As Americans celebrate our nation’s founding on July 4, we remember the group of disparate leaders who came together in Philadelphia in the middle of the 1770s to forge enough unity to set thirteen individual colonies on the road to nationhood. What we have in the Declaration of Independence (itself primarily a document listing disagreements with the English government) came together with much contention and political wrangling. These founding leaders had much in common, but that commonality was put to the test over differences in regional interests, economic concerns, and political philosophy.
Different religious convictions also came into play. While most of the members of the Continental Congress were required to hold to basic Christian truths in order to serve in public office, their denominational commitments and doctrinal distinctives played in the background of the formal debates leading up to the ratification of the Declaration, and those tensions carried on into the founding era of the nation.
It is not hard for us to see in our rancorous times how political and religious differences intertwine as they did in our founding era. What was often in short supply then, as it seems to be now, is a model for holding differences in principles and convictions that do not undermine “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” which sets the people of God apart in a fractured world (Ephesians 4:3).
Among that group of eighteenth-century disparate leaders, however, I did find an unusual founder — in my estimation, a model still worth considering. His name is Elias Boudinot.
Boudinot (1740–1821) is an important but little-known member of America’s founding generation. He grew up a child of the Great Awakening, sitting under the preaching of George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and, for a brief time, Jonathan Edwards in Princeton. He rose to prominence in New Jersey politics and was a man of national influence in the lead up to the American Revolution. During the war, Boudinot served on George Washington’s staff and later in the Continental Congress; he was also president of the Congress at the signing of the Treaty of Paris to end the war. Boudinot was a major player in the first three federal congresses and then served in the administrations of Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
After retiring from public service in 1805, he spent the last decade and a half of his life supporting gospel mission in the states and abroad. His lasting legacy was his formative role in establishing the American Bible Society.
“Boudinot endeavored to lead an honorable life of consistent and ardent Christian faith.”
Throughout all of his public engagements, Boudinot endeavored to lead an honorable life of consistent and ardent Christian faith. Historian James Hutson, who has spent years studying the religious thoughts and lives of the founders, writes, “Boudinot is of particular importance, because he was a born-again Presbyterian, whose evangelical views were probably closer to those of the majority of his countrymen than were those of most of his fellow Founders.”1
Man of Gracious Convictions
Boudinot caught his view of God and the world in the great evangelical revival of the mid-eighteenth century, and he never deviated from the path of his early convictions. At the age of 18, he wrote to his friend William Tennent III,
May the Lord grant that we may make a proper use of the short time we have yet remaining. I can’t but record the great goodness of my gracious Protector as well as Preserver, in granting me restraining grace in my youth, and discovering the inestimable worth of an offered Savior unto me. I bless my God for the great hope that is wrought in us, by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, without which this life would be an intolerable burden, an inconceivable load of anxiety and despair, for vain are the days of man.2
Then, sixty years later, he would testify in his will to his
firm, unfeigned, and prevailing belief in one sovereign, omnipotent, and eternal Jehovah, a God of infinite love and mercy . . . [who] has been and is still reconciling a guilty world unto himself by his righteousness and atonement, his death and his resurrection, through whom, alone, life and immortality have been brought to light in his gospel, and, by all the powerful influences of his Holy Spirit, is daily sanctifying, enlightening, and leading his faithful people into all necessary truth.3
Boudinot did not cloister himself away from conflict and disagreement, however. An attorney by vocation, he made arguments for a living. He was a patriot, an identified member of the colonial elites who chose to rebel against the most powerful nation in his world. During the war, it fell to him to wrangle with the British over the treatment of captured American soldiers, who were treated not like prisoners of war but as traitors. In government, Boudinot was closely tied to Alexander Hamilton, the most polarizing politician of his era. He was also a committed abolitionist, which put him in unresolvable opposition with half of his country.
How might Elias Boudinot teach us, more than two centuries later, to stand on our own convictions with a firm but gracious disposition?
‘One Lord and Master’
First, Boudinot tended to major on what unites and not what divides.
Boudinot never wavered in his own doctrinal convictions, which were thoroughly Calvinistic. Yet the effect of the Bible’s good news on his life played out in both strong personal convictions and a gracious spirit that looked first for commonalities, not division. His interactions with those with whom he differed on issues of faith consistently displayed the biblical call to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). It was a lifelong impulse.
When he was 18, he wrote to a friend, “What a glorious Prospect (said I to myself) would it afford, if mankind in general would unite together, in living harmony and concord, and endeavor to make every circumstance of life tend to the common advantage.”4 Nearly sixty years later, he expressed his enduring desire to “pare off the rough points of party and conciliate minds of those who ought to consider themselves of one family, acknowledging one Lord and Master.”5
“Boudinot tended to look for what unites and not what divides.”
This Christian impulse toward unity when possible would serve him well in the public positions he held during the Revolution and beyond. It would also be a driving motivation late in life, leading him to gather support from across the Christian landscape to form the American Bible Society.
‘Truly Reviving to His People’
Second, Boudinot welcomed evidence of God’s activity even when he differed with those in whom he observed it.
Boudinot was a lifelong friend of the Anabaptist Quakers, seeing in them a piety that he aspired to emulate, though he disagreed deeply on important doctrinal points. Later in life, when the Second Great Awakening broke out in the early 1800s, though leaders in his denomination reacted with concern over its crowd-gathering practices and populist theology, Boudinot watched with fascination. While he shared their cautions, Boudinot had learned firsthand from his father and the leaders of the First Great Awakening to look for authentic spiritual fruit wherever it might be found.
In a letter written in the middle of the War of 1812, we get a glimpse of Boudinot’s mature view of the Christian revival experience.
Blessed be God, who in the midst of judgement remembereth mercy. Although our country is involved in a ruinous offensive war, yet is he proving to his church that he has not altogether forsaken us. The pouring out of his Spirit in various parts of the United States, is truly reviving to his people who stand between the porch and the altar, crying, Lord save thy people. In the eastern parts of New York, in Vermont and Connecticut, the revivals are more interesting than has ever been known. In Philadelphia, the appearances are very promising, and generally speaking in these parts, although there are no appearances of remarkable revivals, yet there is a growing attention to the ordinances of the gospel. Bless the Lord, O our souls, and let all that is within us bless his holy name.6
‘Hearts May Agree, Though Heads Differ’
Third, Boudinot valued denominational fidelity without succumbing to denominational sectarianism.
Boudinot was a man of national prominence for nearly five decades. By the end of his life, he was a revered statesman and a driving influence in Christian mission. But he was at heart a churchman who expressed his religious convictions throughout his life. He was a founding trustee of the Presbyterian General Assembly and was moderator of the assembly at the time of his death. He was also a trustee of the Presbyterian College of New Jersey for nearly half a century, and played a significant role in the formation of Princeton Seminary.
In retiring to Burlington, New Jersey, where there was no Presbyterian church, he could have simply enjoyed his wide range of Presbyterian associations. Instead, he joined the church across the street, St. Mary’s Episcopal, where his participation was lively and committed until the end of his life. A prominent Presbyterian joining an Episcopal church was eyebrow-raising in his day, but Boudinot’s actions demonstrated his large heart and vision for the church of Christ beyond its various and often competing expressions. He wrote to the pastor of his former Presbyterian church about his view of denominational differences,
Hearts may agree, though heads differ. There may be unity of Spirit, if not of opinion, and it is always an advantage to entertain a favorable opinion of those who differ from us in our religious sentiments. It tends to nourish Christian charity. I welcome with cordial and entire satisfaction everything that tends to approximate one denomination of Christians to another, being persuaded that he who is a conscientious believer in Christ cannot be a bad man.7
In a day where the church is wrestling with how to engage the society (and often internal differences) with Christian conviction and conduct, the example of Elias Boudinot can provide a much-needed perspective. Even in times of contention, we can stand with conviction without forfeiting a gracious and peace-loving spirit, and the very conduct commended by Christ and his apostles.
James H. Hutson, The Founders on Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), xvi. ↩
Elias Boudinot to William Tennent III, November 22, 1758, William Tennent III Journal and Album, University of South Carolina Library. ↩
From the preamble to Boudinot’s will, Elias Boudinot Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society. Boudinot is referencing 2 Corinthians 5:19 and 2 Timothy 1:10. ↩
Elias Boudinot to William Tennent III, January 28, 1758, William Tennent III Journal and Album, University of South Carolina Library. ↩
Elias Boudinot to Ashbel Green, September 19, 1817, as reprinted in George Adams Boyd, Elias Boudinot, Patriot and Statesman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), 286–87. ↩
Elias Boudinot to Rev. John McDougal, pastor of Elizabethtown Presbyterian Church, March 22, 1813, Elias Boudinot Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society. Biblical references include Psalm 103:1; Habakkuk 3:2; Joel 2:17, 28–29. ↩
Elias Boudinot, Commonplace Book (1803ff, vol. 1, 328), Stimson Collection of Elias Boudinot, Princeton University Firestone Library. ↩