Christians are called to practice what we preach: reliance on the sovereignty of God over the machinations of man or party, and a steady trust in the tools that God gives—prayer, his Word, and the sacraments—over placing confidence in princes, armies, or undeliberated quick fixes.
Cornell University Professor Barry Alan Shain has determined that rather than a generic republicanism or seventeenth century libertarianism nourishing the root of American democracy, a much older religion did: Biblical faith. The preaching of this faith was a staple in the intellectual life of Colonial America. For a century before the earliest settlers arrived in America and for the 150 years of Colonial experience prior to the US Revolution, regular preaching was formative for the ideas of the American revolutionaries. Shain notes: “Americans in the late eighteenth century were not a people who had founded colonies and then a nation around a pervasive, indeed, almost monolithic commitment to classic ideas such as individualism, freedom, and equality. . . . Americans did not hold to a republican outlook that was anthropocentric and independent of a Christian or a rationalist faith in an omniscient God. . . . [E]ighteenth century Americans were a parochial reformed Protestant people whose thought was (to the contemporary republican apologist, inconven-iently) strikingly dependent on a Christian origin or natural ordering in the Cosmos.” Shain continues to note that the founders of the American republic were more interested in biblical dynamics than “in personal development through direct participatory political activity.”
Shain takes issue with the currently regnant secular paradigm that seeks to explain America’s origin in predominantly secular terms. His research leads him to believe that neither the ‘classical republican’ explanation nor the ‘libertarian individualistic’ model sufficiently explains America’s unique cradle. Although those features certainly “have their place in the totality of the Revolutionary drama,” Shain admits, nevertheless, “the defenders of each model have been guilty of greatly exaggerating the coherence, hegemony, and institutional strength in Revolutionary America of their preferred body of thought. They do so while virtually ignoring more powerful, though today less useful, influences on the speech and practices of the majority of European Americans; such as the reformed Protestant foundations of almost all the Colonies and their citizens; . . . The confusion is understandable because it is so easy today to forget that in the years 1765-1785 . . . America was a nation of Protestant and communal backwater polities . . . only in 1776 did republic, republican, and republicanism change from defamatory clichés to being taken generally as terms with affirmative connotations.”
Puritan theologies and sermons led to the colonization of the New World. The charter documents of nearly all Colonial American settlements contain some overt reference to religious purpose. Prior to the Revolutionary War, nine of the thirteen original colonies had an established religion. The Mayflower Compact opened on an unadulterated religious note: “In the name of God. Amen. . . . Having undertaken for the Glory of God and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia . . .” Such civic purpose was rooted in Reformation beliefs. Similarly, the 1639 Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, sometimes referred to as the first written constitution in the New World, began: “For as much as it has pleased Almighty God by the wise disposition of his divine providence so to order and dispose of things . . . and well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God . . . [we] enter into such Combination and Confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches . . .” Following this preamble, the colonists covenanted to hold two General Assemblies per year to elect a Governor and (at least six) magistrates for no more than a year, who were to “administer justice according to the Laws here established, and for want thereof, according to the Rule of the Word of God.” Magistrates were elected by ballot, with a Secretary who was only “for the time being” (and who could not himself nominate candidates) presided. The governor could serve no more than two consecutive years and was to “always be a member of some appointed Congregation.” Due public notice was to be given for the convening of these legislative assemblies, with a proviso that if the sitting politicians refused to do so, the Freemen could petition the lower magistrates to convene the assembly which could lawfully “proceed to do any act of power which any other General Court” could. Most of these tenets are best understood as Reformation theological notions.