Bringing virtue and piety into the public square

Nancy S. Taylor

Now may be the time to revive a tradition from the early days of the New England colonies — the “election sermon.”

“The annual election sermon was a Puritan phenomenon that lasted for well over two hundred years, from 1634 through 1884,” writes Nancy S. Taylor in the Fall issue of Yale Divinity School’s Reflections journal. It came after an election and provided an opportunity for elected officials to hear a word from the minister.

On May 30, 1694, Samuel Willard mounted his Boston church pulpit to address the region’s recently elected rulers: “His Excellency the Governor, and the Honorable Counselors, and Assembly of the Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England,” all of whom are sitting in the pews that day, Taylor says.

Willard’s sermon was called “The Character of a Good Ruler.” This sermon had particular significance because it came in the wake of the Salem witch trials of the two previous years. Willard had successfully stood in defense of some members of his church who had been accused. Taylor writes:

“Now, a year later, Mr. Willard preaches the election sermon to the region’s freshly elected magistrates, reminding them that ‘the Weal or Woe of a People mainly depends on the qualifications of those Rulers, by whom we are Governed …’ Surely the Witch Trials are a raw wound to these would-be rulers and Mr. Willard’s words salt. As a pastor it is the weal or woe of the people that matters to him. Will the colonists’ wants and needs be heard? Can they entrust their safety to these leaders? Or will they again be subjected to the foolishness and agony of such tyrannical injustice as blighted the years 1692- 93, leaving thirty-two dead from state execution and almost no New England town or family unscathed?”

With the injustices of the witch trials fresh in everyone’s minds, Willard “insists that civil rulers should be just men. It is not adequate that they understand the law. Surely the justices who presided over the executions in 1692-93 understood the law. That is not nearly enough. They must themselves be just.”

“Ignorance,” Mr. Willard declares, “is a Foundation for Error, and will likely produce it.” Injustice will beget injustice and ignorance will beget yet more ignorance. Those invested with the privilege and responsibility of ruling their fellow human beings “must be above Flattery and Bribery, must hate Ambition and Covetousness,” for “if these Rule him, he will never be a just Ruler.”

Finally, Willard said a ruler “must be one who prefers the public Benefit above all private and separate Interests.”

In today’s American political environment, many politicians seem more driven by ambition and covetousness than by desire for the public benefit. I use “many” and not “all” intentionally.

I wish there was a way for us to choose our public officials without allowing them to campaign for office themselves. It is impossible, I know, but it surely would be nice if we could decide who the most capable leader is and pursue him or her, rather than having ego-driven men and women decide they are the best and pursuing us. Of course, we did have that in George Washington. The first, I believe, was the best.

It does us little good, however, to indulge in wishful thinking, except to the extent that it reminds us that ambition and covetousness should not be the primary qualifications for our leaders. Ambition, of course, doesn’t have to be bad. For instance, ambition to pursue the benefit of all is a much higher aspiration than ambition to pursue the benefit of self and one’s friends.

As Willard said, “A People are not made for Rulers, But Rulers for a People, and just as there is a great Trust devolved on them, so is there an answerable Reckoning which they must be called unto. …”

Taylor, now senior minister of Old South Church in Boston where Willard once preached, also offered a warning to today’s pastors who desire to preach an election sermon. “[R]eligious leaders have no business holding our political leaders to moral account or challenging their characters if we have not attended to our own characters and our own moral fortitude. We, too, must be just.”

Samuel Adams came along almost 100 years after Willard and was a member of Old South Church, as well. Adams maintained “democracy depends on a common commitment to key principles,” Taylor writes.

“He conceived of these principles as an interconnected triad of virtue, piety, and love of liberty (not only one’s own liberty, but everyone’s liberty as a God-given, “unalienable right”). By contrast, when democracy is reduced to liberty alone – liberty unhinged from the rigorous disciplines and high principles of virtue and piety – everything gets off-kilter. Today’s politicians routinely give tremendous attention to liberties and liberty, but when was the last time you heard a politician wax passionate on virtue or piety? Perhaps that is where we come in – ensuring a healthy balance to that symbiotic relationship between political and spiritual leadership, each challenging and inspiring the other, each embracing responsibility for the greater good, each serving different functions in a greater whole.”

As we speak about virtue and piety, let’s be careful that we do not make the error of thinking this or that political party has the corner on the virtue and piety market. Neither does. If we let Christ speak through us into this day’s challenges, then we will be doing both His Kingdom and our nation a great service.
This is the third post related to the the current issue of Reflections.

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