A Democratic Experiment
A Review of
Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity
The dissenting movement 17th and 18th century England has been a lacunae in my knowledge and understanding of church history. While I have read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a young pastor and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a teen and again in college, I had little awareness of Bunyan’s association with the dissenting movement and of Defoe’s, nothing. And while I have read isolated poems of William Blake, never the long and difficult Jerusalem.
That gap has at least been closed by Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity. Curtis Will Freeman, on the faculty of Duke Divinity School, places these three towering figures of literary history firmly into the outline of church history. Freeman tells the story of the works in their historical contexts, and especially their context in the history of the Christian Church, with special attention to the church in North America.
As he tells their story, he also chronicles lesser known but no less dedicated colleagues and friends in the non-conformist movement who also wrote, preached, and defended the faith and commonly lost their freedoms and occasionally lost their lives. Freeman seeks to “Show how and why dissent matters, not only as a historical movement that has been laid to rest and memorialized in stone and texts but as a vital practice for the goal of Christianity today, and indeed for the flourishing of free societies.”
He begins by defining the dissent movement and its general contours in 16th and 17th century England. At the heart of the issue for the dissenters was whether on could confess allegiance to both an earthly monarch and their Lord Jesus as King. Their answer generally was “no.”
In the central three chapters of the book, Freeman elucidates, in turn, John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe, and William Blake and Jerusalem. In turn, the authors and works are placed in the context of the dissenting movement and the influence of these works on both the movement and the larger history of the church.
While everything up to the last chapter was interesting, illuminating, and copiously documented and argued, the pay off was really in the concluding chapter of the book. In fact, I would highly recommend the book if the final chapter was all that was read. It’s here that he draws conclusions for the American experiment in democracy and the legacy of the dissenting movement. Two strains of dissenters settled in America, those like John Winthrop who pursued their social vision through a policy of forced uniformity, and others, like Roger Williams who believed that Christian community and just society demands protection of those whose opinions and judgments veer off from the majority. In Rhode Island (the Roger Williams community), religious liberty extended not just to Baptists, Quakers, and other Christians, but to Jews, Muslims, and adherents of no religion. Williams also, not insignificantly, rejected the notion that the indigenous peoples were “savages” without rights or property. He appealed to Gov. John Winthrop of Massachusetts that the Massachusetts Bay Colony had not proper claim to the land, and that the patent issued by England was invalid unless the Colony intended to compensate the native peoples for their land.
While there’s no evidence that the Rhode Island experiment found its way directly into the basic documents of American democracy, Jefferson and Madison had strong support from the American churches who were formed from the Baptists and Presbyterians and others who grew out of the dissenting tradition. The irony is rich, that the Baptists of the colonial tradition were the most insistent to extend religious freedom to all, including even those outside the Christian faith, while their contemporary heirs of the tradition are most intolerant of those who dissent from their dogma. Where things went wrong, Freeman argues, is that whereas earlier generations of dissenters viewed religious liberty as a common matter shared by the whole Christian community, the contemporary adherents of that tradition regard it as a private matter that resides with each individual. “With little sense of a common life, the best practices of democracy that undergirded the American experiment, would now seem to be in question.”
Freeman concludes by placing Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders squarely in the tradition of the English dissenters. King’s work gave voice to weary souls who longed for a new world which would come after the passing of the old one, a commonly shared theme of the dissenters. For the 21st century carriers of the legacy of the dissenters who await the promise of the new creation, the struggle continues against the forces that resist the coming of the new creation. Freeman concludes that it is essential for the success of American democracy that the voices of Christian dissent continue to be heard. The tension continues between loyalty to Christ and allegiance to earthly rulers.
We’ve come to a critical moment in this American democratic experiment. We’ve elected a president with little regard for the truth, an administration intent on dismantling government regulation and roll back policy intended to safeguard citizens and protect resources, a Congress that passed a tax bill that is nearly universally criticized by both right and left, Freeman’s work is both timely and necessary. Not just for Baptists, but for all Christians, dissent may well be the preferred posture for the sake of true community, not just church community, but the larger community of the polis.
Jim Honig is pastor with the people of Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church (ELCA) in northern Door County, Wisconsin. He writes for denominational preaching resources, blogs, is the author of the novel, By Paths Unknown, and is active in local and national congregation-based community organizing.