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 fourteenth. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
May 8, 2016
“Government Corrupted by Vice, and Recovered by Righteousness” by Samuel Langdon (May 31, 1775)
The Rev. Samuel Langdon (1723-1797; Harvard, class of 1740) served as a pastor and later became President of Harvard in 1774. After his tenure at Harvard, he returned to pulpit ministry and was a delegate to the New Hampshire state convention in 1788. This sermon was preached to the Massachusetts Bay Colony Congress on May 31, 1775.
Langdon believed that the Old Testament, specifically Proverbs 28:15, gave guidance for modern governance. He preached that this anniversary was an exercise in liberty in which citizens would try any governors by transcendent norms, perpetuating “that invaluable privilege of choosing from among ourselves wise men, fearing God and hating covetousness, to be honorable counselors, to constitute one essential branch of that happy government which was established on the faith of royal charters.”
He spied the sunset of English liberties, “ready to tumble into ruins.” In its place, a people would select rulers who exemplified righteousness. In a single sentence, he bemoaned, “We are no longer permitted to fix our eyes on the faithful of the land, and trust in the wisdom of their counsels and the equity of their judgment; but men in whom we can have no confidence, whose principles are subversive of our liberties, whose aim is to exercise lordship over us, and share among themselves the public wealth—men who are ready to serve any master, and execute the most unrighteous decrees for high wages—whose faces we never saw before, and whose interests and connections may be far divided from us by the wide Atlantic—are to be set over us, as counselors and judges, at the pleasure of those who have the riches and power of the nation in their hands, and whose noblest plan is to subjugate the colonies, first, and then the whole nation, to their will.”
Echoing Mayhew’s 1750 line in the sand, Langdon also believed that citizens had a sound religious basis to “refuse the most absolute submission to their unlimited claims of authority.” Sounding like the next year’s catalogue of British animosities in the Declaration of Independence, Langdon cited murders, improper lodgings, distant governors, and other travesties with historic particularity.
Citing the normal fare of the day, from Althusius onward, Langdon saw a skeletal pattern: “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, if considered merely in a civil view, was a perfect republic. The heads of their tribes and elders of their cities were their counselors and judges.”
His hermeneutic of 1 Samuel 8 also followed the Protestant Reformers as he said, “And let them who cry up the divine right of kings consider that the only form of government which had a proper claim to a divine establishment was so far from including the idea of a king, that it was a high crime for Israel to ask to be in this respect like other nations; and when they were gratified, it was rather as a just punishment of their folly, that they might feel the burdens of court pageantry, of which they were warned by a very striking description, than as a divine recommendation of kingly authority.”
His benchmarks for government, preached before this legislature, included: “When a government is in its prime, the public good engages the attention of the whole; the strictest regard is paid to the qualifications of those who hold the offices of the state; virtue prevails; everything is managed with justice, prudence, and frugality; the laws are founded on principles of equity rather than mere policy, and all the people are happy. But vice will increase with the riches and glory of an empire; and this gradually tends to corrupt the constitution, and in time bring on its dissolution. This may be considered not only as the natural effect of vice, but a righteous judgment of Heaven, especially upon a nation which has been favored with the blessings of religion and liberty, and is guilty of undervaluing them, and eagerly going into the gratification of every lust.”
He saw the root of this problem in this: “We have rebelled against God. We have lost the true spirit of Christianity, though we retain the outward profession and form of it. We have neglected and set light by the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his holy commands and institutions. The worship of many is but mere compliment to the Deity, while their hearts are far from him. By many the gospel is corrupted into a superficial system of moral philosophy, little better than ancient Platonism. . .” Rather than triumphalism, this pastor called for repentance: “But, alas! have not the sins of America, and of New England in particular, had a hand in bringing down upon us the righteous judgments of Heaven? Wherefore is all this evil come upon us? Is it not because we have forsaken the Lord? Can we say we are innocent of crimes against God?”
This copy is held in the New York Public Library; it is also printed, in part, at the Belcher Foundation (http://www.belcherfoundation.org/government_corrupted.htm). A version is available 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.