The Christian Origins of America’s Constitutional Republic
As one billion Christians around the world gather on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the foundational event of the Christian faith, it is worth reminding every American about the Christian origins of our constitutional republic.
Three key theological concepts from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries–congregational self governance, the covenantal nature of the relationship between man and God, and the free will of individuals to choose–eventually found expression in political philosophy and formed the basis for notions of popular sovereignty and self governance that our founders used in writing and approving the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution between 1787 and 1789.
When Catholic Queen Mary ascended to the throne of England in 1553, a group of Protestant theologians and scholars, fearing for their lives, fled to Geneva, Switzerland.
There, under the protection of Protestant Reformation leader John Calvin, they labored several years to produce the first widely available English version of the Bible.
Published in 1560, the Geneva Bible gained widespread popularity in England, especially because Protestant Elizabeth I succeeded Mary in 1558.
The translation was a giant leap ahead of earlier versions, but of particular interest were the annotations offered by the English translators, which tended to promote a more republican view of governance, as opposed to the sort of absolute monarchy that was emerging across Europe.
“Englishmen who had previously thought little about the relationship between the individual and the state now had reason to contemplate what God had to say on the matter,” as I wrote in my 2012 book, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement.
Following Calvin’s thinking, the Geneva Bible made the concept of a covenant–a solemn agreement between God, who promised eternal salvation, and man, who promised obedience–now seem relevant and applicable to other relationships, such as the individual and the state, and the individual and his local church. . .
In his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin described his system of Protestant theology, including the covenantal relationship between the church and civil governance. The Institutes provided a biblical justification for Christian resistance to the rule of tyrannical monarchs. It also laid the framework for the establishment of a biblically based civil government, as practiced in Geneva, then a city of 20,000. Its republican form of government tolerated but a single theological perspective: Calvinism. Under the five theological points of Calvinism–the total depravity of man, unconditional election of the saints, limited atonement given only to the predestined saints, God’s irresistible grace and total sovereignty, and the perseverance of the saints–only the predestined “elect” who were members of the established Presbyterian church enjoyed full civil rights.
Calvin’s predestination theology was at odds with later Christian theologies that emphasized “free will” and made no distinction between the “saved” and the “doomed,” such as those of Arminius, Grotius, and Roger Williams. All men had the potential to be saved, they argued, and it was that potential that formed their original natural rights.
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, she was succeeded by James I, a proponent of an aggressive absolute monarchy expressed in the doctrine of “the divine right of kings.” It was precisely the kind of doctrine the voluminous side annotations found in the Geneva Bible warned against.
Tired of the challenges to his absolute authority implicit in the annotations found in the Geneva Bible, James I convened a group of clerics and instructed them to produce a new English translation, which was finally published in 1611 as the King James version of the Bible, which eventually supplanted the Geneva Bible, both in England and the colonies in British North America.
Puritans–English Protestants who adhered to a Calvinist interpretation of Christianity–were in constant conflict with James I and his successor Charles I over their absolutist–some called it tyrannical–approach to governance. These Puritans also experienced internal conflicts, with some adhering strictly to Calvinist principles, while others began to reject notions of predestination with the more hopeful notion of individual free will.
When Charles I dismissed Parliament in 1629, he began an eleven year period of personal rule in which Parliament did not meet at all. English Puritans reacted strongly to what they perceived as another unsupportable action by an increasingly tyrannical monarch:
One group, led by John Winthrop, determined to leave England and establish a Christian Bible-state that could be a “city upon an hill” and an example to all Christians of the proper godly way to organize and manage a country. From 1629 to 1640, an estimated forty thousand Puritans made the trek to Massachusetts, where Winthrop and other elders established the first Christian theocracy in the new world–the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The English Puritans, who fully embraced concepts of congregational self governance–limited as it was to those “elect” Christians who were pre-destined for salvation in the Calvinist theology–and the covenantal relationship between man and God soon established Christian theocratic Bible-states in Massachusetts (from 1630 to the early 1690s) and England (the Cromwellian republic from about 1647 to 1660).
These early attempts to establish a Christian theocracy based on narrow Calvinist principles, however, soon ran into opposition from developing Christian notions of free will.
In England, the champion of that movement was John Lilburne, whose imprisonment by Charles I in 1638 for distributing Christian literature and subsequent “Star Chamber” show trial, made him a national figure. Released from prison in 1641, Lilburne went on to become a founder of the Leveller movement, a group that applied their Christian faith to the civil realm and advocated for popular sovereignty and covenantal acceptance by the people of the constitutionally limited rules of governance.
In 1647, with Cromwell’s military challenge to Charles I succeeding, the Levellers proposed those rules for governance in a 900 word document called An Agreement of the People. Though never adopted, the document was seen as the first model for our American Constitution, as Justice Hugo Black wrote in his dissenting opinion in the case Goldberg v. Kelly in the 1970:
The goal of a written constitution with fixed limits on governmental power had long been desired. Prior to our colonial constitutions, the closest man had come to realizing this goal was the political movement of the Levellers in England in the 1640s.. In 1647, the Levellers proposed the adoption of An Agreement of the People which set forth written limitations on the English Government. This proposal contained many of the ideas which were later incorporated in the constitutions of this Nation.
In British North America, Lilburne’s friend, Roger Williams, pursued notions of free will, popular sovereignty, and a covenantal agreement fully entered into when he migrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.
An ardent Christian who took the idea of the great commission seriously–he learned several Native American languages and spent much of his time promoting the Gospel and converting Native Americans in New England to Christianity–Williams also believed that every person must live by the dictates of his or her conscience. He studied the Bible in great detail, and held views that many in the Massachusetts Bay Colony considered heretical.
In 1636 he was expelled, and fled south to what is now Rhode Island, where he was soon followed by a small number of similar outcasts from Massachusetts. He ultimately received a royal charter to establish a new colony there, one which guaranteed freedom of religion. In 1680, another Christian who believed in freedom of religion, the Quaker William Penn, secured a royal charter for the colony of Pennsylvania.
A decade later, the disastrous Salem Witch trials marked the end of the liberty-limiting theocracy of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony.
By the 1770s, the generation of Colonial leaders who fought the American Revolution and passed and ratified the Constitution embraced the concepts of popular sovereignty, individual free choice, and need for covenantal agreements–expressed in writing and clearly understood by all to either accept or reject–that Roger Williams and John Lilburne had first advanced more than a century before as natural continuations of their Christian faith to the civil realm.