Jonathan Bird gave this sermon on April 11, 1803. Bird uses 1 Peter 2:13 and Romans 13:1 as the basis for this sermon.
DELIVERED TO THE FREEMEN
IN THE SECOND SOCIETY IN SAYBROOK, APRIL 11th,
By JONATHAN BIRD, A.M.
When the righteous are in authority the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule the people mourn.
If a ruler hearken to lies, all his servants are wicked. Solomon.
Rom. XIII. 1. Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for there is no power but of God: the powers that be, are ordained of God.
When we see the restless pursuits of the world; good order disregarded; laws, human and divine, trampled on; religion derided; and its professors made the scoff of the profane – When vice of every kind is rampant, its votaries applauded, and advanced to lucrative and honorable stations, then, we justly fear for the safety of our civil and religious liberty.
It is needless to turn your thoughts to the wars and open attacks, on civil and religious liberty, which have convulsed and torn to pieces the European governments. Sufficient, and more than sufficient, has America drank of the lethiferous [lethal] streams of European politics, and of their demoralizing systems, which have poisoned our civil and religious liberty. (2. 3.)
In vain shall we look to the boasted empire of reason, and the philosophism of the present day to remedy the evil: for the most part, it has arisen from this very source. And, though the precepts of the gospel will do much to promote virtue, peace and good order, among those who believe in revelation and are civilly disposed, yet, with others, such as have dipped into the demoralizing principles of vain philosophy, they will have little or no influence: under God, we must depend, principally, on the civil arm. Good laws, upright judges, and a prompt execution are the main anchor of hope. (4. 7.).
It is of high importance, my hearers, that as individuals, and as members of society, we use our influence to establish and maintain civil government. This is not merely the voice of reason, it is the voice of God: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for there is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God.” The civil constitution and laws of a state are, strictly, the civil power, by which, both rulers and subjects are bound. But, as laws are nothing without an executive, the apostle speaks of them as one: and calls the present rulers, the powers that be, on the supposition they adhere to the laws, or, are ministers of God for good: and, as such, affirms they are ordained of God.
The nature of civil government – how far it is an ordinance of God – and our obligation of obedience, thereto, now call for our attention.
“Government is the exertion or display of lawful powers, for the attainment of good and proper ends.” In all government, whether family, ecclesiastical or political, good and proper ends should be the first ingredients. Civil government proposes a fourfold good, viz. Natural good, the preservation of our lives and properties: Moral good, the promotion of virtue, and suppression of vice and immorality: Civil good, the support of justice, truth and honesty among all degrees of men: Religious good, friendship, protection and maintenance of the religion of our Lord Jesus Christ; thy kings shall be nursing fathers, and thy queens nursing mothers, saith the Lord. Had such ends always been kept in view, by those who enact and execute laws, this world would have been a Paradise of God, in comparison with what it now is: But, alas! Long experience hath taught, that when pride, ambition, avarice, and other vices obtain the chair of state, or sword of civil power, then tyranny or anarchy prevail, liberty bleeds, and the people mourn.
But let it be noticed again, that as there are good ends in civil government; so there must be a power vested, somewhere, sufficient for the attainment, or for the ordering of things and persons for the attainment of such ends. Government, without this, would be a mere air built castle, a name without a substance. Men may propose good ends, talk and make a bustle about government; but it is all nonsense, while they have neither power nor influence to effect, or order things and persons for effecting such ends. A power here must be, and sufficient power too, or government will become nerveless, sink into contempt, and do no good. (5) – Whether this power be vested in one, two, or more, is non-essential, so it be for the best good of the community; and without this, it can in no form, be an ordinance of God for good.
It is necessary, that power be exerted. Power, while dormant, is the same as no power. Laws, not executed, are the same as no laws. There must be a display of power for the attainment of good ends. The laws must be put promptly in execution to render government energetic, a praise to them that do well, and a terror to the evil. This is the sum of civil government. Good ends; power to effect these ends; and this power actually exerted, completes the system. It contains a legislative, and an executive body, each tending, ultimately, to promote the glory of God through the best good of the community, and as such, constitutes them an ordinance of God, and entitles them to this glorious character — Ministers of God for good.
Let us in the next place inquire, wherein civil government is an ordinance of God, and, in what respects it is an ordinance of man. The apostle says, “The powers that be, are ordained of God.” Civil government, therefore, is of divine authority. It is God’s ordinance for the well-being of society: not a necessary evil, as some wild visionaries have asserted, for the humbling of the soul, and a scourge to sin. It was appointed for the natural, moral, civil and religious good of society. And, though the law was made for the unholy and disobedient, yet, it tends to God’s glory through the greatest good of the community, and as such, is a glorious ordinance of God. Civil government is an abstract of the divine government, influencing us to an imitation of the perfections of the Deity — “What, O man, doth he require of thee, but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God?” This requirement was worthy of Jehovah; and it is our glory to obey it.
This passage contains the whole of civil government, as an ordinance of God, but says nothing of laws, modes and forms. It only requires such a system of moral and civil walking, as will maintain justice, truth and mercy; and promote mutual subjection and subordination among men. Such a requirement is the unalienable prerogative of Deity, and the language of sound reason; and teaches us, that every government, whoever are its ministers, or whatever is its form, if calculated to answer the above mentioned purposes, is an ordinance of God, resembling his own divine government, and answering his demands of righteousness, truth and mercy in the land. (1. 2.).
Civil government, in every other respect, is left to human prudence and discretion: agreeably to which, St. Peter in our text, calls it an ordinance of man. – This grant to man, is highly fit and infinitely kind, in this changeable state of things; because, no mode of government will suit all communities — different circumstances, require different laws and procedures. Hence arises a necessity, that every state or corporate body should form such a constitution, and enact such laws as they find most conducive to general good. (3).
This right and privilege may be used personally or representatively, as shall be most convenient, and best subserve [to be helpful in promoting] the public weal. The ordinance of God, however, will in this circumscribe our liberty; and restrain our choice to those men who fear God and work righteousness. As God does not permit us to live without government; so neither does he allow us to chose fools and knaves for legislators, and executive officers: the one cannot, and the other will not subserve his glory and the general good. Men, who act on narrow, selfish principles and from sinister views — men, who maintain demoralizing tenets and practices, or countenance and connive at those who do – men, who wish and endeavor to cut, or weaken the sinew2s of energetic government, are a curse to the community (5)—“The best of them is as a briar, and the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge.” Such men have no just title to the suffrages of freemen, for they are not, and will not be ministers of God for good.
This restraint in the ordinance of God, is compatible with the highest degrees of reasonable civil liberty; and extends to the greatest good of the community. As it rejects the vicious and ignorant, and promotes the wise and virtuous; (2) so it require that these be taken from among ourselves, not strangers and foreigners, but men, who are intimately connected, and well acquainted with the interest of the community, that when they enact and execute laws, they may feel for their brethren as for themselves. Agreeably to which, God said unto his people Israel, “One from among thy brethren, shalt thou set over thee: thou sayest not set a stranger over thee, who is not thy brother.” And, that he might feel his dependence on God, and his connection with the people, he was required to keep a copy of the law by him, and to read in it all the days of his life, that he might learn to fear the Lord — that his heart might not be lifted up above his brethren — and that he turn not aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left.
Hence we see in what respects civil government is an ordinance of God, and wherein it is an ordinance of man. The constitution, and choice of all persons to be invested with power, are left to the discretion and wisdom of the people: God only requires that his glory be consulted, in every part, through the best good of the community. (2) Our best interest and highest reasonable liberty is consulted, in this ordinance of God. It is truly a popular government, for “the voice of the people is the voice of God:” that which best subserves the good of the community, best subserves his glory, therefore, is his ordinance for good.
Our obligation of obedience to such a government, is too obvious to need any labored proof. Is civil government for the benefit of society, then, common sense teaches the duty of obedience: nor can we withhold our obedience, and not injure ourselves, hurt the public, and dishonor God; hence the apostle said, “He that resisteth shall receive to himself damnation.” They who conscientiously obey the good laws of the state, cannot be unhappy in a civil sense: it is their disobedience to good laws, or submission to bad ones, which render them unhappy, and urges them to disorder and insurrection. (4)
The apostle presses his arguments, pointedly, for obedience to the powers that be, from the consideration, that they were not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Would we discourage vice and promote virtue — would we live in peace and safety — would we enjoy our own, and let our neighbor enjoy his, we must yield a prompt obedience to the powers ordained of God. No other course will insure these blessings.
And, as this is the dictate of found reason, so it has the sanction of heaven: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake. Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for they are ordained of God. God has, doubtless, a right to command even unconditional obedience; but in this case, of civil government, he has in an high degree, connected our interest and happiness with obedience: His command is, therefore, enforced with double energy. We must submit not only for wrath, but for conscience sake — not merely for fear of punishment, but from a spirit of love and obedience; and, thus keep a good conscience towards God and man. Yea, gratitude and justice are not silent on this point: gratitude to God for this civil ordinance; and respect, honor and justice to his ministers who faithfully rule. Accordingly we read, “For, for this cause pay ye tribute also; for they are God’s ministers, attending continually on this very thing,” the good of the people; therefore, render to all their dues: tribute, to whom tribute is due; custom, to whom custom; fear, to whom fear; honor, to whom honor. Thus, God and reason require, that the Minister of God for good shall receive a reward for his service; and honor, respect and obedience for the sake of the ordinance.
You will observe, that I have not been pleading the cause of passive obedience and non resistance; but have urged my arguments for obedience, solely on the ground, that civil government is an ordinance of God for good. (5) That the executive officer, and the people in their representative and legislative capacity may do wrong, will not admit of a doubt. But whether they do wrong, will not admit of a doubt. But whether they can, or do; or wherein they cease to be an ordinance of God: or whether the people can, or wherein they may have just cause of resistance, are points on which I have neither time nor inclination to enter. — Many political retailers have made a noise, and done mischief on these points. Would such men take less pains to pull down and destroy, and make complaint of government: and, would they take more pains to fill the legislative and executive departments of government, with men of sound heads, and of honest devout hearts, they might be an honor to themselves, and greatly subserve the peace and well being of society. (3)
It is, indeed, a melancholy truth, that political heresies, disorganizing and demoralizing principles abound in the Union. Some states are in absolute confusion. 1 And, so confident of success are the authors and promoters of this baneful system, that they boast in the very face of day.
In justice, however, it must be acknowledged the people of this State have, for a long time, enjoyed a larger share of civil and religious liberty and happiness, than most of the other States; and are still, as a body, warm friends to good order in church and state. Some instances to the contrary, doubtless, there are, which call for attention and vigilance from the friends of government.
And, happy am I to congratulate you, my hearers, on this annual return of the day of liberty and freedom, a day, on which, we have opportunity to testify to the world, our abhorrence of men and measures which, tend to deprive us of the civil and religious liberty, handed down from our ancestors. – According to the civil constitution of this State, which, we believe, is an ordinance of God, we have both right and opportunity to chose the Executive and Legislative branches of our government. This liberty is a great and high privilege: may we honor God, and act worthy of our freedom.
Government, as we have heard, is an ordinance of God, and tends to promote the natural, moral, civil and religious good of the community. Under an energetic government, life and property are safe – vice hides her head – virtue triumphs – justice and honesty are maintained, and the religion of Jesus Christ is befriended. Thus, peace and good order are supported, religion flourishes, heaven smiles, and we are blessed. (5) How important then is it, that we use our liberty this day, in appointing and choosing such men to the civil department, as fear God and work righteousness?
It is not a matter of indifference, what characters we choose to office: all will not make Ministers of God for good. – Let it be remembered, that there are but two leading principles in the universe, godliness, and selfishness. The former, is universal benevolence; the latter, is universal malevolence: they are diametrically opposite to each other. Would we have a good and peaceable government, we must have godly men at the helm: (2) men that fear God and love the public good. Selfish men are no friends to God, nor to their fellow creatures: self, like the rave, swallows up everything. The nearest relations – the dearest connections – and the greatest public good are as stubble, when they stand in competition with self. So speaks Dr. Watts:
O cursed idol self!
The wretch that worships the would dare to tread
To ‘scape a rising wave when seas the land invade.
To gain the safety of some higher ground,
He’d trample down the dikes that fence his country round
Amid’st a general flood, and leave a nation drown’d.
In perfect agreement with this sentiment, and with common experience is St. Paul’s observation to Timothy – Know this also, that in the last days perilous times shall come: for men shall be lovers of their own selves. This, the Apostle said would be the character of these last days – men would be lovers of their own selves – destitute of love to God, and of benevolence toward man. All public spirit would be lost in the insatiable abyss of self. Hence the times would be perilous; men would not know whom to trust; and were sure to be ruined, if power should get into the hands of such characters. This is evident from his description of these selfish men. They would be covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebrakers, i.e. no bonds, covenants or agreements would hold them against self-interest, false accusers, the original is devils like satan, they would accuse and distress the righteous; incontinent, i.e. intemperate; fierce dispisers, i.e. haters of them that are good, traitors, heady, high minded, i.e. inflated, blown up like empty bladders; lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God. As the apostle expressed all these descriptions of selfish men, by the term, lovers of their own selves: so he summed up their practices, as covered with hypocrisy – having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. Such characters will put on a form – an outward show of religion to deceive people, and hoist themselves into office, and places of honor, trust and profit; and then, kick down the ladder by which they had risen. From such turn away, have nothing to do with them.
Do we desire a government that God will own and bless, we must make choice of rulers, that are friends to him and his cause. Has God a church on earth, and will he take his church to heaven; then such as ridicule religion, and scoff at professors – such as oppose church discipline and order, endeavoring to sink the church into the state governments, and to put down pulpits and ministers, are no friends to God and his cause — they are lovers of their own selves. (3) They will never serve the public good, any further, than self-interest shall compel them: and will always lie open to bribery, corruption and venality. Remember, my fellow citizens, the schemes and plans of selfish men, are the ways of wicked and evil men: avoid them, pass not by them, turn from them, and pass away. (2)
That there are such base characters in the union, is too evident: but I hope, and believe, that in Connecticut, they do not greatly abound; and am happy to understand, that in this town, it is by no means a general thing — as yet, you are strongly attached to your steady habits. Some good and worthy men, doubtless, are deluded and deceived by the vailed measures of selfish men. — What I have said is not to reflect on any; but to excite all to stand on their guard against designing men, and honestly, to support the cause of religion, morals and good government.
At a time like the present, when many are casting off moral and civil restraint, it peculiarly concerns the friends of good order to come forward, in their several stations, and maintain that civil liberty, which is God’s ordinance for good. If the friends of good order, neglect their feats and duty; depend on it, the enemies of government will be there and fill the offices with their own creatures. (2 3.) If we neglect the right of choosing our representatives and civil officers we dishonor God, and despise our civil birthright; and may thank ourselves for bad laws, or, at least, for the want of good ones, and good government.
And as we may not neglect, so neither may we misuse our liberty. It is not sufficient that we choose men to fill the civil departments, but we must be careful to choose men fit to be there; men, who have both will and ability to be Ministers of God for good.
As we must avoid the vain, the simple, and the ignorant; so must we reject impious, immoral, selfish, intriguing, party-making, honor-hunting, double-faced, and double-tongued men: the former cannot, and the latter will not honor their office, glorify God, and benefit the public.
Let us remember my fellow citizens, that we are accountable to God, to the present and future generations, for the use of our liberty this day. God’s glory, public good, and private happiness are depending on the choice of officers we shall make. And, to press our duty still closer on our consciences, let us remember the solemn oath we have taken in the presence of God, and of each other, that to the best of our ability, we will use our liberty, as not abusing it. With these impressions on our minds, let us apply to the throne of grace for necessary light and assistance; and so enter on the duties before us. And may God grant, that we shall honestly give our votes for such men, as in our consciences, we believe will best subserve God’s glory, and the public good. Amen. (7)
(1) The sermon or rather declamation may be termed, from the bitterness and virulence it contained, a violent philippie and a libel on the administration of your country.
(2) What was the evident drift and design of this party-colored sermon? If those who heard it may judge, it was calculated to undermine our national government and administration, by weakening the confidence of the people in it; and that the Freemen must not choose such men to office as were professedly its supporters.
(3) It was calculated to hurt the reputations and wound the feelings of all those who wished to aid and assist in the support of our executive government, and who are all firm and tried friends to this State in which we live, — by imputing to them the worst principles, and the vilest motives; those of a design to pull down and destroy both church and state, and fill the earth with general confusion and anarchy.
(4) The text chosen contained inunctions of obedience to rulers and to the constituted authorities, and yet he scandalized our national rulers, by indirectly imputing to them a vain philosophy and demoralizing principles, overlooking at same time that obedience to rulers which is their due.
(5) What did he think of his hearers when he was enforcing the principles of an energetic and arbitrary government? Did he suppose them to be as ignorant and stupid as himself? Observe his word, “that men opposed to an energetic government are a curse to community” — I believe that no intelligent man could form any other idea from it, than a dislike to our republican government and wish to introduce an aristocracy or a monarchy.
(6) Observe his words as he goes on, when alluding to republicanism, “that where it had prevailed in any of the Stats, confusion had succeeded, and that in one of the States, they are in total confusion.” This is without foundation and not true. We know of no State in the union, where confusion either totally or partially prevails.
(7) In short, sir, we consider this attack on our characters and political sentiments and privileges, as a flagrant insult on our understandings and feelings as men, as Christians and as members of society.
1 The author purposed to have omitted this sentence in the delivery; but happening to fall upon it before he recollected himself, he thought fit to let it pass. – This whole paragraph is verbatim as it was delivered. (6)