In about another month Americans will be choosing another president, members of Congress, state legislators, and many other officers to do the business of government for the next two to six years. If we were living in early America most of us would be the beneficiaries of an "election sermon". These were powerful sermons preached in the presence of the governors and legislatures. The clergyman would remind them of the divine mission of America and the absolute necessity of electing people to public office who loved God and kept His commandments so that America’s mission could be advanced.
On a recent trip to the East Coast, I picked up a two-volume work entitled Political Sermons of the American Founding Era and have been captivated by the election sermons it contains. As we prepare for November 7th, let me share with you some of the Founders’ wisdom taken from the following "election sermons":
Civil magistrates Must Rule in the Fear of God
by Charles Chauncy, D.D., May 27, 1747, Boston.
Those who rule over others must be just, ruling in the fear of God. They ought to be so in their private capacity; maintaining a care to exhibit in their conduct towards all they are concerned with, a fair transcript of that fundamental law of the religion of Jesus, as well as eternal rule of natural justice.
‘Tis not enough that rulers are not unjust; that they don’t betray the trusts reposed in them; that they don’t defraud the public; that they don’t oppress the subject, whether in a barefaced manner, or in a more covert way; by downright violence, or under the cloak of law: ‘Tis not enough, I say, that rulers don’t, in these and such like ways, pervert judgment and justice; but, besides all this, they must be positively righteous. Being possessed of an inward, steady, uniform principle of justice, setting them, in a good measure, above the influence of private interest, or party views, they must do that which is equal and right, in their various stations, from the king in supreme, to the lowest in authority under him.
They must be just in their use of power; confining it within the limits prescribed in the constitution they are under. Whatever power they are vested with 'tis delegated to them according to some civil constitution. And this, so long as it remains the constitution, they are bound in justice to conform themselves to: To be sure, they ought not to act in violation of any of its main and essential rights.
Another instance wherein rulers should be just respects the debts that may be due from the public. A government may be in debt, as well as private men. Their circumstances may be such, as to render it advisable for them to borrow money, either of other governments, or within themselves. Or, they may have occasion to make purchases, or to enter into contracts, upon special emergencies, which may bring them in debt. In which cases, the rule of justice is the same to magistrates, as to men in a private life. They must pay that which they owe, according to the true meaning of their engagements, without fraud or delay.
But there is nothing more needs your awakened attention, my honored fathers in the government, than the unhappy state of this people by means of the current medium. Whatever wise and good ends might be proposed at first, and from time to time, in the emission of bills of credit,[the printing of paper money] they have proved, in the event, a cruel engine of oppression…. Sad is the case of your men of nominal salaries. And much to be pitied also are those widows and orphans, who depend on the loan of their money for a subsistence; while yet, these last, of all persons in the community, should be most carefully guarded against every thing that looks like oppression. This when widows and fatherless children are the persons wronged by is heinously aggravated in the sight of a righteous God; as may be collected from that emphatical prohibition, so often repeated in parts of the bible, "Thou shalt not oppress the widow, nor the fatherless." But the oppression reigning in the land is not confined to this order or that condition of persons, but touches all without exception.
Presence of God with His People, their only Safety and Happiness,
by Samuel Dunbar, May 28, 1760, Boston
If. in the elections of this day, you have no regard to the intellectual powers, moral characters and qualifications of men: if from fear or favor, from party spirit or any sinister views, you knowingly make choice of those who want them; you will forsake God, and act without, or rather against, him; and give him just occasion to complain of you, as of his people of old; they have set up kings, but not by me, not by my direction and order, nor according to my will: they have made princes, and I knew it not: I approved it not. In this case, can you expect God’s gracious presence with you? And if you forsake God the first day, and in the chief business of the day; and which has such an interesting influence upon all the succeeding businesses of the year, will it not bode ill to you, and to your people? But we hope better things; and that, as you are, now, and here, beginning with God, you will abide with him through the important elections of the day; and also through all the future sessions of the year; and that in the great and weighty affairs, that come before you, you will seek to God for that knowledge, that will make you understanding in the times, and enable you to know the true interests of your people, and the best methods to promote them; and for that fidelity and resolution, that will embolden you to pursue them, and for the divine blessing to prosper them.
Should you, from a vain conceit of your own wisdom and sufficiency, forsake God, and ask neither his counsel nor blessing; or do it only in a formal, customary, complimental manner; you may justly fear, that God will forsake you, turn you over into the hands of your own counsels, leave you to the darkness and lusts of your own minds, mingle a perverse spirit in the midst of you, suffer parties to be formed, dissentions to prevail, and passion, self-interest, and a party spirit, rather than reason, justice, and a public spirit, to influence and govern you. In this case, your counsels will be carried headlong, and, in all probability, be extremely prejudicial, if not fatal, to the cornmon-wealth.
The Principles of Civil Union and Happiness Considered and Recommended,
by Elizur Goodrich, L.L.D., Hartford, Connecticut, 1787
We have also a Jerusalem (America), adorned with brighter glories of divine grace, and with greater beauties of holiness, than were ever displayed, in the most august solemnities of the Hebrew-temple-worship; and presents, to our devout admiration, gratitude and praise, more excellent means of religion and virtue, peace and happiness, than ever called the attention of the assembled tribes of Israel. We enjoy all the privileges of a free government, the blessings of the gospel of peace, and the honors of the church of God. This is our Jerusalem.
Happy the free and virtuous people, who pay strict attention to the natural aristocracy, which is the institution of heaven; and appears in every assembly of mankind, on whatever occasion, they are met together. Happy the people who have wisdom to discern the true patriot of superior abilities, in all his counsels ever manifesting a sincere regard to the public good, and never with a selfish view attempting to deceive them, into hurtful measures; and happy the people who distinguish him from the designing demagogue, who, while he sooths them in their vices, and flatters them with high notions of liberty, and of easing their burdens, is plunging them into the depths of misery and bondage.
Never was union in counsel and in public exertions, more necessary in America, than at the present day. If we improve the advantages, which Providence has put into our hands, we may be a great and flourishing people, happy and united among ourselves, and our name be respectable among the nations. But, if we forget the God of our salvation, and neglect the means of virtue and religion, with which we are favored above any people on earth—if we are divided, and contend about every plan devised for strengthening the national union, and restoring the national honor and safety—if the several states, losing sight of the great end of the confederation, are influenced by mere local and partial motives, and if, in their respective and distinct jurisdictions, they forsake the paths of righteousness, we shall become the scorn and contempt of foreign nations, a prey to every bold invader; or fall by intestine divisions, till we sink into general ruin, and universal wretchedness.
I therefore, persuade myself, gentlemen, that in full confidence of your zeal for the public good, I may with all deference and freedom, recommend to your attention, the honor and safety of the confederate republic, as being of the same importance to the happiness and defense of the several states, as the peace and prosperity of Jerusalem were to the several tribes of Israel.
The Republic of the Israelites, an Example to the American States,
by Samuel Langdon, Concord, New Hampshire, 1788
There is a remarkable paragraph in the sacred writings, which may he very well accommodated to my present purpose, and merits particular attention. You have it in Deuteronorny, IV:5-8:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people: for what nation is there so great, which hath God so nigh unto them as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, which both statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day.
If I am not mistaken, instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union, and see this application plainly offering itself…
On the people, therefore, of these United States, it depends whether wise men, or fools, good or bad men, shall govern.... Therefore, I will now lift up my voice and cry aloud to the people....
From year to year be careful in the choice of your representatives and the higher powers [offices] of government. Fix your eyes upon men of good understanding and known honesty; men of knowledge, improved by experience; men who fear God and hate covetousness; who love truth and righteousness, and sincerely wish for the public welfare.... Let not men openly irreligious and immoral become your legislators.... If the legislative body are corrupt, you will soon have bad men for counselors, corrupt judges, unqualified justices, and officers in every department who will dishonor their stations.... Never give countenance to turbulent men, who wish to distinguish themselves and rise to power by forming combinations and exciting insurrections against government.... I call upon you also to support schools in your towns.... It is a debt you owe to your children.
A Sermon for the Day of General Election,
by David Tappan A.M., May 30, 1792, Massachusetts
When the great political characters in a community, give their uniform sanction to religion, by exhibiting her fairest features in their daily deportment; when they openly revere the name, the sabbaths, the temple, and all the sacred institutions of the Most High; when they liberally and zealously contribute to the settlement and support, the reputation and success of a learned and virtuous priesthood, to the extensive propagation of Christian knowledge, and to the pious education of the rising age; when they are eminent patterns of virtue themselves, and are careful to cherish and honor it in others; how unspeakably do such examples confirm and extend the credit and influence of religion! What animation and confidence, what super respectability and success, do they give to its teachers! What authority and energy must the inward consciousness, and open luster of such virtue impart to rulers themselves, in their official proceedings especially those which have for their object, the suppression of wickedness, and the encouragement of the opposite interest! Which leads us to observe, that rulers efficaciously concur with Christian ministers, when they carry the spirit of religion into their public conduct, when all their political measures are regulated by the everlasting maxims of natural justice, of Christian equity and benevolence; when they accordingly distribute the burdens, apply the resources, fulfill the engagements and discharge the debt of the public, with scrupulous fairness, the exact economy, the assiduous attention required by those rules, in the similar transactions of private citizens.
The Dangers of Our National Prosperity; and the Way to avoid them,
by Samuel Wales D.D., Hartford, Connecticut, 1785
I will add once more, that we are in much danger of the evils which arise from luxury and extravagance in our expenses. After all that has been said in favor of foreign trade and foreign luxuries, it still remains a demonstration in politics, that when our imports exceed our exports, the course of trade is against us and we are constantly growing poor. This, it is to be feared, is our state at the present, especially on account of those very extravagant importations which we have made since the peace. Our very great consumption of foreign luxuries not only impoverishes the country to an high degree, but at the same time, tends directly to enervate both our bodies and our minds, to produce indolence and pride, and to open the door to every temptation and every vice. In this case, as well as many others, experience is a faithful teacher. And if we consult the experience of mankind in every age, and in every part of the world, we shall not find a single instance wherein luxury and extravagance have subserved the true interest of a people. But instances in which they have proved hurtful and ruinous are to be found in abundance. And to republican governments they have proved more fatal than to others…. To prevent these impending evils we need the exertions not only of the sons, but also of the daughters of America. Very great are your influence and importance, my fair hearers, in this respect, as well as in many others. Be assured that economy and frugality with an elegance of dress, on the plan of that modest apparel commended by St. Peter, would add more grace to your charms, more dignity to your characters than all the tinsel of British ornament, or the greatest extravagance of foreign dress.
The Necessity of the Belief of Christianity by the Citizens of the State
in order to preserve our Political Prosperity,
by Jonathan Edwards D.D., May 8, 1794, Hartford, Connecticut
Political prosperity requires the general practice of a strict morality. But this cannot be so well secured by any other means, as by a belief of Christianity. Motives of a religious kind appear to be necessary to restrain men from vice and immorality. Civil pains and penalties alone are by no means sufficient to this end; nor are honors and rewards sufficient encouragements to the practice of virtue in general. The civil magistrate does not pretend to reward virtue in general according to its moral excellency. He does indeed reward some particular acts of virtue, which are highly beneficial to the public. But the many virtues of private life pass without any other reward from him, than the bare protection, which is afforded in common to the persons who practice those virtues, and to all who are free from gross crimes.
A Solemn Address to Christians and Patriots upon the
Approaching Election of a President of the United States,
by Tunis Wortman, 1800
In the ensuing observations, I shall consider your duties as Christians and as patriots. I shall make it my task to establish the following propositions.
First, that it is your duty, as Christians, to maintain the purity and independence of the church, to keep religion separate from politics, to prevent an union between the church and the state, and to preserve your clergy from temptation, corruption and reproach.
Second, that as Christians and patriots, it is equally your duty to defend the liberty and constitution of your country.
Third, although I am a sincere and decided opponent of infidelity, yet as it respects a president of the United States, an enmity to the constitution is the most dangerous evil; inasmuch as Christianity is secure by the force of its own evidence, and coming from God, cannot be destroyed by human power; but, on the contrary, the constitution, is vulnerable to the attacks of an ambitious and unprincipled executive.
Oh, that our public officials and voters could here these words today!
Earl Taylor, Jr.