This election sermon was preached by Rev. Ferdinand Ellis in Concord, NH on June 8, 1826.
CIVIL GOVERNMENT AN ORDINANCE OF GOD.
DELIVERED AT CONCORD,
HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR,
THE HONORABLE COUNCIL, AND BOTH BRANCHES
OF THE LEGISLATURE
STATE OF NEW-HAMPSHIRE,
JUNE 8, 1826.
BY FERDINAND ELLIS, A. M.
Pastor of the Baptist Church in Exeter.
PRINTED BY JACOB B. MOORE,
For the State.
STATE OF NEW-HAMPSHIRE.
In the House of Representatives, June 8, 1826.
Ordered, That Messrs. Flanders, Piper and Putnam, with such as the Honorable Senate may join, be a committee to wait upon the Rev. Ferdinand Ellis, and return him the thanks of the Legislature, for his ingenious and appropriate Discourse, delivered this day before his Excellency the Governor, the Honorable Council, and both branches of the Legislature, and request of him a copy for the press.
M. L. NEAL, Clerk.
Copy examined by
P. CHADWICK, Assist. Clerk.
In Senate, same day—Read and concurred.
Mr. Burgin joined.
B. B. FRENCH, Assist. Clerk.
Any and every custom, calculated to preserve and cherish a sense of obligation to God, is undoubtedly beneficial to society. The fear and love of God are not only the most important principles of conduct in moral agents, but even essential to all true virtue, whether publick or private. Without them, honour is but an empty name, and patriotism a species of refined selfishness. Hence the propriety of religious worship, at the commencement of all important undertakings.
And is this the motive which has drawn together the present assembly,--an assembly of which the legislators of the state, form a distinguished part? Have not our united prayers been intended, to propitiate the almighty ruler of the universe? Shall not our preaching be wholly consecrated to truth and righteousness?
Under these impressions, I propose for consideration the following subject, viz.
THE DIVINE APPOINTMENT OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT, AND THE ACCOUNTABLENESS OF RULERS.
The portion of scripture furnishing the subject, is the lxxxii. Psalm, part of the 6th, and part of the 7th verses.
I have said, ye are Gods; but ye shall die like men.
In this Psalm, the Most High expostulates with wicked rulers. “How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.” How just a picture this, of a disordered government! But blessed be Jehovah of Hosts, such is not the condition of our beloved country. Long ago, was the yoke of bondage broken from the necks of our forefathers; and long have we, their posterity, enjoyed the blessings of good government, of civil and religious liberty.
In attending to the subject before us, I propose the following method:
I. I shall endeavour to establish the proposition, that civil government is an ordinance of God.
II. I shall suggest some of the principles by which civil rulers ought to be governed.
III. I shall show that the highest, as well as the lowest, are accountable to God.
And may that Eternal Wisdom, by whom kings reign and princes decree justice, bestow upon us a measure of his spirit, that, in our several stations and duties, we may render an acceptable service, and be preparing to give up our accounts with joy.
I. Our first proposition is, that civil government is an ordinance of God. And in support of it, we have three sources of argument, viz. the nature of man; the necessity of the case; and the Holy Scriptures.
The nature of man furnishes evidence of the will of God, respecting his course of conduct. God is our Creator. Whatever belongs to our nature, was wrought by his hand. And would an infinitely wise and good being, endow his creatures with appetites, propensities and passions, never to be gratified, and of course, only fitted to torment them? Would our great and gracious Creator implant in our breasts, those unconquerable desires we all feel, only for the sake of making us miserable?
But man is a social being. It never was good, that he should be alone. As an insulated being, man can be neither happy nor useful. His nature must undergo an entire change, before he can delight to eat his morsel alone, or seek felicity in the solitary mountain cave.
Before dismissing this article, it may be necessary to suggest to the libertine, that he of all men, can have neither part nor lot in this matter. What! Can an appeal be made to the dictates of nature, to justify a total perversion of everything natural? What! Shall the debauchee tax the almighty with being the author of his worse than brutal lusts? Shall the drunkard charge his maker with those cravings of appetite, which are the direct and certain consequence of his own irrational, his criminal indulgences? We say again: the nature of man indicates the will of the great Creator. Man is formed for society. But society supposes government, order or rule, under and according to which, men shall conduct themselves, in their intercourse one with another.
This leads to my second source of argument, which is, the necessity of the case. It is necessary that civil government should be maintained among men; and this necessity is evidence of the will of God.
Of all relations in the present life, that of families is the most tender and interesting; and of all modes of government, that which we dominate patriarchal, was undoubtedly the first. And in families, even if we suppose every child possessed of the highest degrees of filial love, such is the relation between parents and children, that there can be no question with whom the government ought to rest. Nature itself teaches, yea absolute necessity requires, that parents should rule as well as provide: nay their superior wisdom will give them the precedence in counsel, even when they shall have lost their vigour in action. We may add, what greater perversion, than for inexperienced youth to treat with contempt the wisdom of age? What greater absurdity, than to put the scepter into the hands of infancy? Or to imagine the child, whose utmost ability reaches no higher than some attempts at imitation, as sitting on a throne?
The same mode of reasoning will be found applicable to the larger associations of men: for by these associations, the united energies of the many, make up the deficiencies of individual weakness. There is but one being in the universe, who is absolutely independent; and that being, is the mighty God. An independent man, i.e. a man who needs no aid from others, is nowhere to be found. The Nebuchadnezzars, the Alexanders, and the Caesars of ancient times, those scourges of the human race; though they had the address to secure the homage of millions, must, if denied the service of their fellow-creatures, have sunken into insignificance.
Whatever is great, whatever is extensively useful, though originating as to its first discovery or design, with a few, or perhaps with an individual, must depend for its full effect, upon the united energies of society. For, to say nothing of the pyramids and catacombs of Egypt; the temples, aqueducts, and amphitheatres of ancient Greece and Rome; it is more to my purpose to remind you, that our ordinary dwellings, our common merchant vessels, our most necessary and useful manufactures; yea, even the fruits of the earth, are, in a greater or less degree, the happy result of associated wisdom, and united strength.
But who, I might ask, who shall superintend in framing, raising and finishing your dwelling? Who, in building, rigging and navigating the merchant ship? Who, in the various branches of our manufacturing establishments? Who, in commanding fleets and armies? To these questions, common sense furnishes a ready answer.
How demonstrable, then, the necessity of government, order or rule, in society; and how evident, that all government and direction ought to rest with those, who are best qualified to fulfill the trust.
These, in fact, are the only rational ideas upon the subject. For the end of all confederation is, most assuredly, the general welfare; the means by which this important end is secured, are the united wisdom and energy of the whole body: and, as a great diversity of talent will ever prevail; and, as a body, without a head is deformed and useless; men of acknowledged excellence should hold the reins, and give laws to the community.
In establishing the proposition, that civil government is an ordinance of God, the Holy Scriptures are a third source of argument. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable,” not only in what relates to the all important concerns of a future world, but also in promoting our best interests in the present life.
The following, from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, may be considered as a summary of what the Scriptures inculcate upon this subject. “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. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist, shall receive to themselves condemnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same, for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid: for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
In this quotation, we have the outlines and fundamental principles of good government. Here it is affirmed, that there must of necessity be a governing, controlling power; and that rulers are not to be a terror to good works, but to the evil. All this, as we have seen, is according to the dictates of common sense, and in harmony with the character of God, as the righteous governour of the world. The opposite is tyranny and oppression. Nevertheless, there is room for the enquiry; has this been the uniform character of rulers? Are there none among the potentates of the earth, who have abused their power for the sole purpose of self aggrandizement? Are there none who, dazzled by the false glare of greatness, have ascended their thrones through seas of blood? None, that have seemed to delight in the miseries of mankind? Are passive obedience and unrepining submission the only duties of those who feel the power of a despot? Are our fathers, the heroes of the Revolution, whose bold design, and glorious achievements astonished the world, to be considered as offenders against God?
Such conclusions can never, except by prejudiced minds, be drawn from the Scriptures. The Sovereign of the universe, although in the dispensations of his providence, he may have suffered the mighty to oppress the weak, and the vilest to sit on thrones, never made a tyrannical despotism lawful; nor, for a moment, laid aside the purpose of judging all, and especially the oppressors of mankind, according to their works.
The Apostle does indeed say, “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers; the powers that be are ordained of God.” Yet the picture he draws is that of a wise and equitable administration of justice.
When therefore, any people, disgusted, worn out, and driven to despair under the miseries of oppression; being, at the same time, possessed of that wisdom and virtue by which they became capable of establishing for themselves a system of good government, resolve to be free; and if necessity require, to assert their rights in the ensanguined field: Jehovah of hosts will plead their cause, and humble the pride of the oppressor.
Let it also be considered, that in those laws which respect the organization of Christian Churches, the Lord has more than intimated the necessity and nature of an equitable government.
I am indeed entering upon a disputed subject.—And what subject is there either in nature, philosophy, political science, or theology, which has not been made a matter of controversy. How surprising, that, from the same unerring word of truth, systems the most opposite, hypotheses the most absurd, and maxims the most pernicious, should have been drawn. The Pope of Rome, by divine right, claimed the triple crown. By the same divine right, the high church party in Great Britain long exacted a rigorous conformity to established ceremonies. And, through the same prejudice, protestant dissenters themselves have been chargeable with persecuting, by fines, by bonds, and by banishment, those who dared to think and to judge for themselves.
Nothing however is more certain, than that in the New Testament of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, no authority is given to the papal hierarchy;--nothing said of the patriarch of the Greek church;--nothing of the archbishops and lords spiritual of the English episcopacy;--but on the contrary, all lording it over God’s heritage, is most pointedly condemned. So shall it not be among you, said Christ to his disciples, (alluding to the pretentions of princes and nobles;) but he that will be greatest among you shall be servant of all. In the government of the churches, so far as it is formed according to the model of the Scripture, there is nothing of monarchy, nor yet of aristocracy. For this holy communion, godliness is the essential qualification; charity or universal love, the bond; and the glory of God, in connexion with doing good to all men, the final cause.
Nor can I forbear improving this opportunity to remind my fellow citizens, that all the blessings, by which we are so highly exalted above the nations of the earth, are derived to us through the medium of the everlasting gospel.
Our fathers were puritans. Their fervent piety rendered liberty of conscience dearer than life.—For this, they braved the dangers of the seas. For this, they hazarded their lives in an uncultivated wilderness. For this, they patiently endured, amidst the heaviest calamities. And when, through the good hand of their God upon them, the little one had become a thousand, and the small one a strong nation; having already tested the sweets of liberty, they pledged their lives, their fortune, and their sacred honour, in one united, glorious effort, to free themselves forever from a foreign yoke.
II. My second head of discourse, which is, to suggest some of the principles that should govern the conduct of civil rulers, will now engage our attention. And in doing this, propriety will require me to be concise.
Goodness and wisdom, righteousness and mercy, appear to me to embrace everything essential. Goodness, or enlarged benevolence, is the first requisite; and the more closely men, entrusted with authority, imitate the example of him, whose meat it was to do the will of his heavenly Father; the better, other things being equal, will they be found qualified to promote the happiness of their constituents. Nevertheless, much of imperfection attaches itself to the best. To expect that refinement of benevolence, that absolute disinterestedness of conduct, which would banish all ideas of emolument or honour, must lead to certain disappointment. Selfishness, unjustifiable selfishness, is so deeply rooted in the hearts of fallen creatures, as to render it extremely difficult, even for good men, however pure their intentions, always to free themselves from its influence. But if, as has been shown, publick happiness is the great end of government, publick spirit is assuredly an essential requisite in the character of all, by whom it is to be administered.
Another requisite is wisdom. The mind of a legislator should be comprehensive, his perception clear, and his judgment sound. The science of legislation is not to be acquired in a moment. Some knowledge of general history, an intimate acquaintance with the peculiarities of our own forms of government; a just regard to the conflicting interests of the body politick;--in a word, that wisdom, which is the fruit of much study, of much inherent energy of mind, and of much observation upon men and things, is indispensable, in order to successful legislation. There is also a dignity of wisdom, from which a representative, a senator, or chief magistrate, should never descend.
It is peculiar to our free institutions, that every voter is at liberty to judge for himself, as to the qualifications of men who are candidates for office; and every representative and senator may fully discuss all measures, that are proposed for the general welfare. But, if in these discussions, party spirit pours forth its bitterness, and irritated minds indulge in the groundless recrimination; or if, (what is equally inconsistent with the responsibilities of men high in office,) low intrigue, which shrinks from nothing that may serve to accomplish an object, supplant the exalted principles of publick spirit;--the more eminent the station, the more despicable the character.
“I have said, ye are Gods.” Here is an intimation that rulers, men entrusted with the well-being of their constituents, should, in the highest possible degree, imitate the supreme governor of all the universe. Is he, in goodness, the parent of all his intelligent creatures? Let magistrates, in their humble sphere, delight in the diffusion of happiness. Is wisdom, united with goodness, abundantly manifest in all the works of the great Jehovah? Let “the powers that be,” those of whom we are taught to say, “ye are Gods,” aspire to that wisdom which exalts the character, and secures the gratitude of a happy people. Are righteousness and judgment the habitation of the eternal throne? Do mercy and truth go before the face of the sovereign Lord? Let righteousness and mercy preside in our legislative assemblies; govern the hearts of our chief magistrates; and give judgment in all our courts of justice: then shall the people lead quiet and peaceable lives, in all godliness and honesty.
Before I close this part of my subject, may I be permitted to take notice of another class of men, to whom my text is, at least, in some degree applicable. This class is made up of the ministers of the gospel. For them we are to look, not only in the sacred desk, but also in the chambers of the sick, in the cottages of the poor, and at the feet of their fellow creatures, beseeching them to be reconciled to God. Among them, the community has a right to expect the purest, the most enlarged benevolence; the brightest display of holiness, the utmost perseverance in labours of love; the warmest patriotism; and the most zealous endeavours in support of good government.
“I have said, Ye are Gods,” illustrates the character and duties of gospel ministers, not as clothing them with authority to legislate, but merely to publish the will of their sovereign. But though unauthorized to add, alter, or diminish; yet, when engaged in proclaiming the law, word, and truth of the divine Immanuel, they hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What they “bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven;” and what they “loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.”
The question has been agitated, whether the “powers that be,” need the aids of religion for their support; or religion, the aid of the “powers that be.” Nor has this question rested in the speculations of the theorist. It has been tested by experiment. From the days of the Roman emperor Constantine until the present, crowned heads and legislative bodies have taken the church under their fostering care; and what has been the result? I appeal to history. What has been the amount of all the aid thus afforded the Redeemer’s kingdom? Let truth answer. One thing, however, may be assumed as indisputable. So far as the ministers of Christ are successful in proclaiming the glad tidings of salvation, and in gaining the hearts of men to the love and practice of godliness; so far they co-operate in all the purposes of civil government. Yea, could these labourers in the Lord’s vineyard be favoured with universal success; the wolf might lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child lead them.
I close this article with a quotation from the amiable and pious Cowper.
“The pulpit, therefore, (and I name it fill’d
With solemn awe, that bids me well beware
With what intent I touch that holy thing,)—
I say the pulpit, (in the sober use
Of its legitimate peculiar pow’rs)
Must stand acknowledg’d, while the world shall stand,
The most important and effectual guard,
Support, and ornament, of virtue’s cause.
There stands the messenger of truth: there stands
The legate of the skies! His theme divine,
His office sacred, his credentials clear:
By him the violated law speaks out
Its thunders; and by him, in strains as sweet
As angels use, the gospel whispers peace,
He ‘stablishes the strong, supports the weak,
Reclaims the wand’rer, binds the broken heart;
And, arm’d himself in panoply complete
Of heav’nly temper, furnishes with arms,
Bright as his own, and trains, by ev’ry rule
Of holy discipline, to glorious war,
The sacramental host of God’s elect.”
I now hasten to my third, and last head of discourse, viz. the accountableness of civil rulers. “I have said, Ye are Gods; but ye shall die like men.”
The frailty, the mortality of man is an interesting subject. If we consider death as the wages of sin, it must lead to the most sincere and bitter repentance. If we consider the consequences of death, as breaking asunder the tenderest ties of our nature; as tearing from our embrace our nearest relatives and friends; how overwhelming the sorrow! And are none exempt? O death! Death! Thou destroying angel; Must the smiling infant, and affectionate parent; the useful citizen, and honoured magistrate; must kings and conquerors, smitten by thee, mingle their dust in one common grave! “As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: so man lieth down, and riseth not; till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.” “Till the heavens be no more.” This is the limit, prescribed by infinite mercy to the power of the grave.
The hour approaches, when the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; the elements melt with fervent heat; the trumpet sound, and the dead awake; this mortal put on immortality; and death be swallowed up of life. After the resurrection, small and great must stand before God, and be judged according to the deeds done in the body. The certain prospect of death and judgment, should teach us the vanity of worldly distinction.
Riches are sought, not merely as a security against want, but on account of the distinction they create. Eminence of station is courted, not always for the sake of doing good on a larger scale; but for the gratification of pride and self-complacency. There is a constant strife among men, and this the prize; who shall be greatest? Ambition has deluged the earth in blood. But amidst all the gaieties, the splendor, and the triumphs of the present life, a voice is heard from the eternal throne, “ye shall die like men.” “I have said, Ye are Gods.” You have I endowed with superior talents;--you have I entrusted with authority;--ye are my ministers who, as a terror to evil doers, bear my sword to execute vengeance;--but ye, notwithstanding your exaltation, shall die like men. To me are ye accountable. At my tribunal, shall ye receive a just recompense of reward. The certain prospect of death and judgment should influence distinguished characters, to glory in being a blessing to the world. “Thus saith the Lord, let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; neither let the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord who exercise loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth, for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.” The subject before us furnishes matter for an address to the citizens of the state, the ministers of the gospel, and the honourable legislature, together with every member of the government.
In addressing my fellow-citizens, I would remind them, that good government is an invaluable blessing. In adverting to the scenes of the American Revolution, and the events consequent upon it, we find much to admire. But in nothing, among the distinguished personages of those days, was there a greater display of wisdom and talent, than in framing that excellent constitution of civil government, which has made us the envy of monarchs, and the admiration of the world. A great nation may be compared to complicated machinery. A wise and equitable government, is the main spring, that keeps the whole in motion, and makes every part contribute to the grand result. And although in our present code of law, there might, in matters of minor importance, be some improvement; yet, in all essential points, it harmonizes with the best light of reason and revelation. That difficulties should be experienced in suppressing vice, and in bringing offenders to justice, is by no means surprising.—These difficulties it is believed, are however, less in the United States, and in New-England especially, than in any other portion of the known world. It is, indeed, a melancholy reflection, that wickedness, in some of its forms, seems to bid defiance to every human effort. Of this kind is intemperance. The abuse of ardent spirit, in destroying the faculties, in besotting the mind, in wasting property, in breaking down families, and in rendering those, who otherwise might have been ornaments, a nuisance and curse to society, is a source of incalculable misery.
My fellow-citizens will also permit me to remind them, that much depends upon the election of suitable men, to offices of trust. Our elective franchise is an important privilege. Directly or indirectly, every member of the legislature;--all who fill the judiciary department;--yea, every officer in the government, must be indebted to your election. Be it then your fixed determination, never to give your votes for men, whose qualifications are not of the most undoubted character, and whose integrity is not beyond distrust.
But when men are once chosen into office, and experience justifies such choice, let due respect be paid them, and let their measures be vigorously supported. Will not the wise and good, if they find themselves neglected and deserted, retire from public life, while the reins of government fail into the hands of the ambitious and undeserving—Another subject must, on the present occasion, be brought into view; and ought, ever, to be deeply engraven upon our hearts. “Godliness,” my fellow-citizens, “godliness is profitable unto all things.” The gospel, in its purifying and saving influences, has hitherto been, in a peculiar degree, the glory of our land. Its light is that of heaven, and its power in restraining the wicked, even more effectual and salutary, than the power of the civil arm. Let me ask of you, then, shall its institutions be neglected? Shall the Lord’s Day become a day of labour or recreation? Shall the ministry languish? Will the people rob God, by refusing to honour him with their substance, and the first fruits of all their increase?
By the present laws of the state, all denominations of Christians are now placed on the footing of the most perfect equality; and everything that relates to the support of a gospel ministry, is left to the free and voluntary effort of each religious society. And what, let me again ask, what was the intention of the Legislature, in thus committing the whole to your voluntary choice? Not surely, to prostrate our religious institutions, and of consequence, to open the flood-gates of vice and ungodliness; but rather, to ease every individual, of everything like an oppressive burden; to prove the pious liberality of their constituents; to prove also, that the kingdom of the Redeemer is able to support itself.
In addressing the ministers of the gospel, I would take the liberty of suggesting, that your office is at once the most humble, and the most exalted.
What an example have we, my brethren, in the character and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though rich, for our sakes became poor, that we, through his poverty might be made rich. In order to accomplish the designs of Jehovah’s eternal love, he who was in the form of God, must take upon himself the form of a servant, humble himself and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. He who upheld all things by the word of his power, must be placed in circumstances to say; “the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath no where to lay his head.” And in all the life of the gracious Redeemer, what compassion do we behold; what meekness; what holy zeal; in relieving the distresses, in forgiving the injuries, and in ministering to the necessities of the children of men.
In copying out the example of his Divine Master, Paul, of the whole apostolic college, was perhaps the most distinguished. He could learn, in whatever condition he was placed, therewith to be content. He was determined in his conversation and preaching, to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. It was this holy man, who counted all things but loss, for the excellency of [WallBuilders' copy of this sermon ends here.]