What can be more appropriate than posting an old sermon on a Sunday? The sermon below was delivered to commemorate the new 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the achievements of John Adams of which he was most proud.
The sermon was delivered by Congregational Minister Samuel Cooper, pastor of the Brattle Street Church in Boston. Congregants of this church included some of the most influential people of the American Revolution, such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and John Adams.
Reverend Cooper was also a co-founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The creation of the American republic was a culmination of the Enlightenment in both politics and science, and it was so manifestly self-evident that government should actively support and promote science and the arts that there was no debate about the issue in the founding era. (See, for example, my July 2014 story, The Higgs boson and purpose of a republic.) The attacks on science by our present day Republicans and conservatives would have shocked and horrified the parishioners listening to Rev. Cooper in 1780. It is especially distressing to consider certain evangelical denominations today and how they have rejected science and reason and embraced instead a "literal interpretation of the Bible" that is dangerously manichean. Rather than delight in the works of the Creator, they have chosen to wallow terror-stricken in the dark of myth and superstition.
Indeed, a major reason I decided to post these long excerpts from Cooper’s sermon is because it stands as a stinging rebuke to Republicans, conservatives and libertarians of today. The emphasis added in bold are mine. I think it important at this time, with a unpopularly elected narcissist in full control of the executive, and conservative ideologues in control of the legislature, to insist that a government, any government, is supposed to “vindicate the oppressed, and restrain and punish the oppressor….”
A Sermon On The Day Of The Commencement Of The Constitution, Boston, 1780, by Samuel Cooper (1725-1783).
Their Congregation shall be established before me: and their Nobles shall be of themselves, and their Governor shall proceed from the midst of them. XXXth Jeremiah, 20, 21 Ver.How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people? How is she become as a widow: she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces? She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she hath none to comfort her; her friends have dealt treacherously with her. Judah is gone into captivity; because of affliction, and because of great servitude, she findeth no rest.
Such are the fruits of lawless and despotic power in a mortal man intoxicated with it: Such desolations does it make in the earth—such havock in the family of God, merely for the sake of enlarging it’s bounds and impressing its terror on the human bosom…. It covets every thing without bounds: It grasps every thing without pity: It riots on the spoils of innocence and industry: It is proud to annihilate the rights of mankind; to destroy the fairest constitutions of wisdom, policy and justice, the broadest sources of human happiness: While it enslaves the bodies, it debases the minds of the offspring of God: In its progress it changes the very face of nature, it withers even the fruits of the earth, and frustrates the bounties of our common parent. “Before it is the garden of God, behind it is a desolate wilderness."
… But in the happy restoration promised in our text, it is observable, that the royal part of their government was not to be renewed. No mention is made in this refreshing prediction of a king, but only of nobles, men of principal character and influence, who were to be of themselves, and such as they would chuse to conduct their affairs; and a governor, who should also proceed from the midst of them, and preside over all, cloathed with a tempered authority and dignity, not with arbitrary power, and the means of gratifying an unbounded avarice and ambition.
The form of government originally established in the Hebrew nation by a charter from heaven, was that of a free republic, over which God himself, in peculiar favour to that people, was pleased to preside. It consisted of three parts; a chief magistrate who was called judge or leader, such as Joshua and others, a council of seventy chosen men, and the general assemblies of the people. Of these the two last were the most essential and permanent, and the first more occasional, according to the particular circumstances of the nation. Their council or Sanhedrim, remained with but little suspension, through all the vicissitudes they experienced, till after the commencement of the christian æra. And as to the assemblies of the people, that they were frequently held by divine appointment, and considered as the fountain of civil power, which they exerted by their own decrees, or distributed into various channels as they judged most conducive to their own security, order, and happiness, is evident beyond contradiction from the sacred history. Even the law of Moses, though framed by God himself, was not imposed upon that people against their will; it was laid open before the whole congregation of Israel; they freely adopted it, and it became their law, not only by divine appointment, but by their own voluntary and express consent. Upon this account it is called in the sacred writings a covenant, compact, or mutual stipulation.
… But as the memorable act of the day depended intirely on the consent of the people, he accordingly refers the matter to their own free determination. “Chuse you this day whom you will serve.”
Such was the civil constitution of the Hebrew nation, till growing weary of the gift of heaven, they demanded a king. After being admonished by the prophet Samuel of the ingratitude and folly of their request, they were punished in the grant of it. Impiety, corruption and disorder of every kind afterwards increasing among them, they grew ripe for the judgments of heaven in their desolation and captivity. Taught by these judgments the value of those blessings they had before despised, and groaning under the hand of tyranny more heavy than that of death, they felt the worth of their former civil and religious privileges, and were prepared to receive with gratitude and joy a restoration not barely to the land flowing with milk and honey, but to the most precious advantage they ever enjoyed in that land, their original constitution of government: They were prepared to welcome with the voice of mirth and thanksgiving the re-establishment of their congregations; nobles chosen from among themselves, and a governor proceeding from the midst of them.
We want not, indeed, a special revelation from heaven to teach us that men are born equal and free; that no man has a natural claim of dominion over his neighbours, nor one nation any such claim upon another; and that as government is only the administration of the affairs of a number of men combined for their own security and happiness, such a society have a right freely to determine by whom and in what manner their own affairs shall be administered. These are the plain dictates of that reason and common sense with which the common parent of men has informed the human bosom. It is, however, a satisfaction to observe such everlasting maxims of equity confirmed, and impressed upon the consciences of men, by the instructions, precepts, and examples given us in the sacred oracles; one internal mark of their divine original, and that they come from him “who hath made of one blood all nations to dwell upon the face of the earth,” whose authority sanctifies only those governments that instead of oppressing any part of his family, vindicate the oppressed, and restrain and punish the oppressor….
Independence gives us a rank among the nations of the earth, which no precept of our religion forbids us to understand and feel, and which we should be ambitious to support in the most reputable manner. It opens to us a free communication with all the world, not only for the improvement of commerce, and the acquisition of wealth, but also for the cultivation of the most useful knowledge. It naturally unfetters and expands the human mind, and prepares it for the impression of the most exalted virtues, as well as the reception of the most important science. If we look into the history and character of nations, we shall find those that have been for a long time, and to any considerable degree dependent upon others, limited and cramped in their improvements; corrupted by the court, and stained with the vices of the ruling state; and debased by an air of servility and depression marking their productions and manners. Servility is not only dishonorable to human nature, but commonly accompanied with the meanest vices, such as adulation, deceit, falshood, treachery, cruelty, and the basest methods of supporting and procuring the favour of the power upon which it depends….
It is to the dishonor of human nature, that liberty, wherever it has been planted and flourished, has commonly required to be watered with blood. Britain, in her conduct towards these states, hath given a fresh proof of the truth of this observation. She has attempted to destroy by her arms in America, what she professes to defend by these very arms on her own soil. Such is the nature of man, such the tendency of power in a nation as well as a single person. It makes a perpetual effort to enlarge itself, and presses against the bounds that confine it. It loses by degrees all idea of right but its own; and therefore that people must be unhappy indeed, who have nothing but humble petitions and remonstrances, and the feeble voice of a charter to oppose to the arms of another nation, that claims a right to bind them in all cases whatsoever….
By this conduct of our enemies, heaven hath granted us an inestimable opportunity, and such as has been rarely if ever indulged to so great a people: An opportunity to avail ourselves of the wisdom and experience of all past ages united with that of the present; of comparing what we have seen and felt ourselves, with what we have known and read of others; and of chusing for ourselves, unencumbered with the pretensions of royal heirs, or lordly peers, of feudal rights, or ecclesiastical authority, that form of civil government which we judge most conducive to our own security and order, liberty and happiness: An opportunity, though surrounded with the flames of war, of deliberating and deciding upon this most interesting of all human affairs with calmness and freedom. This, in all it’s circumstances, is a singular event; it is hard to tell where another such scene was ever beheld. The origin of most nations is covered with obscurity, and veiled by fiction; the rise of our own is open as it is honorable; and the new-born state, may I not be allowed to say, is a “spectacle to men and angels.” For as piety, virtue, and morals are not a little interested in government, such a transaction has an aspect upon both worlds; and concerns us not only as members of civil society upon earth, but as candidates for “the city of the living God, the Jerusalem on high.”
….I need not enlarge before such an audience upon the particular excellencies of this constitution: How effectually it makes the people the keepers of their own liberties, with whom they are certainly safest: How nicely it poizes the powers of government, in order to render them as far as human foresight can, what God ever designed they should be, powers only to do good: How happily it guards on the one hand against anarchy and confusion, and on the other against tyranny and oppression: How carefully it separates the legislative from the executive power, a point essential to liberty: How wisely it has provided for the impartial execution of the laws in the independent situation of the judges; a matter of capital moment, and without which the freedom of a constitution in other respects, might be often delusory, and not realized in the just security of the person and property of the subject….
When a people have the rare felicity of chusing their own government, every part of it should first be weighed in the balance of reason, and nicely adjusted to the claims of liberty, equity and order; but when this is done, a warm and passionate patriotism should be added to the result of cool deliberation, to put in motion and animate the whole machine. The citizens of a free republic should reverence their constitution: They should not only calmly approve, and readily submit to it, but regard it also with veneration and affection rising even to an enthusiasm, like that which prevailed at Sparta and at Rome. Nothing can render a commonwealth more illustrious, nothing more powerful, than such a manly, such a sacred fire. Every thing will then be subordinated to the public welfare; every labour necessary to this will be chearfully endured, every expence readily submitted to, every danger boldly confronted. [Compare this to our contemporary conservatives – with whom our so-called Christians so readily truck – who call for abolishing the IRS, and protest that taxation is violence, a redistribution forced upon them by government guns.]
Righteousness, says one of the greatest politicians and wisest princes that ever lived, “Righteousness exalteth a nation.” This maxim doth not barely rest upon his own but also on a divine authority; and the truth of it hath been verified by the experience of all ages.
Our civil rulers will remember, that as piety and virtue support the honour and happiness of every community, they are peculiarly requisite in a free government. Virtue is the spirit of a republic; for where all power is derived from the people, all depends on their good disposition. If they are impious, factious and selfish; if they are abandoned to idleness, dissipation, luxury, and extravagance; if they are lost to the fear of God, and the love of their country, all is lost. Having got beyond the restraints of a divine authority, they will not brook the control of laws enacted by rulers of their own creating. We may therefore rely that the present government will do all it fairly can, by authority and example, to answer the end of its institution, that the members of this commonwealth may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness as well as honesty, and our liberty never be justly reproached as licentiousness.
Neither piety, virtue, or liberty can long flourish in a community, where the education of youth is neglected. How much do we owe to the care of our venerable ancestors upon this important object? Had not they laid such foundations for training up their children in knowledge and religion, in science, and arts, should we have been so respectable a community as we this day appear? Should we have understood our rights so clearly? or valued them so highly? or defended them with such advantage? Or should we have been prepared to lay that basis of liberty, that happy constitution, on which we raise such large hopes, and from which we derive such uncommon joy? We may therefore be confident that the schools, and particularly the university, founded and cherished by our wise and pious fathers, will be patronized and nursed by a government which is so much indebted to them for its honour and efficacy, and the very principles of its existence. The present circumstances of those institutions call for the kindest attention of our rulers; and their close connection with every public interest, civil and religious, strongly enforces the call.
The sciences and arts, for the encouragement of which a new foundation hath lately been laid in this commonwealth, deserve the countenance and particular favour of every government. They are not only ornamental but useful: They not only polish, but support, enrich, and defend a community. As they delight in liberty, they are particularly friendly to free states. Barbarians are fierce and ungovernable, and having the grossest ideas of order, and the benefits resulting from it, they require the hand of a stern master; but a people enlightened and civilized by the sciences and liberal arts, have sentiments that support liberty and good laws: They may be guided by a silken thread; and the mild punishments proper to a free state are sufficient to guard the public peace.
…. A celebrated British historian observes, if I well remember, that the natural features of America are peculiarly striking. Our mountains, our rivers and lakes have a singular air of dignity and grandeur. May our conduct correspond to the face of our country! At present an immense part of it lies as nature hath left it, and human labour and art have done but little, and brightened only some small specks of a continent that can afford ample means of subsistence to many, many millions of the human race. It remains with us and our posterity, to “make the wilderness become a fruitful field, and the desert blossom as the rose”; to establish the honour and happiness of this new world, as far as it may be justly our own, and to invite the injured and oppressed, the worthy and the good to these shores, by the most liberal governments, by wise political institutions, by cultivating the confidence and friendship of other nations, and by a sacred attention to that gospel that breaths “peace on earth, and good will towards men.” Thus will our country resemble the new city which St. John saw “coming down from God out of heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband.” Is there a benevolent spirit on earth, or on high, whom such a prospect would not delight?