Elected to Salvation (and other things?)
By Bill Leonard
“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.”
So the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) describes the doctrine of salvific election, a particular way of reading both biblical testaments, stretching from early Roman scholar and saint Augustine of Hippo through Protestant Reformer John Calvin to contemporary pastor and author John Piper. “Salvific election” asserts God’s choice of some individuals from the massa damnata of the totally depraved human race. The twin doctrines of election and predestination are significant elements of Reformed theology as a way of understanding that salvation is entirely the work of God, ultimately capturing the hearts of elected sinners (irresistible grace) before they leave this world.
It is a noble, if divisive, dogma, then and now.
After a half century of studying the history of Christianity, and in light of certain 21st century religio-political events, I remain fascinated with the expansion of the doctrine of election into elements of American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and the global environment. A few brief historical illustrations point to much larger issues and practices.
In its extended forms, election gave permission, even Divine sanction, for particular views of national identity, racial inferiority, and response to the environment.
Certain colonial Puritans insisted that through God’s providence the discovery of America occurred in close proximity to the Reformation, a new land where the true church could again be established as a witness to reform the global community of faith. John Winthrop’s shipboard composition, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” published after his arrival in Boston (1630), declared:
“Wee shall finde that the God of Israel is among us, when tenn of us shall be a led to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us. . .”
Some understood America as the “New Israel,” a “Holy Experiment,” even a “Redeemer Nation.” Over 300 years later Ronald Reagan would use the phrase, “City upon a hill” to describe his vision for the Republic, echoing Colonial Puritans. This Divine exceptionalism, Stephen Walt says, is the sense that, “the United States has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world.”
Today, exceptionalism reappears in debates over American identity as a Christian nation, world peacemaker, or washed out superpower.
Ideas of racial “election” surfaced in the doctrine of white supremacy, reinforcing culturally mandated practices related to slavery and segregation in the American South, as well as a larger racism permeating American society. By the 19th century, certain “biblical defenses” of slavery abounded, not only in Pauline admonitions for slaves to “obey your masters as unto the Lord,” but as sanctions for a white master class, divinely chosen to control lesser races. These New Testament dictums were reinforced by passages from the Hebrew Bible, conjured up to prove that certain “darker races” had been marked by God with assorted “curses”—the mark of Cain and curse of Ham—thus rendering them subordinate to those Aryan races or cultures chosen by God.
In his 1902 novel, The Leopard’s Spots, Baptist preacher Thomas Dixon gives voice to southern politician George Gaston who articulates the links between Divine election, white supremacy, and Lost Cause racism. (The words are deeply painful to read.) “We believe that God raised up our [white] race, as he ordained Israel of old, in this world-crisis to establish and maintain for weaker races, as a trust for civilization, the principles of civil and religious Liberty and the forms of Constitutional Government.” (439) In another segment of The Leopard’s Spots, Gaston declares: “The racial instinct is the ordinance of our life. Lose it and we have no future. One drop of Negro blood makes a Negro. It kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect and lights the fires of brutal passions.” (244)
For Dixon, the white supremacist preacher, God had privileged one race to dominate all others. Racial inferiority was endemic to Divine creation.
National exceptionalism and racial superiority also led to biblical justification for the fruits of election. Puritans and others did not hesitate to use Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession,” dogmas that often created exploitative responses to Native Americans, slaves, and the land itself, proof texts for particular understanding of the role of human beings in relation to other animals and the overall dominion of the environment.
But not everyone agreed, even early in the nation’s history.
Puritan minister and Reformed theologian Roger Williams, America’s quintessential dissenter, published A Key to the Language of America in 1643, a primer of Native American dialect with prophetic response to Anglo superiority (see below).
I think when we dismiss the racist beliefs of early Christian leaders as having been victim to “different times”—whitewashing the issues of responsibility and inheritance—we should remember that at all times we have a choice to see the evidence differently.
Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood,
Of one blood God made Him, and thee & All,
As wise, as faire, as strong, as personal.
Then he added audaciously:
When Indians heare the horrid filths,
Of Irish, English Men,
The horrid Oaths, and Muthers late,
Thus sy these Indians then:
We weare no Cloaths, have many Gods,
And yet our sinnes are lesse:
You are Barbarians, Pagans wild,
Your Land’s the Wildernesse.
In our 21st century wilderness, what if we’re all chosen?
Bill J. Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Church History at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University, for which he was the founding dean, 1996-2010.
Bill holds a PhD from Boston University and is the author or editor of some 25 books, the latest including A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the US; and The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Church History: Flaming Heretics and Heavy Drinkers. His areas of study include American religion, Baptist history, and Appalachian religious life.