The Great Man and Christian History

Commentary on Edward Barnard’s election sermon

I was recently at an academic conference and attended a panel wherein one panelist purported to make a case against Christian nationalism by way of the New England Puritans. As a gentleman, I will not name the conference or the panelist. Said panelist seemed to me to be an earnest and kind man who was later genuinely interested in discussing the source material in question. That said, and for the sake of illustration, one of the three points of the nameless panelist’s case against Christian nationalism centered on the idea, drawn from Stephen Wolfe’s book, of the Christian prince. My review of that very chapter demonstrated from the broader Reformed tradition that the concept was entirely conventional. That is, the idea of the great man, the reformist magistrate, and all the rest. I did not focus on New England data in that review, but based on my prior work in that area I saw no incongruency. My question to the panelist, upon the conclusion of his presentation—getting a word in edgewise at such an event is a feat in itself, one that threatened to exacerbate my old labrum injury from repeated and near charismatic hand raising—pertained to this very point. Where, in the election sermon records, was the Christian prince concept denounced? Would not the Reformation itself be placed in limbo if the reformist magistrate was cast out as a legitimate regime model?

Edward Barnard’s 1766 election day sermon sits outside the scope of the record I had in view, given that the Puritan period—a decidedly political project—ended, by all accounts, several decades prior. But the late eighteenth-century Congregationalists—still stalwarts of the New England Way, for the most part—were nevertheless and obviously conditioned by the theological assumptions of their ancestors. Easily, and early, discoverable in Barnard’s sermon is the political ideal of which I speak. Indeed, a theory of history now out of vogue is present there, viz., the great man. Maybe Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (2023) will reinvigorate this theory, but I am not holding my breath; it remains “toxic” to modern liberals. More likely is that the great man will be subjugated to the great woman in that telling. In 1766, we did not have to worry about such trifles.

Early in Barnard’s sermon we see the now radical theory both of history and politics, and drawn from Scriptural example no less. An extended quote will serve our commentary best:

“An acquaintance with the history of past ages will lead us to observe, that a common method of the exaltation of a people, hath been by a succession of men of eminent abilities and influence. A great genius appears at their head and forms a general scheme of institutions and laws. This being adopted, active spirits follow, who carry it into execution, and the community swiftly ascends to the height of prosperity.

Even Israel taken under the peculiar tutelage of Jehovah thus arose to a flourishing state. Moses, by divine direction, gave them the rudiments of civil and ecclesiastical polity. Joshua, by the same influence, led them over Jordan, and fixed them in the destined inheritance.

In a way somewhat similar may we well suppose a people emerging from the depths of distress to regain their national character. Patriots, perhaps of different qualities, exert themselves in turn, agreeable to their circumstances, ’till they make a respectable figure as in the former period of their existence.

An illustration of this we have in the case of Judah restored to Palestine and the rights and privileges of their fathers, after their residence in a strange land, and subjection to a foreign yoke, for seventy years.”

Barnard speaks for himself. Moses and Joshua exemplify the historical model. Great men, reformist magistrates—reforming both church and state—have, historically, had the ability to reinvigorate nations according to their original foundation and orientation. This is not a fact to be run from, but rather accounted for; not shunned by considered. Frothing at such a notion smacks of the same immaturity of those that would bemoan anacyclosis. Our founding generation did no such thing; they were not political babes. And drawing inspiration from Old Testament figures does not a theonomist make.

“a gracious God not only favored them with his prophets to instruct and support them, but rulers to lead and protect them, and forward the enterprises to which they were called—first Zerubbabel and Joshua, under whom the temple was built, and altar for daily sacrifice; then Ezra a scribe well instructed to the kingdom of heaven, who restored the scripture to its primitive purity, and dissolved those interdicted alliances which weakened their attachment to their religion and country.

But Jerusalem yet laid defenseless, enormities in part remained.

The full accomplishment of the merciful intention of heaven towards that afflicted people was reserved for Nehemiah… His arrival to Jerusalem was like the light of the morning which dissipates the incumbent gloom and invigorates nature. Every heart was revived, every hand employed. Present with them the walls went up, and the city filled with inhabitants. By his incessant care and labors grievances were redressed, and all things regulated in such a manner as to render them easy and happy. This is the lover of his nation, whose words I have read. Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.”

Those who would limit their political scope to the New Testament ignore the full counsel of God and deprive their minds of laudatory socio-political models. There is a reason that Protestants of days past used to draw parallels between the reformist magistrates of Israel like Hezekiah and Josiah, for example, and Constantine, Theodosius, etc. For today’s Protestants that find the whole thing icky and un-American, consider the testament of Barnard and realize how your own squeamish aversions to Scriptural and historical patterns is of very recent vintage.