The following sermon was preached by Rev. Abel McEwen on May 8, 1817.
PREACHED AT THE
MAY 8, 1817.
PASTOR OF A CHURCH IN NEW-LONDON
GEORGE GOODWIN & SONS…PRINTERS.
At a General Assembly of the State of Connecticut, holden at Hartford, in said State, on the second Thursday of May, Anno Domini 1817.
ORDERED, That the Honourable Henry Champion and Christopher Manwaring, Esq. present the thanks of this Assembly to the Rev. Abel McEwen, for his Sermon delivered before this Assembly on the 8th instant, and request a copy thereof, that it may be printed.
THOMAS DAY, Secretary.
LET EVERY SOUL BE SUBJECT UNTO THE HIGHER POWERS: FOR THERE IS NO POWER BUT OF GOD: THE POWERS THAT BE ARE ORDAINED OF GOD.
The strength of civil government, and the good order and happiness of civil communities result much, from a knowledge of duty and a sense of responsibility in the people. Christians ought to be examples to the world. In discretion, and meekness, and subordination, they should surpass all other men. Actuated by the fear of the Lord; taught his will on the subject of civil obedience; protected in their dearest interests, by authorities of his appointment; they owe to human rulers a signal tribute of reverence and fidelity. Their profession should be the pledge of a quiet and peaceable life. Before them are the precepts and example of their Lord Jesus Christ. As God he was the lawgiver of the universe: nevertheless, having become man; and having taken upon him the form of a servant he obeyed; and he taught his followers to obey, the injunctions of civil rulers.
As a man, and as a teacher of Christianity, Paul had powerful reasons for walking in the footsteps of his Lord. The evils which Christ foresaw, in an abuse of Christian liberty, became more threatening in the day of the apostle.
The Jews, after their subjection to a foreign scepter, had many scruples about obeying heathen magistrates. Instructed and directed by prophets of the Lord, they were prone to plead the authority of these guides; as an excuse from a conscientious submission to the injunctions of the Roman government. If in this spirit of revolt and independence they embraced Christianity; they would be in danger of pleading the authority of Christ as paramount to that of their human conquerors. An expectation of deliverance from temporal bondage, by the Messiah, was their national delusion.
If Jews and proselytes to Christianity from the Jewish nation were beset with this factious spirit, it might be contagious. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. All Christians; even Roman and those of other nations; under, either the pretence, or apprehension of allegiance to a distinct kingdom, of more than earthly importance, might be disposed to rebel against their civil rulers. Over the Jews God had, in fact, reigned King on earth. Christ Jesus, according to his own profession, supported by miracles of divine power; and, agreeably, to the faith of his people; was King, and Lord Supreme, in that kingdom which is over all, and above all. No titled mortal on the mighty throne of the Caesars could boast of authority and power which could vie with that, which had calmed the raging of the sea, had raised the dead, and had cast out devils. A mistaking zeal for God, and a contempt of human greatness, might very naturally have degenerated into a licentious disregard of legitimate and salutary civil government. Christ had appointed religious rulers over his church; to whom all its members were commanded to be strictly and affectionately subordinate. Human nature is inclined to pervert the best institutions. It would have been but the natural result of human pride, for these rulers; after having been clothed, by Christ, with ecclesiastical authority; to seat themselves in the chair of state: and it would have been grateful to the selfishness of Christians to limit their responsibility to rulers of their own profession. It should not be forgotten that the Roman government was at this time tyrannical and oppressive; nor, that Nero, who was upon the throne, was a monster of malice, caprice and cruelty.
Most seasonably then did the apostle, impressed with the attitude of existing circumstances, and with the prospect of future scenes open to his prophetic eye, say; “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; for the powers that be are ordained of God.” A universal application of this injunction is made to mankind, under the gospel, by the emphatic expression; “let every soul be subject.” Rulers and ruled in the church; and all, in every Christian community, of whatever office or dignity, must yield due reverence and prompt obedience to the constituted authorities of civil government. An exemption would prostrate the authority of the gospel.
This duty is not only inculcated; and the extent of it fixed; but the propriety of it is explained. “The powers that be are ordained of God.” Invert the order in which these things are presented in the text; and it may be said that civil government is of divine institution—and consequently, that obedience to its existing authorities, is a duty, which every man owes to God.
I. Civil government is of divine institution.
On this subject a diversity of opinions has prevailed amongst mankind. Atheists have conceived and have endeavoured to prosecute a design of rendering a citizen amenable, only to his fellow men. Many of better religious creed, have inadvertently fallen in with this impious and demoralizing project. Much ingenuity, and more zeal have been displayed in defence of the scheme. Still it is easy to be understood that the authority which civil rulers possess is derived, from God alone; that to him, and not to men, they are primarily accountable; and consequently, that the transgressor of civil law is guilty, in the most affecting sense, before God.
Those who deny that civil government is of divine institution, pretend to find its origin, in what they term a social compact; whence they would derive all the authority which may be exercised by civil rulers. By a social compact, they understand, an agreement, into which the people of a country enter; and in which, they convey away the control of their personal liberties and privileges to men restricted, or not restricted, in the exercise of their civil functions, according to the provisions of the compact. Such an original act of the people is said to be what alone, in any age or place, clothes men with authority to rule.
Such covenants, it is conceded, have been made, in many ages and countries; many still exist and are known, as constitutions of civil government. They are also acknowledged to be useful, and requisite to a proper exercise of that right of government which God hath given to men. Nevertheless, it is contended, that no people, of any age, or country, would have a warrant to form such a compact, were it not given them by God; and that rulers would have no authority over their fellow men, after such an act of the people, had it not been given them by the Sovereign of the universe.
To perceive that civil government, derived solely from a social compact, is unwarrantable, we are to look at the nature of this source of authority. The consent of the governed is said to invest governors with a right to rule—a consent which must be obtained; but which, when obtained, is an ample warrant for governmental transactions. Contemplate then a nation without any government, where the people enter into an agreement, by virtue of which, they give to a man, or to a number of men, authority to dispose of the lives, and property, and liberties of their community. The questions now are; have these people a right to convey away the disposal, for instance, of their lives? And have these rulers a right to dispose of these lives, without an express warrant from God? It will not be denied that the great Author of human life hath revealed a prohibition on this subject, which is to be regarded. “Thou shalt not kill,” is the high and unlimited command. Were not provision made by the Judge of all the earth, for the exercise of civil authority, in taking away the lives of transgressors, this prohibition would restrain civil rulers, as much as murderers, from putting men to death; and it would as clearly forbid all mankind to put their lives into the hands of civil rulers, as it does from putting them into the hands of murderers; or from committing suicide. The right which civil government has to kill malefactors is derived, not from the consent of the governed; but from the decree of God; “Whosoever sheddeth man’s blood; by man shall his blood be shed.” God alone has a right to qualify and limit his own prohibitions. But for any man, or any combination of men, to assume this prerogative, is stern rebellion. Life is to men an unalienable blessing from the hand of their Maker: to commit it to the disposal of their fellow-men, without a warrant from the giver, would be a license for murder, given to rulers, in contempt of the express prohibition of God. To maintain civil authority, derived from a social compact, would be as impracticable, as it would have been unwarrantable to originate it from this source. The right of government would not outlive the preservation of the compact. How long this could be preserved, may from the nature of it be satisfactorily calculated. The people of a nation consent to be ruled, agreeably to principles, or grand regulations, specified in the covenant, made between themselves and the constituted authorities. What preserves inviolate this covenant, and prolongs its binding force? Obviously, an exact compliance of the rulers, with those fundamental principles of government, which are specified in the compact. Should they swerve in the least degree from these principles, they would fail to fulfill their engagements; the other party in the contract could not be holden; the compact would be null and void: the people would be absolved from all obligation to submit to the authority of their rulers. Such are the ignorance, the inadvertency, and the imperfect integrity incident to all men; that it is impossible, for the ablest, and most honest rulers, strictly to comply with the provisions of any civil constitution. So frail, therefore, is that civil government, whose authority is sustained on the tenor of a social compact, that an error of administration would be a national failure; the mistake of a ruler would be the loss of an empire. The wisdom of the world could not construct a government on these principles which could sustain a legitimate right to rule, for a year, or a month.
The practicability of maintaining it, is not to be contemplated, simply, in the fallibility of publick men. A government, of such an origin, is carried to hasty destruction, by an intrinsic fatality. It has, in its nature, the seeds of death. The generation which makes a compact soon goes off the stage. A youth succeeds to the place of his father; enters into his possessions and business; affirms that he does not approve of the compact, into which his father entered; that he will not consent to have his life, family and property under the control of the existing government. Upon such an inconvenient character, no principle of coercion can be brought to operate. From the nature of the compact, all the authority of the government rests upon the consent of the governed. This youth has not consented; and he never will consent, that this government shall have any authority. He, therefore, must be permitted to exist in his native country, as an independent power; or by force, must be driven into exile. If the whole of a rising generation be actuated by the same spirit; if none consent to be governed; all authority constitutionally terminates.
Upon such a government, refractory foreigners might bring a fatal embarrassment. They enter the country; proclaim their dislike of the government; their determination, never to consent to the compact. But one measure can be adopted. These intruders may be driven from the land; and all foreign emigration may, by law, be prohibited. Even the raveling of foreigners through the country could not be safely tolerated; for without their consent to the authority of the government, even the debts, which they might contract, could not be collected; nor could redress he had for the abuses which they might practice.
Let it not be said, that people who come by birth or immigration into a country, where such a government is in operation, do, by tacit consent, bind themselves to submit to all the conditions of the compact, and to all the civil authority derived from it. This argument supposes, that this rising generation, and these foreigners, enter, by tacit consent, into the original agreement, to all intents and purposes, as completely, as the original framers of it did. But we cannot bind ourselves, by a bargain, without knowledge and design in what we do. Certain it is, that the great mass of people who are born and grow up under civil governments, never are conscious; never have a thought of bequeathing to the constituted authorities, the control of their property, lives and other privileges. How then do they make a compact? Should they, beginning to feel the weight of civil power, complain of its violence and burdens; and object to its authority; could rulers say, we rule by your consent; we dispose of you by your consent. If the subjects of civil government are responsible “to the powers that be,” in consequence of what they themselves have done; of that voluntary act, by which they are bound, they must have been conscious. But no voluntary act is requisite; no consciousness of a consent given, or of a compact made, is necessary to render man responsible to a divine institution. The very law of his existence peremptorily dictates accountability to authority which is from a commission of his Maker.
On this point, a question of moment is; at what age does this tacit consent become of binding force? If no objection have been urged against the existing government, at the age of ten, or fifteen, or twenty, shall the youth have committed himself to subjection? No advantage ought to be taken of incapacity, ignorance, or inexperience. To make the obligation derived from consent, reasonable, and valid, this consent should be given under a full knowledge of what the government is, of what it may demand, and of what it will probably do. The Chinese, Persian and Hindoo sovereigns rule according to their own will. To be at their control is to be exposed to all the caprice of men, whose pride, and pleasure, and convenience, and malice may give law to their empires. If the youth within their dominions might; until a given age; by a solemn declaration, save themselves from allegiance and submission to those despots; and were they conscious of their privilege; who has the credulity to believe, that by a known, tacit consent, they would commit themselves, their fortunes, their prospects and their hopes, to the mercy of arbitrary power? Indeed, were this liberty given to youth who live under governments of the mildest form, and of the most happy influence; such is the licentiousness of the human mind, that almost all would be cautious, how they gave their consent to irrevocable obligations. If all civil authority rest on the consent of the governed; in every social compact made for a civil constitution; provision ought to be made for successive generations to give, or to withhold their consent. To say that a future generation is bound to yield either tacit or express consent, is no less than to say that it shall have no opportunity to consent or refuse. The inevitable conclusion is, that if all legitimate authority rest upon a social compact; every government, which survives the original contractors, must maintain its right and prerogatives, by the ignorance of their posterity, who know not, that they bind themselves, by tacit consent, to lasting subjection.
“There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Here every honest mind finds relief: Here every peaceful citizen finds a rule of action: Here civil government finds a foundation. The design of the Apostle was, to teach subjects of civil government, the duty of submission; and to show the origin of the obligation, which bound them to this duty. Before they obeyed an established government, he would not have them go into an enquiry, whether the government were a usurpation; because, the learned often cannot settle this question; much less, the common people. Neither need they, previous to subjection, be assured that governmental measures were not oppressive; for, if they were, resistance would be rebellion, and by rebellion, they would commit themselves to the horrors of anarchy. How a government came into existence; whence it sprang; how it obtained its power; are not the questions. The simple consideration that it exists, and is in actual operation, is a warrant for obedience; an obligation to submission. If it exist, God gave it existence; if it operate, God gives it power, means, and opportunity. To resist the ordinance, would be, to resist his providence.
When a revolution in any country has taken place, and a new government is once established; though the people at large may be incompetent to decide, whether the scepter were rightly gained; this is a question, with which those who have come into power are usually better acquainted; and it is one, in which their responsibility is intimately involved. Had Paul, instead of inculcating the duty of subjects, been consulted by Nero concerning his duty; he would, perhaps, have reasoned upon righteousness, as he did with Felix; or have administered reproof, as John did to Herod.
If God have given no warrant for men, in any circumstances to exercise authority over nations; he hath manifested an indifference, whether the people of this world live in anarchy, or enjoy the blessing of civil order. Whatever may be the conclusion of atheists; we who believe the Bible, have not so learned the will of God. For the Jewish nation; the people whom he chose; he framed a constitution of civil government; in which he revealed to the world, the grand principles of jurisprudence. In the revelation of his will, he hath bound mankind to the discharge of many duties; which can be performed only by a civil government. Murderers, for instance, are to be put to death; still to execute the divine decree, would be a crime, in any one, not clothed with public authority. Having, in his word, instituted many and important duties for civil rulers; in his minute and constant providence, he brings rulers, in every nation into existence and authority, to do his will. Hence, in language which should fill the world with reverence, he says, “by me kings reign, and princes decree justice; by me, princes rule; and nobles; even all the judges of the earth.”
Much, on this subject, has been said, by theorists, about a state of nature, in which no civil government existed. Of such a state we find no account in history; nor even in the legends of romance. On the flights of a distempered imagination men may go back in vain for such an opportunity; for the origin of civil blessings, from a social compact. But with the Bible in our hand, we will go back to Adam, made, not by a compact with his family, but by God, a ruler over his household. Down the current of time we may come; noticing the progress of government in the hands of Noah, and Nimrod, and Abraham, and various patriarchs, ruling either by a use or an abuse of those instructions which God originally gave mankind. Such was the tenure of civil power; until Moses the great lawgiver was sent by God to the Hebrews. From the creation, until that event; and from that, until this hour, we may perceive that men have been set in authority by the hand of Divine Providence. “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.”
II. Obedience to the existing authorities of civil government is a duty which every man owes to God.
It is the pride and policy of men, who cast off the fear of God, to make everything depend upon their will. An elective government is one of a very happy form. But it is one thing for a nation to elect rulers to rule over them, by the authority of a warrant from God; and according to revealed principles of righteousness; and another to choose men into office, who are to be responsible and subservient to the lusts and caprice of the community which they nominally rule. The Bible teaches men to regard their rulers as ministers of God; a maxim of later currency makes them servants of the people. Were they such; their first accountability would be to God. Servants of the public communities surely ought not to be holden in a more degrading servility to their employers; than the servants of individuals and families are to their masters. Even menials of this description are primarily to regard God: They are to serve their masters; “not with eye service as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” Until people hail their rulers as dignified servants of God, authorized, and bound by the most solemn obligations to execute righteousness in the earth; they will be restless and querulous; licentious and violent. While they look at a civil office merely as a place of emolument or distinction, which many for their private advantage are to share; it will be the perpetual sport of some of the vilest passions of human nature. Let them in their estimation exalt a civil office to the dignity of a divine ordinance; then their conclusion will be that “whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves condemnation.”
From legislators, judges, and executive magistrates who sustain the honour and responsibility of acting under a warrant from God; much will be expected which shall directly fulfill his revealed pleasure. They will not be approved, nor even excused, by the public sentiment; unless they effectually protect the sacred name and day of God from profanity; unless by laws scrupulously framed and faithfully administered, they suppress, as much as is practicable, the sins of drunkenness and impurity; of fraud and violence; and give every possible accommodation to the progress of that salvation which God, for his principal glory, executes upon earth.
When such a public demand is made of rulers; subjects will be prompt and conscientious in their obedience. Every law emanating from the laws of God; every one coincident with his requirements; will be reverenced as a delineation of his will. Transgression of it will be regarded as rebellion against him.
Conscientious subjects will go farther. Every civil injunction, which is not a violation of some divine rule or doctrine, they will honour, by a scrupulous compliance. Their opinions concerning the expediency of some governmental acts may vary from the opinion of their rulers. On questions of policy, the judgment of rulers is, by divine appointment, to prevail. For the consequences of their decisions they are responsible. No consideration of expediency can be a warrant for a violation of the commands; “let every soul be subject to the higher powers—Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man; expediency justify an act of rebellion; for the consequences of obedience to an injunction, which is simply impolitic, cannot be so deplorable as anarchy, the legitimate offspring of rebellion.
There is a limit, however, beyond which, subjection to civil magistrates becomes a crime. When it is forbidden, not by expediency; but by the express will of God. The Author of the Holy Scriptures never intended that obedience, of one of his precepts, should be a violation of another. To every ordinance of man, we are to submit; to the higher powers we are to be subject; but not when we are commanded to violate a revealed law of God. Before we refuse to obey “the powers that be,” we must not merely suspect; but must be convinced that their commands are subversive of those of God; for his injunction to civil obedience is clear and positive.
To mankind at large, God has given reason, conscience, and revelation; that as individuals; as moral agents; they may give up a final account of their deeds, done here in the body, at his bar. They are not to risk the momentous interests which depend on their doing right, or wrong, on the infallibility of public men. To say that the responsibility of a ruler, in every case, supersedes the responsibility of his subjects; is no less than to assert, the will of the civil magistrate, to be the origin of all moral obligation. This is one of the grossest impositions of infidelity. It sunders the moral relation between the great mass of mankind and their God; supposes divine revelation to be made exclusively for rulers; gives them power to bind and to unbind the conscience; and to convert whatever God hath called a crime, into a virtue. If, in one instance, a law is to be obeyed, simply because it has become a law of the government established over us; then in every instance, obedience, though it be an horrid impiety, must be rendered. This doctrine, fraught with the deadliest poison of infidelity, conveying death to the vitals of religious liberty, should be watched, by every man, with a trembling jealousy, for his own soul, and for God. Let it have free course among us; let it control our conduct; let it be publicly conceded, that in all things rulers must be obeyed; whatever may be the incompatible requirements and prohibitions of God; and there is an end of conscience toward him; and an end of civil privilege.
Revive the law of Egypt, requiring the slaughter of the first born: then, if responsibility belong only to rulers, fathers and mothers, without scruple or remorse, are to give up their children to the executioner. Dissolve, by law, every marriage covenant: then, every endearment and every duty of domestic life would be justly disregarded. There is nothing sacred to humanity, nothing sacred to religion, which a nation might not only be doomed to give up; there is nothing but what, with violent hands, they might be commanded to destroy. The Bible, the Sabbath, the church, it might become their duty to annihilate.
Men and brethren; it is our happiness, that we have no such lengths to go. The same Bible, which inculcates civil obedience, bounds the exercise of public authority: It presents to the eyes of rulers and ruled a common God and Judge, before whom every individual is, for himself, to stand or fall. It gives to the man whose well instructed mind and tender conscience forbid him to act, a precedent for saying, to rulers who demand known sin, “whether it be right, in the sight of God, to hearken unto you, more than unto God, judge ye.”
To this lamentable alternative the people of this state have not been driven. From it, past experience declares, they may still be saved. Let counsel still be taken of God; and the laws of the state, and the laws of God will continue to coincide. “Provide out of all the people, able men; such as fear God; men of truth; hating covetousness; and place such over them;” and the people will have a common path of civil obedience and of piety.
If civil offices be of divine appointment; if God have ordained the powers that be; if knowing this the people of this state, under the indulgence of heaven be permitted to fill these places with men of their choice; a most affecting forfeiture will be made of all the kindness of God; if men, after his own heart, be not elevated to that power, by which his purposes are to be accomplished.
The assembled magistrates and rulers of this commonwealth will, from our subject, at once, perceive the honour, and feel the delicacy of their stations.
Respected leaders: the hand of our God has placed you over us. His will you are to perform. What we should be in morals; what we should be in religion; whatever of public and relative duty we should do; whatever of liberty we should enjoy; whatever of restraint we need; think, we pray you, on these things; and let your influence be our glory and defence. We see you blessed, we trust, that you may be blessings to us and to our children. May that mind which God so kindly gave to Moses, to Joshua, and to David be given to you; that the world, seeing us under your authority, may say “happy is that people whose God is the Lord.”
Fathers and brethren in the ministry; our primary sphere of action is in a kingdom which is not of this world; yet we have something to do in the kingdoms of men. It is our business and our glory to preach a crucified Saviour to perishing sinners; but we have the example of Paul, the aged, the learned, the pious, the chosen of Christ, for inculcating the duty of a quiet and peaceable life, under the government of our country. It is not our task, to plead for reverence to a Nero and his menial court: to teach submission and patience under a public scourge. Had God given us a king, in his wrath, our lot would have been to teach righteousness under the severe rebuke. If we have turned the public eye to powers ordained over us; we have not pointed out “a terror to good works; but to the evil.” With boldness we have been able to say, “do that which is good; and thou shalt have praise of the same.”
To the God of our forefathers let us come, confiding in him to preserve the foundations, in which the righteous trust.
While we labour for the quietude, and order of the state, let us “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” After all the prosperity of our churches; after all which the government, and people of the state have done, in works of benevolence; after times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, which should be rehearsed, in our most public praise; much remains to be accomplished for the salvation of men; and for the edification of the churches. The time is short. Events of the past year have left us to prosecute the great work, of our calling, with diminished numbers. Our fathers; the distinguished among our fathers! Where are they? How much of talents; how much of learning; how much of piety; how much of usefulness has the grave swallowed up. We trust that heaven has had its share of the vast loss which we have sustained; and that grave has found a triumph, in those faithful men, in whom it found its most conspicuous instruments. The gloom of this house, the bereavement of our seminary of science, and other remembrances of death tell us, that what is ripe for heaven God takes to himself. To prayer, to watchfulness, to fidelity, to labours, let us be quickened; that we may severally say “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth, there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me, at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.