlearned the Gospel, & had substituted Politicks in its Stead.” Likewise, a sermon by Boston preacher William Gordon elicited loyalist pamphlets in response, one of which scolded the “reverend politician” and sighed, “I most heartily wish . . . that he and many others of his profession would confine themselves to gospel truth.”
It is understandable that a tyrant would wish to censor the whole counsel of God, especially as it moves populations to resist tyrants. But the sadness of our time is that we do not even need tyrants to intimidate us into silence. Our pulpits do it readily to themselves.
We need instead more men like Jonas Clarke. A couple months before the fateful July 4, 1776, Clarke declared from the pulpit: “From this day will be dated the Liberty of the world.” From “this day”—referring to the day of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, in which British soldiers attempted to raid the artillery and disarm the American people. Preachers had been preparing those soldiers for years prior, preaching on rights, arms, politics, law, and government, tyranny and war. And it was at that Battle that, reportedly, the preacher himself—the same Jonas Clarke—had led riflemen to repel the British.
Where are such preachers today? What do we hold dear? For what are we willing to fight and die? Are we willing even to preach the doctrines of government, liberty, and God’s Law? Where are the sermons, tracts, and pamphlets circulating today from America’s preachers condemning taxes and tyranny? Preachers in the 1760s spoke out, and some spilled their blood, to fight the erosion of jurisprudence and the onset of admiralty courts! Today we have a vast array of this type of court tyrannizing nearly every area of life, and hardly a pulpit even knows, let alone cares, let alone preaches. We had ministers leading men in the sacrifice of their lives and money over intrusive search warrants and seizures of property. Today where are even the sermons on these things?
Pulpits across this land should be ringing with denunciation of warrantless wiretaps, extrajudicial drone strikes, no-knock warrants, militarization of police, civil forfeiture, the surveillance state, the welfare-warfare state, fiat money, tyrannized markets, executive orders, national emergencies, and a thousand other infractions so extreme and overt they would have driven King George III to join the rebellion himself. And the pulpits are silent.
The pulpits are silent, the flocks left untrained and unmotivated, and liberty all but dead. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
If liberty is ever to be restored in this, or any, nation, it will only come through a return to the message enshrined in Christ and His commandments. God may see fit to circumvent the rebellious and stubborn clergy who stand idle and cower today. It may please Him to replace them with a more faithful movement in some way. Yet it is most natural for us to call the preachers to repentance, and back to faithfulness, in hope that the pulpit will once again fulfill its role as the voice of liberty in the land.
A substantial first step toward that end would be to recover the lost, and nearly buried, history of our pulpits—of a time when America’s pastors preached politics, resisted tyranny, and founded a nation on the Bible. Dr. Baldwin’s nearly-forgotten book is a very helpful source from which to start relearning. I recommend it to every pastor and every Christian—and I recommend they follow the example of its subject matter even more.
 Pp. 212–213.
 P. 51.
 Pp. 16–17 below.
 P. 21 below.
 P. 29 below.
 Pp. 46–47 below.
 Pp. 32–33 below.
 See Eran Shalev, “‘A Perfect Republic’: The Mosaic Constitution in Revolutionary New England, 1775–1788,” The New England Quarterly 82/2 (June 2009), 2435–263, for this and many more examples of the application of Old Testament Law to the American formative era.
 P. 41 below.
 Pp. 128–129 below.
 P. 154, footnote 1 below.
 P. 164, footnote 30 below.