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-sixth. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
October 16, 2016
Despite having been born near John Calvin’s Geneva (Nyon) and having attended the University of Geneva, John Fletcher (1729–1785) later relocated to England and threw all in with the Wesley brothers. He was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1757 but his sympathies were all with the upstart Methodist movement. He served in several Anglican parishes, and his sympathies not only conflicted with Calvinism but also with Anglicanism.
John Wesley spoke glowingly of Fletcher, even esteeming him above Whitefield in holiness and conversation. This 1776 sermon reveals its Wesleyan sympathies, even hinting that God was on the side of the British in tamping down the colonists.
Nevertheless, Fletcher began his sermon with a stinging rebuke about the state of religion in England. While the American colonists might be labeled fanatics, they at least, he noted, were sincerely religious.
. . . we are ridiculing them as fanatics, and scoffing at religion. We are running wild after pleasure, and forgetting every thing serious and decent at masquerades. We are gambling in gaming houses; trafficking for boroughs; perjuring ourselves at elections; and selling ourselves for places. Which side then is Providence likely to favour? In America we see a number of rising states in the vigour of youth, and animated by piety. Here we see an old state, inflated and irreligious, enervated by luxury, and hanging by a thread. Can we look without pain on the issue?
He raised a legitimate question: would God favor one nation in his providence that was so Laodicean? He queried: “If the colonists throng the houses of God, while we throng play-houses, or houses of ill fame; if they croud their communion-tables, while we croud the gaming table or the festal board; if they pray, while we curse; if they fast, while we get drunk; and keep the sabbath, while we pollute it; if they shelter under the protection of heaven, while our chief attention is turned to our troops; we are in danger—in great danger.” He measured the question this way, invoking Theodore Beza’s division of the Mosaic law: “To disregard the king’s righteous commands, as the colonists do, is bad: But to despise the first-table commandments of the King of kings, as we do, is still worse.”
Fletcher was responding in no small measure to a prior sermon by a Dr. Price, who roundly castigated the spiritual climate of England. And Fletcher in large portion agreed. That, however, was not the only question. While conceding the grand ad hominem, still he disagreed that Price “was fighting the Lord’s battles, and that opposing the king and the bishops, was only opposing tyranny and a profane hierarchy.” Fletcher warned that the Americans were reviving Cromwellianism, and suggested that “the best way to counter-work the enthusiasm of patriotic religionists, is to do constitutional liberty and scriptural religion full justice; by defending the former against the attacks of despotic monarchs on the right hand, and despotic mobs on the left; and by preserving the latter from the opposite onsets of profane infidels on the left hand, and enthusiastical religionists on the right.”
This Methodist preacher then defended the notion that Parliament should be a holy one:
Would to God, that by timely reformation, and solemn addresses to the throne of grace, we might convince Dr. Price and all the Americans, that in submitting to the British legislature, they will not submit to libertinism and atheism; but to a venerable body of virtuous and godly senators, who know that the first care of God’s representatives on earth—the principal study of political gods, should be to promote God’s fear, by setting a good example before the people committed to their charge, and by steadily enforcing the observance of the moral law!
Fletcher welcomed the Ruler’s recent call for a day of Fasting, championing the British cause in these exhortations:
The sovereign acts herein the part of a Christian prince and of a wise politician. As a Christian prince, he enforces the capital duty of national repentance; and as a wise politician, he averts the most formidable stroke which Doctor Price has aimed at his government. May we second his laudable designs by acting the part of penitent sinners and loyal subjects; tho’ mistaken patriots should pour floods of contempt upon us on the occasion.
He then drew on Judges 19 (The Levite concubine at Gibeah) to suggest a precise parallel to American travesties. Fletcher applied the OT passage very strictly to his enemies as follows:
Certain sons of Belial, belonging to the city of Boston, beset a ship in the night, overpowered the crew, and feloniously destroyed her rich cargo. The government was informed, that this felonious deed had been concerted by some of the principal inhabitants of Boston, and executed by their emissaries; and being justly incensed against the numerous rioters, it requested the unjust city to make up the loss sustained by the owners of the plundered ship, or to deliver up the sons of Belial who had so audaciously broken the laws of the land; and a military force was sent to block up the port of Boston, till the sovereign’s just request should be granted. The other colonists, instead of using their interest with the obstinate inhabitants of Boston to make them do this act of loyalty and justice, gathered themselves together unto Boston to go out to battle against the sons of Great-Britain, and by taking up arms against the king to protect felons, made themselves guilty both of felony and high treason.
This, Fletcher preached, was a close analog to Judges 19; however, Judah lost 22,000 soldiers! So, he thought, “will the revolted colonies one day bemoan the perverseness, with which their infatuated leaders have made them fight for the sons of Belial, who beset the ship in the inhospitable harbour of Boston.” Fletcher then drew these applications:
(1) That God allows, yea commands the sword to be drawn for the punishment of daring felons, and of the infatuated people who bear arms in their defence, as the Benjamites formerly did, and as the revolted colonies actually do. (2) That, in this case, a sister-tribe may conscientiously draw the sword against an obstinate sister-tribe; much more a parent-state against an obstinate colony, and a king against rebellious subjects: (3) That Providence, to try the patience of those who are in the right, may permit that they should suffer great losses: (4) That whilst the maintainers of order and justice draw the sword to check daring licentiousness, it is their duty to go up unto the house of God, and to weep and fast before the Lord: (5) That God makes a difference between the enthusiastical abettors of felonious practices, who fast to smite their brethren and rulers with the fist of wickedness; and the steady governors, who, together with their people, fast to smite the wicked with the sceptre of righteousness:
Many moderns might be wary of Fletcher’s close appropriation of OT passages for his enemies, but a sample of his fiery rhetoric is worth hearing;
But till this happy time come, when one nation, or one part of a nation unjustly rises up against another, as the men of Boston did against our merchants, it will be needful to oppose righteous force to unrighteous violence. It is absurd therefore to measure the duty of the christians who live among lawless men, by the duty of the christians, who shall live when all lawless men shall have been destroyed.
If Michael and his angels could fight in heaven against the dragon and his angels, I do not see why general Howe could not fight on earth against general Lee. And if the Congress unsheathes the sword to protect felons, to redress the imaginary grievance of an insignificant tax, and to load thousands of the king’s loyal subjects with grievances too heavy to be borne; it is hard to say, why he and his parliament should not use the sword to redress these real grievances, and to assert the liberty of our American fellow-subjects, who groan under the tyranny of republican despotism.
In Fletcher, we have an example of two perennial truths: (1) Christians may differ vehemently on the sides they choose in political battles; and (2) caution to make sure that one is not eisegeting Scripture should cause us to be careful in political sermons.
This sermon is vailable in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998) and on the web at Consource.
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.