Rushdoony the Philosopher and the Historian


Rushdoony on History

By Otto Scott – bio

The ten years I spent with Dr. Rushdoony were the most intellectually stimulating of my life.  His knowledge of the Bible was the deepest and most profound I had ever encountered, and there was hardly a reference to events, people, or conditions that did not remind him of sections or persons in the Bible. 

These reminders, which he expressed using a remarkably eloquent, highly-polished vocabulary, made our weekly breakfasts a delight. We traveled together to England, Scotland, Australia, Mexico, and vast regions of the United States where I watched him rise and speak spontaneously, without notes, several thousand times.  On one unforgettable occasion, five Scottish congregations gathered among the ancient buildings of Oxford University to hear us both speak, and we were invited to visit Number 10 Downing Street to have a conversation with the head advisor of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The subject of that discussion was education, and it lasted over an hour. To my surprise, the British official quoted extensively from Dr. Rushdoony’s classic work, The Messianic Character of American Education—one of the most important and insightful of the numerous books he penned.

I wondered why that official chose to discuss that particular work with Rushdoony and how he managed to do so with such excellent recall, as if he had recently studied the book with great care. Before we left Great Britain that visit, the news reported that Mrs. Thatcher effectively ended the custom of ancient tenure for the English professorate, to their rage.  I remain convinced that the conversation the Prime Minister’s advisor had with Dr. Rushdoony was responsible for this action. I will never forget the remarkable influence that this relatively obscure pastor, from a very small village in the mountains of California, had exerted upon a great European nation, one still noted for its high culture and learning.

I was equally surprised later when I noted that Rushdoony never mentioned that event publicly or privately, and never in print. I think that modesty was the most silently impressive of all the reactions I had ever seen in him.  

Fellow Foot Soldiers for Christ

It was inevitable that I spoke a great deal about Rushdoony, for he was a remarkable man who treated me very generously during all our years together. Our relationship was closer than average, for we were only two years apart in age. Thus we recalled many things in common. I also found him to be a remarkably kind editor, and cannot recall him ever changing a single word in any of the hundreds of essays I had written for him.

He reprinted several of my books.  After The New York Times stopped printing my book about the horrible murderer John Brown of Harper’s Ferry (whom the press called a hero), Rushdoony handed me a check covering all royalties even before he had started to reprint the work, as proof of his confidence. In fact, I was soon added to his staff and began accompanying him on an entire series of lecture tours. His gracious support extended the impact of my work far beyond what I would have otherwise reached on my own.

It was after I left Chalcedon that I accidentally fell into the reading of a trilogy of tomes known as The Selected Writings of Lord Acton, published by Liberty Fund of Indianapolis. The first of these books was titled Essays in the History of Liberty, written by John Emerich E. Dalberg-Acton, First Baron Acton. Upon the death of his father, Sir Ferdinand Richards, in 1837, Dahlberg-Acton became the eighth baronet and heir to the family estate at Aldenham in Shropshire.  In 1869, on the recommendation of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Acton of Aldenham.

After studies at the University of Munich (1850–1857) Acton returned to England and assumed a prominent role as a spokesman for Liberal Catholicism. A devout Catholic and a committed political liberal, he believed that it was the true character and mission of the Church to foster principles of individual liberty, political self-government, and unfettered scientific research. The cause of justice, the Catholic faith, and the Church’s own self interest would be secured, Acton believed, by the triumph of these principles.

Since he had been sponsored by a Cardinal as a young man, Acton was for a time accepted at the Vatican. But he never became a priest, and when the idea of Papal Infallibility arose, he was horrified. He considered that idea an affront to every canon of historical truth. Acton believed that all hope of the Church’s becoming a force for progress and liberty would be destroyed by the proclamation of a dogma that established the Pope as an infallible ruler of the religious and moral conscience of mankind.

Acton assumed the most direct and active role in leading efforts to oppose promulgation of Papal Infallibility at the Vatican Council in 1869 and 1870.  His failure, and the effective demise of the Liberal Catholic movement, brought this stage of his life to an end. From then on he ceased to play a role in Catholicism, but continued to write for the purpose of publication.

The moment I read that far, I began to follow Acton’s thoughts.  I came to realize that Acton was the only person whose ideas and writings as a Christian (in terms of acute morality, intelligence, and courage) had ever impressed me as being on the same level as that occupied by his lonely eminence, Rousas John Rushdoony.

That is not to say that the theological views of a liberal Catholic of 1860, 1870 or 1890 are not some distance removed from those of an American Calvinist who lived a century later.  But in terms of history, both Lord Acton and Rousas John Rushdoony made some very important observations about liberty and faith. Both had the vision to understand events occurring in cultures that, despite being far removed in time and space, nevertheless reflect the common problems all Christians would experience in a world that was largely losing its faith.

Rushdoony’s views were firmly based on the Bible, which to him answered all questions about not only life, but also about all wisdom and all truth. As a result, he had a remarkable talent for expressing ideas clearly. Ordinary readers, he once noted, are accustomed to thinking of history as a story of what has happened throughout time, presented in terms of its major events and movements. The average man is therefore unprepared to cope with the many new concepts of history that undergird modern historiography.  For instance, Biblical scholars have indulged in a “search for the historical Jesus” with startling results, painting a picture of a “demythologized” Jesus bearing no resemblance to the Jesus of the Bible.1

Lord Acton’s concerns mirror Rushdoony’s:

Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed [of liberty] at Athens, 2460 years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race.  It is the delicate fruit of a matured civilization; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free. In every age, its progress has been beset by natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest, man’s love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as the uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty.2

In ancient times, the State absorbed authorities not its own, and intruded on the domain of personal freedom. In the Middle Ages it possessed too little authority and suffered others to intrude.  Modern states fall habitually into both excesses.  In the most certain test by which we judge whether a country is free is the essential condition and guardian of religion; and it is in the history of the Chosen People, accordingly, that the first illustrations of my subject are obtained.  The Government of the Israelis was a federation, held together by no political authority, but by the unity of race and faith, and founded, not on physical force, but on a voluntary covenant.3

Acton essentially concludes that ancient Israel, still in contact with God, decided that neither rank nor inequality existed before the law, and that consequently people resisted any lawgiver except God.

And at this point, you can see why I find parallels between Acton, the English aristocrat barred from Oxford and Cambridge by English law because of his Catholicism, and Rushdoony, the California Calvinist later openly slandered by the ADL in a land whose Supreme Court declared that the United States has no God.

Perspectives That Diverge

But Acton’s approach takes a major detour at this point:

The conflict between liberty under divine authority and the absolutism of human authorities ended disastrously. In the year 622 a supreme effort was made at Jerusalem to reform and preserve the State. The High Priest produced from the temple of Jehovah the book of the deserted and forgotten Law, and both king and people bound themselves by solemn oaths to observe it.  But that early example of limited monarchy and the supremacy of the law neither lasted nor spread, and the forces by which freedom has conquered must be sought elsewhere.  In the very year 586, in which the flood of Asiatic despotism closed over the city which had been, and was destined to be again the sanctuary of freedom …4

Rushdoony, in contrast, does not look for history to explain events or as the source for the supposed “forces” by which freedom ebbs and flows. At a time when Christianity in the United States is at its lowest level in the history of this nation, he directly challenges the weakness of our faith:

What is history? Out of the millions of events and persons of the past, how are certain events selected as significant? Is the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942–1943 as important or more important than the Battle of Avarair in 451? And when is an event “history?”

. . .

Thomas J. Altizer holds that the “first requirement” of any intellectual inquiry which will break the impasse of modern thought  “is a forthright confession of the death of the God of Christendom, a full acknowledgement that the era of Christian civilization has come to an end, with the result that all cognitive meaning and all moral values that were once historically associated with the Christian God have collapsed.”  This death of God means not only that we recognize that the historical faith was mystical, but also that we recognize it to be dead as a historical influence: “God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.” This means that history has a totally new meaning because God is dead. “This meaning of ‘historical’ is intimately related to the modern idea of ‘historicity’ for, in this perspective, ‘historicity’ means a total immersion in historical time, an immersion that is totally isolated from any meaning or reality that might lie beyond it …” This means also that the basic drives of history are natural, and hence primarily impersonal, since the vast reservoir of being is basically an impersonal and totally natural ocean of blind movement and energy.  History is both demythologized of the sacred, and depersonalized.

 . . .

When men began to depart from Biblical faith, they turned to ancient classical thought with its pagan faith in natural law. The doctrine of natural law asserts the presence in nature of inherent laws which govern reality, so that law is transferred from God to nature. Law is no longerover creation but within its process. The concept of natural law, confused by Christians with God’s providence in nature and the total subservience of all nature to God’s decree and law, made great inroads into Christian thinking and became the mainspring of Enlightenment faith in its rejection of the God of scripture.  Classical liberalism is based on this enlightenment faith, as are modern libertarianism and conservatism.

. . .

For the humanist, the dynamics of history are in titanic man, as he imposes his will and ideas on the world.  For the orthodox Christian, the dynamics of history are in God the Creator, and man accepts these dynamics and rejoices in the blessings thereof when man accepts Christ as savior and then follows the leading of the sanctifying Holy Spirit.

. . .

As a covenant-breaker, man has no peace with his fellow men and no peace with himself. He is in slavery to the state, not because he is by nature passive in relationship to his environment, but because he is in sin and is reaping the wages of sin … The non-Christian doctrine places man under nature and seeks to place him over God; the Biblical doctrine places man under God and over nature in Him. Thus, the consequence of every philosophy of history which denies the God of Scripture, His infallible Word and His creative act, is to open the way for the terrorization of man under nature and under the divine and messianic state.5

The Great Divide

To conclude our ruminations on history and historians, it seems useful to turn once again to the writings of Lord Acton (whose name remains bright) and his correction of erroneous opinions held by the eminent Sir Robert Peel, Lord Macaulay, and Lord Stanhope, on the subject of human sacrifice among the Romans.  Most of these men were of the opinion that the Romans were too “civilized” for such a practice.

But Lord Acton, in a famous paper, proved otherwise. “By human sacrifice,” he said, “we do not understand every act of putting a man to death with religious forms, or in obedience to a religious idea.  When a nation of fanatics wages a war of extermination against those who do not worship its gods, and piles up pyramids of bodies, the idea of honoring the divinity does but dimly tinge the savage thirst for blood. When a traveler is cast upon an inhospitable shore like that of Tauris, is murdered by the inhabitants to appease the god whose land his foot has defiled, it is the act of barbarians, who imagine that their gods, like themselves, look on every stranger as a foe.”6 Acton then cites acts of sacrifice in Iceland, in Germany (permitted only to priests in the past), and among cannibals, conclusively proving that human sacrifice was universal in pagan days.

Acton’s essay is extensive but is not being extensively quoted. It exposes the expansion of human sacrifice in the fullness of time. “In the year 63 B.C., Catiline and his accomplices sacrificed a boy, and ratified the oath they had taken over his bleeding body by eating his flesh.”7 Seven years later Cicero publicly accused Vatinius of offering up human victims to the infernal gods. Juvenal speaks of similar practices under the Flavian Caesars, and Justin Martyr under the Antonines … In the year 46 B.C., Julius Caesar, after suppressing a mutiny, caused one soldier to be executed, while at the same time two others were sacrificed by the flamen of Mars on the altar in the Campus Martius.  Acton cited examples from Greece as well as from Rome.

It is remarkable that despite this famous exposure of these sordid truths, classical scholars have remained entirely mute about these scandals among anti-Christians of the past. They hid the crimes of paganism, choosing instead to spread tales of orgies with slaves. They continue to feed the imaginations of new generations with visions of anti-Christian sexuality to provide Hollywood with the means of making money at the expense of civilization and Christian faith.

Lord Acton left a legacy of immense learning and literature to our world, to the end that subsequent generations would never underestimate the darkness marring man’s history. It is a great pity that in his long and basically sad life Acton never grasped the counterbalance to be found in the Biblical faith radiating so brightly from the even deeper essays in the relatively slender Rushdoony volume we quoted at length above. R. J. Rushdoony surpassed Lord Acton in more faithfully describing the mystery of history coming, as does the wind, from the depths of eternity, at the command of Jesus.

Otto J. Scott (1918-2006) was a journalist and historian who served on staff at Chalcedon for many years. He is the author of James 1, Robespierre, and The Secret Six.

1. Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, [1969, 1979] 2000), p. 4 (p. 3 in Presbyterian & Reformed’s 1969 & 1979 printings).

2. Lord Acton, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” An Address Delivered to the Members of the Bridgnorth  Institute, February 26, 1877. http://www.acton.org/research/history-freedom-antiquity

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. Rushdoony, op. cit., selections taken from pages 3 through 11. The reader is invited to read the entire first chapter of The Biblical Philosophy of History to fully grasp the scope of Rushdoony’s achievement.

6. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, First Baron Acton, Human Sacrifice: Essays in Religion, Politics and Morality (ed. J. Rufus Fears) Vol III, Liberty Classics (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund) Vol. 3, p. 395f.

7. ibid.


Otto J. Scott (1918-2006) was a journalist and historian who served on staff at Chalcedon for many years. He is the author of James 1, Robespierre, and The Secret Six.

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