How Early Americans Viewed Civil Government
The “Great Awakening,” the first Christian evangelical revival that occurred in mid-1700s America, was mostly a spiritual and religious movement. Yet some Revivalists occasionally wrote and taught on civil matters as related to the Christian life. Jonathan Edwards, a key theologian of this period, addressed at least one important civil principle–the purpose of just civil government–which would likely influence Americans’ views prior to the American Revolution.
God is concerned with civil government, Edwards believed, because mankind (His most beloved creation) needs civil order in society. Edwards writes in his Miscellaneous Observations,
If God is concerned with how things proceed in the world He has made, He will be so chiefly in that part of His world that He has set His heart most upon.… Therefore, God will not leave…mankind to themselves, without taking care to govern and order their state, so that this part…may be regulated decently and beautifully, and so that there may be good order in the intelligent, voluntary, active part of God’s creation. He will take care that the world of mankind is well-regulated with respect to its moral state, and so will maintain a good moral government over the world of mankind.
Specifically, God ordains just human governments—personal and corporate, private and public—to defend and protect citizens’ rights and uphold justice.
Indeed, God ordained civil government, Edwards asserts in his The End for Which God Created the World, for the well-being or good of man. Edwards cited Mark 2 on the matter in which Jesus tells the Pharisees that the Sabbath, the seventh day of rest during the week, was created by God not for its own sake but for man’s well-being: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” From this verse, Edwards similarly saw that God created things like civil government to protect and defend the people, not to become an unfitting burden on the people. Government was created to serve and protect man; man was not created to serve the government for its own sake. The ultimate outcome of just government, Edwards believed, is that it allows man an opportunity to fulfill his God-given purpose—to have a relationship with God.
Incidentally, God also created just civil government, Edwards believed, to reflect and remind people of God’s heavenly government to come in the afterlife. Visible, just governments exemplify in some ways God’s heavenly rule of just rewards and happiness for the righteous along with punishments and misery for the unrighteous. Ecclesiastes 3, for example, says that “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked.” The day of God’s judgment, says Edwards in The End, will be “the time appointed for the highest exercises of God’s authority as moral governor of the world…and the consummation of God’s moral government with respect to all His subjects.” Civil government, therefore, gives man a concrete illustration to understand God’s heavenly justice.
In writing and teaching about God’s purpose for civil government, Edwards likely helped to shape early Americans’ views on the role of government in society prior to the founding of the new nation of the United States.
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
Source: Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.
1. The Principle of Popular Sovereignty – Consent of the Governed
2. The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s
3. Great Awakening Emerges in Early America – Impacting Religion, Society, Politics
4. Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Great Awakening
5. George Whitefield: Evangelist of the Great Awakening
6. Great Awakening Principle: The Dignity of the Human Being
7. Great Awakening Principle: All Men Equal Before God
8. Great Awakening Principle: “Born Again” Personal Spiritual Conversion
9. Great Awakening Principle: The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
10. Great Awakening Principle: The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
11. Great Awakening Principle: Happiness
12. Great Awakening Principle: Purpose for Just Civil Government
13. Great Awakening Effects on American Religion: A New Church Landscape
14. Great Awakening Effects on Society: Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, Gospel
15. Great Awakening Effects on American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 5, Part 1, Activity 9: Making a Personal Connection to the Awakening, p. 181. MS-HS.
Making a Personal Connection to the Awakening…
Purpose/Objective: Students make a personal connection to the Great Awakening by reflecting on their personal, social, and civic lives and on their views and perspectives regarding our nation’s moral roots.
1) Chapter 5 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections Introduction, 5.1-5.10.
2) Related blogs/videos (see above).
Journal/Reflective Writing or Short-Paragraph Answers:
Students write on/answer the following questions:
1. Describe a period in your personal life when you experienced a new insight or change of heart or mind with regard to an important issue or approach in your life. How did this experience affect your life?
2. Describe the moral, cultural, social, and/or political condition of our nation today as you see it.
3. How might a religious revival today help our nation morally, culturally, socially, and politically? What do you think would be the effects of a movement like the Great Awakening in our nation today?
4. What do you believe is the contribution of leaders who have studied the Bible to our nation?
5. In light of this discussion, what are some qualities of good citizens of our nation? What might you do to become a better citizen and help others do the same?
6. How might you help the nation to uphold, renew, or return to its Bible-based, moral roots?
The teacher can use questions to encourage students to reflect on ways in which the ideas studied in the unit relate to their own lives and to American society today. This activity may be used with Think-Aloud strategy. (These questions are also found in Chapter 5 of the Miracle of America sourcebook, p. 149.)
To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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