Let me be frank up-front: every Christian needs to read these sermons. Every Christian should read this book—especially every pastor, preacher, elder, statesman, teacher, every Christian working in the legal professions, and every law student.
Whether as a stand-alone volume, or as a companion to our recently released The New Pulpit and the American Revolution (by Dr. Alice M. Baldwin), God’s Law and Government in America will powerfully inform and inspire your understanding of God’s Law, American history, and the prophetic role of the pulpit in civic affairs.
While editing Baldwin’s book, I began researching some of the many sermons she cited. I was blown away at how openly theonomic some of them were. (The point is illustrated in a selection from my “Introduction” below.) I was also saddened that many of those sermons are unavailable except in very worn, rare, inaccessible, or unreadable editions. These sermons are too important to let them die such an unceremonious burial-by-obscurity. I decided to resurrect them.
I took three of the best sermons I could find and put them together along with an introduction about their context and importance. It turns out, the context is far more important today than you can imagine. Some of the key issues for which our fathers fled England originally were matters of jurisprudence, law, and court procedure. It is no wonder that they attempted to return to the Word of God as much as possible when they arrived here. In these sermons, ranging from 120 to 180 years after that arrival, the Pulpit is still referring to Old Testament law as the standard, and decrying specific infractions of it by the crown and/or local governments.
While the two later sermons I have included are more well-known and accessible in other places, the first (and most substantial) one is being printed for the first time since 1742. I completely updated and thoroughly edited it for modern readers. (It is true that most preachers need a good editor, and this was surely the case for these classically-educated, long-winded Puritans, especially when preaching at high formal events such as election sermons before the governor, judges, assemblymen, etc., as these were). I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to bring back Nathaniel Appleton’s amazing sermon, “The Great Blessing of Good Rulers Depends upon God’s Giving His Judgment and His Righteousness to Them,” from obscurity into the light it deserves. I have read more than few sermons from American history, and listened to many along the way as well, and I can say with certainty that this is one of absolute best sermons I have ever read—especially when you consider where and to whom it was preached. We need more of this today—ministers who will preach prophetically the Law of God concerning the civil realm.
Writing the “Introduction” for these sermons sent me on an historical journey which I had to fight hard not to turn into a 200-page book of its own. The battles over law and jurisprudence that defined early America are simply profound and shocking, and just as profoundly and shockingly lost to us today. They are unfortunately buried and forgotten, and for this profound loss we have suffered the repeat of unfortunate history. We are literally living in the midst of the very tyrannies for which our fathers left England, and against which our early preachers railed from the pulpit for over 180 years afterward. And for this loss—for which the modern pulpit is largely to blame—we are now facing the same mess as the first pilgrims and puritans before they left. Along with the brief excerpt which follows pertaining to God’s Law, my “Introduction” shows this shocking parallel of the historical context as well as the nature of the tyrannies we are once again facing.
It is for these reasons that every Christian should read these historic (and epic) sermons—but especially every pastor, preacher, elder, Christian statesman, every Christian working in the legal professions, and every law student.
And I should add, finally, that I intend to add to this collection of “election sermons” a couple similar volumes containing the barely-known “artillery sermons” and “assize sermons” from the same era. As you indulge your inspiration and motivation with this volume, consider American Vision in your prayer and support as we prepare more to come.
What follows is the excerpt exemplifying the theonomic views of America’s founding preachers.
God’s Law and the American Founding
The most outstanding feature in each of these sermons—and one almost entirely missing from today’s preaching—is the direct reference to Mosaic Law and the expectation that it should be applicable today. This is, of course, qualified in various ways, but the Ten Commandments and the judicial laws which explicate them in a universal way are clearly held up as the finest example of political ethics in history—the only such system ever directly revealed by God—and binding upon us today as God’s Word for that realm of life.
This finds its most overt and extensive expression in Appleton. He first qualifies his position:
Granted, our government is not a theocracy, and we are not under the divine government so directly and immediately as the Jews were. We are not under the law of Moses—neither the ceremonial nor the judicial laws—as they were. The laws and statutes that were calculated for that people in their particular and peculiar state are not obligatory upon us, nor are they to be looked at as necessary rules of government.
But he is clear that this “particular” state only has reference to those laws tied to the sacrificial and priestly system. Those that dealt purely with universal political ethics and equity among mankind pertain still remain for us today:
Nevertheless, these judicial laws of the Israelite nation that are so founded upon the general principles of truth and justice as to suit every form of civil government—these are to be regarded as the Laws of God, and binding upon us as much as upon them. This is not because they were given to them, but from the justice and goodness of them in themselves. Upon that account, they are to be adopted into every constitution of civil government.
Appleton regarded not only the “moral law”—the Ten Commandments—but also the judicial precepts that flowed from the moral precepts as binding as well, for both public and private life:
But if we consider the moral law as delivered in thunder and lightning from Mount Sinai, and then written upon Tables of Stone to denote the perpetuity of it, and if we consider the particular precepts under these general laws recorded throughout the sacred Scriptures, we shall find such precepts of wisdom—such rules of justice, truth, and goodness laid down—to be a sufficient directory for us in every station of life, whether public or private, whether in natural, civil, or sacred authority. And there are most certainly no such maxims of wisdom, justice, and goodness to be found anywhere as in the Holy Scriptures.
While certainly the ceremonial law and some of the judicial laws expired with the Old Testament state of Israel, the judicial precepts founded upon the moral law were given for everyone, including us today:
These are the judgments of God that are given to us as well as unto the nation of Israel, for they are founded upon the nature and relation of things, and are of universal and perpetual obligation. . . . The nature of these laws is not altered, nor our obligation to keep them weakened, by length of time or changes in circumstances. They are founded upon truth, justice, and goodness, and thus are as immovable as the mountains and immutable as God Himself.
For God to give His judgments to kings and rulers is to give them a clear understanding of the rules of moral government He has laid down in His Word, and that they might learn from the Word of God what is right and just, true and good. It is that they might frame their notions of these things not merely from their own reason, nor from the morals of the heathen, but from the oracles of God. These oracles give us the clearest, fullest, and most refined notions of moral virtues, and fix our obligations to them upon the proper basis—the authority of God.
This all occurs within Appleton’s exposition of his text. But when he turns to application, he does not forget it either. He preaches directly to the governor’s council and the representatives:
You will make up two parts of the legislature, and so will be concerned in making laws thought necessary for regulating the affairs of the province. These you must bring to the divine law as the only standard. I do not mean the ceremonial law, nor do I mean the judicial laws of the Jews any further than the circumstances and the reason of things concur. But I mean the moral law, that great law of love to God and to one another; that law which was given to man at first, has gone through all the various dispensations of grace in the church, and will abide forever. By this law, I say, you must try every order and law of yours.
The grand charter which the Sovereign of the world has given magistrates empowers them to make orders and bylaws (for human laws are no other) for the well-ordering and governing civil societies. But that power is within this limitation and proviso: that these orders and bylaws must not be repugnant to the law of God which is the law of justice, truth, mercy, and goodness. Your laws, then, must be tempered after the same manner.
His point: whatever laws man may pretend to make in civil society, they will always be subject to God’s Law as revealed in the Ten Commandments and the judicial laws framed upon them.
Thirty-seven years later, James Dana still holds as high a view of the Hebrew political system. Although he does not speak as much at length on it in this sermon, and although he may have actually been compromised by certain enlightened influences that had begun to make inroads into New England congregationalism, the points he does make here are nevertheless just as directly in favor of Mosaic forms as Appleton’s. Dana wants his audience of statesmen to know that “The only form of government expressly instituted by heaven was that of the Hebrews.”
Theirs was a confederate republic with Jehovah at the head. It consisted of twelve distinct states; each sovereign in the administration of justice within itself, while their councils and force were united in whatever concerned them all. Their constitution was most friendly to public liberty. For besides the independence of the respective states on each other, and their confederacy as one kingdom for the better security of their common and particular rights, in this divinely instituted polity public trusts were not hereditary, nor had they any revenue to support the officers of government in affluence. Equality of condition was provided for, and the means of corruption prevented, by the agrarian law, prohibition of money on usury, release of servants and debtors, and return of estates in the Jubilee. That they might preserve their liberties inviolate, they were instructed to remember their bondage in Egypt, and wonderful deliverance—the preservation of their liberties in all times of danger by the manifest interposition of the Almighty in humbling tyrants for their sakes.
In order to understand the thrust of Dana’s points properly, we must remember that the year was 1779: Connecticut had just the previous year ratified the Articles of Confederation of the United States of America. Each point he makes is not only taken directly from Mosaic political doctrine, but calculated to confirm to the young American mind that they were on the right track with their infant “confederacy.”
And while (as we will discuss momentarily) it was often true that preachers often distorted certain biblical teachings in order to apply them to virgin America—making the teaching nothing more than a biblical façade for various Americanisms—that is not necessarily the case here. Even if that were Dana’s scheme, the points he derives from Old Testament doctrine are nevertheless accurate.
The twelve tribes were decentralized in government. They did have their own courts and militia (when raised), and yet they were “confederated” by their law to provide for, among other things, common defense (Num. 1:1–3; Deut. 20). Their law was a law of liberty—for God Himself had delivered them from bondage—and the Hebrews were reminded of this perpetually in the preamble of their law (Ex. 20:1–2). Dana acknowledges the protection of human rights and property rights in Old Testament law, as well as the fact that all citizens had equal access and protection according to the law. On top of this, there were particular regulations to help prevent and ameliorate indebtedness and poverty. Finally, Dana relates that Mosaic “public trusts”—meaning public offices in general, particularly judges, since these made up the greatest part of public offices in Israel—were not supposed to be hereditary, and in a regulation which clearly references the Hebrew laws for kings (Deut. 17:15–20), he adds “nor had they any revenue to support the officers of government in affluence.”
While this is clearly intended to be a criticism of the British system of government from which they had just declared independence, it is also one of the more amazing acknowledgments of Hebrew political law I have witnessed—precisely because the precept is so radical: public officials in Old Testament Israel were not paid. Mosaic law provided for no revenue system by which to support public officials at all, let alone in affluence. In fact, since I suspect Dana’s point was made as a jab against the old British system of peerage, etc., they had left, I wonder if he recognized how radically it would have applied even to his own audience as well. I suppose not, but at least he derived the point properly from Scripture.
Since Dana was in general drawing upon biblical law as a model for government, despite whatever compromises may have been involved in his theology at large, we are forced to acknowledge that for these early Americans, even after our Declaration and first Articles had been drawn up and ratified, saw themselves as a Christian nation. This presumption is clear not only in Dana’s applications of biblical law, but also in the fact that he refers to the “confederacy” (the whole of the U.S. at the moment) as “this Christian State,” and that he refers to his audience as “Christian magistrates.” Again, note that this was not just Puritan New England, this was Revolutionary America in 1779, after the “United States” had been created.
But this was only the beginning. Even though we can easily demonstrate through historical sources that Enlightenment references gained ascendancy among public officials into the 1780s–90s, the appeals to biblical law did not totally disappear. This is especially true as public officials continued to be admonished by their ministers. Thus even our latest sermon, 1788, from Samuel Langdon, returns to the same themes: the superiority of Old Testament law above all others, and its applicability to modern times. We find him instructing the Massachusetts assembly that God’s Laws as revealed are better than the products of “unskilled” man, and they have universal application:
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. Beside the moral laws of the two tables, which directed their conduct as individuals, He gave them by Moses a complete code of judicial laws. They were not numerous indeed, but concise and plain, and easily applicable to almost every controversy which might arise between man and man, and every criminal case which might require the judgment of the court.
Just as Appleton had argued, some of these judicial laws “were peculiarly adapted to their national form” and thus no longer applied. But this was only a few of the judicials:
[B]y far the greater part of the judicial laws were founded on the plain immutable principles of reason, justice, and social virtue, such as are always necessary for civil society. Life and property were well guarded, and punishments were equitably adapted to the nature of every crime. In particular, murder stands foremost among capital crimes, and is defined with such precision, and so clearly distinguished from all cases of accidental and undesigned killing, that the innocent were in no danger of punishment, and the guilty could not escape.
Note therefore that the judicial laws including the penal sanctions are to be considered equitable and fit to the crimes as listed.
It was no wonder, then, than Langdon saw every other legal code in history as inferior in comparison:
It was a long time after the law of Moses was given before the rest of the world knew anything of government by law. Where kings reigned their will was a law. Where popular governments were formed, the capricious humor of the multitude ordered everything just according to present circumstances, or their senators and judges were left to act according to their best discretion. . . .
He makes clear that neither Lycurgus nor Solon could compare. Not even the Roman Empire at the height of its glory could compare. The feudal system surely could not compare. In fact, the greatest of governments to date at that time, from which America itself had recently sprung, could not compare:
And now, though legislation has been carried to such perfection in Great Britain, that land of knowledge and liberty, yet in a political and judicial view, the laws of that kingdom may be charged with many great faults which ought not to be copied. Particularly, the tediousness, voluminous bulk, intricacy, barbarous language, and uncertain operation of many of them as to equity, ought to be avoided by legislators who wish for an easy and speedy course of justice among a free people.
This is a lesson, Langdon remarks, for both the legislators and even our own court system: “perhaps our own courts might be so reformed as to prevent cases of inconsiderable value, and easy decision, from rising through all the stages of the law.”
And what would be the model by which to do so? Langdon answers: “Against these imperfections, good provision was made in the law of Moses, and it might be much for our advantage to pay greater attention to that example.”
There can be no doubt as to the views of these forefathers regarding political theory: look to Moses and biblical law. I can do no better than to repeat Langdon, except to change his gentlemanly “might be” to an emphatic “is”: it is much for our advantage to pay greater attention to the example of Moses.
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