The Establishment Principle

“Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.  Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son, lest he be angry”

Psalm 2:10-12

“His Holy One, to him whom man despiseth… Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship…”

Isaiah 49:7

“Kings shall be thy [the Church’s] nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth…”

Isa. 49:23

“He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.”

2 Sam. 23:3



Order of Contents

Definition of the Establishment Principle
Where to Start
Modern Examples



Definition of the Establishment Principle:  

Church and State are co-ordinate powers (on an equal level, with separate jurisdictions) under the authority of the Word of God, that the State has the obligation to profess, protect and promote the true religion, civilly uphold all 10 Commandments, and civilly establish (circa sacra) the true religion in the land.  The Church, maintaining its existence and government by Divine Right, is to speak the Word of God to the State and keep it in check.  

The Establishment Principle is the Biblical and 1646 Confessional view (Ch. 23.3LC #109, 118, 191), as well as the universal view of the Reformation and Puritan eras.



Where to Start?


M’Crie, Thomas – Brief View of the Evidence for the Exercise of Civil Authority About Religion1807, from his Statement of the Difference, chapter 7

This is the best article length defense of the Establishment Principle in church history.  This article contains all the scriptural evidence and major arguments for the historic reformed view.

Thornwell, James – Relation of the State to Christ, 1861, 8 pages, a paper submitted to the first General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church in Dec., 1861, in order to petition the newly formed Confederate States of America to amend their constitution to include the following:

“Nevertheless we, the people of these Confederate States, distinctly acknowledge our responsibility to God, and the supremacy of His Son, Jesus Christ, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords; and hereby ordain that no law shall be passed by the Congress of these Confederate States inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.”


Audio Sermon

McCurley, Robert – First Things First, 2012, a Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) minister

McCurley expounds the greatest commandment, that we are to love God with all our heart, specifically as it applies to the Civil Magistrate to uphold the First Table of the Law


Video Messages 

Beers, Gavin   –   Part 1 – Main Views on National Religion

Part 2 – Essential Principles

Part 3 – Key Texts

Part 4 – Practical Observations





Bullinger, Henry – ‘On the Duties of Rulers and Subjects’  beginning on p. 15, 20 pp. chapter 2 from Edmund Morgan’s Puritan Political Ideas: 1558-1794



Gillespie, George

All of Gillespie’s Writings on Christ’s Mediatorial Kingdom is the Church Only  110 pp.  ed. Travis Fentiman

These writings are the classic delineation of the Establishment Principle.

‘On Whether Lawful Authorities may Impose Oaths’1649, 31 paragraphs

The original Westminster Confession in chapter 22.3 says that, “It is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.”  See this article for the proof-texts of this Biblical teaching, especially in relation to the Biblical right of the civil government to impose oaths for religious reformation on their subjects.  Specifically, Gillespie defends that it was lawful for Scotland and England to impose the Solemn League and Covenant, 1643, on their populaces with civil penalties (which covenant was the catalyst for the Westminster Confession of Faith).

Cambridge New-England Synod – The Power of the Civil Magistrate in Matters of the First Table  1648  14 pp.

This is the best short piece demonstrating from scripture that the civil magistrate is to enforce both tables of the Ten Commandments.



Brown, C.J. – Christ’s Kingship over the Nations Maintained and Defended in the Establishment Principle, or the Principle of National Recognition of Religion  n.d. 28 pp.

Brown (1806-84) was a leader in the Free Church of Scotland and the brother of David Brown (of the J.F.B. Bible commentary).

Buchanan, James – Prefatory Discourse: Containing a General Statement of the Case on Behalf of National Religious Establishments  1835  85 pp.  forming an introduction to Lectures on the Nature, Lawfulness, Duty, and Advantages of Civil Establishments of Religion  1835  678 pp.

While you’re at it read the whole book by various other prominent Scottish ministers.  The book also defends the Biblical and historic reformed principle of the State endowing the Church, that is providing for it monetarily out of public funds.

Cunningham, William

Co-Ordinate Authorities, p. 394, 3 pp.  from his Historical Theology, vol. 1

The Relation Between Church and State  HTML  Buy  1851  a lecture, published afterwards in 1863 in his Discussions on Church Principles, 19 long paragraphs

The Westminster Confession on the Relation Between Church and State  HTML  1843  from a pamphlet published in May 1843, immediately before the Disruption of the Church of Scotland, entitled, “Remarks on the Twenty-third Chapter of the Confession of Faith as bearing on existing Controversies”, published later in his Discussions on Church Principles, ch. 8

Many people today charge the original Westminster Confession of 1646 with Erastianism (that the State is over the Church).  This is a charge made out of ignorance.  The Confession teaches against Erastianism, but does teach the Biblical and historic reformed doctrine of the Establishment Principle.  American Presbyterianism, though it denies the Establishment Principle, yet owes its life to it, as the Westminster Assembly was originally called to sit by the Parliament (civil magistrate) of England.  Cunningham vindicates the original Confession.

The Nature and Lawfulness of Union Between Church and State  HTML  1835  70 pp.  from Lectures on the Nature and Lawfulness, Duty and Advantages of Civil Establishments of Religion, a collection of essays by various authors

Isaiah 49:23 says of the Church, “and kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers.”  In what sense is this truth of scripture to be understood?  Find out here. 



Myers, R. Andrew – ‘A Primer on the Establishment Principle’  2009  8 questions with brief answers 





Cobbett, Thomas – The Civil Magistrate’s Power  Buy  1653  151 pp.

Cobbett was a leading New England puritan and here solidly argues for the reformed position that the civil magistrate is to enforce both tables of the law.



Brown, John, of Haddinton – A Refutation of Religious Pluralism  Buy  1700’s

Brown (1722-1787) was the grandfather of John Brown of Edinburgh and was one of the leading seceder ministers of the Scottish Church.



Balfour, William – The Establishment Principle Defended, a Reply to the Statement by the Committee of the United Presbyterian Church on Disestablishment and Disendowment  1873  237 pp. with a preface by James Begg

Balfour was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland, as was James Begg.

Brown, Charles – Church Establishments Defended: with Special Reference to the Church of Scotland  1833  263 pp.

Brown (1806-84) was a leader in the Free Church of Scotland and the brother of David Brown (of the J.F.B. Bible commentary).

Corimer, John – A Defense of Church Establishments  1833  71 pp.  published anonymously, being a second review of the speeches of the leading men of the Voluntary Church Association

This book was written at the beginning of the 10 year Intrusion Controversy in 1833 that led up to the birth of the Free Church of Scotland from the Church of Scotland in the Disruption of 1843.  The Intrusion Controversy centered around the unlawful intrusion of the civil government into the jurisdiction of the Church.  Many saw the abuses and hence argued for a complete disassociation between Church and State, otherwise known as the Voluntary Principle.  Corimer here argues for the Biblical Establishment Principle against the Voluntary Principle.  His book is a review of Voluntary lectures that were lately delivered.  “Second” in the original title refers to the fact that he had previously responded to the Voluntary lectures before they were published in book form.  Here he responds to the lectures more fully after their publication.

Gibson, James – The Church in Relation to the State  1872  220 pp.  this book consists of a 170 page treatise written by Gibson in 1833 and a 45 page lecture given by Gibson in 1853, edited and compiled by James M’Naught  

The first part of the book is a historical essay.  It is often claimed that the Establishment Principle instituted by Constantine in the 300′s was the major contributing factor to the later Romish and priestly domination of the Church.  Gibson argues from history that the Church would have been much helped from the Establishment Principle under Constantine, but in fact it was due to the Voluntary Principle that the later Romish domination came about.  This essay was highly recommended by the Doctors M’Crie and Cunningham, and (according to them) had not been answered.  

The second part of the book demonstrates the Establishment Principle from the moral law of God’s application to the civil constitution.  The book as a whole was highly recommended by James Begg, George Smeaton, and John Kennedy, amongst others.

M’Crie, Thomas – Statement of the Difference… particularly on the Power of Civil Magistrates Respecting Religion, National Reformation, National Churches, and National Covenants, 1807, particularly chapters six through eight

Symington, William – Messiah the Prince  Buy  1881  480 pp.

From the Reformed Presbyterian perspective.



Modern Examples

The Crow Indian Nation of Montana

See their legislative declaration.

“That Jesus Christ is hereby proclaimed as ‘Lord of the Crow Indian Reservation’ by the Crow Tribal Legislature.”




The French Confession, 1559, this quote was compiled by Trent Still

Article 39: The Necessity of Governments

And as He has established kingdoms, republics, and all sorts of principalities, either hereditary or otherwise, and all that belongs to a just government, and wishes to be considered as their Author, so He has put the sword into the hands of magistrates to suppress crimes against the first (1 Kgs 15:12; 2 Kgs 23) as well as against the second table of the Commandments of God (Deut 1:15-17; 16:18–20; Ps. 82:1-4; Jer. 21:12; 22:2–3).  


Constitution of Massachusetts, 1780, Part the First, Article III

“As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality: Therefore, To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.”


 George Smeaton  1875

The Scottish Theory of Ecclesiastical Establishments and How Far the Theory is Realised, 1875, pp. 4-5

The State, considered in its corporate character, is a MORAL PERSON, with a moral standing and responsibility. It is not the creation of the so-called social compact or of the popular will, but a divine institution based on natural religion. It coheres by a moral and religious bond; and its rulers are the lieutenants of God.

If the State is a moral person, capable of performing duty, of committing sin, and suffering punishment, which everyone must own who traces the fate of nations according to the divine word, it follows that a nation, acting by its rulers, can accept Christianity and make a public profession of it as the national rule and guide.

It had been held together previous to the recognition of Christianity by some form of religion however impure, without which it could not have existed. And the first duty of the civil ruler when brought in contact with Christianity and persuaded of its divine origin is to RECEIVE THE BIBLE AS A REVELATION in a national way.

The immediate effect of this is that it constitutes the State a Christian State, and pledges it to purge out its previous religion in the same way as Pagan and Mahommedan nations constituted themselves, according to their false religions, or as the atheistic state was constituted, or rather attempted to be constituted, by the French Convention.

A nation must have a religion, and the only question is, which it will adopt. And when Christianity comes to the nation, or to the family, it does not frown on either of these institutions, which also are divine in origin, but enters into them with an elevating purifying power, and sweetly coalesces with all that is purely human in both. These ordinances of God now became vessels by which Christianity is diffused.

The national recognition of the Bible as a revelation subjecting the nation to its authority, though a great step gained, does not exhaust the nation’s duty, as widely diverging views prevail upon the right interpretation of the Bible. The State must by the necessity of the case ADOPT A CREED which will commonly be prepared by the Church. The same duty that devolves upon an individual Christian confronts a Christian State, and it naturally appends the civil sanction to the Church’s creed. It must distinguish between scripture truth and its perversion. The State, by the adoption of a creed, gives utterance to the self-consciousness of a Christian community. It confesses the Christianity it has adopted.




“[The Establishment Principle is not only] worth living for, but a principle worth dying for.”

John Kennedy of Dingwall
Free Church of Scotland




Related Pages

Church-State Relations

The Interpretation and Defense of the Original Westminster Standards

Civil Government

Against Separation from Impure Civil Governments