In honor of the upcoming elections, which may well prove the most consequential since 1860, my friend Dr. David Hall is publishing a series of articles on historic American election sermons. This is the twenty-first. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
August 28, 2016
Another echo of Calvin’s continuing influence can be seen in the works of Benjamin Colman (1673-1747). Colman was an esteemed preacher who was offered the presidency of Harvard in 1724. He declined, however, preferring to devote himself to pastoral ministry. But in a 1730 sermon, Colman preached that, “Civil government is of divine institution.” Moreover, he maintained that God “commissions and entrusts” certain rulers by his sovereign will. In other words, the providence of God was a continuing reality in earthly politics, as it “disposed persons and offices” at God’s beckon. Colman called on political officials to “consider their obligations to be pillars in the places wherein Providence hath set them.”
The sermon outline, drawn from1 Samuel 2:8, is:
DOCTRINE. The Great GOD has made the Governments and Rulers of the Earth its Pillars, and has set the World upon them.
I. The Governments and Rulers of the Earth are its Pillars.
II. These Pillars of the Earth are the LORD’s.
III. GOD hath set the World upon the Governments and Rulers, whom He has made the Pillars of it.
USE. I shall now make a few Reflections, by way of practical Inference and Improvement.
It was preached before the local magistrate in August 1730, long before the revolutionary fervor reached its zenith. As such, it is a calm discourse, perhaps closer in tenor to Reformation political tracts than to the fiery preaching of the 1770s. He began with the observation about Samuel, to wit: “Great things are here said of God and of His Government in the families and kingdoms of men, and such wise and just observations are made as are worthy of deep contemplation by the greatest and best of men.”
He preached: “We see then that the natural Earth has no pillars in any proper sense; neither has the moral Earth (i. e., the inhabitants of it) any, but in a metaphorical sense: And so the princes and rulers of it are called its pillars because the affairs of the world lie upon their shoulders and turn upon their conduct and management, in a very great degree. And thus the text explains itself and is to be interpreted from the scope of our context, which speaks of “the bows of the mighty men” and of “the thrones of princes,” and then adds: “the pillars of the earth.” So that by pillars we are to understand Governors and Rulers among men, but not the persons that bear rule so much as the order itself–government and magistracy [judgeship]. For the persons may be weak and slender reeds, little able of themselves to bear up anything, and here and there they may fall, but the order stands and does indeed uphold the world.”
Faithful ministers are pillars for the church. Correspondingly, in the civil realm, “The governments and rulers of the Earth are its pillars or ornaments, to adorn it. Pillars in a fine building are made as beautiful as may be; they are planned and polished, wrought and carved with much art and cost, painted and gilded for sight as well as use.” He continued: “So those in power and magistracy are to be supposed men adorned with superior gifts, powers, and beauties of mind: Men that adorn the world wherein they live and the offices which they sustain. And then their office adorns them, also, and sets them in conspicuous places, where what is great and good to them is seen of all. To be sure, government and magistracy adorn the world as well as preserve it. Magistrates uphold and adorn the world as pillars do a fabric, by employing their superior wisdom and knowledge, skill and prudence, discretion and judgment for the public good. These accomplishments are to be supposed in the civil order, and they render them the pillars of the Earth.”
Colman mentioned biblical characters like Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Jehoiada, Hezekiah, and Nehemiah, concluding that “All that rule over men should be like to these, just men ruling in the fear of the Lord, and then they are to the world as the light and rain, without which the Earth must perish.” Colman defined a pillar in these words: “A pillar implies fortitude and patience, resolution, firmness, and strength of mind under weight and burden: Not to be soon shaken in mind, nor moved away from what is right and just, but giving our reason in the meekness of wisdom and hearing the reasons of others in the same spirit of meekness to form an impartial judgment and abide by it, but yet with submission to the public judgment and determination. The unstable are as water, and more fitly likened to the waves of the sea, than to a pillar on shore. And the irresolute, discouraged, and sinking mind is at best but a pillar built upon the sand which falls when the wind blows and the storm beats upon it, because of its weak foundation.”
God’s sovereignty also meant that these pillars belonged to the Lord: “The Lord makes these pillars, forms [and] fashions them, polishes and adorns them. He gifts, qualifies, and furnishes all whom He calls out to public service.” “Thus,” he preached, “the Sovereign God forms the pillars of the Earth, prepares them, sets them up, ordains the places and times of their standing, takes them down and puts others in their room.” If governors are the pillars of the earth, as to one duty, Colman asked: “Are they the Lord’s? And has He set the world upon them? Let us then devoutly observe the governing Providence of God in the disposing of persons and offices, both with respect unto ourselves and others.” Moreover, he rightly assigned the places for the rulers and the ruled: “Let people reverence and honor their worthy rulers, and let the highest among men be very humble before God. They are pillars, but of the Earth. The Earth and its pillars are dissolving together. Government abides in a succession of men, while the Earth endures, but the persons, however good and great, must die like other men. We must not look too much at the loftiness of any, nor lean too much on any earthly pillar.”
Before his concluding application section, Colman summarized:
In a word, magistracy, like the other ordinances of Heaven, stands by the power and blessing of God, who effectually owns it and works by it, establishes the Earth and it abides. He has graven it deep in the hearts of men, even as the desire of happiness and self-preservation. He has as much ordained that while the earth remains civil order and government shall not cease, as He has sworn “that seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night,” shall not. Both the one and the other equally continue to the world’s end absolutely necessary to the life, comfort, and welfare of mankind.
Colman also acknowledged the devotion and virtue of the New England settlers before him. From their example, he drew this lesson: “As government is the pillar of the earth, so religion is the pillar of government. Take away the fear of God’s government and judgment and human rule utterly falls, or corrupts into tyranny.” Colman, like most Calvinists of his day, remained suspicious about ecclesiastical aspirations to political power, and he thought the Reformation had delivered Europe from such bondage. At one point, he alluded to the long shadow of Swiss churches, citing the Helvetic Confession and commending the Reformed churches for impeding such ecclesiastical abuse of power.
Nonetheless, the political themes of Geneva echoed in American sermons of the first half of the eighteenth century. A survey of Connecticut sermons leading up to 1776 dealt with these topics near to the heart of any pious Genevan:
- “Civil Rulers are God’s Ministers” (1712, John Woodward); also “Civil Rulers are the Ministers of God” (1749, Jonathan Todd)
- “Practical Godliness, the Way to Prosperity” (1714, Samuel Whitman)
- “God’s Providence” (1722, William Burnham)
- “Obedience to the Divine Law” (1724, Samuel Woodbridge)
- “Jesus Christ Doth Actually Reign” (1727, Timothy Woodbridge)
- “The Legislature’s Right” (1746, Samuel Hall)
- “Civil Government the Foundation of Social Happiness” (1750, Noah Hobart).
Until the end of the Revolutionary period, Connecticut legislatures were addressed with sermons on topics such as “Christ, the Foundation” (1767), “Civil Rulers an Ordinance of God” (1774), “Christian and Civil Liberty” (1776), and “The Importance of Religion” (1778). As late as 1809 the Connecticut legislature was enjoined to view “Prayer [as] Eminently the Duty of Rulers.”
From 1634, Massachusetts preserved a tradition of preaching to the legislatures until the nineteenth century (until 1884). Various preachers from the Mather family addressed the legislatures into the early eighteenth century. Moreover, Samuel Cheever preached “God’s Sovereign Government” (1712), John Hancock preached “Rulers Should be Benefactors” (1722), Jeremiah Wise preached “Rulers are Ministers of God” (1729), John Webb preached “The Government of Christ” (1738), and Nathanael Eells preached “Religion is the Life of God’s People” (1743). With additional charges to deem “God as the Strength of Rulers” (1741) and to view “Good Rulers the Fathers of their People” (1748), Bostonians became accustomed to hearing themes first proclaimed in Geneva repeated from the Old North Church pulpit. If the common man accepted these sermons on political topics as fitting and proper, so did sitting legislatures.
This sermon is available in printed form in the excellent anthology by Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998) and online at: http://www.belcherfoundation.org/pillar.htm.
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.
 Whitefield preached at Benjamin Colman’s church in 1740. Suzanne Geissler, Jonathan Edwards to Aaron Burr, Jr.: From the Great Awakening to Democratic Politics (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1981), 36.
 See R. W. G. Vail, “A Check List of New England Election Sermons,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 45 (Oct. 1935), 233-266.