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 eighteenth. — RDM
by Dr. David W. Hall
July 31, 2016
“The Republic of the Israelites, An Example to the American States” by Samuel Langdon (June 5, 1788)
Samuel Langdon (1723-1797) graduated from Harvard in 1740 (along with Samuel Adams). After serving as a chaplain and as a pastor, Langdon became Harvard’s President in 1774, two years before the Declaration. He also was a delegate to the New Hampshire state convention in 1788. His sermon, “The Republic of the Israelites, An Example to the American States,” drawing heavily on the Old Testament and preached as an election day sermon to the New Hampshire legislature in 1788, is an example of the vitality of Calvinism at the founding of America.
Calvinistic and Old Testament (OT) themes are prominent in Langdon’s sermon. In good Calvinistic form, he spied a full-blown republic in the OT. He maintained that “the national senate was instituted for the assistance of Moses as captain-general and judge of the nation, and this was a plain intimation that in all succeeding times such a senate was necessary for the assistance of the supreme magistrate.” Langdon also based the appointment of courts and effective judicial administration on OT models.
He continued: “A government, thus settled on republican principles, required laws; . . . But God did not leave a people, wholly unskilled in legislation, to make laws for themselves: he took this important matter wholly into his own hands, and beside the moral laws of the two tables, which directed their conduct as individuals, gave them by Moses a complete code of judicial laws.” In many respects, this formulation was hardly changed at all from the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641.
Similar to the post-Reformation tracts by Calvin’s disciples, Langdon traced the contested history of republican evolution, arguing that Greek models of government paled in comparison to the Hebrew originals. Even the pinnacle of Greek republicanism was “far from being worthy to be compared with the laws of Israel, as to the security of life, liberty, property, and public morals.” While elective power belonged to the people, Langdon affirmed, in good Calvinistic style, that such power “is delegated by them to every magistrate and officer; and to the people all in authority are accountable, if they deviate from their duty, and abuse their power.” Even the president depended upon “the choice of the people for his temporary and limited power” and was subject to impeachment for misconduct.
Langdon concluded by summoning the New Hampshire legislature in tones Calvin could have used to the Genevan Council of Two Hundred. He asked them to preserve religion and heed the revelation from heaven. If that were done, New England would continue her glory. In conclusion this American Farel warned, “if our religion is given up, all the liberty we boast of will soon be gone; a profane and wicked people cannot hope for divine blessings, but it may be easily foretold that ‘evil will befall them in the latter days.’ While I thus earnestly exhort you to religion, it must be understood as equally an exhortation to every branch of morality; for without this all religion is vain.” That is how most American founders understood separation of church and state, and many of these seeds had been previously tended in Genevan gardens.
Between the Great Awakening in the 1740s and the Declaration of 1776, the pulpit in America was also prominent in shaping American notions of liberty, a liberty which was rooted in a divinely created order. We cannot fully understand these early orations on this vital topic without understanding their biblical framework. These sermons were not only proclaimed but were also frequently published as pamphlets and distributed to civil magistrates and ministers. The numerous, annual occasions of these public discourses provide a rich resource for direct political insights into the period. These also carried commercials for a larger theological message.
As part of his conclusion, Langdon opined:
Examples are better than precepts; and history is the best instructor both in polity and morals. I have presented you with the portrait of a nation, highly favoured by Heaven with civil and religious institutions, who yet, by not improving their advantages, forfeited their blessings, and brought contempt and destruction on themselves. If I am not mistaken, instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen States of the American union, and see this application plainly offering itself, viz., That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured which a people can reasonably claim, and you are impowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his Son Jesus Christ, who is far superior to Moses, a complete revelation of his will, and a perfect system of true religion, plainly delivered in the sacred writings; it will be your wisdom in the eyes of the nations, and your true interest and happiness, to conform your practice in the strictest manner to the excellent principles of your government, adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue.
As one of the “improvements, he applied: “The power in all our republics is acknowledged to originate in the people: it is delegated by them to every magistrate and officer; and to the people all in authority are accountable, if they deviate from their duty, and abuse their power. Even the man, who may be advanced to the chief command of these United States, according to the proposed constitution; whose office resembles that of a king in other nations . . . even he depends on the choice of the people for his temporary and limited power, and will be liable to impeachment, trial, and disgrace for any gross misconduct. On the people, therefore, of these United States it depends whether wise men, or fools, good or bad men, shall govern them; whether they shall have righteous laws, a faithful administration of government, and permanent good order, peace, and liberty; or, on the contrary, feel insupportable burdens, and see all their affairs run to confusion and ruin.”
This sermon is available in printed form in both my 1996 Election Day Sermons, as well as in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). A summary of this classic sermon, with references to Supreme Court citations of it, is accessible online at: http://www.belcherfoundation.org/moral_law.htm. A dramatic summation is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDx2mWm7JuQ.
— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.
 For more on the tradition of these early homilies, see my Election Day Sermons (Oak Ridge, TN: Kuyper Institute, 1996), 9-26.
 Several collections of political sermons exist. A variety of libraries contain some of the great manuscripts. If one can locate a copy of John Wingate Thornton’s The Pulpit of the American Revolution (Boston, 1860), more of these early sermons can be reviewed. Others are contained in Frank Moore’s The Patriot Preachers of the American Revolution (1860), Bernard Bailyn’s Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1965), and in two recent releases by Liberty Press in Indianapolis: American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760-1805, Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz, editors (1983) or Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, Ellis Sandoz, editor (1991). One would also do well to consult Harry S. Stout’s The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford, 1986) or Donald Weber’s Rhetoric and History in Revolutionary New England (New York, 1988).