Our good friend Dr. David W. Hall continues to use his time to best advantage and returns today with another entry in our Election Day Sermon series. This sermon has particular relevance to the modern situation—very much needed regardless of who the nominees may be—and so should be read carefully if you intend to vote this November.
“An Election Sermon”
by Samuel Cooke (May 30, 1770)
The Rev. Samuel Cooke (Harvard, class of 1735; d. 1783) preached this sermon to Her Majesty’s Council, the militia, and the Massachusetts House of Representatives in Cambridge, MA in 1770. Among the Councillors elected at that meeting were Samuel Adams (clerk) and John Hancock, whose signature has become notorious.
At the time of the Declaration of Independence, Calvinistic Americans denounced the tendencies that entrusted too much power to human agents, fearing their sinful yearning for control. Skepticism about the goodness of human nature was prevalent among the founders of the American nation: “Hostility to unchecked power was the leading idea in all debates about the Constitution, expressed in one fashion or another by all the major actors. A fair statement of the composite view is that the impulses and disorders of human nature which made government necessary also made it dangerous. Hence the need for checks and balances, divided powers, and safeguards of all descriptions.”1 James Madison, educated at Princeton, a hotbed of Reformation thought, said in Federalist #51 that, “It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
Checks and balances were also the topic of numerous sermons. One by Samuel Cooke in 1770 argued as follows: “In the present imperfect state, the whole power cannot with safety be entrusted with a single person; nor with many, acting jointly in the same public capacity. Various branches of power, concentring in the community from which they originally derive their authority, are a mutual check to each other in their several departments, and jointly secure the common interest.” Cooke preached the following to a listening audience that included John Hancock and Samuel Adams: “Rulers are appointed guardians of the constitution in their respective stations, and must confine themselves within the limits by which their authority is circumscribed.” Cooke announced that a free state could not continue unless its branches and connections remained at liberty.
From 2 Samuel 23:3-4, Cooke addressed the moral qualities needed for rulers in “He That Ruleth over Men Must be Just, Ruling in the Fear of the Lord.” Although Scripture did not enjoin all the specifics of political form, notwithstanding, Cooke preached: “The ends of civil government, in divine revelation, are clearly pointed out, the character of rulers described, and the duty of subjects asserted and explained; and in this view civil government may be considered as an ordinance of God, and, when justly exercised, greatly subservient to the glorious purposes of divine providence and grace: but the particular form is left to the choice and determination of mankind.”
As societies evolve from simple to complex, “The people, the collective body only,” Cooke said, “have a right under God, to determine who shall exercise this trust for the common interest, and to fix the bounds of their authority; and, consequently, unless we admit the most evident inconsistency, those in authority, in the whole of their public conduct, are accountable to the society which gave them their political existence.” Valid expectations were as follows: “This solemn charge given to rulers is not an arbitrary injunction imposed by God, but is founded in the most obvious laws of nature and reason. Rulers are appointed for this very end—to be ministers of God for good. The people have a right to expect this from them, and to require it, not as an act of grace, but as their unquestionable due.”
Of priorities, “The first attention of the faithful ruler will be to the subjects of government in their specific nature. He will not forget that he ruleth over men,—men who are of the same species with himself, and by nature equal,—men who are the offspring of God, and alike formed after his glorious image,—men of like passions and feelings with himself, and, as men, in the sight of their common Creator of equal importance,—men who have raised him to power, and support him in the exercise of it.”
With great clarity, he said, “The just ruler, sensible he is in trust for the public, with an impartial hand will supply the various offices in society; his eye will be upon the faithful; merit only in the candidate will attract his attention. He will not, without sufficient reason, multiply lucrative offices in the community, which naturally tends to introduce idleness and oppression.” He also opined: “Knowing, therefore, that his conduct will bear the light, and his public character be established by being fully known, he will rather encourage than discountenance a decent freedom of speech, not only in public assemblies, but among the people. This liberty is essential to a free constitution, and the ruler’s surest guide.”
How’s this for a continuation of Reformation era norms: “Justice also requires of rulers, in their legislative capacity, that they attend to the operation of their own acts, and repeal whatever laws, upon an impartial review, they find to be inconsistent with the laws of God, the rights of men, and the general benefit of society. This, the community hath a right to expect.”
Accountability and transparency are seen in the expectations for rulers who “will not fear to have his public conduct critically inspected, but will choose to recommend himself to the approbation of every man. As he expects to be obeyed for conscience sake, he will require nothing inconsistent with its dictates, and be desirous that the most scrupulous mind may acquiesce in the justice of his rule.” Moreover, the desideratum was for a ruler who would be “in a measure above the fear of man, but are, equally with others, under the restraints of the divine law.”
Noting that all rulers were subject to frailty, the key restraining factor, according to Cooke was: “the true fear of God only is sufficient to control the lusts of men, and especially the lust of dominion, to suppress pride, the bane of every desirable quality in the human soul, the never failing source of wanton and capricious power.” Fear of the Lord was, according to these grandparents, a deterrent against immorality and tyranny. Such would refine and improve leaders, who would also be seeking the approval of the citizens, who expected rectitude, justice, and peace. The fear of God, indeed, was the beginning of political wisdom, once upon a time.
One modern historian credited Cooke’s 1770 sermon with the following praise: “Many of the principles on which the Declaration of Independence rests are already here: Civil government is an ordinance of God; only the people have the right to choose who will rule them; government must contain a balance of power with built-in checks; people have a ‘right’ to good government; a ruler will not forget that his subjects are ‘by nature equal’ to himself; the people will be subjected to no restrictions not founded on reason; laws must be clear and explicit . . .
Cooke concludes: “The religion of Jesus teacheth the true fear of God, and marvelously discloseth the plan of divine government. In his gospel, as through a glass, we see heaven opened, the mysteries of providence and grace unveiled, Jesus sitting on the right hand of God, to whom all power is committed, and coming to judge the world in righteousness.”
By Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church
1 M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Liberty: Religion, Politics and the American Tradition (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1994), 103.
2 A. W. Plumstead, ed., The Wall and the Garden: Selected Massachusetts Election Sermons, 1670-1775 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968), 324-325.