Slavery, Antislavery, U.S. Constitution, Presbyterians, Christianity, Covenanters
Founding Sins, by Joseph S. Moore, looks at the American outgrowths of Scotland's covenanting sects, those Presbyterians who split off from the established Church of Scotland and adhered to Scotland's seventeenth-century national covenants—the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant with England five years later. In those documents, Scots Presbyterians committed themselves to maintain the true religion at home and to reform the Church of England according to "the example of the best Reformed Churches." Most Scots would eventually abandon those commitments either at the Restoration or the "Glorious" Revolution. But a remnant retained their commitment to the documents and to the ideal of a Christian and Presbyterian state, suffering imprisonment, exile, and executions under the later Stuarts, and [End Page 387] remaining aloof as their fellow but uncovenanted Presbyterians regained control of the Scottish Kirk at the Revolution.
In recent years, several Scottish historians have given renewed attention to the later covenanters and the political traditions they inspired. That has not, until now, been accompanied by much discussion of their co-religionists in North America. To be sure, Gideon Mailer has recently explored links between the covenanting heritage and the political principles of one of America's Revolutionaries, John Witherspoon, and others have noted also the adoption of the terminology of "Solemn League and Covenants" by Massachusetts radicals. But neither Witherspoon nor the Massachusetts men followed the covenanters's literal insistence on the renewing of the covenants. Witherspoon in fact was a minister of the established Scottish Kirk against which the covenanters testified.
That neglect is not all that surprising. Covenanters were a collection of small sects, whose insistence on the necessity of state integration with the Church would seem to have been out of step with American views of religious liberty. Moreover, their commitment to upholding a very precise version of the Scottish past, one that happened long before and far away, kept their numbers low. Thus Moore has undertaken a substantial task for himself in not only recovering the story of those small groups but in insisting on their significance, as the "most important religious sect in American history that no one remembers today" (36). He succeeds surprisingly well in both telling and selling their story.
Among Moore's targets are current claims by the Christian right that America was established as a Christian nation, by founders supporting its subordination to a Christian God. Moore follows recent historians such as John Fea in discrediting such an ahistorical notion of what the founders actually thought they were about. Moore goes farther. Not only were the Founders not devoted to establishing a Christian nation, but their most fervent opponents were orthodox and conservative Christians who recognized that and castigated the new American government for having been created in sin. Indeed, some went so far as to denounce the legacy of the founders for their omission, including George Washington, with whom some of them clashed as well over his western land claims.
If many historians today would condemn the covenanters for such intolerance, they would be more sympathetic to covenanters' views of what they came to see as the other of the original sins of the Constitution: its acceptance of slavery. At a time when other conservative Christians were employing biblical literalism to justify slavery, covenanters followed [End Page 388] the same path to a different result. Yes, slavery was to be found in scripture, but so also were condemnations of man-stealing, hereditary punishments, and the like. Unless Christians could find evidence in the bible that either they or the slavery they practiced were the direct descendants of biblical slaveholders, covenanters contended, they had no warrant to hold slaves. And the differences they discovered were legion, from the planter's adoption of a lavish lifestyle to the absence of a jubilee year. Covenanters not only opposed slavery in their pronouncements but also worked on behalf of abolition and freedom...