isaac 3

The past week has not, on the whole, been a joyous one for American Christians. With Ted Cruz’s suspension of his presidential campaign last Tuesday night, it became almost certain that on January 20, 2017, an ungodly and unprincipled person will be inaugurated as the forty-fifth president of the United States. This person will favor abortion, homosexual behavior, and the continuation of theft through wealth-transfer. All that remains to be determined is which of two such persons will on that day perjure themselves with an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

I have much more to say about the election and the part Christians should play in what remains of it, but today I want to talk about something related to the election but much larger. I want to remind us all that Christians have faced hostile governments before. They trusted in God, and He delivered them in His time. I’ll mention one case in particular.

With the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England in 1660, the situation of the country’s evangelical Christians–known as dissenters–got sketchy. The restored Anglican establishment had no love for these Independents and Baptists, who were the spiritual descendents of the Puritans. Over the next half century, king and Parliament sometimes grudgingly tolerated the dissenters and sometimes didn’t tolerate them very much at all. It was during one of those times of relative intolerance that John Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a license and during that incarceration wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. Even the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did not completely relieve the pressure on Christians as the monarchs of the House of Orange acquiesced in Parliament’s hostility to evangelicals.

In 1714 the Anglican-dominated Parliament enacted a law aimed at shutting down dissenting schools and private dissenting tutors. It was called the Schism Act, and it stipulated that every schoolmaster or tutor must be an active member of the Anglican Church and must have a license from the local Anglican bishop. Of course, the bishops were not about to license any Bible-believing Christians. Queen Anne gave her assent to the law, and it was scheduled to take effect on August 1, 1714.

Deeply concerned about the new law was evangelical pastor and tutor Isaac Watts. Watts, who pastored a dissenting chapel in Stoke Newington, had himself graduated from a dissenting academy. During his youth, his father had twice been imprisoned for the truth of scripture.  The Schism Act would, of course, render the younger Watts’s tutoring activities illegal and would shut down the dissenting academy he had attended. A brilliant poet and a clear thinker (he later published a textbook on logic that went through twenty printings), Watts also wrote hymns. It was at this time, that he penned the hymn we know today as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” It was inspired by Psalm 90 and the present distress. The first verse is the most familiar:

O God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast,

And our eternal home.

 

The second speaks of God’s past protection and His people’s continuing confidence in Him:

Under the shadow of Thy throne

Thy saints have dwelt secure;

Sufficient is Thine arm alone,

And our defense is sure.

 

Some of the later verses point out the ephemeral nature of all human endeavors and governments:

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,

With all their lives and cares,

Are carried downwards by the flood,

And lost in following years.

 

Like flowery fields the nations stand

Pleased with the morning light;

The flowers beneath the mower’s hand

Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

 

As historian Rochelle A. Stackhouse wrote, “Watts intended its singers to hear, proclaim, and understand a political as well as a theological message. Acts of Parliament will come and go; monarchs will take the throne and will die and be replaced by other transient monarchs. Dissenters need not fear these changes brought by ‘the busy tribes of flesh and blood, with all their lives and cares.’ . . . The hymn is a bugle call to stay the course, not only in worshipers’ personal faith, but also in their relationship to the state and its laws” (Rochelle A. Stackhouse, “Hymnody and Politics: Isaac Watts’s ‘Our God, Our Help in Ages Past’ and Timothy Dwight’s ‘I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,’” in Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, eds., Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 51).

On August 1, 1714, the day the Schism Act was scheduled to go into effect, Queen Anne died. The law was never implemented, and three years later it was repealed. The new Hanoverian kings, and the Whigs who soon came to power in Parliament, proved far more favorable to religious toleration.

God had delivered his people. We serve the same God today, and we should take comfort from Watts’s hymn, including its final stanza:

O God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our eternal home.