“A Century Sermon of the Glorious Revolution”
by Elhanan Winchester (Nov. 16, 1788)
Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) served as a pastor in New England, South Carolina, and even London—ultimately moving from the Baptist faith to Unitarianism later in life. He was also a popular and influential Baptist pastor in Philadelphia for the seven years just prior to the constitutional convention. After his conversion to universalism, he was removed from his pulpit and relocated to a more Unitarian friendly London.
During his London tenure, Winchester published many erudite works. Toward the end of his life, he distilled his political theology into a work that defended “the great principles of liberty and of the federal government,” entitled A Plain Political Catechism. This sermon was clearly as much a celebration of a historic anniversary as it was an exposition of a passage of Scripture.
Winchester began this sermon with a verse from the first song in Scripture (Ex. 15:11). In it, he extols the unrivaled glory and holiness of God. From this theology will come his political theology. He reviews the plagues and the Exodus narrative that led up to this song. It is against this specific backdrop that Winchester draws an important lesson: “For it may be observed, that when God is about to work a great deliverance for his people, he usually first brings them into a great strait, so that destruction seems inevitable.” However, the God of providence stands and fights for certain nations, as he did for Israel against Egypt. A brief overview of the attributes of God shows his greatness in every aspect of his character. Winchester, in the first part of his sermon, provides a straightforward explanation of the terms and phrases in Exodus 15.
Then, he turns abruptly to a historical review. He did not hesitate to cite Philip of Spain, who in 1588 was viewed as “a second Pharaoh for pride and cruelty.” This Spanish empire sought aggressively to expand their imperial reach. With its massive resources and capital (“the sinews of war”), Spain “had the best army, and finest navy in Europe; and the greatest commanders of the age, both by land and sea.” Spain intended to invade England and likely would have overpowered Great Britain.
Even with the backing of Rome, this ‘invincible armada,’ was thwarted by “the hand of Providence [which] plainly appeared.” Citing the various ways that this Spanish Armada was defeated or distracted, even seeing the Providence of God in the Armada’s taking on disinformation, which led it right into the strength of the British Navy. He stated it this way: “Thus was this formidable armada defeated, without having done the smallest injury to this kingdom, or even landing any troops upon the island. And thus England was miraculously saved from destruction, by the immediate hand of Providence; which was scarcely, ever more visibly manifested in any affair, than in that very great, and singular deliverance of this land, from tyranny, popery, and slavery.”
Winchester next jumps ahead exactly 100 years to 1688. He begins his review with William of Orange, who was a token of God’s providence over human affairs. William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution buttressed the following liberties: (1) the liberty of acquiring and possessing private property; (2) the liberty of personal freedom and safety, guaranteed by jury trials; (3) the liberty and freedom of the press; and (4) the liberty of conscience, including freedom to worship in keeping with that conscience.
On this final point, he amplifies (note the italicized wording that is epexegetical of First Amendment terminology):
There is but one country in the world where liberty, and especially religious liberty, is so much enjoyed as in these kingdoms, and that is the United States of America: there religious liberty is in the highest perfection. All stand there on equal ground. There are no religious establishments, no preference of one denomination of Christians above another. The constitution knows no difference between one good man, and another. A man may be chosen there to the highest civil offices, without being obliged to give any account of his faith, subscribe any religious test, or go to the communion-table of any church.
Winchester blames establishmentarianism (as Constantinianism) for “the almost total cessation of the progress of christianity, the rise of Mahometanism, the rise and spread of deism, the general contempt into which christianity is fallen; all may fairly be laid at the door of that establishment.” He envisioned a better world, once freed of an established church, as in America.
He then issued this distilled proverb: “the greatest maxim in politics that was ever delivered, and which deserves to be written in letters of gold, over the doors of all the state houses in the world. The great secret of governing, consists in not governing too much.”
True liberty, thought Winchester, would depress the love of money, lust for power, and cruelty. While crediting the William III’s accomplishments, this preacher did not fail his calling, when he segued: “As I never shall have a better opportunity, give me leave here to introduce a greater hero on the stage than William the Third; even Jesus Christ, the great deliverer of mankind.” As certain as the historical events were surrounding William III’s rule, more certain were the historical events of Jesus Christ. This impressive apologetic in the midst of this sermon argued that as helpful as William was, Jesus Christ did more. He stated it this way:
William came over here for the benefit of the people of this nation, who were his friends, invited him over, and joined his standard. But Jesus Christ came into the world for the benefit of all mankind, even those who were his enemies; he was hated, despised, opposed and rejected, by his own kindred, according to the flesh; yet still his love and kindness continued to the last towards them.
William did many things for the good of this land; suffered much, and ventured his life for the people of these kingdoms; for which his memory is precious, and ought to be regarded with sincere affection. But O, what love, gratitude and praises, are due to Jesus Christ, who came into the world, and wrought so many works of mercy for mankind?
Coming to the present, the year 1788 saw progress in liberty in many nations. Chief among those tokens of liberty were the US Constitution: “This is such an astonishing event to those who know the situation of the United States of America, that nothing less than a very special Providence, and divine interference could have brought it about. Many instances of the visible protection and goodness of God towards the American states, have appeared from the beginning of the unhappy contest, between them and the ministry of this nation, to the present time; but in no instance has a divine hand so plainly appeared as in the present.”
Winchester believed that one hundred years later, Christianity would continue its spread, the Turks would be in decline, and Jews would be in their own land. His sermon concludes: “When we consider the great things which God hath wrought already; and those greater things which he hath promised to perform in his own time, we may say in the words of my text, with which I shall conclude: ‘Who is like unto thee, O Lord, amongst the gods? who is like thee glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?’”
A version of this sermon is posted online at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/816. It also occurs in the published edition by Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
By Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church
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