Samuel Stillman, The Duty of Magistrates (1779)
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This discourse was preached before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in 1779. It contains quotations from political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). The election sermon's author, Samuel Stillman (1737-1807) was an American Revolutionary minister, a trustee of Brown University from 1764-1807, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and (according to editor Frank Moore), "a member of the Senate Convention for the formation of the state constitution in 1779; as also for the adoption of the federal constitution in 1788; in the last body he delivered a very eloquent speech in its support, and was considered at the time as having contributed much toward its adoption, and confirmed many members in its favor who were previously wavering upon that question. To that constitution he ever after continued a firm, unshaken friend, and a warm approver of the administration of Washington and Adams."
Sermon, together with a biographical sketch (slightly abridged, with incorporation of footnotes into the text) is from: Frank Moore, editor, The Patriot Preachers of the American Revolution, with Biographical Sketches, 1766-1783 (n.p.) (1860), pp. 258-288.]
SAMUEL STILLMAN, D.D.
This eminent divine was a native of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, where he was born, February twenty-seventh, 1737. While quite a child, his parents removed to Charleston, South Carolina, at which place he was educated; soon after he attained his twenty-second year, he was ordained and settled at James's Island. Ill health prevented his remaining in this position but for eighteen months, at the termination of which he removed to Bordentown, New Jersey. In 1762, he visited New England, and after being an assistant about a year, in the Second Baptist Church, in Boston, he was installed the minister of the First, as successor of Mr. Bound, in January, 1765.
Dr. Stillman was by nature endowed with a good capacity, and an uncommon quickness of apprehension. His feelings were peculiarly strong and lively, which gave activity to whatever he did, and, under the influence and control of religious principles, served to increase that eminent piety, in which nature no less than grace, seemed to have aided him. To this constitutional ardor, both of sentiment and action, which led him to enter with his whole heart in whatever he engaged, he united a delicacy, that he would not intentionally wound the feelings of any one; and such easy, affable, and gentlemanly manners, as would adapt themselves to almost any society, without diminishing in the smallest degree his personal respect on the one hand, or carrying the least mixture of austerity or precision on the other. The lively interest he appeared to take in whatever affected the happiness or increased the pleasures of his friends, the gentleness of his reproofs and the gratification he seemed to feel in commending others, united to his social qualities, endeared him to all who knew him.
The popularity of a preacher commonly declines with his years. Dr. Stillman, however, was a singular exception to this general remark. He retained it for upward of fifty-two years, and his congregation, which, upon his first connection with it, was the smallest in the town, at the age of seventy, the period of his death, he left among the most numerous.
As a minister of Christ his praise was in all the churches. Nature had furnished him with a most commanding voice; the very tones of which were admirably adapted to awaken the feelings of an audience; and he always managed it with the greatest success. His eloquence was of the powerful and impressive, rather than of the insinuating and persuasive kind, and his manner so strikingly interesting, that he never preached to an unattentive audience: and even those who dissented from him in some minor points of theology, were still pleased with hearing him--for they knew his sincerity--they knew him to be a good man. There was a fervor in his prayers that seldom failed to awaken the devotion of his hearers; for coming from the heart, it failed not to reach the hearts of others. [***] His subjects were often doctrinal, but he commonly delivered practical inferences from them, and every one acknowledged his great usefulness. He preached much to the feelings and the heart; and numbers on whose minds naked reason and simple truth could produce no serious effects, his powerful eloquence was a means of both touching and reclaiming. Nor was he only a preacher of righteousness; what he taught that others should do, he lived himself. * (* See the Palladium and New York Advertiser of March, 1807.)
The integrity of Dr. Stillman's character was such as produced universal confidence in him. Expressive of this was his election by the town of Boston as a member of the Senate Convention for the formation of the state constitution in 1779; as also for the adoption of the federal constitution in 1788; in the last body he delivered a very eloquent speech in its support, and was considered at the time as having contributed much toward its adoption, and confirmed many members in its favor who were previously wavering upon that question. To that constitution he ever after continued a firm, unshaken friend, and a warm approver of the administration of Washington and Adams.
His domestic character was in perfect unison with the other parts of it. [***] It was his constant prayer that "his life and his usefulness might run parallel," and in this he was gratified. Without any previous symptoms, on the morning of the 13th of March, 1807, he was suddenly attacked with paralysis, and on the night following, having received another shock, he passed into eternity.
[* [Note by Editor Frank Moore:] This sermon was preached before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, on the 29th of May, 1779. It was published the same year.]
THE DUTY OF MAGISTRATES. *
[By Samuel Stillman]
Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.---MATT. xxii. 21.
The Pharisees, who in appearance were the strictest religious sect among the Jews, observing the growing reputation of the Son of God, and finding that he had eclipsed their glory, took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. A conduct this that is repugnant to every principle of genuine religion. But those men who are determined upon their own aggrandizement are seldom scrupulous about the means of obtaining it. Hence these ambitious religionists sent out to him their disciples, with the Herodians, men fit for their purpose, saying, in the language of hypocrisy and insult, "Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?"
The Jews entertained an extreme aversion to the Gentiles, and could not be brought to submit to a heathen magistrate but with great reluctance, and through absolute necessity.
These Pharisees, therefore, judging of our blessed Lord by their own sentiments and feelings, supposed that by this question they should extort something from him derogatory to Caesar's honor; or that would subject him to an impeachment as an enemy to the Roman government. But he taketh the wise in their own craftiness: "Show me," said he, "the tribute money. And they brought him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's: and unto God the things that are God's." Upon their being thus defeated in their infamous attempt, they marvelled and went their way to report to their masters their humiliating disappointment; for Christ had said nothing in his reply to them which Caesar himself would not approve.
It is a matter of very little consequence to us, on this occasion, which of the Caesars was on the throne at the time referred to in the text; because the duties here inculcated are not affected by this circumstance. The people were taught by Christ, to render such obedience to Caesar, or to the civil magistrate, as would be consistent with the natural and the civil rights of men, and the obligations they were under to the eternal God. It is unreasonable to suppose that he meant to inculcate any other subjection than this. Besides, his address is properly guarded: "Render therefore to Caesar, the things that are Caesar's." That is, those things which he may lawfully claim. What these were, our Lord does not ascertain. Nor is it necessary that we should, as they relate to Caesar and his subjects. I shall therefore proceed to apply this sacred passage to ourselves, in our present situation, by considering:
I. What those duties are which the people owe to the civil magistrate.
II. The duties of the magistrate to the people. And then,
III. Endeavor to draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar, and those things that belong to God.
I. We are first to inquire, what those duties are which the people owe to the civil magistrate.
I apprehend that this question implies another, which is previously necessary to be determined, viz.: How came the men whom we call magistrates with any power at all over the people? Were they born to govern? Have they a higher original than other men? Or do they claim the sovereignty jure divino?
The time has been when the divine right of kings sounded from the pulpit and the press; and when the sacred name of religion was brought in to sanctify the most horrid systems of despotism and cruelty. But, blessed be God, we live in a more happy era, in which the great principles of liberty are better understood. With us, it is a first and fundamental principle, that God made all men equal.
"Nothing is more evident," says Locke, "than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty."
Until such a declaration of the divine will shall be produced, we ought firmly to maintain the natural equality of all men.
And as they are equal, so they are likewise in a state of entire freedom. Whatever they possess is their own, to be disposed of solely agreeably to their own will. None have a right to claim any part of their property, to disturb them in their possessions, or to demand subjection in any degree whatever, while they act consistently with the laws of nature. He who attempts to do either is an usurper; puts himself into a state of war, and may be opposed as a common highwayman.
If we admit the truth of these principles, we come, by an easy transition, to the foundation of civil society, viz., the consent of the people. For, if all men are equal by nature, it must depend entirely upon themselves whether they will continue in their natural condition, or exchange it for a state of civil government. Consequently the sovereignty resides originally in the people.
As their leaving a state of nature for a state of civil society is a matter of their own choice, so they are equally free to adopt that form of government which appears to them the most eligible, or the best calculated to promote the happiness of themselves and of their posterity.
Which is the best form of civil government, is a question of the first magnitude to any people; and particularly to us who have lately considered this weighty matter; and who expect, at some future period, finally to determine it. May that God by whom all human events are controlled, inspire my fellow- citizens with that wisdom that shall be profitable to direct!
From the premises, the following is a natural conclusion--That the authority of the civil magistrate is, under God, derived from the people.
In order therefore to determine with accuracy, what the powers of the civil magistrate are, and also the duties that the people owe him, we must have recourse to the constitution; by which, in all good governments, the authority of the former, and the rights of the latter, are determined with precision.
That it should be so, is a dictate of common sense. For upon a supposition of the contrary, how shall the rulers or subjects determine their respective obligations?
From hence arises, in my view, the indispensable necessity of a BILL OF RIGHTS drawn up in the most explicit language, previously to the ratification of a constitution of government; which should contain its fundamental principles, and which no person in the state, however dignified, should dare to violate but at his peril.
As we are at present without a fixed form of government, I shall treat the subject rather according to my wishes, than the present state of things. For the constitution ought at least to have a general existence in idea before the reciprocal duties of magistrates and people can be ascertained.
Some of those principles which, I apprehend, may be called fundamental, have been mentioned; to which I beg leave to subjoin:
That the great end for which men enter into a state of civil society is their own advantage.
That civil rulers, as they derive their authority from the people, so they are accountable to them for the use they make of it.
That elections ought to be free and frequent.
That representation should be as equal as possible.
That as all men are equal by nature, so, when they enter into a state of civil government, they are entitled precisely to the same rights and privileges, or to an equal degree of political happiness.
That some of the natural rights of mankind are unalienable, and subject to no control but that of the Deity. Such are the SACRED RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE; which, in a state of nature and of civil society, are exactly the same. They can neither be parted with nor controlled by any human authority whatever.
Attempts of this kind have been repeatedly made by an ambitious clergy, assisted by rulers of despotic principles; the consequence of which has been, that crowds of the best members of society have been reduced to this dreadful alternative, either to offend God, and violate the dictates of their own minds, or to die at a stake.
That the right of trial by jury ought to be perpetual.
That no man's property can, of right, be taken from him without his consent, given either in person or by his representative.
That no laws are obligatory on the people but those that have obtained a like consent. Nor are such laws of any force, if, proceeding from a corrupt majority of the legislature, they are incompatible with the fundamental principles of government, and tend to subvert it.
"All human things have an end," says Montesquieu, "the state we are speaking of (meaning Great Britain) will lose its liberty, will perish. Have not Rome, Sparta and Carthage perished? It will perish when the legislative power shall be more corrupt than the executive."
Let us cast our eyes to the land of our fathers, to the kingdom from whence we descended, and we shall find that she now totters on the brink of a most dangerous precipice. And that she hath been brought into her present deplorable condition by a venal majority.
Some of that people foresaw their catastrophe approaching with hasty strides; they petitioned and remonstrated. And several excellent things were published in vindication of their constitutions and their injured rights; but all was in vain.
The very men who were appointed the guardians and conservators of the rights of the people, have dismembered the empire; and by repeated acts of injustice and oppression, have forced from the bosom of their parent country, millions of Americans, who might have been drawn by a hair, but were not to be driven by all the thunder of Britain.
A few soft words would have fixed them in her interest, and have turned away that wrath which her cruel conduct had enkindled. The sameness of religion, of language and of manners, together with interest, that powerful motive, and a recollection of that reciprocation of kind offices which had long prevailed, would have held America in closest friendship with Great Britain, had she not "governed too much."
It can afford the inhabitants of that once happy country, no consolation in their present threatening condition, that it hath been brought on with all the formality of law. Rather, this circumstance adds to the calamity, seeing the men who should have saved them, have betrayed them.
Where is now the boasted freedom of the British government? Bribery and corruption seem nearly to have accomplished the prediction of the great Montesquieu. Nor is such an event to be wondered at, while we reflect on the inequality * of their representation and the base methods that are used in their elections of members of the House of Commons, together with the length of time they are suffered to continue in their places.
(* In Great Britain, consisting of near six millions of inhabitants, five thousand seven hundred and twenty-three persons, most of them of the lowest of the people, elect one-half of the House of Commons; and three hundred and sixty-four votes choose a ninth part. This may be distinctly made out in the Political Disquisitions, vol. I., book 2, ch. 4. --- Dr. Price.)
If they are chosen for a long term, by a part only of the state, and if, during that term, they are subject to no control from their constituents, the very idea of liberty will be lost, and the power of choosing in constituents becomes nothing but a power lodged in a few to choose, at certain periods, a body of masters for themselves and for the rest of the community. And if a state is so sunk that the body of its representatives are elected by a handful of the meanest persons in it, whose votes are always paid for; * and if, also, there is a higher will on which even these mock representatives themselves depend, and that directs their voices; in these circumstances, it will be an abuse of language to say that the state possesses liberty. This appears to be a just description of the present state of the country from which we descended.
(* They who buy their places will sell the people, for they mean to make something by the bargain.)
Such an instance affords us many important lessons, and calls upon us to guard as much as possible in our beginning, against the corruption of human nature. We should leave nothing to human virtue, that can be provided for by law or the constitution. The more we trust in the hands of any man, the more we try his virtue, which, at some fatal hour, may yield to a temptation; and the people discover their error, when it is too late to prevent the mischief.
Upon the truth of the principles advanced, I observe, that the authority of the magistrate is derived from the people by consent--that it is limited and subordinate--and that so long as he exercises the power with which he is vested, according to the original compact, the people owe him reverence, obedience and support.
Inspiration teaches us to give honor to whom honor, fear to whom fear.
When any men are taken from the common rank of citizens, and are entrusted with the powers of government, they are by that act ennobled. Their election implies their personal merit, and is a public declaration of it. For it is taken for granted, that the people have been influenced in their choice by worthiness of character, and not by family connections, or other base motives. They are, therefore, entitled to a certain degree of respect from their constituents--who, while they pay them due reverence, will feel it reflected upon themselves, because they bear their commission. Both interest and duty oblige them to reverence the powers that be. It is their duty in consequence of their own appointment. And their interest, because the good of the community depends much upon it. For as far as any of the citizens unjustly depreciate the merits of rulers, so far they lessen the energy of government, and put it out of their power to promote the public good.
With reverence to the person of the magistrate, we connect obedience to his authority--such obedience as is compatible with the principles already laid down. The term government implies this subordination, which is essential to its very existence.
When, therefore, any persons rise in opposition to such authority, they are guilty of a most daring offense against the state; because, as far as it prevails, it tends to destroy the social compact, and to introduce confusion and every evil work. Consequently,
It is the duty of the people to support the magistrate, in the due execution of the laws against such, and all other offenders. To choose men in office, and not to support them in the execution of it, is too great an absurdity, one would think, to find any abettors.
There is also a pecuniary support which the magistrate hath a right to receive from his constituents. It is most reasonable that those persons whose time and abilities are devoted to the service of their country, should be amply provided for while they are thus engaged. The compensation should be adequate to the services they render the state. Let it be sufficient, but not redundant.
While speaking of that support which the servants of government are entitled to, I beg leave to mention those brave men of every rank who compose our army. They have stepped forth in the hour of danger, have exchanged domestic ease and happiness for the hardships of the camp, have repeatedly fought, and many of them have bled, in the cause of their country. Of their importance no man can be ignorant.
With deference to this venerable assembly, I am constrained to observe, that our first attention is due to them, because, under God, they have been, now are, and, we trust, will be, our defense. For them let us make the most ample provision, and rest assured of their most vigorous exertions to defend and save their country.
But it is time to pass to the ---
II. Consideration of the duties of the magistrate to the people.
As a free government is founded in a compact, the parties concerned in it are consequently laid under mutual obligations. These, it hath been said, are determined by the constitution. If so, it follows, that the rulers of the people ought to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with it, together with the different laws of the state. Therefore they should be men of leisure and abilities, whether they are called to act in a legislative or executive department.
It is taken for granted, that the rulers of the people will not forget the source of their power, nor the design of their appointment to office--that they have no authority but what they derived from the people; who, from a confidence in them that reflects great honor on them, have put it into their hands, with this sole view--that they might thereby promote the good of the community.
Whether this great end is accomplished, by the exercise of the authority of civil rulers, the people are to judge; with whom the powers of government originate, and who must know the end for which they intrusted them in the hands of any of their fellow citizens: This right of judging of their conduct implies, that it lies with them either to censure or approve it.
These considerations are happily calculated to prevent the abuse of power, which has already happened in repeated instances. And of which there ever will be danger, while mankind remain in their present state of corruption.
A spirit of ambition, which is natural to man, tends to tyranny; and an undue attachment to personal interest, may issue in fraud; or in an accumulation of offices, which, in their own nature, are incompatible with each other; and which no man, let his abilities be what they may, can discharge with honor to himself, and advantage to his country.
A faithful ruler will consider himself as a trustee of the public, and that he is accountable both to God and to the people for his behavior in his office. He will, therefore, be very careful not to involve himself in more public business than he can perform with fidelity.
It would have a happy tendency to render the duty of the magistrate easy and successful, were he to cultivate an intimate acquaintance with the genius and temper of the people over whom he presides. By such an acquisition if prudent, he would be capable of pursuing a mode of conduct that would not fail of gaining him the affections and confidence of his subjects. The importance of which is self-evident.
"He who ruleth over men," says David, "must be just, ruling in the fear of God." In his exalted station, he should go before the people as an example of every moral virtue; and as a hearty friend of that constitution of government which he hath sworn to protect. To the meanest of the people he should act the part of a political father, by securing to them the full enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. To him they are to look that justice is not delayed, nor the laws executed with partiality; but that all those who united in clothing him with the authority of the magistrate may uninterruptedly enjoy that equal liberty, for the security of which they entered into a state of civil society. Thus will he be as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds.
There are many things that belong to this part of the subject. Such as, that the people have a right to expect that the honorable their rulers, will by all lawful means in their power encourage agriculture and commerce, endeavor to suppress vice and immorality, * lend all necessary assistance to our schools and colleges; it being a matter of high political importance that knowledge should be diffused through the state, amongst all ranks of men. The propagation of literature is connected with the security of freedom. Ignorance in politics, as well as in religion, is fatal in its tendency.
(* Had this sentence been duly attended to at the time the sermon was delivered, the following objection which some of my friends have made, viz.: "That upon the principles contained in the sermon, the civil magistrate ought not to exercise his authority to suppress acts of immorality." I say, had what is said above been properly observed, this objection had been superseded. Immoral actions properly come under the cognizance of civil rulers, who are the guardians of the peace of society. But then I beg leave to observe, in the words of Bishop Warhburton, "That the magistrate punishes no bad actions as sins or offences against God, but only as crimes injurious to, or having a malignant influence on society." In this view of the matter he keeps within the line of his own department.)
These subjects have been often considered with great ability and address, on these anniversaries. Therefore, I forbear to enlarge on them, and reserve the remainder of my time for the consideration of a point of peculiar delicacy, and of the greatest importance to the happiness of my country---viz.:
III. To attempt to draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar, and those things that belong to God.
To this inquiry I am naturally led by the text: --- Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. It is most evident in this passage, that there are some things which Caesar, or the magistrate, cannot of right demand, nor the people yield. The address has its limits. To determine what these are, was never more necessary to the people of these United States than it is at present. We are engaged in a most important contest; not for power, but freedom. We mean not to change our masters, but to secure to ourselves, and to generations yet unborn, the perpetual enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, in their fullest extent.
It becomes us, therefore, to settle this most weighty matter in our different forms of government, in such a manner, that no occasion may be left in future for the violation of the all-important rights of conscience.
"I esteem it," says the justly-celebrated Mr. Locke, "above all things, necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side a concernment for the interest of men's souls, and on the other side a care of the commonwealth.
"The commonwealth seems to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests
"Civil interests I call life, liberty, and health, and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.
"Now, that the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments, and that all civil power, right and dominion, are bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls, these following considerations seem to me abundantly to demonstrate:
"First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate any more than to other men. It is not committed to him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another, as to compel any one to his religion. Nor can any such power be invested in the magistrate by the consent of the people; because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation, as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.
"In the second place. The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to any thing by outward force.
"In the third place, the care of the salvation of men's souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because, though the rigor of laws and the force of penalties were capable to convince and change men's minds, yet would not that help at all to the salvation of their souls; for, there being but one truth, one way to heaven, what hope is there that more men would be led into it if they had no other rule to follow but the religion of the court, and were put under the necessity to quit the light of their own reason, to oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly resign up themselves to the will of their governors, and to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born? In the variety and contradiction of opinions in religion, wherein the princes of the world are as much divided as in their secular interests, the narrow way would be much straitened, one country alone would be in the right, and all the rest of the world put under an obligation of following their princes in the ways that lead to destruction. And what heightens the absurdity, and very ill suits the notion of a Deity, men would owe their eternal happiness or misery to the places of their nativity.
"These considerations, to omit many others that might have been urged to the same purpose, seem to me sufficient to conclude that all the power of civil government relates only to men's civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come."
These sentiments, I humbly conceive, do honor to their author, and discover a true greatness and liberality of mind, and are calculated properly to limit the power of civil rulers, and to secure to every man the inestimable right of private judgment.
They are also perfectly agreeable to a fundamental principle of government, which we universally admit. We say, That the power of the civil magistrate is derived from the people. If so, it follows, that he can neither have more, nor any other kind of power, than they had to give.
The power which the people commit into the hands of the magistrate is wholly confined to the things of this world. Other power than this they have not. They have not the least authority over the consciences of one another, nor over their own consciences so as to alienate them or subject them to the control of the civil magistrate in matters of religion, in which every man ought to be fully persuaded in his own mind, and to follow its dictates at all hazards, because he is to account for himself at the judgment-seat of Christ.
Seeing, then, that the people have no power that they can commit into the hands of the magistrate but that which relates to the good of civil society, it follows that the magistrate can have no other, because he derives his authority from the people. Such as the power of the people is, such must be the power of the magistrate.
To these observations I beg leave to add, that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world. By his kingdom we mean his church, which is altogether spiritual. Its origin, government and preservation are entirely of Him who hath upon his vesture and upon his thigh written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
The doctrines that we are to believe, the duties that we are to perform, the officers who are to serve in this kingdom, and the laws by which all its subjects are to be governed, we become acquainted with by the oracles of God, which are the Christian's infallible directory; to which he is bound to yield obedience, at the risk of his reputation and life.
They who enter into this kingdom do it voluntarily, with a design of promoting their spiritual interests. Civil affairs they resign to the care of the magistrate, but the salvation of their souls they seek in the kingdom of Christ.
This kingdom does not in any respect interfere with civil government, but rather tends to promote its peace and happiness; because its subjects are taught to obey the magistracy, and to lead peaceable and quiet lives in all godliness and honesty.
The subjects of the kingdom of Christ claim no exemption from the just authority of the magistrate, by virtue of their relation to it. Rather they yield a ready and cheerful obedience, not only for wrath but also for conscience sake. And should any of them violate the laws of the state, they are to be punished as other men.
They exercise no secular power, they inflict no temporal penalties upon the persons of one another. All their punishments are spiritual. Their weapons are not carnal, but mighty through God. They use no other force than that of reason and argument, to reclaim delinquents; nor are such persons to be punished for continuing incorrigible, in any other way than by rebuke, or exclusion.
They pretend not to exercise their spiritual authority over any persons, who have not joined themselves to them of their own accord. "What have I to do," says Paul, "to judge them also who are without? do ye not judge them who are within?"
The subjects of this kingdom are bound by no laws in matters of religion, but such as they receive from Christ, who is the only lawgiver and head of his church. All human laws in this respect are inadmissible, as being unnecessary, and as implying a gross reflection on our Lord Jesus Christ, as though he was either unable, or unwilling to provide for his own interest in the world. Nor will he stand by, an idle spectator, of the many encroachments that have been made on his sacred prerogative by the powers of the world.
Should the most dignified civil ruler become a member of his church, or a subject of his spiritual kingdom, he cannot carry the least degree of his civil power into it. In the church he is, as any other member of it, entitled to the same spiritual privileges, and bound by the same laws. The authority he has derived from the state, can by no means be extended to the kingdom of Christ, because Christ is the only source of that power, that is to be exercised in it.
It may be said, that religion is of importance to the good of civil society; therefore the magistrate ought to encourage it under this idea.
It is readily acknowledged that the intrinsic excellence and beneficial effects of true religion are such that every man who is favored with the Christian revelation ought to befriend it. It has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. And there are many ways in which the civil magistrate may encourage religion, in a perfect agreement with the nature of the kingdom of Christ, and the rights of conscience.
As a man, he is personally interested in it. His everlasting salvation is at stake. Therefore he should search the Scriptures for himself, and follow them wherever they lead him. This right he hath in common with every other citizen.
As the head of a family, he should act as a priest in his own house, by endeavoring to bring up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
As a magistrate, he should be as a nursing father to the church of Christ, by protecting all the peaceable members of it from injury on account of religion; and by securing to them the uninterrupted enjoyment of equal religious liberty. The authority by which he acts he derives alike from all the people; consequently he should exercise that authority equally for the benefit of all, without any respect to their different religious principles. They have an undoubted right to demand it.
Union in the state is of absolute necessity to its happiness. This the magistrate will study to promote. And this he may reasonably expect upon the plan proposed, of a just and equal treatment of all the citizens.
For though Christians may contend amongst themselves about their religious differences, they will all unite to promote the good of the community, because it is their interest, so long as they enjoy the blessings of a free and equal administration of government.
On the other hand, if the magistrate destroys the equality of the subjects of the state on account of religion, he violates a fundamental principle of a free government, establishes separate interests in it, and lays a foundation for disaffection to rulers and endless quarrels among the people.
Happy are the inhabitants of that commonwealth, in which every man sits under his vine and fig-tree, having none to make him afraid; in which all are protected but none established. Permit me, on this occasion, to introduce the words of the Rev. Dr. Chauncey, whose age and experience add weight to his sentiments. "We are," says this gentleman, "in principle against all civil establishments in religion. We desire not, and suppose we have no right to desire, the interposition of the state to establish our sentiments in religion, or the manner in which we would express them. It does not, indeed, appear to us, that God has intrusted the state with a right to make religious establishments." And after observing that if one state has this right, all states have the same right, he adds: "And as they must severally be supposed to exert this authority in establishments conformable to their own sentiments in religion, what can the consequence be, but infinite damage to the cause of God and true religion? And such, in fact, has been the consequence of these establishments in all ages and in all places. What absurdities in sentiment, and ridiculous follies, not to say gross immoralities in practice, have not been established by the civil power, in some or other of the nations of the world?"
[* * * * *]
It is well known to this respectable assembly, that Christianity flourished remarkably for the space of three hundred years after the ascension of Christ, amidst the hottest and most bloody persecutions, and when the powers of the world were against it, and began to decline immediately upon its being made a legal establishment by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who heaped upon it his ill-judged favors and introduced a train of evils which he had not designed.
The preachers of this divine religion were no sooner taken into the favor of the prince, and their sentiments established by law, than they began to quarrel who should be the greatest; and anathemized one another. Every man who has read the history of the four first general councils, is fully satisfied of the truth of these remarks.
Seeing, then, Christianity made its way in the beginning, when the powers of the world were against it, let us cheerfully leave it to the force of its own evidence, and to the care of its adorable author; while we strictly attend to all those means which he hath instituted for the propagation of it. The ministers of Christ are particularly called upon to preach the word, to be instant in season, out of season, to teach the people publicly and from house to house; always encouraging themselves with that gracious promise, Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.
Upon the whole, I think it is a plain as well as a very important truth, that the Church of Christ and a commonwealth are essentially different. The one is a religious society, of which Christ is the sole head, and which he gathers out of the world, in common, by the dispensation of his gospel, governs by his laws in all matters of religion, a complete code of which we have in the sacred Scriptures; and preserves it by his power.
The other is a civil society--originating with the people, and designed to promote their temporal interests--which is governed by men, whose authority is derived from their fellow-citizens, and confined to the affairs of this world.
In this view of the matter, the line appears to me to be fairly drawn between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God. The magistrate is to govern the state, and Christ is to govern the church. The former will find business enough in the complex affairs of government to employ all his time and abilities. The latter is infinitely sufficient to manage his own kingdom without foreign aid.
Thus have I considered the important principles of civil and religious liberty, according to that ability which God hath given; and with a freedom that becomes a citizen when called upon, at a most critical period, to address the rulers of a free people; whose patriotic minds, it is taken for granted, would at once despise the language of adulation.
In order to complete a system of government, and to be consistent with ourselves, it appears to me that we ought to banish from among us that cruel practice, which has long prevailed, of reducing to a state of slavery for life the freeborn Africans. *
The Deity has bestowed upon them and us the same natural rights as men; and hath assigned to them a part of the globe for their residence. But mankind, urged by those passions which debase the human mind, have pursued them to their native country; and by fomenting wars among them, that they might secure the prisoners, or employing villains to decoy the unwary, have filled their ships with the unfortunate captives; dragged them from their tenderest connections, and transported them to different parts of the earth, to be hewers of wood, and drawers of water, till death shall end their painful captivity.
(* Congress, early in the controversy with Great Britain, protested against the slave-trade in the following resolve:
"Secondly, We will neither import nor purchase any slaves imported after the first day of December next; after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave trade; and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.")
To reconcile this nefarious traffic with reason, humanity, religion, or the principles of a free government, in my view, requires an uncommon address.
Should we make the case our own, and act agreeably to that excellent rule of our blessed Lord, Whatever ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise, the abolition of this disgraceful practice would take place.
Nor can I conceive that we shall act a consistent part, till we brand this species of tyranny with perpetual infamy. Shall we hold the sword in one hand to defend our just rights as men; and grasp chains with the other to enslave the inhabitants of Africa? Forbid it, heaven! Forbid it, all the freeborn sons of this western world!
May the year of jubilee soon arrive, when Africa shall cast the look of gratitude to these happy regions, for the total emancipation of her sons!
This matter, among others, deserves the serious attention of our honorable rulers, in whom their fellow-citizens have reposed uncommon confidence, which is apparent in calling them forth to public service at such a difficult period as this, which undoubtedly calls for the united exertions of the greatest abilities.
The voice of the people is, as mentioned before, and the importance of the matter justifies the repetition of it; I say, the voice of the people is, that government should pay their first attention to the war. If America is respectable in the field, the greater will be the prospect of success in arms, and of an honorable peace.
Let us not amuse ourselves with a prospect of peace, and in consequence thereof abate in our preparations for the war. If we should, it may prove greatly injurious to the freedom and glory of this rising empire.
But it is not for me to attempt to specify the weighty affairs which, during the course of the present year, and particularly of the present session, are likely to come before the honorable gentlemen who have this day called us to the place of public worship. God grant unto them that wisdom that is from above!
While transacting public business, may they remember that Jehovah standeth in the congregation of the mighty, and judgeth among the gods. Under the influence of this solemn consideration, may the elections of this day be conducted. This being the case, every elector, before he gives his vote for any person to sit in council, will take pains to satisfy himself whether he possesses the qualifications that are necessary for so exalted a station--such as wisdom, virtue, firmness, and an unfeigned love of his country. Tried friends deserve the preference--an experience of whose capacity and fidelity in times past, recommends them as worthy of our present confidence.
To the direction of Unerring Wisdom we commit both branches of the honorable court, heartily wishing that they may conduct themselves in every respect as those who are to be accountable to God, the judge of all. Thus will they enjoy the testimony of conscience, and may expect to be accepted of the multitude of their brethren.
In fine, seeing the body of Christians, however divided into sects and parties, "are entitled precisely to the same rights," it becomes them to rest contented with that equal condition, nor to wish for pre-eminence. Rather, they should rejoice to see all men as free and as happy as themselves.
They should study to imbibe more of the spirit of their Divine Master, to love as brethren, and to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. In the present state of ignorance and prejudice, they cannot expect to see eye to eye. There will be a variety of opinions and modes of worship among the disciples of the same Lord--men equally honest, pious, and sensible--while they remain in this world of imperfection. Let them, therefore, be faithful to their respective principles, and kind and forbearing toward one another. Their chief study should be to advance the cause of morality and religion in the world, and by their good works to glorify their Father who is in heaven.
They are to be subject to the civil magistrate, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake; and to pray for all who are in authority, that under them they may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God. To whom be glory forever.
For further reading:
Samuel West, [On Natural Law] (1776)
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