“A Species of Patriotism, So Called, Which the Gospel Does Not Approve”

Congregationalist minister George B. Cheever earned a reputation in the nineteenth century as a representative Christian abolitionist. Cheever attended Bowdoin College where he was a classmate of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cheever is useful to discussions on Christian America. His short work God’s Hand in America posited the common argument that God had providential purposes for the United States. What makes him compelling is his argument that what might be considered a widespread Evangelical teaching—that the Gospel obliterated national differences—would in fact also destroy the human race.

The Gospel indeed proclaims peace and good will to the world; it seeks to make all men, in reference to earth, pilgrims and strangers, to unite them in one holy and happy brotherhood, and to subject them to new and celestial relationships strong and lasting as eternity, and embracing, in their wide scope, the entire universe of the virtuous and the good, both on earth and in heaven. But the reasoning which would hence infer any inconsistency in the spirit of the Gospel with the highest degrees of devotion to the welfare of our country, would make Christianity subversive of the foundations of society; and opposed not to nationality only, but to the continuance of the human race. For if the love of country be excluded by the predominance of that heavenly-mindedness which the Gospel inculcates, so are the love of neighborhood, and the love of domestic relatives, and all the endearments of friendship, and all local attachments, and the pursuits of business, and labors for a household provision, and whatever else is necessary to the continued existence of man in this world.

George B. Cheever, God’s Hand in America (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1841), viii

The Gospel did not annihilate human history, or the development of human nations or polities.

There was however according to Cheever, “a species of patriotism, so called, which the Gospel does not approve.” “It was the maxim of Themistocles, that whatever is advantageous to one’s country is just; but as that self-love is criminal which pursues its purpose in violation of another’s rights, “so is that love of country, if it must be so termed, which wantonly interferes with the peace and independence of other nations.”  Christianity had “no encouragement for the darings, no sympathy with the spirit, of an Alexander or a Napoleon, or of any one of the great conquerors, whose exploits history has recorded or poetry sung.” In actuality Cheever proposed that Christianity had “no terms of reprobation, strong enough to express its hostility to all, whether individuals or nations, who trench on the peace and liberty and inalienable rights of others, to aggrandize themselves.” God saw a “plundering army” as “an association of robbers and murderers,” who on judgement day would not be considered anything less than a wicked horde “because they were banded together and headed by a brave and skillful chief.” Imperial Rome, for example, fell afoul of Cheever’s standard of godly patriotism because of its penchant for conquests. “Triumphs of the Roman generals,” Cheever declared, “which filled the imperial city with exultation, moved Heaven with purposes of exterminating wrath against the nation.”

Christian patriotism precluded specific types of partisanship. “The religion of Christ, is also opposed to the vaunted patriotism of the spirit of party. The Gospel obliges us to seek the country’s good; not the success of one portion of the community, in opposition to another.” Nonetheless it was potentially possible for “ the interests of the party and of the country” to be “identical.” In that case Christianity allowed patriots who identified with a party to pursue their political interests but forbade them “doing so with the feelings of rivalry; and, if we disregard the prohibition, however successful we may be, it denies us the praise of love to the nation.” It was possible for good to come to a country through partisan means, “but our condemnation will be just, unless an honest zeal for the nation’s happiness, not the party’s triumph, be the motive of our conduct.”[1]

[1] All quotes are taken from George B. Cheever, God’s Hand in America (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1841), viii-ix.


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