Remembering the Hand of Providence
in the Founding of America
On February 19, 1795, a day proclaimed by President Washington to be a national day of thanksgiving and prayer, Bishop James Madison (a cousin of President James Madison), delivered a speech reminding citizens of the Hand of Divine Providence in the founding of America.
Bishop James Madison (1749-1812) was educated as a lawyer under George Wythe after graduating with high honors from the College of William and Mary in 1771. He became a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the college but soon decided upon the ministry. He was ordained in England in 1775 as an Anglican priest. Two years later he became president of William and Mary and held that position until his death. A strong advocate of independence, it is reported that he spoke of America as "the republic of Heaven ." The following are edited excerpts from his speech entitled: "Manifestations of the Beneficence of Divine Providence towards America ." He began with the scripture:
" Only fear the Lord, and serve him; for consider how great things he hath done for you." ( I Samuel 12:24)
"Brethren, there are few situations more interesting to the human race, than that which the people of America this day presents... for the history of nations doth not exhibit a people who ever had more cause to offer up to the great author of every good the most fervent expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving.... Permit me then, upon this occasion, to turn your attention to those great things, which the Lord hath done for us, to those manifold displays of divine providence, which the history of America exhibits; and let the subject afford an opportunity to revive within us sentiments of lively gratitude, and excite sincere resolutions to fear the Lord, and to serve him; in a word, to increase daily in piety, and in all those noble affections of the soul which dignify the Christian and the patriot."
God Kept America Hidden
"The ways of heaven must oft appear to us, weak mortals, dark and intricate. But the first suggestion, which here presents itself, is, that providence seems to have thrown a veil over this portion of the globe, in order to conceal it from the eyes of the nations of the east, until the destined period had arrived for the regeneration of mankind, in this new world, after those various other means, which the wisdom of the Almighty had permitted to operate, in the old, had proved ineffectual.... Yes, even thy gospel of love, of universal fraternity, had been, too often, perverted into the most formidable system of oppression; and mankind, instead of seeing it diffuse the heavenly rays of philanthropy, too frequently beheld it as imposing a yoke, to degrade and enslave them....
"How were these chains to be burst asunder? How was the human race to be restored to their inherent rights, rights, which the God of nature consecrated at the birth of every individual? How was the dignity of man to be vindicated? How were those sentiments of equality, benevolence and fraternity, which reason, and religion, and nature enjoin, to reassume their sovereignty over the human soul, and to dash against the heads of usurpers the chains, the burthens, the oppressions, which had so long brought down the grey hairs of the multitude with sorrow to the grave? How could the principles of a revolution so important, so essential for the happiness of the human species, be generated, but by raising up, as it were, a new race of men, in some remote, some blessed clime, where, from their infancy, unfettered by those errors, which time appears to sanctify, they should be trained not only to a knowledge, but to a just sense of the duty of asserting and maintaining their rights; and above all, where the love of equality, the basis of all rights and all social happiness, should be congenial to man? This favored region, favored indeed of heaven, is America."
It is in America ...
"It is here, a knowledge of those political truths, which the immortal Sydneys and the Lockes of former years investigated with philosophic eye, bursts spontaneous forth. It is here, that men, led by the hand of nature, their minds unawed and unobscured by opinions and customs as barbarous and unfriendly to social rights as the dark chaotic ages, which gave them birth, see and acknowledge as axioms, what philosophers have toiled to establish by deductions, long and intricate. It is in America, that the germs of the universal redemption of the human race from domination and oppression have already begun to be developed; it is in America, that we see a reintegration of divine love for man, and that the voice of heaven itself seems to call to her sons, go ye forth and disciple all nations, and spread among them the gospel of equality and fraternity...."
What if America 's Guardian Angel Showed Early Settlers
Our 5000 Year Leap of Progress in less than 200 years?
"Suppose, my brethren, when our forefathers here first rested the soles of their feet, delivered from those waters, which seemed almost to cover the face of the whole earth, the guardian angel of America withdrawing the curtain of time, had opened to their view the prospect, which this day presents;
-had shown to them, America , free, independent, and holding an eminent rank among the nations of the earth;
-had shown to them her sons and her daughters, numerous as the stars of heaven, assembled in the houses of their God, and with one voice, offering up the grateful incense of adoration, praise and thanks-giving, 'for the great things that he hath done for them';
-had shown to them the first instance, which the world has ever exhibited, of written social compacts, together with her plans of government, founded on the eternal basis of wisdom, equality and justice;
-had shown to them, the thousand blessings, which peace, from her horn of plenty, scatters round, with the arts and sciences gradually advancing in her train;
- had shown to them, her navies, loaded not with the desolating weapons of war, but with the fruits of the earth, vexing with their prows the most distant seas;
-had shown to them the bright portrait of that heroic citizen, whose prudence, whose fortitude, and whose wisdom shine equally refulgent in war as in peace; and lastly,
-had shown to them, the fairest portion of the old world, by the example of America, by the influence of that energetic principle, which she had nurtured and matured, awaking as from a dream, 'putting on strength as in the ancient days, in the generations of old,' uprooting the deep founded systems of usurpation, and gathering the oppressed under the wings of liberty and fraternity:
"And whilst he presented the glorious, the animating prospect, should say to them, all these events, my sons, great and astonishing as they are, shall come to pass within the short period, of a patriarchal life; would they not have fallen down upon their faces, and worshipping the God of their fathers, exclaimed, 'This is the Lords doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?
"We, brethren, fortunate as we are, have lived to see this triumphal day. And is there a soul here present, is there one throughout this rising empire, who doth not trace, in the eventful history of America , the conspicuous displays of the hand of providence? Is there one, who is not ready also to exclaim, 'it is the Lords doing'? Where, in what records of mankind, will he discover a progress from infancy to manhood, so accelerated, so astonishing in all its stages, so superior to all those ordinary means, by which empires are matured? ..."
Who will not remember how the Lord saved us?
"But ah! who does not remember, when the fate of this rising empire, nay of mankind, hung trembling between the fury of the oppressor, and the weakness of the oppressed? How many were our prayers to the God of battles! How often did we look forwards upon the mightiness of the adversary; How often backwards upon our own imbecility, upon our wives and our tender infants? In that awful crisis, who does not remember, that in God alone was our trust? Yes, 'O people, saved by the Lord, it was his right hand and his holy arm,' which rescued thee from the strength of the lion and the bear; it was the same wise and gracious providence, which delivered the youthful unarmed David from the hands of Goliath, accoutered as he was, 'with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield,' which also delivered thee, from the hands of the mightiest of nations...."
What, then, is our remaining duty?
"But, my brethren, to rest contented with merely viewing the hand of providence, or in acknowledging the plan of divine wisdom, which is here operating for the general felicity, would be to halt at the threshold of the temple of God. Gratitude, warm and fervent, united to a sincere resolution 'to fear and to serve him,' is the return, which the Almighty beneficence claims from every worshipper...."
Virtue - the Foundation of Liberty and Happiness
"Then it behooves us, above all things, to inquire, how are these blessings to be preserved? This inquiry immediately resolves itself into another. What is there in this sublunary state, that can attract the smiles of heaven, or ensure political happiness, but virtue? ... Fellow-citizens, let virtue then, I entreat you, be the ruling principle, the polar star, which should influence every sentiment, and guide every action, since it alone will conduct us into the haven of felicity."
How to preserve Virtue
"But will you trust, for the diffusion of virtue, to that political morality, which a vain philosophy would substitute in the room of those lessons, which the heavenly teacher delivered? Shall virtue trickle from the oozy bed of political catechisms, or shall it gush, pure and in full stream, from the rock of our salvation? Ah! brethren, the moment that we drop the idea of a God, the remunerator of virtue, but the avenger of iniquity; the moment we abandon that divine system of equality, fraternity, and universal benevolence, which the blessed Jesus taught and exemplified; the moment that religion, the pure and undefiled religion, which heaven, in compassion to the infirmity of human reason, vouchsafed to mortals, loses its influence over their hearts, from that fatal moment, farewell to public and private happiness, farewell, a long farewell to virtue, to patriotism, to liberty!
"Virtue, such as republics and heaven require, must have its foundation in the heart; it must penetrate the whole man; it must derive its obligations and its sanctions, not from the changeable ideas of the political moralist, or the caprice of the wisest of human legislators, but from the unchangeable father of the universe, the God of love, whose laws, and whose will we are incited to obey by motives, the most powerful that can actuate the human soul. Men must see and feel, that it is God himself, their maker and their judge, who demands obedience to duties, which constitute their individual, their social, their eternal happiness. Then, and not till then, will virtue reign triumphant in the hearts of citizens; then will she have her sacrifices in the midst of the deepest obscurity, as well as in the open day, in the most private and secret retirements, as well as upon the house tops."
The Role of Religion in maintaining Virtue
"...Thus taught by religion, man becomes acquainted with his real character; instead of being amenable only to human laws, whose utmost vigilance he may and often does elude, he sees himself accountable to a being, as just as merciful, as omnipotent as omniscient. He finds himself destined, not to the narrow range of the beasts that perish, but to immortal life. The bright prospect invigorates his soul; sentiments of conscious dignity elevate him above what is low or mean; his views are fixed upon what is truly great and good, patriotic and brave; no tears appall him, but confident in his God, he evinces himself, whether in adversity or prosperity, the inflexible friend of justice and humanity.... Remember, that in the same proportion as irreligion advances, virtue retires; remember, that in her stead, will succeed factions, ever ready to prostitute public good to the most nefarious private ends, whilst unbounded licentiousness, and a total disregard to the sacred names of liberty and of patriotism will here once more, realize that fatal catastrophe, which so many free states have already experienced. Remember, the law of the Almighty is, they shall expire, with their expiring virtue."
A Prayer for America
"God of all nature! Father of the human spirit, preserve these prosperous, these happy republics from so dreadful a calamity. May thy gracious providence, which hath hitherto nurtured, protected, and conducted them to this day of praise and thanksgiving, ever be the supreme object of their regard? May the blessings already received, inspire every heart with just sentiments of gratitude, and with the inflexible resolution to perform those duties which become us as Christians, and as citizens. May peace and happiness, truth and justice, order and freedom, religion and piety ever proclaim thy praises, thy providential goodness, thy love to man, not only in this land of liberty, but wherever the human race is found. Amen."
Surely, those in the Founding era would hope that we today would return thanks to the Giver of freedom and liberty, both in this election season and in the coming Christmas season.
Earl Taylor, Jr.
Source: Political Sermons of the Founding Era , Vol. 2, edited by Ellis Sandoz, Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis , 1998, pp. 1305-1320, spelling modernized.