Subject: Dan Blather vs. the Puritan Sermon
Date: 04 Jan 1998 03:24:18 EST

Most secular historians refuse to even discuss the issues that dominated America's past. Most secular humanist history texts cannot possibly give an accurate picture of pre-Revolutionary American history because they simply don't understand the heart and soul of America. As Paul says, "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14).  It is possible to get a picture of the religious beliefs of modern-day America by looking at a few thousand hours of Television. It is impossible to get a picture of colonial America without listening to a few thousand hours of Calvinistic sermons.

Fortunately, Harry S. Stout, Professor of American Religious History at Yale University, did exactly that, spending nine years reading more than 2,000 sermons from before 1800. His conclusions were published by the Oxford University Press in 1986 (The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the topical range and social influence of the New England Sermon was so powerful in shaping cultural values, meanings, and a sense of corporate purpose that even the clout of Oprah Winfrey and Aaron Spelling pales in comparison.

Unlike modern mass media, the sermon stood alone in local New England contexts as the only regular (at least weekly) medium of public communication. As a channel of information, it combined religious, educational, and journalistic functions, and supplied all the key terms necessary to understand existence in this world and the next. As the only event in public assembly that regularly brought the entire community together, it also represented the central ritual of social order and control. Seldom, if ever before, did so many people hear the same message of purpose and direction over so long a period of time as did the New England 'Puritans.'

The seventeenth-century founders of New England set out to create a unique and self-perpetuating 'people of the Word,' and by extending the sermon to all significant facts of life -- social and political, as well as religious -- they achieved exactly that. Throughout the colonial era the regular 'planting' of churches in most towns kept pace with the growth of the population so that by the time of the Revolution there were 720 Congregational churches in New England. In like manner the number of college-educated, ordained ministers grew with the population, resulting in a constant ratio of preachers to the general population that was among the lowest --if not the lowest -- in the Protestant world.

Twice on Sunday and often once during the week, every minister in New England delivered sermons lasting between one and two hours in length. Collectively over the entire span of the colonial period, sermons totaled over 5,000,000 separate messages in a society whose population never exceeded 500,000 and whose principal city never grew beyond 17,000. The average weekly churchgoer in New England (and there were far more church-goers than church members) listened to something like 7,000 sermons in a lifetime, totaling somewhere around 15,000 hours of concentrated listening. These striking statistics become even more significant when it is recalled that until the last decade of the colonial era there were at the local level few, if any, competing public speakers offering alternative messages. For all intents and purposes, the sermon was the only regular voice of authority.

Stout says that the implications of the power of the preached Word are especially important for understanding the "meaning of America" as it unfolded in the Revolutionary era. By 1776, Congregational ministers were preaching over 2,000 discourses weekly and publishing them at an unprecedented rate that outnumbered secular pamphlets from all the colonies by a ratio of more than four-to-one. New Englanders, fed by the sermons they heard,

directed the flow of inter-colonial communications in the Revolutionary era so thoroughly that in almost all interchanges they were the "exporters" of information that other colonies received. In local oratory, the message audiences heard most frequently was that the struggle with Parliament involved far more than the questions of home rule or even, for that matter, who should rule at home; the issues involved nothing less than the preservation of Sola Scriptura and New England's privileged position at the center of redemptive history.

Indeed, Stout points out that the more one reads these sermons

the more one finds unsatisfactory the suggestion that ideas of secular "republicanism," "civil millennialism," or class conscious "popular ideology" were the primary ideological triggers of radical resistance and violence in the Revolution.

Instead, he says, in Revolutionary New England,

ministers continued to monopolize public communications, and the terms they most often employed to justify resistance and to instill hope emanated from the Scriptures and from New England's enduring identity as an embattled people of the Word who were commissioned to uphold a sacred and exclusive covenant between themselves and God. The idea of a national covenant supplied the "liberties" New Englanders would die protecting, as well as the "conditions" that promised deliverance and victory over all enemies. It also provided the innermost impulsion toward radical thought and violent resistance to British "tyranny" in New England.

Covenanted peoples like those of ancient Israel and New England were the hub around which sacred (i.e., real) history revolved. Such peoples might be ignored or reviled by the world and figure insignificantly in the great empires of profane history, but viewed through the sacred lens of providential history they were seen as God's special instruments entrusted with the task of preparing the way for Messianic deliverance. As Israel witnessed to God's active involvement with nations in ancient times and brought forth the Christ, so New England's experience confirmed God's continuing involvement with nations that would persist until Christ's return to earth, when history itself would cease and be swallowed up in eternity.

Within this historical covenant perspective, resistance to England was only secondarily about constitutional rights and political liberties. Ultimately, resistance became necessary the minute England declared the colonies' duty of "unlimited submission" in "all cases whatsoever" and, in doing so, set itself alongside God's Word as a competing sovereign. Such demands were "tyrannical” and left New Englanders no choice but to resist unto death or forfeit their identity as s covenant people. As explained from the pulpit, New Englanders' revolution was first and foremost a battle to preserve their historic identity and unique Messianic destiny.

Once we recognize and acknowledge the enduring hold of concepts like the covenant, Sola Scriptura, and providential mission on pulpit discourse and the public imagination, it is easier to understand the ease with which most New Englanders accepted the Revolution and its republican principles . . . . New Englanders . . . believed that in 1776 they were the same people of the Word that they had been in 1630, and their revolution was less a rejection than a fulfillment of the founders' dream of creating a holy nation subject in every regard to the claim of God's Word.

Even those who did not believe the truth of the Bible played upon this theme. Thus Franklin and Jefferson, whatever your civics teacher told you they secretly believed about the reality of Biblical miracles, played on the widespread beliefs of the colonial consensus. On the same day that Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, it appointed John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin to draft a national seal. Franklin proposed:

Moses lifting up his wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh in his chariot overwhelmed with the waters. This Motto: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."

Jefferson proposed:

The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

(From letter to Abigail from John Adams, Aug 16, 1776)

On July 8th, the Declaration had its first public reading (on the steps of Independence Hall), and then the Liberty Bell was rung, in obedience to the Bible inscription emblazoned on its side:

Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. Leviticus 25:10

Sure doesn't sound like the mottoes of a secular nation to me.


Kevin C.

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and sit under their Vine & Fig Tree.
Micah 4:1-7

Additional Resources:

A Guide to the Study of
the United States of America:

Representative Books
Reflecting the Development of American Life and Thought

Prepared under the Direction of Roy P. Basler
By Donald H. Mugridge and Blanche P. McCrum




B. Period Histories

5406. Humphrey, Edward F. Nationalism and religion in America, 1774–1789. Boston, Chipman Law Pub. Co., 1924. 536 p. 24–12770 BR520.H75
Bibliography: p. [517]–532.

In the formative years of the American Nation, the period covered in this historical monograph, "the pulpit was the most powerful single force in America for the creation and control of public opinion," and religion, according to the author, was one of the more potent factors in the forging of the United States. Because of the separation of church and state in the new Republic, he points out, most American historians have deliberately omitted the religious element from constitutional history, in spite of its importance, to which both de Tocqueville and Bryce testified. Dr. Humphrey analyzes in a scholarly manner, with many quotations from contemporary sermons and documents, the contributions or the opposition of the various churches to political independence during the Revolution. This forms the first part of his book; the second part treats the independent and national organization of the churches during the Confederation. It also includes chapters on the separation of church and state, the influence of the churches in the Continental Congress and in the making of the Constitution, and their welcome of the new National Government.

George Bancroft: John Adams Enlists the American Pulpit

Russell Kirk: The Calvinist Roots of American Theocracy

The Pulpit of the American Revolution By John Wingate Thornton

Political Sermons of the American Founding Era | Online Library of Liberty

American Political Writing During The Founding Era

Anti-Separation of Church and State Home Page

Christmas Conspiracy


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