Watts on National Election

What theological justifications for nationhood might our forefathers born against today’s multiculturalism? How might the case for nation been made compared to present day global identities? During the 18th and 19th centuries– a time corresponding to rising Anglo-power– ‘national election’ was an idea shared equally by Arminians and Calvinists. Among the former, I’ve run across this brand of election in writings by the luminous Rt. Rev. William White, forty year primate of the Protestant Episcopal Church (USA), and especially Mr. Adam Clarke of the Wesleyan Methodists from the UK. Previously, I touched the subject respecting William Smith’s Temporal Salvation where the concept was integral to the progress of American civilization, also known as manifest destiny. Admittedly, I know less of the Calvinist belief, but last year ran across Rev. Isaac Watts’s moral poetry for school children. Watts was an Independent minister in England and is known for his voluminous hymns. Anyway, his Divine and Moral Songs for Children introduce ‘national election’ in an easy and digestible form. 

Watt’s Song’s V & VIII are sampled below, both showing the national principle. Song V, titled ‘Praise for Birth and Education in a Christian Land’, contrasts the light of Britain, namely it’s learning or emerging educational system, to the heathen darkness of the New World. Most explicit is Watts thanksgiving, “That I was born on British ground”. Here, ‘home’ and ‘church’ are tightly intertwined, their aggregate being the nation itself. In a country like England, where every Englishman was a legal member of the Church of England (or enjoyed a toleration thereto), Christian blessings are credited with birth, and, not surprisingly, baptism attending infancy. Upon a child’s baptism, which calvinist Independents like Watts also kept, parents and godparents vow to rear their infants in the Christian faith. Namely, children are to learn the Creed, “I believe in God the Father…”. Consequently, upon a mature or highly developed form of Christianity– marked by a national Church like the Anglican one– ‘ecclesiastical or baptismal election’ (a term used by H. Browne) ultimately has national significance, rendering the entire country, since under legal establishment, endowed with the gospel privileges given by due instruction.

 

Watt’s next song likewise expresses God’s favor among the nations. Interestingly, unbelieving Jews are lumped together with Heathen– an aggregation of displeasure which most churches today would avoid but typical in the early 18th-century. While Watts deems ignorance as damning as unbelief, there’s also a sober warning when natural seed is lopped lopped off for wild issue. We may conclude Gentilism’s wild vine indeed replaced native Jewish one, so the British or Reformed Church may be considered the recipients of Abraham and old Israel’s blessings and dignity.

Lastly, Watt’s Song VIII, concretely demonstrates the good of temporal or civil privileges under the gospel. The institutions which promote literacy include public or charity schools. Charity schools were rising in Watt’s day (hence the compilation of this hymn book by Watts). Charity schools formed the basis of England’s public education, later promoted in the 19th-century by movements like the ‘National Society’. Early schools for poor children were supported by subscription from wealthy benefactors.

Adam Clarke and William Smith– men who bridged both 18th & 19th centuries– had much to say regarding civil institutions working with Evangelicalism. Clarke expounds upon Romans 3:1-2, where St. Paul asks, “What advantage then hath the Jew? Or, what profit circumcision? Much every way: first of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God”. The 39-Articles speak similarly describing the Church as “Keeper of Holy Writ.”  These advantages are obviously related to the early piety of a child (also possible under religious pluralism) yet magnified with the expanse of Charitable, and later Sabbath, schools as Watt well-knew in England.

Another verse, out of the same eight stanza song, reiterates the benefit of literacy– helping with knowledge in Christ. Perhaps at this point one can perceive how the systematization of the church catechism or countrywide schooling can help make a nation “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people”.

I hope to write more about early 18th-century Charity and later Sabbath (Sunday) schools in future posts. But three conclusions might be pointed out. First, national (or ecclesiastical) election has an affinity to Calvin’s earlier providential and postlapsarian view of eternal decree. But predestination to grace rather than salvation, as Browne calls it, still lacks calvinist certainty. Secondly, national election presumes a very high ecclesiastical development– that of the national church. In this context, civil progress takes new significance, deserving a holy jealousy, even a reverence among its beneficiaries. In other words, patriotism has a higher object. It’s also inconceivable how an advanced ecclesiology like a national church can be reached without a generational or natural view of spiritual inheritance as expressly given by the baptism, or at least blessing, of children. Thirdly, today we are looking back to the former glory of the New Jerusalem or unraveling of Western Christendom. With its demise likely follows the loss of a healthy (and godly) superiority contra strangers who are either unbelieving or brutish. However, ‘superiority’ belongs to God’s favor, evidenced in the past by the rising literacy of Britons with their Oracles of God. This privilege predisposed the English to cherish their history and power as unique– a sensibility entirely remote today. And, the notion that nations can be corporately ‘elect’ seems a basis toward an order between peoples, say, even British Israelism.

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