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The gospel and democracy

Friday, 1 July 2016  | Peter R. Green

Since the Enlightenment, people have sought to write Christianity out of Western history. But Western History is to a marked extent itself the creation of Christianity.

The popular view is that the Reformation weakened Rome’s centralised power, which was increasingly transferred to the equally anti-democratic and oppressive states that arose in the wake of, and were supported by, the Reformation. So far, reasonably good, considering that no alternative models had been tried within Europe in the previous 1200 years, so rulers adapted what they knew, and continued largely as before. The theory adds that a further wave of influence was already emerging in the late Middle Ages, after the 1453 fall of Constantinople brought Classical (Greek and Roman) knowledge to the West as scholars fled the Muslim armies.

Here, though, the theory goes distinctly wonky.

It is said that, at that point. Europe’s intelligentsia learnt of an enlightened, cultured era, a Golden Age of peace and contentment, when its citizens, free from religion’s oppressive yoke, all participated in the management of the state. Here was a fresh model for England and the Continent! So, it is believed, these protagonists of a new world order campaigned for a classical style of society, a model first adopted in the newly emerging United States, and gradually implemented to a greater or lesser extent around much of the world.

When I visited the English city of Bath a few years ago, I was admiring the Royal Crescent’s 18th century architecture when my daughter-in-law brought me back to earth. ‘Of course, people like us would never have lived in those buildings. Our place would have been down there.’ She pointed to the subterranean servants’ quarters with their tiny courtyards.

When we imagine ourselves drinking coffee with Addison and Steele or suggesting words for Johnson’s dictionary, we are in a phantasy world. Very few of us would have been anything other than denizens of the underworld, people whose labour facilitated the comfortable lives of the few at the top, or farmers like my great-great-great grandparents from Seaford in Sussex, whose lives were little changed from mediaeval times.

What the leaders of 18th Century English society envisaged was a very limited form of democracy. As in Athens or Rome, the free citizens, the patricians, would determine policy. The labourers, analogous to the slaves of the classical world, were not to have a say. What could the unwashed hordes contribute?

John Adams, signer of the American Declaration of Independence, declared:

Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.1

These opinions would have been equally amenable to the temper of most of England’s own political class.

Duke University professor Alexander Keyssar similarly wrote in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States:

At its birth, the United States was not a democratic nation—far from it. The very word ‘democracy’ had pejorative overtones, summoning up images of disorder, government by the unfit, even mob rule. In practice, moreover, relatively few of the nation's inhabitants were able to participate in elections: among the excluded were most African Americans, Native Americans, women, men who had not attained their majority, and white males who did not own land.’ 2

This was little different from the attitude prevalent in England at the same time.

But a very different understanding of democracy was bubbling up unnoticed, one with roots in mediaeval Christianity and, indeed, in the faith’s original foundation.

When Adam dalve and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?3

So commenced an important call to rebellion against inequality and oppression in a sermon by Wycliffite priest, John Bull, during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. His appeal relied on the creation account in Genesis: had God planned that some should be peasant slaves, he would have created humans so, rather than creating them equal.

In a social sense, then, the Reformation’s key achievements – persuading people to question authority, to read and understand the Bible for themselves and to take individual responsibility for their faith – made explicit and affirmed what many had long felt.

In many ways, rather than manifesting the logical outworking of the Reformation, the aim of 16th century rulers was, to a large extent, to limit the movement and prevent its becoming too radical or powerful.

However, genies rarely stay in an uncorked bottle. In January 1525, a small group of Christian men met in Zürich, determined to defy the City Council on the matter of baptism despite the severity of punishment threatened by the Council. This was, by all accounts, a lay-led decision, and resulted in the formation of the Swiss Brethren (Anabaptists). Lacking central coordination and splintered by persecution, the various Anabaptist groups across Europe nevertheless shared many common features, one of which was a democratic form of church government that didn’t rely on a member’s social status.

By the late 1500s, Dissenters (Congregationalists) in England had also developed a form of participatory democracy, which was inherited or rediscovered by both the General Baptists as they came into being in the Netherlands around 1608, and the Particular Baptists some 25 years later. It is arguable that the philosopher, John Locke, whether consciously or not, derived some of his social and political views from radical Protestants whom he met in the Netherlands before his return from exile with Queen Mary in 1688.

During the English Civil Wars, the Quakers emerged, adopting a democratic polity, and not even willing to remove their hats in deference to social or political rank. The mid 18th century Methodists, though theoretically less directly democratic than the almost anarchic earlier groups, were, in practice, little different due to the small group systems introduced by Wesley.

However, the greatest challenge to the patrician ‘democracy’ preferred by Adams and his ilk came to the fore during the American War of Independence.

England refused, not only to export goods to the new country, but also to export priests for the Church of England. People already assured by the evangelists of the Great Awakening that a state supported church was inimical to a vital faith, and discovering that there were often no clergy in their Church of England churches, moved in droves to Methodist churches in particular, with Baptists not far behind.

And these Methodists and Baptists – and a few others who adopted similar approaches – were farmers, labourers, clerks and even women, together with land-owners, factory managers and others who would have had the vote in State elections. It became politically difficult to restrict suffrage to the extent envisaged by Adams and his ilk. And what the US did – and succeeded with – became the model for many other countries, including our own.

This is not to say that the battle for democracy is complete by any means. While we can point to the blatant efforts of some in the US to prevent the poor and the coloured from accessing voter registration, we should also note our own national failings.

As we struggle for a more broadly democratic nation in Australia, it is important to remember that, ‘when Adam dalve and Eve span’, the status of ‘gentleman’ was no part of the plan; and that a Jesus who calls his followers not servants, but friends, provides no succour for those who consider that their wealth or breeding gives them special advantages to rule the rest.


1. Quoted in Ed Crews, Voting in Early America, CW Journal, Spring 2007, https://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Spring07/elections.cfm

2. Quoted in Crews.

3. Wikipedia Article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ball_(priest)

Peter Green
is a Baptist minister in an inner suburb of Sydney. He has also worked in Local Government as a Town Planner and in Market Research, and was, for a time, editor of The Australian Baptist. He has also lectured in post-Reformation Church history at Morling College.


Jim Reiher
July 1, 2016, 6:51PM
Most thought provoking. Thanks Peter. I would like to read the longer version!
Will Jones
July 7, 2016, 2:37AM
This is a pretty good cursory history, but it doesn't really explore why voting rights were restricted, and what relation that had to ideas (including religious ideas) prevalent at the time. It also presents the move to universal (male) suffrage as arising from social and political pressure, but these were often driven also by ideals e.g. Jacksonian democracy in America, the French revolution, Chartism in Britain. It also doesn't really engage with what democracy is (or at least what we mean by it), what is good about it, and what the problems with it might be - and indeed why we limit it with various other things like rights and representative legislatures.

I know that's a lot to ask in such a tight space - too much - but it is an article entitled 'the gospel and democracy'.
August 4, 2016, 8:13PM
Thanks, both Jim and Will, for your comments, and I agree with them. There is a lot more that could and probably should be said.

In my defence, I say two things.

First, while my historical field (post-reformation Church history) definitely overlaps the period referred to in this article, it is not my strong point and I am aware of wider issues which someone else could better discuss.

Second, having a suggested word limit of 1500 which seemed insanely generous when the previous site for which I have written became edgy at around 110 words, I spent quite a deal of time before the deadline pruning my text to the bone and did in fact omit two or three paragraphs which might have partly covered your areas of concern. Whether I could recover them now, I doubt, though.


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