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 sixteenth. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
July 10, 2016
“An Election Sermon” by Simeon Howard (May 31, 1780)
The Rev. Simeon Howard (1733-1804; Harvard, class of 1758) succeeded the well-known patriot-preacher, Jonathan Mayhew, as Pastor of West Church (Congregationalist) in Boston. Howard delivered this sermon to the Council of Massachusetts Bay on May 31, 1780. A few months later, the Council elected John Hancock as its first governor.
This sermon (with Ex. 18:21 as its text) began by affirming, “Almighty God, who governs the world, generally carries on the designs of his government by the instrumentality of subordinate agents.” Howard viewed the 18th chapter of Exodus as having a general equity for political application. Although every detail of the Jewish Republic might not be followed, certain transcultural principles held for many societies.
Among those were that leaders were confirmed by popular election. One will find few interpretations supporting election by franchise from this passage that predate the Reformation. However, one senses that Howard’s audience, by this time, had accepted that as a given. Jethro, thus, is viewed as giving Moses the counsel to form a distributed government, with dispersed power. Leadership was to be delegated to qualified leaders, who would rule representatively.
Howard’s outline from this well-worn chapter was as follows:
I. The necessity of civil government to the happiness of mankind.
II. The right of the people to choose their own rulers.
III. The business of rulers in general.
Under the first heading, Howard observed that humans tend toward social organization. While natural liberty is important, the fact of sin also calls for objective restraint. If government is absent, sin is rampant. He advised: “controversies shall be determined, not by the parties concerned, but by disinterested judges, and according to established rules; that their determinations shall be enforced by the joint power of the whole community, either in punishing the injurious or protecting the innocent. Man is not to be trusted with his unbounded love of liberty, unless it is under some other restraint than what arises from his own reason or the law of God—these, in many instances, would make but a feeble resistance to his lust or avarice; and he would pursue his liberty to the destruction of his fellow-creatures, if he was not restrained by human laws and punishment.”
Concerning, secondly, the right of people to elect their own leaders, this pastor first denied any hereditary right to office. Next, with great clarity, he denied that other countries had the right to impose leaders on another state.
Nor has one state or kingdom a right to appoint rulers for another. This would infer such a natural inequality in mankind as is inconsistent with the equal freedom of all. One state may, indeed, by virtue of its superior power, assume this right, and the weaker state may be obliged to submit to it for want of power to resist. But it is an unjust encroachment upon their liberty, which they ought to get rid of as soon as they can. It is a mark of tyranny on one side, and of inglorious slavery on the other.
The magistrate is properly the trustee of the people. He can have no just power but what he receives from them. To them he ought to be accountable for the use he makes of this power.
If citizens did not have the right and opportunity to elect their own leaders, they were slaves. And under the third heading, rulers were chosen to act on behalf of the people who elected them—not for their own or for foreign interests.
The bulk of the sermon expands on what qualifications should be sought in rulers—a litmus test that applies to every society. Rulers were to be able, clear-headed, and proven for their reasoning ability. They were also to be men “of courage, of firmness and resolution of mind.” Citizens should be looking for “men capable of enduring the burden and fatigue of government—men that have not broken or debilitated their bodies or minds by the effeminating pleasures of luxury, intemperance, or dissipation. The supreme government of a people is always a burden of great weight, though more difficult at some times than others. It cannot be managed well without great diligence and application.”
Moreover, living faith was considered a requisite for good political leadership. Howard preached: “It is of great importance that civil rulers be possessed of this principle. It must be obvious to all that a practical regard to the rules of social virtue is necessary to the character of a good magistrate. Without this a man is unworthy of any trust or confidence. But no principle so effectually promotes and establishes this regard to virtue as the fear of God.” He wisely queried:
Will he sacrifice everything dear in this life in the cause of virtue, when he has no expectation of any reward for it beyond the grave? Will he deny himself a present gratification, without any prospect of being repaid either here or hereafter? Will he expose himself to reproach, poverty, and death, for the sake of doing good to mankind, without any regard to God as the rewarder of virtue or punisher of vice?
The fear of God, this and most other preachers thought, “is the most effectual and the only sure support of virtue in the world.” Men invested with civil powers are not,” Howard preached “less, but generally much more, exposed to temptations to violate their duty than other men. They have more frequent opportunities of committing injuries, and may do it with less fear of present punishment; and therefore stand in need of every possible restraint to keep them from abusing their power by deviating into the paths of vice.” Religion in general and the fear of God in particular played a crucial role in earlier political arena.
Rulers were also to be men of truth; their integrity would be the guarantors of treaties. They were also to hate covetousness or eschew greed and self-interest. Citizens should look for and support a “ruler who hates covetousness will conduct in a very different manner. He will never oppress or wrong the community; the public interest will be always safe in his hands; he will freely expend his time and his estate in discharging the duties of his office for the good of his country; he will be ever ready to promote good laws, though they deprive him of opportunities of making gain, and involve him in expense.”
Keeping with the typical homiletical practice of the day, the final third of the sermon is given over to application or ‘improvement.’ One choice morsel will hopefully interest the reader in accessing the entire sermon:
The people’s appointing their own rulers will be no security for their good government and happiness if they pay no regard to the character of the men they appoint. A dunce or a knave, a profligate or an avaricious worldliness, will not make a good magistrate because he is elected by the people. To make this right of advantage to the community, due attention must be paid to the abilities and moral character of the candidate.
In this sermon from Exodus, Howard even weighed in on specific economic policies, calling for repayment of debts, decrying devaluation of paper currency (“surely is an evil that ought speedily to be redressed; and, if it be possible, compensation should be made to the sufferers by those who have grown rich by this iniquity.”), and cautioning against tax rates that were too high. He further warned against opulence and reminded the civil governors of their need to support true religion.
If Howard is right, the general qualifications for rulers might be a topic to consider again.
This sermon is available online at: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/howard.html. It also appears in my 2012 Election Sermons (http://www.amazon.com/Election-Sermons-David-W-Hall-ebook/dp/B0077B2RLK/ref=la_B001HPPL7E_1_27?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460059736&sr=1-27&refinements=p_82%3AB001HPPL7E).
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.