A Matter of History

I am writing this editorial while on vacation in France. More specifically it was written in the guest room of the chateau my wife discovered on the Internet. The pictures posted there did not do it half the justice that reality confers. I am sitting under a high arched ceiling and looking out over computer keyboard, through the high windows with the inward facing shutters, and out over the moat, with its lily pond surface, to the deep woods that encroach on two sides of the castle.

We are staying two nights here in this time warp only a few minutes south of Dijon in Burgundy. Yesterday, after we arrived and met the count whose family has owned the property since the 1200s, a friend of his who is a history professor took us on a tour of the many rooms. It is still elegant and full of art and furniture from centuries past. There are countless little oddities—like the apparent wooden confessional boxes in the first and second floor chambers of the master and mistress of the house, that were in reality connecting staircases so they could visit unobserved by staff; and the clever arrangement of the eldest son’s bedroom at the end of the hall after the fathers room, so that he could not pass easily unobserved in the night.

Of course time has never stood still here or anywhere else. The history teacher told us how the drawbridge had been replaced by a fixed bridge hundreds of years ago on the orders of the King of France, who feared the nobles’ ability to resist his power. She told how during the French Revolution sympathetic peasants helped hide the castle’s furniture from the revolutionaries. Then during World War II the castle became the regional headquarters for the occupying Germans. When they were expelled, the Americans also made it their headquarters. All are gone now, and little but the rutted stone flooring reminds of those times of trial.

At breakfast we shared an interesting discussion with a group of Anglican priests also staying in the castle. As we went over the history of the castle and came again to the story of its passage through the French Revolution the elder priest remarked on how it was unusual for the original furniture to have survived those times. “There are two reasons given,” he said. “The first is that the count was a benevolent landlord and his peasants remained loyal. The second and more probable is that he was a Mason and had protection.” An interesting observation from a churchman, who of course knows his history. In revolutionary France there was hatred against the overbearing aristocracy and the church, which the peasantry had come to associate with their abuses; because church and state/aristocracy functioned as an intertwined power elite. For the revolutionaries it was enough that the church hated and persecuted the Masons—therefore they must be acceptable. I have always thought that the same simple logic accounts for much of the pervasive masonry in early Protestant America—that is, if the Catholic Church was so opposed to Masonry, it must be acceptable.

In many ways the old world is not really that different from the new world—only older. In fact as the new world rose to prominence it did so with many of the ideas brought from the old world—albeit ideas that were the ongoing dynamic of that old world. After all, the ideas that created the United States were the same ones that led to the French Revolution. It was not really so odd that Jefferson had an enduring sympathy for the French Revolution, even after it turned on itself.

There is an aspect of this dual and parallel tracking that is often unremarked, even by my fellow Seventh-day Adventists, who founded this magazine as a direct consequence of radical moves toward religious legislation in the first few years of the twentieth century. The reality is that the same pressures were creating fissures in the public life in the Old Country—England, the Mother Country, that as late as 1812 had still not accepted that her American child had left home.

The wonderful work of William Wilberforce in outlawing slavery in the British Empire was of course just one outgrowth of morals-based legislation from an increasingly empowered religious faction, which had high aims for spiritually renewing old England. Well, as we know today, it is an easy step from that to using the power of the state to require revival.

One of the most dynamic preachers in England a century ago was Charles Haddon Spurgeon; known as “the prince of preachers” for his amazing rhetoric and ability to draw huge crowds. I recently read a statement of his that relates all too well to the United States then—and now—as well as to the England of his day.

“I am ashamed of some Christians,” preached Spurgeon, ”because they have so much dependence on parliament and the law of the land. Much good may Parliament ever do to true religion except by mistake. As to getting the law of the land to touch our religion, we earnestly cry, ‘Hands off! Leave us alone.’ Your Sunday bills and all other forms of the act-of-Parliament religion seem to me to be all wrong. Give us a fair field and no favor, and our faith has no cause to fear. Christ wants no help from Caesar.”

As you will read in a series beginning in this issue of Liberty, a national Sunday bill and Christian Nation assumptions had everything to do with the founding of our magazine. We agree with Spurgeon that such have no place in a country that truly honors religious freedom.

In a very real way that sense of true religious independence of separation of church and state speaks even to the more contentious of church state issues today—the gay marriage debate and the church response to the newfound rights of the gay community. This issue of Liberty speaks to that in an opinion piece. No matter how doctrinally or morally offensive the church may find society to have become, it is entering perilous ground in attempting to address it by legislation. And yet at the same time the church is within its compass to press the state to honor it’s faith profession and ability to speak to others of moral absolutes. May we keep this dynamic alive and well and avoid the mistakes of the old world—mistakes that led not just to reformation but revolution. Because the unholy union of church and state ultimately is bad for both.

After quoting from an English Baptist preacher, I had better end on a more American note! What better than to quote from James Madison, a founding father of the American Republic, author of the Bill of Rights, which include the First Amendment freedom of religion and restraint on state sponsorship, and the nation’s fourth president: “Who does not see,” he wrote, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

How revolutionary!

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."