A Road Map for a Renewed American Protestantism
American Reformer is pleased to announce a new initiative, housed in a new section of the website labeled, “Resources.” This section will be dedicated to the republication of historic sermons, speeches, and essays from American Protestants which, we think, should constitute a new but truer American canon of political thought. The first entry, a lightly edited version of Noah Hobart’s 1751 election day sermons, Civil Government The Foundation of Happiness, has now been posted. We encourage our readers to check the new section regularly for new entries as we work diligently to recover key American Protestant sources which we think will be as useful and edifying for our day as they were for their own. Sermons will not be the only sources recovered, but they may very well predominate given their one-time status as the overwhelmingly dominant medium of communication in our nation.
Again, the goal of the republication of sermons like Hobart’s is greater dissemination of the text in a more readable form and especially so that American Protestant laymen can become acquainted with their own history, texts, and traditions. In other words, as a friend recently put it to me regarding the work and mission of American Reformer, our aim with this project is to develop resources for “a culture that forgot they exist.” Sermons like Hobart’s will, we think, be instrumental in bringing that forgotten Anglo-American Protestant culture to life. More immediately, such resources will chasten and challenge contemporary evangelical political assumptions.
There is no particular reason that Hobart’s sermon is the first entry for this project. Nor will there be any discernible order to the subsequent resources published. At a later date, once a critical mass of material has been achieved, a navigational mechanism will be introduced for ease of access. Until then, embrace the chaos with us as we seek to revive the artifacts of American Protestant political thought through oft-neglected but nevertheless essential source material.
A brief note on editing Hobart’s sermon and others to come. In general, spelling has been modernized and archaic, less common words have been explained in parentheticals for the sake of readability and comprehension. Capitalization and italics (owed to both convention and emphasis of the author) of certain words have been retained throughout, but awkward or arbitrary punctuation has been slightly altered. Allusions or uncited references to scripture and other texts have been inserted. Original in-text citations have been inserted into parentheticals instead of footnotes. Overall, the prose and style of the author have been preserved. Errors in the text created by scans of the original facsimile from which the following text is taken have been corrected. Due to format, pagination markers have not been retained. Some paragraphs have been broken up where appropriate for convenience’s sake. To the same end, section markers have been added in a way that corresponds with the organization of the original text. Generally, this same editorial approach to the sermons, speeches, and essays American Reformer will be resourcing over the coming months and (Lord willing) years will be followed.
In the case of Hobart, the original publication of the sermon ran 52 pages long. The lightly edited version presented is over 12,000 words long. (As will usually be the case, republished sermons like Hobart’s tend to be lengthy.) Section headings have been included for organizational purposes.
Often, though not every time, and in addition to the biographical introduction accompanying each resource, a companion article will be published in our Forum section, offering commentary on particular portions and themes of the resources published. In this case, Hobart is important because he stood in the gap (historically) between the colonial period and that of the American Revolution, dying just prior to its crescendo. His election day sermon in Connecticut is a window into the religious and political thought of the time. A conviction underlying this American Reformer resourcement project, drawn from Harry Stout (The New England Soul), is that such sermons are the best data for discerning the socio-political mood of early America, one that defies contemporary categories and presumptions and that desperately needs to be recovered today.
Turning to the sermon: in typical fashion, Hobart addresses, in order, the magistrates, the ministers, and the people, the three estates, as it were. Especial attention should be given to what is marked in this republication as “Section IV” which focuses on the magistrates. Notice what Hobart says regarding their religious role and duty. Given current debates, the reader should especially notice Hobart’s discussion of the Gospel ethic necessary for social peace.
Like his forebears and contemporaries, Hobart took for granted that the magistrate, indeed government qua government as the “foundation of social happiness,” is duty bound to promote and secure religion. “I suppose no reasonable Man will deny that Religion is an especial Object of the Civil Magistrate’s Concern,” Hobart says.
This is because religion is essential to moral stability and tranquility in political communities as much as it is indispensable to the eternal salvation of individual persons. Notice that Hobart is making a socio-political argument here. Promotion and protection of religion is necessary for peaceable living. Not just any religion, but the ethic of the Gospel, which is not yet to say that all members of society must trust in Christ for salvation, only that “natural religion,” the Gospel ethic, as I said, must be maintained for the sake of social happiness. Hobart:
“Were the Practice of the strictest and most exalted Morality, such an one as the Gospel prescribes and requires, universally to prevail in any Community, it would constitute a sort of Heaven upon Earth: And on the contrary, where it is wholly disregarded, where Vice and Wickedness of every Kind maintain an unrestrained Dominion, there is properly an Hell upon Earth. In the intermediate States between the universal Practice of Virtue and the uncontrolled Prevalence of Vice, a Society is happy or miserable in Proportion as it approaches to one or the other of these Conditions.”
What are the parameters of “natural religion”?
“Tis necessary to the Happiness of Society, and to the Security of every Member of it, that the Belief of the Being, and Perfections, and Providence of God should be kept up; that men should be acquainted with the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul, and of a future and eternal State of Happiness or Misery; that men should look upon themselves as accountable Creatures, and expect the great and awful Day when they must stand before the Tribunal of God, the Sovereign and universal Judge, to give account of the Actions done in the Flesh, whether they have been good, or whether they have been evil.”
Belief in these things constrains men and, indeed, prepares them for acceptance of higher truths. True enough, societies can subsist on these natural truths absent the “Christian institution.” That said,
“Yet it must be owned that Morality is incomparably better explained, carried to a vastly higher Degree of Perfection, and enforced on the Minds of men be infinitely stronger Motives in the Gospel, ever was before, or than it possibly can be on any other Hypothesis. And the Gospel in all these Views does greatly conduce to Social Happiness; and therefore ought to be supported, countenanced and encouraged by the Civil Magistrate.”
Hobart is quick to say that he is not endorsing the Gospel as pure political instrument. In the first and final instance, the Gospel’s purpose is eternal salvation, not political stability. But in a secondary sense, it is most conducive to the maintenance of natural religion because it provides a higher, stronger motive for such. And, in the end, the two purposes are not at odds.
Since every man is required to accept the Gospel for his own personal salvation, Hobart promotes the freedom of every man to investigate these higher truths. “The Civil Magistrate, if he would answer the Design of his Office, instead of denying men this Right, or inflicting any Punishment on them for using it in a quiet, peaceable manner, ought to protect and defend them in it.”
We might call Hobart naïve today, but his religious scope, as it were, was limited by a decidedly Christian culture. He was confident that the freedom to privately, quietly, and peaceably contemplate religion would inevitably lead to embrace of the Gospel simply because it was true. Truly, Hobart possessed more epistemological confidence than most moderns do today. But Hobart was not naïve regarding the private-public distinction. Religious liberty entailed non-persecution and tolerance, not public disorder. The latter would constitute an abuse of the former right, an abuse within the magistrate’s purview, and punishment of which was not a violation of conscience. One last long quote from Hobart to illustrate:
“’Tis indeed possible for men to use this Liberty as a Cloak of Maliciousness; they may in Preaching or even in Prayer use seditious or treasonable Expressions, they may revile the Rulers of their People, contemn [i.e., regard with contempt] and disparage the good Laws of their Country, or slander and abuse their Neighbors. Whenever they do so, they are beyond all doubt justly punishable by the Civil Magistrate, and the Peace and Happiness of Human Society do sometimes make it necessary that they should be punished with severity. There is nothing in this at all inconsistent with Liberty of Conscience; for my Right to worship God according to the Dictates of my own Conscience does by no means include a Right to destroy the public Happiness of Civil Society, by subverting the Government of it; nor does it in the least Degree authorize me to revile my Superiors, or to defame and abuse any Man.
Let then Treason and Sedition, Slander and Defamation, and every Thing that destroys Social Happiness be punished as they deserve; let no Pretense of Conscience excuse any Person in the Commission of these Crimes; let their being committed under the Notion of Praying, or of performing any other act of Divine Worship be esteemed (as it really is) a great Aggravation of the criminal Action, and all the Intentions of Civil Government will be answered without at all infringing Liberty of Conscience, or taking from quiet and peaceable Men the invaluable Right of worshiping God in such a Manner as they believe He requires and will accept.”
Hobart goes on to defend the liberty of the church to execute ecclesiastical discipline independently (contra Erastianism). What needs to be wrestled with by today’s Protestants is Hobart’s formulation of religious liberty, a version that sheds light on the public understanding of the concept in the late eighteenth century. It does not preclude church establishments, nor does it negate the traditional role of the magistrate to preserve the public peace, promote true religion, and punish vice. Hobart is not as strict or strong on the magistrate’s religious interest as others had been or later were, but he nevertheless frustrates predominant evangelical assumptions today insofar as he is a strong advocate of religious liberty but in a sense more qualified than most evangelicals would be comfortable with today. He is more lax on this front than some might prefer but far more restrictive than most will accept.
In this way, Hobart’s sermon embodies the purpose and aim of American Reformer’s resourcement efforts on this front, viz., to broaden the American evangelical political scope, to disrupt entrenched paradigms, to illustrate both the continuity and diversity of American Protestant socio-political thought, and to provide texture to the received but oft uninterrogated American political tradition of which Protestantism was perhaps the central influence. For now, all that is left for you to do is read Hobart for yourself.
Image Credit: Unsplash