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 eighth. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
March 27, 2016
“Divine Judgments upon Tyrants” by Jacob Cushing (April 20, 1778)
What is God’s view on certain political matters or events? That is a question often asked . . . and often mocked. Centuries earlier, however, preachers and their audiences were more sympathetic with the notion that God might actually have moral opinions on the acts of human beings. Earlier preachers like Jacob Cushing were not as timid as some today.
Jacob Cushing (1730-1809) was a graduate of Harvard in the mid-18th century, and he served as a pastor in Waltham, Massachusetts, nearly a half century, from 1752 on. He had 15 sermons published and kept a full diary that supplements his sermons. This was his only political treatise that was published and it was in commemoration of the tyrannical acts at Lexington on April 19, 1775—the first day in America military history that would live in infamy.
In this sermon (based on Dt. 32:43)—his only political sermon published—Cushing begins with a sound foundation, i. e., that God is not the deity of Deism; rather, he is the God who is quite involved in his creation and is neither so distant nor impotent as to carry moral suasion.
His sermon commences with the words “That there is a God” is not only the “prime foundation of all religion,” but if he is a particular type of God, his omnipotent actions will be flow into human events in public squares as well. A God devoid of providence, thought Cushing, was a solitary fiction who would yield little but “gloomy apprehensions.” Instead, God’s providence excites our gratitude and comforts during affliction. He is the sovereign God who “interests himself in the affairs of mankind,” and rational beings should consider how is providence is meted out.
He urged his audience to reflect on “the murderous war, rapine, and devastation” three years earlier on April 19, 1775. From the outset his purpose was practical, urging: “Under this visitation, or the greatest trials imaginable, we have abundant consolation, that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of this earth.” Specifically, that God would avenge the blood of his servants—the concluding words of Moses’ song in Deuteronomy 32—is designed to assure his people and to fortify them in resisting tyrants. This Deuteronomy prophecy is not limited to Israel, he preached, but applies to all God’s “chosen, though oppressed and injured people in all generations, that he will recompense their wrongs”—plead their cause—and do justice upon their enemies.
His subheadings, then, are:
1. That in his righteous providence, God sometimes allows “the sons of violence to oppress his saints and people.” God over-rules all things and at times chastises or reforms his imperfect church and people with oppressors. God’s variety of workings includes even the use of “revolting, sinful people.” These conditions should be met with humility and prayers for God’s mercies.
2. God will avenge his people, eventually and particularly, against tyrants. God’s adversaries will not escape his providential vengeance. One method of confirming this is to review the biblical record to ascertain where and how God has overthrown a variety of enemies and tyrants “through the powerful influence of a wise providence.” Here Cushing cites the examples of Edom, Haman, Babylon, and times of persecution.
3. Next, Cushing reminds his listeners of the promise in Deuteronomy 32, namely, that God will also show kindness and compassion to the penitent—in stark contrast to his providential judgment against tyrants. Again, he cites numerous biblical instances of this, and assures his readers that “the intention of God’s severe dispensations” is “not the destruction of his people but their amendment.”
By way of application (“improvement”) he includes the following:
• That God will render vengeance to his adversaries, and do justice to the enemies of his church.
• That God will be merciful to his people, his humble, penitent, praying people, and will in his own way and time, avenge, the blood of his servants.
• That therefore we have abundant cause to rejoice with his people; and to yield cheerful and constant obedience to him.
The sermon concludes with some graphic language that was, indeed, intended to “stir up minds.” It seemed clear to this 18th century preacher that the British marauders fulfilled this Deuteronomic passage and that little new could be added to inspire his listeners about that “awful day.” Here’s the word picture he drew: “. . . the enemy came upon us like a flood, stealing a march from Boston, through by-ways, under the darkness and silence of the night; and cowards and robbers, attacked us altogether defenceless; and cruelly murdered the innocent, the aged and helpless.” Accordingly they are described by the prophet, as persons whose hands are defiled with blood; adding, “their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, wasting and destruction are in their paths.”
Still, Cushing observed “the kindness of our almighty Preserver, that no more were slain by the hand of violence; and that . . . the hand of God was visible in these things; and power and goodness of God manifested in our deliverance, from the enraged, disappointed enemy, is to be devoutly retained in memory, and thankfully acknowledged.” He further appropriated the words of Psalm 124 to the American patriots, and applied the opening words of that psalm, “to ourselves and circumstances, with a little variation; ‘If it had not been the Lord, who was on our side, now may New England say: If it had not been the Lord, who was on our side, when men rose up against us; then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us,’ and began to break out in fierceness: In their furious rage they would have suddenly devoured us, and laid waste the country.”
God’s infinite mercy prevailed, and the “barbarous savage enemies were put into fear; they were made to flee before us, and hastily to retreat (as wild beast to their dens) before a few scattered, undisciplined freemen: Not to our courage or conduct, but to God’s name be all the praise and glory.” Toward the end, he exhorted:
If this war be just and necessary on our part, as past all doubt it is, then we are engaged in the work of the Lord, which obliges us (under God mighty in battle) to use our ‘swords as instruments of righteousness, and calls us to the shocking, but necessary, important duty of shedding human blood’; not only in defence of our property, life and religion, but in obedience to him who hath said, ‘Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.’
Moreover, he also addressed the militia and called on them to cultivate “a martial spirit, and to strive to excel in the art of war.” Most importantly, he called for “honorable and shining character,” befitting true Christians. He set in perspective the fleetingness of this life and called on his hearers to be willing to suffer. And he exhorted them to devoutly worship, honor, and fear the true Lord of all armies. While enemies had a temporary victory, ultimately the Lord of hose would honor all his promises—and his curses—and care for his people. Their calling was to faithful “duty, interest, liberty, religion and life, every thing worth enjoyment, [which] demand speedy and the utmost exertions.”
Cushing was quick to cite two previous anniversary sermons, one by Rev. Clark in 1776, and the other by Rev. Cooke, his spiritual father (see in these posts), from 1777. With this, and along with the previous post in this series by Henry Cumings, a homiletic tradition of commemorating certain providential days that will go down in history as infamy is being established.
The full sermon is posted at: http://consource.org/document/divine-judgments-upon-tyrants-by-jacob-cushing-1778-4-20/. It is also contained in Ellis Sandoz’s Political Sermons of the American Founding Era.
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.