Early America’s Political Pulpit

The pulpit is essential for understanding Early America and America’s Founding. Regular church attendance, essentially mandatory in Anglican and Congregational colonies for many years, meant that the clerical voice was heard more often than that of any politician—and was likely more influential. Calvinist New England looked to ministers as prophets and mediators of the covenant with God. Clergy served as both representatives of de facto (or de jure) religious establishments and of dissenters against establishments. Ministers delivered not only spiritual counsel and theological instruction, but also essential interpretation of local and world events using lenses of scripture, classical sources, and contemporary philosophies.

General interest in religion was not confined to Sunday worship or formal membership. Public occasions such as fasts, thanksgivings, martial mustering, and election day gatherings also put ministers before the public. Nor was interest in religion or scripture confined to the doctrinally orthodox. John Adams was so interested in the opinions of ministers that he wrote to Abigail about sermons he’d heard while travelling. Even the skeptic Tom Paine conceded the cultural and rhetorical value of the sermon genre: Common Sense’s reliance on scripture essentially makes it a political sermon.

Publishing sermons alongside other political pamphlets added profit to piety, making them a staple of early American print culture. Benjamin Franklin did a brisk business with the sermons of his friend George Whitefield, for example. In his groundbreaking (but imperfect) survey of 15,000 early political publications, Donald Lutz asserted that at least 80 percent of those published in the 1770s and 1780s were sermons.

In Britain, foes of independence lamented the influence of Patriot ministers. The Fourth Earl of Orford, Horace Walpole wrote to a friend, “One has griefs enough of one’s own, without fretting because cousin America has eloped with a Presbyterian parson.” Peter Oliver decried Patriot James Otis’s appeal to a “black regiment” of rebellious ministers. Such indispensable support of ministers for the Patriot cause was chronicled by the earliest historians of the Revolution, the Patriot David Ramsay and the Loyalist Joseph Galloway. John Wingate Thornton (1860) and Frank Moore (1862) published anthologies of patriotic sermons during the sectional crisis, no doubt hoping to stir religious fervor for the second civil war by recalling its first.

In 1928, Alice Baldwin reignited interest in Patriot sermons, particularly those in New England. Subsequent studies of New England religion by Perry Miller, Harry Stout, Alan Heimert, Edmund Morgan, and others invariably had the effect of joining 1620 and 1776 in the minds of scholars and laymen. Contemporary authors James Byrd, Barry Shain, Thomas Kidd, Gary Stewart, and others have continued to emphasize the contributions of Protestant Patriotism. Less attention has been paid to pious Loyalists, though Gregg Frazer, Peter W. Walker, and Maya Jasanoff have not let them go unnoticed.

How Revolutionary?

When 20th-century historians and political theorists launched multiple projects collecting primary sources from the Revolution, beginning with Volume 1 of Bernard Bailyn’s Pamphlets of the American Revolution (1965), sermons were obvious inclusions. Bailyn’s first selection, Congregationalist Rev. Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon commemorating (and celebrating) the execution of Charles I, marked the beginning of the Revolution as 1750. Bailyn had good reason to include Mayhew. In 1818, John Adams recalled this particular sermon as “a catechism of armed resistance” that was “read by everybody.” Mayhew’s sermon is even included in a prominent casebook on firearms law.

Some insist that Patriot ministers could have only preached pragmatic progressive rationalism. Michael Zuckert, Mark Noll, Gregg Frazer, and J. Patrick Mullins, for example, have asserted that Patriot ministers departed from the Christian tradition in their defense of revolution. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, says that all authorities are established by God and whoever resists them therefore brings judgment on himself. Asserting that these passages forbid any kind of political resistance or revolution, however, against any political ruler whatsoever, rests on a literalist exegesis far more simplistic and fundamentalist than would characterize any early American Protestant minister.

It is true that “magisterial Protestants” had a very high view of civil authority, especially insofar as rulers preserved Protestantism from its enemies. And while transatlantic Protestants disagreed concerning resistance, there was obviously enough agreement to sustain rebellion in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the Glorious Revolution, and the Hanoverian Succession. Political theorists or historians tracing the “big ideas” too often overlook such context. They also neglect historical theology—the best route to understanding the minds of clergy.

There was plenty of Protestant precedent for resistance in historical political theology, including the Lutheran Torgau and Magdeburg Declarations, and French, English, and Scottish Protestant works of political theory published in the 16th and 17th centuries. They drew on arguments that existed for centuries. They were not biblicists. Anglo-American arguments for resistance, articulated long before John Locke, were a gumbo of scripture and Cicero, Roman law, common law, medieval legal precedent, and sophisticated constitutionalism.

The Singular Achievement of Ellis Sandoz

To appreciate the erudition of the ministers, including their use of sacred and secular sources, and the remarkable political theory they advanced in America, turn to Ellis Sandoz’s Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805. This two-volume anthology contains 55 sermons, each with an introduction (often demonstrating how ministers became chaplains, delegates, or even political or wartime prisoners), and is enhanced by multiple timelines/chronologies, annotated bibliography, and notes on the standardization of italicization, capitalization, spelling, punctuation, quotes, and citations. If there is a vice in Sandoz’s collection, it is that its appeal may discourage researchers from appreciating the hundreds of sermons also now easily available in digitized databases.

Sandoz’s selections reflect a triune rubric: the occasion and context of the sermon, the author’s significance, and the quality of the sermon compared among hundreds of others published across eight decades. He achieves admirable diversity in geography and denomination, but it is impossible in any such project to balance the rest of the colonies against the prodigious output of New England ministers and the historical societies that preserved their work. Most prominent Protestant denominations are included, as well as a Roman Catholic priest. Sandoz has also included two loyalists (Methodists John Wesley and John Fletcher), as well as those such as Presbyterian John Joachim Zubly who supported resistance but not independence. Not all the pamphlets are sermons, but all are sermonic according to Sandoz’s definition: “hortatory and relating politics to convictions about eternal verities.” Not all the authors are American or published in America.

Now thirty years in print, the Sandoz collection remains a singular achievement. His remarkable selection and background information obliged deep knowledge of thousands of documents long before EEBO, Gale, or other digitized collections with invaluable search functions. The work required coast-to-coast treks and multiple fellowships. Sandoz’s work came to fruition in 1991, not long before Janet Reno’s Justice Department launched murderous misadventures at Ruby Ridge and Waco. As citizen militias formed, the parallels for what President Obama later called “bitter clingers” were not lost on Sandoz: he joked that his book was a bestseller at gun shows. While the sustained interest of militias can only be guessed, his efforts became nothing less than a godsend for scholars.

And while Sandoz’s work demonstrates the influence of his mentor Eric Voegelin, one can also clearly discern how the protégé broke with his mentor and coterie. Voegelin had nothing but contempt for the kind of Protestant political theology reflected in these volumes and would have charged ministers appropriating scripture for politics with “metastatic faith” or “immanentizing the eschaton.” But in this massive project, the boy from Louisiana and US Marine acknowledges his country’s debt to the political pulpit.

That said, Sandoz’s assertion that “political liberty and religious truth are vitally intertwined” can be read as broadly Voegelinian, especially the decision to implicitly date America’s “Founding Era” not from the Stamp Act Crisis or even (more plausibly) the French and Indian War but instead the Great Awakening. The point here is not to parrot Heimert or others who attempted lines from the Awakening to the Revolution. Rather, the Awakening (and the war) were spiritual crises of the type that Voegelin had argued to have great political significance.

Vindicating an Early Founding Era: Sermons from 1730 to 1764

Sandoz vindicates well his assertion that the “Founding Era” began in the 1730s. Launching the collection with Benjamin Colman demonstrates Sandoz’s keen discernment. The theme of the sermon is routine enough but establishes an important theme for the volume: God establishes civil government for the maintenance of civil and religious liberties. This was a theme long before the Stamp Act Crisis or Revolution. Choosing Colman also has an understated brilliance insofar as his Brattle Street church was at the center of controversies and later became the home for Rev. Samuel Cooper, arguably one of the most important ministers of the Patriot cause.

Also notable in this early period is the inclusion of the plea of Elisha Williams (albeit anonymously published) in 1730 for “liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment in matters of religion.” This was not mere parroting of Locke, for the Locke scholar John Dunn called Williams’s sermon a work of startling originality. Such notions disrupt any attempt to make Locke the de facto author of the First Amendment, for example.

The inclusion of a 1746 sermon by George Whitefield reminds the reader how colonial wars remain an understated or unknown background to the American Revolution and Founding. This sermon not only demonstrates Whitefield’s likely little-known political theology but also the larger transatlantic “narrative” about the Protestant cause of liberty against tyranny (often simply cast as “Popery”). In such sermons, not unique to Whitefield, a particular event is tied providentially not only to victory in a larger conflict or context, but also back to the English Reformation itself. Such anamnesis is hardly the work of pragmatic rationalists. Similar sermons include Samuel Davies’s 1756 sermon at the outbreak of the French and Indian War or Samuel Dunbar’s 1760 Election Sermon. Both reinforce Nathan Hatch’s argument that colonial wars facilitated unity and righteous defense of civil rights and liberties.

Sermons of Crisis and Wartime 1765-1783

The more familiar timeframe of the “Founding Era” begins with the eighth sermon, Mayhew’s 1766 thanksgiving sermon for repeal of the Stamp Act. Ministers increasingly deployed jurisprudential skill to oppose acts of Parliament and the notion of “virtual representation.” Zubly’s anonymously published 1769 “Humble Enquiry” is superlative in this regard. Sandoz also begins to expand denominational diversity, including Baptist John Allen’s more radical 1773 thanksgiving for the destruction of the Gaspee, together with his assertion that the fix is in for the colonies.

Political diversity obliges John Wesley’s 1775 London publication “Calm Address to Our American Colonies.” That Wesley, the great revivalist and Methodist founder, supported British policy was scandalous enough for American Methodists. But the fact that much of the argument was essentially plagiarized from Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1775 “Taxation No Tyranny” (Johnson was flattered, and the practice more common and accepted than it is today) further undermined Wesley’s credibility. The retort that follows in the collection notes Wesley’s dependence on Johnson, but relies largely on arguments from constitutional law. A similar loyalist piece is John Fletcher’s 1776 “The Bible and the Sword.”

Fletcher’s sermon, along with several Patriot sermons, evinces how just war theory was deployed by both sides. Juxtaposed with Fletcher’s justification to put down rebellion is Moses Mather’s “America’s Appeal to an Impartial World” (1775), arguably a lengthier (and superior) Declaration of Independence in its philosophical and constitutional appeal during an era of budding international law. Arguments for defensive war are evident in Jacob Cushing’s 1778 sermon as well as “Defensive Arms Vindicated,” an anonymous pamphlet Sandoz later learned was drawn word-for-word from a 1687 Scottish Covenanter tract—making it one of several older Protestant works on rebellion and just war reprinted in Revolutionary America.

Deliberate or extensive theological glosses on the war are evident only in two sermons. Samuel Sherwood’s “The Church’s Flight Into the Wilderness” (1776) is notable not only for conflating America with the church, and also therefore applying the visions of St. John on Patmos in Revelation to the war. This is arguably the only work of so-called millenarian “civil religion” Sandoz includes. Also notable is Sherwood calling out “passive obedience and nonresistance” as “frogs issued out of the mouth of the false prophet.” Nonresistance is similarly condemned in other sermons of the collection and scorn for the doctrine lives on even in multiple state constitutions today. This section also includes John Witherspoon’s 1776 sermon which (contrary to those casting Witherspoon as an Enlightenment rationalist) uses the occasion of crisis to preach traditional doctrines of divine providence, repentance, and sanctification.

Sandoz’s work, both his monograph and this survey of political sermons, demonstrate that political foundings and their foundations are not either-or propositions when it comes to sacred and secular supports.

Constitutionalism and Founding: 1780-1805

As America’s fortunes brightened, sermons turned to thanksgiving, from prevailing in war to persevering in peace. Elhanan Winchester’s 1788 sermon compared America’s founding with the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the Glorious Revolution (1688) in a two-century anniversary celebration of liberty. In a 1790 sermon, Richard Price goes so far as to appropriate the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon upon seeing the redeemer in Luke 2: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Notable sermons on foundings also include those of Samuel Cooper on the commencement of the Massachusetts constitution (1780) and Samuel McClintock on the New Hampshire constitution (1784). As with many other authors in the collection, the war cost McClintock more than rhetoric. Three sons died fighting for the Patriot cause. As the nation itself inched toward its own constitutional founding, ministers told their audiences how the new nation could flourish.

Though religious establishment survived only in its barest form in New England (still bitterly contested, as represented in John Leland’s 1791 sermon), the sermons in this era emphasized the importance of religion for virtue and happiness. Liberty of conscience precluded imposition of the “articles” or doctrinal details of theology, but was not to open the door for swearing, blasphemy, or open contempt for religion. Such expressions undermined contempt for order and authority. Ministers argued for the civil value of piety and Christian virtue, especially as Deism waxed in Europe and sought inroads in America. Jonathan Edwards Jr.’s 1794 election day sermon articulated an excellent apologetic for Christianity as the best means to morality enabling prosperity.

Widespread devotion to religion generally was therefore presented not just as the scourge of tyrants, but also as the means of good government. This obliged attention to both reason and revelation. In 1787, for example, Elizur Goodrich preached that “The principles of society are the laws, which Almighty God has established in the moral world, and made necessary to be observed by mankind; in order to promote their true happiness, in their transactions and intercourse. . . . are as fixed and unchangeable as the laws which operate in the natural world.” The foundations of civil government must therefore be “the principles and laws of truth, justice, and righteousness, mercy and the fear of God; or it can never advance the happiness of mankind.” The first lawgiver in this regard, Goodrich argued, was not Lycurgus or Solon, but Moses.

While the battle for moral and civic virtue was as perpetual as human nature, other crises presented themselves. Troubles in France, America’s former ally, provided either evidence that America became an example to the world . . . or a useful foil for what becomes of freedom without virtue and order. Ministers expressed both optimism and despair for France, depending on the timeframe. In 1790, Richard Price’s praise of the French Revolution spurred Burke’s Reflections. By 1793, Enos Hitchcock cried out “May the milder genius of true liberty, and more enlightened policy, speedily pervade the councils, and bless the people of France.”

Federalists and Republicans contended against this European background. David Osgood smelled Jacobins among the Republicans in 1794, as did Timothy Dwight in 1798. That same year, Boston Roman Catholic Priest John Thayer encapsulated the fear of war with France in a sermon preached for a day of humiliation and prayer called by President John Adams. Jefferson came to represent the anti-Christian threat at home according to William Linn and John Mitchell Mason in 1800. Jefferson was defended by Tunis Wortman in 1800 and then grudgingly tolerated in 1801 by Stanley Griswold.

Sandoz concludes the volume, appropriately enough, with a sermon preached by Swedenborgian John Hargrove on Christmas before both houses of Congress in 1804 at the invitation of President Jefferson. Despite all the fears of Federalists and others, religion and republicanism remained joined.

A History Unwritten

In his prefatory note to the 1998 two-volume edition, Sandoz writes, “It may be that these documents intimate a kind of secret history, one yet to be fully written.” Though that history is indeed not yet fully written, it remains a lot less secret thanks to Sandoz. The ongoing chronicle includes not only Political Sermons but also his accompanying monograph A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding (1990).

The history of America’s political pulpit would eschew the aforementioned false characterizations of the ministers, their methods, and sources. Especially impractical is the imposition of bipolar or overly simplistic categories that do not appreciate the richness of these arguments and their diversity of sources. There is no way to stereotype political arguments as characteristic of Unitarians or Trinitarians, Congregationalists or Episcopalians, Old Light or New Light, Southern or New England states.

Sandoz’s work, both his monograph and this survey of political sermons, demonstrate that political foundings and their foundations are not either-or propositions when it comes to sacred and secular supports. Neither is the practice of politics generally, or of any life together. The significance and popularity of Political Sermons should also inspire a comparable collection of political sermons from earlier decades. Those sermons would likewise demonstrate how rights and liberties advance in a constitutional order from crucibles of conflict, especially warfare and the struggle for religious liberty. In such conflicts, and a host of other circumstances, ministers played leading roles.