October 8: Election Day Sermon : Rev. Joseph Sewall (1740)

One of the earliest political sermons in our series.

“Ninevah’s Repentance and Deliverance”
by Joseph Sewall (Dec. 3, 1740)

Joseph Sewall (1688-1769) was a Boston scion, the son of a Chief Justice, who later was offered the presidency of Harvard (from where he graduated in 1707). He delivered this early Fast Day sermon before the Massachusetts’ Governor and Council in 1740. Indeed, by order, the Council commissioned both this Fast Day and the preaching. Sewell, a pastoral fixture at Boston’s South Church from 1713-1769, launched this homily by revisiting the epic of Jonah’s revival in Ninevah. His text was Jonah 3:10, and he intended to address the signs of divine displeasure at the time. This is one of the earliest political sermons in our series. At his death, Sewall would be commemorated by Charles Chauncy (see his sermons in this series) for being “a strenuous” defender of “our civil and ecclesiastical charter-rights and priviledges. . . . the purchase of our forefathers at the expence of much labor, blood,” and treasure.

Pastor Sewall briefly reviewed the first two chapters of the Book of Jonah and pointed out that Jonah was a type of Christ (acc. to Mt. 12:40). The preacher estimated the high value of the rebuke that stirs genuine repentance, as it did in Jonah’s case of finally preaching to Ninevah—a great city. Civic repentance, this Boston pastor taught, surely had its legitimate place.

Next, he highlights the legitimacy of the civil governor calling for a day of fasting: “This great Monarch humbled himself before the Most High . . . The King of Nineveh arose from his Throne, and laid his Robe from him, and cover’d him with Sackcloth, and sat in Ashes, v. 6. Thus did he practically confess, that he had behav’d unworthy his royal Dignity, and deserv’d to have it taken from him. And the Proclamation requir’d the strictest Abstinence.” Then drawing on Jeremiah 18:7-8, Sewall diagnosed that when Ninevah sincerely repented “GOD turned from his fierce Anger, and gave them Deliverance; which is agreable to that Rule of his Government which we have declar’d, Jer. 18.7.8.”

The following four doctrines would then be amplified:

[1.] If we would seek the Lord in a right manner, we must believe Him; the Threatnings and Promises of His Word.
[2.] It is the Duty of a People to cry to GOD in Prayer with Fasting, when He threatens to bring destroying Judgments upon them; and their Rulers should be ready to lead in the right Discharge of this Duty.
[3.] Our seeking to GOD by Prayer with Fasting must be attended with true Repentance, and sincere Endeavours after Reformation.
[4.] When a People do thus attend their Duty, GOD will repent of the Evil, and not bring Destruction upon them.

Under the second main doctrine, he further draws out how both body and soul should be afflicted in a fast. Our hearts are to be “inwardly pierced, and the Spirits broken upon the Account of our Sins.” This sermon is a superb primer for biblical fasting—a virtually lost art. In sentiments that might be appropriate in an election year, Sewall explicated:

If we have omitted religious Duties, Secret or Family Prayer, Self-Examination, the Ordinances of GOD’s House; we must now conscienciously attend upon them. If we have neglected the Duties of those Relations which we sustain towards Men, in publick or private Life; we must now with Care and Diligence discharge them. If we have committed Sins contrary to the Laws of Sobriety, Righteousness and Godliness; we must labour by the Spirit to mortify them. In a Word, We should cleanse ourselves from all Filthiness of the Flesh and Spirit, perfecting Holiness in the Fear of GOD. And in order to these Things, we ought earnestly seek to GOD to put his Laws into our Minds, and write them in our Hearts; for it is He alone that can work in us to will and to do, in beginning and carrying on this necessary Work of Reformation.

This also called for a return to sincere faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord. In addition, he warned: “If we refuse to repent and reform, we shall be condemned out of our own Mouths, and fall under the threatened Judgments of GOD. One considerable Part of the Duty of a Day of religious Fasting is to make an humble and penitent Confession of our Sins whereby we have provoked a holy GOD to come out in Judgment against us, and to cry to Him for Grace that we may turn from them.”

It would simply not do to have one’s repentance shamed by the contrition of Ninevah. Sewall also encouraged his listeners with the prospect of God’s favor at true repentance:

The first and purest Times of Christianity were Times of Persecution; however, while the holy Martyrs overcame by the Blood of the Lamb, not loving their Lives unto the Death; the Church was preserv’d, yea increased and multiplied. And as to a People, considering them collectively, I suppose no one Instance can be produc’d in which GOD pour’d out his Fury to destroy them, while a Spirit of Repentance and Reformation prevail’d. And even in Times of abounding Iniquity, when the Glory of GOD was departing from his People, and destroying Judgments breaking in like a Flood; GOD was pleased to make a remarkable Distinction between the Penitent, and such as were hardened in Sin.

In the closing “application” section, he listed (in good Puritan plain style) several ‘uses’:

USE 1. Learn that true Religion lays the surest Foundation of a People’s Prosperity. Righteousness exalteth a Nation, Prov. 14.34.

USE 2. Abounding Iniquity will be the Destruction of a People, except they repent. If they persist and go on in the Ways of Sin, refusing to return to GOD, Iniquity will be their Ruin. Sin is the Reproach of any People, Prov. 14.34.

USE 3. Let us then be sensible of the destroying Evil of Sin, and the Necessity of true Repentance.

USE 4. Let us all be Exhorted to turn, every One from his evil Way; and to engage heartily in the necessary Work of Reformation. This, this is our great Duty and Interest this Day, as we would hope to be made Instruments in GOD’s Hand of saving ourselves and this People.

He did not fail in his duty to preach directly to the governors, also calling them to repentance and Christian obedience. His sermon climaxed with an exemplary prayer:

O GOD! We know not what to do; but our Eyes are unto Thee. We wait upon Thee O Lord, who hidest thy self from the House of Israel; confessing that we thy Servants, and thy People have sinn’d. Thy Ways are equal, our Ways have been very unequal. O Lord, Righteousness belongeth unto Thee, but unto us Confusion of Faces, as at this Day, because we have sinned against Thee. To the Lord our GOD also belongeth Mercies and Forgivenesses, tho’ we have rebell’d against Him. O Lord, hear, O Lord forgive, O Lord, hearken and do, defer not, for thine own sake, O GOD! for thy City, and thy People are called by thy Name. Look to the Face of thine Anointed, O merciful Father! Behold thy SON in our Nature, who on Earth offer’d a Sacrifice of infinite Merit to atone for the Sins of thy People; and now appears in Heaven, as a Lamb that had been slain, interceding for us. We are unworthy; but the Name in which we now ask thy divine Help, is most worthy. O hear us, for thy Son’s sake, and speak Peace to thy People. Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a Flock, thou that dwellest between the Cherubims, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up thy Strength, and come and save us. Turn us again O GOD; and cause thy Face to shine, and we shall be saved. O remember not against us former Iniquities: let thy tender Mercies speedily prevent us; for we are bro’t very low. Help us, O GOD of our Salvation, for the Glory of thy Name; and deliver us, and purge away our Sins for thy Name’s sake: So we thy People and Sheep of thy Pasture, will give Thee Thanks for ever; we will shew forth thy Praise to all Generations.

Fasting . . . preaching . . . praying . . . and applying revealed Scripture to our lives might be what citizens need, even more than additional debates or electoral disputes.

Sewall’s final promise is as follows:

In this Way you shall obtain the gracious Presence of GOD with you. The Lord is with you, while ye be with him, 2 Chron. 15.2. And if GOD be with you and for you, who can be against you? What can harm you? What can be too hard for you, if the Almighty is pleas’d to own you as his Servants, and command Deliverance for his People by you? Surely the Mountains shall become a Plain, crooked Things straight, and the Night shine as the Day. Let me say to you therefore as 2 Chron. 15.7. Be ye strong, and let not your Hands be weak: for your Work shall be rewarded. GOD will be your Shield, and exceeding great Reward. You shall see the Good of GOD’s chosen, rejoice with the Gladness of His Nation, and glory with his Inheritance. And when the Son of Man shall come in his Glory, and all the holy Angels with Him, then shall He say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto these my Brethren, ye have done it unto me: Come ye Blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom.

This sermon is available in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), and online at: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N03750.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext

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.



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