Commentary on Jonathan Todd’s Election Sermon
Today marks the second entry in American Reformer’s resourcement project (see “Resources” section). A few comments on the 1749 election sermon delivered by Jonathan Todd (1713-1791) are in order, as will be our regular practice. (See the introduction to Todd’s sermon for more biographical detail.)
Notice that, in Section I, Todd begins with the origin of authority and basis of government before treating its operation. Read that portion for yourself. The point is to emphasize the proper starting point in these discussions, one so often avoided by modern commentators.
Noteworthy, for contemporary purposes, is that Todd’s conception of a lesser magistrate or governor is one “commissioned” by the “supreme Power” or chief magistrate. It entails delegation and, therefore, subordination. That said, all power is of God. Accordingly, even lesser magistrates are answerable to God for their actions and possess a duty to be godly in their rule in whatever delegated capacity they occupy. For contemporary purposes, within an American federalist model, this formulation would apply, say, to cabinet appointees in relation to the president, or administrative agency heads acting under delegated congressional authority. It would not, however, apply to state governors vis-a-vis the federal government. The authority of the former is not channeled through the latter. Indeed, under our original constitutional model, the authority of senators could be said to be delegated by the states insofar as they were elected by state legislatures. That is no longer the case, of course, but the example serves to orient the application of the lesser magistrate doctrine in our American context.
To review, a lesser magistrate is distinguished by the possession of authority delegated by human means. He is appointed by a higher human power and therefore answerable to the same.
An analogy from domestic economy further illustrates the point. We might say that the husband/father possesses supreme (i.e., non-delegated) authority in the family and the wife/mother possesses delegated authority. Both are answerable to God for their actions, but only the wife/mother is answerable to the husband/father, not the other way around. A right of resistance is maintained by the wife in certain circumstances, but no such right exists for the husband/father because he is the supreme authority—it would not make sense. But nor is the husband/father answerable to the wife/mother for his authority which is derived directly from God even as both are accountable to God for the exercise of any authority.
Section II is of especial interest for contemporary intramural debates, once again demonstrating that most evangelical squabbles have already been answered by their Protestant forebears… it’s just that evangelicals today don’t like the answers they find there. Commence reinvention of the wheel.
Todd, for his part, defines the relationship, as it were, in classical and, yes, Protestant terms. “[T]he public Good is the great End” of government. The peace and welfare of society, the defense of the innocent, the encouragement of virtue and discouragement of vice, suppression of those things injurious to mankind, and the “Chastisement of evildoers,” these are the good that cannot be diminished by a multiplicity of participation; these are common goods.
Of course, this promotion of the common good does not negate the enjoyment of “just Rights and Privileges, both natural and acquired, civil and religious.” Rights, properly understood, are not in conflict with the common good, whatever modern commentators like to insinuate. Todd is not inclined to attempt to exhaustively define the rights and privileges in view but is, in fact, inclined to note that they correspond with righteousness and justice. That is, no right can be immoral in its institution or exercise; no privilege can defy the law of God. Government could not secure otherwise since it is “For the maintaining of Righteousness and Judgment therefore in the Earth, is Government set up.”
Moreover, there are rights besides temporal ones, rights of a higher nature, viz., spiritual rights. This is obvious insofar as man is body and soul. Man’s rights, if they are to exist, must correspond to his dualistic nature. And if magistrates are to be guardians of men’s rights then they must be cognizant of both types of the same.
This supposition leads Todd into commentary on a controversy as relevant to our day as his, at least in greater American Protestantism.
The statement of the question: “There hath indeed been a great Cry of late Years, that the civil Magistrate hath Nothing to do about religious Matters, nor ought to make any Laws for the Encouragement of Religion and Protection of the Church of Christ.” Evangelical pastors and “influencers” chant the same objection today, do they not?
This, says Todd, is a “new Doctrine to the Church of Christ: Which hath always expected that Christian Kings should be its nursing Fathers, and Christian Queens its nursing Mothers.” Recall that Todd was preaching in 1749. The objection in view is not new, but neither is the consensus Todd represented, therefore, representative of the generation standing on the cusp of the American founding wherein the modern and specious claim of American separationism and religious neutrality is too often erroneously lodged—remember too that Todd lived until 1791.
Todd cedes that prior to the advent of Christian kings the church expected no aid, no support in this way from civil authorities. This does not, however, introduce a normative principle as far as Todd is concerned. True also is the fact that the church requires no temporal aid for its inherent societal perfection nor for eschatological certainty. Those truths notwithstanding, normatively and providentially, God has seen fit to employ temporal powers for the protection and extension of the church. Indeed, it is the duty of civil magistrates to do so as a matter of justice and this according to “ancient Promise” in Isaiah.
Supposing the preferred application of the aforementioned prophecy is not embraced, no matter. The nature of the civil or temporal office demands the same outcome given the government’s duty to the common good of men, as material and spiritual beings, already established. For “it is impossible that [i.e., magistrates] should answer to this Character, without endeavoring to support and encourage Religion. For there is Nothing the Welfare of Mankind is so much interested in, as Religion: Nothing that will so beautify and bless the World; that will so promote Peace and Friendship, good Order and Prosperity.” And, of course, Todd’s entire religious paradigm in the mid-eighteenth century is true religion, i.e., Christianity; none other can be for man’s true good.
Accordingly, “to encourage and support Religion is one of the greatest and best Ends of Government.” That Christianity is the only true and truly good religion does not negate the general principle. In other words, “Even the Heathen Governments, that have been famed for Wisdom, and that have flourished and become great in the World, took Care of the Religious Interests of their People, and encouraged what they supposed to be Godliness.” The care of religion qua religion, regardless of the merits of its dogma is necessarily the “greatest and best” interest of government in any and all contexts. In short, the promotion of religion is natural to all regimes and inevitable, as Samuel Rutherford, William Prynne, and a host of others recognized.
Todd further appeals to the character and tenor of Old Testament Israel wherein the care of religion was a chief function of government. Do not worry, Todd anticipated in 1749 Evangelical objections:
“And to say, at some do, that God himself was the King of Israel, and their Princes and Powers but Officers under Him, though it be true, doth not weaken the Argument; for Christ still remains King in Zion, and the lawful Governors of his People are his Ministers and Officers, and rule for Him.”
“Israel was a theocracy,” you say? “The whole world is a theocracy,” answers Todd. In simpler terms, we might say that the nature of the things in play, the purpose and ends of government and the nature of man himself, are constant, as is, to a greater degree, God in heaven. Hence, the religious interest of government is not altered whatever the episode in redemptive history we locate ourselves. This is not a matter of eschatology but of justice, justice to both man and his creator.
The initiative of Constantine, then, was natural and good, “And this is represented as the Day of Christ’s Victory over the Enemies of his Gospel, in Saint John’s Vision, Revelation 12.” Departure from this vision and model was only introduced in Christendom, says Todd in rather typical fashion, by the ambitions of Rome.
“Then indeed the Romish Clergy run down the Magistrate’s Power, and set on high their Ecclesiastical Courts; pretending Power therein to execute Vengeance upon the unruly, and Punishments upon the People; to bind their Kings with Chains, and their Nobles with Fetters of Iron. They insisted that civil Rulers should bow before them, and acknowledge that they held their Crowns and Scepters under them. And therefore they allowed Magistrates to have Nothing to do about Religion, but to give Life to the, Image of the Beast, to support the Usurpation of the Court of Rome, and draw the Sword against those, that were there condemned, and by them delivered over to the secular Arm.”
The Reformation, inter alia, brought about renewal:
“[W]hen the appointed Time of Mercy was come, that God would command the Light to shine out of Darkness, and discover the Mystery of Iniquity, the Reformers began to see that the Power exercised by the Bishop of Rome and his Court was but a Usurpation, and to vindicate the Power of the civil Magistrate.
It was then received as a Doctrine of Truth amongst the reformed Churches, that it was Part of the Business of the Magistrate to take Care about the Worship of God, in their Jurisdiction; to guard and defend the Churches, to provide that Houses for Worship be built, the Ministers of Christ maintained, their just Authority supported, and Obedience to the Laws of Christ encouraged.”
This included the conviction, in “Protestant Nations,” that the civil magistrate is properly keeper of both tables of the law. Again, prior bifurcation of the tables vis a vis temporal power was, to Protestants, a late medieval, Papist innovation. This same narrative is easily discoverable in everyone from Wolfgang Musculus to Peter Martyr Vermigli to Richard Baxter (as I have treated before). It is commonplace. And, to our chagrin, the Papist error is now commonplace amongst Western, and especially American, Protestants.
From whence does Todd’s assertion of Protestant consensus on this point arise? He cites the Synopsis of Pure Divinity as well as Samuel Rutherford as representative, and boldly claims—to an educated audience, mind you—that this doctrine was “unanimously” taught by the Reformers.
(We will return to the Leiden Synopsis and Rutherford momentarily.)
None of this means that the magistrate can introduce new articles of faith or “appoint any new Institutions in the Worship of God,” and nor may he subvert “the Prerogative of Christ” nor “proper Ecclesiastical government and Discipline.” Civil and ecclesiastical governments are distinct. And contrary to popular belief today, “The Reformers carefully examined the Lines of these Powers.” That is, the position recognized and carried on by Todd was not a mere unexamined and uncritically received Constantinian holdover as some so-called historians might insinuate.
From the Synopsis, Todd drew the principle already stated, viz., that the magistrate is to be keeper (i.e., enforcer) of both tables of the law. And this, “not only as a private Man, but as a Ruler is obliged to read in the Book of God Day and Night, that he may be informed thereby, what he ought to do in protecting the true Religion and in restoring it when gone to Decay.” Again, this does not mean that the magistrate is capable or permitted to take on ecclesial office and duty. But it is proper to his own office to be cognizant of these things and to implement them in his rule. We see here too the common sentiment, found also in other New Englanders like John Norton (1606-1663), of the diaconal relation between what we would now call church and state.
Todd highlights the duty of the temporal power to correct the spiritual power if and when it went awry, but the principle cut both ways. All this for the good of the Christian polity. Under standard operating procedure, how was this relationship supposed to function? “The Church Power is to go before, and to define, prescribe and teach first, and the civil Power to add a civil Sanction thereunto, as an accumulative and auxiliary Supplement.” The civil or temporal power cannot propound doctrine, as stated. It must receive teaching from the church or spiritual power and thereafter back it up, so to speak, with conducive and corresponding civil sanction. This latter principle was drawn by Todd from Rutherford’s Due Right of Presbyteries (1644), which is not to imply some kind of contradiction of the Synopsis—on the contrary. Per Rutherford,
“As a Christian [a king] may exhort others to doe their duty, but as King he may command that which Paul commanded Timothy and Titus, to commit the Gospel to faithful men who are able to teach others, to preach in season, and out of season, to lay hands suddenly on no man, and reform Religion, purge the Church of idolatry, and superstition, as Joshuah and Hezekiah did.”
The king may not baptize or administer the sacraments, for those things are not proper to his office. But he may, on account of duty, preserve and defend true religion. This is, on the one hand, generally inherent in the power of civil authority, and, on the other hand, incumbent on the Christian civil authority. This Todd and the majority of his day affirmed, and much more besides. Read his sermon to discover the rest. Detractors hysterical about Christian Nationalism will decry these doctrines as unchristian, Papist, or un-American.
What Jonathan Todd demonstrates, preaching in Connecticut in 1749, is that it is opponents of these views are out of step with the injunctions of Scripture and the Protestant consensus. To boot, they align more with early modern Roman Catholic instincts than that of the Reformers and, moreover, contradict American sentiments of the mid-eighteenth century.
Image Credit: Unsplash