Rev. Mellish Irving Motte (1801-1881) was originally from Charleston, South Carolina. He obtained a Bachelors of Arts from Harvard in 1821 and became pastor of the South Congregational Church in Boston on May 21, 1828.
In this 1840 sermon, Rev. Motte encourages Christians to fully engage the culture, especially in the political arena. He decries politicians acting out of self-interest and greed rather than making decisions based upon what is morally right and wrong. Motte insists that religious morality is the very first manifestation of true patriotism and “Public virtue is the strongest spirit of national vitality.” He reminds his listeners that nations must be judged in the present since they do not exist in eternity and national ruin awaits national unrighteousness. Rev. Motte states that America’s Fathers founded the country on Christian principles and intended for the United States to be a Christian nation. According to Motte, the realization of this goal is to be found in individual piety and allegiance to righteousness over any political party.
The Christian Patriot
Delivered at the
South Congregational Church,
Boston, July 5, 1840
By M. I. Motte
Happy is that people, whose God is the Lord
One of the most common of mistaken and false forms, into which religion is apt to run, is an isolated piety, and abstract and independent devotion; religion separated from the business of life, instead of being woven up, conscientiously, with all its concerns. For convenience’ sake, we have a particular day, and place, and order of men, and class of exercises, especially devoted to the consideration of the great topic; but it is that its influence may be made to run through all days and places, all intercourse, every subject and employment. Yet the church has every been prone, even more than it conscious of, to sever itself from the world, instead of leavening it to its own spirit; and the same man, in his church relations, is a Christian, or would grieve not to be considered and to consider himself so, who, in some of his worldly interests and pursuits, is absolutely an atheist, living without God in his thoughts.
On no subject us thus more obvious, than on the one, from which it is most unfortunate in our country religion should be driven off, seeing it is that which agitates more people here than any other, viz. the whole business of politics. Religion and politics are spoken of as opposite poles, the positive and the negative as the acknowledgment of God is concerned. We hear it said, politics are of no particular religion; and it is too often true, in a more absolute sense than is intended. It would seem, at first, as if both subject were so important, so exciting, that the human hear is hardly large enough for both. (3) When we speak of a man as a politician preeminently, one enthusiastically absorbed in the affairs of the nation, or more probably of a party, we do not expect to find him in a church. And when a zealot for churches is invited to the polls, he seems to answer to the purpose, when he replies, “My Master’s kingdom is not of this world.” If he is a clergyman, the professional response expected from him is, “I have nothing to do with politics;” and only those object to this, who suppose, if he voted at all, he would vote with them; to all others he seems to have made the natural and legitimate reply. Both of these men are wrong, but they both point the direction in which public prejudice blows.
Our festivals, again, are either political or religious; not both together. There would seem to be something incompatible and profane, or absurd, in making them both. Such an anniversary as yesterday is not strikingly a religious day; as tomorrow’s published list of its outrages and truculent mishaps in all our cities will attest. Early in the morning, trains may be seen leaving the city by every outlet, anxious to escape the celebration of the National Independence. And, when the day of the month falls upon the first day of the week, its celebration is postponed till Monday; as if confessedly impossible to bring its spirit to into harmony with the Christian Sabbath.
All this shows, not the politics and religion are necessarily inconsistent, – for the former, I suppose, is a duty as really as the latter, and all duties should be performed in the fear of God, – but it shows, that the spirit of politics which prevails is not the right one. The good of our country should be provided for, as in the sight of God, and in sacred love to our fellow-men; and then it is a holy service, and need not be dissevered from the solemnest ministrations of devotions. It is one of the modes of worship with which the Universal Father is well pleased; one of the forms of his appointed ceremonial of religion pure and undefiled, which consists in going about doing good for his sake. But, if it is only a selfish, headlong, intemperate scramble for preeminence, if it is mercenary, not moral, in its spirit, a question of interest, not of right, the Sabbath is too good a day for it, and so is every other day.
Interest is to be regarded as well as right; but do not all political parties appeal too exclusively to the former? A reverence for right is not held high enough, as the guiding polar star for the opinions of the people. The people think, morality is a matter of home and neighborly intercourse, not involved in the vote they cast, and the opinions they express, on the acts of government, encouraging or condemning. How seldom is the guilt of upholding iniquitous public measures reflected on, as good men reflect on private violations of the ten Commandments. They may do infinitely more mischief than an individual’s misdemeanor, and yet many deem it a little thing. Men seem to think they may hold what opinions, and belong to what parties they please, without regard to their truth or effects, except as affecting themselves; as if politics were a lawless region, always out of Christendom, and from which even conscious was excluded by general consent. Look through the community and the world, and see how, on almost every question, you may draw a line between parties, accurately coinciding with the line between their interests. You need not ask, on which side a man’s convictions lie, if you only know on which side his wishes lie. The coincidence is certainly remarkable; and melancholy it is to reflect on the wide heartlessness it indicates. Here we see men fair-minded in every other concern, men of severe religious sanctity, of nice honor, of scrupulous integrity in their personal transactions, where the welfare of a few immediate connections or acquaintances is at stake; but, when millions lose though the prevalence of an opinion, the first and only thought that seems to occur to them is, How will it affect us, and I our lowest interests? And, if it promise to be lucrative, forthwith they adopt that opinion, and if their soul’s salvation hung upon it.
They adopt that opinion, I said; But can it be possible, that men always do really believe as if for their interests? Can they be conscientious, in such innumerable cases, arriving, through the careful and dispassionate examination, at precisely the result that happens to favor the views and wishes? I allow a great deal for the blinding power of self-interest; but this uniform concurrence of hope and belief is astonishing still. These same people will reason as clearly as daylight on any argument which comes within the tenth of an inch of their own concerns without touching it; but, the moment it touches, their light is darkened, their logical acumen is blunted, their perceptions evince a certain unfortunate obliquity, which is sure to twist their notions in one invariable direction. Can this be right? Can it be honest? We know, or we might know, if we chose, that truth and justice cannot always, and on every accidental question and measure, be in our favor. We are bound, at any rate, not to take it for granted. Let us inquire. Let us make up our minds to lose so many dollars, relinquish a few prejudices, and partialities, and expectations, rather than lose probity, the approbation that speaks within, all generosity of soul, and the smiles of God. Let us not be satisfied to be guilty, because the guilt is shared with a multitude. Away with injustice and ungenerosity, though only in thought, however popular, however fashionable. So shall we do our part to bring into currency a more elevated and uncompromising tone of political honor and conscience; and the whole regions of politics be no longer but as the Barbary States of moral geography, outlawed lands and piratical seas, from which are excluded all faith and virtue, all laws of God and man.
Politics should be but one form of that charity which is the end of the divine law. One more of benevolence, one of the ministrations of philanthropy; and “Holiness to the Lord” be inscribed over the portals of its halls of state and the chambers of its social festivals, as over the church door. Especially with us should this be aimed at on triple grounds. For, if political parties with us cannot be Christian parties, then are we a godless nation; there can be few Christians throughout the length and breadth of the land; since he, who is no politician under our institutions, is a solitary rarity.
Then, if they believe their own declamations, puffing up so unweariedly the national vanity, we are the most favored people on which the sun shines, at least, as regards all that God has done for us; and the Giver of all good should, least of all, be ungratefully overlooked by us. All the flights of rhetoric, that yesterday glittered over this continent, all the floods of panegyric that were sounded forth upon ourselves and our institutions and advantages, should they not all reecho, at least in and undertone whisper in reason’s ear, as if saying, To whom much is given, of them much will be required?
And, then, to make all that is given to us safe for us, and to expect a blessing continuance, we must remember God, and insist on a religious morality as the very first manifestation of a true patriotism. Ay, patriotism, that most abused words. Alas! That it is every vaunted and bravadoed by the scoffer and the profligate, not knowing, that blessed is that people, and that alone, whose God is the Lord. Without him they may speak great swelling words of vanity; but bombastic professions and oratorical displays are not the disinterested self-denial and sober toils of a virtuous citizen, who fears God and honors government, and serves and saves the state without boasting. He alone is a patriot. By such alone the country stands.
The Ruler of nations hath uttered the decree. From beginning of time his world has illustrating it. As surely as he is just and the King of nations as of individuals; as surely as there is truth taught by experience, and the unvarying certainty of the same effects from the same causes, according to the natural constitution he has impressed on his universe, the past, in all quarters of the globe, bids us look well to it. You may be the traitor within the garrison, though treason to the country be furthest from your thoughts. You may invoke ruin upon it when you are shouting, louder than any, the glory of its institutions. You may be the deadly enemy, though you shed your blood for it. Look into the nature of things. When hath a righteous nation perished? Where is there one doing justice and judgment, and it is not well with it? Public virtue is the strongest spirit of national vitality; and private virtue is the life-blood, coursing through every artery and vein, large and small, of the public institutions.
On the other hand, is it not undeniable from reason, scripture, and experience, that predominance of selfish principles and corrupt morals is the unfailing cause of calamities, perplexities, and ruin in a country? Reason tells us, that the character of the Judge of all the earth is the pledged to have it so. Vice, in the individual, may not always meet its retribution, nor virtue its reward, in this world, because there is to be another, of more perfect retribution for individuals. But nations exist here alone. Unlike the soul, they are annihilated at their temporal dissolution. Therefore, if their fortunes and fate be subject of the Divine Providence, to their present existence, which is the only one, must be applied the principle of its moral rule.
The scriptures confirm this rule, and do not restrict it to the theocracy of Israel. They say; “O Israel, thou hast fallen by thine iniquity; your iniquities have turned away good things and withheld them from you.” But it is not of Israel alone, (of whom it might be said, God was, in a peculiar way, a Governor by temporal sanctions,) that he announces this principle of legislation. His declarations are general. “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build up and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them. In the hand of the Lord, there is a cup, and the wine is red. It is full mixed, and he poureth out of the same. As for the dregs thereof, all the ungodly of the earth shall drink them.”
And the experience of mankind puts the impressive truth beyond dispute. What is history but, on this account, like the Prophet’s, a scroll written, within and without, with lamentation, and mourning, and woe. Pity weeps as she unrolls its venerable annals. Its oldest records present the Cities of the Plain set forth for an example of the national ruin, that full surely awaits national unrighteousness. “Ten righteous men could not be found in them,” and they perished. Even to an earlier page the genius of history points, and sighs over the ravages of the flood. “All flesh had corrupted their ways before the Flood.” And we stand aghast at the sweeping catastrophe. Turn over a few pages onward, and direct your attention to the chosen people. See them, at one time, visited with pestilence, famine, conflagration, tempest; at another, falling under the sword, or languishing in captivity, feeling before the scourge of war, or terrified with awful phenomena of nature, and all these proclaimed the retributory angels of the Lord, the ministers of his justice for their sins. The wisdom of their wise men was taken away, and the understanding of their prudent men hid; and it was moral debasement that did it. Their cities, the places of their fathers’ sepulchers, were laid waste, and the gates thereof consumed with fire; and, in all the seasons of their affliction, mark the moral shade running though the history in proportioned intenseness; mark idolatry and its bitter fruit, general profligacy, tempting them to forget their God.
Read of a later day, travel among the scenes of profane chronicles, if you would see, that national vice is national suicide. Stand upon the moldering ruins of a thousand cities, once great and fair, and seek, – you will seek in vain, – for trace or even site of many others; and ask where are they, and why have they vanished from the earth? Roam through the desolated territories of empires, once splendid and mighty, and, as you brood over the gloomy vestiges of their decay, cannot find an inhabitant for many a mile, where throngs were loud and busy once, ask yourself, if integrity, industry, humanity, temperance, piety, and purity were rife there, when the besom of destruction came to sweep a tomb under those wide-spread ruins.
Thus history or travel will conduct you over the globe, and everywhere teach the same salutary lesson. They will point to empire after empire, and dynasty after dynasty, shriveling and shrinking with the imbecility of moral corruption; and it is not more sure, that the palaces of their pride, and the monuments of their perverted might, are crumbling into dust, than that other empires and other dynasties, now treading in their steps, will follow them to decay and desolation. O that our beloved land may be wise from the lesson! And the lesson is more pertinent under our republican polity, than under any other. If righteousness exalteth a nation, and sin is a reproach and ruin to any people, most speedily of all must it prove so to a people without the restraints of a strong government. Liberty and licentiousness roll trippingly off the tongue together; they flow, unseparated, from the lips of many, with easy alliteration and commonplace proverbialness, as if they were almost the same thing, or one inevitably followed the other. But, if it does, it is as commonplace a maxim of history, that it will follow it speedily to ruin. Liberty licentiousness, – it is the tritest of proverbs, – cannot coexist lastingly. The free people is the last that can afford to be vicious. The slave may throw off the restraints of virtue, and yet be kept in order by the restraints of despotism. But, when a freeman does not govern himself, he is ungoverned, so to speak, and careering to perdition; like the uncurbed wild ass of the desert, rushing to the precipice he tosses his head too high to see.
Therefore, every immoral republican is a traitor and conspirator against his government, as much as if, being the subject of a king, he pointed a dagger against his life. He is spreading stratagems and snares for the feet of his sovereign; for public virtue is his sovereign. He is seeking to blind, and deafen, and lame, and cripple, and make wholly inefficient, and worse than inefficient, he is seeking to corrupt, into tyrannical wantonness and cruelty, the most beneficent monarch that ever sat upon a throne.
So that you see, my brethren, in addition to every other motive for being good Christians, patriotism should be one. After we have turned away from the voice of God; after we have steeled our hearts to the claims of him who died upon Calvary, the just for the unjust, the he might bring us to God; after we have besotted our minds to act the fool’s part of blindness to our own interest; there is yet one appeal which may not be lost upon our generosity, one consideration that should be sufficient; public spirit, the love of our country. Its welfare is resting on our individual virtue. For as drops of water make up the ocean, and grains of sand constitute vast continents, so the personal character of the humblest individual among us adds something, for weal or for woe, to that national character, by which the land of our love, the government which has cherished us, will stand or fall. Our native soil, the scene of our happy childhood, the land of our fathers, the land where we have enjoyed so much, where we expect so much, and from which the world expects so much, shall it realize these expectations? Shall it become, as has been so fondly anticipated, the glory of the nations, has the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth, showing what man can do with unshackled energies and faculties ripely developed in the wholesome air of liberty? Or shall it be one more byword and mockery of the aspirations and pretensions of freedom.
Think of this, when tempted to any wicked or base act. Above all, think of it when tempted to into any of the peculiar and besetting snares, and betraying exaggerations and caricatures of liberty; to vicious license, to lawlessness and recklessness of restraint, to inebriate zeal, party prejudice, bigoted factiousness, mob-rioting, passionate reviling of the powers that be, or the powers that are to be, and all bitter or mercenary partisanship. Remember, when tempted to any of these, you are tempted then to disappoint so many noble souls, the lovers of their kind, in every quarter of the globe, the enthusiasts for the advancement of the human race to a pitch of excellence and enjoyment yet unrealized, but the guaranty for which they look for in the great experience of self-government now trying on these shores.
The old world may be said to be leaning, with feverish anxiety, over the ocean to catch every symptom of the success or failure of his experiment. Have pity on the last hopes on man. Let is not be said again, as it was by the dying Brutus, after he had sacrificed all to realize a patriot’s dream; “O virtue, I have worshipped thee as a reality, and found thee but a shadow.” Let it not be said, again, as it was by the noble-hearted Madame Roland, as, on her way to the guillotine to lose her head for continuing a virtuous enthusiast for freedom amidst the herd of vicious, she passed under the statue of Liberty; “O Liberty, how they have played thee! What crimes have been committed in the name!” Ay, how it has been played in the world, historionized, juggled! What crimes have been committed, what crimes have not been committed, in its sacred name? It is assuredly the cloak of boundless evil, when not guarded with most scrupulous probity; for the best things, corrupted, always become the worst. The precious diamond may be blackened into a worthless coal. The sweet name of liberty has become a sound of ill omen and nauseous associations to many of the readers of history, from want of virtue in its votaries. Patriotism has been characterized as the last resource of a villain. Revolutions, said Napoleon, are not made with rosewater; but it were well if blood, and seas of it, were the dearest price paid. Moral corruption is what renders revolutions worse than vain.
Our fathers have made one more trial, knowing that past failures were from want of Christian principle, and that they had settled these shores expressly in obedience to Christian principle, and therefore they might hope. In faith and prayer they struggled; for they felt, that with God all things are possible in the cause of righteousness, and they hoped their children would feel this too. From the first, they set out with the idea of making this community that happy people, whose God is the Lord, – a Christian nation, – what the world had never yet seen, but what all its experience concurred in testifying it must seem or it would never see the amount of prosperity man is capable of attaining on earth. A Christian people! Not merely a sober, industrious people, without religion, if such could be expected, but distinctively a Christian people. Bright and glorious idea, far-seeing wisdom, true friends, and see its kingdoms prospering at this time just in proportion as they come near realizing this idea, other elements of their greatness being the same. Begin from the effete East, and come to the infant West. The nominally Christian are more thriving than the Pagan Mahometan; the Protestant than the Catholic; the praying and Bible-reading, than the ceremonial and formalist; and, so long hypocrisy could be kept out, that people would prosper most, who should require, as the settlers of these New England colonies did, that none but members of the church should be rulers in the state. Such a regulation is a bait for hypocrites, a trap for the consciences of the ambitious, and, therefore, it is not to be enforced after the primitive virtues of the settlement have been corrupted. But, is there were not fear of hypocrisy, verily and indeed happy would be that people, with whom God was effectively their Lord through the strict observances of such a rule. Then might we see such a phenomenon as a Christian people.
As it is, let us, – and it seems more incumbent on us than on any nation that lives in the sun’s more expressive, than as a mere geographical term. When we are called a Christian nation, let us allow more the meant, than that we are not savages or barbarians, or only semi-civilized, as all those nations are in which Christianity is unknown. Christian should be more than European or American, as distinguished from Asiatic or African. It should be more than latitude and longitude; more than eastern or western, northern or southern; more than tropics and zones, equator and ecliptic, arctic or antarctic.
And how can we make a Christian nation? To become so, must be an individual, not a collective act. Legislation cannot do it, if legislation would. Resolves of majorities, in caucus or in Congress, in towns or by states, or even unanimous votes, is not the way to affect it. The simple and sole process is for each person privately to resolve, for his single part, no influence in legislative deliberations, no political name or fame whatever, – nay, the shrinking woman and child, whose deliberations look not beyond the homestead, or who can legislate only over their own hearts, – these can add a stone, as truly as the mightiest statesman or the loudest demagogue, to build up the national temple to the Lord. Public opinion is the life-breath of our own government, and therefore to Christianize that, we have but to Christianize ourselves. O what it is ye may achieve! No such power as this is possessed by the subjects of any government but yours. They cannot regenerate their sovereign. They cannot even pray for his conversion with hope, the assurance, of the prayer being granted if sincere, which may warm your breasts.
And is there a consideration of earth or heaven, that is not present and potent to move us to this prayer? Pour it out to God, if righteousness would have but the promise of the life that now is. If a majority of the citizens were sincere followers of Jesus Christ, is it not evident, the councils of this nation would be wiser and mightier, its progress more glorious, its dominion even more potent than any the world has ever seen? The day when it shall be resolved, that the same evangelical principles shall govern states that govern churches and gospel professors in their private relations, would be the true jubilee of freedom. That will be the mind’s and the soul’s declaration of independence. That will be breaking every yoke at length from body, and heart, and spirit. Thenceforth slavery, in any form, would be but a tradition and a name; whereas now it is the commonest of conditions, and to the mass liberty is but a name; for he that serveth any sin is the slave of sin. That day will come, when the people choose.
Choose it, resolve it, O my brethren, as the first of civil duties. Whatever your party predilections, sacrifice them all for the party of righteous men. Support no administration, and oppose none, but one the ground of moral principle. Go with them as far as Jesus Christ would go, and no further. Read the constitution by the light of the Gospel. The Savior be your paramount leader.
And now I see his communion table before me this day, and I fear all that has been said will seem out of keeping with its solemn associations; so desecrating, as I began with intimating, seems any allusion to the politician’s trade. But let me hope I have not spoken all in vain. Follow it in the spirit in which you come here to the house of the Lord himself. You are performing a solemn act of worship then, if you feel it aright. You should enter upon office, you should deposit your vote for office, with a religious sense of accountableness, like that which makes you so serious when you handle the emblems of the Savior’s body and blood.
Approach his table because you would be good citizens, among the other reasons of the act; because you love, and you serve and save, your country; because you would have it long free; because you would be truly free yourselves. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. If his Son shall make your free, ye shall be free indeed. Where he is not the deliverer, men may clamor, and boast, and carouse, and with bacchanalian revelry call themselves free but they are the bondmen of corruption, the thralls of Satan. O be ye, unlike them, the freedmen of the Lord, whose service is perfect freedom.
*Originally posted Dec. 24, 2016.