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New England Election Sermons: A Model for a Public Pulpit

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Abstract

Unio Cum Christo (forthcoming, October 2021)
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New England Election Sermons: A Model for a Public Pulpit
In March of 1884, the Massachusetts legislature was occupied with rather ordinary business. Acts to
regulate the sale of coal, the prohibitions of firearm sales to minors, new standards for the admittance of
persons to insane asylums, and an updated policy to prevent the spread of contagious diseases in public
schools appear in the record, and all passed within the span of a week. One would be excused for lacking
interest in this relatively uneventful record of legislative affairs, and for overlooking a noteworthy
historical development hidden therein—indeed, an event unprecedented in Massachusetts since its
founding, a repudiation of one of its most storied institutions.
On March 6, "An Act to Repeal the Public Statutes Relating to the Annual Election Sermon" was passed.
Which is to say, as the bill summary shows, that the election sermon was "dispensed with." For good
measure, "the compensation of the preacher thereof" was also repealed.1 There is no record of the vote,
but the repeal act seems to have passed without incident. It was the following year, then, that for the first
time in Massachusetts since 1634—excepting for a five-year drought from 1650-1655 and the occasional
cancelation due to extenuating circumstances—no election sermon was preached; a two-hundred-and-
fifty-year tradition abandoned overnight.
Almost since the very inception of the errand into the wilderness, election day in Massachusetts had been
marked by the oration of an esteemed clergyman before the General Court and newly elected governor
and assistants. This was a staple of colonial life, foremost in Massachusetts, and especially since other
Christian holidays had by and large been jettisoned. Days of fast and thanksgiving were frequent but
irregular. Election days lent some predictability to the Puritan calendar.
But as Lindsay Swift rightly noted in 1894, by the time of the General Court's move to quash the election
sermon, there were few tears shed over the removal of the "last slight interdependence in the
Commonwealth between Church and State."2 In truth, for a long while prior, the annual sermon had been
considered a matter of precedent rather than "sincere expression of the religious and political spirit of the
age." Perhaps, it is a miracle that the election sermon endured for as long as it did, far exceeding other
vestiges of the Puritan era.
The first election sermon was preached by John Cotton (1585-1652), the patriarch of Massachusetts and
standard bearer of Reformed orthodoxy and the New England Way, in 1634. The last was delivered by the
Universalist minister and president of Tufts University, Alonzo Ames Miner (1814-1895). That these two
men serve as bookends to the story of the election sermon in Massachusetts, preaching the first and last
sermon exactly two and a half centuries apart, is appropriately poetic.
Massachusetts was the last holdout, both in championing an established church—disestablished in 1833—
and continuing the election sermon practice.3 Connecticut had ceased in 1830. Only two such sermons
were ever preached in Plymouth, one in 1669 and the other in 1674.4 New Hampshire abandoned the
practice 23 years before Massachusetts and had not begun it until 1784, with none being preached
1 C.A. Merrill, Supplement to the Public Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: 1882-1888 (Boston,
1890), p. 152.
2 Swift, "The Massachusetts Election Sermons: An Essay in Descriptive Biography," Colonial Society of
Massachusetts, vol. I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1897).
3 John D. Cushing, "Notes on Disestablishment in Massachusetts, 1780-1833," William & Mary Quarterly, 26(2)
(Apr. 1969), pp. 169-190.
4 Thomas Walley, Balm in Gilead (1669); Samuel Arnold, David Serving (1674).
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between 1832 and 1860.5 Where the New England Way had been the strongest it lasted the longest, but
even then, it did not last.
***
The election sermon's eventual demise notwithstanding there is much to be learned from what will
doubtless be a foreign practice to contemporary ministers. More important than the form and occasion of
election sermons is their content.
It is no secret that churches are increasingly politically polarized.6 Pastors continue to struggle to discern a
balance between bringing the full counsel of God to bear on the lives of congregants—the lives they
inhabit the other six days of the week—and not turning their pulpit into a partisan "bully." Some
Christians expect pastors to address social issues; others assert a strong separation between church and
world.7 In either case, many pastors feel inadequate to mediate these seemingly contradictory demands
and in-house division, in part, because they lack a sufficient, balanced model for public engagement from
the pulpit. It is the contention of this article that colonial New England election sermons provide just such
a model that, with minimal adjustments, can be readily adopted by contemporary pastors.
The supreme point of instruction to be gleaned from election sermons is the posture of faithful, decidedly
non-reactionary, plodding. The select few clergy who mounted the podium on colonial election days
exhibited a vision for society, informed by divine revelation, which they relentlessly—sometimes
monotonously—preached. Their interest was not in campaigning for their favored candidate nor in
swaying political debate as such. Their aim was to call ruler and citizen alike to faithfulness to their God-
given duties, unto the common good of the whole, for the stability and tranquility of a covenant
community, ultimately unto the glory of God.8
For two hundred years, New England preachers mounted the podium as the oracle of God to address the
entire community, all three estates, so to speak. For at least one day of the year, all branches of
government, the ministers, and the people gathered to be reminded of how they were to honor God and
love neighbor in their respective stations. And there is good evidence that all three estates endeavored to
honor the vision for society proclaimed from the election day pulpits.9 Such a strange, now-alien
phenomenon—a society built upon and sustained by near-constant preaching—deserves to be studied for
its own sake. The impetus of this article partially conforms to Swift's own study, namely, to preserve
memory of "so venerable an observance." But our purpose is also to glean a strategy for the present.
5 R. W. G. Vail, "A Check List of New England Election Sermons," American Antiquarian Society (Oct. 1935), pp.
233-266.
6 Louis Andres Henao & David Crary, " Christian Churches Mirror Country's Political Division," U.S. News (Nov.
8, 2020), https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2020-11-08/christian-churches-mirror-countrys-political-
division; Timothy Dalrymple, "Why Evangelicals Disagree on the President," Christianity Today (Nov. 2, 2020),
https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november-web-only/trump-election-politics-church-kingdom.html.
Indeed, there is some evidence that this trend is a global phenomenon. Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, "Chinese American
Christians Are Becoming More Politically Engaged—and More Divided," Christianity Today (Oct. 27, 2020),
https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/october/chinese-american-christian-voters-asian-divided-trump-
biden.html.
7 Daniel Silliman, "At Purples Churches, Pastors Struggle with Polarized Congregations," Christianity Today (Oct.
20, 2020), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november/purple-church-political-polarization-unity-identity-
christ.html; Ruth Graham, "Preaching or Avoiding Politics, Conservative Churches Walk a Delicate Line," New York
Times (Nov. 1, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/01/us/church-sermons-election-politics.html.
8 See e.g., William Stoughton, New Englands True Interest… (1670), p. 21ff.
9 Timothy H. Breen & Stephen Foster, "The Puritans' Greatest Achievement: A Study of Social Cohesion in
Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts," The Journal of American History, 60(1) (June 1973), pp. 5-22.
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Controlling for contextual differences between seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England and the
present, the election sermon can help pastors thread the needle between deafening silence and bombastic
partisanship.
To orient the reader, part I will provide limited but important background for the article by briefly
recounting the socio-political context of the sermon in general and the election sermon in particular in
colonial New England. Part II will then highlight and expound upon several common themes that run
throughout elections sermons of the period in focus (roughly 1660-1760). The themes selected are not
exhaustive of election sermon content, nor do they represent even the most interesting aspects of the same
—only a fraction of the sermons preached are included below. Rather, the themes and doctrines in view
are those that appear repeatedly in election sermons and are most easily applicable to any socio-political
context. The themes selected serve as the backbone to nearly all the sermons preached for a 100-year
period, though each sermon did so in its own unique way according to the style of the preacher.
I. Background
The sermon was king in seventeenth century New England. Per Harry Stout, it is unrivaled still, even by
television, in terms of its reach and hold on the Puritan colonies. Not so long ago, "the sermon stood alone
in local New England contexts as the only regular (at least weekly) medium of public communication."
By this means, New Englanders received the lion's share of their religious, educational, and even
journalistic information, as well as "the key terms necessary to understand existence in this world and the
next." With both breadth and depth, heat and light, the sermon spoke to all of life, including the social and
political. Underappreciated too is the extent to which the sermon supplied the basis for interpersonal
relations by providing a shared knowledge base. Again, this is owed to its reach, frequency, and
consistency of content. The sheer number of sermons preached, many of which were printed, is
astounding:
"Collectively over the entire span of the colonial period, sermons totaled over five
million separate messages in a society whose population never exceeded one-half million
and whose principal city never grew beyond seventeen thousand. The average weekly
churchgoer in New England… listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a
lifetime… somewhere around fifteen thousand hours of concentrated listening."10
By 1776, reports Stout, New England ministers were collectively delivering over two thousand discourses
per week. The publications of these sermons alone far outnumbered secular pamphlets "by a ratio of more
than four to one."11
The whole scene is difficult to fathom today. Even after the Puritan era had come and gone the sermon
maintained its influence through the revolutionary period and early republic.12 This was accomplished, in
part, by establishing an array of occasions for sermons to be preached, of which election sermons were,
perhaps, the most important. Of the "occasional sermons" (i.e., fast days, execution days, etc.) identified
by Stout, election sermons have enjoyed comparatively limited treatment. In The New England Soul,
Stout himself dedicates less than five pages to election sermons. Perry Miller's emphasis was on fast day
10 Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York:
Oxford University press, 1986), pp. 3-4.
11 Stout, New England Soul, p. 6.
12 See John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1959), p. 186ff;
John Wingate Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution (Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1876).
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sermons and the jeremiad.13 Alice Baldwin expertly wove election sermon data into her study but limited
her sample to the mid-to-late-eighteenth century.14
Sparse analysis of election sermons is also owed to the tendency in Puritan studies to handle them in
conjunction to (irregular but frequent) political sermons, an eighteenth-century innovation.15 The political
sermons were, by and large, far removed from the first few generations of the colonies and gained steam
in the aftermath of myriad doctrinal shifts and practical or circumstantial developments. Accordingly, the
themes and emphases of political sermons differ from those of election sermons; the latter alone will be in
focus here.
Fast days, or days of humiliation, were truly occasion, usually called by civil magistrates when the colony
faced great challenges or suffering. Election days on the other hand, were annual. It was the closest thing
to a civil holiday that the New England colonies enjoyed (usually every May). As with nearly all events in
colonial New England, preaching was the centerpiece. Stout paints a weighty picture of the setting of the
election day discourse:
"There, seated before the speaker in the principal building of the province, were the three
orders of authority: the magistrates…the deputies… the ministers. Each would be
addressed in turn so that all aspects of government and authority would illuminated by
the Word of God."
This was not partisan grandstanding. But for a few exceptions, the sermons were preached after ballots
had already been cast, and very rarely did they bother with focused policy proposals.16 The aim of the
chosen preacher was not to sway the makeup of the legislature, nor the proclivities of the incoming
executive. It was to once again to take the commonwealth to task, to call it to its purpose coram Deo.
***
The earliest printed election sermon is from Thomas Shephard (1605-1649), preached in 1638. But
Shephard's second address—he had also accepted the honor the previous year—was not printed until
1870, which is not to say that hand-copied notes and Shephard's own manuscript did not circulate at the
time. The inaugural sermon by John Cotton was not printed either. No sermon was delivered in 1635,
1636, 1639, or 1642. Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652) preached in 1641, the same year his Body of Liberties
was published, but only the latter effort was printed. Lamentably, no sermon was printed until 1644 when
the legislature ordered its distribution. No copy remains. This is the case with several election sermons,
even after 1660.17 The same is true of Thomas Cobbet's (1608-1686) 1649 sermon and Richard Mather's
(1596-1669) 1660 sermon. Prior to 1661, aside from Shepherd's terse outline from 1638, no
Massachusetts election sermon was printed except Cobbet's and the eldest Mather's. No copy of either
remains.
13 Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), pp. 27-
39.
14 Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1928),
pp. 22-46.
15 See generally Mark Noll, "The Election Sermon: Situating Religion and the Constitutional in the Eighteenth
Century," 59 DePaul Law Review 1223 (2010). Useful, to be sure, Ellis Sandoz's two-volume compendium of
colonial sermons belong to the "political," not "election," category of occasional sermons and all come from the
mid-to-late eighteenth-century and nineteenth century. Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805
(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). These sermons are, therefore, of less relevance to the present study and
generally unhelpful in providing a consistent model of public theology.
16 C.f. John Whiting, The Way of Israels Welfare… (1686), pp. 27-29.
17 Swift, "Election Sermons," p. 14.
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Accordingly, the story of the election sermon in New England begins in 1661 with John Norton's (1606-
1663) Three choice and profitable sermons. But perhaps the circulation of Norton's sermon was limited
since Cotton Mather, in 1709, called John Higginson's (1616-1708) 1662 sermon, The Cause of God and
his People in New-England, the "first born, by way of the press, of all the Elections Sermons, that we
have in our libraries."18 And yet, even those sermons that never made it to press did not lack influence, as
they were often quoted or referenced in subsequent works, with authors assuming that readers were
familiar therewith. In any case, regular printing seems to have stabilized by 1667; all delivered thereafter
were printed. This abrupt flurry of printing was likely a response to the Restoration of the Stuart
monarchy in 1660 as well as an effort of filial piety; the first generation was dying off by the 1660s.19
The Connecticut legislature began hosting election sermons in 1674. The inaugural address, A Holy
Connexion, delivered by James Fitch (1622-1702) is among the best delivered in that colony.20 Plymouth's
first election sermon by Thomas Walley (1616-1677/8) had little competition in Plymouth, being one of
two preached there, but nevertheless is amongst the most readable and learned of any in the region.21 In
the end, what we find is that Massachusetts was the earliest, last, and most ardent practitioner of the
election sermon. It is from Bay Colony orations that we will draw most of our insights.
***
The last bit of groundwork needed before the election sermon is approached comes to us by way of
qualification. The election sermons are pervaded by the assumptions of the day, especially those
pertaining to church-state relations. For the sake of this study, it is sufficient to acknowledge such and
then proceed to the themes in focus, for said assumptions do not detract from the utility of election
sermons for those of us who know live outside of the New England Puritan reality; they are not
necessarily intricate to the themes that follow.
In brief, the people of Massachusetts Bay and her sister colonies clung to the premodern vision of
society.22 For the sake of this study, however, these assumptions will not be fully fleshed out, but
doubtless the reader will catch glimpses and whiffs of them in the election sermons in view.23
II. Themes
A. The Character of Good Government
Addressed at the outset of every election sermon was the nature, purpose, and character of government.
The preachers of New England had a comparatively high view of government authority. It was a divine
institution, not merely a permitted one. Some kind of civil order, Ebenezer Pemberton (1672-1717)
18 Ibid., p. 15 (quoting Mather).
19 See Stout, New England Soul, pp. 69-70. See also Rollo G. Silber, "Financing the Publication of Early New
England Sermons," Studies in Bibliography, 11 (1958), pp. 163-178.
20 New Hampshire, having no election sermon until 1784, sits outside of the scope of this study. The same goes for
Vermont; its first election sermon was preached in 1777.
21 Walter Muir Whitehall, "Letters of the Reverend Thomas Walley of Barnstable to the Reverend John Cotton of
Plymouth," American Antiquarian Society (Oct. 1948), pp. 247-262.
22 See Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Belknap, 1956), pp. 141-142 ("[T]he unity of religion
and politics was so axiomatic that very few men would even have grasped the idea that church and state could be
distinct. For the Puritan mind it was not possible to segregate a man's spiritual life from his communal life.").
23 See generally, Stanley Gray, "The Political Thought of John Winthrop," The New England Quarterly, 3(4) (Oct.
1930), pp. 681-705; David D. Hall, The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the
Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972), pp. 121-155; Herbert L. Osgood,
The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, vol. I (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1957), pp. 200- 223.
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suggested, would have been present even if man had remained in innocency and paradise.24 Lapsarian
humanity required even stricter order. "Was it not a Terrible Day with Israel, when that Complaint was
moaned out? There was no King in Israel… God by appointing Government has consulted the good of the
World. Levelism, is therefore an open Defiance of God, his Wisdom and Will, as well as the Reason of
Mankind."25 To these preachers, government was never something to be detested or mocked, nor
something to be transcended. It was a God-given good that received its power from the risen Christ
himself.26 "[E]ven a tyrannous Government is better than none," said Jonathan Todd (1713-1791). For
without government, everyone would be his own tyrant.27
Though the forms of governmental polity were, within reason, subject to human determinations and
varied in human history the institution itself was divinely ordained unto certain ends and purposes. "It has
not pleased God to interpose in this Case, by instituting one Form of Civil Government and obliging all
Nations to submit to it," said Noah Hobart (1706-1773).28 This was clear from both Scripture and the light
of nature.29 The form of a just government, so long as it still accomplished the ends of government, was to
be adapted to the context.
Albeit most of the preachers affirmed, along with Aristotle, that a mixed form—monarchy, aristocracy,
and democracy—was best. For Congregationalists, the mediate means by which government polity was
established mirrored that of church polity, viz., voluntary compact,30 though it flowed naturally, and
inevitably from the sociable nature of man.31 Hence, John Davenport (1597-1670) called it a "humane
ordinance."32 Yet, government ultimately remained an ordinance of God; he was the first agent though an
agent of means. Valid government had to be ordered to ends fitted to its God-given role and purpose, and
certain duties, therefore, were incumbent upon it.
i. Purpose and End of Government
An evident blessing of government was that it restrained evil and chaos.33 "If the Foundations be
destroyed what can the Righteous do?" queried Hobart.34 But this did not exhaust its true and positive
purpose. The end of government regularly identified by election sermons is the public or common good.35
(Later, the "common good" was sometime used interchangeably with "public happiness."36) "[T]he
publick Good is the great End, and original Design of the Institution of civil Government. It was ordain'd
24 Pemberton, The divine original and dignity of government asserted… (1710), p. 16.
25 Ibid., p. 17. Judges 21:25 was repeated often as a sobering warning in election sermons throughout the period in
focus. See e.g., Jonathan Todd, Civil rulers the ministers of God, for good to men… (1749), p. 1.
26 James Allen, Magistracy an institution of Christ upon the throne… (1744).
27 Todd, Civil rulers, pp. 40-41.
28 Noah Hobart, Civil government the foundation of social happiness… (1750), p. 3.
29 John Davenport, A Sermon Preach'd at the Election of the Governor (1669), p. 4.
30 Joseph Moss, An election sermon… (1715), pp. 6-7. See also John Cotton, The Way of the Churches… (1645),
pp. 2-4, 61-62.
31 John Bulkley, The necessity of religion in societies… (1713), pp. 13-23; Solomon Williams, A firm and
immovable courage to obey God… (1741), p. 1; Hobart, Civil government, p. 2.
32 Davenport, Sermon, p. 4.
33 Gurdon Saltonstall, A Sermon Preached… (1697), p. 4.
34 Hobart, Civil government, p. 5.
35 As Thomas Walley and Thomas Thatcher in the introduction to Samuel Arnold's David Serving his Generation…
(1674), "Right Reason teacheth that the more common any good is, the better it is. Hence the first being is the chief
good, because he is the most Common, yea, an universal good." Later, the "common good" was sometime used
interchangeably with "public happiness." See Hobart, Civil government, p. 4.
36 See Hobart, Civil government, p. 4.
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[sic] as a Means to promote the Peace & Welfare of the World," said Todd.37 Those who animated
government, the rulers or magistrates, as they were variously called, were to "seek the welfare, the good
of the people," per Romans 13:4.38 This mandate was "engraven on the Forehead of the Law and Light of
Nature," and "owned and confirmed by the Scriptures… Hence this Law being Supreme, it limits all other
Laws and Considerations."39 Nothing could be right that was counter to it. This was the "Compass that
Rulers are to steer by."40 "Think it not enough to no hurt," Jonathan Mitchel (1624-1668) told the
Massachusetts magistrates in 1671. "Be willing to put forth thy self for the publick good according to thy
Talent."41 Ruler and citizen alike were to be "studious of the common good, the weal and welfare of the
whole."42 Baldwin rightly discerns that this was "the starting point for the necessity of law and order, for
the limitations upon rulers, and for the inviolability of the rights and liberties of the people."43
But what did the common good entail? For Mitchel and his compatriots, the common good necessarily
included man's highest good, right religion and God himself (i.e., the universal common good). Nehemiah
had "assisted Ezra in the Reformation of Religion," after all.44 Josiah had labored mightily for "a
thorough-Reformation" and to "settle every thing in the House of God according to the minde of God."45
"Religion is the chief and principal thing, wherein the welfare of a people stands," thundered Mitchel.
"[I]t is impossible they should be well and do well without this, whereby they may come
to serve God and glorifie [sic] him, and attain Salvation for their own Souls. The weal,
the excellency, end and happiness of Mankinde, lyes [sic] in true Religion: and therefore
if Rulers seek the weal of a people they must needs seek the advancement and
establishment of this. Hence… Religion is the chief and last end of Civil Policy."46
This implied, inter alia, that civil authorities would enforce both tables of the Ten Commandments.
The jurisdiction of the state did not permit direct ministry to this highest good but did necessitate diaconal
care for it, viz., by supporting the church and recognizing the supremacy of Christ overall. Hence, "[T]o
incourage [sic] and support Religion is one of the greatest & best Ends of Government."47 Rulers were to
do this through the example of their own character as well as "taking Care for the Support of the Ministers
of Religion, incouraging [sic] them to their Work; giving out Proclamations that the Ordinances of God be
observed, and issuing out their Orders to pull down the Altars of strange Gods."48 If rulers were to be a
terror to evil, this was implied in their God-given duty. After all, as an institution of God, like the church,
the ultimate end of government was the glorification of God, according to its power and station.
37 Todd, Civil rulers, p. 9. See also Davenport, Sermon, p. 5; Samuel Whitman, Practical godliness the way to
prosperity… (1714), p. 32; Azariah Mather, Good rulers a choice blessing (1725), pp. 13-14; Mitchel, Nehemiah on
the Wall… (1671), p. 2.
38 Mitchel, Nehemiah on the Wall, p. 2; Ibid., p. 6 ("… this is the way whereby the Ruler, as such, glorifies God…
To glorifie God, is the last end and great duty of every man.").
39 Ibid., p. 11.
40 Ibid., p. 12.
41 Ibid., p. 25.
42 Ibid., pp. 26-27.
43 Baldwin, New England Clergy, p. 23.
44 See e.g., Oakes, New-England Pleaded, p. 18 ("[God] has given us men of Nehemiah's spirit that have not
sought themselves, but sincerely designed the good, and consulted the welfare and prosperity of these
Plantations…").
45 Thomas Walley, Balm in Gilead to Heal Sions Wounds… (1669), p. 5.
46 Mitchel, Nehemiah on the Wall, pp. 2-3.
47 Todd, Civil rulers, p. 15.
48 Ibid., p. 16.
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The magistrate, therefore, was to terrorize, so to speak, heresy, idolatry, and general licentiousness (e.g.,
profaning the Sabbath, public drunkenness, etc.)—public crimes all—according to the doctrine, standards,
and confession of the church which, in New England, was a Congregationalist one. In this way, the
magistrate backed up, so to speak, the ministry, reinforcing its discipline and proclamation.49 But the
clergy also justified the state's role in religion on public grounds, viz., notorious heresy was disruptive, a
threat to the social cohesion and peace of a Christian commonwealth.
Indeed, the belief that magistrates had no proper role in the care for religion was, for New England
preachers, the root of the papist problem. The "Romish Clergy" had usurped civil authority making it
impotent and thereby tearing asunder God's design. In New England, the religious role of the civil
jurisdiction was properly restored.50 The clergy guarded this restoration zealously, even into the
eighteenth century. Preaching in 1749, Todd declared the suggestion that magistrates "hath Nothing to do
about religious Matters" an unwelcome innovation.51
To be sure, the church had no need for state support. She was a perfect society in that she could
independently accomplish her own proper ends. That being said, "[I]t please God ordinarily to govern the
World more mediately; and when he design Good to the Church, to raise up & spirit the higher Powers to
protect & help it; the People of Christ justly have their Eyes to these Vice-gerents of God for Protection
and Help."52 And this according to the promise to the church in Isaiah 60, enacted by Christ's dominion
(Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:22).
Accordingly, in Protestant nations, the magistrate was to be a keeper of both tables of the law and submit
his ministry to Christ, caring for the purity of doctrine and worship according to his role, chiefly through
support of the ministry.53 At bare minimum, magistrates were expected to honor the Sabbath, promote the
preaching of the Gospel, and punish blasphemy.54 That kings should be nursing fathers, and queens
nursing mothers, to the church, per Isaiah 49:23, was repeated ad nauseum by colonial pulpits throughout
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.55 In the end, "the Interest of righteousness in the Common
wealth, and Holiness in the Churches are inseparable. The prosperity of Church and Common wealth are
twisted together."56 Thus, "If there be Sickness in the Church, there will be little health in the Common-
wealth… things amiss in the houses of god, are the chief cause that it goes ill with the Country."57 Clearly,
if the preachers were to be believed, the temporal authority of the colonies had an interest in keeping the
spiritual authority healthy. The early modern vision of society as an organic whole implied this
interdependence, and the duty of rulers to God demanded it.58
This did not mean that magistrates could proffer new articles of faith, encroach on the church's discipline,
or the like.59 The church possessed her own liberty, and the temporal and spiritual powers could not be
conjoined into a third kind, eroding key distinctions of nature and jurisdiction. They were to be
49 To the clergy, this was no violation of conscience. See e.g., Noyes, Duty and Interest, p. 79; Stoughton, True
Interest, pp. 35-36; Oakes, New-England Pleaded, p. 18, 53-55.
50 Todd, Civil rulers, pp. 18-19.
51 Ibid., p. 13.
52 Ibid., p. 14. See also Oakes, New-England Pleaded with, p. 56.
53 Ibid., p. 19; See also, Davenport, Sermon Preach'd, p. 12.
54 Walley, Balm in Gilead, p. 13-15.
55 See e.g., Davenport, Sermon, p. 10; Walley, Balm in Gilead, p. 19; James Fitch, An Holy Connexion… (1674), p.
7.
56 Oakes, New-England Pleaded with, p. 49.
57 Walley, Balm in Gilead, p. 18.
58 See generally Otto von Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age (Cambridge University Press, 1900);
Herbert L. Osgood, "The Political Ideas of the Puritans," Political Science Quarterly, 6(1) (Mar. 1891), pp. 1-28.
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complimentary, and this entailed the state's support for the spiritual power via her laws and policy.
Sermons often made it clear which power or jurisdiction was to be ultimately prioritized. "The Church is
more dear to [God] then the Common-wealth," declared Thomas Walley (1616-1677) in 1669. God was
God to the state but Father to the church. The disparity in intimacy was clear, and this difference was
directly connected to the eternal and higher nature of the church and her mission.60 "There is a Civil
Policy needful in Civil-Estate affairs," said James Fitch, "but the shine is in Divine Policy… Civil Policy
is a good Servant, but Divine Policy must be the Master and Ruler."61
Nor did this arrangement entail brutal persecution of dissenters, despite the popular narrative of Puritan
society. A "well-bounded Toleration," as Walley put it, was "very desirable in all Christian Common-
wealths, that there may be no just occasion for any to complain of Cruelty or Persecution." But public
blasphemy and idolatry were still to be punished, as well as any error that tended to "disturbing of Peace
and Order in Church or State."62
ii. Peace, Tranquility, and Quietness
The emphasis on the maintenance of true religion vis a vis the common good notwithstanding, New
England clergymen acknowledged more tangible elements of the same, though material conditions were
considered in "subordination to Religion."63 Religion itself was a temporal good, though not merely so.
Among "external" considerations under the magistrate's purview were the safety of his people—"they
cannot possibly have well-being, without the preservation of their Being, both Personal and Political"—as
well as prosperity, "in matters of outward Estate and Livelyhood [sic]."64 Peace, tranquility, and quietness,
as well as equity and order in the administration of justice, coincided with material prosperity.
"Government," declared Samuel Willard (1640-1704), "is to prevent and cure the disorders that are apt to
break forth among the Societies of men; and to promote the civil peace and prosperity of such a people, as
well as to suppress impiety, and nourish Religion."65
Unity and prevention of disturbances, foreign and domestic, were the bare minimum conditions for the
city on a hill to flourish.66 In all things, whether higher or lower, it was to be remembered that rulers were
ministers of God and servants of their people. Indeed, "The people are not for the Rulers, but the Rulers
for the people, to minister to their welfare."67 Government, the reader will recall, was a blessing, not a
curse for the colonial clergy, and especially when governors acted as true public servants. Hence,
Nicholas Noyes (1647-1717), in 1698, instructed his esteemed audience, "You are the Ministers of God
for our Good, & you can do nothing more acceptable to God, honourable [sic] to your Selves; nor
beneficial to us; than to do your utmost to make this Land an Habitation of Justice, and Mountain of
Holiness."68 In some sense, just order was a precondition for a holy one.
59 Davenport, Sermon, p. 13 ("Avoid carefully imposing upon the Churches any thing that Christ hath not put upon
them.")
60 Walley, Balm, p. 19. See also Fitch, Connexion, p. 8 (describing the church as the candlestick in Zechariah 4 and
the rulers of church and state as the two olive trees suppling the oil).
61 Fitch, Connexion, p. 14.
62 Walley, Balm, p. 15. See also J.M. Busted, "A Well-Bounded Toleration: Church and State in Plymouth Colony,"
Journal of Church and State, 10(2) (Spring 1968), pp. 265-279.
63 Mitchel, Nehemiah on the Wall, p. 3.
64 Ibid., pp. 3-4.
65 Willard, The Character of a Good Ruler (1694), p. 3.
66 Mitchel, Nehemiah on the Wall, pp. 4-5. See also William Stoughton, New-Englands True Interest… (1670), pp.
17-18; Oakes, New-England Pleaded with, p. 17, 21.
67 Mitchel, Nehemiah on the Wall, p. 7.
68 Noyes, New-Englands Duty and Interest… (1698), p. 81.
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B. The Character of the Good Ruler
Though discussion of the nature and ends of government was a foundational topic for all election
sermons, no subject was more thoroughly treated than that of the character of the good ruler. It was
believed that the destiny of a people was directly tied to the character of their leaders.
"[W]e shall always find among the Israelites that Religion flourished, or langush't
according to the Disposition & Practice of their Kings. And it is not to be wondered, if
Magistrates are Rulers of Sodom, that those under their Conduct be the People of
Gomorrah."69
"You are betrusted with as precious an Interest as is this day upon the Earth," preached Mitchel in 1671.
That interest was "the Lives, Estates, Liberties, and Religious Enjoyments of some thousands." The eyes
of the whole world and God himself were upon the magistrates, watching to see how such a weighty
responsibility was stewarded.70 For the fulfillment of this duty a ruler required a true "Compassion, so as
to have a lively sense of the Condition and Concernments of this people." This, in turn, needed a
"studious and solicitous" approach to the "Publick Welfare," as well as a measure of self-denial and
patience, courage and constancy, wisdom and prudence, and above all, a healthy prayer life.71
Willard's 1694 sermon, The Character of a Good Ruler set the tone for all subsequent discourses on the
topic. Willard's progeny dutifully followed suit. Just as these preachers thought highly of government they
thought highly of those that occupied it. "Good Magistrates, good Laws, and the vigorous Execution of
them hath been the priviledge [sic] and glory of New England," asserted Urian Oakes (1631-1681).72
"Rulers are Gods," thundered Ebenezer Pemberton in 1710 preaching on Psalm 82:6-7, "as they are God's
Vicegerents." They were representatives of God's authority and justice on earth, not according to their
persons but to their ordained office and, therefore, worthy of the utmost reverence, rivaled only by the
leaders of the coordinate state, the ministers of the church.73 All power was derived of God, even if
mediately bestowed upon men by human, constitutional means (e.g., election). Already noted is the
magistrate's role in preserving religion. Good management of public religion, however, required good
character in the manager. Rulers had a "double Office," insofar as they were to "maintain Justice towards
men, & Piety towards God."74
If we could reduce the virtues of the ruler to three, per the sermons, they would be piety, justice, and
prudence, all three of which were interdependent. The first criteria of electability for magistrates in
colonial New England was not skill and experience in public administration but piety.75 Indeed, if the
magistrate's chief duty was to promote public piety and defend true religion then he must himself be a
possessor of personal piety and devotee of true religion. Hence, Davenport:
"Let Christ therefore have preheminence [sic] in all things, and in your choice of Rulers
for the Commonwealth… see that they whom you choose to be Rulers, be men
interressed [sic] personally in Christ: For when they that are called to Ruling Power,
69 Pemberton, divine original, p. 58.
70 Mitchel, Nehemiah on the Wall, pp. 18-19.
71 Ibid., pp. 20-22. See also Pemberton, divine original, p. 25.
72 Oakes, New-England Pleaded, p. 19.
73 Pemberton, divine original, p. 19; Oakes, New-England Pleaded, p. 24.
74 Willard, Good Ruler, p. 7.
75 John Whiting, The Way of Israels Welfare… (1686), p. 24.
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cease to exert it in subserviency to the Kingdom of Christ, there will be an end of New-
England's Glory, and Happiness, and Safety."76
Piety was variously referred to as "righteousness" and "fear of God." Election preachers appealed to
myriad Scriptural examples, primarily drawn from the Old Testament, to paint the picture of the pious
ruler. "The Scripture plentifully shews," said Davenport, "what strong and powerful influence and
efficacy, the true fear of God exerteth in reference to all Moral duties among men."77 The end of rulers
"should be to exalt Christ [not themselves] in dispensing his Government."78 Indeed, a disregard for the
common good was a directly traced by the ministers to demagoguery and "the want of humility."79
Of course, fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. These two attributes were almost always discussed in
tandem and heavily emphasized. The happiness of a people was wrapped up in the wisdom of their rulers,
discerned William Hubbard (1621-1704) in a lengthy 1676 oration.80 Justice flowed from, and was
regulated by, the fear of God; it was conformity to the second table of the Decalogue whereas holiness
was obedience to the first, advised Nicholas Noyes (1647-1717), and the latter was the basis of the
former.81
Prudence, the first classical virtue, entailed self-control and assumed piety. The ruler was not to "Exert his
Power Illimitedly [sic], and Arbitrarily, but in Conformity to the Law of God, and the Light of Nature, for
Gods Honour, and the promoting of the common benefit."82 In other words, the ruler was to rule in
accordance with general equity and the constitutional confines that preceded his own appointment. The
good of the people required peace, order, and justice. Rulers were, therefore, to be circumspect in policy
making and adjudication, making sure to not needlessly run roughshod over established customs and
norms. In sum, the just ruler was one who feared God and obeyed his law, and pursued the public benefit
over his own, and honored the limits of his jurisdiction and rule.83
New England preachers were unapologetic in ascribing to rulers a paternalistic character.84 They were to
be fathers to their people. This entailed sacrificial love, but also knowledge and wisdom as to how to
affect their good. Azariah Mather (1685-1737) preached in 1725 that "The great subordinate End is the
Publick good; the Means and Laws of Government must be calculated to work and bring about that End
& Effect." The public good was the next, immediate, or subordinate end of government since the glory of
God was its final end. Then again, service of the public good was the best way to glorify God. This
balance required piety and wisdom, knowledge of the "maxims" or principles that, when applied rightly,
yielded this result.85 Any maxim or rule of government could not contradict the law of nature or societies,
nor run afoul the end of government itself.86
This purpose demanded limits to magisterial power. Arbitrary power was not theirs to claim, for God did
not deal with his people in this way. "Absolute Dominion" that defied the "Principles of Reason" was ill-
76 Davenport, Sermon, p. 11.
77 Ibid., p. 10.
78 Ibid., p. 10.
79 William Adams, God's Eye on the Contrite… (1685), p. 22.
80 Hubbard, The Happiness of a People.. (1674).
81 Noyes, Duty and Interest, pp. 8-9.
82 Willard, Good Ruler, p. 7.
83 Moss, Election sermon, pp. 18-28; Nathaniel Appleton, The great blessing of good rulers… (1742), p. 49.
84 Walley, Balm, p. 12.
85 Mather, Good rulers a choice blessing… (1725), pp. 13-14.
86 Hobart, Civil government, p. 11.
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suited for "free and reasonable Beings, who need indeed to be Governed, but ought not to be Broken by
the force, and weight of Power." To do otherwise was to reduce them to beasts.87
Hence, the good ruler "[G]overns not by unaccountable Will, or inconstant humour… but by Stable
Measures, as may best suit the Nature and Circumstances of his Subjects, and the Noble End of his
Government."88 That is to say, the good ruler rules within preestablished constitutional limits by
discernable prudence born out of genuine, fatherly love for his people and right knowledge of the purpose
and end of government.89 "Kings are properly the Fathers of their People, and not Masters placed in the
Throne to be Served by Slaves."90
More practically, beyond competence and piety, the good ruler required fortitude.
"It oftentimes happens, that the Way to please the Multitude, is, to desert the Cause of
God, and betray the Interest of their Country: And, if they have Resolution enough, to
stem the Current of popular Humour, and to endeavour, to the last, to prevent the Ruin a
People would bring upon themselves, they will doubtless, be often censured and
reproach'd, and evil intreated… [by] an unthankful People."91
The election day preachers advocated for the magistrates in this regard from a place of experience-
wrought sympathy,
"It is the hard condition of Magistrates and Ministers that they must bear all the
murmurings of discontented people, and be loaded with all the obloquies and injurious
reproaches that can be. They had need be men of great meekness and patience, able to
bear much, that are Pillars in the Church and Common-wealth."92
The election day preachers were not under the illusion that public office was an easy post, nor that people
would always cooperate with just authorities as they should. Rulers were highly deserving of prayer and
patience, and the people were regularly warned that "If men will be despising, and censuring, and
reproaching, and abusing the Gods among them… and the Angels of Churches… God can send Devils…
to torment and terrifie [sic] them."93
The high bar for rulers notwithstanding, election sermons regularly reminded the audience that despite
their laudable office, rulers were still fallen men prone to sin and vice. Noah Hobart recognized the ever
present human element (of ruler and ruled) in government could destroy it, no matter how prudently it
was constructed.
“Civil Government may, and too often does fail of answering it’s End… This sometimes
happens through the weakness or wickedness of Rulers, and sometimes through the Folly
and madness of Subjects."94
Accordingly, people were to "make all favourable [sic] Allowances for the Infirmities, and Defects of
their Rulers," and cover them with a "veil of Charity." Charitableness was derived in part from a duty to
87 Pemberton, divine original, p. 26.
88 Ibid., p. 30.
89 Ibid., p. 37.
90 Ibid., p. 46, 55.
91 Todd, Civil rulers, pp. 35-36.
92 Oakes, New-England Pleaded, p. 39.
93 Ibid., p. 44.
94 Hobart, Civil government, p. 5.
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proper submissiveness to God's authorities as well as a realist reminder "not to place undue Confidences
in the [even] the best Rulers."95 All would eventually disappoint. The best rulers would realize this
themselves, embrace it, and rule in all humility.96 Only arrogant, mutinous men "can pick holes and find
as many faults with our Rulers in the management of Civil and Ecclesiastical affairs."97
The election preachers were generally intolerant of those who made a habit of criticizing authority and
public office holders.98 Yet, the preachers sometimes acknowledged that there was a limit to the failings of
rulers that a people could countenance.99 For example, Pemberton noted briskly,
"Doubtless God has not left a State without a Regular Remedy to Save itself, when the
Fundamental Constitution of a People is Overturned; their Laws and Liberties, Religion
and Properties are openly Invaded, and ready to be made a Publick Sacrifice."
The whole was greater than the sum of its parts. That being said, rebellion was generally ill-advised and
rarely necessitated. Being tenacious of one's liberties was not synonymous with harboring "carnal
confidence" in the same.100 "When you have pious Rulers, of whose Faithfulness you have had
experience, Do not easily suspect them."101 Citizens were never to complain "without cause."102 It was
"men of like infirmity" that they were electing.103
In the end, charity and longsuffering were mutual duties of ruler and ruled. One thing was for sure, bad
rulers were a sign of judgment. In that case, "there is no Reason to complain," said James Allen (1614-
1676).104 Such a chastisement was a sign that citizens had first been derelict in their duties, and was
intended to humble them, returning them to pursuit of piety and the common good.105
C. The Character of the Good Citizen
Elected officials were not the only ones addressed on election days. Hardly a sermon was given that did
not forcefully remind the lay attendees of their corresponding duties to their betters. Election sermons
were not a time to bash recently confirmed candidates for sport, but rather to remind the whole
commonwealth, ruler and subject, in church and state, of what God intended for, and demanded of, them.
"You must submit to their Authority," Davenport told the laymen in the audience, "and perform all duties
to them, whom you have chosen to be your Rulers, whether they be good or bad, by vertue [sic] of the
Relation between them and you." Accordingly, electors were advised to be circumspect in who they
appointed over them. The time for scrutiny was properly prior to appointment; thereafter, deference was
owed.
The danger inherent in electing unfit and ungodly rulers pertained to the very survival of the
commonwealth. The health of the commonwealth was directly tied to the conduct of the administration,
just as the health of the churches was wrapped up in the zeal and faithfulness of the ministers. God could
95 Pemberton, divine original, p. 70-72.
96 Ibid., p. 90.
97 Oakes, New-England Pleaded, p. 35.
98 Gurdon Saltonstall, A Sermon Preached… (1697), p. 5ff.
99 Herbert Darling Foster, "The Political Theories of Calvinists before the Puritan Exodus to America," The
American Historical Review, 21(3) (Apr. 1916), pp. 481-503.
100 William Adams, God's Eye on the Contrite… (1685), p. 10.
101 Oakes, New-England Pleaded, p. 52.
102 Ibid., p. 52.
103 Allen, New-Englands Choicest Blessing… (1679), p. 8.
104 Ibid., p. 8.
105 Adams, God's Eye, p. 27.
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very well punish the whole for the malfeasance of the part. "If men unjust, that fear not God, be chosen
Rulers of the Common-wealth," warned Davenport, " all the People are in danger of being punished by
the wrath of God for the sins of their Rulers; Bad men being in publick place, will give bad counsel to
corrupt Religion." To prove the point, Davenport invoked the cautionary tales of Abimelech, Jeroboam,
and Manasseh.106
In short, it was expected that the compassionate, prudent, just ruler would be complimented by dutiful,
faithful, magnanimous subjects. Whereas today it is commonplace, indeed, often encouraged, to be
cynical about (even to detest) public servants, New Englanders were repeatedly told to "highly prize and
honour" their rulers. In part, this was because rulers were God's ordained means of maintaining "the
people's weal." The style of governance and character of rulers was indicative of God's favor, or disfavor,
toward a people—the blame for the latter was always located within the people themselves—but the duty
of the good citizen to honor authority was somewhat impervious to circumstances. Citizens were to pray
for good rulers, and that "God may dispose and assist them to seek and promote your welfare," but this
was not guaranteed, and a true Christian citizen ethic could not be dependent on how favorable a regime
was in a given moment. It is telling that this theme in election sermons did not waiver even under the
tyranny of Andros, nor throughout the late eighteenth century when tensions with the home government
were high. Yet, all the more so when a people enjoyed godly and faithful rulers.
Just as rulers are to seek the welfare of the people, so people are to be "Helpers to their own welfare."
"Love they Neighbor, much more a whole community, a multitude of thy Neighbors, is the Lord's charge
to every one." This entailed more than simply the willingness to "do no hurt," but rather required that
every citizen, regardless of station, spend themselves for "the public good."
A "publick Spirit," perhaps above all other virtues in this context, was highly prized, and, therefore,
frequently mentioned. A public spirit is a sensitivity toward, and eagerness to serve, the common good.
"Could [Aristotle]… produce such Sayings as these; That man was not born for himself, but for his
Counry… shall Christians be strangers to such a Publick Spirit, or be backward to act for the common
welfare[?]"Part and parcel with serving the common good was the maintenance of order. "[K]eep in your
places, acknowledging and attending the Order that God hath established in the place where you live."107
Egalitarianism was not in the cards for New Englanders of the period in focus. A well-ordered society
required each citizen to faithfully fulfill their role to the glory of God.
III. Conclusion
The optimal means for extracting insights from election sermons is reading them firsthand. Here the
skeleton upon which the flesh of every election sermon rested has been sketched. Pastors desirous of
bringing the pulpit to bear on politics and adjacent concerns need look no further than the New England
model. Infinitely more effective than reactionary comment on current events and partisan politics is
annually reiterating the nature, purpose, and limits of government authority, as well as the corresponding
duties of ruler and subject. Better than bemoaning the gridlock of Congress, the superfluousness of
government agencies, or the blunder of electoral candidates is instilling respect and charitableness toward
authority and appreciation for the institution of government and reminding all parties that law and policy
are inherently moral, and that government is both accountable to God and responsible for the common
good of the populace.
106 Davenport, Sermon, p. 11.
107 Mitchell, Nehemiah on the Wall, p. 23-26.
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Simultaneously, the New England template informs voters and officeholders alike of a scriptural, if
aspirational, vision for society, rather than being tossed by the wind. Faithfully preaching such themes in
season and out of season, as New England clergy did, is more befitting of the preaching office than the
hot take, pandering screeds that pass for some political sermons today. So too does it empower the
preacher over silence.
At the risk of introducing a new theme, we would be remiss if the confidence in providence vis a vis
government that runs throughout the election sermons was not mentioned. This mood is applicable in all
contexts and requires not particular eschatological expectations of the New England men. James Allen
(1692-1747), preaching in 1744, reminded the people not to panic; Christ is on the throne and providence
governs all.
“The great and sudden changes in publick [sic] affairs; the revolutions of states and
kingdoms, which surprize [sic] and astonish us, are the effects of a designing mind, of an
alwise [sic] cause. The various conditions and circumstances of men, that some are
prosperous, others adverse; some rich, and others poor; some in dignity, while others are
low and level with the earth; is not the result of meer [sic] chance, but design of Christ,
and for wise ends. The beauty and glory of the whole consists very much in the variety of
its parts: And the qualifications of men, for the different stations and parts they are to act,
in the rank of rational beings, from Christ the fountain of wisdom.”108
108 Allen, Magistracy, p. 22.
15
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