“Sermon on Commencement of Constitution”
by Samuel Cooper (Oct. 25, 1780)
Samuel Cooper (1725-1783) graduated from Harvard and furthered his training with a doctorate in divinity from Edinburgh. He followed in his father’s footsteps (the Reverend William Cooper) as one of the younger pastors at Boston’s Fourth church, long a landmark of preaching for the area. Later, he followed the Rev. Benjamin Colman as the primary pastor until 1783. At one point, he was wooed to serve as Harvard’s president, but he declined. He was well respected as an intellect and as a writer on both weighty and popular subjects.
Cooper delivered several sermons for popular consumption, but this one was his most famous—even being translated into Dutch in 1781, showing the admiration given to it.
This sermon was preached before Governor John Hancock and the maiden Senate of Massachusetts. He chose as his text Jeremiah 30:20-21: “Their congregation shall be established before me; and their nobles shall be of themselves, and their Governor shall proceed from the midst of them.” Cooper thought this OT episode was “so exactly descriptive of that important, that comprehensive, that essential civil blessing, which kindles the lustre, and diffuses the joy of the present day. Nor is this the only passage of holy scripture that holds up to our view a striking resemblance between our own circumstances and those of the antient Israelites; a nation chosen by God a theatre for the display of some of the most astonishing dispensations of his providence.”
His ready application from the OT to his own day is further seen as he begins with this assessment: “This day, this memorable day, is a witness, that the Lord, he whose “hand maketh great, and giveth strength unto all, hath not forsaken us, nor our God forgotten us.” This day, which forms a new era in our annals, exhibits a testimony to all the world, that contrary to our deserts, and amidst all our troubles, the blessing promised in our text to the afflicted seed of Abraham is come upon us; “Their Nobles shall be of themselves, and their Governor shall proceed from the midst of them.”
Referring to Jeremiah again, he thought “the fruits of lawless and despotic power in a mortal man intoxicated with it.” He also preached that to claim a ‘divine right for kings’ was “‘the doctrine of devils.’ It covets every thing without bounds: It grasps every thing without pity: It riots on the spoils of innocence and industry: It is proud to annihilate the rights of mankind . . .”
His sermon provides a contextual review of Jeremiah’s time, prior to asserting the following:
The form of government originally established in the Hebrew nation by a charter from heaven, was that of a free republic, over which God himself, in peculiar favour to that people, was pleased to preside. It consisted of three parts; a chief magistrate who was called judge or leader, such as Joshua and others, a council of seventy chosen men, and the general assemblies of the people. Of these the two last were the most essential and permanent, and the first more occasional, according to the particular circumstances of the nation.
And in a rather voluntaristic sentiment, he asserts: “Even the law of Moses, though framed by God himself, was not imposed upon that people against their will; it was laid open before the whole congregation of Israel; they freely adopted it, and it became their law, not only by divine appointment, but by their own voluntary and express consent.” Though theocratic in impulse, nevertheless, Cooper called Israel: “a free republic, and that the sovereignty resided in the people.” However, after “growing weary of the gift of heaven, they demanded a king.”
“Taught by these judgments the value of those blessings they had before despised,” Cooper preached, “and groaning under the hand of tyranny more heavy than that of death, they felt the worth of their former civil and religious privileges, and were prepared to receive with gratitude and joy a restoration not barely to the land flowing with milk and honey, but to the most precious advantage they ever enjoyed in that land, their original constitution of government: They were prepared to welcome with the voice of mirth and thanksgiving the re-establishment of their congregations; nobles chosen from among themselves, and a governor proceeding from the midst of them.”
A written constitution was needed, moving forward. And Cooper believed this to be perfectly consistent with OT norms. In a prosaic burst, he preached:
Happy people! who not awed by the voice of a master; not chained by slavish customs, superstitions, and prejudices, have deliberately framed the constitution under which you chuse to live; and are to be subject to no laws, by which you do not consent to bind yourselves. In such an attitude human nature appears with its proper dignity: On such a basis, life, and all that sweetens and adorns it, may rest with as much security as human imperfection can possibly admit: In such a constitution we find a country deserving to be loved, and worthy to be defended. For what is our country? Is it a foil of which, tho’ we may be the present possessors, we can call no part our own? or the air in which we first drew our breath, from which we may be confined in a dungeon, or of which we may be deprived by the ax or the halter at the pleasure of a tyrant? Is not a country a constitution—an established frame of laws; of which a man may say, “we are here united in society for our common security and happiness.
Among the excellencies of this constitution, he noted:
How effectually it makes the people the keepers of their own liberties, with whom they are certainly safest: How nicely it poizes the powers of government, in order to render them as far as human foresight can, what God ever designed they should be, powers only to do good: How happily it guards on the one hand against anarchy and confusion, and on the other against tyranny and oppression: How carefully it separates the legislative from the executive power, a point essential to liberty: How wisely it has provided for the impartial execution of the laws in the independent situation of the judges; a matter of capital moment, and without which the freedom of a constitution in other respects, might be often delusory, and not realized in the just security of the person and property of the subject.
Typical of his day, he believed that religion was a key buttress for good government: “Our civil rulers will remember, that as piety and virtue support the honour and happiness of every community, they are peculiarly requisite in a free government. . . . if they are lost to the fear of God, and the love of their country, all is lost. Having got beyond the restraints of a divine authority, they will not brook the control of laws enacted by rulers of their own creating.” He also opined: “But need I urge, in a christian audience, and before christian rulers, the importance of preserving inviolate the public faith? If this is allowed to be important at all times, and to all states, it must be peculiarly so to those whose foundations are newly laid, and who are but just numbered among the nations of the earth.”
He concluded with this prayer:
O thou supreme Governor of the world, whose arm hath done great things for us, establish the foundations of this commonwealth, and evermore defend it with the saving strength of thy right hand! Grant that here the divine constitutions of Jesus thy Son may ever be honoured and maintained! Grant that it may be the residence of all private and patriotic virtues, of all that enlightens and supports, all that sweetens and adorns human society, till the states and kingdoms of this world shall be swallowed up in thine own kingdom: In that, which alone is immortal, may we obtain a perfect citizenship, and enjoy in its completion, “the glorious Liberty of the Sons of God![”] And let all the people say, Amen!
This sermon is printed in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998); and it is also available at: http://www.belcherfoundation.org/samuel%20cooper%20sermon%20on%20constitution.pdf.
By Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church
For others like this order a copy of Twenty Messages to Consider Before Voting from Reformation Heritage Books.