The Voluntary Church - I - RR144J17

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Lesson[edit]

Professor: Rushdoony, Dr. R. J.
Title: 17. The Voluntary Church, I
Course: Course - American History to 1865
Subject: Subject:History
Lesson#: 17
Length: 0:45:19
TapeCode: RR144J17
Audio: Chalcedon Archive
Transcript: .docx Format
American History to 1865(4).jpg

This transcript is unedited. It was:
Archived by the Mt. Olive Tape Library
Digitized, transcribed, and published by Christ Rules
Posted by with permission.


This morning we dealt with the Federalist administrations in the early republic, and their efforts to put the economy on a sound basis, and one of the most foremost acts accomplished by Hamilton was to have the Federal government assume total responsibility for all debts contracted during the war, by both the States and the Federal government.

Tonight we shall consider the role of the church and of Christian life in the young republic. We are dealing of course with the history of this country from the War of Independence to about 1864-5, and trying to give a full appreciation of it from a Christian perspective, an important aspect of it, a central aspect as we have already seen, and one normally neglected.

Now, one of the central areas of neglect concerns precisely the role of the church in American life. We have already seen much of what De Tocqueville had to say about the role of Christianity in this country. But the great difference between the rest of the world and the United States was precisely this: In Europe you had the state church pattern.

Now, the state church pattern included Catholic and Protestant churches alike. Thus the Presbyterian Church in Scotland was created by an act of the Scottish government, first a general assembly was created, and then the local churches and presbyteries were added to an already existing general assembly, and a state created structure. Whether the church was Protestant or Catholic, Lutheran or Episcopalian, or Presbyterian or Reformed, in any case it was a state church. As a consequence, authority in the State church came from the top, and went down. Moreover, the financing of a state church was also provided by the state. Appointments to pulpits were acts of state.

From first to last in a state created, a state governed church; the government of the church even though there was a self-governing body such as a general assembly, or a convocation, was still to a great degree dependent upon state support and state approval. As late as 1928 for example in England, The attempt by the church to revise the book of common prayer was prevented by parliament. [00:03:52]

Now as it so happens, I am glad they prevented the...[edit]

Now as it so happens, I am glad they prevented the revision of the book of common prayer, the reason why there was an attempt to revise it was because the book of common prayer had been a creation of the man in the days of Edward the 6th, and it was too protestant and too Calvinistic to suit the high church party in England. But this was not the reason parliament rejected it, they rejected it purely on traditional grounds, and the fact remains that parliament had the power to say yes or no. And in this case though their no was a sound one, still the principal of parliamentary control over the worship of the church is in essence unsound.

Now in the colonies, there were church establishments. In New England the congregational church was usually the established church. In Virginia, which had the most rigid establishment of religion, the Church of England or the Episcopal Church was the established church. [00:05:14]

However, this was not true in every colony, there was...[edit]

However, this was not true in every colony, there was an establishment of Christianity, more than one church could be established, and it was not quite the same, except in Virginia, as the European pattern. And what developed after the war of independence, was a rapid movement in another direction. Now this movement began actually well before the War in 1740. And the movement away from the state church pattern in the United States was part of the Great Awakening. And it created a different pattern, the voluntary church.

Now the voluntary church is precisely the kind of church we know today. A church which exists because a minister goes out perhaps as a missionary, and tries to evangelize people and draw together a congregation, or a group of people come together, hold bible studies, and then decide as they grow to call a pastor. It is a voluntary act on the part of the people; it is not financed by the State.

The motivating force is not the belief of the state that religion, Christianity is good for the people, but on the other hand the desire of the people themselves to know the word of God and to obey it.

Now the State church justifies itself precisely on the grounds that, religion is important for the people. “We believe Christianity to be the true church. Therefore we establish this particular church which we believe to be the best, the truest interpretation of Christianity,” (Catholic, or Lutheran, or Episcopal or Presbyterian or whatever the case may be,) and we require, that taxes, collected from everyone, got to the support of that church, as a means of promoting the common welfare.” [00:07:50]

Now the extreme example of what this kind of principle...[edit]

Now the extreme example of what this kind of principle produces, we have in the Eastern Orthodox churches. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, most intensely it has always been held, that the state must further the Orthodox Churches; the Russian Orthodox Church in the old regime, the Greek Orthodox Church, Serbian, or whatever the case may be. And very emphatically the support has been an intense one, a very conscientious one. The church has been able to gain indeed very dedicated support from the state on the principle that without a Christian foundation the State is in danger.

Now there is a great deal of truth in this position. However what is the danger in this position? Well we can see it in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Both the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Western churches alike hold for example to the Apostle’s Creed, and the Nicene Creed. But there is one word that differs in both Creeds. In the Easter churches and the Western Churches. Does anyone know what that word is? Yes?

Yes. The (butioak?) clause. But another one, in both cases you see I said. A difference in both Creeds, that’s only in the Nicene. No, Paul--- While I deal with this, (put your minds?) in the Foundations of Social Order, It is this: In the Eastern Churches when people recite the Creed in church they say: “We believe.” Yes. “We believe, in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth.” Whereas in all the western churches, earlier all the Latin or Roman Catholic Churches, what you say instead is: “I Believe.”

Now this means a vast world of difference. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches the fundamental principle is that this is the faith of the church, this is the faith of the state. Therefore, you can go to church and recite that creed, “We Believe,” every article of it without believing a word of it. And you’re not a hypocrite. You are simply affirming that this is the faith of say, the Greek Orthodox Church, and of the government which supports that church, and you affirm that it is a good thing, that it is the foundation of social order, that it is what is necessary to hold society together, and to keep people law-abiding. [00:11:10]

But you yourself may doubt every word of it...[edit]

But you yourself may doubt every word of it. Now, because of this attitude in the Eastern Orthodox churches that the faith is something that is held by the Church and by the State, rather than primarily by the individual, the result has been in those churches there has been through the centuries very, very little in the way of any movement of reformation. As a matter of fact the only movement towards reform that came in the Greek Orthodox Church, came as a result of the work of one Patriarch, the head of their church who had as a result of this knowledge of things in the west been converted to Calvinism. And they did everything to undermine and undo his work.

However, what happened in Roman Catholicism? Compared to the Eastern Orthodox churches, Roman Catholicism had a long and a stormy history. Continual tension, continual theological debate and conflict. Why? Because it emphasized the fact that faith is personal. “I believe.” You might be one of a congregation of a thousand in the church, but you had to say: “I believe in God the Father.” And as a result it was in the Western Church that the Reformation took place. [00:12:53]

When the Latin churches began with that attitude towards...[edit]

When the Latin churches began with that attitude towards the faith, “I believe.” At that point the Reformation was inescapable. It put the burden of faith not on the State and on the Church hierarchy, not on the pope no matter how powerful he ever became, the individual believer still had to say: “I Believe.” And this is why you had Vatican too, you may not agree with it, I don’t, but change cannot be stopped in the Roman Catholic Church. Precisely because of that aspect: “I Believe.” Everything in their attitude towards the Creed from the very beginning has militated against, “Well the pope has spoken, and therefore that is it.” The most loyal Catholic, and they affirm it, but he still also has at the same time that aspect which has led to Protestantism, “I Believe. My faith is basic, I must believe.” [00:14:06]

Now, this which the Latin Churches had which the Reformation...[edit]

Now, this which the Latin Churches had which the Reformation then carried further, came to its full fruition in the voluntary Church which developed after 1740 in America. It was a product of the work of Whitfield, and of Jonathan Edwards, then of Bellamy and Hopkins, and others. In the voluntary church, not only was it dependent upon the individual believer saying, “I believe,” But upon the individual believer also saying: “’I will pay.” You see. No longer state supported. The individual believer in his I believe was coming down to I will pay, I will support, I will make sure that the church exists.

The expectation of the European travelers to America for generations after, for the first century or century and a half almost, after 1740, was that Christianity in the United States would wither away. Why? Because of this principal of the voluntary church. They felt that it was suicidal. As we saw, De Tocqueville recognized that nowhere else in the world was Christianity stronger than in the United States. Moreover most travelers as they looked at the voluntary church situation in the United States paid the most attention to the extravagances that developed, some of the wild manifestations, some of the cults and the sects that arose.

And of course this is still done today. If a European comes to this country and goes back after a year or two to write about the churches of America, he is very likely to write about or talk about the Rattlesnake cult, and one or two far out groups he may have heard about in California, to demonstrate to people what a horrible and a ridiculous mess American Religious life is because of this voluntary principle. [00:17:02]

To this day it is offensive to countless peoples in...[edit]

To this day it is offensive to countless peoples in Europe. It seems to them to be the essence of Anarchy. As a result the tendency to look for the freakish is very pronounced in foreigners. In actuality, when you add up all the church memberships in the United States, and we have had religious censuses taken by the government up until recent years and still take by religious agencies, the total number of people in these freakish cults is so insignificant that it is hardly anything. And yet there’s a great deal of attention paid to them, precisely because there is still lingering in the backgrounds of people in this country who don’t understand what this country means even though they have been born here, that there is something wrong with this voluntary principle.

This voluntary principle however was not without its problems. Some of the problems have not been settled yet. Whenever the church makes and advance into a new area, it also has to face new problems. If you move say from Virginia to California, You face new problems in a different community, you face certain advantages in the move but also problems. So it was as the churches moved from the State Church concept to a voluntary church concept, it meant a tremendous growth, a tremendous advantage, it gave the United States an edge over the world precisely because of this factor, it led to the tremendous burst of Christian missionary activity all over the world, an unparalleled boom, it led to a more rapid growth of Christian Faith than had previously existed. We will return to that again, on another evening. [00:19:35]

But it also created some theological problems...[edit]

But it also created some theological problems. Here is one problem, a very serious one. Is the church given, or is it man’s creation? Is it God’s doing, or is it man’s doing? Now in a sense under the voluntary church principle it is very easy for men to feel that the church is their creation. After all, they brought the church together, they put up the building, they looked around, called a pastor, and their attitude can be very definitely that: “I made this church.” They can turn it into man’s creation.

There is an actual case of one very wealthy Texan in the last century who felt there should be a church in the community of his particular denomination, and he put up all the money for it. It was built according to his specifications. When a visitor came to see him on one occasion and they went into town, he asked his host: “Do you belong to the church?” and this wealthy cattle baron let out a string of cusswords and said: “Belong to it? It belongs to me!” now you see the distinction there. And this has been the danger, and we will study on another occasion the extent to which this danger went. It is a very real problem in American life today. The voluntary principle has led to the feeling that, the church is “My church” Not Christ’s church. And therefore “I set the terms of my giving, and of my obedience, and of my faithfulness.” [00:22:04]

Mr.Thoburn was telling me, I believe it was last night; about how many miles was it to that church when you were a student in seminary? Yes, the four churches that as a student he and someone else I believe had to take care of. And they were not being given anything really to take care of their expenses for getting there. And so it was suggested to them that they buy a used car, for Mr.Thoburn and this other young man the seminary student to get to the churches. And the attitude was, “Well, let them get bikes.” You see the arrogance that the voluntary church principle can lead to. Instead of the sovereignty of God it becomes the sovereignty of man, under this principle. Now we are going to go as I say, into that on another occasion.

But the American weakness as a result of the voluntary church principle has been to reduce the church to a human institution. To give you an example of this, the name Henry Ward Beecher is familiar to all of you. He was at the time of the Civil war one of the most famous of American Preachers, Plymouth Church in Brookland was his pulpit. Vast crowds came out to hear him every Sunday.

Now a curious thing about the history of Henry Ward Beecher is that at various times he had been in his career a Calvinist, something of an Arminian, and a liberal. Now what accounted for this? Well first of all to have that kind of a change in a man means that your convictions are not very strong. But there was something in this situation that also guided these changes. Whereas much earlier the minister had been a very strong figure, and in the Presbyterian Church by and large he continued to be, and in the Episcopal Church. Increasingly it was the tendency to treat the minister as the hired hand. The minister was called in terms of what he could do for your image in the community. He was hired in terms of his looks, of his voice, and how he was in dealing with the ladies of the church, if he made a good impression on them so that woman who are hard workers in any church would be ready to work for the pastor. [00:25:22]

On top of that it went a step further...[edit]

On top of that it went a step further. Those days there was a great deal of expansion in the cities, cities were growing by leaps and bounds, and real estate promoters were putting up subdivisions at a far more rapid rate than they are now, vast subdivisions. One aspect of the subdivision, because people in those days were by and large much more church oriented than they are today, was to put up a church. So a real estate promoter would not only build, let us say, a huge subdivision of hundreds upon hundreds of homes, but he would also build a church at his own expense. And he would decide what kind of people he was going to cater to when he began that project. So that you would look at the kind housing he would put up, and he would say: “This is going to be a good Baptist neighborhood.” Or, “This is going to be a rather exclusive neighborhood, and these will be well-to-do Congregationalists. And he would build a church accordingly.

And then he would call as a minister, at a very large salary, someone who could be a spellbinder, someone who had a name. So that people would move into that subdivision to hear the very famous Reverend Doctor so and so. Now this is how Henry Ward Beecher for example was called to Plymouth pulpit in Brookland. I believe he was called from Cincinnati. He was a tremendous asset; he had a great reputation as a pulpiteer who could pack the house any night of the week. And he was fully worth his while. Of course, after the proceeds had paid for the church, the real estate man could turn it over the denomination that was involved. But meanwhile a good pulpiteer like Henry Ward Beecher could sell every house in that subdivision and help him put up half a dozen others around there. [00:27:48]

Now this truly was a means of debasing the church,...[edit]

Now this truly was a means of debasing the church, and of debasing the ministers. It meant you did have men like Henry Ward Beecher, who were quite ready to promote any kind of theology or cause that was going to make them popular, and guarantee them a good audience and a good salary. It is interesting to note that Beecher was involved in the suit after the war, by Tilden, for ostensibly having been involved with Tilden’s wife. And while he was acquitted as I recall because the evidence wasn’t quite conclusive, it was on a technical ground that he was acquitted and everything pointed to his guilt; quite a bit did which does not say anything for Tilden who was pretty much a scoundrel. But it didn’t hurt the attendance of the church, it actually helped it. Why? He was a big box office attraction. And his appeal with the ladies was if anything enhanced. The result you see was very detrimental to religion as a whole.

Now in smaller towns and in poorer communities the effect of this was deadly too, and this has lingered to this day in many areas, the minister was the hired hand who was expected to be poorer than everyone else in the congregation. The manse was furnished with hand-me-down furniture and the minister and his family were expected to be dressed in hand-me-down clothing, and be very grateful for it. And if they didn’t fall all over the congregation in saying “Thankyou, thankyou,” for hand-me-down clothing that your children and your sister’s children had worn, and you and your sister and you and your brother had worn, why they were very ungrateful. This kind of thing was very routine; in fact not too many years ago I can recall a number of instances of this kind of thing still prevailing in many smaller towns. [00:30:29]

Some of the worst examples of this were in Methodist...[edit]

Some of the worst examples of this were in Methodist churches. Again you see, the voluntary principle did lead to some very ugly consequences, as well as to some very marvelous ones. De Tocqueville however pointed out on the good side, that the basic principle of American Social organization is the voluntary association. And we saw previously the tremendous power of the voluntary associations, tithe agencies, groups to establish Christian school, groups to establish missionaries, groups to deal with the slum dwellers and bring religion to them, groups to teach immigrants English, and so on.

These voluntary associations, a product of this voluntary church principle, were De Tocqueville said the real government of the United States.

But, the element of being voluntary made this country both a nation of joiners, and a nation of resigners. People were ready to leave an organization, a tithe association, or a church, over a very little tiff or huff. Not over a fundamental matter of the faith, but over a very small and insignificant matter. It is a very significant fact that in the past century there have been very few church divisions over a basic matter of the faith. And most of them have been insignificant, small groups. For example a small group, Protestant Reformed under Hoeksema that broke away from the Christian Reformed Church, a very tiny group of evangelical Methodists that broke away from the Methodist church, a very small group of orthodox Presbyterians and Bible Presbyterians that broke away from the old Presbyterian church USA, but the only split of any consequence in terms of faith is the one which is just now taking place in the southern Presbyterian Church, which has led to the creation of Vanguard Presbytery and the national Presbyterian Church just organized this last week. And there you have, although perhaps only one out of ten having left from the southern Presbyterian church, %40 of the giving of the church. [00:33:41]

Now this is the first time this has happened...[edit]

Now this is the first time this has happened. I think it’s a very, very hopeful sign, that again faith is becoming important, as a reason for leaving the church. But by and large, if you were to take a census of people who have left a particular congregation all over the United States in the last ten years, in the majority of cases they left because the minister hurt their feelings by telling them something was wrong with them, which wasn’t true--- or they quarreled with Mrs. So-and-so at the lady’s guild, or their children didn’t get along well, or some other trifling reason.

So, the voluntary principle also led to arrogance, to a feeling of contempt to that which is holy, and of arrogating to the individual more authority in religion than he has.

On the other hand, voluntarism as a principle has altered American life. In this country voluntarism is a principle in politics, in culture, in every area of life. Things happen from the grass roots, things are not handed down from above. It is what appeal to the feeble, not what is handed to them in their name as good for them. For example, we have increasingly a democracy here, even though we have the form of a Republic. There is democracy in the form of monarchy in Sweden. And yet to a very great extent in Sweden, the Aristocracy totally controls everything there, so that you might very well say that Sweden today is still controlled by the lords, the Aristocrats, just as it was a hundred years ago. Because there is not that spirit of voluntarism, of people at the lower level feeling that they have the right to initiate, they follow. But the Swedes who have come to this country are different, because they pick up the American principle. [00:36:40]

And the result is that while there is one of the lowest...[edit]

And the result is that while there is one of the lowest ratios of church going in Sweden, of almost any so called Christian country in Europe, there is a very high ratio of church going among the Swedish people of this country. The voluntaristic principle has been at work here. And the Swedish immigrants to this country created any number of denominations to express their faith, their theology, and became very dedicated supporters of those churches.

Moreover, another aspect of the voluntaristic principle that we see today is precisely what we witness right here in Christian School. The Christian School Movement as we know it, virtually does not exist in European Countries. They are used to the idea of a state school, or a church controlled or paraochial school, something handed from the top down. And in this country there has been a revolution in education since 1950, because of the voluntaristic principle. At that time there were very few Christian schools. The Parochial schools were just the Catholic, the Christian Reformed and the Lutheran for the most part. There has been a tremendous decline of Catholic, parochial schools. As a matter of fact for a good deal of the 60’s, the latter half of the 60s in particular, the Catholic churches, the Bishops in this country were closing down schools at the rate of at least 200 a year, and sometimes as many as 300 a year. [00:38:58]

So the parochial school movement was fading...[edit]

So the parochial school movement was fading. The Private school movement has faltered badly. But the Christian School movement, both parent teacher association and free enterprise schools have sky-rocketed. It has become so important that papers like the Los Angeles Times and magazines like US News, and World Report, have given a great deal of space to this tremendous movement, an example of the ability of voluntarism to see a problem and to move in and do something about it. Now all of this stems from the fact that the great awakening in 1740, started a tremendous change in the United States.

For example, to this day much of Germany is Lutheran, and much of it Catholic, England is Episcopal, and this marks and stamps the country and there is very little religious change, even though vast numbers do not attend church. It still retains the stamp of that church, which is the state church, which has official sanction. In this country however because of the voluntaristic principle, the religious scene changes as the faith of the people changes. Thus for a long time, the Puritan, the Calvinistic Principle predominated in this country. Then it was followed by the Arminian and a Baptistic governmental in the church structure principle, Congregational Baptistic type of structure, being very powerful. Baptist churches swept vast areas of the country such as the south, and many parts of the mid-west. Then however you had the rise of Unitarianism, and the practical theology of the United States became very extensively Unitarian. And since then to a large extent, in our life time, the practical theology of the United States has been the social gospel. [00:41:47]

We must in fact say a good word at this point for the...[edit]

We must in fact say a good word at this point for the social gospel. I don’t believe in it, I regard it as heretical, but the fact remains you see, that our country now is acting on faith, on principle. The European Countries are acting in terms of pragmatic politics, to a very great extent. But here it is necessary for politicians to reflect the faith of the people, which is predominately social gospel. The average American does believe in the social gospel, whether he likes it or not.

Let me give you a practical example of that. A friend of mine was for a time the staff member of one of the major scientific institutions of the United States, a graduate school, a scientific institute, the name of which you would all recognize. [Tape skips?] Anything and everything these people were doing. Why? Because they felt at as a decent person, as any kind of a religious person with any decent right for things that were ultimate, this is what they should believe. So they were affirming something in spite of themselves. It was a great act of faith on their part, misguided faith but all the same faith. Now in a European context what a politician would do, would be to affirm something publically out of pure cynicism because that would be what was required of him. He wouldn’t feel that there was any obligation you see to ground his beliefs in terms of a religious faith.

But every inaugural speech invokes the name of God, it invokes faith; it appeals to the basic social gospel faith of the average American. Because the voluntaristic principle you see does have deep roots in what people believe. And this is what the average American believes, he does not always like what he believes, but he is convinces that this is it, and therefore he confirms it in spite of himself.

Well, are there any questions now before we take a 5 minute recess? If not we’ll take a break for about 5 minutes. [00:45:06]