Seeing the Constitution as Covenant


Colonial Americans’ belief in government as a covenant between man and God harmonizes with doctrines of individual obedience and accountability.

Many people have not realized that the fundamental principles of the U. S. Constitution arose largely from beliefs about the importance of people making covenants with God and with one another. 1 The concept of covenant-making has particular significance for Latter-day Saints. And from modern scripture, we learn that America was raised up as a nation “by the power of God” to be a land of liberty (see 1 Ne. 13:12–19) and that God “established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom [he] raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).

In this light, it is significant that beliefs about covenant-making were essential to the development of the basic principles of the U. S. Constitution and to its ratification two hundred years ago. For colonial Americans, the concept of covenant was not limited just to religious doctrines; it was central to their view of the world and God’s workings in it. 2 Not only did they believe that their churches ought to be organized by covenant, but they felt that civil government should also be set up by covenant.

Ideas like these had their roots in covenant theology, which held that God had made a covenant of works with Adam and Eve, who breached the covenant. In his mercy, God, through Christ, then made a covenant of grace with the descendants of Adam and Eve. The Mediator paid the penalty for the broken covenant and became the Lord and Savior of mankind. The heirs of the covenant were promised salvation by exercising faith in Christ. 3

Covenant theology stressed the principles of individual conscience and consent, and voluntary association of individuals by covenant was considered to be a God-given right. Such beliefs broke with traditional doctrines and challenged the established order. 4 At the time, most churches in the states of Europe exercised absolute ecclesiastical control. 5 But covenanters, like Robert Browne, the father of Congregationalism, “insisted that the church is a voluntary association of those who have pledged themselves by covenant to lead a Christian life.” 6 Thus, the belief that church government should be by covenant—that is, by consent of the congregation—was one of the most revolutionary aspects of covenant theology.

In America, covenant theology became the foundation for civic as well as church government. In the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims agreed to “covenant and combine [them]selves together in to a civil body politic … and by vertue [t]hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts and constitutions, and offices … as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the general good.” 7 Similar beliefs also came to America with the Puritans, Anabaptists, independent Presbyterians, and other dissenting Protestants. The Puritans, for example, believed that “God had always dealt with his children by covenant. … It was not only individual, between each man and God; it was also public, respecting the formation of Churches and of civil government.” 8 Other denominational preachers wrote along these lines, too. For instance, John Winthrop preached that his followers had covenanted with God by mutual consent to obtain a new place and a new government. 9

Throughout New England, townships were organized by covenant. The river towns of Connecticut adopted a constitution called the “Fundamental Orders.” It opened with the acknowledgment that “God requires” his people to form their civil governments “by common consent according to God.” 10 The idea of covenant-making thus played an important role in the development of self-government in America.

Covenant beliefs also laid the foundation for other constitutional principles, including popular sovereignty, limited government, supreme law, inalienable rights, and private and public virtue. By the time of the American Revolution, the principle that the origins of society and government rested upon the common consent of the people was familiar throughout the colonies. The 1780 Massachusetts Constitution stated: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals. It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenant with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” 11

Two indispensable components of this principle were the rejection of absolute authority and the belief that rulers were subject to limitations and boundaries defined in the civil covenant, which God required them to observe. Political and religious leaders taught that God would not sanction the governor or government that exceeded proper limits. After all, God himself governed by laws that he observed. The universe he ruled was a constitutional one. If God had bound himself by covenant to observe certain laws, no earthly delegate could claim unlimited authority. But as long as a leader or government acted within the sphere of authority established by covenant, the people were obligated to obey. 12 In this manner, covenant-believers moved themselves, and eventually an entire nation, from the rule of men to the rule of law.

A basic principle of covenant-making was the idea of fixed, immutable, supreme law. The clergy taught that, since God governed by means of a heavenly constitution with divine rules, earthly rulers ought to govern under similar rules. 13 American Protestants believed that there were settled, supreme laws that limited government authority and guaranteed certain rights. In accordance with this belief, then, a civil constitution needed to acknowledge and respect those inalienable rights.

Included in the inviolable laws of God were the rights to worship God and to assemble with fellow believers to do so. In addition, God had ordained civil government to promote the good of the people and protect their rights. Covenant theology also put individual rights of conscience, including obedience to God, at the top of the list of moral law. This ran counter to prior philosophies, which put obedience to established authority at the top. 14 The widespread belief in such covenantal fights contributed to the constitutional protection for the freedom to worship, the freedoms of speech and press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition.

To merit the blessings of God, covenant-believers stressed the need to be virtuous. Though they did not fully agree on the meaning of personal virtue, they clearly believed that God expected strict observance of his laws if they were to enjoy his blessing in their new land. The founders of the U. S. Constitution were especially convinced of the need for public virtue—the willingness of each citizen to subordinate personal wants to the greater good of the community. Private and public virtue were companions. 15 Edmund Burke wrote, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites.” 16

The greatest contribution of covenant theology was not intellectual, however. The most important contribution was in the actual establishment of the U. S. Constitution. For instance, the American resistance that eventually led to independence derived in part from belief in one aspect of covenant-making: the duty to resist ungodly authority. The belief in resisting a government that exceeded the limits established by consent stemmed from the belief in the sacredness of covenants. If a ruler exercised authority beyond what was established by covenant, he defied God. Both religious and secular writers emphasized the broken covenant as a justification to resist authority and vindicate their natural and legal rights. 17 Many clergymen of covenant denominations played active, important roles in the struggle for independence.

After independence had been won, covenant principles helped to fuel the desire for a written constitution. Covenant theologians taught that the will of God was manifest through reason and nature as well as revelation. Since that law could be known, it could also be expressed clearly. In addition, the Puritans believed that the Bible offered answers to all personal, social, and governmental problems. 18 Therefore, if God’s holy laws could be written in the Bible, then man’s basic covenants could also be written.

Finally, covenant theology held that only the people had the right to make a compact to set up a new government. This idea eventually led the delegates to the U. S. Constitutional Convention to make the new government a compact with the people and present the proposal directly to them. 19 The clergy participated actively in drafting this and the constitutional governments of the various states. For example, in three New England states that drafted state constitutions shortly after the Revolutionary War, sixty-six ministers were listed as members of congresses, conventions, or public committees, and more than half were directly involved in writing or amending the constitutions. 20

The leaders and members of covenant-based churches believed in and fought for centuries to assert their God-given inalienable rights. They incorporated their belief in covenant-making into the Constitution of the United States.

As Latter-day Saints, we would do well to remember the nature of the Constitution as a covenant. Society as a whole, too, would do well to remember the basic principles of covenant embodied in that document and in its history. These principles are as essential to the preservation of the Constitution as they were to its establishment two hundred years ago. In fact, the Book of Mormon teaches that Americans will forfeit their liberties and suffer destruction if they break the covenant to worship and obey the Savior. (See 1 Ne. 14:6–7; 3 Ne. 16:8–16; Morm. 5:19–24.) Consider the impact it would have if the nation’s leaders and citizens today believed in the necessity of a virtuous citizenry, the sacredness of civil covenants, and the serious consequences of neglecting or breaching those covenants.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

Lynn D. Wardle, a professor of law in BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, serves as first counselor in the Young Men presidency of the Orem Utah Northridge Stake. He was assisted by Andrew Scoggin, a research assistant in the J. Reuben Clark Law School, in gathering source materials for this article.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    A fuller treatment of these ideas is found in Lynn D. Wardle, “The Constitution as Covenant,” BYU Studies, Summer 1987, pp. 11–23.

  2.   2.

    See Peter DeJong, The Covenant Idea in New England Theology, 1620–1847 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1945), p. 61; Andrew McLaughlin, The Foundations of American Constitutionalism (New York: New York University Press, 1932), p. 72.

  3.   3.

    See Alice Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (New York: F. Ungar Publishing, 1958), pp. 13–14.

  4.   4.

    See McLaughlin, pp. 14–16.

  5.   5.

    See note 3.

  6.   6.

    DeJong, p. 68.

  7.   7.

    McLaughlin, pp. 25–26; see DeJong, pp. 72, 78.

  8.   8.

    A Critical Bibliography of Religion in America, Nelson Burr, James Smith, and Leland Jamison, eds., 4 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961), 4:969–70.

  9.   9.

    See McLaughlin, p. 33.

  10.   10.

    McLaughlin, pp. 35–37; see Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), p. 174.

  11.   11.

    Rossiter, p. 406.

  12.   12.

    See Baldwin, pp. 15, 23, 39; McLaughlin, pp. 75, 108–9.

  13.   13.

    See Baldwin, p. 35; McLaughlin, pp. 108–9.

  14.   14.

    See Baldwin, p. 23; McLaughlin, pp. 21, 72; Rossiter, p. 54.

  15.   15.

    See Baldwin, p. 138; DeJong, pp. 93–176; McLaughlin, pp. 29–34, 75; Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), pp. 69, 116.

  16.   16.

    The Works of Edmund Burke, 12 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1866), 4:51–52.

  17.   17.

    See McLaughlin, p. 20; Rossiter, pp. 393–95; Claude Van Tyne, “Influences of the Clergy, and of Religious and Sectarian Forces, on the American Revolution,” American Historical Review 19 (Oct. 1913): 50.

  18.   18.

    See Baldwin, p. 29, n. 22; Burr, Smith, and Jamison, 4:974; McLaughlin, p. 71; Rossiter, p. 54.

  19.   19.

    See Baldwin, pp. 136–37.

  20.   20.

    See McLaughlin, pp. 71; Baldwin, pp. 134, 183–89.