George Duffield asks, "Who should be our rulers?"

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When a committee headed by Benjamin Franklin was formed to prepare a Constitution for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1776, Bishop William White was called upon to lead in prayer, while Presbyterian minister (also chaplain to the Continental Congress) George Duffield II (1732-1790) drafted an essay outlining Biblical principles for the selection of civil magistrates to aid in the work. He added brief remarks to the essay in 1787, but it was not published until his grandson, George Duffield V (1818-1888), included it in his The God of Our Fathers: An Historical Sermon (1861).

The title — Who Should Be Our Rulers? — is immediately expanded upon with this question:

Query. — May a community of professing Christians, of right require any profession of the Christian faith of those appointed to bear rule among them, previous to their admission to office, or make a profession of Christianity, a suspending term of their being admitted to any of the principal offices in the state?

Answering in the affirmative, Duffield offers seven reasons to explain.

1. Officers in the State are to be considered as the servants of the public, employed by the Body, to perform certain services for them, and for which service, they receive that reward or hire, which the community agree to give; though officers are the servants of the State, it is yet the highest honor the State can confer on any of its members, to repose confidence in them, to transact for them the public concerns.

2. No man, or set of men, has any natural right to any office in the State, more than he has a natural right to oblige or demand his neighbor to hire him to perform any service he has to do, and consequently none of his natural rights are in fringed — if the community think proper not to employ him, more than the farmer infringes on the natural rights of the laborer, when he chooses to employ another rather than him.

3. Every community has an undoubted right to choose whom they will employ, to perform any service for them, equally as the farmer has, to choose whom he will employ to perform any labor for him. And as they have a right to choose as they please, whom they will employ — So,

4. They have for the same reason, an equal right to make such regulations as they see proper, respecting the persons they will agree to employ in their service, so that these regulations infringe on no man's natural right, nor inflict any penalty on those they may not think proper to employ.

5. For a society of professing Christians, to agree to employ none in any of their principal offices of service in the State, but such as profess Christianity, appears to be no more than a proper mark of respect paid to themselves, as a body, and to the Christian religion they profess, and cannot therefore, in that point of view be condemned. Whereas, on the other hand, to act a contrary part, must appear in the eyes of the far greater part of the community, treating Christianity with a degree of neglect, and has a direct tendency to sink it lower in the public esteem, and induce many through the influence, a connection of ideas has on the mind of man, to hold it on a par with Infidelity, in other respects as well, also, as in that wherein they would thus see it placed by the Constitution of their government.

6. Good morals are essentially necessary to the health and prosperity of the State. Whatever measure therefore, appears best adapted to preserve and promote the morals of the state ought to be embraced. Christianity is much better calculated to preserve and pro mote good morals than infidelity; as much therefore, as Christianity is better calculated for this great essential purpose, so much more advisable and prudent it is, to have Christian magistrates and officers, rather than infidels, especially when we consider,

7. The experience of all ages has confirmed the observation, that the principles and practice of superiors, and especially of rulers, have great influence on those of inferior rank; as in the history of the Jews; the complexion of the people at large, as either moral or profane, may generally be known by adverting to the character of the rulers that were over them, and it is ever to be expected, that every man will endeavour according to his opportunities for that purpose, to promote the sentiments he himself has embraced, and induce others to join him in practice.

These reasons being given, our author surveys some of the Scriptures that have bearing on how rulers should rule and how they should be selected. After highlighting Proverbs 14:34 (“Righteousness exalteth a nation…”), the Scriptural characteristics of a king (chief magistrate) given in Deuteronomy 17 are identified:

1st. He is to be of their Religion, that is a Jew, incorporated in that body and professing the Jewish Religion, no matter of what tribe or order, save only that none of the tribe of Levi, are to be chosen. This is all the exception made, and it is a good exception, still, nor will any of the clerical order desire it, unless they have forgotten the apostolic injunction, "Give thyself wholly to these things," 1 Tim. 4:15.

2d. He is to study the word of God, for though the expression, (Deut. 17:18,) has a special reference to the judicial law of that people, it cannot with propriety be restricted to that. It was the whole law which was with the priests and Levites, but this was the whole of the Divine Revelation, is still of excellent use to form even the highest officers of the State, for a faithful discharge of their trust to the commonwealth as well as to form the individual for usefulness here and glory hereafter.

3d. He was to learn to fear the Lord — but how is this most likely to be obtained to have rulers that are taught to fear God? Is it by choosing Infidels or by choosing Christians?

4th. He was to set an example to the people — and this example was certainly not for nothing, but that it might have influence; it was therefore as much the people's duty to observe and follow the example of their rulers, as it was theirs to set it. But what example shall we expect from Infidels? Are they likely to walk in the law of the Lord? &c, or ought we to choose examples of infidelity to set before us and our children to copy after?

More Scriptures follow:

A second direction from the sacred pages, 2 Samuel 23, "He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God." This is an express command of God, and delivered in terms so general, as render it impossible to be restricted to the Jews, but equally designed for us as any other portion of Sacred Writ. And will any say that an Infidel answers to this character, or is likely to rule in the fear of God? The 101st Psalm is generally understood as descriptive of those the Psalmist, by divine direction, was determined to employ in the service of the State; and such are characterized, v. 6, by walking in the perfect way. But is it possible to suppose infidelity can be that "perfect way?" Or if the Psalm should be understood of domestic servants, will not the argument hold much stronger with respect to those who are to serve the State?

In Isaiah 49:23, it is promised among the singular blessings that shall attend Christian States in the day of their greatest prosperity, that their rulers shall be "nursing fathers," &c, to the Church of Christ. But are Infidels likely to be these nursing fathers? Or when we know God generally accomplishes ends in the way of means adapted to these ends, shall we use the means that are most directly opposed to it, in order to obtain the so valuable and desirable ends?

He also considers several objections in favor of complete separation of church or state, that is, things civil and things religious. This leads to a discussion of the place of the Sabbath, which is part of the moral law of God.

It is said the Church and State ought to be kept entirely separate, and no connection admitted between things civil and religious, as they have no connection in nature, and many mischiefs have flowed from blending them together. If this be so, then great care must be taken to establish nothing of morality, for this is one grand essential constituent of religion, which consists in loving God supremely and our neighbors as ourselves; doing to all men as we would wish them in like circumstances to do to us. If any say the good of society requires this, I answer this is only giving up the position, and saying that though civil and religious things are to be kept entirely apart, they are yet in many things so inseparably connected that it is impossible to separate them one from the other. If this be so, we can then have no Sabbath established in any State, however composed entirely of professing Christians, unless it be somewhat of a political Sabbath, and entirely dissimilar to the word of God, for as the observation of a Sabbath is a part, and that a very material and foundation part of true Religion — for any State, therefore, to establish the observation of a Sabbath, is so far to blend Religion with their civil constitution; which, according to the above position, ought by no means to be done, but the two be kept entirely separate from each other. Nay, further, as the observation of a Sabbath is a part of revealed religion, and depends entirely on the divine authority of that revelation which enjoins it, we cannot establish the observation of a Sabbath without previously admitting, and equally establishing the divine authority of that revelation on which the Sabbath depends. We must, therefore, inevitably either admit and establish in our civil constitution the divine authority of the Scriptures, or we must utterly reject the Sabbath from amongst us, save as any one may choose of his own accord to observe the day. There is no alternative in the case. Admit, then, the Sabbath rejected, as on the above position it absolutely must be, and no one obliged to observe it, I leave it to any man who has observed how difficult it is with all the care that can be taken to have a Sabbath observed, I leave it to him to judge what our situation in a few years will be. Whether we shall be likely to have a Sabbath among us at all, but in this respect be purely heathen, and the Sabbath entirely gone, though the wisest and best of men in every age have esteemed the observation of the Sabbath of essential use to promote not only piety towards God, but morality toward men, and the great good of society; and God himself laid it down as a first grand foundation principle in the Jewish constitution, instantly after bringing them forth out of Egypt. The truth of the case is, it is impossible to run a line of distinction between things civil and religious, so as to separate the one from the other, in any civilized State. They are in many respects what God and nature have joined together, and man may not put asunder.

Duffield concludes with this thought:

I shall close my remarks on this subject at present with observing, old customs and institutions with which we have long been acquainted are like old friends, whom we shall not hastily cast off, without weighty reasons urging thereto. We have tried now for near a century an institution, the same in sub stance with that above pleaded for, formed by the celebrated founder of this State. No inconvenience has ever arisen from it. It has obtained universal esteem, is interwoven into our earliest thought of the matter, and grown up with our judgment; under this the people will feel themselves contented and happy; whether the case will be the same with the proposed alteration is greatly to be questioned, or rather the negative is certain, and the experiment, if made, will but too probably in its consequences verify in the State of Pennsylvania the Prophet Hosea's remark, (8:3-4) — "Israel hath cast off the thing which is good, they have set up rulers but not by Me."

Eleven years later, in 1787, also in Philadelphia while the national Constitutional Convention performing its work, Duffield remained of the same opinion:

The above piece was written at the time of forming the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania, and though I wish to exercise all the charity I can for all mankind, and abhor the idea of subjecting any person to any, even the least injury on account of his religious sentiments or tenets in things pertaining to another world, so that he behave himself as a good citizen, yet, on a calm review of the case, at this distance of time, I cannot but think the arguments here adduced have weight, and that, on the whole, it is the safest line of conduct. - Philadelphia, Sept. 5th, 1787

We note that the 1776 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contains but one religious test for public office. Elected state representatives were required to swear to the public before they could be seated in the general assembly:

I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

A similar provision has been retained in each of the following (1790, 1838, 1874 and 1968) governing constitutions of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:

No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

Perhaps Duffield’s essay — authored for the benefit of the original Pennsylvania constitutional drafting committee and essentially affirming that religion is a necessary component of a good civil magistrate — provides us with a better understanding for the retention of this religious test for public office that Pennsylvania has kept even until the present day (although disannulled by a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision). Read the rest of this remarkable essay here to see what, if anything, Duffield has to say to the 21st century Christian citizen and civil ruler.

A critique of the U.S. Constitution by two 19th century PCUSA ministers

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While the U.S. Constitution was largely approved of by the Presbyterian Church of the 18th and 19th centuries (it is perhaps not a coincidence that the Synod of Philadelphia and New York, meeting in Philadelphia at the same time the Constitution Convention was meeting in the same city in May 1787, proposed amendments to the Westminster Confession of Faith, including to the chapter on the Civil Magistrate, which were approved of in 1788), there were some notable Presbyterian critics of our national charter.

Most famous was RPCNA pastor James Renwick Willson, who was burned in effigy in Albany, New York for the preaching and publication of his sermon “Prince Messiah's Claims to Dominion Over All Governments; and the Disregard of His Authority by the United States, in the Federal Constitution” (1832). Many objected to his argument that Christ and His law should be recognized in the U.S. Constitution, and others objected to his questioning whether George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were in fact Christian.

But Willson and the RPCNA generally were not alone in their concerns about the most fundamental principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution.

George Duffield IV (1794-1868) was a PCUSA pastor who preached an 1820 sermon titled "Judgment and Mercy: A Sermon, Delivered...On the Day of 'Humiliation, Thanksgiving, and Prayer.'" In this sermon he identified mercies granted by God to the United States, as well as particular national sins which incurred God's judgments. His grandfather, by the way, was a chaplain for the Continental Congress.

There is one [sin] strictly national, that commenced in the adoption of the federal constitution, which is the want of an acknowledgement in it of a Supreme Being, and of a divine revelation. Although an eminent Judge of a neighbouring state, one of the guardians of that constitution, has happily decided, that it is assumed in it, that the United States are a christian nation, and Christianity the religion of the country, yet, that all important engine of our national prosperity, is, in form at least entirely atheistical. Undoubtedly it were a great sin, to have forgotten God in such an important national instrument, and not to have acknowledged Him in that which forms the very nerves and sinews of the political body. He had led through all the perils of the revolutionary struggle, and had established us in peaceful and plentiful security, and then, to have been forgotten, in the period of prosperity, certainly demerited his rebuke. Therefore hath the voice of his providence proclaimed, and even still it sounds in our ears, I did know thee in the wilderness in the land of great drought. According to their pasture so were they filled; they were filled, and their heart was exalted; therefore have they forgotten me. Therefore I will be unto them as a Lion: as a Leopard by the way will I observe them. Hosea, 13, 5–7.

Another sin for which we suffer, is a want of due respect, to the moral and religious qualifications, of those that are elevated to offices of trust and power. The question is too seldom asked, 'have such the fear of God before their eyes?' while on the other hand the sole inquiry instituted is 'will they suit and seek the interest of my party.' By the fear of the Lord, saith Solomon are riches and honour, Prov. 22, 4, as He himself had found it, and the fear of the Lord is not only the treasure of an individual, but forms in rulers, the chief permanent security of national wealth.

His proof texts for the second proposition were 2 Sam. 23.2-3 and 2 Chron. 19. Here he is addressing Art. VI, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

Another prominent critic of the U.S. Constitution, who nevertheless famously sided with the Union during the War which split both the nation and the mainline American Presbyterian church, was George Junkin, Sr. (1790-1868), father-in-law to Stonewall Jackson (and also a character in the 2003 movie Gods and Generals), published The Little Stone and the Great Image; or, Lectures on the Prophecies Symbolized in Nebuchadnezzar's Vision of the Golden Headed Monster (1844), in which he wrote (pp. 280-281):

The grand defect in the bond of our national union is the absence of the recognition of God as the Governor of this world. We have omitted — may it not be said refused? — to own him whose head wears many crowns, as having any right of dominion over us. The constitution of these United States contains no express recognition of the being of a God: much less an acknowledgment, that The Word of God, sways the sceptre of universal dominion. This is our grand national sin of omission. This gives the infidel occasion to glory, and has no small influence in fostering infidelity in affairs of state and among political men. That the nation will be blessed with peace and prosperity continuously, until this defect be remedied, no Christian philosopher expects. For this national insult, the Governor of the universe will lift again and again his rod of iron over our heads, until we be affrighted and give this glory to his name.

These comments by prominent 19th century American Presbyterians who were outside of the RPCNA reveal a remarkable inter-denominational alignment in their understanding of the relationship between church and state, one that is not well-remembered in the 21st century, an age which does not give much consideration to the concept of “national sins,” but which is nevertheless worthy of notice.

Debate in Detroit

Presbyterian minister George Duffield IV (1794-1868) in Detroit, Michigan, at the behest of his congregation, confronted the local Episcopal Bishop over a sermon that he had preached arguing for Episcopal Government and Apostolic Succession. In 1842, Duffield, in a series of letters, addressed the Bishop, and challenged him on Episcopal Government. For students of polity, or those with an interest in Presbyterian church government, Rev. George Duffield’s work against Episcopacy showcases a debate in an American context and would prove helpful to anyone studying the subject.