The following essay takes quotes from a Sermon, delivered for our 1790 Independence Day, by the Rev. Dr. William Smith of the American Episcopal Church. The address considers our Temporal and Spiritual Salvation as a nation, and how sorts of blessings work together for the expansion of Kingdom of Christ. Dr. Smith reminds his esteemed audience their duties following their Independence, and how our early-Republic fit into a latter-day Gospel economy. Smith’s sermon(s) lay much groundwork for an American civil religion, identifying the American states with God’s elect, and their extension to the fullness of Gentiles. Smith gives us a nice example Christian Patriotism. The larger text is from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 52, reading thusly:
“Break forth into joy, sing together ye wast places of Jerusalem; for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” Is. 52:9-10
Liberty & Religion Forever:
Smith proceeds to elaborate upon this scripture, “looking to more ample commentary upon this prophecy”; so, he examines the “last diffusion of the Gospel”, marked by the wonderful “drama by which the American states” were caught (the Revolution). Nor is Smith shy in thanking Providence for apparent material and civil blessings given to the nascent American Republic, enumerating not only the enjoyment of True Religion among her many (mostly English) inhabitants but also temporal advantages ready to be employed to the final progress of the Gospel. Obviously, at this time, there is little embarrassment about the American Republic or its political foundations, “our Civil and Religious rights are inseparably connected; and whatever hurts or destroys the former, must, in the issue, hurt or destroy the latter.” Regarding the whole of our temporal blessings, Smith asserts,
“he [Jehovah] holds forth to them, and to the whole world with them, the glorious prospect of a double deliverance and salvation (which should take place, to the very ends of the earth) as well from all temporal civil and bondage, as from spiritual evil and the cruel bondage of sin.”
Again, Smith sees a close relation between temporal and spiritual advantage, not radically dividing them, since one tends to follow the other. This seems in keeping with other postmillenialists of the 18th-century who were optimistic about British civilization and institutions:
“I need scarcely observe to a christian audience, that we are to understand the knowledge an practice of the blessed Gospel of Jesus Christ; to which is annexed not only the promises of temporal happiness in this life, but the rich reward to eternal happiness in the life to come.”
But the notion of temporal good conjoined to spiritual endowment is conditioned upon the Godly use of material blessings, in this case, the extension of Religion. So long as this was the case, contemporaneous divines, going even back to Commonwealth Puritanism, easily identified and often casually swapped the blessing of Jehovah’s bride, national Israel, with Britannia as her Empire reached across the Seas. Smith was evidently accustomed to using this same trope as comparison shifts from England to the American states, also mentioned ‘concomitants’ that attend the Gospel:
‘The prospect opens, it extends itself upon us; and the whole Analogy of things aids the interpretation of Prophecy. Turning our thoughts to the ways of Providence, as recorded in sacred as well as profane history, and pondering upon the fate of Christian States and Empires– how they have, in their turns enjoyed the pure Light of the Gospel and all its blessed concomitants— true Liberty, equal Laws, security of Property, Wisdom, Magnanimity, Arts, and Sciences, and whatever can adorn or exalt human nature, marking the progress of Religion and Civilization through the Old World, and impartially examining the prophecies which related to the coming in of the fullness of the Gentiles, and extending their glory, like a flowing stream, to the ends of the earth”
In a similar 1760 Sermon, Dr. Smith underlines the same relation between Reformed Christianity and Civil Progress. In this case Commerce, made possible by obvious exploits in Navigation and many other Sciences, cleared or prepared the way to the next Gospel Era beyond the Old World. Says Smith to the SPCK’s work in America:
“To the Westward of Britain the ancients seem to have known nothing. They considered these islands as the ends of the world; and extensive as the Roman empire was at our Savior’s coming, this American continent, more extensive than it all, lay entirely hid from their knowledge, and seems to have been reserved as the stage of a second remarkable period in the Gospel-progress. Not a vestige, therefore, of Christianity was propagated hither, till after it had kept possession of the Old World, in various forms and under various corruptions, for at least fifteen centuries. But, at the expiration of that period, it pleased God to open the way to the discovery of new countries, which likewise opened the way to the establishment of the Gospel in them. For it is obvious to remark, that the nations, which were raised up for this purpose, were those among whom Christianity was openly professed, and consequently they carried their religion along with them. Being likewise superior to all the rest of the world in the arts of Commerce and every improvement of civil life, they were the fittest to explore new settlements, conciliate the affections of the natives, and push their discoveries to the greatest extent. This they did with remarkable zeal and success; and, tho’ it must be confessed that they have made use of the advantages which they enjoyed, chiefly for the secular purposes of extending their Empire and Commerce, yet they have not been altogether negligent of the propagation of the sacred Religion which they profess.
Other added benefits helping the extension of the Gospel, according to Smith, is the plenitude of harvests amidst a mild climate, bolstering confidence that benevolence would be met with obligation [from native Savages], thereby fulfilling long-awaited aspects to Prophecy:
“BY our connexions with our Mother-country, and the productions of our own happy climate, we are the only people of all the European nations, settled in America, that are able to feed the Hungry and cloath the Naked. When our enemies shall be confined within their due bounds, we shall thus have obtained a more natural and lasting dominion over the Heathen natives of this continent by our Arts and Manufactures, than the Romans did over the old world by the terror of their arms. Every river, creek, inlet, lake and settlement, will be open to our Commerce; and when we stretch forth food and raiment, and practise the other arts of Humanity, to the glad inhabitants, it is hoped that we shall not be wanting to stretch forth also the bread of life to their famished souls. The present spirit and disposition of our nation give us a well-grounded assurance that the means will never be wanting for carrying on such benevolent purposes; and when all these things shall conspire, we may trust that the promised period, for the fulfilling of the Gentiles, and thorough conversion of the Nations, even to these remotest parts of the earth, cannot be far off.“
Our National Election:
Abundant temporal mercies mark divine calling or service, demonstrating a Providential ‘election’ for Britain [so too America] among the nations. This leads Smith to suggest an election for Anglo-Saxon civilization like the Jewish one:
IS it so, then, my brethren, that God hath chosen the British nation, above all others, to settle the most important part of this continent? Hath he prospered their arms, and extended their empire in the most signal manner, thro’ a series of hazardous events? Doth he seem to have purposed through us the extension of his everlasting gospel to the ends of the world, and are you charged with the ministration of that blessed Gospel, and severally capable of contributing somewhat, under divine assistance, to the hastening of that happy period, wherein “the Knowlege of the Lord shall cover the whole earth as the waters cover the sea?” Are these things so; and can we ever be without the most animating motives to support and encourage us in so great a work, how inconsiderable soever the temporal advantages may be, which are annexed to the discharge of it? Considered in this light, how divinely important does your MISSION appear? Whilst others are proposing, and justly proposing, to themselves the Palm of high renown, for bravely subduing and maintaining a rich and spacious country for the name of Britain and Liberty, we [SPCK and episcoipal ministers] may consider ourselves, even in a still higher light, as subduing it to the name of CHRIST, and adding it to his everlasting Kingdom!” p. 24-25
By 1790, with the American Republic (and related Protestant Interest) secured, Smith fully articulated his breed of civil religion, saying, “surely, on such a review, we are justified in cherishing a strong Hope, a well grounded Persuasion, that the day hath already dawned, (nay that its merdian¹ is near at hand) when all the ends of the earth shall, with Us, behold the Salvation of our God.” Expanding upon his 1760 sermon, Smith then counts the dealings of Providence with the rise of American states, explaining the course of events while organized as colonies.
“With the Sun, those mighty blessings still pursued a Western Course, till they reached the utmost verge of the old world– that Ultima Thule, from whence many of us and our fathers sprang. Long did they illumine that favoured land, and while they shone in noontide glory there– (O memory, why starts the involuntary tear!) who they shone in noontide glory there— at the time ordained by God, our Fathers crossed the Ocean. They brought the Bible, the blessed charter of their Salvation, in their hands, and therewith the rudiments of learning and science, dispelling the long, long night of darkness in which these American Regions were involved; and laying the foundation of a New and glorious Era in the Gospel progress, onward towards the setting sun. A radiant morn of light and happiness then dawned upon this benighted land, yielding the joyous earnest of a future resplendent day.”
Smith describes an interlude of darkness over the America which was dispelled by the Revolution. Given Smith’s sentiment about an expansive civilization, this is likely an allusion to the King’s prohibition of Western settlement in the Ohio Valley². But, the Revolution lifted the penalty, allowing Americans into the river valleys and across the mountains of the of the old Nortwest, eventually leading to the Pacific. So, Smith compares the breach with the Crown like a parting of gloomy clouds:
“That dawn was, however, overcast; the morning loured and our Sun was hid in clouds for a while; but, blessed be God, he was not commanded, for our unworthiness, to revert from his destined course, and measure back his former way. The clouds were dispersed, our Sun broke forth with renewed vigor, sending forward his bright beams to the fartherest West*, and calling all the ‘ends of the earth’ to behold the salvation of our God’.”
This is where Smith expounds the fullness of Gentiles— his favorite and much thought-out exposition. In Smith’s 1760 Sermon he reminds the SPCK what a ‘fullness’ entails, and I think this his clearest statement on such:
“IN this divine work, our Mother-country, one of the purest branches of the Christian-church, always foremost in every pious and humane undertaking, has signally exerted herself. In her, even in an age wherein Christianity hath lost much of its influence on the lives of men, many public Societies have been formed, and noble contributions made, with the glorious view of extending the Knowledge of God over this vast untutored Continent. At the head of these is justly placed that venerable society, incorporated for propagating the gospel in foreign parts, in whose service most of you, my brethren, have the Honor to be employed, and for promoting whose pious designs we are now voluntarily assembled together. This august and venerable body consists of the principal dignitaries of our church, sundry of the prime nobility of the nation, and many other pious persons of every degree. It has subsisted for near fourscore of years, and, by the providence of God, has been remarkably enabled to support the great and growing expense incident to such an undertaking. TWO objects have most worthily employed the attention of this Society; the first to provide for the administration of religious ordinances among our own Colonists themselves, who have hitherto been generally too thinly settled to be able to support a regular ministry without such assistance; and secondly to win over the Heathen-natives to the knowledge of God, and a firm attachment to our national interest. These two designs, however much evil men may strive to separate them, must necessarily go hand in hand. Should the Society employ themselves wholly to the business of converting the Indian natives from Heathenism, while they suffered their own colonies to degenerate into a state little better than that Heathenism itself, the attempt would be equally vain and unjust. For it would be to little purpose for us to send out Missionaries among them to persuade them to embrace our Religion, unless the fruits and “Light of our Religion should so shine before them, that they seeing our good works may glorify our father which is in heaven. THE support, therefore, of Christianity among ourselves, and the propagation of it among our Heathen Neighbors, are but different parts of the same undertaking; and tho’ we have not hitherto had any great success in the latter, yet it is our duty to continue our best endeavours. For who knows either the particular time when, or the means by which, the Lord may be pleased to accomplish his own divine Promises?”
In other words, the American states carried forward the Blessings of Britain (both her Liberties and Fecundity or Wealth) following the Revolution, under the divine calling to spread the Gospel to the end of the continent or our Western half (perhaps even beyond, wherever Britain lacked). We see something of Manifest Destiny. Even so, missionary vigor wasn’t limited to native Savages but also the English-Americans who suffered the danger of disbelief or apostasy. Dr. Smith, coming from an evangelical background, evidently sees a great mission being accomplished in America, unfettered by the Revolution and its political liberties. This idea is not unusual to Smith (also see Schaff on Disestablishment).
America’s Peculiar Religious Feast:
However, Smith is also sober regarding the order of blessings, namely, that spiritual mercies are indeed the basis and security of many temporal ones. Consequently, Smith criticizes thoughtless or noisy patriotic displays which might lack a Reverence for the Almighty. Rather, American Independence properly has its Religious Part. This comports with wider English tradition that sets apart special days for, say, a military victory, the crowning or birthday of a sovereign, or even a return to public peace. No surprise the American Prayer Book would eventually set forth a day of worship for our Independence . Accordingly, Smith cautions:
“Although this annual feast is always a temporal deliverance is considered it as their indispensable duty, never to separate the commemoration of temporal from that of spiritual blessings and deliverance. They are indeed inseparable in their nature… so celebrate a “religious joys, the joy of the heart before the Lord, mixed with a holy and reverential fear; rejoicing indeed, but our rejoicing should be with trembling lest we follow the example of Israel, who, when they saw the great work which the Lord did for them upon the Egyptians, feared the Lord and Moses, and commemorated their deliverance with songs of joy, saying Who is like unto thee O Lord amongst the Gods; glorious in majesty and doing wonders? Yet soon did they forget their deliverer, and for the punishment of their ingratitude, were scattered among the nations which knew not God”
The remedy is to keep godly Virtue (not merely Liberty)– repeatedly giving Thanks to the Heavenly author of all civil-Health. Hence, in a fashion, our political existence hangs upon the goodness of His Dispensation. The neglect of the Gospel, both to ourselves and the stranger, ultimately endangers our temporal well-being as a civic-body with certain Freedoms and Fecundity. Keep in mind Smith articulates these thoughts in a Paternalistic way, also wanting their ‘firm attachment to our national interest’:
“unless we are zealously instrumental in this great work of Civilization, all our other works and blessings– the happiness of climate and fruitfulness of soil, our zeal and struggles for liberty, our best plans of civil government, our most absolute national independence, all will be of little effect– for still we Depend on the living God, who hath set eternal bounds between Right and Wrong, and whose Almighty arm holds the fate of empires and nations, suspended in the balance.
Should we as a people neglect the call which is given us, for contributing our utmost endeavors to render this land, a land of Knowledge and Virtue as well as of Freedom; should we imagine that we are sent into it only to eat the fruits thereof, to wrest from the former lords of the soils, by us called Savages, the possessions which they held from age to age, without seeking to improve their condition as well as our own; should we refuse to undo the heavy burden, to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free– justly might we fear that the good providence of God would punish us for our unworthiness, and raise up other instruments for the accomplishment of his own eternal purposes of love, for Civilizing, as well as Christianizing this immense continent.“
Thus, Independence Day was a time to recall our national Election, implicating our collective duty to minister– in both body and soul– for those within the American pale of progress and industry.
At the finish of our recent Independence Day service (after this sermon was read), we asked how Smith’s exhortations applied today? It appears Smith’s prophecy has been fulfilled to the extent a purer Christian (Protestant) civilization indeed planted and expanded itself to the ends of the Pacific Ocean. Much of what Smith writes seems to be looking toward the opening of the Ohio frontier as well as the expanse of the West further beyond (indeed, to the ends of the earth or perhaps what was called ‘New Albion‘).
While this question might perplex more modern-minds (especially those who know the closing of the Western Frontier by the turn of the 20th century), the Pacific states have since reverted to unbelief– hardened atheism adorned with desultory paganism. Consequently, demographers call the Pacific-West the ‘unchurched belt’. Additionally, there is a massive influx of heathen from the far-East– the Hindiis and Turk– imperiling our many civil institutions, Anglo-American customs, and Republican form of government. Surely Smith would not be happy, but he might also think there is a special calling or divine Plan for those ministers in the far-West. I think of the quaint saying “as California goes, so goes the nation”. So, maybe there’s a prophetic linchpin with California, or its Golden West surrogate, as the very Isles of Gentiles?
But, I think a more complete answer might be gained by re-reading Smith’s 1790 sermon through the earlier 1760 one. Smith’s thoughts did not substantially alter between these two dates. In the earlier discourse he reminds the twofold objective of missionary societies like SPCK. Namely, their object was Educational: 1) to call back our countrymen by repentance from sundry secret and habitual sins, returning them to true Religion. But 2) also to win over the heathen “to the knowledge of God and a firm attachment to our national interest” (as Smith said). But do we share the same confidence in our civil institutions like our forebears to effective press such an objective? Perhaps not. Yet, I suspect we should regardless. Why? Because it’s ‘right’. It is the proper use of commerce and liberty given the Gospel isn’t undermined in the process. Smith admits this much, and I think the following quote not only demonstrates the basis of our peculiar civic Religion, but it likewise shows Smith as a prototypical Christian Patriot, of our ‘Meridian Glory’, bridging the late-colonial to post-Revolutionary period:
“The prosecution of this great design– the diffusing of heavenly Knowledge, and Liberty, and Arts and Sciences, unto the extremest bounds of America, I have ever considered as the first and greatest work for which we are sent into it, and for which the Almighty hath hitherto prospered us; making the wilderness and the solitary places glad through us, and the desert to rejoice and blossom as the rose. To look forward to that glorious Era, when heavenly wisdom and virtue, and all that can civilize, adorn, and bless mankind, shall cover this whole continent, as the waters cover the sea– to attend to the times and the seasons, and to dwell upon the many prophecies which predict its near approach– to contribute my share towards the advancement of it, and to possess the minds of the rising generation of youth, who are to be principal actors in the work, with the great animating idea, that Heaven hath yet mighty blessings in store for the inhabitants of this land, of every climate and every color– this hath been my joy, and this my labor from my earliest years.
I hope to write more about our early civil Religion soon.
¹ Smith breaks down the longer Gospel Dispensation into shorter Eras. The beginnings of this Dispensation is called the “Dawn” which includes Abraham to Christ’s birth. However, upon the time the early church to the Reformation and their colonies, Smith names this the “Meridian”. Of course, these Dispensations are compared to the course of the Sun. See his 1760 Sermon, “IN the primitive ages of Simplicity, the first indications of Divine Will were given to the Patriarchs of mankind in the Eastern parts of the world, by God himself, conversing with them face to face, as they tended their flocks, or journeyed on from pasture to pasture. This was the Dawn of things. Soon afterwards followed the Law, and then the Prophets, advancing nearer and nearer to a full and perfect Revelation, till at last it broke forth in its Meridian glory, by the coming of the son of God, at that period already re erred to, when the situation of the world had prepared the way for its more effectual reception. The Wisdom of God was visible in all this; and soon did the Christian Religion spread itself Westward, till it reached the vast Atlantic ocean, and the Isles of the Gentiles, where the posterity of Japhet dwelt.”
²Smith was undoubtedly an advocate of Westward settlement, even something of a firebrand, for the Ohio Valley and likely beyond. Says wiki: “Smith was an Anglican Priest and together with William Moore, Smith was briefly jailed in 1758 for his criticism of the military policy in the Quaker-run colony. Indeed, during the French and Indian War, Smith published two anti-Quaker pamphlets that advocated the disenfranchisement of all Quakers—who were, at the time, the political elite in Pennsylvania. However, their pacifist beliefs made it difficult for the Quakers in government to provide funds for defense, and as a result anti-Quaker sentiment ran high, especially in the backcountry which suffered from frequent raids from Indians allied with the French. Smith’s second pamphlet, A Brief View of the Conduct of Pennsylvania, For the Year 1755 (1756) actually went so far as to suggest that while one way of “ridding our Assembly of Quakers” would be to require an oath, “another way of getting rid of them” would be “by cutting their Throats.” Smith’s virulent attacks on Quakers alienated him from Franklin, who was closely allied with the Pennsylvania Assembly.” Me thinks Smith was militant about removing obstacles to the West, including Quakers who refused to support westward campaigns of the military.