New Found Revolutionary Sermons

Posted: October 26, 2012 in Category - Sermons of Revolutionary Era, New Found Revolutionary Sermons

This is an extraordinary find. What is interesting is the attitude of the present preacher. If he were the preacher during the revolutionary war, the church would be statist. Notice how he attempts to rewrite history by claiming the church today still retains this “rebellious spirit” because it is anti-war.


Sermons of 1776, With a Spirit of 2003; Newly Found Papers Reflect New York’s Mood in Time of War

Published: March 16, 2003

The country is at war. New York City is threatened. A pastor exhorts young men to fight for liberty, be brave and prepare for the day of death. ”Let a spirit of patriotism fire your breath,” he says in a voice reaching out from 1776.

In a remarkable discovery, members of the First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village stumbled upon two previously unknown sermons from the Revolutionary War, tucked between pages of an old ledger found during a cleanup of the church basement.

Apparently written by the Rev. John Rodgers, the church’s pastor from 1765 to 1811 and a staunch pro-colonist and prominent clergy member in New York, they give a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a city about to be plunged into the violence of the war. And their words have an uncanny resonance in 2003.

Kenneth T. Jackson, president of the New-York Historical Society, called the discovery of the sermons ”an important find.” In a strongly Loyalist city, he said, these words were treasonous, so speaking them and saving the texts were acts of bravery.

”This is revolutionary language, publicly stated from a public place,” Mr. Jackson said. ”It’s what makes history exciting.”

Written in a tiny, perfectly ruled hand, in ink faded to brown, the first sermon is dated Jan. 14, 1776, and is mainly a discourse on the nature of fear of the Lord. But on the last page, Rodgers takes flight on the subject of fighting for freedom. He addresses those preparing to volunteer for the Colonial side.

”Many have already dressed themselves in military array and taken the field, choosing rather to risk their lives in the cause of liberty, than to resign their privilege and live in slavery,” he writes.

In death, he goes on, ”your memory will be dear to survivors, and you will be translated to the world where there never will be the scourge of war, nor the sad spectacle of garments soaked in blood.”

Later in the year, Rodgers began serving as a chaplain to the Colonial army. By July 14, 1776, the date of the second text, circumstances had changed drastically.

The city was an armed camp. The Declaration of Independence had been read in the city commons, and afterward a crowd gathered in Bowling Green and upended the statue of King George III.

A British expeditionary force was massing on Staten Island. Colonial troops were bracing for a fight, and most of the city’s civilians had fled.

The second sermon’s mood is darker. It includes a humble lesson about war as the product of ”the corruption and depravity of human nature.” History, Rodgers writes, shows that ”nation has risen up against nation and kingdom against kingdom and desolation and ruin has been spread all around.”

Rodgers hammers on the theme that what is important for a warring nation is faith in God. Even if the war is just, likely to succeed and wisely begun, ”it is madness to act but in a dependence of him.”

The sermon focuses on a biblical passage from I Chronicles about the victory of the Reubenites and Gadites against a superior force. For the victors, ”it was their concern to make God their friend and serve his favor and this ought to be our great concern, in this time of our publick calamity,” he wrote.

These words bear resemblance to those of President Bush, who has invoked God as the provider of liberty and speaks, as he did in the State of the Union address, of ”our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history.”

Rodgers’s discourse was typical of the 18th century, said Edwin G. Burrows, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the co-author of ”Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.” In the second sermon, Rodgers was probably trying to send a sobering message to troops emboldened by strong patriot stands at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, Dr. Burrows said. By late August, any euphoria was snuffed out by the colonists’ crushing defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn, which led to the British occupation of New York.

Though they are unlikely to change interpretations of history, the sermons are a valuable reminder, Dr. Burrows said, of ”what it must have been like to have been in New York in the summer of 1776, watching this huge British juggernaut bearing down on the city and wondering what the outcome would be.”

”It’s also a reminder not ever to throw things out,” he said. ”Historians love things like this. There’s always the hope of finding more stuff in the basement.”

The sermons were uncovered in January by D. Karl Davis, a church member. He was helping clear out the warren of rooms and corridors under the church, which was founded on Wall Street in 1716 and eventually moved to 12th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1847. Mr. Davis was flipping through the pages of a 1982 ledger when out slipped a plastic sheath with the two sermons inside.

”When I saw the date, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. ”The past became the present and showed the continuity of this church over the years.”

”It was so beautiful,” he added. ”Amid all that dirt it was like something rising from the ashes.”

How the sermons ended up in the ledger is a mystery, but a fellow volunteer, Eugene Cannava, speculated that a would-be thief had temporarily put them aside.

The subterranean purge produced several trash bins’ worth of novelties. Although hundreds of items were sold in an auction this month, the church is keeping the most valuable, including the sermons.

”This is a 10-year-old boy’s dream,” said Kathie Young, a member of the congregation who organized the cleanup.

Among the items were a 1906 brass wall clock; an 1835 Bible; a canceled check for $1,800 to install the iron fence around the church in 1847; a toy train track mounted on a board; a Hopalong Cassidy record collection; two 19th-century rope beds; an immense amount of old furniture; and more than 100 boxes of documents. There was also a 1786 contract transferring land from Trinity Church to First Presbyterian for the pastor’s house, which burned on Sept. 21, 1776, in a great fire that destroyed at least a quarter of the city’s homes.

But the most valuable finds were the sermons.

Basic bibliographies of early American printed works list only three published Rodgers sermons, one of them, from 1784, titled ”The Divine Goodness Displayed in the American Revolution.”

The texts are not signed. Though an official history of the church says Rodgers did not tend to write out his sermons, church officials say they are convinced that he is the author. The handwriting matches that of a letter signed by him, said the church archivist, David Pultz.

The documents also have a somewhat repetitious and sketchy quality, indicating they may have been an effort to work out ideas ahead of time, Mr. Burrows said. And they match Rodgers’s reputation. One Tory historian described him as a man of ”rigid republican principle, a rebellious, seditious preacher.”

In fact, many Presbyterians were sympathetic to the rebel cause. The current senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jon M. Walton, said the church’s rebellious spirit persists, with antiwar sentiment running high in the congregation.

Dr. Walton has also spoken about war from the pulpit, denouncing a war on Iraq, saying the evils exceed any justification. He said the 1776 sermons support his point of view.

”The Iraqi parents who are tucking their children in bed in Baghdad,” Dr. Walton said, ”are the people who need to hear the words Rodgers is saying — that in the midst of the terrible and fearsome battle that is about to ensue, God will watch over them.”



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