Two Uses of a Phrase
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the early American sermons American Reformer has been publishing. If we are to restore our republic, we need to better understand the political theology that the Founders embedded in our political system. These sermons allow us to grow in our understanding of the political theology their pastors discipled them in.
Upon reading one of the recent installments in this series, I discovered a thread that is well worth pulling.
During the period of the judges, they were once and again, for their iniquities, given into the hand of oppressors: but when their vices did not bring them under the divine judgments, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty. Every man’s house was his castle— every man’s property was his own—he exercised a supreme authority under, and over his own vine, and his own fig-tree; and, wherein he trespassed not upon the rights of his fellow creatures, nor interfered with the Mosaic establishment, did that which was right in his own eyes, without being subject to the control even of a crowned head, much less of crown officers; for in those days there was no king in Israel. – “A Sermon Preached Before the Honorable House of Representatives” by William Gordon
It is evidently agreeable to the will of God, the Sovereign Ruler of the World, that men whom He has made sociable Creatures, should live in Communities, and enjoy the Benefits and Advantages that are peculiar to the Social Life. This cannot possibly be effected without erecting and supporting Civil Government: For men in a State of Anarchy, such a State wherein every One does that which is right in his own Eyes; or rather that which gratifies his irregular Appetites without considering whether it be Right, or Wrong, or regarding how much it infringes the Right, or affects the Happiness of others…” – “Civil Government: The Foundation of Social Happiness” by Noah Hobart
Both Gordon and Hobart repeat a phrase that appears in Scripture on five occasions (Deuteronomy 12:8–9, Judges 17:6 & 21:25, Proverbs 12:15 & 21:2). However, Gordon does so to laud the freedom of a people with no civil magistrate, while explicitly referencing the period of the judges, and Hobart does so to condemn anarchy and demonstrate the necessity of civil government for productive social life. Without considering their broader messages, one could assume that Gordon would advocate for the very anarchy that Hobart frames his entire message against. How can two well-thought-of ministers from the Founding Era employ the same phrase to make what appears to be diametrically opposed arguments?
My plan is to offer some answers to that question by demonstrating that it does not stem from the fact that they share differing worldviews or political philosophies. In doing so, I hope to highlight the elements of their shared political philosophy that we would do well to recover for ourselves.
The Phrase in Context
Of first importance will be understanding the context of the phrase’s use by the two pastors.
Gordon’s sermon was rooted in the passage Jeremiah 30:20-21, and the section quoted above is in reference to the first line of that passage. “There children shall be as aforetime.” Gordon took this passage as a promise of reformation for the people of Israel that “their affairs should be brought back to their original state.” During the time of Jeremiah, the people were under harsh judgment, and they could not “help looking back to those times, when the constitution was in a prosperous and healthy condition.” For Gordon, he apprehended those times to be that of the judges. Yet, he made this point with one crucial qualification. “[W]hen their vices did not bring them under the divine judgments, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty.” So, the purest form of government in Israel’s history was when they did “that which was right in his own eyes” while also avoiding their most common vices.
Hobart’s central verse was the 3rd verse of the 11th Psalm: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” His primary purpose was “to consider some of the principal Things on the Account of which Civil Government is styled the Foundation of Social Security and Happiness.” He then identified the various ways that the foundations can be destroyed in relation to each respective “principal Thing” of civil government. He examined the difficulties that face the righteous in those cases. Prior to delivering each of these points, we find Hobart’s employment of the phrase in question where he used it to maintain that man cannot enjoy “the Benefits and Advantages that are peculiar to the Social Life…without erecting and supporting Civil Government.”
Gordon’s message was tailored to the infancy of the American republic on the eve of independence, while Hobart’s message is more general in nature and exists to make clear the purposes of government regardless of era.
Doctrine of Man
“Sin having entered the world, depraved mankind, and given a pernicious bias to every human heart, the best constitutions, whether civil or sacred, do after a while degenerate, the spirit of them departs, they retain only their outward forms, and by degrees lose even those.” – Gordon
“GOD will forever have the Glory of all his wise and gracious Appointments for the Welfare of his Creatures; but men through their own Folly and Wickedness may miss of the Advantage designed them… This sometimes happens through the weakness or wickedness of Rulers, and sometimes through the Folly and madness of Subjects…” – Hobart
Gordon and Hobart had no problem understanding the doctrine of man put forth by Paul in Romans 3. Where Paul would say “[n]one is righteous,” Gordon would point out the “pernicious bias to every human heart,” and Hobart would recognize that men maintain “their own Folly and Wickedness.”
The only doctrine of original sin that many of our so-called leaders confess today is that of “whiteness,” and we are worse off for it. If we heeded the teaching of men like Gordon and Hobart, we would understand the importance of due process because we would know that the accuser could lie just as easily as the accused. We would not place our trust in one single leader because of their potential for “weakness or wickedness.” On the other hand, we would assuredly not place our trust in democracy because of “the Folly and madness of Subjects.” Biblical anthropology is the only understanding that leads to right governance.
The Providence of God
“[T]he expectation that the providential government of God will be thereby glorified, may lead us to hope that punishment will be inflicted, though not upon all, yet upon the chief promoters of our oppression…” – Gordon
“The Psalmist here flies to God and trusts in Him for Protection in a Time of Danger. In the Lord put I my Trust; how say ye to my Soul, Flee as a Bird to your mountain? [Psalm 11:1].” – Hobart
The primary reason our nation’s doctrine of man is broken is because our doctrine of God is broken. John Calvin said it best when he stated that “[o]ur wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (Institutes 1.1.1) Gordon and Hobart were not like our generation.
In speaking of punishment for oppressors, Gordon places his trust in “the providential government of God” to carry out righteous judgment in the world. By maintaining this trust in the Lord, Gordon was left free to love his country, the cause of truth and liberty, and justice. Tyrannical oppressors are in our midst and where we can be faithful and depose them, let us do so. Yet, let us ultimately trust in the judgments of the Lord like Gordon, Hobart, and the Psalmist do. He is indeed our Refuge.
The Purpose of Government
“[T]he best form of government is that, which provide best against the abuse of power in rulers, while it entrusts them with a sufficiency thereof for the good of the public.” – Gordon
“Public Happiness is the original Design and great End of Civil Government.” – Hobart
The tyranny of 2020 opened my eyes to the historic understanding of Romans 13. Subjects are given commands to submit to authority, but the civil magistrate has specific commands from He who established it. Civil government is God’s servant for the good of the people. It is very simple.
On the end of the civil magistrate appointed by God, John Calvin writes, “[w]e say, therefore, that they are the ordained guardians and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, honour, and
tranquillity, so that it should be their only study to provide for the common peace and safety.” (Institutes 4.20.9) Shall we say, for the public good?
Men of Gordon and Hobart’s era knew this fact far better than we do, and they spoke on matters of politics and governance with this truth at the forefront of their minds. Specifically, Hobart’s sermon is one of the best expositions on the purpose of government that I have ever read. It is in desperate need of wide distribution, especially to the current occupants of our halls of government.
The Importance and Nature of True Liberty
“The love of liberty, but chiefly of religion, induced the first settlers to venture across the Atlantic, and to take up their abode in this then inhospitable wilderness.” – Gordon
“Liberty, or a Freedom from unnecessary and burthensome Confinements, Restraints or Imprisonment, is what men are naturally, and indeed very justly desirous of.” – Hobart
Men are to be left free to do what God has commanded us to do – just as Adam was in the garden. It is still humanity’s task to be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, and to take dominion. We are to be left free to glorify God and to enjoy Him. Yet, two “unnecessary and burthensome Confinements” prevent us from doing so: the sin of ourselves and the sin of others.
Gordon and Hobart would understand what we would do well to learn, which is that the basic form of liberty is freedom from sin. (John 8:34 & Romans 6:18) Contrary to the current zeitgeist of our time, freedom is not being able to do whatever your heart desires. In fact, the heart of man is desperately wicked and impossible to understand and cannot be trusted even for a moment. We are terrible masters. Christ is the only master of true freedom, and it does not matter what form of government we live under if we are chained to our wicked desires.
As for the sin of others, we can be truly set free in Christ, but if our leaders are still enslaved to sin, then we will not experience political freedom on earth. Only Christians are fit for public office, and the sooner we re-implement religious tests for office at the state and local level, the better off we will be.
A Particular Government for a Particular People
“[T]hey should be natives, instead of foreigners and strangers, appointed and set over them by those that oppressed and kept them in subjection: Or, as they should be of their own choosing and approving, and not forced upon them. In some few rare instances strangers may be equally useful, friendly and acceptable with natives; but in general, the latter are more likely to possess the confidence, to understand the prevailing temper and to accommodate themselves to it, to study the interests, and to promote the happiness, of the people among whom they reside…” – Gordon
“[I]t must be owned that there is that Difference, perhaps in the very Constitution and Genius of different Nations, or certainly in their Condition and Circumstances as renders one Form of Government most suitable to one Nation, and best adapted to promote it’s Happiness; while another Form shall best answer the great Ends of Government with a different People.” – Hobart
Upon first reading Charles Haywood’s “Foundationalist Manifesto”, I did not understand The Second Pillar (A Mixed Government of Limited Ends and Unlimited Means) or this phrase contained within it: “In pursuit of its limited ends, it will have unlimited means.” I had never before encountered a political philosophy that fell outside the bounds of representative democracy. I was initially put off by the notion that any government would have unlimited means in any scenario.
I have since expanded my reading considerably, and I better understand the point Haywood was making (a point that he by no means holds a monopoly on). Both Gordon and Hobart capture elements of this idea in a way that is very instructive.
Within the bounds of the purpose of government expounded on above (the limited ends you could say), Gordon teaches that the people who make up a nation’s government either need to be natives of the nation or at least well-informed in the customs of the nation. The government should be by the people because every people is different. Nations have different histories and cultural tendencies; therefore, their governing class needs to understand and act according to those differences.
Hobart drives home the same exact point in a slightly different way. The form of government most suited for the promotion of happiness in a nation is based upon the constitution, genius, condition, and circumstances that make the nation unique. Lastly, take note of the final line in
this quote. “[T]he great Ends of Government” are stated as a universal, objective standard for the purpose of government. The only variable in play is how one nation gets there as compared to another. Unlimited means for a limited end.
A Final Charge
The shared worldview of these men has been made clear enough, but they did not deliver their messages at the exact same time in history. It is there where we can find distinctions worth recognizing. Hobart delivered his sermon in 1751. He passed away before the Declaration of Independence was even penned. In contrast, Gordon delivered his sermon in 1775, on the eve of independence. Due to these contrasting timings, they end their messages on different notes, yet they pair together well and serve as a final charge for us to glorify God in the political sphere of our day.
“Let us all endeavor, in our several Stations, faithfully to Discharge the Duties incumbent on us, and wisely to improve the advantages put into our Hands for promoting the Glory of Divine goodness both in the temporal and eternal Happiness of men. To quicken us to the greater Activity and Diligence in serving our Generation according to the will of God, let us consider that all our abilities and opportunities for usefulness are Talents committed to our Trust by our Great Lord, and Master, and that the Improvement of them must at last be accounted for to Him. Let us call to mind that neither the highest pitch of Grandeur and Authority nor the lowest State of Meanness and Obscurity will exempt any Person from being called to a strict Account.” – Hobart
“There is not an individual but may be aiding and assisting to the common cause one way or other. The wicked and unrighteous may help it materially, the one by forsaking his wickedness, and the other his unrighteousness. The godly by their inwrought fervent prayers, which avail much with their heavenly Father; thus may pious women contribute to the success of those arms, which the feebleness of their sex will not admit of their bearing. Infants may be helpful by moving their parents to exert every nerve, and strain every sinew, rather than train them up to be bond-men and bond-maids to haughty tyrants and merciless oppressors. The aged and expiring, by encouraging all about them not to surrender the best part of that fair patrimony which they are now leaving behind them. The martial and courageous by their personal bravery. The timid by concealing their fears, withdrawing themselves whenever their fears would be apt to appear and produce a baneful influence, and when they discourse upon public affairs, by insisting upon the divine interpositions with which we have been favored, and the goodness of the cause wherein we are engaged. The poor may assist by determining, that though’ poor they will be free; and that if they cannot have riches, they will not wear chains. And the rich by the loan of their money, that so the necessary expenses may be supplied, and the defense of the country may not fall through, for want of the requisites for carrying it on. Nothing can be more faulty than for the rich to decline hazarding their cash, while exempted from hazarding their persons; nor more simple, than for them, through fear of losing some of their riches, to endanger the losing them all, together with their liberties. Could the state be secured, a person would be provoked by such preposterous conduct to say to each of them, confining the words to the body only, Thy money perish with thee. May heaven influence every one of us to contribute our best abilities, according to our several stations and relations, to the defense and support of the commonweal! Amen.” – Gordon
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