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 ninth. — RDM
By Dr. David W. Hall
April 3, 2016
“The Mediatorial Kingdom and Glories of Jesus Christ” by Samuel Davies (May 9, 1756)
Allusions to Reformation themes abounded in early American sermons. The Waldensians, the eradication of the French Huguenots, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were all referred to in Samuel Davies’ 1756 sermon, “The Mediatorial Kingdom and Glories of Jesus Christ.”
The Calvinist college at Princeton, where Edwards had once presided and where James Madison would later be educated, became a hive for anti-hierarchical theory. A line of distinguished presidents contributed to Princeton’s reputation as an educational laboratory for Calvinistic republicanism. Samuel Davies (1724-1761) assumed that presidency in 1759. Taking the helm of this strategic college shortly after the death of the college’s third president, Jonathan Edwards, Davies straddled the watersheds of the Great Awakening and the Revolutionary War. His political Calvinism, which apparently fit well with that of Jonathan Witherspoon, is evident in his sermon, “God the Sovereign of all Kingdoms.” Davies maintained that “the Most High is the sole disposer of the fates of kingdoms” because of his divine perfections. Argued Davies: “How shall this [goodness] be displayed in this world, unless he holds the reins of government in his own hands, and distributes his blessings to what kingdom or nation he pleases? . . . His power is infinite, and therefore the management of all the worlds he has made, is as easy to him as the concerns of one individual.”1 God was not a remote “unconcerned spectator” but ruled by his active providence. Active providence, by implication, led to an active citizenry.
In his 1756 “The Mediatorial Kingdom and Glories of Jesus Christ,” Davies inquired about the nature and properties of Christ’s kingship. While many honorific titles were attributed to Christ, the office of King was assigned to him in both Old and New Testaments. The regal “character and dominion of our Lord Jesus” was a theme that spanned the pages of Scripture. Of course, Davies pointed out, the rule of Christ was not an earthly one, but nonetheless all earthly sovereigns were required to submit to his sovereignty. Since Christ had “an absolute sovereignty over universal nature,” he had superiority over any earthly ruler, and no earthly ruler was absolute.
Christ’s reign was absolute and supreme; he overrules and controls all political powers, “disposes all the revolutions, the rises and falls of kingdoms and empires . . . and their united policies and powers cannot frustrate the work which he has undertaken.” Sunday after Sunday, early American congregations heard that the key difference between the reign of Christ and the reign of any human ruler was the “universal extent of the Redeemer’s kingdom.” In contrast to his universal empire, the “kingdoms of Great-Britain, France, China, and Persia, are but little spots of the globe.” The laws of Christ’s kingdom were perfect, but earthly laws were not.
Davies praised “the ever-memorable period of the Reformation” for advancing liberty and diminishing persecution. He also decried the fact that Protestants were still being tortured and persecuted in France. He reminded Americans to appreciate, among the noble witnesses of God, the precursors to the Reformation, including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the martyrs from France. While he lamented the lack of piety in his own day, he also noted in one sentence two phrases that would be yoked in the Declaration of Independence twenty years later: “The scheme of Providence is not yet completed, and much remains . . . [one day] the time shall be no more; then the Supreme Judge, the same Jesus that ascended the cross, will ascend the throne, and review the affairs of time.”
In his 1758 “Curse of Cowardice,” Davies preached another classic political sermon, this time to the Hanover (Virginia) County Militia from the OT. That sermon began by enumerating a list of grievances (including reference to “rapacious” hands and the “usurpation [by] Arbitrary powers”). Sermons like this commonly itemized civil governors’ moral violations of covenants. At the same time, Davies also reminded his listeners that, in the outworking of his Providence, God occasionally brought people to war. To fail to respond because of cowardice was to beg for the curse on Meroz described in Judges. It was a line of reasoning made previously in Stephen Marshall’s sermon to the British Parliament (1641). American political sermons, thus, were not novel—they stood on the shoulders of a long line of Puritans and other Reformers who intensely applied Scripture to their own times.
Davies exhorted soldiers in 1758 to turn to religion in order to keep themselves “uncorrupted in the midst of Vice and Debauchery.” They were to acknowledge God’s Providence in all situations. In language similar to that used later in congressional proclamations, Davies reminded his listeners that they walked before the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. He concluded by calling for “A THOROUGH NATIONAL REFORMATION” that would begin with individual listeners.
Davies articulated the common view of depravity embraced by the early Princetonians, i. e., that sinners were inactive, listless, insensible to the things of God, and utterly unable to quicken themselves. He preached, “The innate depravity and corruption of the heart, and the habits of sin contracted and confirmed by repeated indulgences of inbred corruption, these are poisonous, deadly things that have slain the soul; these have entirely indisposed and disabled it for living religion.” As a good Calvinist, Davies traced this sinful nature to Adam’s fall.
Davies’ Diary from that period mentions two figures central to this period. Years before he assumed the presidency of Princeton, Davies knew of Witherspoon, whose “Ecclesiastical Characteristics,” a “Burlesque upon the highflyers under the ironical name of Moderate Men,” had caused a stir in 1754. Davies liked the work and compared its humor to that of Dean Swift. Also, Davies read Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws in December 1753 and called it “an ingenious Performance with many new and valuable Sentiments.”2 The seeds of Calvinistic politics were watered by many gardeners.
Davies, one of those gardeners, exhorted his Princeton students, including future signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, that the union of “public spirit” and religion made a man useful. These two components of human life were inseparable. He charged Rush and others: “Public spirit and Benevolence without Religion is but a warm Affection for the Subjects to the Neglect of the Sovereign, or a Partiality for the Children in Contempt of their Father who is infinitely more worthy of Love. And Religion without Public Spirit and Benevolence is but a Sullen, Selfish, sour and malignant Humour for Devotion unworthy that sacred name.”3
Davies also influenced Patrick Henry, who listened to his preaching from age eleven to twenty-two. Henry, whose own oratory bears striking resemblance to that of Davies, based his stirring cadences on what he had certainly heard Davies assert (as Buchanan and Rutherford had earlier)—namely, that the British constitution was “but the voluntary compact of sovereign and subject.”4
Davies’ sermons mentioned above may be found at: http://consource.org/document/the-mediatorial-kingdom-and-glories-of-jesus-christ-by-samuel-davies-1756-5-9/. His “Mediatorial Kingdom and Glories” is available in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.
- Cited in Morton H. Smith, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology (Jackson, MS: Presbyterian Reformation Society, 1962), 51. ↩
- The Reverend Samuel Davies Abroad, The Diary of a Journey to England and Scotland, 1753-1755, George W. Pilcher, ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1967), 40. ↩
- Cited in John Kloos, “Benjamin Rush’s Public Piety,” American Presbyterians 69:1 (Spring 1991), 51. The original was a 1760 “Religion and Public Spirit, A Valedictory Address.” Another of Davies’ students was the Rev. John Lathrop, who spread the Calvinistic-Princetonian views from the pulpit of Boston’s Old North Church beginning in 1768. See Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1928), 112. ↩
- C. H. Van Tyne, “Influence of the Clergy, and of Religious and Sectarian Forces, on the American Revolution,” American Historical Review, vol. 19 (1913-1914), 49. Davies’ son (William Davies) was head of the war department of Virginia during Patrick Henry’s life. See William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches (1891, rpr. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1993), vol. 2, 134. ↩