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Political Revolutions

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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February 17, 2022 12:01 am

Political Revolutions

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 17, 2022 12:01 am

The American and French Revolutions left an enduring impact on Western history. Today, W. Robert Godfrey reflects on how the ideals behind these two movements took very different turns with significant effects.

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Today on Renewing Your Mind. All of these leaders of what would become the American Revolution were at least in formal terms Christians. And it was a very serious question on what grounds can we take up arms against the king? How the Protestant Reformation spread far beyond the boundaries of the church. Politics and religion.

It's been said that the two shouldn't mix. But we will discover today here on Renewing Your Mind that the theology of the Reformation had a profound influence on politics, government, and the course of nations. Our teacher is noted church historian and Ligonier teaching fellow, Dr. Robert Godfrey. This lesson is from his series, A Survey of Church History. Dr. Godfrey begins with the Apostolic Era and ends with the present age, encompassing 73 lessons. Obviously, we won't be able to share every one of those on the program, but we are making them available in a six-volume DVD set.

I'll let you know how you can request a copy at the end of the program today. For now, let's get started as Dr. Godfrey teaches his final lesson in volume four. It's titled, Political Revolutions. Well, as we come now to the last lecture in this series on 17th and 18th century church history, I'm intensely aware of all the things we didn't talk about and even the things we talked about, we went at great speed. But nonetheless, we have focused in on a number of elements that will be crucial to the development of evangelical and American church history in the 19th and 20th centuries. And as we have been studying first Puritanism and then the emergence of various kinds of revolutions in the modern world, we looked at some aspects of the intellectual revolution being caused by the Enlightenment. We looked at aspects of religious revolution that were going to come out of the Great Awakening.

And I thought we might close today talking and reflecting just a little bit about political revolutions in the 18th century and their impact for the future for the church as well as for society more broadly. And of course, at the end of the 18th century, we're thinking about two great revolutions. First, the American Revolution that took place in America.

That's a kind of giveaway point in a lecture. And then the French Revolution that took place in France. So, these two revolutions actually occurred rather close in time together, but many historians have argued have quite a different character ultimately. And so, I want to talk just a little bit about the American Revolution and particularly its effect on the religious life in America and then contrast it a little bit with some thoughts on the French Revolution. Now, the United States was growing dramatically in the 18th century. It's estimated that the total European population in the American colonies in 1713 was about 360,000.

Only 360,000 European people in all of the American colonies. By 1760, that population had grown to 1.6 million. So, in less than 50 years, the population had grown dramatically. And then from 1760 to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, the population had grown from 1.6 million to 3 million. So, there is a dramatic growth in population taking place in the American colonies, and most of that growth is biological growth, not immigration growth.

So, Americans are having large families in part because there's large amounts of farmland available as people begin to push west. And all of that means there's a larger and larger population to think about who they are, how they ought to be treated by the government in England. One of the effects of the Great Awakening is Americans began to think like Americans. Before the Great Awakening, people in Boston were more interested in what was going on in London than they were in what was going on in Philadelphia. They looked back to the mother country as the real point of reference rather than to look south or north in the colonies to what other colonies were doing.

They thought of themselves first of all as Englishmen and only secondarily as residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, and really not at all as particularly connected to the other colonies. But with the coming of the Great Awakening, there had been developing in America a great sense of what's happening in Philadelphia. What's the Spirit doing in Philadelphia?

What's the Spirit doing in Savannah? What's happening in the other colonies? And Americans began gradually to be trained to think north and south as well as just looking back to London.

And that gave the country very much a new sense of development. And then there was another important religious matter that developed. It's hard for us to imagine this in some ways, but in the 1760s, rumors began to circulate that the king in England was thinking about sending a bishop to America. This scandalized most of the colonists. It wasn't just that the king was going to send a bishop, but all that that implied because bishops in England were counted as part of the aristocracy.

They were addressed as lords. And there were many in America who feared that now England might begin to export its whole aristocratic hierarchy to America. And Americans didn't want that. Americans were opposed to that. And so the great fear of episcopacy, as it was known, began to rally anti-royal sentiment, particularly amongst Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

That means particularly in the mid-Atlantic states and in New England. And there was a rising tide of opposition then, but not only there. Even in the areas of the colonies that were more Anglican in sentiment, like Virginia, there still was this sense, we do not want aristocracy here.

We do not want that exported here. And a rising sentiment was, we want our rights as Englishmen. We don't want taxation without representation. The things you all learned in grammar school about the American Revolution were true. This was a big part of what motivated colonials in America who now found themselves growing to a significant size in terms of population, having opportunities now they might not have thought possible before, and this would lead ultimately to the revolt against the King of England.

And that is why the Declaration of Independence is so important. All of these leaders of what would become the American Revolution were at least in formal terms Christians. They all knew about Romans 13. They all knew about the obligation of Christians to honor the ruler and obey those in authority over them. And for many of them then, it was a very serious question, on what grounds can we take up arms against the King? On what grounds can we oppose the King? There was a well-established Calvinist political theory that said, we can oppose the monarch only when he becomes a tyrant. And the notion of tyranny was very clear. It resided in the notion that not only do subjects have responsibilities to their rulers, but rulers also have responsibilities to their subjects.

When the monarch was crowned, he took an oath to uphold the Constitution and rights of Englishmen. And the argument made in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson is that the King has violated his responsibility to his subjects, the King has become a tyrant, and therefore we have the right to declare our independence and to take up arms to preserve our independence because our rights as Englishmen have been violated. Now, what's important about that is it means it's a very conservative approach to revolution, assuming you can ever think of revolution as conservative. It's not a revolution to tear down all the old and build something new. It's a revolution to maintain traditional rights. That was the ideal of the American Revolution.

The American Revolutionaries didn't execute any members of the aristocracy, partly because there weren't any, but there were gentry, there were rich people in America. The point was not to tear down anyone who is here, but to establish political freedom and political rights. And that led, of course, as you know, to revolutionary war, led to the writing of the Constitution. It led to the decision of the colonies to unite as one nation, and it led to a number of important religious outcomes for America. One of those embedded in the Constitution from the beginning was the right of religious freedom. The federal government would not take actions to impose any religion on the whole country. And the context in which that decision was made was a context in which most Americans were orthodox Protestants, and they assumed that in general terms the country would remain a rather Protestant country. But the point was that we're not going to have federal legislation making us all be Anglicans or Presbyterians or Congregationalists or Baptists. Everyone rallied, pretty much, around that idea of religious freedom from a federal perspective, even though, as I said earlier, there were states that still had established church for decades after the ratification of the Constitution. And, of course, we're still seeing how that works out, aren't we? Even today, there are cases brought in the name of religious freedom.

In San Diego, we've had an example of that going on for over a decade now. There is a large cross on the top of a prominent mountain, Mount Soledad, in a military cemetery, and there are those saying having that cross on federal cemetery land in such a large and prominent place is an establishment of Christianity as religion. That cross has to come down, and a court after court has ordered that the cross come down.

And then the politicians run around trying to find a way to save the cross, and we're still wrestling with this. But it shows that this whole question of what does it mean, really, to have religious freedom is easy to talk about in very general terms, but sometimes difficult to figure out in every specific how it's going to work out. But in any case, America became a land from the beginning, committed to the notion there should be religious freedom. Individual citizens ought to have the right to practice their own religion.

It's also been intriguing to me to hear recent discussions of whether the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns, has to pay for a certain kind of health insurance. And I get really tired of hearing reporters talk about the rights of the church in this matter. The Constitution guarantees the rights of citizens, not the rights of churches. And any right that any citizen has, whether a nun or not a nun, is a right that every citizen has.

And that's my soapbox for today. But this is difficult to figure out how it all works out, and we're still trying to figure out the implications of this. Obviously, obviously this kind of religious freedom meant the separation of church and state on the federal level. It also was a key contributing factor then to the notion of denominationalism. And the heart of denominationalism is this, that one denomination before the law and maybe even before God is just about as good as another denomination.

We talked about this a little bit before. Is it true church and false church, or is it purer church and less pure church? What Americans had come to by the time of the writing of the Constitution was a conviction, while the differences between Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Episcopalians and maybe even Baptists. There was a little debate about that, but maybe even Baptists. While these differences were significant, we want to say we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. And therefore, our divisions, as an old friend of mine once said, the walls between us don't reach to heaven. And that's the attitude of denominations. We take some of our differences seriously, but we don't believe that those differences divide us from God.

And that's a whole new way of thinking. The church, Christian people had never thought that way down until the 17th or 18th century. But the separation of church and state in America reinforces denominationalism so that more and more we cooperate with one another and appreciate one another. That's one of the effects of that's one of the effects of the separation of church and state in America. Another important part of what happens to the church in America is that the disestablishment of the church, meaning the church gets no tax money, means that whatever the church does, the laity have to pay for.

And this contributes significantly to the triumph of the laity. Whatever the church does has to be done with the support of the people of God. And that led to the spirit in America of volunteerism and of generous giving, unrivaled almost anywhere else in the world. Because Americans learned right from the beginning the church will exist only where it's supported by the people.

It does not exist with the support of the government. And it also meant that many people thought it's good to volunteer, it's good to give my time as well as my money to help these institutions. And so when we come to the 19th century, we'll see how much was accomplished in America by volunteers joining together for a specific goal to accomplish great things in our own history. We can see that today, for example, in the anti-abortion movement, how many Christians across denominational lines have cooperated together to give time and money in a variety of ways to try to reduce the number of abortions or to make abortion illegal in this country.

That's the volunteer spirit. That's the charitable spirit of America that still is very much alive with us today. And in many ways, it flows out of what happened to religion in America because of the American Revolution. So, the American Revolution had many beneficial aspects to it coming out of the revolution for the vitality of religion in America. But the important thing, it seems to me, is to keep in mind how fundamentally conservative this movement was. We are not about tearing down.

We are much more about preserving. That's what the leaders of the American Revolution wanted to say. And that stands in very marked contrast with the French Revolution because the French Revolution was driven much more by a conviction that what was traditional in France needed to be torn down, that there needed to be a new beginning, that the old ways were bad and needed to be eliminated. And that's why you see the progressive radicalization of the French Revolution. The beginnings of the French Revolution really are in 1789, just about the time things are settling down in America. And the king, King Louis XVI, calls the Estates General, somewhat equivalent to the English Parliament, into session to try to get their support and help in certain reforms in the country.

But those who gather as the traditional Estates General, within about a month or so, radicalize themselves and reconstitute themselves as a national assembly with real parliamentary powers, limiting the power of the king and increasingly acting to change the life of France. And one of the first things they did was to confiscate church property. So, whereas in America a lot of church leaders were supporters of the revolution against the tyranny of George III, in France the church is seen as an enemy of the revolution. The church, the Roman Catholic Church in France, owned about 20% of all the property in France. And so, it was a large and wealthy institution in France and it provoked then a lot of ire and anger on the part of the revolutionaries.

By 1791, the National Assembly had declared freedom of religion for all, so it ended the privileged position of the Roman Catholic Church in France. And in 1792, a national convention was elected to prepare a new constitution for France and declared a republic in France, and that led then to the execution of the king and of the queen. So, here you see a much more radical approach to ways of changing the realm, changing the realm into a republic. And then in 1793 and 1794, you have what's known to history as the Reign of Terror. And this is the period at which anyone sympathetic to the royalist cause, many aristocrats are arrested and beheaded by the guillotine for being dangers to the republic. And this Reign of Terror grows and grows in terms of the numbers of people who are educated, and as one observer put it, the revolution begins to devour itself. So, even some of the leaders of the revolution are executed in the Reign of Terror, like Robespierre, because they are not seen as sufficiently revolutionary. And all sorts of ways express the radical nature of the revolution. Some of the revolutionary leaders built great papier-mâché statues of, I assume, Jesus and the Virgin Mary and various saints, paraded them through the streets of Paris, and then set them on fire. And underneath were then revealed reason and liberty and fraternity as the new gods of the French people. One wag observed that the new gods seemed slightly singed by the fire.

But this was emblematic, you see, of the radical nature. We're going to burn up the old, and we're going to have the new. They even experimented for a time with a ten-day week. We don't want a seven-day week. That's too Christian. That's too traditional. We want a ten-day week. That's more rational. Seven-day week, that's not rational.

You know, decimal system, that won't work. It didn't really work to have a ten-day week all by themselves either. But here you see something of the spirit of radicalism. And of course, it couldn't go on forever. Revolutions can't go on forever. And soon peace was established, and out of the relative peace that established in 1799 emerged Napoleon Bonaparte to take control. Too often this happened in modern history that efforts at a republic and freedom and equality ends up with a dictator.

And that's exactly what happened in France. Napoleon establishing himself as a dictator and then as an emperor, and the culmination of the reign of terror. And Edmund Burke, the great observer in England of these things, said, well, this is the inevitable result of the kind of radical enlightenment commitments that you had in France, not just revolution but terror. And when Margaret Thatcher went for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, she gave to the president of France a copy of Edmund Burke's treatise, and the president of France was mightily annoyed.

Anyway, she was annoyed because she'd been put in the second row. But that's beyond the 18th century. But we end then with these two revolutions, one pointing to the radical nature of wanting to build a whole new future that will dominate the thinking of many in the 19th and 20th century, and the American Revolution having an impact that actually in some ways stimulates and helps the church to develop.

And we'll see how those two revolutions in a sense work themselves out in a more modern world in our next series. Well, we will not be presenting the full series here on Renewing Your Mind, but we are making Part 4 available to you today. A survey of church history was released in six volumes over the course of four years, 73 lessons covering the history of the church from the Apostolic era all the way to the present. We need to know and understand history so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past, but also so that we do model the faithfulness of those who stood firm on God's Word.

Part 4 of the series covers the 1600s through the 1800s, certainly a tumultuous time in church history. Contact us today with a donation of any amount, and we will send you 12 messages on two DVDs. Call us to make your request at 800-435-4343.

If you prefer, you can go online to We are so thankful for your generosity. We would not be able to assemble great teaching series like this one without the faithful support of listeners like you. So again, contact us today with a donation of any amount, and we will send you 12 messages on two DVDs. Our number is 800-435-4343, and our web address is Perhaps you're listening to us on our free Ligonier smartphone app today. This resource is available to you as well simply by clicking View Today's Resource Offer. Well, tomorrow we'll return to another lesson from Dr. Godfrey's series on church history when science began to heavily influence the church. The results of that are still visible today. I hope you'll make plans to join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-04 05:19:26 / 2023-06-04 05:27:59 / 9

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