Some Historical Voices on Christian Voting

ForkThe Bible-believing Christian today faces the seemingly impossible (though, as we are rightly reminded, false) choice between casting his or her vote for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. As we stand at this multi-pronged fork in the road, it appears to many of us that the road to the left leads to devastation; the road to the right leads to destruction; the smaller paths in the middle seem to go nowhere. At this puzzling juncture, I’m hearing and reading all manner of opinions, perspectives, arguments, and assessments. The simple, God-fearing Christian who just wants to do what’s right feels paralyzed with indecision.

Do I vote for “the party” but not “the person”? Do I vote for Trump simply because he’s not Clinton? Do I vote for Clinton and hope this balance of power thing still works? Or do I vote for neither? But then what? Leave the presidential boxes blank and just vote for offices on the rest of the ballot? Write in a candidate? Support a third party? Build a bunker? Flee to Canada?

At times like these, I sometimes find it comforting to remember that we’re not the first generation of Christians to face this kind of issue. Though Christians in the ancient, medieval, and reformation periods didn’t have the right to vote for their government leaders, there are still forgotten voices from the past who have left their thoughts for us. They may not have faced such a perplexing problem as the Clinton or Trump decision, but their insights might help each us of think through the issues with more depth of perspective.

So, as we face the fork in the road, let’s pause, turn around, and look backward down the path for some wisdom from the past. When we do, we realize that others who have faced similar crises can lend us a little insight. In the following quotations, I have included a variety of theological traditions (and even one by Finney). These excerpts all bear the marks of their very specific historical, social, political, and theological contexts, but they touch on some important points to consider. I don’t agree with everything they say, but I still think their voices deserve to be heard.


Charles G. Finney, Second Great Awakening Revivalist Preacher, 1835.

It is perfectly in the power of the church to regulate the commerce of the world, if they will only themselves maintain perfect integrity.

And if Christians will do the same in politics, they will sway the destinies of nations, without involving themselves at all in the base and corrupting strife of parties. Only let Christians generally determine to vote for no man for any office, that is not an honest man and a man of pure morals, and let it be known that Christians are united in this, whatever may be their difference in political sentiments, and no man would be put up who is not such a character. In three years it would be talked about in taverns and published in newspapers, when any man is set up as a candidate for office, “What a good man he is, how moral, how pious,” and the like. And any political party would no more set up a known Sabbath breaker, or a gambler, or a profane swearer, or a whoremonger, or a rum-seller, as their candidate for office, than they would set up the devil himself for president. The carnal policy of many professors, who undertake to correct politics by such means as wicked men employ, and who are determined to vote with a party, let the candidate be ever so profligate, is all wrong, wrong in principle, contrary to philosophy and common sense, and ruinous to the best interests of mankind. The dishonesty of the church is cursing the world.

(Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 2d ed. [New York: Leavitt, Lord, & Co., 1835], 138).


From John A. James, English Congregational Preacher and Writer, 1840.  

A question is sometimes asked, whether a professing christian, in exercising his elective franchise, ought to give his vote for an ungodly man; or whether, in the case of a contested election, he ought not to uphold the interests of piety, rather than those of a party, by endeavouring to promote the return of a christian, though he may take a side in politics opposed to his own? This resolves itself into another question, “What is the end of civil government?” If this be the promotion of religion, there can be no question but the christian man ought to be supported by all Christians: but if, on the other hand, the end of civil government be the protection of life, liberty, and property, with all that can conduce to the complete enjoyment of these, piety, however desirable as a qualification, is not indispensable. He who best understands the purposes of civil government, and has the best views of the means of promoting them, is the fittest person for such a situation. Piety is desirable for persons in all situations. Who would not wish to have a pious lawyer, or physician; but does any one reject an eminently skilful one, because he is not a pious man, and choose one of less skill, on the ground of his religion? A man may be a very holy professor, and yet a very bad statesman: and indeed the holier he is as a man, the more mischievous he may be as a senator, if he has wrong political sentiments, as his virtues may produce a toleration even for his errors. No false measures are likely to do half the harm, which is done by those of good men. Many of the most distinguished statesmen, in whom all parties have placed, according to their political creed, the greatest confidence, have been far enough off from personal religion. If none but good men are to be chosen, we must go without a legislature, or have a very incompetent one. True it is, there are some men so utterly bad, so notoriously vicious, and immoral, that it is an insult to virtue, and an outrage upon decency to elect them. But, with such exceptions as these, it is not possible to make piety a sort of senatorial eligibility. Converted men may make very bad laws, and unconverted ones, very good laws. Still it is a consummation devoutly to be wished, that our “officers should be peace, and our exactors righteousness.”

(John Angell James, The Christian Professor Address, in a Series of Counsels and Cautions, 3d ed. [London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1840], 148–149).   


Reverend E. N. Bartlett, Congregationalist Pastor, 1846.

No matter how flagitious the characters of the candidates may be, though they be “devils incarnate,” if by the management of parties, a “crises” has been brought about, and one or the other of the rival candidates must be elected, the Christian, it is urged, is bound to vote for the less obnoxious of the two. On this point Dr. [Nathaniel] Taylor [of Yale] is explicit, and his illustration is the legitimate carrying out of his principles. “Suppose,” he says, “there is no reasonable doubt that one of two devils, one of which is less a devil than the other, will be actually elected, let the Christian vote as he may, and that his vote will therefore be utterly lost if he does not vote for one of them. I think that an enlightened Christian would vote for the least devil of the two!” And this invocation of help from the devil in time of trouble, is justified by an appeal to the “circumstances of the case” and the “necessity” Christians are under of “choosing the least of two evils.” And upon those who refuse to sacrifice to devils under such circumstances, is charged the responsibility of “neglecting to prevent” and therefore of “producing the greater of two evils.” Against such principles and such a charging over of responsibility, I protest. What! shall a Christian people strike hands with the wicked, and say to Belial, “rule thou over us”? Shall they lend their influence and efforts deliberately to install a devil in the chair of state? Shall they let their minds be blinded by the fallacious resort to extreme suppositions? Such extreme cases will never occur, if Christians will do their duty. “Good men are the fountain of character,” even with respect to rulers. Let the professedly Christian portion of our nation stand fast by the principles inculcated in the scriptures, and proclaim their position to the world as unalterable, and they never need be caught again in the dilemma. They can dictate to the nation if they will. The question for American Christians to ask is not, What would be duty in a barbarous nation where no good men could be found! nor, Can we elect a good candidate if we try! but, are the candidates whom we are called upon to support, men whom God will approve? If so, support them; if not, refrain: and let the “potsherds strive with the potsherds of the earth.” Or, if votes must be cast, let them be cast for honest men, irrespective of party nominations. Is it objected that this would be throwing away votes, and that it is better to save a little than lose the whole! I answer, that what can’t be saved by right means is not worth saving. The good that can be purchased only by doing evil, costs too much.

(E. N. Bartlett, “Address before the Alumni of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, Delivered at Commencement, Aug. 25, 1846, in Oberlin Evangelist, vol. 8, no. 19 [September 16, 1846], 149).


From The Covenanter, of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, 1859.

The plea is sometimes put forward that by taking part in electioneering politics, Christians may prevent much evil, and do good. It is assumed that the franchise, being a solemn trust, will always be exercised by Christian men, in the churches, for the placing of worthy persons in civil offices, and for the promotion of the best moral and religious public measures. It might be a sufficient answer to such an allegation, that we are never to do evil that good may come; and if the elector cannot tender his vote for a candidate for the Legislature, without virtually binding himself by oath to uphold what is unscriptural, Antichristian, and infidel, then his plain duty is to abstain from voting, rather than belie his Christian profession, and defile his conscience. The plea of doing good by taking part in ungodly politics, is utterly fallacious. Those who are most ready to advance it, among professed Christians in the churches, only, in fact, do evil in this case, and their conduct is followed by no other result than evil. In political elections, it is party and class interests that are generally consulted, and not the moral and religious character of the aspirants to legislative office. In the United States, it is notorious that those who are termed New Light Covenanters, frequently vote for the worst man to fill national and State offices—for the advocates of slavery—and for such as have no claim to the possession either of Scriptural qualifications or of a proper moral character.

(“Evils in the Churches—Ungodly Politics of the Day,” in The Covenanter [March, 1859], 196)


From The Epworth Herald, a publication of the Methodist Epworth League, 1907

No righteous vote is ever thrown away, even though it is in such a hopeless minority that the judges do not count it.

No nation is safe until its citizens care more about its safety than about their own.

A nation is safe so long as it prefers godliness before gain, and truth before trade.

It is good to pray for righteous rulers, and one of the best accompaniments of such prayer is a righteous vote. Unrighteous voting is nullification, and makes the prayer a blasphemy.

A nation dedicated to liberty should serve Him whose service is perfect freedom.

The politics of this world will never be purified by the ungodly.

(“The Mixing of Religion and Politics,” The Epworth Herald, vol. 18 [June 15, 1907], 87)