Election Sermons Urged Election Of Christians Only, Men Who “Subjected Themselves To The Rule Of Christ’s Kingdom”
By John Lofton, Editor
As we approach a national election next year, we would do well to ponder and meditate upon what Christian pastors used to preach regarding who is qualified to hold elected offices.
In the book “Religion In American History: Interpretive Essays” (Prentice-Hall, 1978), in a chapter titled “The Election Sermons,” A.W. Plumstead tells us that the custom of opening the annual General Court in May with an election sermon was unique to New England. Such sermons were given in Connecticut (1674- 1830), New Hampshire (1784-1831), in Vermont (1777-1834). But it was in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where this tradition began and ended (1634-1884).
We are told that preaching the election sermon was a challenge since the audience was a geographical and political cross-section of Governor, Deputy- Governor, clergy, outgoing Magistrates (who hoped to be re-elected) and voting Deputies.
And this type of sermon was more than an address to the individual conscience; “it was the center of a ritual in which a community gave thanks and took stock. As one contemporary observer put it, it was a time ‘when the heads of our tribes are met together in a solemn assembly to give thanks to the God of heaven for the many great and distinguishing privileges, both civil and religious, which we are favored with; and to ask direction and a blessing from on high, upon all the administrations of government in the land….’”
In his book “Jerusalem Instructed And Warned” (Boston, 1725), Ebenezer Thayer says if election preachers were to offer thanks for greatness received, they were also to be “watchmen upon Jerusalem’s wall, whose proper business is to descry dangers, and give seasonable notice thereof; to observe the sins of the times, and the awful symptoms of God’s departure.”
Colonial preachers had a deep and nervous sense of their role as prophets and “watchmen,” and the election sermon was the high point of this responsibility.
Says Plumstead: “Colonial Puritanism [had] a concern with the cold facts of building God’s city on a hill here and now in the sun and cold of Massachusetts. The election sermon was…an annual trumpet call to review the essential laws which God put into the Bible for all to see pertaining to how Christians in covenant should govern themselves as God required.”
Up until 1775 election sermons contained several related points and themes: The significance and responsibilities of the covenant, of being God’s chosen people; the divine source of government and God’s sanction of the study of political science; reminding politicians of their duties to God and offering guidance to the Church in civil and political affairs.
In a 1676 election sermon, William Hubbard told Deputies to remember their place, to remember to elect Godly men as Assistants, and then leave them to govern.
Indeed, the subject of one election sermon in 1694 — “The Character Of A Good Ruler” became the most frequent topic in this tradition, accounting for over half of such sermons until 1775. In 1707, Samuel Beicher declared that the people of Massachusetts have placed great trust in their Deputies. Thus, it was important to elect only those who “have subjected themselves to the rule of Christ’s Kingdom” (emphasis mine).
Plumstead says: “The ideal Councilman to be elected (and the ideal Governor whom, they hoped, the King had appointed) must be wise, Godly, just….(This concept, lying dormant in the sermons all along, springs up as a guiding principle for resistance to George III in the sermons of 1770 and the following years of crises).”
The style of the election sermon conformed to the general threefold division of Puritan sermons everywhere in the 17th century. First, there was a Biblical text followed by an “Explication” which “opens up” the text by a careful scrutiny of the words. Next, there was the “Doctrine” of the sermon. Finally, the “Application” of the “Doctrine” and “Propositions” or the use of the “Doctrine.” The sermon usually concluded with a direct word to each section of the audience. After (in Massachusetts) a tribute to the Governor, the House of Representatives “is reminded of its duty to elect Godly men to the Council.”