In a previous issue of The Christian Statesman, I penned an article warning of the dangers of nativism in the religio-politico sphere. Nativism is a primitive nationalistic yearning that grips a people during times of great duress or challenge. Its illusory vision promises a return to a bygone era where things seem tranquil and prosperous, and where national vitality is perceived to have crested at the pinnacle of power. Nativism relies heavily on symbolism, idyllic prose, rhetoric, and signal events to drive a revivalistic fervor and rally a people toward a common goal. While not necessarily or inherently evil, such reliance on subjectivism or historic events taken out of an underlying philosophical context can give rise to great national peril.
Again, recalling my previous article, the nativistic urge has been used and capitalized upon throughout the history of America. The Jacksonian era was a precursor to the greater extension of such philosophies and tactics in the post-Civil War era, as evidenced by the actions and policies of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. And while some positive aspects may be noted from nativistic urges, there exists compelling examples of how such thinking often gives rise to tyrannical regimes or godless political-social theories as illustrated by socialism, fascism, and communism.
Puritan New World Thinking
The Puritans offered an alternative view to nativistic impulses in what historians have often termed “new world thinking.” The fundamental cultural pinions of such thinking maintained that the new man, redeemed by Christ’s finished work, buoyed by an optimistic postmillennial eschatology, and driven by the engines of ethical cause and effect, had both the right and the obligation to create “a New Jerusalem,” “a city shining on a hill,” on the American shore. Hence, the Puritan paradigm sought to strive for, work toward, and marshal energies for a new nation fully covenanted to God that would take its place as the focal point of global missionary endeavors. In this era, the notion of a “redeemer nation,” in the sense of the Hebrew commonwealth, was a very present thought.
To the Puritan in America, all things, all life endeavors, as well as all institutions, were under the scope and rule of heaven. Hence, family life, economic life, church life, political life, from the greatest matter to the very mundane, all were viewed as controlled by Providence. From this understanding of God’s rule over and subsequently through His people there existed an undying optimism characterized by the belief “that it was to a world made righteous that Christ would return.”
On a Personal Note
The Puritan has been much maligned and quite misunderstood by modern American culture. Portraits of a stern, cold, passionless people, at war with happiness, bliss, or any other enjoyment of life, are common enough refrains, though far from the reality of our rambunctious, joyous, and deliriously confident forebearers. This distorted notion has held true both within and without the church.
It was the Anglican C. S. Lewis who said: “Whatever the Puritans were they most certainly were not a passionless, gloomy people, nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them.” In this context, it is all too easy to charge our ideological enemies with grand revisionistic conspiracies to deride our Puritan heritage as a cover for their licentious, humanist agenda. However, while the history texts, liberal media, and the rest of the “man as god” elitists have certainly been effective in their maligning of our Faith, it is the pietistic foe within the church that is far and away the greater danger.
So many who claim to be Reformed (and even more within Evangelical-Fundamental-Charismatic ranks) yearn to be described as “sour, gloomy, and severe,” as they grovel in self-centered pietism, extra-biblical “morality” and subjective legalisms. Yet, what if we were known by our enemies, not for our restrictive immature religion, but instead as that people most enthusiastically living life to the fullest (Ecc. 8:15)? More than likely we would be slandered, as our Lord was, for being gluttons, wine-bibbers, and friends of sinners.
The Puritans attacked life with a holy gusto! This wasn’t the heretical fanaticism of a Finney revival, but the dynamic shock of unexpected salvific liberation and the joy tied to the inmost experience of justification in Christ. We see this intoxicating joy highlighted in the parables concerning the kingdom. The “kingdom” parables proclaim the finding of hidden treasure and beautiful pearls (Matt. 13:44-45), and go on to reveal the overwhelming joy that accompanies entrance into Christ’s kingdom. The same is revealed in the parables of the lost sheep and coin. And the father of the prodigal son was so overjoyed with the return of his son that he threw a great party of eating, drinking, and dancing (Luke 15:4-11).
The kingdom is likened to an immense wedding feast for a king’s son. When those invited by the king refuse to come, he directs his servants to go into the highways of the city and bring in the “poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind” (Luke 14:21). When this is combined with the world-changing mission of Christ— “He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”—we have a stratagem that heralds our Faith in a bold, confident, and indomitable way. The pietist can’t do this, for his faith is marginalized and ghettoized by monastic-dualistic asceticism and a works righteousness. Misery is akin to godliness in these ranks, and is the exact opposite of the Puritan hope that once characterized our nation’s exuberant worldview.
The American Optimist
The Puritan believed in the dynamic power of Reformation soteriology. They also held to Christ as the originator and transformer of culture, and coupled this to a present tense vision of kingdom expansion. Most importantly, they cultivated a life of prayer, devotional study, and the desire to experience that which they had believed with intoxicating happiness. These things gave birth to a characteristically American optimism.
This sense of adventure, assurance, and of ebullient confidence in a more prosperous future made the American experiment unique among nations, and all of this developed before 1776 and the Revolution. In fact, the spirit of American Puritanism was so confident in the superiority of the truths which they held and in the notion that what was here on this shore was truly new, that they felt free to borrow from the best of other cultures and eras, and to sanctify and incorporate the same into “their new Jerusalem” reality.
For example, in addition to robust training in theology, children of American Puritans were also well versed in classical literature that was not necessarily Puritan (such as Shakespeare), where in the literature there was an overarching emphasis on heroic deeds and chivalry. To these children, Henry V and the stirring St. Crispian’s Day speech was as common a refrain as anything that John Owen or Thomas Manton had penned. In architecture, unique combinations of Greek and Roman influences, together with innovative designs from England, made for a singular New England architecture. Stress on education, especially in institutionalized higher learning endeavors, led to the formation of prestigious schools such as Harvard. More examples abound, but suffice it to say, that the new man in Christ was truly building a new nation with new material, under a heavenly design, with the goal of transforming the world in righteousness.
The Puritan era led to a revival of both the prophetic (contemporaneous application of biblical law) and the Levitical (instructional) role of the church. As an example of the prophetic voice, one need look no further than John Knox and his impact upon sixteenth century Scotland. Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, insisted that if the circumstances were right, Christians had both the right and the obligation to revolt against an evil and tyrannical monarch. Previously, with the entrenched idolatrous doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings,” the idea of revolt was considered sin. Knox’s notion of political resistance related to his belief in corporate resistance to sin. Knox, with a firm understanding of God’s sovereignty, argued that a nation, because of the covenant obligation to live according to God’s law, incurred corporate guilt for tolerating evil in the civil realm.
The prophetic lessons of Knox and Scottish Presbyterianism were not lost on future generations. In fact, such was the force and vitality of this fiery brand of Calvinism on the American colonies, that their fight for independence was viewed in England as “The Presbyterian Revolt.”
Just as Calvinism forged a prophetic edge to the church, so too, the Levitical-instructional role of the church was brought to the fore in this time. Whether Calvinism took the form of Congregationalism, Presbyterianism or Puritanism within the Anglican Church, there existed a weighty stress on doctrine and teaching in the church. Prior to the Reformation, the role of the clergy was centered on liturgy and the sacraments and not on preaching. Not so with Calvinism! As an example, during the American colonial period in Puritan New England, Calvinist pastors delivered approximately 8 million sermons, each averaging one and a half hours long. The average seventy year old colonial church goer would have listened to 7,000 sermons, or 10,000 hours of concentrated learning.
Now, with the anti-tyrannical, freedom-loving, God-honoring doctrines that were so pervasive in the American colonies combined with the Puritan experiential love of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, came the incendiary formula for 1776. Remember, the average New England farmer did not take to the field at Lexington or Concord because of esoteric, philosophical beliefs, or stale, moribund theological debates. Instead, because he had experienced the prosperous results of liberty and the intoxicating elixir of the pursuit of happiness, he truly believed that King George III was the biblical Antichrist bent on destroying the “new Jerusalem” reality; thus, he would resist the king even unto death. The Puritan new world vision was intensely personal, and it was only this personal, experiential faith, rooted in immutable truth that could compel such unprecedented actions by common men against a more powerful foe. We must make sure that the Puritan renaissance of our day is not mere theoretical exercis e, but a real and living encounter with the one true God that will cause us to speak again as one people, under God, the words of Patrick Henry, “give me liberty or give me death.”
Rev. Jeffrey A. Ziegler, the president of the National Reform Association, is also founder and president of Christian Endeavors and Reformation Bible Institute, and moderator of The Association of Free Reformed Churches. He has lectured in over 600 churches and ministerial conferences in North America, Great Britain, and Germany. Jeff is also president of The Continental Group, a think tank for political activism. His writng has appeared in The Christian Statesman, Chalcedon Report, and in the book Explicilty Christian Politics. He can be reached at 35155 Beachpark Drive, Eastlake, Ohio 44095. E-mail: email@example.com.