Twenty-five years ago, as I walked the dirt streets of Plimoth, Massachusetts, Samuel Fuller fell into step beside me and began to visit. “The churchmen in England say that we have no church here because we have no ministers. A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t have a church over there. Who made them ministers and bishops when they don’t even have a church?”
Samuel Fuller was a doctor who came on board the Mayflower. He was also a deacon, the only ordained leader of the Plimoth church. Of course I was strolling through the re-created Plimoth Plantation and Samuel Fuller was an actor. Yet the original Samuel Fuller no doubt often repeated those very words as he travelled among the churches of the Plimoth and Bay colonies.
The law in England at that time required people to attend their local parish church. In 1636, Edmund Goodenough of Donhead St. Andrew, Wiltshire was hauled into court and found guilty of attending church in a neighbouring parish where the minister was of a more evangelical persuasion. The Goodenough family determined they would no longer live under such oppressive laws and in 1638 three brothers and two sisters arrived in Boston harbour aboard the Good Shippe Confidence. I am descended from Thomas, a brother of Edmund.
The passengers on the Confidence became the founders of the town of Sudbury. As in all the early settlements in the Plimoth and Bay colonies, they organized their church on congregational principles. Their intention was to establish a New Jerusalem in the wilds of North America, a city set upon a hill to give light to all the world, showing the path of true Christian faith. Only those who could give a credible testimony of being born again were admitted as members in the new church. The members then engaged a minister for their congregation.
The idea of separation of church and state did not enter their minds; they were intent on building a new and truly Christian society. Only church members were eligible to vote for town councillors. The laws of their new society were based on the Bible and rigorously enforced on all. Unwittingly, they created a society much like the one they left behind, except that they were now the ones in charge.
And they carried right on baptizing their babies. Contrary to their expectations, many of those baptized in infancy failed to come to saving faith as they came to adulthood. This is not the place to go into subsequent events, such as the Halfway Covenant and the Great Awakening. Suffice it to say that there was a great decline in religion, followed by a mighty revival. Through it all, there remained this glittering ideal of a city set upon a hill that would be a model for all mankind of the benefits of true religion.
When one Massachusetts minister, Roger Williams, began to speak of believer’s baptism, he was deposed from his pulpit and forced to flee in the dead of winter. He established a new colony, Rhode Island, which offered freedom of worship. When Quakers came to Massachusetts, trying to teach a milder, more peaceful way, they were rudely chased out of the colony. They kept coming back and finally it was found necessary to condemn some of them to death by hanging to maintain the purity of the Massachusetts faith.
Some idea of the strength of their conviction that they were called of God to establish a new and better society can be found in the minutes of the town meeting of Milford, Connecticut in 1640: “Voted, that the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; voted that the earth is given to the Saints; voted, that we are the Saints.” Thus they extinguished any qualms they may have felt about claiming ownership of lands that had been used by the native peoples for generations.
The ideal of a city set upon a hill imbued all of the thirteen colonies when they purposed to throw of the shackles of English rule. They could not agree which church should be established in the new nation: the southern colonies were Church of England; New England was Congregational; Maryland was Roman Catholic; only Rhode Island and Pennsylvania permitted freedom of religion. Thus, more or less by default, the Continental Congress was led to formulate the doctrine of separation of church and state.
Many of the leading lights of the revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, were not Christians, but deists. That is, they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ or the authenticity of the supernatural portions of the Bible, yet they believed in God and in the moral teachings of the Bible.
It was during this period that the notion of a city set upon a hill appears to have been transferred from the church to the new nation. All the leaders of the new nation believed that they were establishing something new in the world, a nation under God that would show the way in establishing a free and peaceful society.
The churches wholeheartedly supported this endeavour and believed that it would somehow usher in the millennium after which Christ would return to claim His own. This belief is called post-millenialism and it was the prevailing view until the nineteenth century.
The civil war, the rise of unbridled capitalism and the inequalities found throughout the nation tended to dampen this utopian view. In this setting, the dispensational pre-millennial views of John Darby found a fertile ground. This doctrine seemed to promise to evangelicals that they would still be victorious and reign with Christ, even though conditions at the moment seemed to indicate otherwise. Many proponents of pre-millenialism continued to believe that the United States of America had a special place in God’s plan for this world.
A competing doctrine, the Social Gospel, arose around the same time, teaching that the Bible’s denunciation of sin did not apply to individuals, but to society as a whole. The key to America’s greatness would lie in eliminating the evils in society so that all people would be free to live as Christians ought to live. According to this doctrine one of the greatest sins was the private ownership of businesses that were run for the profit of the owners. Over time, the social gospel expanded to include many inequities in society, either real or imagined. Governments used slogans such as New Deal and Great Society in their attempts to implement the social gospel. In later years the movement has gone from advocating women’s right to vote, to advocating for the women’s movement and gay rights. In the process it has distanced itself ever more from any claims of a Christian foundation.
Both dispensationalism and the social gospel still claim to be the embodiment of the old ideal of a city set upon a hill. Both still claim a special place for the United States of America on the world stage as the last best hope for mankind.
This post is not an anti-USA diatribe. As noted at the start, my ancestors were involved at the very beginning of the American experiment. There is much that has been noble, and still is, about this experiment. However, it is perhaps time to admit that it has not been a Christian experiment. The attempt to integrate Christian faith and secular society was doomed to failure from the beginning. The last best hope for all mankind is the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ, free of all nationalistic pretensions.