An Election Sermon by Samuel Payson (Feb. 28, 1778)
The Rev. Samuel Phillips Payson (1736-1801) was a classical scholar and Pastor. His family migrated from England, and his father was a pastor before him; his wife was also a daughter of the manse. He graduated from Harvard in 1754 and pastored in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He delivered this sermon on February 28, 1778 to a State Convention in Boston just before the state constitution was considered.
Payson took this sermon from Gal. 4:26 and 31. He began praising liberty: “We doubt not but the Jerusalem above, the heavenly society, possesses the noblest liberty to a degree of perfection of which the human mind can have no adequate conception in the present state.” He also denounced bondage, corruption, tyranny, and lust. Payson preached, “Hence a people formed upon the morals and principles of the gospel are capacitated to enjoy the highest degree of civil liberty, and will really enjoy it, unless prevented by force or fraud.”
In this sermon, he was clearly an advocate of ‘republican’ governance: “Much depends upon the mode and administration of civil government to complete the blessings of liberty; for although the best possible plan of government never can give an ignorant and vicious people the true enjoyment of liberty, yet a state may be enslaved though its inhabitants in general may be knowing, virtuous, and heroic.”
Payson also sounded Calvin’s warnings against either pure democracy or monarchicalism:
. . . a government altogether popular, so as to have the decision of cases by assemblies of the body of the people, cannot be thought so eligible; nor yet that a people should delegate their power and authority to one single man, or to one body of men, or, indeed, to any hands whatever, excepting for a short term of time. A form of government may be so constructed as to have useful checks in the legislature, and yet capable of acting with union, vigor, and dispatch, with a representation equally proportioned, preserving the legislative and executive branches distinct, and the great essentials of liberty be preserved and secured.
Rather than espousing an abstract theory or presuming a dictatorial posture, his sermon targets to, “ask the candid attention of this assembly to some things respecting a state, its rulers and inhabitants, of high importance, and necessary to the being and continuance of such a free and righteous government as we wish for ourselves and posterity, and hope, by the blessing of God, to have ere long established.”
Aware of the excesses of both Greek and Roman governments, Payson’s knowledge of history led him to aver: “There are diseases in government, like some in the human body, that lie undiscovered till they become wholly incurable. The baneful effects of exorbitant wealth, the lust of power, and other evil passions, are so inimical to a free, righteous government, and find such as easy access to the human mind, that it is difficult, if possible, to keep up the spirit of good government, unless the spirit of liberty prevails in the state.”
Americans were “children, not of the bond woman, but of the free”; thus, their government should rightly reflect that. Slavery, he declared, was born of ignorance. Education was critical, but nothing was more important for good government than “public virtue.”
Payson was not naïve:
The exorbitant wealth of individuals has a most baneful influence on public virtue, and therefore should be carefully guarded against. It is, however, acknowledged to be a difficult matter to secure a state from evils and mischiefs from this quarter; because, as the world goes, and is like to go, wealth and riches will have their commanding influence. The public interest being a remoter object than that of self, hence persons in power are so generally disposed to turn it to their own advantage. A wicked rich man, we see, soon corrupts a whole neighborhood, and a few of them will poison the morals of a whole community.
On the role of faith and an authentic view of establishment, he proclaimed that “religion, both in rulers and people,” was of the highest importance to public matters, preaching:
This is the most sacred principle that can dwell in the human breast. It is of the highest importance to men—the most perfective of the human soul. The truths of the gospel are the most pure, its motives the most noble and animating, and its comforts the most supporting to the mind. The importance of religion to civil society and government is great indeed, as it keeps alive the best sense of moral obligation, a matter of such extensive utility, especially in respect to an oath, which is one of the principal instruments of government. The fear and reverence of God, and the terrors of eternity, are the most powerful restraints upon the minds of men; and hence it is of special importance in a free government, the spirit of which being always friendly to the sacred rights of conscience, it will hold up the gospel as the great rule of faith and practice.
He also thought a ruler’s faith was important:
The qualities of a good ruler may be estimated from the nature of a free government. Power being a delegation, and all delegated power being in its nature subordinate and limited, hence rulers are but trustees, and government a trust; therefore fidelity is a prime qualification in a ruler; this, joined with good natural and acquired abilities, goes far to complete the character. Natural disposition that is benevolent and kind, embellished with the graceful modes of address, agreeably strike the mind, and hence, in preference to greater real abilities, will commonly carry the votes of a people. . . . A good acquaintance with mankind, a knowledge of the leading passions and principles of the human mind, is of high importance in the character before us; for common and well-known truths and real facts ought to determine us in human matters. We should take mankind as they are, and not as they ought to be or would be if they were perfect in wisdom and virtue. So, in our searches for truth and knowledge, and in our labors for improvement, we should keep within the ken or compass of the human mind.
He seemed to think that the Galatians passage led to this: “A state and its inhabitants thus circumstanced in respect to government, principle, morals, capacity, union, and rulers, make up the most striking portrait, the liveliest emblem of the Jerusalem that is above, that this world can afford. That this may be the condition of these free, independent, and sovereign states of America, we have the wishes and prayers of all good men. Indulgent Heaven seems to invite and urge us to accept the blessing. A kind and wonderful Providence has conducted us, by astonishing steps, as it were, within sight of the promised land.”
Payson even praised a specific foreign power in this sermon: “We must be infidels, the worst of infidels, to disown or disregard the hand that has raised us up such benevolent and powerful assistants in times of great distress. How wonderful that God, who in ancient times ‘girded Cyrus with his might,’ should dispose his most Christian Majesty the king of France to enter into the most open and generous alliance with these independent states!—an event in providence which, like the beams of the morning, cheers and enlivens this great continent. We must cherish the feelings of gratitude to such friends in our distress; we must hold our treaties sacred and binding.”
He concluded his address to the legislature with these words:
With diligence let us cultivate the spirit of liberty, of public virtue, of union and religion, and thus strengthen the hands of government and the great pillars of the state. Our own consciences will reproach us, and the world condemn us, if we do not properly respect, and obey, and reverence the government of our own choosing. The eyes of the whole world are upon us in these critical times, and, what is yet more, the eyes of Almighty God. Let us act worthy of our professed principles, of our glorious cause, that in some good measure we may answer the expectations of God and of men. Let us cultivate the heavenly temper, and sacredly regard the great motive of the world to come. And God of his mercy grant the blessings of peace may soon succeed to the horrors of war, and that from the enjoyment of the sweets of liberty here we may in our turn and order go to the full enjoyment of the nobler liberties above, in that New Jerusalem, that city of the living God, that is enlightened by the glory of God and of the Lamb. Amen.
A version is available at the Liberty Fund’s OnLine Library at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2066&chapter=188684&layout=html&Itemid=27. A printed copy is in the 2012 Kindle edition of Election Sermons (pp. 181-198; http://www.amazon.com/Election-Sermons-David-W-Hall-ebook/dp/B0077B2RLK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454974474&sr=8-1&keywords=Election+sermons+david+w.+hall#reader_B0077B2RLK)
by Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church