Zeal for Liberty and Welfare

Commentary on William Gordon

There is a new addition to American Reformer Resources out today. In case you missed it, the new Resources section represents an attempt at constructing a canon of American Protestant political thought drawn from generally forgotten sermons, speeches, and essays. It is an effort to get these sources back in the hands of American Protestants; to provide them with a more fully orbed view of their own tradition in their own country. Each installment will usually be accompanied by brief commentary in our Forum section. Today’s entry is a 1775 sermon before the Massachusetts provincial congress by William Gordon (1728-1807). Gordon’s brief biography is included in the editor’s introduction to the sermon.

Gordon’s text was Jeremiah 30:20-21, “Their children also shall be as aforetime, and their congregation shall be established before me, and I will punish all that oppress them. And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from the midst of them; and I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto me: for who is this that engaged his heart to approach unto me? saith the LORD.

Like other sermons delivered on similar occasions, Gordon provides general political commentary in conjunction with his exegesis and application of the text. Observe a few things in particular.

Given the fall, all regimes, political orders, or constitution, in state and church, “do after a while degenerate,” and when their animating “spirit” is spent, “only their outward forms” remain, “and by degrees” even those dwindle. This was true even of the “Jewish establishment, both in church and state,” which was the very “ordinance of heaven,” a product of special providence.

Something addressed recently and frequently in American Reformer’s pages is political realism: the recognition of Gordon’s very point, viz., the finitude of all political orders and constitutions. It is not a happy thought. The source of this finitude there is shared by man in his own bodily finitude, sin itself. For some reason, American evangelicals are comfortable insisting that government itself is necessitated by the fall—a contestable claim, to be sure—and that all occupants of government will be sinful men, but then averse to the natural subsequent conclusion that all political orders will inevitably fracture. As I recently point out, Americans used to be clearer eyed and thoughtful.

Gordon goes on to speak of national judgment (i.e., the “iron rod of oppression”) which induces a certain, potentially constructive, nostalgia in a people. They “cannot help looking back to those times, when the constitution was in a prosperous and healthy condition—nor having an attachment to those modes of government, to which they had been long habituated.” This longing may be especially acute when prior times featured “sacred prosperity” and religious flourishing.

As with Israel, oppression leading to the destruction of constitutional inheritance and healthy political order is self-induced. Forsaking the God of our fathers for the service of foreign gods, forgetting the works of God done for the nation, denying Him deserved praise, these things invite wrath and socio-political decay. Just because the natural results of widespread licentiousness can be readily traced to their cause does not mean that the same results are not equally and rightly attributable to God’s judgment.

And yet, God did not leave Israel without promise of redemption and alleviation of their suffering. Providence retaliated against the oppressors and then by diverse means.

Notice, contra the vulgar assumptions of some, the way Gordon relates Israel to New England specifically and America generally. It is not a one-to-one, simplistic identification, but rather a principled analogy:

“We have gone over the promise made in our text to the Jews; we cannot view it as a divine promise made to ourselves, but it may lead us, to conjecture how it was with this people in the earliest days of their existence—to search into their degeneracies, for which we may conclude that they are now under the correction of heaven—and to remark that a reformation in principles and practices, will be likely to procure the approbation of the supreme ruler, so far as to warrant our expecting, that, through the orderings of his providence, the children of this colony shall be as aforetime, and their congregation or assembly shall be established before him; that he will punish all that oppress them; and that their nobles shall be of themselves.”

From there, Gordon recalls with evident admiration the founding of New England. True the “love of liberty” was in them, but it was a love “chiefly of religion” that drove them. Gordon is obviously uncomfortable with certain punishment of heretics by the first few generations, but nevertheless denounces those who would “with rancor condemn them in the lump.” That they did not treat religion with indifference was commendable as was their moral strictness with themselves and with their magistrates: “they had a regard not only to abilities, but integrity and morals, having an eye to Jethro’s advice, whereby Moses was counselled to provide out of all the people, such as feared God men of truth, (true men) hating covetousness, whom place over them for rulers and judges.” It was clear, at least to Gordon, that a great inheritance had been bestowed upon New England that, by his own day, was being squandered. External oppression was, then, to be expected if the people were oppressing themselves by their own internal sin. What sin?

“Sabbaths profaned, and the name of the Lord blasphemed—that families have not been properly taken care of; the heads of them have not called them together to worship from day to day; due restraints have not been laid upon children and others, who have been left much to their own guidance, in end of receiving line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little, through the help of which they might learn to flee youthful lusts, to mortify the deeds of the body, and to approve themselves unto their heavenly Father.

Were cursing, swearing, drunkenness and debauchery of various sorts proportionally prevalent in former times? Were there the like immoralities among the first settlers? They that are acquainted with the history of this country will not venture to assert it I may also remark that it has been complained of, that there has been great faultiness in the management of public affairs—that improper men, from sinister designs, because of family connections, and to serve a turn, have been chose, put into, or continued in places of trust or power—that proper ones have been opposed and kept out, through an unwarrantable prejudice, and because they would not be so the slaves of a party, as to be led, or commanded, or act without being convinced or seeing, their own selves, good reason for what they did—that modes of corrupting have been adopted with success—that representatives, instead of being in their place, attending the service of the public, agreeable to the expectations of their electors, have been spending the time in transacting their own business—that it has been evident, that many, in their votes and elections, have not been directed by judgment and conscience, but by other motives, and that by praying to God for his guidance, they have been only increasing their criminality, by the addition of the most daring hypocrisy. These things have been complained of, and reported from one and another.”

The result?

“Our degeneracies, we must conclude from the light of nature and revelation have contributed to bring us under the present calamities. God, the infinitely wise Governor of the universe, may (and I trust, almost to a degree of assurance, doth) design, by the contest now existing between Britain and the Continent, to establish us in the enjoyment of our liberties, besides favoring the several Colonies with an enlargement of them. But the divine wisdom could have contrived to have secured us these blessings, without making us acquainted with the horrors of war; and it becomes us to impute it to our transgressions, that we must pass through a scene of difficulties, ere we can be brought to the enjoyment of them.”

This deliverance, by means of war, was a providentially presented and justified political act, but it did not negate the need for moral reformation in the nation—two sides of the same coin. Those who today insist that revival must precede political reform or vice versa are being simpleminded. There is no tension here. And does Gordon’s description of moral degeneracy and dereliction of duty (i.e., “the good of the public”) in both ruler and ruled not reflect our own day?

Speaking of rulers, here’s a useful scriptural principle regarding the selection or election of magistrates from Gordon:  

[t]heir nobles shall be of themselves. The persons, occupying the first posts of honor, trust, profit & importance, should be of themselves, either as they should be natives, instead of foreigners and strangers, appointed and set over them by those that oppressed and kept them in subjection: Or, as they should be of their own choosing and approving, and not forced upon them. In some few rare instances strangers may be equally useful, friendly and acceptable with natives; but in general, the latter are more likely to possess the confidence, to understand the prevailing temper and to accommodate themselves to it, to study the interests, and to promote the happiness, of the people among whom they reside.”

Something to think about as we move into what is sure to be rowdy election year is what magistrate is (effectively) a foreigner or stranger insofar as he is ill-acquainted with the interests of the people and which is more (politically) native or proximate such that he may acquire more confidence from the people insofar as he grasps the “prevailing temper.”

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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