Updated: Jul 21
A group of very disparate leaders came together in Philadelphia in the middle of the 1770s and managed to forge enough unity to set thirteen individual colonies on the road to nationhood. These founding leaders had much in common but also had many differences in regional interests, economic concerns, and political philosophy. Similar to today’s rancorous times, political and religious differences were intertwined in our nation’s founding era. For them, the stakes were far higher – they were literally risking their lives.
Among that group of eighteenth-century leaders was a relatively unknown man worth remembering. His name was Elias Boudinot.
Boudinot (1740–1821) is a little-known member of America’s founding generation. He grew up a child of the Great Awakening, sitting under the preaching of George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and, briefly, Jonathan Edwards in Princeton. He rose to prominence in New Jersey politics and was a man of national influence in the lead-up to the American Revolution. During the war, Boudinot served on George Washington’s staff and later in the Continental Congress; he was also president of the Congress at the signing of the Treaty of Paris to end the war. Boudinot was a major player in the first three federal congresses and then served in the administrations of Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
His most lasting legacy was his role in establishing the American Bible Society.
“Boudinot is of particular importance, because he was a born-again Presbyterian, whose evangelical views were probably closer to those of the majority of his countrymen than were those of most of his fellow Founders.”
Boudinot was familiar with conflict and disagreement
He was an attorney and made arguments for a living. He was a patriot who chose to rebel against the most powerful nation in his world. During the war, it was his job to wrangle with the British over the treatment of captured American soldiers, who were treated as traitors. In government, he was a committed abolitionist.
More than two centuries later, Elias Boudinot can teach us how to stand on our own convictions with a firm but gracious character.
First, Boudinot tended to focus on what unites and not what divides.
He didn’t waver in his religious convictions but showed a gracious spirit that looked first for commonalities, not division. He strove to demonstrate the Bible’s call to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).
Second, Boudinot welcomed evidence that God was at work, even when he disagreed with those with whom he observed it.
When the Second Great Awakening broke out in the early 1800s, leaders in his denomination reacted with concern over its crowd-gathering practices and populist theology. Boudinot watched with fascination; he had learned firsthand from his father and the leaders of the First Great Awakening to look for authentic spiritual fruit wherever it might be found.
During the War of 1812, he wrote:
“Blessed be God, who in the midst of judgement remembereth mercy. Although our country is involved in a ruinous offensive war, yet is he proving to his church that he has not altogether forsaken us. The pouring out of his Spirit in various parts of the United States, is truly reviving to his people who stand between the porch and the altar, crying, Lord save thy people. In the eastern parts of New York, in Vermont and Connecticut, the revivals are more interesting than has ever been known.”
What a great example for us to emulate today!
Third, Boudinot was faithful to his fundamental beliefs without being sectarian.
He was a founding trustee of the Presbyterian General Assembly and was moderator of the assembly at the time of his death. He was also a trustee of the Presbyterian College of New Jersey for nearly half a century and played a significant role in the formation of Princeton Seminary.
Yet when he retired to Burlington, New Jersey, where there was no Presbyterian church, he joined the church across the street, St. Mary’s Episcopal, where his participation was lively and committed until the end of his life.
He wrote: “Hearts may agree, though heads differ. There can be unity of Spirit if not of opinion…It tends to nourish Christian charity … being persuaded that he who is a conscientious believer in Christ cannot be a bad man.”
Today more than ever, in a society that is deeply divided, Elias Boudinot is a much-needed example. He demonstrated better than most that even in times of bitter conflict, we can stand with conviction without losing a gracious and peace-loving spirit.
“Be not wise in your own conceits. Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.” ~ Romans 12:16-18
Image: National monument to the Founding Fathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts  Andrew Farmer, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/born-again-founder  Historian James Hutson  Elias Boudinot, Commonplace Book (1803ff, vol. 1, 328), Stimson Collection of Elias Boudinot, Princeton University Firestone Library