The Puritan Doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers


Despite a large number of important studies, the importance of the Puritans, and the Puritan premises in history, are far from adequately explored, or likely to be, because the Puritan story is as yet a far from finished one. While Augustinian and Calvinistic, the Puritans differed markedly from continental Reformed churches and were thus, while Reformed, not to be identified with the Reformed cause as a whole. They were clearly a separate movement, although having deep roots in Calvinism. Again, while Puritanism was not only a Protestant movement but a major force therein, its medieval and catholic roots were also strong. Its temper was hostile to the centralism of both Rome and Protestantism and more akin to feudalism and decentralization. American federalism is a descendant of medieval feudalism. Although not many have agreed (or pursued the subject), Thomas Cuming Hall saw Puritanism as a continuation of the work of John Wyclif and the Lollards.[1] If true, this means that the pre-Reformation roots of Puritanism are deeper than normally held to be.

To understand Puritanism, it is important to recognize the role of a key doctrine in shaping the Puritan mentality. It should be noted that Puritan doctrines agreed in the essentials of soteriology (salvation) and theology with Calvin and Luther. It was a difference of emphasis which produced differing results in the Christian life. Thus, Luther wrote, of the priesthood of all believers, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

As many of us as have been baptized are all priests without distinction. . . . For thus it is written in I Peter ii, “Ye are a chosen genera­tion, a royal priesthood, and a priestly kingdom.” Therefore we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. But the priests, as we call them, are ministers chosen from among us, who do all that they do in our name. And the priesthood is nothing but a ministry, as we learn from I Corinthians iv, “Let a man so account of us as the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God.”[2]

Luther indeed has a central role in the formulation of this doctrine, but, in the practical realm, Lutherans are about as docile in relation to their clergy as Catholics are. Calvin also set forth this same doctrine clearly and strongly, but with about the same results. Some Reformed churches are almost as “priest-ridden” as their Catholic neighbors. Clearly, we have a problem here: a great Biblical doctrine is revived, but its practical consequences are none too great. Great differences mark Rome from Geneva and Wittenberg, but the priestly role of the laity is not one of them. This does not mean that the doctrine was without consequence. The priestly role of the believer as head of his household gained strong emphasis in both Lutheran and Calvinist circles, but not within the church as an institution. The reason appears in Calvin’s reference to the doctrine in the Institutes;

For we, who are polluted in ourselves, being “made priests” (Rev. i. 6) in him, offer ourselves and all our services to God, and enter boldly into the heavenly sanctuary, so that the sacrifices of prayers and praise, which proceed from us, are “acceptable,” and “a sweet-smelling savour” (Eph. v. 2) in the Divine presence. This is included in the declaration of Christ, “For their sakes I sanctify myself”; (John xvii. 19) for being arrayed in his holiness, he having dedicated us, together with himself, to the Father, we, who are otherwise offensive in his sight, become acceptable to him, as pure, unpolluted, and holy. This is the meaning of the “anointing of the Most Holy,” (Dan. ix. 24) which is mentioned in Daniel. For we must observe the contrast between this unction and that shadowy unction which was then in use; as though the angel had said that the shadows would be dissipated, and that there would be a real priesthood in the person of Christ. So much the more detestable is the invention of those, who, not content with the priesthood of Christ, have presumed to take upon themselves the office of sacrificing him; which is daily attempted among the Papists, where the mass is considered as an immolation of Christ.[3]

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was of central importance to the Reformers in attacking the validity of Rome ’s doctrine of the priest­hood. The only earthly priesthood after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension is the priesthood of all believers; the church is led by a ministry, but it is a congregation of royal priests. The practical import for the institutional church or Christian synagogue of that congregational priesthood was not explored. Furthermore, the relationship of that priesthood to the soteriology of the Reformation was not explored. This link Puritanism has made. If grace is sovereign and free, then what happens to the church, its authority, and its traditions? If grace is sovereign, how then can priest, prelate, or king lord it over man? We should not forget the connections, in 1381, of the Peasants Revolt with Lollardy. Then or later the slogan was born,

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?

The Lollards had stressed strong personal devotions, the study of and meditation on the Bible, and a high standard of sexual morality. They refused to leave such things as doctrine to a priestly class. Thomas Hoccleve wrote against this Lollard perspective thus:

Hit is unkyndly for a knight
That shuld a kynges castel kepe
To babble the Bibel day and night
In restyng time when he shuld slepe.[4]

Lollardy threatened society with a break-up of the old order. If knights and commoners became Bible readers and babblers, then what would happen to authority? Lollardy was seen as a disruptive force, and, later, Puritanism was viewed similarly. True, many Puritans feared their own doctrine. New England ’s Puritan hierarchy wanted the people to be a silent democracy within church and state alike, but, in spite of their inconsistency at this point, they did see the saints, in civil and ecclesiastical government, as a royal priesthood and democracy.

Cyril Eastwood has very ably summarized the “three great principles” of Puritanism which “have their origin in the doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers.” These three principles are:

(a) That God’s free grace, mediated by the soul’s faith in Christ, is the essential root of human salvation.
(b) That God’s will, revealed in His written Word and interpreted by His living Spirit, is the supreme law for human conduct both in the sphere of the Church and the world.
(c) That the conscience must be free from merely human dictation and above all, from the enslaving rule of the priest.[5]

Note that Eastwood sees the source of these doctrines in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. If God is sovereign, then man is not, and authority in church and state is ministerial, not sovereign. If God is sovereign, then grace is free and sovereign grace, and kings, priests, knights, and gentlemen give way to God’s royal priesthood. Then too the governing principle is not in man but in God and in God’s law-word. Accordingly, no man can bind the conscience, because God alone is the lord of the conscience.

Thus, both liberty and conscience are to be denned, as are all things, by God and His word. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in Chapter XX, “Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience,” declares, in words clearly reflecting the Puritan faith:

I.  The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law; but under the New Testament the liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and to greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.

II.  God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

III.  They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

IV.  And because the power which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God.  And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices, as, either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the Civil Magistrate.

This amazing statement is all the more impressive when we realize that, even as Luther was upset by the Peasants’ Revolt, so too the Westminster divines were deeply concerned over the rising spirit of resistance, civil disobedience, and civil conflict. Section IV of Chapter XX reflects this concern. Thus, on May 1, 1646, Daniel Cawdry preached to his fellow divines on I Timothy 1:19. He spoke with grief of the divisions and dis­sensions in the Church of England: “It is a sad observation that the professing part of the Church of England has been like a fair looking glass, all of one piece, only one image to be seen in it; but now, look at it, all in pieces.” There was an irresponsible demand for liberty on all sides, and

the common bait that catcheth is Antinomianism; the Anabaptist asks for liberty from the magistrate, from any superior ecclesiastical power, from the Sabbath; the Brownist seeks liberty from classes (i.e., presbyteries), from superior power, and wants everyone to have a vote (in the congregation); the Seeker, who has lost all his religion, claims a toleration of all religion, and calls it liberty of conscience.[6]

In spite of their fears of irresponsible liberty, or antinomian freedom, the divines all the same set forth the radical demands and freedom of man’s conscience when informed by God’s word and Spirit. We cannot understand the role of conscience in the Westminster theology apart from its doctrine of Scripture. It is popular now with the skeptics to call the West­minster Standards, and especially its view of infallibility, scholastic. Such a statement says nothing about the Westminster Standards and much about the person making it. The Westminster Standards placed God and His enscriptured word above man and his institutions, so that church and state were now alike under God and His word. Such a doctrine of the infallible and governing law-word of God requires liberty of conscience. Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer had chosen Scripture over the church. The logical step was now taken: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word. . . .”

Thus, the Westminster Confession did not talk about the priesthood of all believers; instead, it set free that priesthood in terms of its charter, the Bible, faithfully interpreted in terms of itself and the Spirit of God. The new priesthood now had its priestly ordination papers in hand, the Bible, and the consequences in Britain were revolutionary. Later, in America, the new priesthood found greater freedom to realize itself, especially after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. The multitude of differing churches on the American scene is a product of this doctrine, as is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Moreover, the Westminster Assembly’s stand on liberty of conscience made it very clear that it was anti-liberty when things are contrary to the word of God, “to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty or conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”

Thomas Goodwin and Philip Nye, in their introduction to John Cotton’s The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (1644), wrote:

In those former darker times, this golden ball was thrown up by the clergy (so called) alone to run for among themselves. * * * This royal donation, bestowed by Christ upon his Church, was taken up and placed in so high thrones of bishops, popes, general councils, &c. . . in so great a remoteness from the people that the least right or interest therein was not so much as suspected to belong to them. But ... it hath now in these our days been brought so near unto the people, that they also have begun to plead and sue for a portion and legacy be­queathed them in it. The Saints (in these knowing times) finding that the key of knowledge hath so far opened their hearts that they see with their own eyes into the substantials of godliness, and that, through the instruction and guidance of their teachers, they are en­abled to understand for themselves such other things as they are to join in the practice of, they do therefore further (many of them) begin more to suspect that some share in the key of power should likewise appertain unto them.[7]

These are startling words, against the backdrop of continental royal ab­solutism and the divine right of kings in politics, and the power of the clergy in churches. That whole world of power and authority is seen as already a part of the past, as “former darker times.” The priestood [sic] of all believers even refers to “the clergy (so called)”! “The key of power” is now to be shared by the priesthood of all believers.

In the American Colonies, the Puritan clergy held strongly to the doc­trine, but were still fearful of the people’s priesthood. With the Great Awakening, Isaac Backus, the real and effective founder of the Baptist movement in America, made the doctrine basic to the Baptist churches. He held that “the common people claim as good a right to judge and act for themselves in matters of religion as civil rulers or the learned clergy.”[8] The key to the Baptist position for Backus was the priesthood of all believers. “If we cannot know certainly that the Bible is true without under­standing of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin . . . then, alas, we are in a woeful case indeed.” Men would then be the prey of the cunning of learned priests and Arminians. “It is the privilege of God’s people to have the divine Spirit given to them to seal his truth in their hearts.”[9]

Significantly, Backus looked at the Westminster Standards for support; that Confession’s view of Scripture and the Spirit made possible his view of the priesthood of all believers:

For though I have heard many (both ministers and others) assert that without the knowledge of the original tongues a man could not know whether he preached truth or falsehood, yet I shall not only assert, but prove, that every saint now has the same way to know the truth and certainty of God’s Word that his people had of old, without which all the learning in this world will never bring any man to know certainly the truth of the Scriptures.

Christ told his disciples that the Spirit of Truth would guide them into all truth, John xvi, 73. ... The way that the Thessalonians knew and received the Gospel not as the word of man but (as it is in truth) the Word of God was by its coming to them in power, and in the HOLY GHOST, and in much assurance, I Thess. ii, 13 and i, 5. . . . .  I Cor. ii, 2, 4, 11-14.

This is the only way by which God’s people in every age have known the truth and certainty of his Word which hath been given in to by Protestants in general both at home and abroad since the Reformation. The Westminster Confession of Faith, after mentioning sundry arguments that may induce us to believe the Scriptures, say, “Yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts,” chap. 1, sect. 5.[10]

Scripture, Backus pointed out, declares that believers are kings as well as priests.[11] In A Fish Caught in his Own Net ( Boston, 1768), Backus pressed home the implications of this faith:

Now if each saint is complete in him which is the Head of all wisdom and power, then they have no need of philosophers to see for them, nor of princes to give them power to act for God, but they freely confess with their mouths what they believe in their hearts, and so their hearts are comforted, being knit together in love, and are built up together as they have been taught. And as those saints had received the substance of what was shadowed forth in circumcision, and had declared in their baptism that they were dead to the body of sin and to the worship of the worldly sanctuary, the apostle says, Whereof if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why as though living in the world are ye subject to ordinances after the commandments and doctrines of men. Which things indeed have a show of wisdom and humility.[12]

Does such a doctrine lead to disorders? On the contrary, Backus held, it is the denial of the priesthood of all believers which leads to what in the sight of God are the true disorders, a trust in the wisdom of men and the suppression of God’s working through His word and Spirit:

Thus the Son of God plainly held forth the right which common people ever have to judge both of the doctrine and conduct of teachers, and the meek he will guide in judgment while those who receive not the love of truth but have pleasure in unrighteousness are constantly exposed to be given over to strong delusions. This being the order of Christ’s kingdom, hence see what a disorder it makes when common Christians are denied the free liberty of examining their teachers and of acting according to their judgments in the affair; and also that ‘tis a great disorder to condemn and reproach any teachers, only because they are not owned by rulers or learned ministers, for by this very rule our glorious Lord was condemned as a deceiver and his followers stigmatized as ignorant, cursed people by men who were as famous in the world’s esteem, for learning, devotion, and order, as any in our day (John vii, 47-49). Nor is the disorder less on the other hand when any under a pretence of special teachings and divine influence crowd their improvements upon those who are not edified thereby, and plead their right to do so because they see further than others who they say can’t discern where they are, though (it may be) serious Christians do see them at the same time conduct in a flesh-pleasing way and even not providing things honest in the sight of men.[13]

Prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amend­ment, there had been very real fears for the future of an independent Christianity in America . Bridenbaugh has shown that fear of the establishment of the Church of England as the colonial state church, with an American bishop, was a factor leading to American independence.[14]

It is surprising, therefore, that the religious sentiment concerning the new republic has been so greatly misunderstood. The new federal gov­ernment, from Washington through Buchanan, had very limited powers. A minor bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., today exercises more power than presidents once did. Federal, state, and county governments only rarely touched the life of the people. Hatch believes that somehow theology moved in a few years from the church to the civil order, and the result was a belief in what he calls a civil millennialism.[15] His thesis is a popular one, and a substantial body of writings castigate “ America ’s civil religion.”[16]

There are, however, certain serious weaknesses in this argument. Let us take Hatch as an example, because his thesis is heavily documented with source materials, unlike others. Hatch sees a shift from a theological to a political or civil perspective which led eschatology to shift to the concept of a “civil millennialism.” Hatch’s knowledge of the sources is excellent; his appraisal of them is another matter. A key problem is that millennialism can mean a variety of things. It can mean not only post-millennialism, pre-millennialism, and amillennialism, but also a variety of other concepts which can include everything from the English seventeenth-century Fifth Monarch men to Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism. The millennialism Hatch is concerned with is the revised post-millennialism of Jonathan Edwards and his successors. He is not as extravagant as some, who have tried to see as one such very different and even hostile concepts as post-millennialism, civil religion, manifest destiny, continentalism, imperialism, America ’s mission, and the like. Some clarification of these concepts is possible in Merk’s study.[17] Tuveson and Cherry give us confusion.[18]

For Hatch, Edwards’ post-millennialism supposedly underwent a change in the hands of his successors to become civil millennialism. Let us re­member, however, that Edwards, in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England, has a section on “The latter-day glory, is probably to begin in America ” (Part II, Sect. II). Indeed, Cherry used portions of this to place Edwards in the whole tradition of civil millenarians, whereas Hatch exempts him, because the method for Edwards was for him exclusively revivalism. Let us see first what Edwards had to say:

It is not unlikely that this work of God’s Spirit, so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or, at least, a prelude of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which, in the progress and issue of it, shall renew the world of mankind. . . . And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America . . . .

It is agreeable to God’s manner, when he accomplishes any glorious work in the world, in order to introduce a new and more excellent state of his church, to begin where no foundation had been already laid, that the power of God might be the more conspicuous; that the work might appear to be entirely God’s, and be more manifestly a creation out of nothing; agreeable to Hos. i. 10. “And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God.” When God is about to turn the earth into a paradise, he does not begin his work where there is some good growth already, but in the wilderness, where nothing grows, and nothing is to be seen but dry sand and barren rocks; that the light may shine out of darkness, the world be replenished from emptiness, and the earth watered by springs from a droughty desert; agreeable to many prophecies of Scripture, as Isa. xxxii. 15. “Until the Spirit be poured from on high, and the wilderness become a fruitful field.” And chap. xli. 18, 19. “I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah-tree, and the myrtle, and oil-tree: I will set in the desert the fir-tree, and the pine, and the box-tree together.” And chap, xliii. 20. “I will give water in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen.” And many other parallel scriptures might be mentioned. Now as, when God is about to do some great work for his church, his manner is to begin at the lower end; so, when he is about to renew the whole habitable earth, it is probable that he will begin in this utmost, meanest, young­est, and weakest part of it, where the church of God has been planted last of all; and so the first shall be last, and the last first; and that will be fulfilled in an eminent manner in Isa. xxiv. 19. “From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even glory to the righteous.”[19]

Revivalism and evangelism were indeed basic to what Edwards saw as the means to this fulfilment, and revivalism and evangelism remained as basic to the American scene. But we fail to understand the particular importance of evangelism to America if we think of it apart from the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The Great Awakening, in fact, aroused more than a little hostility and distress because the laity now began to make religion their concern. They judged their pastors, civil authorities, and professors in terms of the requirement that every man manifest grace and the workings of the Lord in his life. No longer was it the duty of the laity merely to listen silently and obey: they were now an aggressive priesthood. There were indeed disorders, but there was now a non-ecclesiastical Christianity abroad. Insubordination motivated by re­ligion, once the exception, now became commonplace. The famous episode of David Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale is illustrative of this. When Brainerd was asked his opinion of a tutor, Whittesley, Brainerd replied, “He has no more grace than this chair.” When Brainerd declined to re­tract his statement, he was expelled. The point of the Great Awakening was that the Holy Spirit was now at work among the people of God. This had repercussions in every area of life. This meant that the people now were God’s instruments in church and state: it meant “power to the people,” republicanism, and a strong stress on the necessity of virtue on the part of the people. As Samuel Cooper declared in a sermon of 1780, cited by Hatch, “Virtue is the spirit of a Republic; for where all power is derived from the people, all depends on their good disposition.”[20]

Moreover, what these Christian leaders, whom Hatch accuses of civil millenarianism, celebrated in America was not America as such, or the state, but the freedom from the state control of religion common to Europe, the freedom of the Christian man from church and state into his priesthood in every realm. The fear of a state church establishment imposed by the crown gave way to the freedom for Christianity spelled out by the First Amendment. The First Amendment was adopted in response to a religious demand: there was a fear of any church-state connection.[21] Whereas in Europe the church-state connection was strong, and the priestly role of the believer non-existent, minor, or suppressed, in the new United States it was now free to manifest itself. This fact alone was commonly seen as a major step towards Christ’s kingdom. Because of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the hope of society was seen not in an established order imposed from above, but as an order created by the priests below. Presbyterian Samuel Miller, in Christianity the Grand Source, and the Surest Basis, of Political Liberty (1793), declared:

The truth is, that political liberty does not rest, solely, on the form of government, under which a nation may happen to live. . . . Human laws are too imperfect themselves, to secure completely this inestimable blessing. It must have its seat in the hearts and dispositions of those individuals which compose the body politic; and it is with the hearts and dispositions of men that Christianity is conversant. When, therefore, that perfect law of liberty, which this holy religion includes, prevails and governs in the minds of all, their freedom rests upon a basis more solid and immoveable, than human wisdom can devise.[22]

Men who had recently feared the imposition of bishops and an English establishment were thus rejoicing that the new civil order represented an absence rather than a power, and because now true revival could do its work. John Murray, in Nehemiah, or the Struggle for Liberty Never in Vain (1779), saw the glorious future in terms of the rule of God’s law, or Biblical law, in the state, and the rule of faith and obedience in the hearts of the people. In brief, he stated the classic position of post-millennialism, no new doctrine as Hatch seems to think. Murray declared:

... the security of the body is the government’s charge—that can never be had where the reins are laid on the neck of men’s lusts, and im­moralities are under no public restraint—the system of laws that affixes no penalty to theft, adultery, murder, and the like enormities, is, justly regarded as designedly opening the widest door for undoing the State: nor is it easy to say why those should be punished whilst blasphemy and profaning the name of God—whilst public mockery of his word, his day and his worship, enjoy the sanction of a public license; and for ought that appears, may plead the shelter of legal establishment. It is hard to investigate any ingredient in the acts restrained more truly pernicious, than is the whole nature of those that go free, unless we conclude that the first table of God’s law is not as binding and au­thoritative as the second—or that obedience to the one exculpates the breacher of the other, or that killing the body is a greater crime than destroying the soul; or in a word, that every member may be ruined and the community safe.[23]

Because Christianity sets forth a sovereign God who claims jurisdiction over every area of life, including the civil, it is necessary for the believer to assert the sovereign crown rights of Christ the King over church, state, and every other realm. The so-called civil millenarians were simply Christians rejoicing in a great step forward in the history of the faith as they saw it, the freedom of the church and state from controls of either one by the other, and the freedom of the Christian man to discharge his priestly, royal, and prophetic offices.

Not surprisingly, one of the consequences of the new republic was the rapid growth of two groups, the Methodists and the Baptists, both of whom in those days placed great stress on the priestly role of the laity. Method­ism then had a strongly lay basis; as Bishop William T. Watkins observed in 1947, “For Methodism there was no rabble.”[24] Even more, the Baptists became the American church. While Baptists can be criticized for their neglect of the doctrine of the covenant and like matters, it must be recognized that, in their development of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, they have been uniquely a representation of a key aspect of the Reformation.

Moreover, in every area of life, this priestly power has been manifested. The characteristic American initiative in education (especially now in the Christian school movement), in economics, science, inventiveness, farming, and in other areas has roots in the Great Awakening and the Reforma­tion doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

Revivalism and evangelism are American phenomena to a great degree, although not lacking in Britain also, and now elsewhere, as a result of missionary influences. Both for Rome and Geneva, and certainly for Wittenburg, Reformation and counter-Reformation were civil concerns; we can indeed speak of civil religion and civil millenarianism when we describe Europe ’s old order. The future of Christianity and of civil government was seen as requiring the imposition from above of a particular form of civil religion.

With the Great Awakening, there was a growing break with civil religion. Both church and state still had to be Christian, but the key was no longer a powered establishment but a priestly people transforming institutions and society by their own regeneration and progressive sanctification. Earlier, Pietism had called for withdrawal from an evil world. Pietism and neoplatonism were later to infect and disarm the Puritan concepts of the priesthood of all believers and postmillennialism, but not before that priesthood had radically directed history.

The post-millennial faith was the natural and theological counterpart of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Premillennialism looks to a supernatural deliverance or rapture out of history. Amillennialism had its origin in Augustine, who, influenced by neoplatonism and Manichaean-ism, could see “no City of God in a temporal sense.”[25] Man’s only hope was in a fortress church, and hence amillennialism moves to build up a power-church to hold out against an evil world. Post-millennialism sees a necessary and a required triumph of the kingdom of God in history by means of God’s regenerating power, and by His law applied and made the life of man by a royal and a priestly people. It should therefore not sur­prise us that both post-millennialism and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers were brought into central focus by Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening, and subsequent Christian leaders. They were merely different aspects of a common faith. The decline of one led to the decline of the other.

Puritanism indeed represented a new development in the history of Christianity. More conservative in some respects than any other movement, its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers created a great, new, and radical impetus in history, especially in Britain and America, and, through them, in all the world. For this reason, the Puritan history is not only an unfinished one, but also a reviving one.


[1] Thomas Cuming Hall, The Religious Background of American Culture (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1930).

[2] Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr., ed., A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943), p. 137.

[3] . John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1936), book II, chap. XV, vi; vol. I, p. 550.

[4] Gervase Mathew, The Court of Richard II (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), p. 149.

[5] Cyril Eastwood, The Priesthood of All Believers: An Examination of the Doctrine from the Reformation to the Present Day (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, [1960] 1962), p. 141.

[6] S. W. Carruthers, The Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly (Philadel­phia: The Presbyterian Historical Society, 1943), pp. 7 If.

[7] A. S. P. Woodhouse, ed., Puritanism and Liberty, Being the Army Debates (1647-9) from the Clarke Manuscripts with Supplementary Documents (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1938), p. 293.

[8] William G. McLoughlin, ed., Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism, Pamphlets, 1754, 1789 (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 37.

[9] Ibid., pp. 30, 103f.

[10] Ibid., pp. 102f. From “A Discourse Showing the Nature and Necessity of an Internal Call to Preach the Everlasting Gospel,” Boston, 1754.

[11] Ibid., p. 156.

[12] Ibid., p. 273.

[13] Ibid., p. 281.

[14] Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre, Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689-1775 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

[15] Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty, Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977).

[16] See Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, eds., America’s Civil Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1944).

[17] Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963).

[18] See Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), and Millennium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1972). See also Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of America’s Destiny (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: 1971).

[19] The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, [1834] 1974), I, 381f.

[20] Hatch, op. cit., p. 105.

[21] See Robert Allen Rutland, The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791 (Chapel Hill, N. C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1955), p. 127.

[22] Ibid., p. 110nf.

[23] Ibid., pp. 115f.

[24] Charles W. Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil: Methodists and the Making of America (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1971), p. 93.

[25] Franklin L. Baumer, Modern European Thought, Continuity and Change in Ideas, 1600-1950 (New York (Macmillan, 1977), p. 120.


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