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Pastors and Politics

Rev. Daniel Dorchester (1827-1907), a Methodist clergyman from Duxbury, Mass., studied at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Having served 12 years as presiding elder in his denomination, he served a term as a Connecticut State Senator. A historiographer for the New England Methodist Historical Society, he was both President of the National League for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic and Superintendent of Indian Schools. These excerpts are from his Christianity in the United States, in a section entitled “Patriotism of the Clergy.”

The parish ministers in [in colonial days] commanded unbounded influence and profound respect, and effectively molded thought in civil as well as ecclesiastical matters. The reverential regard for the clergy of the early colonial times had not much waned in New England at the time of the Revolution. Politico-religious sermons were early introduced into New England. As early as 1633 the governor and council of the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to appoint one of the clergy to preach on the day of election — which was the first of the long list of “Election Sermons.” Governor Winthrop’s critical notice of the discourse of Rev. Nathaniel Ward, in 1641, the earliest.

By the charter of William and Mary, October 7, 1691, the last Wednesday in May was established as “election day,” and it remained so until the Revolution. This was the date on which the new General Court, as the Legislature of Massachusetts has ever been called, assembled, and the election sermon was at the opening of the session. Another sermon was also delivered, a little time after, on what was called the artillery election day. The sermons on these occasions discussed politico-religious topics, were printed, and widely circulated. They reasoned, instructed, and discussed speculative questions of government. These discourses were a remarkable feature in the opening of the war of the Revolution.

In his speech on conciliating the colonies, March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke referred to the effects of this custom. He said: It contributed no mean part toward the growth of the intractable spirit of the colonies — I mean their education. In no country, perhaps, is the law so general a study. … All who read, and most do, endeavor to obtain some smattering in that science. I have been told by an eminent bookseller that in no branch of his business, after tracts of popular devotion, were so many books as those on law transported to the plantations. The colonists have now fallen into the way of printing them for their own use. I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone’s Commentaries in America as in England. General Gage marks this disposition very particularly. He states that all the people in his government are lawyers, or smatterers in law.

The annual election sermons widely promoted the study of political ethics, which had become a prominent feature in New England history in the middle of the last century, and laid the foundation for that “earnestness which consciousness of right begets, and those appeals to principle which distinguished the colonies.” The highest glory of the American Revolution, in the estimation of Hon. John Quincy Adams, was the ripe fruitage of this old custom: “It connected, with one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”

Occupying a position of such eminent respect and influence in society, it is not strange that the clergy shared the sympathy of the people in the civil struggles through which they were passing, and that “The Pulpit of the Revolution” came to be one of the great factors of the times in the Middle and the New England colonies. God was invoked in the civil assemblies, and the teachers of religion were called upon for counsel from the Bible. Sermons were preached, religion and politics were closely united, and with Bibles and bayonets they entered into the struggle. “This was the secret of that moral energy which sustained the Republic in its material weakness against superior numbers and discipline, and all the power of England. To these sermons the State fixed its imprimatur, and thus they were handed down to future generations with a twofold claim to respect.” (Dorchester, Daniel, Christianity in the United States).

The pastors of our day will have “unbounded influence” as they sound a certain trumpet call. Will they make the difference this year? Has your pastor preached his election sermon yet?


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