The Biblical Basis of Christian Agrarianism
By: Howard Douglas King
What in the World is Christian Agrarianism?
Agrarianism is a philosophy that is based on the belief in the primary importance of agriculture. Agrarians attempt to understand and articulate the ideal relationship of agriculture to the various social institutions. We believe that the physical, spiritual and social well-being of mankind depends on a common understanding of, and commitment to, man's most ancient, and only necessary, occupation. Accordingly, we seek to articulate social theory that gives agriculture its due honor; and to urge reforms that will tend to encourage homesteading and subsistence farming as a way of life. Unfortunately, most of the agrarian literature does not represent a biblical worldview. I am trying, therefore, to propound a form of agrarianism that is both distinctively Christian and consistently scriptural, by gathering the truths scattered throughout the agrarian writings into a coherent system that rests firmly on the foundation of Holy Scripture. That is what I mean when I use the term, "Christian Agrarianism".
What then is my purpose? Ultimately, I want to show that some of the most massive, intractable problems that we face as a society are the result of a fundamental error -- the failure to define the proper corporate calling of humankind by the Word of God. That's right! One of the main reasons that we are in the mess we are in today is because we have neglected the simple Scriptural fact that God appointed man to be a tiller of the ground. And we will never see the establishment of a truly godly social order until we return to our agrarian roots. Please take note that for some of us this point is not merely academic. As a Postmillennialist, I cherish the hope that the world will yet see a flourishing Christian social order before the bodily return of Jesus Christ to this world at the end of history. But whether or not you share that expectation, the question of man's corporate calling is still relevant to our critique of the dominant culture.
But before I can hope to demonstrate the connection between our modern world's repudiation of agrarian social order and the prevalent evils of modern society, I must first show a biblical basis for my agrarian belief. That is my aim in this series.
A Proper Historical Perspective
I have been accused of teaching a new and extreme doctrine. And I admit that it may appear to be novel or extreme if it is misunderstood. So please note: I am not saying that we must all immediately sell our homes and set up farming homesteads. What I am saying is that, according to Scripture, mankind was created to till the ground. I am saying that this truth of man's corporate duty must begin first to register, and then to resonate in our consciences. I am saying that society as a whole must somehow, sooner or later, return to a social order directed to the end for which man was made -- the subduing of the uncultivated earth, the re-creation of Eden on a worldwide scale, the conversion of the wilderness into a garden that will bring forth the wholesome and the beautiful, for the praise and glory of the Creator.
This is not a new idea, but it was held almost unconsciously, as a pre-supposition, until the modern age, because there was no practical alternative to an agrarian order. Food production simply demanded the labor of the larger part of mankind. Man ate bread by the sweat of his brow. The rich and powerful were those who owned the most of the productive land and livestock, and the shape of society reflected this reality. Only recently have other forms of wealth superseded in importance the ownership of real property.
There never has been a church council or synod that declared the Bible to be an agrarian book. But that was never necessary, because before the industrial revolution, society was founded on agrarian principles. Since the beginning of time, most people were engaged in some way in the cultivation of the soil. No one doubted that this was proper and natural, so there was little reason to discuss it. But now we have only two percent of the population engaged in agriculture, an all-time low. The family farm is disappearing.
The shift has been drastic, but few foresaw it, for it came suddenly and unannounced. Theologians didn't debate the probable impact of the abandonment of the agrarian order beforehand -- the few that raised the issue were not heeded. It is a little known fact that the great American Puritan, Jonathan Edwards deplored the change from a village-based agrarian lifestyle to an urban and commercial society.
The chief calamity, for Edwards, was the temptation to market behavior: "exceeding extravagant" consumption, "continual" indebtedness, "common people" pursuing status through wealth, and "county towns" affecting "to be like the metropolis."(Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy's New England, Mark Valeri, p.81)
Joseph Bellamy, a crucial figure in New England during the years leading up to the War of Independence, and a disciple of Edwards, spent the latter part of his life defending Calvinism, while warning against the consequences of offending God by a mad rush towards commercialism and away from traditional agrarian community life. Valeri comments on the connection between the theological and the economic:
Contrasting theories of human nature revealed profound disagreements about the growth of commerce and its chief premise: the autonomous pursuit of wealth in an open market. Bellamy wrote of self-denial and the subjugation of self-interest when the proponents of the market lauded self-interest as the proper means to prosperity. The debate about original sin was furious because it referred to that most mundane of matters—the economy. (Valeri, p.77)
For Bellamy, not only the agrarian way of life, but Christian society itself was at stake:
In 1762, he warned Connecticut's magistrates at the annual election that the spread of market behavior portended the total collapse of society. In the fluctuating values and prices of the market, merchants filled "their traffic full of deceit and fraud." Commerce lured people to forego their stewardship over and cultivation of the land, only to deal in the chimerical and fabricated world of money, where "luxury, idleness, debauchery" and "dishonesty" reigned. (Valeri, p.89)
Seeing The Trees, But Missing The Forest
We tend to accept without question the things that were already established when we came into the world. A native citizen of Rome under the Caesars would never have seriously considered that the great Empire to which he owed his status and privileges might rest on a false foundation -- that it was in fact an unrighteous nation, committed to the idolatrous worship of false gods and wicked men, that could only survive by preying upon the weaker surrounding nations. He would not be very open to the suggestion that his wicked nation was doomed from the start, and that, however long it survived, it carried within it the seeds of its own destruction.
In the same way, modern man takes for granted the legitimacy of the modern world, and is not easily persuaded to entertain the thought that it might be built on a false foundation. Even Christians, when they begin to see that the technological society has certain elements built into it that are harming the church and the family in obvious ways, find it hard to believe that the technological society itself might be the problem. The initial response is to look for some adjustment that can be made -- ideally an easy and quick adjustment -- in order to render at least that part of the technological society upon which his own welfare depends more bearable.
As an example: the godly man who learns that "public education" is just a euphemism for the systematic enslavement of his child to the state religion through the corruption of his child's mind and soul is apt to see that he must do something immediately to protect his child -- but he will rarely look further than is required to solve the immediate crisis. He may lack the categories of thought to deal with the deeper crisis of creeping statism. The same man may be frustrated that he can't support his family on one salary, and may reluctantly ask his wife to work outside the home as a solution to the urgent necessity of his present need for money. Ask him why the system is putting such financial pressure on his family, and he may answer. "Life is complicated and exhausting enough! It takes all my time and energy just to keep up. I don't have time to worry about things I can do nothing about!"
And so it happens that the question is rarely asked -- are the evils of our modern world inherent in its system of organization and in its foundational principles? My aim is to show that technological society could never have existed if the rulers of this world had not decided that it was in their best interests to set at naught some of the most basic teachings of God's word -- that the system would be impossible to sustain if mankind ever began to operate on the principle of obedience to the whole word of God.
The Idea Of A Corporate Vocation
The assumption of modern man is that any occupation is as good as any other, as long as it's not outright sinful and pays well. But this view is seriously flawed. Let me illustrate it this way: a fire company has a basic mission -- to put out fires. While everyone in the company has a specialty, and a defined role, yet each one is there to fight fires. The driver does not sit in the cab while the others risk their lives. Furthermore, there is no entertainer in the company, no banker, no merchant, and no attorney. In terms of the mission of the fire company, such skills are not needed, and would constitute a waste of resources.
In the same way, mankind has a mission which every human being ought to be somehow involved in furthering. For God has given the human family a clearly-defined mission. That mission is the sacred stewardship of the soil from whence it came, and by which all life is nourished. It is the cultivation of the soil for the production of nutritious food and beautiful living things, to the glory of the Creator. That is the distinctive message of Christian Agrarianism -- that whatever our individual gifts and callings may be, our corporate task is -- and has always been -- to make the world a garden.
This is not to deny the Great commission. It is to understand it. For the goal of redemption is not only to save us from wrath, but to save us to the fulfillment of God's original purposes for mankind. God was not mistaken in creating man as he is, and the ultimate happiness of the creature called man is naturally to be found in the work that God gave to him in the beginning. Next, we shall look at what Scripture has to say about the proper corporate vocation of mankind.
The Proper Corporate Vocation Of Mankind
Let us begin at the beginning -- the Book of Beginnings. Here the Christian finds the only authoritative account of the origin of man, his true nature and Divine calling. Here we learn that after the whole creation had been completed and furnished more gloriously than any palace, populated with magnificent creatures and decorated with an abundance of fruitful vegetation, provided with rivers of pure water and abundant minerals, ceiled over with a sky that never threatened -- God planted a garden. It was not enough that God had created a whole beautiful world for His children -- His care was so great and so personal, that He set aside a special spot in the midst of its natural (but uncultivated) beauty for them. Here, He Himself planted a garden! The first gardener was God Himself!
The garden has been planted. All is in readiness. What remains to be done? What is lacking? "There was no man to till the ground."(Gen. 2:5) Just as the narrative in Chapter one stops to tell us that "the earth was without form and void"(Gen.1:2) before it tells us that God imposed order on the confused mass (vss.6-9); just as it informs us that "darkness was upon the face of the deep"(vs.2) before the Divine command," Let there be light!"; just as we are shown that the man could find no suitable helpmeet in the creation (vs. 20) before we are told of the creation of woman -- so we are shown a "defect" (of incompleteness) in the perfect world before the second account of man's creation. The thoughtful listener will in each of these cases find an indication of purpose. Just as the woman, for example was made for the purpose of being a helpmeet to man, so the man was made for the purpose of tilling the ground.
Not that it was the only purpose for which God made mankind. Man was created for the purpose of manifesting the glory of the Creator in many ways. But the specific way in which the creation of the first man is presented in this crucial narrative is that the man was made to meet the need for the cultivation of the garden. (Even in a perfect world, it seems, a garden will become a jungle if it is not tended.) But not only here (2:5) -- but in verse 15 we find the same truth -- "God... put him in the garden to tend and keep it."
From this I conclude that the proper, basic calling of mankind is the cultivation of the soil. First, Adam and his family were to maintain ("dress and keep") the Garden of Eden in which they had been placed. But in time they were to address the task of bringing out the beauty and utility of plant and animal life throughout the whole world for God's glory and the benefit of mankind. In the original benediction of the first pair, the words "fill the earth and subdue it" show that the uncultivated lands outside the garden were gradually to be brought under cultivation as the human family expanded. The garden was a God-given model or prototype for the rest of the earth.
The Adamic Benediction and Man's Original Dominion
This understanding of things is based on the benediction found in Genesis 1:28. The well-known passage in Genesis 1 which relates the creation of man on the sixth day reads as follows:
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Now, it is not hard to see that in verse 28, God is not telling Adam, or anyone else, to take over an ungodly society for Christ (as some teach) -- but rather making explicit man's relationship to the lower creation in the time before that terrible event which we call "the fall of man". In this all-too-brief period of innocence, Adam is serving the purpose for which he has been created -- to be God's gardener, a tiller of the ground. God has provided for him and His wife a wedding present -- a home of surpassing beauty, comfort and convenience, made by His own hands with special attention to the needs of the first pair. But the rest of the earth is left in an uncultivated condition.
Clearly, it has been left for Adam's progeny to make its own place in the un-cursed earth after the pattern of the Garden of God, progressively expanding the actual dominion of man until the whole earth is occupied, and under cultivation. In the historical and literary context, the words, "and subdue it" could have reference to nothing else but to the cultivation of the virgin soil, and the conquest of its wildness for man's ends. The earth was not yet under a curse, and so would offer no resistance to man's efforts, and there was no human opposition to subdue. In any event, this is not a command to subdue the earth, so much as a blessing on man's efforts to do so. (Of which, we will have more to say in a moment.)
The animals played an important part in the ecology of the garden, and were by these words explicitly declared to be under the authority of Adam. If the birds wanted to eat the berries before man could pick them, presumably Adam had the moral justification to exclude them by whatever means was necessary. Likewise, the cattle could be denied the delicacies of Eve's flower plots. If Adam wanted some muscle to plow his cornfield, he was entitled to yoke oxen, and use their labor as he pleased. He could ride the horses. He was free to use the milk, the honey, and so forth made by other creatures.
Moreover, this affirmation of man's dominion takes place in connection with a blessing of fertility upon his kind. The words are "And God blessed them, saying…" What he said was then a blessing or benediction-- not a mandate, command, covenant or commission. (Though it has been called all of these things.) The triplet, or double-parallelism "be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth" is used for rhetorical effect. God is going to bless Adam with an exceedingly great number of descendants. This is more in keeping with the language of a promise than of a command. The verb used, furthermore, is not "take dominion", but "have dominion". It was not something to be attained, but something freely granted as God spoke the words.
This is not to say that the words are not a revelation of the will and law of God for mankind. They do reveal the natural order that God established for man and the lower creatures. To affirm that they are a benediction rather than a command has to do rather with the form in which God has revealed his will here. It also sheds light on how the words are to be interpreted, and on what that will is -- specifically that man's chief and central occupation is to be farming.
A further proof that these words contain a benediction rather than a mandate is found in the fact that nearly identical words are used in the immediately-preceding context with respect to creatures that could not have understood them at all -- much less have been obligated to obedience by them. They make sense only if understood as a benediction in this case:
21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. (Genesis 1:22)
This benediction is repeated at the inauguration of the "new creation" after the great flood:
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. (Genesis 9:1,2)
The scope of the benediction (And God blessed Noah … and said…") is otherwise the same, giving Noah and his many descendants dominion over the animals, but with this notable difference: the animals will now have to fear for their lives, for they will be food for man in accommodation to the scarcity of vegetarian food caused by the ruin of the earth's surface and the destruction of its precious topsoil.
When the original economy of the world is alluded to in the eighth Psalm, it is once again quite clear what it is that God conferred on Adam, and what the proper scope of his authority is:
6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: 7 All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; 8 The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8:6-8)
Again, the Adamic Benediction would have been understood by Adam as a blessing on him and on his progeny as they engage in the culture of the soil outside the garden. He did not need to be told to multiply, or to lay the earth under cultivation; he would have known to do this out of godly self-interest. Every species of living thing naturally pursues its own interests.
Neither does this benediction have in its purview our ungodly Technological Society, although the development and use of tools of all kinds is implied (God needs no tools to plant a garden, but man does). These words of Divine blessing would have been understood as having reference to Adam's place and role in the world as a tiller of the ground. The development of machines as a means of enslavement and conquest would never have occurred to him. The false ideal of technological "progress" for its own sake had not yet arisen.
The original dominion of mankind was a peaceful dominion. Even the lives of the animals were safe, for Adam and his wife were explicitly given a vegetarian diet, as were the wild "beasts of the field". There is no reason to assume that Adam's dominion included the right to kill, anymore than man's headship over his family contemplates that possibility. No doubt it included the right to breed them for desirable traits, to restrain them (fencing), to train and work some of them and to use their products (milk, honey, wool, horn).
We have seen what was the original calling of man, in the period of innocence. Now let us consider what Scipture teaches about man's calling in the period subsequent to the fall.
After the Fall
Man served God for a brief time in a state of innocence. But this idyllic state was not to endure. Sin entered in, and death by sin. The first indication that man's relationship with the world had been sadly altered was the curse on the ground. No more was the ground to "bring forth abundantly" the food of man. Whereas man had had a daily feast of rich fruits, he was to be reduced to eating the food designed for animals:"...and you shall eat the herb of the field."(3:18b) The ground was henceforth only to yield its increase reluctantly.
The second indication of a dreadful change in the fabric of the world was the covering that God made for them -- "tunics of skins"(3:21). Animals had been killed, sacrificed for man's sake. But not yet by man -- God was the first shedder of blood. Permission to eat flesh was not granted until after the deluge had wrecked the earth's productive capacity, and that vegetable diet that the world had always known in abundance before had become scarce.
The third indication that man's relation to the world had changed was the ejection from paradise. Man was not worthy to remain in the beautiful house God had built for him. The cherubim and the flaming sword were to remind him that there was to be no way back. Paradise was to be left to decay, rather than house a miscreant. "...therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken." (Genesis 3:23) Once again, the vocation of the man is explicitly stated. His status had altered, his location also -- but not his basic calling.
What does Scripture say, then, about man's calling in the restored Paradise?
The great disruption had occurred. The life of the man was no longer easy. His very survival would often be in question. His life, though greatly prolonged, would never reach to a thousand years. More importantly, Adam now had to concern himself with the terms of his new relationship with God. That he had such a relationship is clear. He had a specific promise that his seed would finally destroy the serpent. That this was a promise of redemption in Christ is beyond doubt. It implies all that the Bible teaches regarding the restoration of paradise for the new redeemed humanity through the second Adam.
Christ our Redeemer is the great theme of Scripture and of human history. Redemption restores creation to its original purposes. In the prophecies of Scripture, God is depicted as reversing the curse, restoring the fruitfulness of the ground. Man is to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and rest in them without molestation. This shows that the vocation of mankind abides unaltered. In the restored paradise, he is a gardener still. God's plan for man has not changed.
Individual versus Corporate Calling
Now, let me state an important caveat. To say that man's corporate calling is agriculture is not to say that every individual is called to be a farmer. For God has not limited all men to the identical task, nor given all men the same gifts or aspirations. Godly Abel was a shepherd, and his murderer was a tiller of the ground. The Scripture allows for many vocations, and the division of labor is a sound principle. But the fact remains that the task set for mankind as a whole is to make the earth a fruitful garden. If we specialize in -- for example -- tool-making, it should be to make tools which will help in some way to accomplish the overall task. They may be tools to make clothing, or tools to build houses, or tools to plow the ground or harvest crops. They may be simple hand tools, or the more complex tools that we call "machines". But what gives the specialty legitimacy is that it improves the way that the whole community works together to support the common agricultural enterprise, realizing the God-created potential of the land.
It ought to be clear that modern man is in rebellion against his God-ordained corporate vocation.
If as a society we have a different goal than "subduing the earth" in this Biblical sense, then we are in outright corporate rebellion against our Maker. If we are employed in work that undermines this Divine plan, or we are in a legitimate field, but using methods which work against the purpose of God, we are also in rebellion against God. We cannot excuse ourselves by saying "I have to make a living!" God knows how to provide for those who put His purposes ahead of their own earthly interests.
A Dangerous Course
In most of human history and over most of the world, man has had no alternative to agriculture. Only in recent times did it occur to us to abandon the ancient norm and leave our food production in the hands of a few specialists. The final cost of this risky experiment has not been measured. But it is clear that we are using and destroying more resources than any generation in history. And it is becoming more obvious that the food produced by mass industrialized cultivation is inferior, unwholesome and sometimes dangerous.
We have taken a detour from the biblical plan in favor of hedonistic lifestyles and the values of materialism. We have abandoned our calling to exercise godly dominion over the earth, and instead are exercising an ungodly and destructive dominion. Modern man no longer sees himself as God's image, but as God himself! He claims autonomy and sovereignty over the universe. He is making up his own rules as he goes along -- he sees no need for a knowledge of the past. But as a result of our rebellion, we are nearing a crisis, as productive agricultural land becomes scarce.
If we valued the earth's resources according to their utility in sustaining and enriching our lives, then air and water would be joined in the same class by topsoil. If we honored men according to the value of their contribution to the well-being of society, the farmer would be among the upper classes. This alone shows how upside-down the values of the popular culture are.
We Americans who have been born since the Second World War have never known hunger, but that is no guarantee that we will not. If God is still the moral governor of the world, then it is all but certain that we shall experience hunger before long -- in spite of our present domination of the world, and in spite of the apparent security which our wealth and influence provide. And it is likely that we will be ourselves the cause of it. For we are on a suicidal course of destroying the productive capacity of the earth.
G. T. Wrench, in his book, The Restoration of the Peasantry documents the history of Roman agriculture, and shows that mighty Rome could not sustain its agricultural output because the productive lands passed out of the hands of the farmers into the hands of urban moneylenders and thence to the effete aristocracy. Thus, the lands were only an additional source of income to the owners, and not their very lives. They were neglected or else exploited, and soon lost their fertility. Rome relied in the end on North Africa to feed its millions. This is not the only cause of the decline of Rome, but it is one that few are aware of today. We are on a similar course, with multinational corporations and bankers owning most of the productive soil in America, rather than freehold farmers.
Our Utter Failure as God's Stewards
Man was made from the ground, and his natural environment is the fertile land and the open air. Nothing can change this -- it is how we are made. Moreover, the Creator gave mankind in the beginning a stewardship over the soil. Coordinate with dominion is responsibility -- a steward is accountable for what he does with his Master's resources. Modern man has failed miserably in this regard, and when he is called to account, he is likely to lose all that he has or ever hopes to have. For history shows nothing even approaching the rate of destruction of productive land that we achieved in the last century, and are continuing apace in this new millennium.
We have sown the land with death, rather than life. Millions of unexploded bombs and shells and land mines defile the land in the war zones of modernity. In southeast Asia, making prosthetics for people who have stepped on mines is a major industry. How shall we answer to God for this new abomination of desolation?
We are “making progress“ in other areas, as well. The EPA notwithstanding, pollution continues but slightly abated. The Chesapeake Bay is cursed with an over-abundance of a tiny but deadly creature called physteria, which attacks fish and man. The cause seems to be the runoff from chicken "factories". The chickens live in a cruel captivity out of the fresh air, and their droppings are piled up to compost outside, and then be mixed with cattle feed for extra protein. (Remember that next time you want a hamburger.) The cattle eat it -- they have no choice. But large quantities of the droppings wash into the water and nourish physteria, which are threatening the fishing industry around the bay.
And what of the productive farmland taken out of use by developers to be paved over to make roads, parking lots, or airports? Or, if not, turned into golf courses, parks or suburban estates, where food will never be produced? What of the so-called "public lands" where private ownership and agriculture are outlawed? And the landfills that leak toxins, farming practices that deplete the soil and kill beneficial microbes, massive erosion, mega-mining, nuclear testing and accidents, large-scale clear-cutting of forests, oil spills -- the list is endless! These things are often condemned, but they go on because of the money behind them. Some people don't care if they kill us all, as long as they can have more -- and ever more -- to waste on their own useless selves.
Rates of erosion were already high enough in the twenties that our national government took action and formed a bureaucracy to deal with it. Now it is much worse. Whence these unprecedented floods of the great rivers all over the world? It's very simple. Precious soil eroded from the lands cleared but not protected by vegetation fills up the riverbeds, leaving little room for the water that fills them during the rainy seasons. These floods will continue to devastate the lives of millions of the world's peasant farmers, and increase, for each flood carries more soil away -- unless there is drought. Drought is equally destructive -- the soil dries up and blows away.
What is it going to take for us to abandon this suicidal course? Judgments of God may depopulate the earth and end our capability to destroy. Or a true revival of biblical faith and subsequent reformation may come in the mercy of God, and change man into a preserver and life-giver instead of the most destructive beast on the planet. But something must end it. It is God's earth, after all -- and He will act -- we can be sure of that. Are we going to be on His side then? Or will we be the ones opposing His purpose?