Review: Political Sermons of the American Founding Era

Political Sermons of the American Founding Era
Volume 1, Second Edition
Ellis Sandoz, Editor

Online Library of Liberty

In a world where we feel put upon if a pastor preaches for more than a half an hour, or the sermon actually exhorts us to some course of action, this volume is an eye opening experience. Here are 33 sermons consuming some 670 pages of text, each of which must have taken at least an hour to preach. Further, you will find no shallow thinking here; each sermon is well organized, driving towards a single conclusion with a depth of argument rarely seen in modern thinking. Surprising, as well, is the breadth of topics discussed. These sermons were, of course, chosen specifically for their political value, but the political and the religious were deeply intertwined in the 1700’s and 1800’s. “…liberty is more than a secluar matter,” as the editor says. Recurring topics include the divine right of kings, whether or not Christians should be active or passive in the face of tyranny, an examination of what tyranny actually is, the nature of liberty, and America’s case against the British Parliament.

Should Christians remain passive, or fight, in the face of tyranny? The answer that thundered from these pulpits is they should fight. John Fletcher’s sermon provides the most extensive line of argument in this area, working from Romans, Luke, the Psalms, and the Davidic Kingdom to prove his point. The general line of reasoning is that Christians should obey government so long as government is within the bounds God has given it; once government steps outside those bounds, it is no longer appointed by God, and therefore ought not be obeyed. It’s interesting that both of the sides in the discussion —for there are voices here that supported England’s side as well as America’s— followed this same line of argument.

The nature of tyranny is closely tied to this line of reasoning. Tyranny, in this volume, is when government steps outside the bounds of law and the consent of the governed, and into governing for the good of the government itself. Government is not an end, but a means; governments which govern with an eye primarily to their own power are, by definition, tyrannical. Property and conscience are also closely tied together. John Witherspoon says, “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.” Tyranny is also closely tied to the establishment of religion by governments.

No doubt, Constantine the Great, who first established christianity, had a good intention in the same; but all the darkness that has since overspread the Christian church, the exorbitant power of the popes and church of Rome, all the oceans of blood that have been shed in the contests about religion, between different sects of Christians, 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. -Elhanan Winchester

America’s case against the British Parliament is somewhat different than what you might have read in a common history primer; the root cause is still taxation without representation, but it is much more nuanced, and well supported, than that simple view might initially appear. The Americans argued that just as Ireland has its own parliament, which was able to lay taxes to present to the King, America has its own parliament as well. For the British Parliament to raise taxes on the Colonies was just as if they tried to raise taxes on some other part of the Empire. The Parliament had no right to raise taxes on the Colonies, a point shown by the lack of representation by the Colonies in the Parliament itself. In other words, they conceived of the Colonies and England itself as being two separate pieces of the British Empire, equal before the King. They objected to being treated as subservient to Parliament, rather than the King.

The prevailing replacement theology, well grounded in strong Calvinist thinking, shows through in many places in this volume; this will be of interest to students of historical theology. There are some points when a premillennial belief shows though, however, particularly in Elhanan Winchester’s sermon on the Glorious Revolution.

Overall, a lengthy, and sometimes difficult, read, but well worth it for any student of American History, Historical Theology, or students of logic and reason.

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