A Brief History of the Election Sermon in America
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Although America is no longer the biblical commonwealth that the Puritans envisioned it to be in the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea of America as a special people with a special purpose from God has remained to the present day. In many ways, the election sermon is one of the most enduring vestiges of that idea. In fact, one cannot really understand how early Americans viewed themselves and their covenant with God without the election sermon. While the First Amendment (1791) has effectively sundered the Puritan union of church and state, election sermons continually helped to remind the American people that they were divinely appointed as "a City upon a Hill." (John Winthrop, 1630)
Beginning in the 1630s, the election sermon became for the Puritans a kind of “state-of-the-covenant,” a message to God’s people to consider how they had fallen short of their duties to God, to repent of their public and private sin, and to commit themselves to the covenant they had made with Him. (Bercovitch, 4) The style of the election sermon was often called a “jeremiad,” after the prophet Jeremiah who pronounced words of caution and lamentation for the sin of God’s people. The election sermon was the most elaborate and important of several kinds of political sermons that fulfilled this purpose, including days of fasting and prayer, humilitation and thanksgiving, covenant renewal at artillery-company ceremonies, etc. The Puritan vision of society was built on the idea that every aspect of their lives — personal, family, church, society, nation — was bound by a solemn covenant or agreement with God, and that sin in the home and in the public square would result in punishment of His people. From the fundamentalist movement to the Moral Majority to premillennialist rapture Dispensationalism, that idea persists among evangelicals today, but not necessarily in covenant form.
The first mention of an election sermon is John Cotton’s 1634 address. In his election sermon of 1638, one of the most famous in American history, Thomas Hooker of Connecticut argued for popular control of civil government, laying the seeds of democracy that would come to define New England, especially during the Revolution. (Miller, 4) By that time, the tradition of election sermons was well established. After 1640, they were delivered on an annual basis and local election days were culminated in the delivery of the sermon. From 1634 to 1658, for instance, the Massachusetts election sermon was delivered at Boston’s First Church and afterward at the Boston Town House. (Stout, 332) The election sermon during this time was usually delivered by a minister to the local magistrates, symbolizing the union of church and state that characterized the Puritan vision of a biblical commonwealth.
True to the covenant theology of Puritans, election sermons were typically grounded in Old Testament Scripture, as they saw themselves as an American Israel in a new American Canaan. Like Israel, they had been delivered from the tyranny of an oppressive kingdom. Beginning in 1692 with the election sermon of Increase Mather (John Cotton’s son-in-law), ministers began to diminish their stress on religious toleration (there was no modern sense of religious liberty in the 17th century) and to include themes of law, rule, and the obligation to submit to both civil and ecclesiastical authority as a means of fulfilling the divine covenant. However, by the Revolution and afterward, political sermons adopted a new emphasis on liberty and republican virtue as the basis of God’s good providence upon America. For instance, in 1774 and 1775 the new Continental Congress proclaimed days of fasting and prayer, calling Americans to confess and repent of their sins. While Thomas Jefferson was opposed to these days (Jefferson was a Deist and did not believe in the totality of Scripture), the religious liberty of the new American nation invited new denominations and new peoples to join in the election sermon. In 1779, when the General Court of Massachusetts asked Samuel Stillman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Boston, to deliver the election sermon, it was the first time such a request had been made of a Baptist in New England. The move was more than likely politically motivated, as Stillman was a Federalist like most of the Congregationalist clergy and New England now recognized the political power of Baptists.
In 1802, Thomas Baldwin, pastor of Second Baptist Church, delivered an election day sermon to the Assembly and Governor Caleb Strong. Baldwin was a Jeffersonian Republican, and even made mention of Jefferson’s inaugural address in the sermon. His text was 1 Peter 2:16, and it was aimed at the sons of Puritanism: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” While defending religious liberty as a Baptist, Baldwin’s sense of American exceptionalism left no question that the Puritan idea of chosenness had endured. Speaking of the patriots of war, he declared, “These blessings and privileges they bequeathed with their dying breath to their children; and in defense of this precious legacy, we feel ourselves justified to God and to the universe, in appealing to arms in our late glorious revolution. Our cause was just, and heaven succeeded it…A nation was born in a day. A new era commenced.” Although the election sermon had changed significantly since 1634, it retained the American idea that they had been chosen by God for a special purpose in the world. That idea has persisted until today in the American nation among the evangelical descendants of Puritanism. However, judging from history, it will most likely take a new form.