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Commentary

America in 1803 - by Daniel Vos

One of the most interesting things about the execution of Caleb Adams is not only that it was a public execution before a crowd of nearly 10,000, but also that a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ was invited by the local government to preach an evangelistic sermon as the criminal stood at the gallows. Today, a Christian pastor might be asked to give a generic invocation at a public conference, but even then he is sternly warned not to pray in the name of Jesus.

What has changed in America since 1803?

On a superficial level, it is a question of economic maturity and prosperity. At that time, America was largely agrarian; today, most people live in the city or the suburbs, and even the farmer has access to high technology. In 1803, two-thirds of the roughly five million Americans lived on the Eastern seaboard within 50 miles of the tidewater. Only about 500,000 lived west of the Appalachians. Most Americans were farmers or had some other means of self-employment to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. In fact, when Thomas Jefferson became president in 1800, he had to cross eight bridge-less rivers on horseback to get from Monticello to the new capital city of Washington, DC.

But national maturity and prosperity alone hardly begin to explain why we no longer have public executions, and why religion now seems so far removed from the public square. Fundamental changes have taken place in the way Americans view the place of religion in the public square. In New England history, the contrasts are starkest. In 1803, religion and politics went together hand in glove. Nowadays, this is hardly the case.

"[Massachusetts'] strength lay in the Congregational churches," 19th-century American historian Henry Adams wrote, "and in the cordial union between the clergy, the magistracy, the bench and bar, and respectable society throughout the state. This union created what was unknown beyond New England - an organized social system, capable of acting at command either for offence or defence, and admirably adapted for the uses of the eighteenth century."

Adams (no known relation to Caleb Adams) says that New Englanders vehemently opposed Jeffersonian democracy, i.e. the sort of democracy that elevated the will of the state above the authority of the church. Their view of the Bible, of God, and of the church had led them to form a kind of "American Christendom." Society was self-consciously God-centered and church-centered, and the Bible was embraced as the norm for faith, life, and even (as we see in the case of Caleb Adams) civil government.

Considering who Jefferson was and what he stood for, it is no surprise to discover that his election met with disapproval from the New Englanders. "What worse sin could be conceived than for a whole nation to join their chief in chanting the strange hymn with which Jefferson, a new false prophet, was deceiving and betraying his people: 'It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God!'"

In 1803, the year of Caleb Adams' execution, New England's life and order found itself in the midst of fresh and daunting challenges. Jefferson, with his faith in Progress, stood against the close relationship of church and state found in New England. But the people of New England rightly questioned what Jefferson's scientific progressivism could do to ensure moral progress. "No doubt Jefferson held the faith that men would improve morally with their physical and intellectual growth," Henry Adams writes. "But he had no idea of any moral improvement other than that which came by nature. He could not tolerate a priesthood, a state church, or revealed religion."

200 years later, it is probably Jeffersonian deism, rather than "New England orthodoxy," that has come to dominate American public discourse and practice. But is the nation better off for it? We believe that the story of Caleb Adams calls this into question. There is much to learn from our forebears about the role of the church in the public square, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every area of life. Our circumstances may be much different, but the answers are still the same.




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