It is the 8th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1725.
Today we travel to colonial America, Massachusetts, to examine the transition from theocratic settlements to semi-democratic colonies with an established church.
Let me break down what that means:
The earliest colonies made pacts based on their common faith and their stated mission to establish a place for godly men and women in the North American “wilderness.” As the colonies grew, they would have to answer questions about church government and the government in general. And usually, questions about church government would lead to questions about civil government.
In 1648 the Cambridge Platform set out the model for New England churches. This document was put together by John Cotton and Richard Mather… those names might sound familiar as a descendant of theirs is named Cotton Mather. Cotton Mather was a Presbyterian who opposed this earlier Cambridge Platform. The Cambridge Platform established the Westminster Confession of Faith as the theological standard for the church but differed with it on church polity. The early New England churches would be congregational. That is, local congregations make church government decisions. Any association or denomination is strictly voluntary, and any singular authority is to be held in check.
As fellows such as Cotton Mather would later commend Presbyterian polity (that is, churches that submit to a local presbytery and governing body), the Cambridge Platform would need a new defense. And this is where we meet John Wise. His biography is standard, born to English parents in Massachusetts. He attended Harvard College and was called to a church in Ipswich, where he remained for his entire career. He gained a little notoriety when he led a resistance against British taxation prior to 1689. He was also tangentially involved with both the Salem Witch Trials and the Small Pox Inoculation controversy. But he made his mark with his 1717 work “A Vindication of the Government of New England Churches.” This work was a refutation of Cotton Mather’s call for a Presbyterian hierarchy. And it was the way Wise made his arguments that made people take notice. He wasn’t just using Scripture and the church fathers but also what he called “the light of nature.” His trust in the rational faculties of humankind marks a critical inflection point in the transition between Puritan colonial thought and Enlightenment colonial thought. Wise argued for a mixed form of church government with a tip of the hat to Aristotle and the liberal Whig tradition in England. He stated that neither God nor nature gave us evidence for a specific kind of government. Thus our rational capabilities could coalesce around a democratic process to decide what is best for the local body.
John Wise has been hailed by many as an early proponent of the kind of liberal democracy envisioned by later enlightenment thinkers. He has been hailed as a forerunner to the declaration of Independence, although this is a stretch. He was no Thomas Jefferson, but the democratic republic was still half a century away. John Wise represents a step away from the earliest settlers and a step towards the American experiment. Born in 1652, John Wise, the “Colonial Democrat,” died on this, the 8th of April in 1725. He was 73 years old
We continue this last month of the second season with my favorite readings from the first two years of this show. Today we hear from Edward Shilito. This is his “Jesus of the Scars.”
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite W(h)igs include Lord Shaftesbury, Henry Clay, and the one worn by Tom Hulse in Amadeus. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who apologizes for that very obscure reference. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.