A Revolutionary sermon

This is the 300th anniversary year for First Unitarian in New Bedford, and this fall I’ll be preaching a series of four sermons on four great ministers from our past. Next week I’m going to speak about Samuel West, minister at our church in the second half of the 18th C. As part of my research on West, I found a sermon he preached in 1776 in support of the American Revolution. First, a little background on West:

Rev. Samuel West of New Bedford (not to be confused with his contemporary, Rev. Samuel West of Boston) was born in 1730 (1729 O.S.), and ordained in 1761 by the established church of what was then the town of Dartmouth, where he served for the next 42 years. In those 42 years, West was awarded the Doctor of Divinity degree by Harvard, oversaw the creation of a new parish in the eastern section of Dartmouth, moved his own church to the fast-growing city of New Bedford, and moved his church theologically from strict Calvinism to liberal Arminianism. In large because of his influence, his church later became Unitarian.

But the most remarkable part of West’s life had nothing to do with theological controversy. During the Revolutionary era, he was an ardent patriot, in a town dominated by Quakers who opposed armed resistance to Britain for theological and financial reasons. In a biographical sketch printed in Hrealds of a Liberal Faith, Rev. John Morison, one of West’s successors in the New Bedford church, described West thus:

Dr. West was an ardent patriot. He could keep no terms with those who were hesitating or lukewarm, but blazed out against them. After the battle at Bunker Hill he set out to join the American Army, and do what he might as a minister of God to keep up their courage. It was while in the army, serving as a chaplain, that he gained great notoriety by deciphering for General Washington a treasonable letter from Dr. Church to an officer in the British army, of which a full account may be found in the third volume of Sparks’s Writings of Washington, pp. 502-506. In 1776 he delivered a discourse (afterwards printed) before the Provincial Convention at Watertown….

Every year, the provincial government asked a minister to deliver an Election Day sermon at the end of May, and in 1776 this honor was given to West.

West’s Election Day sermon is a classic example of American Revolutionary prose. If the American War for Independence captures your imagination, West’s sermon stands up well even today. He begins the sermon by deriving the right to rebel against Great Britain from natural laws, using human reason and Lockean philosophy. He then derives the right to rebel from the Christian scriptures, and some of his readings of the Bible are noteworthy because of his strong reliance on reason and his willingness to draw on extra-Biblical sources to help gain perspective into the thoughts of Jesus. However, the sermon does contain at least one opinion that should make us feel somewhat uncomfortable today: he believes the government should provide financial support for churches, although he does say there shouldn’t be one established church.

West’s Election Day Sermon, sometimes erroneously titled “On the Right To Rebel Against Governors,” is worth reading today. I’m including it as a separate post (because it’s so long), in case you want to read theologically liberal, politically radical sermon from the 18th C. Here it is.

3 thoughts on “A Revolutionary sermon

  1. Bill Baar

    I like this kind of historical reflection. Few Church’s have much sense of history it seems to me… Few of us know what was being preached 20, 30, 100, or 200 years ago from our pulpits.

  2. CeeJay

    What always amazes me when reading speeches and sermons from this period is how different the average audience must have been from today’s audience. I cannot imagine too many ministers who could get away with preaching a sermon so steeped in philosophy and logic.

  3. Dan

    Bill — I’m thinking of doing a collection of sermons from the New Bedford church. The differences in sermons over those three hundred years is really eye-opening.

    CeeJay — Plus this sermon is something like 17,000 words. Holy smokes! I tend to do long sermons by today’s standards, but my sermons rarely run over 3,000 words.

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