12/09/2009 (7:12 pm)
Continuing my review of sermons demonstrating the relationship in the minds of colonial Americans between Christianity and their government, called Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion (TFJR,) I offer an Election Day sermon preached by Samuel Dunbar on May 28, 1760 entitled “The Presence of God with his People.” Dunbar, a graduate from Harvard seminary and lifelong pastor of the First Church in Stoughton, MA, was renouned for his excellent oratory. Attending this particular sermon was the Governor of the Massachusetts-Bay colony, Thomas Pownall, Esq., and also the Lt. Governor, His Majesty’s Council for the colony, and the entire House of Representatives, as well as many private citizens from the area. Those who have been following this series may recall that this is the second sermon in the series that was preached in Boston on an election day; in New England, the job of electing officers to govern the people was taken as a deeply serious enterprise requiring the greatest piety as they sought wisdom and assistance from God.
Dunbar was a strict Calvinist, and no friend to the Great Awakening preachers that travelled around the New England countryside. He served as a military chaplain to British troops during the 1750s, and in later years was a staunch supporter of the patriot cause in the American revolution.
The text for Dr. Dunbar’s sermon was II Chronicles 15:1-2: “And the Spirit of God came upon Azariah, the son of Oded. And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin, The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you.”
In the passage, King Asa had just successfully defeated a vast, invading army from Cush (the upper Nile region in Africa,) and was met upon his return by a prophet sending him encouragement and warning. The people of New England had about 14 years earlier defeated a French invasion in the northern colonies as part of what was called King George’s War (the signature battle in the colonies took place in Nova Scotia,) but beginning in 1754 they were again faced with the need for arms in the face of rising Indian attacks that we now call the French and Indian War. By 1760, British forces had successfully pushed the French north of the American colonies, having taken forts at Ticonderoga and Niagra and defeated the French General Montcalm outside of Quebec. Dr. Dunbar felt that the success of contemporary British forces mirrored the success of King Asa’s forces, and that the word of the prophet was appropriate encouragement and warning for the colonies. So, his message focused on the link between the piety of the people and the favor God granted them, particularly but not solely their armies.
The two central principles of the sermon were:
I. The presence of God with his People, is their only safety and happiness.
Dunbar did not claim that the presence of God was a guarantee against trouble, but rather that it was guarantee of final success; that when enemies gathered together to trouble a people who pleased God, their plots would never succeed no matter how great the odds in their favor.
This presence of God with his people preserves them in their greatest sufferings & dangers… This delivers them, in their lowest and most desperate circumstances… This lays restraint upon their envious and malicious enemies… This defeats the mischievous plots and devices of their enemies against them… This supplies them, with the comforts of life, so that they want no good thing… This directs them in all their darkness, and points out to them, the path of duty, the way of safety… This protects them, from all enemies and dangers, and is as a wall of fire, round about them, to keep them from harm…
This gives them success, in all their affairs. Success doth not constantly follow the probability of second causes. The Race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Oft-times the best human counsels are turned into foolishness, the wisest measures are disconcerted, the greatest preparations brought to nothing, and the cunningest politicians befooled; while on the other hand, weak and contemptible means are prospered, and the most improbable, meet with the greatest success. This is entirely owing to the divine governing providence. But when God is present with his people, he orders all things well for them, and prospers all their lawful undertakings. The smiles of God upon them, make every thing flourishing—God’s presence makes their land healthful, their fields fruitful, their merchandize gainful, and their armies successful…
This repairs the ruins, brought upon them, by the judgments of providence… This turns all the evils they meet with into real kindnesses to them… This favourable providential presence of God with his people, builds his house, and appoints the ordinances of his worship, among them.
II. Their enjoying the presence of God with them, depends upon their being with God.
Here Dunbar recommends keeping covenant with God by recognizing His hand in all matters, retaining a prayerful attitude of dependence, and diligently performing all religious observances.
God’s gracious providential presence with them performs great acts of favour for them, and their obediential presence with God, lies in performing religious duties to him. It implies in it, their keeping covenant with God. Their covenant relation to God constitutes them his peculiar people: and brings them into a state of nearness to him; for they, that are strangers from the covenant, are afar off from God: and their keeping covenant with God, being stedfast in it, abstaining from all sins forbidden, and doing all required duties, believing all revealed truths, and walking in all the commandments & ordinances of the Lord; and in all designing his glory, is their being with God. So also is their eying God in all providential dispensations. When they look thro’ second causes, and above visible instruments, and see the sovereign providence of God in all events, and adore the divine wisdom & goodness, power and righteousness, truth and faithfulness, in them, and compose themselves to a behaviour, comporting with them, they are with God. When they express a dutiful submission to, and a fiducial dependance upon God in all their wants, and fears, & dangers: when they maintain a prayerful frame of spirit, seeking of God the supply of their wants, direction in their streights, deliverance from their dangers, protection from their enemies, and other judgments, success in their enterprizes, and a blessing upon their labours: when they excite themselves to a thankful praising God for all his benefits: when they endeavour a wise and good improvement of all God’s dealings towards them: and when they conscienciously walk in obedience to his commands: then may they be said to be with God, and not to forsake him.
God’s people being thus with him, God will be with them. Not as if their being with God merited his being with them. By no means: for after all, they are unprofitable servants: and there are so many sinful imperfections attending them, in their abiding with God, such as, distrust and impatience, carnal confidence and undue dependance upon themselves or others, or means, neglect of humble believing prayer, or of holy thankful praises, that God might justly withdraw from them, and deny them his gracious presence. But, these infirmities notwithstanding, his people may humbly hope for his presence & blessing; for God is not strict to mark iniquity, where he sees sincerity.
He proceeds to warn the Governor directly, then His majesty’s council and the House of Representatives, then judges who sit on the bench, then pastors in the colonies, and finally the people themselves, observing that each of them stands to be judged finally and personally should they fail to fulfill faithfully the station to which they have been called, and emphasizing that their stations call for personal integrity, piety, and excellence. He is particularly forceful with the pastors:
Of all men in the world, we have need to be with God, and to give our selves to prayer, imploring his spirit, to give us a spiritual understanding in the mysteries of the gospel, & to lead us into all truth: his presence, to animate us in our holy work, and to carry us above all the discouragements we meet with, from the carnality and unbelief of our own hearts, from the temptations of satan, from the little visible success of our labours, from the unkindness of our people, and from the oppositions of an ungodly world: his help, to support us under our burdens, and to strengthen us to make full proof of our ministry: and his blessing upon our labours, that we may preach so, as to save our selves, and them that hear us. We had need be with God in our preaching… [and] in our lives, and like Noah that antediluvian preacher of righteousness, walk with God, and be exemplary in faith and purity, and all the vertues of a holy life; that all may take knowledge of us, that we have been, and are with God. If we are thus with God, we may hope, he will be graciously present with us, to assist, instruct, encourage, and succeed us, in our ministerial work.
But, if we forsake God, become strangers to prayer, and ashamed of the gospel of Christ, and the religion of the Bible: if we trust to the strength of our own reason, and the imaginary greatness of our learning; and preach for doctrines, the unscriptural conceits of our own brains, or the erroneous notions of others; if we corrupt the word of God, and preach another gospel; if we neglect or mislead the souls committed to our charge; and, by the badness of our lives, contradict and frustrate the end of our ministry, we have reason to fear, that God will forsake us utterly; and abandon us to the giddiness and wildness of our own fancies, to the blindness and pride of our own natural reason, to a reprobate mind, and to the delusions of satan: and that, having been wandring stars, the blackness of darkness for ever will be reserved for us; and that, in that outer darkness, we shall have our miserable portion, but just punishment, and be the subjects of a greater damnation.
The take from this sermon is very simple: to Dr. Dunbar, there was no arena of human life in which God’s presence was not a prerequisite for success. God’s presence was not something that was earned — indeed, nobody was worthy of it — but something that God graciously offered to those who committed themselves to His way, to preserve them and assist them through the ordinary difficulties of life. He did not say that God punished those who failed to commit themselves, but simply that He removed Himself from them at their own request, to allow them to suffer the consequences of their own ways. Judgment comes later, after death.
His sentiment would be echoed less than 30 years later by Benjamin Franklin in an appeal to the Constitutional convention in 1787, that they engage in prayer in order that they be aided by Providence in the composition of their new Constitution:
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probably that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.