Continuing on with our Saturday series of Election Day Sermons, our guest author, Dr. David W. Hall examines today a sermon by the Rev. Samuel Sherwood. I do appreciate Dr. Hall’s labors on our behalf, and these Saturday posts provide a great opportunity, all the more relevant in this current year, to learn much about how Christians moved about in the political waters of colonial and early U.S. history.
“The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness” by Samuel Sherwood (Jan. 17, 1776)
An American sermon on a choice morsel from the book of Revelation . . . associating corruption with hierarchies . . . and warning the church to resist sycophantic governments in league with that . . . and, further, that sermon was not from a late 20th century evangelical pulpit but rather from a Connecticut Congregationalist minister almost a century before Republicans even existed as a permanent party.
Samuel Sherwood (1730-1783) was a graduate of Yale and Princeton (at the time under the leadership of his uncle Aaron Burr), who pastored in Weston (CT) from 1757 to his death in 1783. Next to this sermon, his other published sermon (also of political import) was his Aug. 31, 1774, sermon, “Containing, Scriptural Instructions to Civil Rulers, and all Free-born Subjects,” which was a clear apology for American autonomy.
The final straw for Sherwood’s excursus was the 1774 Quebec Act—legislation which sought to establish Catholicism for all territories west of the Appalachian mountain range by assigning the governance of that tract to Canadian authorities. Sherwood, in this sermon, identified Roman Catholicism as a tentacle of the apocalyptic antichrist (Rev. 12:14-17) that would destroy or corrupt the church. Instead, Protestantism was, he thought, both more biblical and more likely to ensure religious and civil liberties. He praised “the honorable congress” as having the right to trade with any nations, thinking also that “the spirit of liberty might spread and circulate with commerce.”
The first point of this sermon is to warn against the rise of the serpent, which Sherwood associates with Romanism in general and Anglican bishoprics in particular, which were captivated by that ideology. His second observation is that the American colonies were threatened by this ecclesiastical encroachment, warning against the “poisoned liquor” which would “intoxicate and inflame mankind to spiritual fornication.” These ecclesiastical low-lifes were “inferior kind of animals,” who were viewed by this preacher as “peeping and croaking in the dark holes and corners of the earth,” most likely representative of “popish, jesuitical missioners, or the tools and emissaries in general, of anti-christian, tyrannical power, who are the spirits of devils, and have free access to the kings of the earth.” Under this second heading, he takes a historical digression, accusing the Jesuits of persistent evil that was only stemmed in part by the Reformation.
Third, he concludes that biblical prophecies “may rationally” point to many fulfillments in “the state of Christ’s church, in this American quarter of the globe; and will sooner or later, have their fulfillment and accomplishment among us.” He specified:
THESE United Colonies have arisen to such a height as to become the object of public attention thro’ all Europe, and of envy to the mother from whence they derived; whose unprovoked attack upon them in such a furious hostile manner, threatening their entire ruin, is an event that will make such a black and dark period in history, and does so deeply affect, not only the liberty of the church here in the wilderness, but the protestant cause in general, thro’ the christian world, and is big with such consequences of glory or terror, that we may conjecture at least, without a spirit of vanity and enthusiasm, that some of those prophecies of St. John may, not unaptly, be applied to our case, and receive their fulfilment in such providences as are passing over us.
His thesis was a version of American exceptionalism, advocating that God raised up the colonies in order to protect the church. His glossary was:
The Serpent = British Parliament;
The Woman = The true church;
The Wilderness = The American colonies.
He employed coded terms like “despotism,” “tyranny,” and “arbitrary power” (staples from Calvinist political theory for the previous two centuries) to castigate the British crown and clergy. Moreover, he clearly believed that biblical passages could be applied to contemporary political matters. Not only did he dedicate this sermon to John Hancock and various aldermen but also to: “the brave GENERALS of our armies, and patriotic HEROES, who are spirited by Heaven to exert their superior abilities in the most noble and generous manner, for the defence of our distressed country, bleeding under the cruel and murderous hand of unexampled tyranny and oppression; whom God in his providence, has raised up to be his glorious instruments, to fulfil scripture-prophecies, in favour of this church, and American liberty, to the confusion of all her enemies; the ensuing discourse is most affectionately inscribed and dedicated.” How’s that for not taking a position!
Whenever a spirit of despotism has run high, and a lusting ambition after arbitrary power and lawless dominion has prevailed; when the dragon dare venture to put on and wear his long horns; the woman in the wilderness has felt the grievous distressing effects. At such seasons, jesuitical emissaries, the tools of tyrannical power, have been employed to corrupt her doctrines, and lead her into the belief of the darling doctrines of arbitrary power, passive obedience and nonresistance; who, like the frogs that issued out of the mouth of the false prophet, who are said to have the spirit of devils, have been slyly creeping into all the holes and corners of the land, and using their enchanting art and bewitching policy, to lead aside, the simple and unwary, from the truth, . . .
One may not agree with all his interpretations of the Revelation, nor with each of his applications, but Sherwood clearly saw the scriptures as living and as applicable to his day. And his sermon was neither viewed as establishing a religion nor as running afoul of the rights of the church to freely express her opinion on a current matter. Furthermore, he heralded the call for the church to resist tyranny.
The final section of this sermon is “improvement” or specific applications. Among these, he moves from Rev. 12 to his own day, perorating the government which was “claiming an absolute power and authority to make laws, binding in all cases whatever, without check or controul from any; which has proceeded in the exercise of this despotic, arbitrary power, to deprive one of them, of their most essential and chartered privileges; sent over fleets and armies to enforce their cruel, tyrannical edicts . . .”
He concludes: “Liberty has been planted here; and the more it is attacked, the more it grows and flourishes. The time is coming and hastening on, when Babylon the great shall fall to rise no more; when all wicked tyrants and oppressors shall be destroyed for ever. These violent attacks upon the woman in the wilderness, may possible be some of the last efforts, and dying struggles of the man of sin.”
Reiner Smolinski comments on this January 1776 classic, “The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness,” preached with Gov. John Hancock in attendance: “Sherwood freely mixes millenarian metaphors and political ideology to incite his listeners to action. Like many of his predecessors, Sherwood readily adapts the mythology of New England’s Puritan past to fit the new situation. The apocalyptic flight of the Woman into the howling wilderness of America a century and a half earlier was now reaching its climax in the cosmic battle against the British Antichrist. In this final stand against the English Gog of Magog, Sherwood invokes the Spirit of his Puritan ancestors and calls on all Protestants, all true Americans, to rise in defense of the Church: their sacred rights of religious freedom, political liberty, and the pursuit of property.” [http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=etas]
This sermon, which is worth accessing for reflections in the coming year, is available online at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/21/. A published paper copy is available in the excellent anthology by Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
By Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church