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 third. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church
Powder Springs, Georgia (USA)
February 14, 2016
“An Humble Enquiry” (Feb. 1, 1769) and “The Law of Liberty” (July 4, 1775) were sermons preached by John J. Zubly, a Presbyterian pastor who represented Georgia in the Continental Congress.
Not only did Calvin’s shadow continue at the founding of America, but an erudite Swiss pastor led southerners in the faith and in application of scripture to the times. John Joachim Zubly was born in St. Gall in 1724 and ministered in London and Charleston, prior to serving as the first pastor of the Independent Presbyterian church in Savannah, Georgia, beginning in 1758. He preached in a brick building that was later used as a stable by British forces during the revolution. When needed, Zubly would also preach in German to Lutherans nearby, or he could preach in French to Huguenots in the low country. He was a scholar-pastor, recognized by Princeton with an honorary doctorate, and he published over 20 titles—no small feat for a Georgia pastor in the day. Two of those sermons became instrumental in pioneering planks for the American revolution, despite the fact that Zubly later protested against rebelling against the British Crown.
His first published political sermon, “An Humble Enquiry,” objected to the 1765 Stamp Act,1 and for his outspoken clarity, Zubly became one of Georgia’s five delegates to the Second Continental Congress. At that 1775 meeting, fellow-delegate John Adams noted his “warm and zealous spirit,” in addition to his erudition. However, Zubly also opposed the American Revolution and resigned from the convention in November 1775, unable to support American independence. He died in 1781, out of favor with the colonists, even being charged with treason on occasion due to his inability to vow allegiance to colonies beyond Georgia. Even though far from supportive of all British bills, he thought that some cooperation with Britain was more helpful than revolutionary fervor.
He eventually described himself as a “free holder from South Carolina” (to where he fled after being banished from Georgia in 1777—he became an indigo planter and land owner). Consistently, however, he cautioned (as had Calvin) against the tyranny of populist mobs, frenzied in their revolt against Britain.
He thought that the British Parliament had a right to levy taxes, and his text for this 1769 sermon was the well-used: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Zubly began by affirming that laws were improper if not assented to by those under the laws. The Stamp Act, of course, egregiously trampled on these rights. On the other hand, Zubly was not a fan of independence, and he thought that Americans owed taxes to the mother country.
Zubly sought to establish that the colonies were, indeed, under the British Parliament and constitution. Even when errant, he thought, laws should be obeyed. And the charters of these colonies did cede many privileges to Englishmen. Americans could not, he suggested, overthrow these laws without at the same time infringing on the liberties of other Englishmen (an identity that many colonists still took to themselves at the time).
Pastor Zubly was well acquainted with his British history, frequently alluding to legislative charters and actions in the various parts of Great Britain (England, Scotland, Ireland, and the colonies). The British colonies and islands in America owed their constitutional fealty to the British constitution and parliament. He went so far as to pronounce that America was dependent both on the crown and the constitution—surely unpopular sentiments.
Americans at the time were claiming rights to levy taxes (on their own, apart from the British parliament)—another token in their mind of true independence. Ireland, many Americans argued, was similar, i. e., it was only subject to the crown, not to parliament or the British constitution. Zubly asserted to the contrary. Whatever legislation passed in the colonies was still subject to English veto; the colonies, Zubly tried to remind his parish, were dependent on Great Britain. At one point, he rebuked Americans for not being willing to pay their share to Britain. They wanted, he thought, constitutional benefits without constitutional contribution.
Notwithstanding, Zubly also thought that when it came to property and ‘consent of the governed’ for new statutes (not, thus, those from earlier contracts), the Americans did retain property rights that were inviolable. And new laws could not be imposed on subjects without some kind of assent on their part.
The British constitution was designed to secure liberties and property—not to take them away. To do so, according to Zubly, was an act of forfeiture or an early instance of nullification. Original contracts were one thing; legislation like the Stamp Act, however, was encroachment on the constitution and not to be honored. Parliament could neither give nor take the properties that belonged to others. If the Reformation maxim held that “one could not give what he did not possess,” then surely that applied to colonial taxation and property.
Original contracts were to be honored. Secured and cultivated land and property, however, was outside of parliamentarian legitimacy. While not calling acts like the Stamp Act “tyranny” (as some colonists would), Zubly clearly argued that it was illegitimate. And he preached “without representation” there is no lawful taxation. American church goers would cheer that plank.
A few years later on July 4, 1775, this articulate Swiss pastor would preach another impressive sermon, “The Law of Liberty. A Sermon on American Affairs,” at the opening of Georgia’s provincial congress [http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11580.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext]. There he argued similarly (from James 2:12), stating from the outset that the key question was “whether the Parliament of Great-Britain has a right to lay taxes on the Americans, who are not, and cannot, there be represented, and whether the Parliament has a right to bind the Americans in all cases whatsoever?” He retorted, “To bind them in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER, my Lord, the Americans look upon this as the language of despotism in its utmost perfection.” Such would be oppression, and Zubly defended the Americans’ objections to being slaves. This sermon was among the most significant revolutionary sermon in that colony.
Zubly poignantly applied this maxim to the conscience of the political ruler in his preface to his sermon:
Your Lordship believes a Supreme Ruler of the earth, and that the small and great must stand before him at last: Would your Lordship be willing, at the general meeting of all mankind, to take a place among those who destroyed or enslaved empires, or risk your future state on the merit of having, at the expence of British blood and treasure, taken away the property, the life and liberty of the largest part of the British empire? Can your Lordship think those that fear the LORD will not cry to him against their oppressors, and will not the Father of mankind hear the cries of the oppressed? or would you be willing that their cries and tears should rise against you as a forward instrument of their oppression.
He continued fearlessly:
Your Lordship is a professor of religion, and of the pure, gentle, benevolent religion of JESUS CHRIST: The groans of a people pushed on a precipice, and driven on the very brink of despair, will prove forcible, till it can be proved that any power, in whose legislation the Americans have no part, may at pleasure bind them in all cases whatsoever; till it can be proved that such a claim does not constitute the very essence of slavery and despotism; till it can be proved that the Americans (whom in this view I can no longer call Britons) may, and of right ought, to be thus bound;
He cited several abuses of the British armies (Boston, Charleston, Bunker Hill) and spoke truth to power, earning the gratitude of Americans, splitting the question between original contract and rights secured with property in these two sermons.
In his 1775 sermon, he asserted:
- I. That we are to be judged by the law of liberty; and
- II. The exhortation to act worthy, and under the influence, of this important truth on every occasion.
In this sermon, he noted, “It deserves very particular attention that the doctrine of the gospel is called a law of LIBERTY. Liberty and law are perfectly consistent; liberty does not consist in living without all restraint; for were all men to live without restraint, as they please, there would soon be no liberty at all.”
As a sampler, consider these words:
The gospel is called a law of liberty, because it bears a most friendly aspect to the liberty of man; it is a known rule, Evangelium non tollit politias, the gospel makes no alteration in the civil state; it by no means renders man’s natural and social condition worse than it would be without the knowledge of the gospel. When the Jews boasted of their freedom, and that they never were in bondage, our LORD does not reprove them for it, but only observes, that national freedom still admits of improvement:
If the Son shall make you free, then are you free indeed. John vi•:16. This leads me to observe that the gospel is a law of liberty in a much higher sense: By whomsoever a man is overcome, of the same he is brought into bondage; but no external enemy can so completely tyrannize over a conquered enemy, as sin does over all those who yield themselves its servants; vicious habits, when once they have gained the ascendant in the soul, bring man to that unhappy pass that he knows better things and does worse; sin, like a torrent, carries him away against knowledge and conviction, while conscience fully convince him that he travels the road of death, and must expect, if he so continues, to take up his abode in hell;
Zubly was quite scriptural in these sermons. In addition, one posting includes his historical review of how the Swiss cantons secured their liberties. Further his “Sermon on the Repeal of the Stamp-Act” secured his place in early American rhetoric. While far from being a radical, Zubly distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate acts of government. Georgians liked his preaching so much that they had sent him to the Continental Congress in 1775, without any noticeable twinge of an improper relation of church and state.
When Zubly died in 1781, he requested to be buried at the west entrance of the Presbyterian church he pastored in Savannah. One historian described this death of a man without a country as one who had become a tragic hero to the revolution he helped inflame.
An online version of “An Humble Enquiry” is posted at: http://consource.org/document/an-humble-enquiry-by-john-joachim-zubly-1769-2-1/. A printed copy is contained in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
By Dr. David W. Hall, Pastor
Midway Presbyterian Church
Taken from “40 Messages You Ought to Hear This Election Year”
- Jonathan Mayhew also preached “The Snare Broken.” in reaction to the Stamp Act before his death in 1766. ↩