“Established by Righteousness?”
An Election Sermon
In each of the nine years I’ve had the privilege of serving here in Marblehead, on the first Sunday of November, we have observed what we call “Remembrance Sunday” in the spirit of All Saints Day, when the Church has historically celebrated the spiritual bond between the Church triumphant – those who have gone before us into the “mansions of glory” – and the Church militant, which is to say, the church of those still alive.
All Saints’ Day was actually this past Tuesday, but since we are not a strictly “liturgical” church, we are free to consider All Saints’ Day a moveable feast. And while this is NOT the Sunday closest to All Saints’ Day, it IS the day we traditionally set aside to remember loved ones, the everyday saints, who have passed from our midst in the past year. We will do that, as we have in the past, by calling their names and offering prayers for their blessed memory. And if all of that is not enough, this is also Heritage Sunday, a time to celebrate the long and storied history of the First Church of Christ in Marblehead, now known as Old North Church, dating back to 1638.
Now I’m sure some of you remember that 2016 is the 300th anniversary of the ordination the Rev. John Barnard, usually referred to as Parson Barnard, who was affiliated with this congregation from the time he was called as the assistant minister in 1715 until his death in 1770. This morning we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper using the silver communion tankard that was a gift to the church from Parson Barnard back in 1748. Surely he is remembered as a saint of this church.
Last Spring, when we were planning our Fall calendar, I thought it would be fitting on this Remembrance-Heritage-Communion-All Saints’ Sunday to tell a story Parson Barnard first told about Philip Ashton, a 19-year-old Marblehead fisherman who was captured by pirates off the coast of Newfoundland in 1722 and eventually escaped to an uninhabited Caribbean island where he lived alone as a castaway for close to two years. It’s an amazing story of harrowing adventure and against-all-odds survival. Greg Flemming, a local historian, recently published a fascinating book about the episode called At the Point of a Cutlass. He writes:
“When Ashton reappeared after his three-year odyssey — to a village that had given him up for lost — Barnard recorded the young fisherman’s amazing story and used it as a basis for his Sunday sermon the very week Ashton arrived home. Ironically, Barnard preserved Ashton’s story not for the sake of history but because he believed it contained a powerful religious message. Like many Puritan ministers at the time, Barnard worried about a weakening of faith in his community and a disregard for the teachings of the church — ‘they were,’ he wrote of Marblehead during his early years [here], ‘generally as rude, swearing, drunken, and fighting a crew as they were poor.’ But Ashton’s story, Barnard believed, offered a real-life example he could hold up as proof that God watches over and protects people, even an ordinary fisherman. ‘In you, we see that our God whom we serve is able to deliver out of the fiery furnace and from the den of lions!’ [Parson] Barnard proclaimed in his sermon that Sunday in May, 1725. ‘In you, we see that nothing is too hard for the Lord and that ’tis not in vain for us to call upon Him!’”
As I said, I had intended to retell the story of Philip Ashton and Parson Barnard this morning. But that was before I happened upon a manuscript of another timely sermon by Barnard, the full title of which is:
The Throne Established by Righteousness
A Sermon Preached Before
His Excellency Jonathan Belcher, Esquire;
His Majesty’s Council,
And the Representatives of the Province of the
Massachusetts Bay in New England,
Being the Day for the Electing of His Majesty’s Council there.
In case you got lost in all that verbiage, what I came across was the manuscript of the sermon Parson Barnard preached before the Governor and the King’s Council in Boston on Election Day in 1734. This morning, on Heritage Sunday, with less than 48 hours remaining in an unprecedented presidential race, what could be more edifying than hearing an Election Sermon from 282 years ago?
Just about anything, you’re probably thinking. And you would be correct if we were to pour over Parson Barnard’s 50-page manuscript in search of something germane to the general election campaign now in its final hours. Accustomed, as we are, to the much-invoked “wall of separation” between Church and State, the very idea of an Election Sermon seems somewhat inappropriate, if not downright antithetical to our founding principles as a people. Of course, we need to bear in mind that when the Rev’d Mr. Barnard delivered his Election Sermon to the provincial government in Boston, he and everyone in the room where it happened were loyal subjects of the British crown; the American Declaration of Independence, the United States’ Constitution and Bill of Rights were then still over 40 years in the future. And as much as we might hope to find in our Parson Barnard some presentiment of the spirit of liberty that would sweep the American colonies by the end of his ministry, during his middle years, while at the peak of his prestige and influence, our Mr. Barnard appears to have been entirely orthodox in his theological and political views regarding the role of the government in ordering society according to God’s purpose and will. If Parson Barnard had anything by way of a religiously-informed critique of the sitting governor, the magistrates and representatives that comprised the King’s council that year, he did not mention it in his Election Sermon. One might wonder if Barnard’s reticence had to do with the fact that Governor Belcher, who was frequently criticized for being duplicitous and self-serving, had been Barnard’s classmate at Harvard three decades earlier. But we should bear in mind the Governor was not up for election. He was appointed by the King in London. The election that day in 1734 was not a plebiscite of the sort that brings Americans to the polls on Tuesday. It was the election of the upper chamber of the provincial legislature; the only people voting were already seated provincial representatives to the governor’s council, all of whom were appointed or approved by the English Crown. Still, Parson Barnard argued, an election conveyed a sense of consent on the part of the people being governed, which, in the minds of our Calvinist forebears, was essential in establishing a just and righteous government.
Parson Barnard’s Election Sermon is in essence a 50-page exposition of the final six words of the 12th verse in the 16th chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which says (and I quote): “the throne is established by righteousness.” It is a thorough-going case for seeing the hand of God at work in maintaining the status quo, until such time as the status quo no longer has the consent of those subject to it; for thus it can be inferred that God’s purpose and will are being served by the instrumentality of civil government, whatever shape that might take. As you might imagine, Barnard goes to great length in making that case, but that is his argument in brief. And it is important to add that Barnard does not argue this from his own political point of view; he makes his case based on a Calvinist reading of Christian and Hebrew scripture, which is to say the Holy Bible (his copy of which is here on this pulpit.)
I was delighted to have an opportunity to immerse myself in Barnard’s writing and reasoning these past few days, but not because I had hoped to find inspiration about how to preach on the Sunday before what is without a doubt the most consequential Presidential race of the twelve elections I have participated in since 1972, when I turned 18 and gained the right to vote. While Barnard’s sermon is an interesting artifact of a different era, it does not resound with lofty rhetoric or inspiring eloquence. It is, frankly, a tedious and overwrought example of a kind of religious discourse based on received reasoning handed down by stern and learned men (only men, mind you) for the civic ordering of world that no longer exists. It is a sermon seemingly unconnected to contemporaneous events intended to rationalize a form of government without reference to its historical context. From Barnard’s Election Sermon we learn nothing about the issues facing the people in the province Massachusetts and those being elected to govern on their behalf in 1734. Parson Barnard has little to say about his world beyond insisting that it cannot operate without God’s agency and providence. Mr. Barnard’s Election Day sermon was not an impassioned challenge for spirited involvement in the levers of civil government. Rather, it was a long and painstakingly detailed argument that the will of God is of necessity at work in the instrument of the State.
A few weeks before the last Presidential election, Dr. Jim Antal, the President and Minister of the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC, wrote to all the clergy in the commonwealth challenging us to return to the long-standing tradition of the Election Sermon. In his letter he said,
“Engaging public life is as important as any purpose of the church. And engaging public life must include engaging our political life. Of course, we must do this in a non-partisan way…I worry [he wrote then] that the increasingly sharp ideological divides of politics have silenced our centuries-long tradition of offering an election sermon.”
Having served as a Congregational preacher for a three decades now, let me tell you what has really silenced our centuries-long tradition of offering an election sermon: fear! Most of the clergy I know steer well clear of saying anything that could be construed as telling people how, or for whom, they should vote. We’re afraid of the fallout, as we should be. Our job in the pulpit is NOT to tell people in the pews how to vote.
But that’s not what an election sermon aimed to do back when the tradition first emerged in churches like ours. United Church of Christ historian Barbara Brown Zikmond explains the tradition:
“In Massachusetts…Election Day sermons followed a typical pattern. First, they asserted that civil government is founded on an agreement between God and citizens to establish political systems that promote the common good. Scripture states that government is necessary, but no system is perfect. Therefore, voters and rulers were told that they must do what is needed for their “peculiar circumstances.”
Second, the people were encouraged to promise to follow those they had elected, and rulers were to promise to act for the good of all. As long as rulers acted “in their proper character,” subjects were to obey. On the other hand, if rulers acted contrary to the terms of the agreement, people were “duty bound” to resist.
In all civic actions, voters and rulers were charged to promote virtue, suppress vice and support people of “proven wisdom, integrity, justice, and holiness.”
Dr. Zikmond concludes by saying “As we approach [this] Election Day, Christians might still do well to measure their actions by these criteria. In so doing, however, it is important not to bear false witness against one’s neighbor, who might be using the same measure and making a different choice.
How then do we vote as followers of Jesus, members of Christ’s Body here in a very real world?
We vote with forgiveness, grace, and love in our hearts towards our neighbors, especially those with whom we disagree.
We vote in ways that allow our political ideologies to be eclipsed by our earnest attempt to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves.
We vote without expecting mere mortals will ever succeed at doing the work of God without the help of God.
And we vote in the sure and certain faith that the God who is Love is in the midst of every aspect of our common life, but that it is left up to us to embody that love.
My friends and fellow citizens, if you haven’t already, go to the polls on Tuesday, and vote your conscience – a conscience formed first and foremost in the image of God, in whom we, and all the citizens of these United States, indeed, all the citizens of our planet, live and move and have our being.
The Rev. Dr. Dennis B. Calhoun
Old North Church, UCC
6 November 2016