Election Day Sermons in the Founding Era
An interesting custom in colonial America, mostly in New England, was what they called "Election Day Sermons." Before every major election, a wise representative of the people, usually a clergyman, would offer advice to the people about the upcoming privilege of choosing their elected officials and would remind voters of the sacred duty they have in preserving liberty by only choosing those who reflected the ideals and values which made America great. The sermons would usually be given in churches, since that is where the largest congregations of people would be assembled, and it reflected the role of the clergy in warning the people of dangerous trends in society. Here are selections from some of those sermons.
Voters must choose those who are Virtuous and Moral
"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.
"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.
"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." ("Civil magistrates Must be Just, Ruling in the Fear of God," by Charles Chauncy, D.D., May 27, 1747, Boston.)
If voters chose people based on the persuasions of politics rather than on the moral and intellectual quality of the candidates, then God will withdraw from the people
"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?
"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 common-wealth." ("Presence of God with His People, their only Safety and Happiness," by Samuel Dunbar, May 28, 1760, Boston)
For leaders in our Jerusalem (America) voters must search
the Natural Aristocracy for proven virtue and talents
"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. ("The Principles of Civil Union and Happiness Considered and Recommended," by Elizur Goodrich, L.L.D., Hartford, Connecticut, 1787)
Voters in the 13 colonies should heed the counsel Moses gave
to the 12 tribes of Israel in choosing their leaders
"There is a remarkable paragraph in the sacred writings, which may be very well accommodated to my present purpose, and merits particular attention. You have it in Deuteronomy 4:5-8:
"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...." ("The Republic of the Israelites, an Example to the American States," by Samuel Langdon, Concord, New Hampshire, 1788)
Voters should find those who will carry true religious convictions
evident in their private lives into their public lives
"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! …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. ("A Sermon for the Day of General Election," by David Tappan A.M., May 30, 1792, Massachusetts)
Voters must be aware of the hidden danger of prosperity
"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…. 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…. ("The Dangers of Our National Prosperity; and the Way to avoid them," by Samuel Wales D.D., Hartford, Connecticut, 1785)
Advice to voters in an upcoming election
of a President of the United States
"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 a 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. ("A Solemn Address to Christians and Patriots upon the Approaching Election of a President of the United States," by Tunis Wortman, 1800)
Oh, that the American electorate could hear and believe these words today!
Earl Taylor, Jr.
PS All citation taken from: Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, 2 vols, Foreword by Ellis Sandoz (2nd ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).