OUR FOREFATHERS’ COVENANTS
February 28, 2020
We left off last week talking about Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Church. That letter has become so distorted and mis-used since the FDR Supreme Court ruled that “Freedom of Religion” and “Separation of Church and State” meant that no state-run agency of facility could promote the name of Jesus Christ under the guise that it infringed on the rights of other religions. What a farce! What a fraud!
Let’s dig down deeper into this discussion today as we pick up where we left off last week. Understand that, as we do so, we are now discussing issues that became part of the foundational understanding that eventually formed our Constitution.
We begin today with a quote from James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.
"In gutting his draft was Jefferson playing the hypocrite, sacrificing his principles to political expediency, as his Federalist opponents never tired of charging? By no means, for the Danbury Baptist letter was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more.
"Withholding from the public the rationale for his policy on thanksgivings and fasts did not solve Jefferson's problem, for his refusal to proclaim them would not escape the attention of the Federalists and would create a continuing vulnerability to accusations of irreligion. Jefferson found a solution to this problem even as he wrestled with the wording of the Danbury Baptist letter, a solution in the person of the famous Baptist preacher John Leland, who appeared at the White House on Jan. 1, 1802, to give the president a mammoth, 1,235-pound cheese, produced by Leland's parishioners in Cheshire, Mass.
"One of the nation's best known advocates of religious liberty, Leland had accepted an invitation to preach in the House of Representatives on Sunday, Jan. 3, and Jefferson evidently concluded that, if Leland found nothing objectionable about officiating at worship on public property, he could not be criticized for attending a service at which his friend was preaching. Consequently, "contrary to all former practice," Jefferson appeared at church services in the House on Sunday, Jan. 3, two days after recommending in his reply to the Danbury Baptists "a wall of separation between church and state"; during the remainder of his two administrations he attended these services "constantly."
However, we are getting ahead of ourselves in this discussion about the Danbury letter. Let's back up and begin taking a look at those individuals who put their lives, their fortunes, and all that they had on the line as they prepared the documents that became the foundation of our nation's birth as a single, cohesive people.
James Madison, who became the fourth President of the United States, was educated by Presbyterian clergymen, and attended Princeton Theological Seminary (1769 - 1772) in preparation for his own ordination as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a letter to a college friend, dated in 1773, Madison proposed that "the rising stars of his generation renounce their secular prospects and "publicly . . . declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ."
Whatever led to the decision, two months after he wrote those comments, he enrolled in Law School; and a year later entered the political arena, serving on the Orange County Committee of Safety.
Reverend Alexander Balmaine, the husband of one of James Madison's favorite cousins, and the Episcopal priest who officiated at Madison's marriage to Dolly Paine Todd, recorded the substance of some of his conversations concerning Christianity in some of his own memoirs. Balmaine wrote that Madison's opponents suggested that "he was better suited to the pulpit than to the legislative hall."
While Madison succeeded in keeping his doctrinal views private for the most part, he was -- as noted in Library of Congress documents -- quite opposed to "Calvinistic views." Whatever his personal convictions, as Manuscript Division Chief, James Hutson writes,
"Madison's passion for the separation of church and state was kindled by exposure as a young man to the sufferings of neighbors enduring religious persecution; like Moses witnessing the beating of the Hebrew slave by the Egyptian taskmaster, Madison was moved by this experience toward a lifelong commitment to relieve his countrymen from spiritual oppression. The events that aroused what Madison later called his "very early and strong impressions" in favor of religious liberty were a series of imprisonments of Baptist ministers in 1773-1774 in Culpeper County for preaching without licenses in violation of the toleration acts then in force in Virginia. By this time Baptists were thickly settled in Orange County, so much so that in 1771 5000 attended an open air meeting at Blue Run Church near Montpelier. Young Madison informed himself of his neighbors' beliefs and, looking beyond their emotional forms of worship, satisfied himself that they were "in the main very orthodox." He was, therefore, indignant when they suffered from the "diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution" in adjacent Culpeper County. The plight of the Baptists prompted Madison, characteristically, to reflect on their situation and derive general principles from their misfortunes. The source of all the trouble, it was obvious to him, was the laws establishing the Church of England as the official religion of the commonwealth of Virginia. Establishments of religion, Madison concluded, had broad, deleterious effects on society at large that extended well beyond the violation of individual rights. They had a tendency to produce a mentality susceptible to political "slavery and Subjection" and were unfriendly to "genius," enterprise and economic growth.
Madison actively tried to help the Baptists. On January 24, 1774, he wrote a friend that he had "squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed" their adversaries. The recipients of his invective are unknown. He may have confronted them as a character witness in judicial proceedings, for there is a tradition that he "repeatedly appeared in the court of his own county to defend the Baptist nonconformists." If so, he was unsuccessful. But the next time Madison appeared in a public forum, he achieved an historic victory for religious liberty.
The occasion of Madison's triumph was the Virginia Revolutionary Convention, May 6-July 5, 1776, which instructed its delegates at the Continental Congress to declare independence, drafted a constitution for the commonwealth, and adopted George Mason's famous Declaration of Rights. The story has been told often and well of how the modest young Madison amended Mason's Declaration, transforming the latter's grant of the "fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion" to a guarantee that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." Brant's estimate of the importance of Madison's amendment is certainly correct: it "asserted, for the first time in any body of fundamental law, a natural right which had not previously been recognized as such by political bodies in the Christian world."
There has been much disagreement and debate between historians over James Madison's actual role in the "separation of church and state, with some historians taking the current liberal view that Madison wanted no input at all into government from religion or religion institutions, and others taking a far more benevolent view of Madison's labors.
Quoting again from various historical documents reposing in the Library of Congress, and James Hutson's analysis, we read,
"In Whig eyes Madison and his supporters deserve to be explained and extolled because they are the pioneers of what is currently regarded as the "progressive" doctrine of strict separation of church and state. No time need be wasted on their opponents, as an offhand remark by Irving Brant, a prime example of Butterfield's Whig historian, indicates. Brant noted that Henry's 1784 speech, advocating "religious assessments," had not survived but that this was not a matter of regret, since it would have contained nothing worth reading; "a plea to unite church and state is not," wrote Brant, "of the sort on which libertarian fame is built." Ignoring the case for general religious assessments does not alter the reality that in post-1776 large numbers of Americans, great and small, approved them. We need to know why they did, if we would fully understand Madison's opposition to the state support of religion.
Advocates for assessment endorsed the distinction Virginia's Presbyterian leadership made in 1784 between supporting religion as a "Spiritual system" and "in a civil way." No one wanted to turn the clock back to an era in which the state supported a system of religious beliefs because it purported to offer the one, true path to spiritual bliss. What many Virginians wanted, in common with citizens in other states, was to avail themselves of what petitioners to the General Assembly repeatedly called the "Public utility" of religion, by which they meant its capacity to promote the general welfare of society. Not only in Virginia but in Congress and throughout the nation religion was repeatedly acclaimed in the 1780s for its ability to promote happiness, prosperity, peace, order, security and safety. Summarizing the case for the public utility of religion, a Presbyterian minister observed that "if we consider the end of civil society and the evils it was designed to remedy, we will be convinced that from its very nature, that it [government] cannot reach that end, nor guard against those evils, without the aid of religion. Let it suffice to observe that the security of life, liberty and property" is impossible without religion. It is no exaggeration to assert that many, troubled by the unsettled social conditions of the 1780s, and the apparent disintegration of popular morality, regarded religion as the only hope for society's secular salvation.
Religion was expected to come to the rescue by creating a population of law abiding, good neighbors. It would, the citizens of Amherst County confidently predicted, "dispose Men to mutual acts of benevolence and render them dutiful subjects to the state." Why was this so? Because religion was considered to be a uniquely effective incubator of virtue and morality. "The Doctrines of Christianity," asserted Virginia's Episcopal clergy in 1776, " have a greater Tendency to produce Virtue amongst Men than any human Laws or Institutions." "Good morals," added Madison's cousin, Bishop James Madison, "can spring only from the bosom of religion." Religious faith, a "Social Christian" declared in the Virginia Gazette, Sept. 18, 1779, "made men more quiet, better members of society." "More than any single thing," it created, "good order, good morals, and happiness public and private. It makes good men and good men must be good citizens."
According to Bishop Madison, religion did more; it produced "the perfection of citizens." Religion had tools that the secularists lacked: first love, the love of Christ, which was expressed in obedience to his commandments and, if this failed, the "system of future rewards and punishments" derided as bribes and terror by opponents, but effective nonetheless in guaranteeing virtuous behavior. It was a truism of the age that virtue was a prerequisite for republican government. In producing virtue religion enabled the state to achieve its preeminent revolutionary goal: the perpetuation of republicanism.
That the state should concern itself with the character of its citizens was an old idea, stretching back to classical antiquity. That it could use religion to shape civic consciousness was an equally venerable strategy of statecraft which persisted, Madison noted, in the Europe of his day. (No less an authority than David Hume, described by some scholars as Madison's mentor in political philosophy, advocated an established church as a way to endow government with "security and stability.") Madison himself pointed out that the state's use of religion for civic purposes was a favorite project of earlier generations of British statesmen. Other Virginians reminded their fellow citizens that the wisdom of this policy had been acknowledged "at every Period of time and in every Corner of the Globe." "The wisest Legislators of Antiquity," they claimed, were "expressive of their veneration for religion, at least as an assistant to civil Government." Plutarch, for example, had asserted "a City might be as well built in the air, without any earth to stand upon, as a Commonwealth can be either constituted or preserved without the support of religion."
As we continue to look back at these documents, and the letters, the writings, the commentary of the day that surrounded our nation's founders, and the correspondence and notes between them, it becomes increasingly clear that faith in God and a relationship with Jesus Christ was considered an absolute necessity -- doctrinal disagreements and variances aside -- to erecting, maintaining and preserving a government and a society in which the nation could prosper and forge a future.
Let’s take a look at John Jay, who became our nation's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and was one of the authors of The Federalist Papers using the pseudonym, Publius.
It was December 12, 1745 that John Jay was born to a prominent and wealthy family in the Province of New York. His grandfather, Augustus Jay, had fled France as a Protestant Christian when the rights of Christians were abolished with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, bringing his family to America and eventually settling in New York.
Obviously gifted by the Lord at birth, he was sent to an exclusive boarding school at age eight where his genius was noted and encouraged. At age 14, John Jay went on to King's College (now Columbia University). He graduated with the highest honors at 19 years of age, going on to study law under Benjamin Kissam. Admitted to the New York Bar four years later, he quickly rose to prominence as a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence.
At age 28, he was the second youngest member of the First Continental Congress. His own faith and personal convictions caused him to initially argue against America's independence from Great Britain, and his treatise, An Address to the People of Great Britain, was written as a plea for reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson took issue with him when Jay refused to sign the Declaration of Independence and resigned from the Congress.
Once independence had been declared, however, John Jay became both an ardent spokesman and negotiator for the independent rights of American citizens. During his first stint in Congress, (he returned to Congress after independence was declared and served as the President of the Continental Congress in 1778-1779) he became a friend of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and in 1787 they began jointly publishing a series of articles in New York newspapers titled, The Federalist Papers. Writing alternately under the pseudonym, Publius, the three argued the tenets of Federalism in a way that not only affected statehood for many of the newly forming states, but formed many of the arguments that led to the creation of our U.S. Constitution.
That work also led to the creation of a federal judiciary, and on September 24, 1789, George Washington signed the Judiciary Act into law and appointed John Jay the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
My sharing of all these details (and I've left out a whole lot!) isn't meant to bore you with history, but to lay a foundation that will help you in understanding how our laws were formed, how the Supreme Court came into being, and how the founders of our Constitution saw the creation of this nation within the framework of a relationship with Jesus Christ.
John Jay, our nation's first Chief Justice, was a man of faith and trust in God; and his relationship with Jesus Christ formed the basis for his arguments for America's establishment as a Christian nation.
Next week, we will look at some of John Jay’s commentary on the Word and its relationship to our nation’s existence and its foundations.
We still have a ways to go in looking at our nation’s founding fathers and their understanding of our Covenatn with the Lord Jesus Christ.
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Blessings on you!
Regner A. Capener
RIVER WORSHIP CENTER
Temple, Texas 76502
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