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 tenth. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
“The Dangers of Our National Prosperity; And The Way To Avoid Them” by Samuel Wales (May 12, 1785)
Samuel Wales (1748-1794), a son of the manse, graduated from Yale, began his ministry at the age of 21, and later served as the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Milford, CT. Although his life was fairly short, in addition to being a pastor, he also taught at Yale. Epilepsy forced his early retirement, and he was disabled within a year of delivering this stirring sermon. He was known for his oratory, brilliance, and abilities; this sermon also shows his wisdom.
This sermon, based on Deuteronomy 8:11-14, was preached to the Connecticut General Assembly about nine years after the Declaration of Independence. It calls on God’s people to remember the Cause of any blessings. He believed that this OT passage applied to all people and particularly to those in America, who had recently seen an historic victory. Wales wishes to warn against presumptiveness or thinking that citizens are self-made.
The first half of the sermon seeks to identify temptations that come with prosperity. The second half wishes to “exhibit, in a very concise manner, that line of conduct which we ought to pursue, in order to secure through the divine favour the continuance of those blessings which we now enjoy.” From the outset, he affirmed: “Indeed never should it be forgotten that all the measures of civil policy ought to be founded on the great principles of religion; or, at the least, to be perfectly consistent with them: otherwise they will never be esteemed, because they will be contrary to that moral sense of right and wrong which God has implanted in the breast of every rational being.”
While extolling the greatness of God’s deliverance, notwithstanding, he noted that “security in happiness is not the lot of humanity.” Still the largest fear is the “want of religion.” Sounding like Calvin a few centuries earlier, he warned: “When we are favoured with a profusion of earthly good, we are exceedingly prone to set our hearts upon it with an immoderate affection, neglecting our bountiful Creator from whom alone all good is derived. We bathe and bury ourselves in the streams, forgetting the fountain whence they flow.”
This wise preacher noted:
We are much more inclined to murmur at God’s justice in adversity than to acknowledge his goodness in prosperity; more ready to view God as the author of evil than as the author of good. In the distresses of the late war, though they were most evidently brought upon us by the instrumentality of men, we were nevertheless much more ready to impute them to the hand of God, than we now are to acknowledge the same hand in the happiness of peace, and the other rich blessings of his providence and grace. When our wants are very pressing, we are willing, or pretend to be willing to apply to God for relief. But no sooner is the relief given than we set our hearts upon the gift, and neglect the giver; or rather make use of his own bounty in order to fight against him.
He stood with Moses in warning people not to forget the Lord or to love the creature more than the Creator. “Scarcely a prosperous period in their history can be pointed out,” he noted, “which was not followed by a decay of piety, and a corruption of morals.” The sermon then cites numerous OT examples of this, with Wales applying the OT to his audience: “Is it not a sad truth, that since the commencement of the late war, and especially since the restoration of peace, the holy religion of Jesus, that brightest ornament of our world, is, by many less regarded than it was before? And are not the sacred institutions of the gospel more neglected and despised? Are not the friends of Christianity treated with more disregard?”
Of the “evils which may be called symptoms and effects of irreligion,” he cited:
• Injustice to the best and most deserving friends of our country. This second evil, fueled by poor examples influenced others to be immoral: “And if our public conduct may be adduced by knaves and sharpers, as an example and pretext of injustice, will it not have a greater tendency to promote this evil than all our laws will have to prevent it? Too many are there of that smooth-speaking class of people, who mean to get their living out of others; who, whenever they can run into debt, consider it as so much clear gain.”
• Lack of true patriotism, which he defined as “a real concern for the welfare of our whole country in general.” “Genuine patriotism of the best kind,” Wales preached, “is peculiar to those only who are possessed of a principle of true virtue.” He elaborated on this: “That want of patriotism, of which we speak, produces very different effects in persons who are in different situations of life. It is nearly the same thing with selfishness. It often leads the ambitious and aspiring to seek their own promotion by very improper means. It leads them into a mad pursuit of low popularity, to the violation of honour and honesty and to the neglect of the public good.”
• Disrespect for civil rulers. While “Tyranny and despotism are undoubtedly very great evils,” Wales warned that “greater still are the dangers of anarchy.”
• Luxury and extravagant spending.
Wales realized that “Human nature is the same in every age, and similar causes will produce similar effects.”
The first remedy suggested by Wales to the General Assembly was that they identify these vices above and seek both to avoid them and to turn from them, not forgetting what the Lord had done. Second, these people were to “use our best endeavours to promote the practice of virtue and true religion.” While distinguishing that America was not a theocracy, nor that every nation should follow all the Mosaic statutes, nevertheless, true religion was still critical: “The practice of religion must therefore be considered as absolutely essential to the best state of public prosperity, it must be so, unless we may expect happiness in direct opposition to the constitution of nature and of nature’s God. ‘Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.’ This is the course of nature, this is the voice of heaven, this is the decree of God.”
Third, Wales urged his audience to pray for outpourings of the Holy Spirit.
As a fairly young preacher himself (aged 37), he sagaciously called: “Young states are like young men; exceedingly apt, in imagination, to anticipate and magnify future scenes of happiness and grandeur, which perhaps they will never enjoy. It has lately become very fashionable to prophesy about the future greatness of this country; its astonishing progress in science, in wealth, in population and grandeur.”
His sentiment climaxes with this paragraph:
So, although we have gained that for which we most ardently wished, an happy period to the late war, yet we can by no means be certain but that some far greater evils are now before us. We may be over-run and ruined both for time and eternity by a torrent of vice and licenciousness, with their never-failing attendants, infidelity and atheism. We may be left to destroy ourselves by intestine divisions and civil wars: or we may be visited with such sickness and pestilence as would soon produce a far greater destruction than any war of what kind soever. God has many ways, even in the present world, to punish the sins both of individuals and of nations. He has ten thousand arrows in his quiver, and can always direct any or all of them unerring, to the victims of his wrath. No possible concurrence of circumstances can screen us from the notice of his eye or the power of his hand. Never, never, can we be secure but in the practice of true virtue and in the favour of God.
This sermon totaled nearly 10,500 words length. Readers may wish to consult a printed version, which is available in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). Moreover, an online version is posted at: http://consource.org/document/the-dangers-of-our-national-prosperity-and-the-way-to-avoid-them-by-samuel-wales-1785-5-12/.
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.