AMERICAN COVENANT and CALLING
Abraham Lincoln stopped in Philadelphia to visit INDEPENDENCE HALL.On his way to Washington to take the oath of office as President of the United States of America, itself seemed destined for dissolution.
In 1861, Lincoln emphasized to his audience that he had come “to listen to those breathings rising within the consecrated walls where the CONSTITUTIONof the United States, and I will add, the DECLARATION of INDEPENDENCE was originally framed.”
I have never asked anything that does not breathe from those walls. All my political warfare has been in favor of the teachings coming forth from that SACRED HALL. May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if EVER I prove FALSE to those teachings.
Lincoln’s paraphrase of PSALM 137is his view of the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE as being PARALLEL to that of BIBLICAL ISRAEL.
If Americans were not the CHOSEN PEOPLE, they were at least, in his eyes, “an almost chosen people.”
Lincoln’s remarks at Independence Hall showed shared the sense of an AMERICAN VOCATIONsimilar to that described by Governor John Winthrop, the foremost of the American Puritan founders. In his Modell of Christian Charity delivered aboard the Arabella on the Atlantic Ocean in 1630.
Winthrop summarized the ENTERPRISEupon which the first Puritan emigrants from England had embarked in the New World: “We are entered into COVENANT with him for THIS WORK, we have taken out a COMMISSION….”
In January 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’sinaugural address:
They came here – the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened – to find a place where a man could be HIS OWN MAN. They made a COVENANT with THIS LAND.
Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still.
If we keep its terms, WE SHALL FLOURISH.
The American covenant called on us to help show the way for the LIBERATION of MAN.
And that is today OUR GOAL. Thus, if as a nation there is much outside our control, as a people no stranger is outside our hope.3
ALMOST 3,000 YEARS AFTER the COVENANT AT SINAI, the PILGRIMS, WHO SAW THEMSELVES AS NEW ISRAELITES EMBARKED ON A VENTURE INTO THEIR OWN “HIDEOUS and DESOLATE WILDERNESS,”introduced into North America a major stream ofTHOUGHT DERIVED from the BIBLICAL IDEA of COVENANT.
Latent and partially submerged with American thought and culture – especially secular constitutionalism – COVENANT IDEAS not only formed a significant part of the FOUNDATION of the United States, but have continued to INFLUENCE AMERICAN LIFE.
From their earliest beginnings, the people and polities comprising the United States have BOUND THEMSELVES TOGETHER through covenants to erect their New World order, DELIBERATELY FOLLOWING BIBLICAL PRECEDENTS.
The covenant concluded on the Mayfloweron November 11, 1620,remains the FIRST hallowed document of the AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL tradition:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-writen, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc., HAVEING UNDERTAKEN, FOR THE GLORIE OF GOD, and ADVANCEMENTE of the CHRISTIAN FAITH, and honour of our king and countrie, a voyage to PLANT the first colonie in Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutualy in the PRESENCE OF GOD, and ONE of ANOTHER, COVENANT and COMBINE OUR SELVES TOGEATHER INTO a CIVILL BODY POLITICK, FOR OUR BETTER ORDERING and PRESERVATION… In witnes wherof … . Ano: Dom. 1620.
A CLASSIC COVENANT, IT EXPLICITLY CREATED A COMMUNITY AND THE BASIS FOR ITS SUBSEQUENT CONSTITUTIONAL DEVELOPMENT.
John Quincy Adams once referred to that Mayflower Compact as “perhaps the only instance in human history of that POSITIVE, ORIGINAL SOCIAL COMPACT WHICH SPECULATIVE PHILOSOPHERS HAVE IMAGINED as the ONLY LEGITIMATE SOURCE of GOVERNMENT.”
In fact, there were many such covenants at the time of the settlement of British North America. The Mayflower Compact occurred at least thirty years before the speculative philosophers imaginedit. By the time that Hobbes and Locke formulated their compactual theories, there were already many compactual civil societies in the New World.
For the patriots of Samuel Adams’ “solemn league and covenant” against British oppression; for the framers of the constitutional compact of 1787; for Jefferson who referred to the young republic in his first inaugural address as a “chosen country; “for Lincoln who often characterized the American union as “a regular marriage;” for Johnson; and for millions of ordinary Americans, the CONCEPT OF COVENANT HAS BEEN REFLECTED IN REAL EXPERIENCES FROM JAMESTOWN TO THE PRESENT whereby INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES HAVE COME TOGETHER TO ESTABLISH GOVERNING ARRANGEMENTS BY COMPACT.
The Puritans: COVENANT Comes to the New World
The first political principles systematically enunciated in America were extensions and adaptations of the Puritans’ federal theology which SAW ALL SOCIETY AS AN OUTGROWTH OF THE BASIC BIBLICAL COVENANTS BETWEEN GOD AND HIS PEOPLE.
Winthrop referred to the GOOD COMMONWEALTH AS ONE COMMITTED to “FEDERAL LIBERTY,” or the FREEDOM to FREELY HARKEN to the LAW of the COVENANT.”
The Puritans sought to PLACE ALL RELATIONSHIPS AMONG PEOPLE ON a COVENANTAL BASIS.
Their congregations were COVENANT-FORMED PARTNERSHIPS of “SAINTS” (separated)which came into existence only when potential MEMBERS COVENANTED AMONG EACH OTHER, and survived only so long as the covenantal act remained valid (potentially but not necessarily forever).
Civil government among the Puritans was instituted by civil covenant among the residents (or potential residents) of virtually every town in most of the New England provinces. The Mayflower Compact was the first of these covenantal acts. Subsequently, the same mode of town formation was extended to virtually every settlement created in New England and to many created in the other colonies as well. Connecticut and Rhode Island, for example, were formed by their towns COVENANTING (TOGETHER).
All through the colonial era Americans went from compact to compact– a score of compacts and agreements on one frontier after another.”
Richard Niebuhr: “one of the great common patterns that guided men in the period when American democracy was formed…was the PATTERN of the COVENANT or of FEDERAL society.”
Winthrop and other Puritan divines revealed in their works, the Puritans who settled in New England combined a FUNDAMENTAL CONSERVATISM WITH AN UNHESITATING RADICALISM in a way that was to become as PARADIGMATIC FOR AMERICANS AS OTHER ASPECTS of THEIR APPROACH to LIFE.
That combination was no doubt directly related TO THEIR COVENANTAL IDEOLOGY WHICH SAW HUMANS BOUND to GODthrough predestination, yet through that binding free to live according to the constitution He provided for their salvation. TO IMPLEMENT THAT CONSTITUTION REQUIRED A REVOLT AGAINST THE EXISTING SOCIETY, but the goals of that revolt were to restore prelapsinarian HARMONY to the world.
The Puritans came to the New World to BUILD a NEW (civil, not utopian) SOCIETY, BUT NEVER LOST SIGHT of HUMAN WEAKNESS (sin) IN TRYING TO DO SO. (salvation)