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hallDWDr. David Hall is back today with the penultimate (i.e., “next to the last”) entry in his Election Day Sermon series. I’ve enjoyed this series, and hope you have as well. The entire series has presented us with an excellent opportunity to learn firsthand how our forebears handled aspects of the church-state relationship.

“Thanksgiving Sermon”
by George Duffield (Dec. 11, 1783)

Rev. George Duffield, Sr., 1732-1790John Adams was certainly influenced by the heritage of Calvinism. In his diary entry for February 22, 1756, Adams wrote: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law-book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! . . . In this commonwealth, no man would impair his health” with vice, but would live together in frugality, industry, “piety, love, and reverence towards Almighty God. . . . What a Utopia; what a Paradise would this be!”1

In 1775, the second President of the United States attended the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The preacher on that occasion, The Reverend George Duffield (who was later targeted by the British), preached a revolutionary sermon that made quite an impression on John Adams. Adams wrote to his wife on June 11, 1775, that Duffield’s preaching was reminiscent of the fiery expositions he had been accustomed to back in Massachusetts. Duffield applied a Hebrew prophecy2 to America and “gave us as animating an entertainment as I ever heard. He filled and swelled the bosom of every hearer. . . . by this you will see that the clergy this way are but now beginning to engage in politics, and they engage with a fervor that will produce wonderful effects.”3

Adams would later refer to himself as a “church going animal.”4 By any estimation one of the most important figures for the founding of America, Adams, nevertheless, did not identify himself as a Calvinist.5 Toward the end of his life, he championed anti-Trinitarian legislation, and bitterly reviled Calvinists, on occasion, as “snarling, biting” divines. However, the impress of Calvin was so deep on Adams’ predecessors that a certain Genevan fingerprint is indelibly inked on Adams’ writings. Adams believed that knowledge in general could dispel “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression.” In his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, he recognized lust for power or a yearning for dominion as both the cause of much oppression and the effect of human depravity.

Rights, which Adams saw as general but not purely secular, were derived from the “great Legislator of the universe.” Human rights were squelched when human rulers wrested from the people the inalienable grants given by this great Legislator. Liberty was also derived from humanity’s Maker, and the right to knowledge came from the great Creator, certainly not from a secular basis.

On December 11, 1783, Congress had appointed a day of thanksgiving “for the restoration of Peace and establishment of our Independence, in the Enjoyment of our Rights and Privileges.” In a service for that occasion at the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, George Duffield (who was a Chaplain of Congress as well as pastor of the church) resorted to an OT passage to make this point about God’s providence extended to America: “Nor was military prowess only given. He that put of the Spirit of Moses on the elders of Israel [cf. Ex. 18], raised up Senators and guided them in council to conduct the affairs of his chosen American tribes.” Clearly, the biblical basis for republicanism and the institution of a “senate” was the same for Duffield as it had been for Calvin and Beza two centuries earlier.

Duffield (1732-1790), a 1752 Princeton graduate, served a lengthy pastorate at the Pine Street Presbyterian Church—even during the war, when at one time the British put a price on his head—and he was consistently popular with members of the Continental Congress.

A New Light Presbyterian, he chose Isaiah 66.8 as the text for this sermon. In answer to Isaiah’s question—“Shall a nation be born in a day?”—he affirmed: “The earth has indeed brought forth, as in a day. A nation has indeed been born, as at once. It has not been Israel’s forty years of tedious wilderness journey; nor Rome’s, or the United Belgic provinces, long continued scene of arduous, dubious struggle: But almost as soon as our American Zion began to travail; and without experiencing the pangs and pains which apprehensive fear expected; she brought forth her children, more numerous than the tribes of Jacob, to possess the land, from the north to the south, and from the east to the yet unexplored, far distant west: That with great propriety, may we hail every friend of liberty, on this auspicious day, in the language nearly following our text; rejoice ye, with America, and be glad with her, all ye that love her, rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourned for her.”

He castigated the “venal Parliament” of England for her design to crush the American efforts. Moreover, comparing the Crown to Pharaoh, he preached:

Pharaoh, indeed, might have reason to fear, because Israel were an entirely different people; and in their religion and manners separated far from the people of the land. But in the present case, though the court of Britain appear carefully to have copied the Egyptian model; and their measures have produced a similar event; yet, as the people of these states were the same as the people of Britain, their religion and manners the same; and no disposition to separate from them had ever appeared: But an attachment, even to enthusiastic fondness, had always obtained; it must have required an exorbitant share of infatuation to have raised a suspicion so high, as to produce the spirit and zeal that directed the British cabinet. To raise a revenue, and bring America to bear her proportion of the national debt has been assigned as the motive. America, by centring her trade in Britain, contributed her liberal share, nor had she ever withheld her blood or her treasure when requisitions were made; that even malevolence itself had been nonplussed from thence to derive a plea, unless through a mad desire to take by compulsion, what would otherwise be cheerfully given. It seems therefore most probable, his Britannic majesty wished to increase the power of the crown, so as to wrest the very shadow of liberty out of the hands of all his subjects, and reign an absolute monarch; and for this end began where he hoped, by bribes and craft, to cloak his design under the cover of parliamentary sanction.

Both liberty and charity were threatened by this monarchical oppression, preached Duffield. Whatever the motive, he thought, “America was marked out, for servile submission, or severe subjugation: and the power of Britain employed to accomplish the end.” Duffield commended America for choosing “liberty as her prize,” and attempting to battle the greatest military power of the day. His pulpit oratory is still impressive, to wit:

Already had Britain planted her baleful banner on our coast; and her proud insulting flag had possessed our harbours. Her oppressive edicts had gone forth; and her naval and military strength were combined to enforce obedience. As the careful mariner watches the heavy gathering cloud, and dreads the approaching storm; America, with anxiety beheld, and waited the event. Prudence would have seemed to dictate an early resistance to manifest hostile designs; nor suffer an avowed enemy to every privilege to entrench in quiet, and strengthen themselves in a capital town. Nor was America blind to the measure: but that God, who so early espoused her cause, that her innocence in the case, and her reluctance to arms, might be evident to all, withheld her from the deed; and left Britain, on Lexington’s ever-memorable day, to open the scene of war. Quick as the flash of lightning glares from pole to pole, so sudden did a military spirit pervade these then united colonies; but now, blessed be God, confederated, established states. The peaceful husbandman forsook his farm; the merchant relinquished his trade; the learned in the law dismissed their clients; the compassionate physician forgot his daily round; the mariner laid aside his compass and quadrant; the mechanic resigned his implements of employment; the sons of science ceased their philosophic pursuits; and even the miser half neglected, for a time, his gold and his gain, and the griping landlord his rents. All prepared for war, and eagerly flew to the field.

He that put “the spirit of Moses on the elders of Israel, raised up senators, and guided them in council, to conduct the affairs of his chosen American tribes.” Duffield further extolled, “America’s day, the morning of which had lowred with heavy clouds, began to brighten a pace; and its hurrying hours hastened their way to a noon tide glow. The justice of her cause; the influence of her great ally; and the insults and injuries experienced by other nations, from British arrogance, procured her still farther support; and narrowed the distance to the object of her wish. Britain saw, with indignation: And in firm alliance with every infernal power . . . she resolved on utmost vengeance.” He predicted: “generations yet unborn will look back with wonder; and venerate the memories, and long perpetuate the names of those who guided the helm through the storm.”

He mentions that He “who raised up Cyrus, to break the Assyrian force, and say, ‘let Israel be free,’ endued the monarch of France with an angel’s mind, to assert and secure the freedom of his United American States. And, by him were the hearts of other nations disposed to our aid.” Finally, he concludes with this exhortation: “It is, that we love the Lord our God, to walk in his ways, and keep his commandments, to observe his statutes and his judgments. That a sacred regard be maintained to righteousness and truth. That we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Then shall God delight to dwell amongst us. And these United States shall long remain, a great, a glorious, and an happy people. Which may God, of his infinite mercy, grant. Amen.”

This sermon is available in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998) and on the web at:
See also:

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.

1 Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 5.

2 See Isaiah 35.

3 Maurice W. Armstrong et al, eds., The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), 85.

4 James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998), 81.

5 Adams, apparently was headed toward the congregationalist ministry at one time. His later reflections explain that “an uncharitable spirit of intolerance” kept him from divinity, and made him more fit “for the bar than the pulpit.” Selected Writings, 151. Yet, by the end of his life he expressed to Jefferson (1817) that he did not believe in total depravity: “I believe there is no individual totally depraved. The most abandoned scoundrel that ever existed, never yet wholly extinguished his conscience, and while conscience remains, there is some religion.” Cited in John Witte, Jr., “‘A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion’: John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment,” Journal of Church and State, vol. 41 (Spring 1999), no 2, 236. Adams clearly rejected Calvin’s ideas of depravity, election, and the trinity. See Jonathan C. D. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 370.

“Surely a Christian nation should be governed by Christian rulers; and surely they do not deserve to be called Christian people who would vote for any others.  Put men into office who are possessed of a competent amount of intelligence, who fear God, and make his law the rule in the government of the nation, and we augur for our country a speedy riddance from her present dangers, and a long future of peace and prosperity.”

And now for something completely different. Dr. Hall is away today, overseeing a worship conference at his church. Today’s post presents what was for many years a conviction of the Reformed Presbyterians in this nation. Some still do hold this conviction, first that Jesus Christ is King of all nations on earth, and second, that because the U.S. Constitution does not acknowledge this fact, that therefore they cannot in good conscience participate in the government. They will not hold office or otherwise participate in the government and so they conclude that they also cannot vote in elections. The following article, dating from 1856, is a good reflection of these views.:—   


Excerpted from THE REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN, Volume 20, No. 8 (October 1856)

THE present state of political excitement throughout the country arising from the approaching election of an incumbent for the presidential chair, furnishes matter for interesting and even painful reflection.  To us, who are unconnected with any of the parties, and stand without the suck of the political whirlpool, the question is perfectly natural, what is there in the present realities, or the future probabilities, that produces this wide-spread social paroxysm?  A cause adequate to the effect must exist somewhere, for men do not voluntarily become insane.

It is easy to see that to certain classes the election of a president is a matter of private and selfish interest.  The country is filled with office-seekers; men who seem to think the ship of state is sure to be wrecked, unless they have something to do with its helm or its rigging. Some of these are in office; far more of them are out.  But the outs want to be in, and the ins want to stay in.  To hear these men talk, a person might suppose that they were the purest patriots on earth, wishing to serve their country for their country’s good.  They have no personal interest in the matter—not they; if left to their own choice, they would prefer to retire from public life; but as matters are, they are willing to sacrifice ease and fortune on the altar of their country!  Of this kind are the speakers at ratification meetings, pole raisings, and other gatherings of the different parties.  Now it is not strange that there are men who have the effrontery to put forward their personal claims backed by the plea of the public good, for the country abounds with men who will do anything that will inure to their own advantage; but it is strange that steady, sober, sane people, can not only listen to such pretensions, but even catch the excitement, and enter into the cause of these pretenders with all the ardor of enthusiasm.  This is strange—passing strange.

It is, indeed, true that in the present political campaign there are certain issues which skillfully managed must exert a powerful influence over the public mind.  We are willing to confess that we feel this ourselves.  Without giving credit for honesty to brawling politicians,but making up our judgment from well known facts, we must admit that the country has reached a crisis, through which it will require no ordinary skill to guide it in safety.  And it must be admitted also, that those who have the management of its affairs manifest an utter unfitness for the places they occupy.  If ever a country was cursed with incompetent rulers, ours is so cursed.  We can view the present administration in no other light than as a judgment that God has sent on our land for its sins.

The question that is now brought before the country for its decision is, shall slavery be 
restricted or extended; shall it remain where it is, or shall it spread itself into the new territories?This is the naked issue; and it is easy to see that with neither party can consistent anti-slavery men identify.  It is true there is a bad, and a worse.  The bad, however, is too bad to be touched;and that is to engage to protect slavery where it is.  The question is not respecting the evil of slavery in general—it regards merely the evil of it in certain localities.  The Republican party say, in effect, slavery is a very good thing where it is; but you must confine it there.  We will agree to guard and defend it in its present limits, but we insist that it shall not go beyond them.

While, however, we speak thus of the parties in this contest, we still have our preference between them.  And we can have this without yielding any of our principles.  We can have a choice between two moral evils, if we are not to be actively engaged in producing either.  If the question was presented to the country, whether Mormonism, with all its abominations should be established, or merely tolerated, we would prefer the latter, while we would refuse to have any hand in either, and would testify against both.  We would certainly rather see slavery restricted to its present limits than extended beyond them; but we would much rather see it rooted out where it is.  This, the Republican party not only do not propose to do, but they bind themselves not to do it.  They, indeed, declare themselves “opposed to the extension of slavery into free territory;” but they also assert that “the rights of the States must and shall be preserved.”  Now,it does not require proof that “the rights of the States,” here means, the rights secured to the States by the Constitution; and it is equally evident, that to hold slaves in the States where slavery exists, is one of these rights.

Such a creed we cannot subscribe; and for the success of the party holding it, we dare not pray.  With the so-called Democratic party, we have no affinity.  The course pursued by the present administration with regard to Kansas, and endorsed by that party, leaves it without a claim to ordinary respect.  Whether it continue in power, or there be a change in the administration, we are willing to leave with Him who orders all things.  The hearts of men are in His hand.  We earnestly desire the welfare of our country.  We pray for, and we seek its peace.  If God be pleased to grant relief from present evils, by driving from power those who have made a bad use of it, we will be thankful.  At the same time, we have no hope of permanent good from the accession to their place of those who are still in league with sin..

But we are reminded that we are preaching politics. For this, the mass of our readers will not condemn us. They are accustomed to such preaching. If they are not, we have overrated the faithfulness of our ministers. What minister, worthy of the name, does not preach politics?  We know that there are watchmen who are described in Isaiah 56:10,11. Alas! there are many of them. And they are the first to cry down preaching politics. There is one kind of political preaching that we do condemn—political party preaching. To make the pulpit the means of advancing the interests of either of the parties in the present contest, would be to degrade, to prostitute it.  But to use it to point out the sins of the nation, whether constitutional or administrative—of men, whether in public or private station, is to honor it, and to honor Him whose message is declared from it. The same thing is true of the religious press. And we do say, that we would rather our tongue and our hands were paralyzed, than that we should be induced, by any consideration, to cease to reprove sin, whether public or private—whether of the nation, of rulers, of parties, or of individuals.

There is something amusing in the earnestness with which the charge of being a Roman Catholic is urged against one of the candidates by the opposing party, and denied by his own.  One would be ready to think that to be a papist was to be constitutionally disqualified for the office.  And yet the clause of the Constitution which both parties profess most to admire, is that which forbids a religious test to be required.  Why do the Democrats virtually attack the instrument which they seem to think it is their mission to preserve intact?  And why do not the Republicans charge them with a violation of the spirit of the Constitution, by making a man’s religion an objection to his fitness for office?  It is quite likely that it is hard to tell what Mr.Fremont’s religion is, or rather that he has none at all. And in itself, it is a matter about which the parties do not care a straw.  Were he the most bigoted Papist, his friends would stick to him;and were he the most liberal Protestant, his enemies would continue to denounce him.  It is not principle, but policy, that has excited all this zeal on the subject of a religious test for office.
We cannot but wish both parties were sincere in their pretensions on this subject.  Surely a Christian nation should be governed by Christian rulers; and surely they do not deserve to be called Christian people who would vote for any others.  Put men into office who are possessed of a competent amount of intelligence, who fear God, and make his law the rule in the government of the nation, and we augur for our country a speedy riddance from her present dangers, and a long future of peace and prosperity

Less than a month to go at this point, and I trust you are all praying for the Lord’s will to be done.

“The Bible and The Sword”
by John Fletcher (Dec. 6, 1776)

Despite having been born near John Calvin’s Geneva (Nyon) and having attended the University of Geneva, John Fletcher (1729–1785) later relocated to England and threw all in with the Wesley brothers. He was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1757 but his sympathies were all with the upstart Methodist movement. He served in several Anglican parishes, and his sympathies not only conflicted with Calvinism but also with Anglicanism.

John Wesley spoke glowingly of Fletcher, even esteeming him above Whitefield in holiness and conversation. This 1776 sermon reveals its Wesleyan sympathies, even hinting that God was on the side of the British in tamping down the colonists.

Nevertheless, Fletcher began his sermon with a stinging rebuke about the state of religion in England. While the American colonists might be labeled fanatics, they at least, he noted, were sincerely religious.

. . . we are ridiculing them as fanatics, and scoffing at religion. We are running wild after pleasure, and forgetting every thing serious and decent at masquerades. We are gambling in gaming houses; trafficking for boroughs; perjuring ourselves at elections; and selling ourselves for places. Which side then is Providence likely to favour? In America we see a number of rising states in the vigour of youth, and animated by piety. Here we see an old state, inflated and irreligious, enervated by luxury, and hanging by a thread. Can we look without pain on the issue?

He raised a legitimate question: would God favor one nation in his providence that was so Laodicean? He queried: “If the colonists throng the houses of God, while we throng play-houses, or houses of ill fame; if they croud their communion-tables, while we croud the gaming table or the festal board; if they pray, while we curse; if they fast, while we get drunk; and keep the sabbath, while we pollute it; if they shelter under the protection of heaven, while our chief attention is turned to our troops; we are in danger—in great danger.” He measured the question this way, invoking Theodore Beza’s division of the Mosaic law: “To disregard the king’s righteous commands, as the colonists do, is bad: But to despise the first-table commandments of the King of kings, as we do, is still worse.”

Fletcher was responding in no small measure to a prior sermon by a Dr. Price, who roundly castigated the spiritual climate of England. And Fletcher in large portion agreed. That, however, was not the only question. While conceding the grand ad hominem, still he disagreed that Price “was fighting the Lord’s battles, and that opposing the king and the bishops, was only opposing tyranny and a prophane hierarchy.” Fletcher warned that the Americans were reviving Cromwellianism, and suggested that “the best way to counter-work the enthusiasm of patriotic religionists, is to do constitutional liberty and scriptural religion full justice; by defending the former against the attacks of despotic monarchs on the right hand, and despotic mobs on the left; and by preserving the latter from the opposite onsets of prophane infidels on the left hand, and enthusiastical religionists on the right.”

This Methodist preacher then defended the notion that Parliament should be a holy one:

Would to God, that by timely reformation, and solemn addresses to the throne of grace, we might convince Dr. Price and all the Americans, that in submitting to the British legislature, they will not submit to libertinism and atheism; but to a venerable body of virtuous and godly senators, who know that the first care of God’s representatives on earth—the principal study of political gods, should be to promote God’s fear, by setting a good example before the people committed to their charge, and by steadily enforcing the observance of the moral law!

Fletcher welcomed the Ruler’s recent call for a day of Fasting, championing the British cause in these exhortations:

The sovereign acts herein the part of a Christian prince and of a wise politician. As a Christian prince, he enforces the capital duty of national repentance; and as a wise politician, he averts the most formidable stroke which Doctor Price has aimed at his government. May we second his laudable designs by acting the part of penitent sinners and loyal subjects; tho’ mistaken patriots should pour floods of contempt upon us on the occasion.

He then drew on Judges 19 (The Levite concubine at Gibeah) to suggest a precise parallel to American travesties. Fletcher applied the OT passage very strictly to his enemies as follows:

Certain sons of Belial, belonging to the city of Boston, beset a ship in the night, overpowered the crew, and feloniously destroyed her rich cargo. The government was informed, that this felonious deed had been concerted by some of the principal inhabitants of Boston, and executed by their emissaries; and being justly incensed against the numerous rioters, it requested the unjust city to make up the loss sustained by the owners of the plundered ship, or to deliver up the sons of Belial who had so audaciously broken the laws of the land; and a military force was sent to block up the port of Boston, till the sovereign’s just request should be granted. The other colonists, instead of using their interest with the obstinate inhabitants of Boston to make them do this act of loyalty and justice, gathered themselves together unto Boston to go out to battle against the sons of Great-Britain, and by taking up arms against the king to protect felons, made themselves guilty both of felony and high treason.

This, Fletcher preached, was a close analog to Judges 19; however, Judah lost 22,000 soldiers! So, he thought, “will the revolted colonies one day bemoan the perverseness, with which their infatuated leaders have made them fight for the sons of Belial, who beset the ship in the inhospitable harbour of Boston.” Fletcher then drew these applications:

(1) That God allows, yea commands the sword to be drawn for the punishment of daring felons, and of the infatuated people who bear arms in their defence, as the Benjamites formerly did, and as the revolted colonies actually do.
(2) That, in this case, a sister-tribe may conscientiously draw the sword against an obstinate sister-tribe; much more a parent-state against an obstinate colony, and a king against rebellious subjects:
(3) That Providence, to try the patience of those who are in the right, may permit that they should suffer great losses:
(4) That whilst the maintainers of order and justice draw the sword to check daring licentiousness, it is their duty to go up unto the house of God, and to weep and fast before the Lord:
(5) That God makes a difference between the enthusiastical abettors of felonious practices, who fast to smite their brethren and rulers with the fist of wickedness; and the steady governors, who, together with their people, fast to smite the wicked with the sceptre of righteousness:

Many moderns might be wary of Fletcher’s close appropriation of OT passages for his enemies, but a sample of his fiery rhetoric is worth hearing:

But till this happy time come, when one nation, or one part of a nation unjustly rises up against another, as the men of Boston did against our merchants, it will be needful to oppose righteous force to unrighteous violence. It is absurd therefore to measure the duty of the christians who live among lawless men, by the duty of the christians, who shall live when all lawless men shall have been destroyed.

If Michael and his angels could fight in heaven against the dragon and his angels, I do not see why general Howe could not fight on earth against general Lee. And if the Congress unsheathes the sword to protect felons, to redress the imaginary grievance of an insignificant tax, and to load thousands of the king’s loyal subjects with grievances too heavy to be borne; it is hard to say, why he and his parliament should not use the sword to redress these real grievances, and to assert the liberty of our American fellow-subjects, who groan under the tyranny of republican despotism.

In Fletcher, we have an example of two perennial truths: (1) Christians may differ vehemently on the sides they choose in political battles; and (2) caution to make sure that one is not eisegeting [i.e., mid-interpreting] Scripture should cause us to be careful in political sermons.

This sermon is available in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998) and on the web at:

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.


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:;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.


“We want the Spirit of God to come as an enlightener and reprover, to show to us as a people our sins and our transgressions. We want that there should be such an acknowledgment of past error, such searching out of present tampering with evil, such putting away of the accursed thing, that as a people we may plead” for God’s promises.”

hallDWOur guest author, Dr. David W. Hall, returns today with his latest installment in his Election Day Sermon series. Today’s post focuses on a sermon by the Rev. Thomas Smyth, who is notable for having often been more closely aligned with the Princeton theologians than with most of the other Southern Presbyterian leadership. This series has been an excellent opportunity to study the issue of church and state as it was lived out in the pulpit in the 18th and 19th centuries. With just a few more posts to go, Dr. Hall’s series is timed to end, appropriately, with the election early this coming November.

“The Sin and the Curse”
by Thomas Smyth (Nov. 21, 1860)

smytht_150Thomas Smyth (1808-1873) was Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, SC, during the tumultuous period of the Civil War. He was an author of ten large volumes on a wide array of subjects. This sermon was originally preached on an 1860 Day of Humiliation and Prayer declared by the Governor of South Carolina. A copy of this sermon is in the Library of Congress (click here; it also is included in my 2012 Election Sermons); and it originally appeared in The Complete Works of the Rev. Thomas Smyth (Columbia, SC: R. L. Bryan, 1908), vol. 10.

Choosing Daniel 9: 11, 14 as his text, Smyth began: “God is governor among the nations, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the high and mighty ruler of the Universe, doing whatsoever it pleaseth him among the armies of heaven, and the inhabitants of the earth—none, with impunity, daring to stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men and giveth it to whomsoever he will.”

Next, he cited the proclamation of the South Carolina Governor as embodying the great truth that rulers should well “bow in reverence” to [God’s] will and set aside days of fasting. Accordingly, a day of Fasting was scheduled; and according to Smyth, “Fasting has been universally adopted by all nations as an expression of consciously-felt sin and sorrow, through which, by the suffering and impoverishment of the body, the mind is led to realize man’s helplessness, dependence and want of all things; and the conscience and heart to come in humble contrition before an offended God, under whose judgments they may be suffering, and whose gracious providence alone can either remove them, or in the midst of judgment remember mercy.   THIS IS ALSO A DAY OF HUMILIATION. This implies calamity, fall and ruin; sin and sorrow; contrition and confession; and the recognition of God, whose righteous indignation has brought all upon us.”

Calling for a day of prayer, also implied that God and “God alone can, help us, and give us true repentance and unfeigned humiliation; that God, alone, can avert all the evils that might come upon us; impart wisdom to our counselors; and give to all our citizens unity of purpose and plans. It implies that God can influence our sister States—who are alike interested—to stand or fall with us; and cause other States to acknowledge his power and presence in this national calamity, and to do justly, and act righteously and peaceably before him. It implies, further, that God can, and that God alone can, incline the hearts of foreign nations to recognize our true posture purposes and plans; and his purposes concerning us; and to fraternize with us.” “It implies,” he said, that only God “can mitigate inevitable disasters and suffering; give us patience and perseverance under all adversities; and secure for us a peaceful, prosperous and happy issue out of all our troubles.”

Next, Smyth lamented the effects of God’s curse on his land. He believed this condition to be a “sad and melancholy fact.” He then extolled the “great, glorious and free” constitution that had sustained the nation, leading her into “ever augmenting greatness, beyond all parallel in the history of the world.” Such constitution, he praised as the “embodiment of wisdom, patriotism, sagacity and prudential foresight and moderation; of sterling good sense; and of religion without restriction upon the full exercise of conscientious differences.” He further believed that this constitution still held great promise. Notwithstanding, Smyth viewed the nation now as a “widow,” a once-great but now lamentable castoff. In contrast to the unparalleled progress, now he called for his church members to “take up the lamentation and say, from this glorious constitutional union all the beauty is departed! This nation hath grievously sinned, therefore is she removed. All that honored her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness. . . . She remembered not her past—her chief and purposed end—therefore she came down wonderfully.”

He blamed neither a particular party, nor sectional pride for the collapse of constitutionalism but pointed to “a conglomeration of . . . atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, rationalists, Bible haters, anti-Christian levellers, and anachists.” He also called Christians to repent for having had little “zeal for God [to] seek his glory and the good of man. . . . They pervert the golden rule of our Saviour. That rule was designed not to impart to men the first principles of justice, of right and wrong, but, on the assumption of their existence, to guard us against the perverting and blinding influence of selfishness, pride, passion and prejudice.” Moreover, he accused Christians of not consulting their Bibles on matters of governance; instead they turned to “private interpretations of men; to the developments of philosophy, falsely so called; to the licentious and atheistic spirit of a liberty which knows no restraint and no authority, human or divine.” “They pervert,” he alleged, “the great doctrines of personal responsibility, liberty of conscience, liberty of thought, liberty of opinion and liberty of action.”

In addition to “these perversions of fundamental principles,” Smyth rebuked his peers for being “willingly ignorant of, or practically ignore, the prescience and providence of God; the fore-knowledge and fore-ordination by God, of whatsoever cometh to pass, so that not even a sparrow can fall unheeded to the ground, nor a hair of our heads be unnumbered, nor any; event happen by chance. They forget that government is from God; that the powers that be are ordained of God; and that we are to be subject to every ordinance of man, not only from fear, but for conscience sake. . . .”

He located much of the virus that was infecting the nation in “the evil and bitter root of all our evils . . . in the infidel, atheistic, French Revolution, Red Republican principle.” He further criticized the Declaration of Independence as proclaiming a God who was godless—perhaps a deistic code word to gain support of the colonists. He also jeered pure democratism, favoring submission to the constitution over submission to the will of majorities. He preached: “Another consequence of this seminal principle was the interpretation of the Bible according to the majority—that is, according to the popular opinion, and the coercive enforcement of this majority-interpretation as a higher law upon all who differ from it.” Smyth thought these corruptions were responsible for “anarchy, prodigality, profanity, Sabbath profanation, vice and ungodliness in every monstrous form, and in the end the corruption and overthrow of the Republic, and the erection, upon its ruins, of an absolute and bloody despotism, of which coercion, or in other words, force, is the vital principle.”

While many of us will not agree with all the sentiments of this sermon, his urgent appeal was that it was “not too late, with his blessing, to repent, reform, return unto him, and be governed by his word, will, and providence.” He called on his listeners, even those who disagree, to appreciate the “peculiar providence of God” that has charged us with being the “conservators, of the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible; and of that liberty of conscience, free from the doctrines and commandments of men—which is based upon and sustained by the right and duty of every man to search the Scriptures, to prove all things, and to hold fast that which is good—a liberty of conscience drawing after it liberty of thought, opinion, and conduct, individual responsibility, and individual regality as kings and priests unto God—and a liberty of conscience, which has never existed among men severed from the pure, perfect, and unfettered word of God.”

His call for repentance is worth hearing: “We want the Spirit of God to come as an enlightener and reprover, to show to us as a people our sins and our transgressions. We want that there should be such an acknowledgment of past error, such searching out of present tampering with evil, such putting away of the accursed thing, that as a people we may plead” for God’s promises.”

Following several quotations from Jeremiah, Smyth (finally arriving at his text) called for his members to repent and to call out to God. To accomplish this, his listeners needed “a praying heart. And how shall we get this want supplied? We answer, by PERSONAL humiliation and PERSONAL faith. It is to general humiliation and faith that we are now called. . . . But still it is individuals who make up a congregation and a commonwealth, and it is only by individual confession and humiliation, it can come before God. And does not the example of Daniel, when his people were in captivity in Babylon, show us that it is the holiest men in a nation who most humbly acknowledge and bewail national and general sins. . . .” “Without some such personal sense of sin and humiliation,” he preached, “we cannot fast right, nor can we humble ourselves aright. We cannot draw nigh fervently and with a pure heart, with holiness and confidence . . . But to individual humiliation, we must add individual faith. The one great hindrance to faith—to faith in prayer, and to believing, prayerful humiliation—is guilt upon the conscience.”

His sermon ends with this note of optimism:

Oh, what a blessed day, then, might this become to each one of you if it leads you to search out and discover the reason why you find it so hard to believe, to pray, to expect and confide; if it leads you to see your need of an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; to rely upon his blood which cleanseth from all sin; and thus to find peace in your own soul towards God. Then would you become in deed and in truth, one of your country’s best benefactors and defenders, and . . . you would become one of the “Lord’s remembrancers,” “the worm Jacob” wrestling with God, and prevailing with him to bless us and to do us good, by turning every one of us from our sins to our Saviour, and by sending his invisible and invincible chariot and horsemen, to defend and to deliver us. Then would the voice from heaven cry, and when I ask what shall I cry, the response is, “Cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity pardoned,” and that though a little one she shall become a thousand, and that though one of the least among the tribes of Israel, she shall become great.

And do I not hear a responsive voice from every heart in this congregation and commonwealth, saying, “I will arise and go to my Father?” ARISE AND GO, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall reward thee openly in such untold blessings upon yourself, and upon all the people of South Carolina.

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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