The first serious resistance against the new United States government took place in western Pennsylvania, specifically, a rebellion against a federal excise tax being placed upon distilled spirits. Known as the Whiskey Rebellion, government officials were being attacked and run off by rebellious citizens. What was to be done?
President George Washington responded by calling up twelve thousand federal militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. Marching to Carlisle, Pennsylvania on the weekend of October 5, 1794, they settled down for the night.
Preaching in his pulpit that Lord’s Day at the First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle, was the pastor, Rev. Dr. Robert Davidson. Davidson was forty-nine years of age at this time, and a national figure in the Presbyterian Church. He had served as moderator of the General Assembly just three years before this. He was also the Vice-President of Dickinson College, a Presbyterian school.
Seated among his congregation that morning were George Washington and the Secretaries of War and the Treasury of the new federal government. Dr. Davidson preached “A Sermon on the Freedom and Happiness of the United States of America.” His text was Second Samuel 7:23, which reads in part, “And what one nation in the earth is like thy people, even like Israel?”
In his introduction, Rev. Davidson assured his audience that the message of the gospel and the public concerns which concerned them now in this time of crisis, cannot be separated. His first point spoke about the fact that Israel is proof that events are driven by Divine providence rather than by chance. Further, the Jews were God’s chosen people.
The force of the sermon came with his exposition of the second outline point. He soundly stated that God, in His great goodness, has bestowed upon the United States of America a high privilege as well. Indeed, the text was quickly changed to “what nation in the earth is like thy people, even like the United States.”
He went on to praise the militia, including their commanders and the commander-in-chief, President Washington, who had gathered in Carlisle, to teach the rebellious citizens and their army that they should be obedient to lawful authorities. No wonder that the officers of the American forces requested this sermon to be printed and given to the masses.
When the militia began to march, led by the only President who ever led a sitting army on a military mission, the mob—including their army in the western parts of the state—fled and were disbanded. About 150 of the more prominent dissenters were taken back as prisoners, and about a year later, were pardoned by George Washington. Following the presidency of John Adams, it was only under the third President, Thomas Jefferson, that the Excise Tax on distilled spirits was finally repealed.
Words to live by: Present day Presbyterian pastors need to think long and hard about preaching political sermons from the pulpit. While there can be many spiritual points which can be gleaned for America from the chosen people of Israel, we are not the new Israel! We must—and we should—point out the courage of serving the Lord in all kinds of national distresses. We do believe that the God of the ages has caused us to be raised up for such a time as this. We are a people with all sorts of privileges, and that puts a great obligation upon us to obey God’s will. But we are not the lost ten tribes of Israel. That much is sure.
Through the Scriptures: Zechariah 3 – 6
Through the Standards: Proof texts for the civil magistrate
Romans 13:1 – 4
“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God, and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” (NASB)
1 Peter 2:13 – 15
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” (NASB)
1 Timothy 2:1, 2
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (NASB)
Image source : Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle (1898), vol. 1, facing page 355.