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 nineteenth. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
August 7, 2016
“A Sermon Preached Before A Convention of The Episcopal Church” by William Smith (June 22, 1784)
Aberdeen born and educated Bishop William Smith (1727–1803) left Scotland for New York City in 1751. His eloquence and brilliance attracted Ben Franklin’s attention, and Franklin brought him to teach in Philadelphia in 1755. For the next several decades Smith received academic accolades, taught philosophy, and was ordained to the Anglican priesthood. Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, the fiery Scot sided with colonists (leaving the Quaker pacifism of Franklin and others), opposing the French in the war.
Although his views alternated on certain issues (preaching against the 1765 Stamp Act but later warning against the rebellion), he championed the American cause at one time preaching A Sermon on the Present Situation (1775; available at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11435.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext). That sermon in turn provoked a rebutting sermon from John Wesley (A Calm Address to Our American Colonies). However, for the last decades of his ministry he became an out-of-favor but articulate voice against the American revolution. In 1779, he was banned from Pennsylvania, but eventually returned there. An equal opportunity offender, throughout his time, he denounced popery, revivalistic emotionalism, Quakerism, and “the dangers of republicanism bereft of virtue and the steadying hand of traditional authority.” He was the founder of the Episcopal Church in this country.
Smith saw himself as one of the many biblical echoes. This sermon is taken from Paul’s second epistle to his understudy, Timothy (1:13-14 and 4:3-4).
In this sermon, the preacher urges an avoidance of heeding fables and vain thoughts. He also warns against a faith that listens only and does not bear fruit. Next, he calls for a faithful preaching of the gospel, regardless of the condition of the audience; indeed, one of the most salutary things that the church can donate to a nation is sound preaching of the Word as Paul did in these epistles. Following a fine and irrefutable exposition of these verses from 2 Timothy, Smith pointed to a recovery of this sound doctrine, as follows:
After the long night of darkness and error, the day dawned, and the glorious sun of the gospel again shone forth under the blessed Reformation; when our fathers, the founders, or rather the restorers, of the church whereof we profess ourselves the members, bore an illustrious part (many of them with the price of their blood) in throwing down the vast fabric of straw and stubble, and building again upon the pure and stable foundation, that rock of ages which is Christ! True religion again lifted up her radiant head in ours and other reformed churches, who ‘sought the good old way to walk therein, that so they might find rest to their souls.’ They turned their hearts to the truth as it is in Jesus, and did not seek to be turned unto fables.
However, Smith thought that these Reformed churches had now become compromised and were deserting the true faith, serving political ideals instead. One result, he lamented, was the diminution for the role of civil discourse and enquiry. The once stalwart Reformed churches, he thought, were associating with a “contrary temper” and accommodating “religion to worldly purposes.” This “general reforming spirit,” he suggested occasionally took “to reform too much, to fill the world, as of old, with disputes and distinctions totally unessential to Christianity, and destructive of its true spirit, when set in opposition to the weightier matters of the law—vital piety and true evangelical obedience.”
He feared that “there is a greater weight of religion in the evangelic grace of charity, in one sigh of good-will to men, than in all the doubtful questions about which the Protestant churches have been puzzling themselves, and biting and devouring each other since the days of their Reformation!” Throughout this sermon, he warned against pride, lack of charity, the tendency toward privatized religion, and demagoguery.
Denunciations of other sincere believers and a sectarian divisiveness troubled Smith, leading him to comment: “Can this be the true fruits of the spirit, or tend to the edification, or building up the body of Christ’s church? I would speak with great love, but with great plainness too—this may build up the walls of a Babel, but cannot rear up the walls of Jerusalem, which is to be a city of peace, at unity within itself.”
Before his audience, he lamented: “But in this country, at present such is her state, that she calls for the pious assistance and united support of all her true sons, and of the friends of Christianity in general. Besides a famine of the preached word, her sound doctrines are deserted by many, who “turn away their ears from the truth” as taught by her, and heap to themselves teachers as described in the text.”
Notwithstanding, it might complete the reader’s ideas about Smith to hear a few choice nuggets from his earlier 1775 sermon (June 23) on Joshua 22:22.
THE whole history of the Bible cannot furnish a passage more instructive than this, to the members of a great empire, whose dreadful misfortune it is to have the evil Demon of civil or religious discord gone forth among them. And would to God, that the application I am now to make of it could be delivered in accents louder than Thunder, till they have pierced the ear of every Briton, and especially their ears who have meditated war and destruction against their brother-tribes of Reuben and Gad, in this our American Gilead. And let me add—would to God too that we, who this day consider ourselves in the place of those tribes, may, like them, be still able to lay our hands on our hearts in a solemn appeal to the God of Gods, for the rectitude of our intentions towards the whole common wealth of our BRITISH ISRAEL. For, call’d to this sacred place, on this great occasion, I know it is your wish that I should stand superior to all partial motives, and be found alike unbiass’d by favour or by fear. And happy it is that the parallel, now to be drawn, requires not the least sacrifice either of truth or virtue!
LIKE the tribes of Reuben and Gad, we have chosen our inheritance, in a land separated from that of our fathers and brethren, not indeed by a small River, but an immense Ocean. This inheritance we likewise hold by a plain original contract, entitling us to all the natural and improvable advantages of our situation, and to a community of privileges with our brethren, in every civil and religious respect; except in this, that the throne or seat of Empire, that great altar at which the men of this world bow, was to remain among them.
HAVING never sold our birth-right, we considered ourselves entitled to the privileges of our father’s house—”to enjoy peace, liberty and safety;” to be governed, like our brethren, by our own laws, in all matters properly affecting ourselves, and to offer up own our sacrifices at the altar of British empire; contending that a forced devotion is idolatry, and that no power on earth has a right to come in between us and a gracious sovereign, to measure forth our loyalty, or to grant our property, without our consent.
IT is time, and indeed more than time, for a great and enlightened people to make names bend to things, and ideal honor to practical safety? Precedents and indefinite claims are surely things too nugatory to convulse a mighty empire. Is there no wisdom, no great and liberal plan of policy to re-unite its members, as the sole bulwark of liberty and protestantism; rather than by their deadly strife to encrease the importance of those states that are foes to freedom, truth and humanity? To devise such a plan; and to behold British Colonies spreading over this immense Continent, rejoicing in the common rights of freemen, and imitating the Parent State in every excellence—is more glory than to hold lawless dominion over all the nations on the face of the earth!
BUT I will weary you no longer with fruitless lamentations concerning things that might be done. The question now is— since they are not done, must we tamely surrender any part of our birthright or of that great charter of privileges, which we not only claim by inheritance, but by the express terms of our colonization? I say, God forbid! For here, in particular, I wish to speak so plain that neither my own principles, nor those of the church to which I belong, may be misunderstood.
Sounding like Mayhew and Calvin before him, the earlier Smith proclaimed:
A CONTINUED submission to violence is no tenet of our church. When her brightest luminaries, near a century past, were called to propagate the court doctrine of a dispensing Power, above Law— did they treacherously cry—‘Peace, Peace,’ when there was no Peace! Did they not magnanimously set their foot upon the line of the constitution, and tell Majesty to its face that ‘they could not betray the public liberty,’ and that the Monarch’s only safety consisted ‘in governing according to the laws?’ Did not their example, and consequent sufferings, kindle a flame that illuminated the land and introduced that noble system of public and personal liberty, secured by the revolution? Since that period, have not the avowed principles of our greatest divines been against raising the Church above the State; jealouse of the national rights, resolute for the protestant succession, favourable to the reformed religion, and desirous to maintain the faith of Toleration? If exceptions have happened, let no society of christians stand answerable for the deviations, or corruptions, of individuals.
THE doctrine of absolute NON-RESISTANCE has been fully exploded among every virtuous people. The free-born soul revolts against it, and must have been long debased, and have drank in the last dregs of corruption, before it can brook the idea
The reader may choose to like the earlier or the later Smith. But most could wish for Anglican preaching of this ilk.
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.