The voices of Christian philosophers, authors and poets – men possessed of greater faculties of insight – had much to say about the destiny of our continent long before the United States came into existence. As the colonies began to prosper and grow, a group of English Puritans began to prophesy a new turn in history. While the American colonies were still in their infancy, they predicted growth in power and civilization, heralding a Western empire.
George Herbert (1593-1633), the Anglican poet, seeing the Puritan emigration to America, prompted by conscience and the desire for religious liberty, was inspired to write the famous verses:
“Religion stands on tiptoe in our land,
Ready to pass to the American strand.”
Herbert died in 1632, twelve years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and two years after the larger movement of the Massachusetts Company which began the settlement of Boston. These verses were almost suppressed by the English government being unsympathetic to the Puritan cause and refusing the proper license for publication. They at last yielded, however, calling Herbert “a divine poet” and expressing the hope that “the world would not take him for an inspired prophet.“1
John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost and the heroic Sonnets, wrote a treatise on the emigration of English Christians to America:
“What numbers of faithful and free-born Englishmen and good Christians have been constrained to forsake their dear dearest home, their friends and kindred, whom nothing but the wide ocean and the savage deserts of America could hide and shelter from the fury of the bishops! O, if we could but see the shape of our dear mother England, as poets are wont to give a personal form to what they please, how would she appear, think ye, but in a mourning weed, with ashes upon her head, and tears abundantly flowing from her eyes, to behold so many of her children exposed at once and thrust from things of dearest necessity, because their conscience could not assent to things which the bishops thought indifferent? Let the astrologer be dismayed at the portentous blaze of comets and impressions in the air, as foretelling troubles and changes to states; I shall believe there cannot be a more ill-boding sign to a nation (God turn the omen from us!) than when the inhabitants, to avoid insufferable grievances at home, are enforced by heaps to forsake their native country.“2
Although such statements are not public prayer proclamations in the strictest sense, the English Puritan writings contain the covenantal model of the blessings and curses of God on nations. It may have been merely a practical understanding that England would suffer by losing its and most intelligent, industrious, prosperous and pious citizens. Yet the prophetic nature of the writings of the Puritans cannot be ignored.
We can view the First Great Awakening of 1740 as the impetus for issuing the Declaration of Independence to King George III in 1776. It would be stretching the truth to say that the Declaration was a type of covenantal lawsuit, yet it is undoubtful that through the waking up of the minds of all classes through the Great Awakening, Puritanism was carried into our form of civil government. The First Great Awakening produced a general discussion of the principles of freedom and human rights, the habit of contending for rights with religious zeal, and the preparation of the mind for all questions pertaining to civil government in the American colonies. Although it is true that there was a strong deistic influence at the time of the signing of the Declaration, there is no question that there were the residual effects of strong Puritan influence. The American Revolution could not have occurred without the 150-year-old Puritan foundation in America.
Thomas Jefferson, a man described by his contemporaries as “a French infidel in respect to religion” was ironically indebted to the Puritans for his model of civil government. The evangelical explosion of the Great Awakening in Puritan New England provided the seeds for the first Baptist churches to be planted in Episcopal Virginia, which held to a Calvinistic theology and a congregational form of church government. Jefferson gained his first clear idea of a republican government from seeing the congregationalism of a Baptist church in his vicinity. It was good politics, too, since he strengthened his party’s stance among the people through an alliance with the Baptists and all friends of religious freedom.3
The Jeffersonian distinction between Church and State is very different from the idea promoted in our day. The very phrase “separation of Church and State” is very misleading. It is not a constitutional phrase but it came afterward in the writings of Jefferson. It originated as a Calvinist/Puritan distinction between the spheres of authority of church and civil government. The Church and the State are separate spheres of governmental authority. Separation of Church and State does not mean separation of the civil sphere from God. The issue is not whether the Church should intrude on the State’s affairs. The Church should not. Neither should the State intrude on the Church’s affairs. But Jesus Christ intercedes in the affairs of both. Civil government is not secular; it still stands under the moral Law of God. This was the understanding of most American legislators until the 20th century.
1 The Church Militant: Herbert’s Poetical Works (Little and Brown) p.247, note.
2 Reformation in England, Book II: Works, Vol. III, (Pickering) p.45.
3 Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening (Tappan and Dennet, Boston, 1842) pp.419.420.