This week I studied at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, a fort dating to the 1700s, when President George Washington led an army there in route to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Farmers in western Pennsylvania had revolted against the authority of the new republic to tax the whiskey they distilled from grain otherwise expensive to ship from their remote frontier.
Quickly realizing this threat to the new nation’s cohesion, Washington in 1794 summoned the militias from Pennsylvania and nearby states into an army of 13,000 that he personally led against the rebellion. At an evening celebration of greeting for the President and his army, the town of Carlisle illumined a special proclamation simply declaring: “The Reign of the Laws.”
Such a poignant and wonderful exclamation: “The Reign of the Laws.” The people saluted Washington, but they, like he, did not place their faith in his personal rule but in impartial law as the antidote to anarchy.
While in Carlisle Washington worshiped at the stone Presbyterian church, which I visited, and where he heard Dr. Robert Davidson preach “A Sermon on the Freedom and Happiness of the United States of America.” Washington described it in his diary: “Went to the Presbyterian meeting and heard Dr. Davidson preach a political sermon, recommendations of order and good government and the excellence of that of the United States.”
Washington’s summary was fair and succinct, but the sermon merits elaboration, both for illustrating how Christians in early America viewed God’s purposes for their nation, and for modeling, at least in part, how we today might view government, justice and nationhood providentially.
The sermon is based on King David’s question in 2 Samuel 7:23: “And what one nation in the earth is like Thy people, even like Israel?” Pastor Davidson warned against being “carried away by the spirit of the times, to substitute mere political harangues in the place of the Gospel of Christ,” recalling, per Proverbs 27:34, that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.” And he noted the “duties of citizens are not to be considered as topics foreign to the Gospel” as the “Gospel views man in every condition in which man can be placed.”
Davidson heralded the “great goodness of God to our own state and nation in particular; our high and many privileges, the gratitude due from us to God for them; and the wise improvement which we ought to make of them.” As a national comparison, Davidson recalled:
The history of the Jewish nation, if read with suitable views, and especially in order to gain an acquaintance with the ways of God to men, would be one of the most instructive that could merit our attention. …We see how much superior, in point of privileges, the Jewish nation was, to all the other nations around them.
As God had showed unmerited and unprecedented favor to the Hebrew nation, Davidson urged considering the “great goodness of the Divine Being to our state and nation in particular; – our high privileges; the gratitude which we owe to God for them…” And he recalled:
This part of the New World presented itself as a place of refuge for those who wished to enjoy religious and civil freedom, unmolested, and to the greatest extent. They hoped that here they could worship God according to their consciences, and would be at a secure distance from all the insults of tyranny.
After reciting the British oppressions precipitating the American Revolution, Davidson declared the new independent nation had the “freest and best form of civil government, which could be learned from the wisdom and experience of ages,” and that with “all the imperfections” still “is one of the most free and excellent under the sun.”
Of the American republic, Davidson further rhapsodized:
This is a government, which all the real friends of freedom in the old world appear to admire; and under the wings of which the oppressed of every nation would wish to take refuge. Here is liberty and equality, according to the just acceptation of those favorite terms; liberty, civil and religious to the utmost extent that they can be, where there is any government at all; and an equality of rights, or provision made for the equal protection of the lives and properties of all. That all men should be equal, as to abilities, station, authority, and wealth, is absolutely, in the present state of things, impossible. But where every citizen has a voice in making the laws, or in choosing those who make them, and is equally under their protection, – there is equality.
As to religious liberty especially, Davidson celebrated:
What nation in the earth is like the American people? For every man may entertain what opinions he thinks right, and worship God in what manner he thinks best, without being excluded from any office, to which he has a prospect of rising, on account of his creed or religious sentiments. This is surely liberty, in the utmost latitude that any man could desire.
Davidson observed that in America unjust rulers “are removable in a regular and constitutional way,” which is “infinitely preferable to that of tumults and insurrections,” as “unhappy the people who can have no change in their government but what they must obtain by the sword!”
Again stressing religious liberty in America, Davidson rhetorically asked:
And as to religion, the choicest blessing of heaven to men, and without which no nation can be truly happy; – is she not left at liberty, to display to every advantage her celestial charms, and to exert her renovating powers on the minds of men, free both from the aids and restraints of the civil arm? What would the people of these states have or wish for more? Are not these the very objects for which our patriots bled? And to obtain which the greatest sacrifices have been made by all ranks of citizens?
Davidson urged adherence to “lawful authority” and “to respect the government which ourselves have made, and whose protection we have enjoyed.” Lamenting the “unprovoked insurrection, by some of our deluded fellow-citizens, against the mildest and freest government under heaven,” he asked Americans to “rejoice in the privileges which we possess,…knowing that a regular administration of justice is infinitely preferable to anarchy; and that it is a solemn and important duty to submit to laws, which have had every sanction that they ought to have, for the public good and individual safety.”
Addressing Washington and his commanders, Davidson implored leaders and members of the army “to act under the direction and authority of HIM, who never exposed to danger a single life without necessity; and who graced his victories with that clemency which is the greatest ornament of true courage, and one of the surest tests of magnanimity.”
(As if directly in response to this appeal, the Whiskey Rebellion in the end was suppressed relatively peacefully, and almost all the arrested perpetrators were pardoned by Washington.)
At his sermon’s conclusion Davidson prayed:
And now may God dispose the hearts of our fellow-citizens every where, to the love of order, justice, and peace! May he establish good government among us! May he long preserve a life which appears so necessary for our public tranquility; and preserve to this country her rights and privileges – WHILE SUN AND MOON ENDURE!
Washington rightly characterized Davidson’s sermon as “political,” but surely not disapprovingly, as it appealed to the broad common good, resting on biblical teaching about a stable, merciful and just polity.
This Presbyterian sermon, and the people of Carlisle’s appeal to “The Reign of the Laws,” based on the ancient Hebrew insight that God is no respecter of persons, models how church and society might seek a righteous political harmony, to the extent possible by fallen humanity. Their days then were far more troubled than even our own today, yet the preacher reminded his congregation that the Lord always offers His hand.