My colleague at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland, the Rev. Larry Sivis, is a huge Revolutionary War buff. Recently, he loaned me a 2-volume set entitled Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Click on the title to link to our books section. To purchase books, click on the cover to go to Amazon). Notable 19th-century author and lawyer, John Wingate Thornton, credited the pulpit of the Puritan church (the forebear of many Congregational churches today) for giving the moral force to the Revolution.
The first sermon in the book is by the Rev. Benjamin Colman, the irascible pastor of Boston’s Brattle Street Church. Colman’s sermon, entitled Government, the Pillar of the Earth, was, in essence, a lecture to the Governor of Massachusetts, Jonathan Belcher, about the Biblical responsibilities of those in Government to both lend support and beauty to culture.
Likewise, the volume contains a sermon entitled A Calm Address to Our American Colonies, by John Wesley, the Anglican minister credited with the founding of Methodism. His sermon outlined why the colonies should accept taxation by the British Parliament and that the freedom the colonists enjoyed in matters of faith and the safety the British military provided were reasons enough to submit to the Crown and Parliament. Needless to say, American Methodists regularly rounded up copies of this sermon and promptly burned them, fearful that his loyalty to the crown would inhibit their evangelistic work.
The Rev. John Mitchell Mason, pastor of the Scotch Street Presbyterian Church and founder of the famed Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City, preached a sermon entitled, The Voice of Warning to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States. His sermon was a defense for opposition to the election of Thomas Jefferson as President. Mason believed that Jefferson was unqualified to be President because of his unorthodox opinions on matters of the Christian faith and calls Jefferson a “confirmed infidel.”
The irony is that most of these clergymen were also strong supporters of freedom of religion. Though it may be that theirs was nowhere near as diverse as our modern context, these preachers were able to maintain strong opinions while defending the rights of every person’s free exercise in matters of faith. This defense did not soften their resolve to articulate their own worldview in a way that was both compelling and persuasive. In some cases, this preaching led notable figures like Noah Webster, the man who edited the first comprehensive dictionary, to become committed to the church. The point of these historical summaries is to encourage us to balance a commitment to the evangelistic zeal of our faith while, at the same time, remain open to both our own growth and the freedom of expression of others.
This is the strength of Mainline Protestantism in general and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically. We are expected to hold fast to the core of our beliefs and remain respectful and open to dialogue. Such debate has strengthened and informed our concept of freedom. It can be painful, but it is in the midst of passionate, well-articulated positions argued persuasively (classically defined as “rhetoric”) that will also strengthen the church. It needs to be a part of every congregation as well. Unfortunately, congregations are becoming sub-cultures of like-minded individuals rather than the community whose faith is rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. As Christians, our unity is neither rooted in our shared socio-political opinions nor in the freedom of self-determination. That is, we are not united by who we are, but by whose we are. We belong to Christ. Christ is the host when we are invited to His Table. Each human being is different. There will always be someone more liberal or more conservative than we are. There will always be someone who says that we aren’t liberal enough or conservative enough. We hold fast to the Good Confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Along with a commitment to the Creed of Christ, the church has believed and taught that a return to the Christian discipline of prayer is essential. True unity comes through personal and corporate prayer. Our connection with God through the gift of prayer not only opens us to God’s work of molding our minds but opens our hearts to fellow believers and to those in our community who have not met Jesus Christ in a powerful and real way.
Perhaps, evangelistic zeal and the courage to carry the light of Christ into the shadows of a divided world begins with prayer. It may seem that I’m claiming the same privilege of the Revolutionary Orations of our forebears, but let me declare this: We will make no substantive headway until God’s people begin their apologetic efforts with the humility of prayer and service.
-Dr. Ike Nicholson is the Senior Minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).