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“The Terror of the Lord”: Early American Clerics Interpret God’s Will

Posted on 07/30/2020

The earliest American sermons were largely delivered by the most erudite men in the Protestant colonies. These eminent divines were concentrated in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where their influence was unchallenged except by the occasional heretic such as Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson. The first among these men of God arrived in the colonies, having been educated in England and reared in the Church of England from which they were dissenting. Subsequent generations were educated at Harvard and became, for the most part, Congregationalists, Universalists, and Presbyterians. These men constituted an elite class and were well rewarded in material benefits.

Among their common concerns were interpreting God’s will in natural events which were called visitations. One such visitation occurred in late October 1727 when an earthquake off the New England shore rattled the inhabitants, destroyed property, but did not kill anybody. It was the first time an earthquake had affected New England since the first arrival of white settlers.

Cotton Mather (1663-1723), a leading cleric, soon after the event printed “a speech, made unto the inhabitants of Boston, who assembled the next morning, for the proper exercises of religion, on so uncommon and so tremendous an occasion.” He began his address by recounting the astonishing phenomenon:

The Night that followed…was a Night whereto NEW-ENGLAND had never in the Memory of Man, seen the like before. The Air never more Calm, the Sky never more Fair; every thing in all imaginable Tranquility: But about a quarter of an Hour before Eleven, there was heard in BOSTON, from one end of the Town to the other, an horrid rumbling like the Noise of many Coaches together, driving on the paved Streets with the utmost Rapidity.

Mather was clear that this upheaval of the solid earth was a message from God warning people of the awful power of His wrath. In this sermon Mather cites Biblical verses to demonstrate how such visitations had occurred in the past and how dire the consequences of ignoring these warnings could be. In short, the worst was yet to come if humankind persisted in their wicked ways.

Other prominent ministers felt moved to preach and publish discourses on the meaning of the earthquake, including Joseph Sewall (1688-1769) who, like Mather, used various Biblical references to prove his assertion that God was angry and sending a warning.

When God is come out in terrible Judgments against us, we should therefore be convinced of Sin, particularly of this great Sin of not believing in Jesus Christ, and take heed there be not in any of us an evil Heart of unbelief.

He specifically quoted Jeremiah, chapter 7, verse 20:

Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched.

Thomas Foxcroft (1697-1769) waited for three weeks before preaching a sermon “in the audience of the General Court, at the opening of the sessions, Nov. 23. 1727.” He titled his sermon “The voice of the Lord, from the deep places of the earth.”

The Earth, and all it’s [sic] deep Places, He holds in his Hand, and keeps from Desolation. Should He withdraw His sustaining Influence but for a moment, the Earth wou’d [sic] immediately return to it’s [sic] primitive Chaos, or relapse into Nothing.

Foxcroft explains that an omnipotent God indeed causes all good and all harm to his people, and all harm must be understood to be attributable to humanity’s failings and visited upon them as a corrective.

He also presides over the Natural World. He extends his Care and Influence to all Creatures, both small and great. None are so little as to escape his Notice: Nor any too big for Him to manage. Whatsoever the Lord pleaseth, that doth He in Heaven and in Earth, in the Seas & all deep Places, Psal. 135. 6. Nature is not left to govern it self (sic); is not resign’d to the wild Steerage of blind Chance: But GOD sitteth upon the Circle of the Earth, as a wise & powerful Director, influencing all natural Causes, and disposing all Effects & Accidents, Periods, Revolutions, and Successions of Things.

The concept of visitations was central to the Protestant beliefs of early New England. In 1680 Increase Mather (1639-1723) warned of “Heaven’s alarm to the world. Or A sermon, wherein is shewed, that fearful sights and signs in heaven, are the presages of great calamities at hand.” He discussed the signs which foretold the destruction of the Egyptians and liberation of the Jews. He argues that these signs were divine visitations.

The Plagues of Egypt were of a prodigious nature. When Water was turned into Blood, it was a prodigious Sign that the Egyptians, for their bloody Cruelty in murdering the Male Israelitish Infants, should themselves dye and perish in the Waters. There were prodigious Thunders, and storms of Fire and Haile [sic], and prodigious Darkness throughout the Land; and a sudden prodigious multiplication of noxious Creatures, destroying the Fruits of the Earth: All which strange Providences were Signs portending the destruction of Egypt, and the salvation of Israel.

The Three Woe Trumpets was also a concept elucidated by the clerics. In 1793 Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) delivered two sermons on this theme in London.  Winchester was an American and one of the founders of the Universalist Church of America. His chosen title indicates the seriousness of his concern: “The three woe trumpets; of which the first and second are already past; and the third is now begun; under which the seven vials of the wrath of God are to be poured out upon the world.” He scorches “Mahomet” and all of Islam which he compares to locusts with scorpion tails intent on destruction.

Hosea Ballou (1771-1852) was another founder of the Universalist Church of America. In 1818 he preached a sermon in Boston in which he referenced the seven vials and plagues. He prefaced his remarks with a quote from Second Thessalonians: “And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”

Ballou cites the last book of the New Testament in support of his thesis.

It is recollected that we have an account in the book of Revelation, of seven vials, which contain the seven last plagues; but the seven Angels who were appointed to pour them out, were ordered to pour them out upon the earth; they were not directed to reserve one for the future, eternal world.

The hearer may be called on to consider the question, whether, if the seven last plagues, are plagues to be endured in this life, the notion of endless plagues in the world to come, be correct?

The ministers were all concerned with Satan, and the misery and sorrow that was strewn upon the earth and humankind by this fallen angel. Samuel Finley (1715-1766) was an evangelical Presbyterian minister who was once president of Princeton University. In 1742 he preached a sermon titled “Christ triumphing, and Satan raging. A sermon on Math. XII. 28. Wherein is proved, that the Kingdom of God is come unto us this day.” He added subtitles. “Also is shewed, I. How it will appear that the Devil, in some measure, possesses every unregenerate soul. II. By what marks it will be discernable when he is cast out, &.”

Finley was certain that “until the Heart be renewed by Grace, it is still under the Power of Sin. Those who have been greatly reformed in Externals, and afterwards turned openly Profane, are a Proof of this.” He asserts, exhaustively, that within the

carnal Heart…we shall find ‘All unrighteousness, Fornication, Wickedness, Covetousness, Maliciousness, Envy, Murder, Debate, Deceit, Malignity Whispering, Back-biting, Hatred of God, Pride, Boasting…Disobedience to Parents, Ignorance, Blindness, Treachery, Cruelty, Hard-heartedness, Implacability, Unmercifulness [sic], Idolatry, Adultery, Effeminacy, Sodomy, Thefts, Drunkenness, Mockery of what is good, Extortion, Unclean Lusts, Wantonness, Lasciviousness, Witchcraft, Hatred, Anger, Emulations, Wrath, Strife, Seditions, Damnable Heresies, Hypocrisy’ and many more such like.

All are sinners in need of grace which Finley is ready to prescribe.

After discussing Satan’s “subtilty and falsehood” by which he deceived humans and “gained dominion over the human race” and was “styled ‘the prince of power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience,’” Reverend Joseph Vaill (1751-1838) offered hope to his congregation in a sermon titled “The Son of God manifested to destroy the works of the Devil…” However, he warns that “as sinners are his [Satan’s] voluntary servants, and are cheerfully ‘led captive by him at his will,’ they have no cloak for their sin and crimson guilt, in hearkening to his temptations.”

The world as understood by these stern Protestant preachers was a dangerous place full of Satan’s traps and devices. The only salvation was in Jesus of Nazareth. Therein lay safety from the corrupt and corrupting works of evil. American Sermons—featuring text analysis tools and author biographies—is a rich source of over 8,000 sermons printed before 1820.  Many topics are argued and explicated for the moral benefit and redemption of America’s first Christians.

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