"A Sermon Containing Scriptural Instructions to Civil Rulers …” Samuel Sherwood
Samuel Sherwood (1730-1783) was a graduate of Yale and Princeton (at the time led by his uncle Aaron Burr), who pastored in Weston (CT) from 1757 to his death in 1783. Next to this sermon, his other published sermon (also of political import) was his sermon, “The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness” (see the earlier sermon in this series here).
Delivered on a Connecticut Fast Day in 1774, the full title of this sermon flies the flag: “A sermon, containing Scriptural instructions to civil rulers, and all free-born subjects. In which the principles of sound policy and good government are established and vindicated; and some doctrines advanced and zealously propagated by New-England Tories, are considered and refuted.” It also includes “an appendix, stating the heavy grievances the colonies labour under from several late acts of the British Parliament, and shewing what we have just reason to expect the consequences of these measures will be” by the Rev. Ebenezer Baldwin, of Danbury.
Sherwood’s text was Acts 22:28 (followed by two quotes from Cicero), and he humbly considered his work a “poor mite” in the public discourse. His initial hope was that “our charter and birth right privileges may be taken from us; that we may be ruled by the iron rod of oppression, and chained down to eternal slavery and bondage.” He cheers on the patriots and others who were recently awakened by tragic events in Boston (and elsewhere). This burgeoning patriotism “if duly regulated by Christian principles and rules, ensure success to American liberty and freedom,” he thought, would deliver the colony. He thought, “No free state was ever yet enslaved and brought into bondage, where the people were incessantly vigilant and watchful; and instantly took the alarm at the first addition made to the power exercised over them.—They are those only of the tribes of Issachar, who keep in profound sleep; and like strong and stupid asses, couch down between heavy burdens; that insensibly sink into abject slavery and bondage. It is a duty incumbent upon us at all times, to keep a watchful attention to our interests; (especially in seasons of peril and danger,) to watch and pray that we fall not.” At the same time, he called for good order and for men to work within “their own proper spheres,” eschewing anarchy.
While his listeners had been well-steeped in apostolic doctrine (to fear God and honor the King, 1 Peter 2:16), Sherwood also warned against being deceived by corrupt leaders. Some, he warned, “may have the advantage of others, in their tendency to promote these Christian and political virtues; yet I believe there may be mean, base and mercenary wretches in every profession, who for one sweet delicious morsel to themselves, might be tempted to sell their country with all its liberties and privileges, as profane Esau sold his birth-right.”
Appealing to 2 Samuel 23:3 (perhaps the most cited political text of the era), Sherwood rejected jure divino political governance. Since human societies, he suggested, were based on voluntary compacts, those same societies were free to form their own laws. While God’s government is fixed, various nations were free to design their own political forms. Notwithstanding, those same societies also had the right to expect their rulers to live up to certain standards (as per 2 Sam. 23:3). Specifically, he announced his outline as:
- Consider[ing] the necessity and importance of justice in civil rulers.
- Show[ing] that the fear of the Lord is the proper, effectual principle, to influence such to the observation and practice of justice.
On that first heading, Sherwood argued: “Was the doctrine true, That all property is vested in the king, or chief rulers; and that they can do no wrong to their subjects: Such scripture precepts and directions from the sovereign Ruler of the world as that in my text, would be entirely needless and impertinent; and seem, on this supposition, to argue his want of wisdom and knowledge, on this important subject.” THAT rulers could err and become corrupt—call it the fallibility of governors—Sherwood thought, called for a distributed government that would maintain some accountability. Public character standards were thought to be appropriate. Eternal standards of justice and righteousness were applicable to rulers, who were “the ministers of God, instituted and ordained to attend continually unto this very thing; and in both these capacities, they must be just.”
In a familiar catechism, justice was to be seen:
- In the making of laws (here and elsewhere Sherwood called for non-sectarian legislation), and;
- In how they perform their office—not only were laws to be theoretically just, but the implementation of the laws was to be just.
Notwithstanding, “the fear of the Lord,” he preached, “is the proper, effectual principle to influence civil rulers to the exact observance of justice.” After these principles were addressed, Sherwood included an extended set of applications or “improvements,” which included:
- A thankful praise for God’s providence—“The bigger part of the world have had their liberties wrested out of their hands; been opprest and enslaved by lawless and cruel tyrants: while we are yet in the possession of freedom.”
- As a correlate of public happiness, he stressed the “importance is it, that civil rulers be men of uprightness and integrity; men of real piety and religion; who fear the Lord, and keep up a proper awe and reverence of him upon their minds.”
- A reminder that the Glorious Revolution supported the principle of governmental fallibility.
- Sherwood identified a major “disadvantage” and sign of tyranny that “commerce, and the means of increasing our wealth and riches, are obstructed and great loss and damages sustained; and at the same time, public charges increased, in supporting agents, and commissioners to consult, and look out a way of safety and deliverance for us.” Further, he lamented:
WE are further threatened with being deprived of all our civil privileges, and brought under a most cruel, arbitrary and tyrannical kind of government. The scheme of government planned out for Boston, is in its whole frame and constitution, completely despotic and arbitrary. The will of the chief ruler is law; and the subject holds his estate, and even life, only during his pleasure. This arbitrary government will, no doubt, be carried to its greatest extent through all the American colonies, and exercised in all its terrors and cruelties upon them, if the present ministry are permitted to carry the point they are contending for, in such a sanguine manner.
Several of his thoughts are worth heeding. He appealed for a Protestant unity in view of the present state, “notwithstanding lesser differences among them; that we may stand or fall together: and not be devoured one of another; nor become an easy prey to foreign enemies who may seek our ruin.” He further asked for perspective: “What are those things worth, that alienate people's affections, and cause divisions; in comparison to our dear liberties and privileges that are endangered hereby?” He cautioned again a “party-spirit” that would weaken the nation or lead to an infatuation that might “blind [us] to our own interest, and that of our children's, as to pursue measures that are destructive of it?”
Accordingly, he urged his listeners to set aside their passion and prejudice in favor of the common welfare, not meddling with any distractions that carried “the rankest poison.” “Let our country's interest, glory and prosperity,” he cheered, “be uppermost in our hearts, and use our best endeavours for the advancement of it. Let all strength center and unite in this grand point. Let us remember, this in the common interest of all the colonies; and that each particular inhabitant is concerned herein and must expect to share the fate, in some degree, of the body he is connected with. If the foundation of our public liberties and privileges be overturned, all will be affected, and must expect to suffer in the sad ruin. . . .” He concluded with this stirring rhetoric:
Let us act on principles of moderation, candor and charity; and endeavour in meekness of wisdom to instruct those that oppose themselves, and their country’s good; and recover them to the paths of truth. Let us prize and well improve our privileges, and use our influence to promote the public good. . . . We want wise, steady, judicious rulers in such a day as this; men of sterling integrity and real religion. It is of importance that all orders of men be faithful in their several departments, for defending and promoting the public good. Let us keep stedfastly fixed in the good old principles of our fathers, and cheerfully take our lot and portion one with another; saying as Ruth to Naomi, Whether thou goest, I will go; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. The Lord’s hand has been very conspicuous in the first settlement, and past preservation of these plantations: He will take care of the generation of the righteous; and break the yoke of their oppressors; and give them peace and happiness. Blessed are the people that are under his care and conduct; yea, blessed are the people whose God is the Lord. AMEN.
This sermon is posted on line at: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N10741.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext. It is also available in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998) and in my 2012 Election Sermons.
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.