Message from the Head of the School

Jun 01

Message from the Head of the School

In the Spring of 2005, while trying to make a difficult decision about whether to accept an invitation to move my family from Washington D.C. and join the American Heritage School community, I took the time to study from a rather large, red, book compiled by a woman named Verna Hall, and entitled The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States:Christian Self-Government.(1)


I was captivated by an excerpt from the preface:

We invariably reject or misconstrue references to the word Christian—in relation to civil governments—as being doctrinal and sectarian. Our failure to understand this largely contributes to the present disregard of Christianity in relation to civil government. Each religion has a form of government, and Christianity astonished the world by establishing selfgovernment. With the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620, Christian self-government became the foundation stone of the United States of America. “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.” (Psalm 118:22; Matt. 21:42).(2)


Upon reading these words, I felt a kind of stirring recognition in my soul. What was this notion of selfgovernment? Why was it Christian in its essence—yet somehow non-sectarian? And what did it have to do with the American form of government? With a school?

Christian Self-Government, Christian Charity, and the Making of America (3)

In the Spring of 1630, John Winthrop, the recently elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, gave an inspiring sermon aboard the flagship Arbella that preceded a decade-long migration of English Puritans to America. Like the Pilgrims of 1620,(4) the Puritans faced tremendous risks associated with colonizing America—including the risk of extinction. Winthrop was confident that biblical principles of Christian character, personal sacrifice for neighbors, and individual self-government—all drawn from the ideals of biblical love—would assure ultimate success to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and sustain a growing community that would be a model and a light to the world. Winthrop entitled his speech “A Model of Christian Charity”—widely considered one of the most influential speeches on American identity in four centuries of American history.(5)

GOD ALMIGHTY in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times so me must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission… That every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the common good of thecreature, man… There are two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: Justice and Mercy. These are always distinguished in their act and in their object, yet may they both concur in the same subject in each respect… the Law of Nature would give no rules for dealing with enemies, for all are to be considered as friends in the state of innocence, but the Gospel commands love to an enemy. If thine enemy hunger, feed him; “Love your enemies… Do good to them that hate you.” (Matt. 5:44)(6)


It is this same speech in which Winthrop employed the beautiful “City on a Hill” covenant language that has resonated not only with Christians,(7) but with principled civic leaders and God-fearing people of other faiths and cultures who have promoted and preserved America through the centuries:

We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make each others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work… For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it. Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.(8)

As evidence of the powerful and enduring principles in Winthrop’s speech, subsequent American political leaders from John Adams to Bill Clinton—including Ronald Reagan and almost every president and presidential aspirant since John Kennedy—have explicitly referenced Winthrop’s name and speech to outline our national American aspirations and identity.(9)


From Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address in 1989:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.

Many countries have a sense of “exceptionalism” about their national purpose and identity. But America’s is, for lack of a better description, sacred. Matthew Holland, in his book Bonds of Affection, makes an observation about this very unique American political tradition to which Winthrop joined his name. Holland writes of the American confluence of agape (Greek, “Christian love” or “love of God”) and caritas (Latin, “charity”) in its national political fabric. Inspired biblical notions of “love thy neighbor”(10) and even “love thy enemy”(11) found expression in the political worldviews of men like Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln:

Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln were all uniquely philosophical statesmen who exercised an enduring influence at decisive junctures in the rise and establishment of American democracy. At the height of their influence, all three figures delivered a seminal speech appealing to certain communal ‘‘bonds of affection’’ which they argued were essential to a stable, flourishing polity. In attempting to draw out and sustain these bonds of affection, each leader consciously worked to channel some understanding of Christian love—what the New Testament calls ‘‘charity’’ (1 Cor.13:13)—into a central civic, rather than strictly religious, virtue. In doing so, they helped establish a unique and important strain in the American political tradition, one more often appealed to by political leaders than studied by scholars.(12)

Lincoln appealed to these “bonds of affection” in his First Inaugural Address,(13) and his ensuing contributions to a spirit of national brotherhood, union, healing, and forgiveness are well documented.(14) As for Jefferson, his “philosophical liberalism” did not dampen his modeling of these same principles of caritas (charity) and agape (Christian love) in his drafting of the Declaration of Independence:

While [Jefferson] remained steadfastly committed to philosophical liberalism as the ground of his politics, he developed around this time [of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence] a powerful appreciation for a rationalized version of Christ’s teachings on love. Jefferson’s First Inaugural—which along with his Declaration of Independence essentially brackets the era we consider the traditional founding of America—is the first and best glimpse of how he thought such teachings should be brought to bear on America’s fledgling democracy.(15)

What does all of this have to do with selfgovernment? Fast-forward to 2013 and American Heritage School. Ours is a school culture where the term “self-government” matters—a lot. We use it as a frequent substitute for terms like “self-discipline,” “obedience,” and “on-task behavior.” It is etched in stone over an entranceway.

Why? Because, as used both in the American founding and at American Heritage School—true selfgovernment is, emphatically, Christian in its essence. True self-government is selfless government. It is an external expression of magnificently powerful beings who choose to align their power with God’s will, and sacrifice their own carnal desire for a higher purpose. As with the great American Declaration, “With a firm reliance on the Protection of a Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”


In the final analysis, true self-government is atonement-like in its essence. “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). Put simply, self-government, correctly understood and rightly exercised, is one of the most powerful tools of effective government in the world (self, family, school, national)—because it unleashes the power of the two great commandments: love God, and love our neighbor. Ordered liberty flows naturally from this kind of self-government.


Read carefully the way Elder Oaks described the principle of self-government at a recent speech he delivered in New York City to a prominent organization devoted to protecting religious liberty in America:

Our society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior. Religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to produce such voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens.(16)

Elder Oaks went on to cite the concerning demographic trend in which the “nones” (those who report no affiliation with organized religion) now comprise 33 percent of the young American adults age 18–30, and that about half of those—mostly the younger portion—have “a genuine antipathy toward organized religion.” (17) One powerful solution, Elder Oaks concluded, lies in moral-centered education:

We must give greater attention to the education of the rising generation. If the foundation of religious liberty is weakening it must be because the role of religion and the contribution of religious organizations and religiously motivated people in our nation is not sufficiently understood. The rising generation is not being taught these things. I believe that a study of the treatment of religion in elementary and secondary textbooks over the last halfcentury would show a significant decline in the description and stated importance of religion in the founding of our nation and the progress of our civilization. A generation ago, an influential public education group joined others in calling for action by educators, textbook publishers, and civic leaders to halt what they called the “rigorous exclusion” of religion from school textbooks and curricula. Scholars of education advise me that the current problem is not so much the “exclusion” of religion, but its presentation in a critical or biased way that minimizes its influence. (18)

Here is the point: Our liberty to self-govern (or, in Restored Gospel terms: to exercise our agency) is directly correlated with our inward allegiance to correct governing principles. According to Jefferson and Locke, the principles taught by Jesus of Nazareth are the most correct governing principles known to mankind.19 Christianity is the religion of liberty, preserved by self-government. Self-government void of agape (love for God) and caritas (charity for others) is no self-government at all. It is merely compliance, and lacks that which God requires most:

“the heart and a willing mind.” (D&C 64:34). Samuel Adams, the “Father of the American Revolution,” put it in these words:

Let divines and philosophers, statesmen and patriots, unite their endeavors to renovate the age, by impressing the minds of men with the importance of educating their little boys and girls, of inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government, without which they never can act a wise part in the government of societies, great or small; in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system.(20)


May we each continue to grow in love and understanding for this powerful principle of selfgovernment, and renew our commitment to teach and live it to the fullest benefit of our homes and classrooms.



Faithfully yours,


Grant Beckwith
Head of School


(1) Verna Hall (compiler), The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America: Christian Self-Government, Copyright 1966 by Verna Hall, 8th Edition, 2001, The Foundation for American Christian Education. [“CHOC”]

(2) Id. at III.

(3) Credit to Matthew S. Holland, Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America—Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln, Georgetown University Press. View the prologue at [“Bonds of Affection”].

(4) There is some debate about whether the Pilgrim character ethic or the Puritan character ethic most accurately represents the identity of America’s founding character; however, Pilgrims and Puritans both represent covenant communities who viewed the Christian notion of self-government as central to their mission and success. See CHOC at 182 arguing for the Pilgrim Character ethic of America, and arguing for the Puritan Character ethic of America. The debate is important, but reminds me of a group of common-purpose and distracted Christians having a food fight in a cafeteria while the real culture war rages outside with devastating consequences.

(5) Id.
(6) John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity, 1630, aboard the Arbella. For full text, see [“Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity”]

(7) See Mosiah 18:9-10 and 18:21 for a comparison of this same kind of “covenant” language used in ancient times, in this case, 147 B.C. on the American continent at the time of baptism.

(8) Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity.

(9) Id.

(10) Matthew 22:39. The golden rule, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is not unique to Christianity. But the Christian teaching to “love your enemies” is far less common among major world religions. “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44)

(11) Matthew 5:44

(12) Id.

(13) “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” A. Lincoln, First Inaugural, March 4, 1861.

(14) Even Leo Tolstoy stated that Lincoln was a “Christ in himself.”

(15) Bonds of Affection, prologue at p. 3. Here is a relevant excerpt from Jefferson’s First Inaugural address demonstrating the Christian “civic charity” and “Christian love”: “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind… every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” (Jefferson, First Inaugural, March 4, 1801).

(16) Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner, New York City, May 16, 2013.

(17) Id.

(18) Id.

(19) Thomas Jefferson, letter to Henry Fry, June 17, 1804: “Iconsider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught.” Locke states “As men we have God for our King, and are under the Law of Reason. As Christians, we have Jesus the Messiah for our King, and are under the Law revealed by him in the Gospel.” John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, 1695, reprinted in CHOC at XIII.
(20) Samuel Adams, Boston, October 4, 1790, reprinted in CHOC at XIV.


Source: This article  was published in American Heritage School News

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