Friday, September 14, 2012

The Election Sermon

I mentioned to some folks today that it's an old tradition to have an "election sermon," and some of the people I was speaking with had never heard of this tradition, so I thought I'd do a little research and write on it.  It turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought.  From how I understand what I'm reading, it seems there are two sorts of "election sermons" -- one is a sermon preached just prior to election day, and the other is called an "election sermon" but is preached before government officials but on inauguration day, which was called, confusingly, "election day."  So, for example, this "election day" sermon from 1790 --
-- was preached on "the day of general election," apparently before the newly elected officials.  Likewise, this Gad Hitchcock text from 1774 was preached to the elected officials on "election day."  Similarly, in 1830 Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing preached a notable election sermon, before the Massachusetts legislature in which he said the memorable words:
I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man mater, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven, which, whilst consulting others, inquires still more of the oracle within itself, and uses instructions from abroad, not to supersede but to quicken and exalt its own energies.
Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland describes the events:
It began in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 and continued until 1884. The tradition spread to Connecticut in 1674, to Vermont in 1778, and to New Hampshire in 1784....  It was one of the few public holidays in pre-revolutionary America. Stores and schools closed and the day was marked with parades, picnics, and an Election Day sermon delivered to the officials by a distinguished minister.
This seems to be the sense of the election sermon in Unitarian author Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter that the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale delivers:
Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—as to most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could hereafter be. He stood, at this moment, on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts of intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon.  
At some point, however, the tradition of preaching the election sermon to the politicians themselves ended, for the most part, and we began to understand the term "election sermon" differently, as one preached to the congregation shortly before the election.  Today, our understanding of the "election sermon" is definitely as a pre-election sermon given by the minister.  The modern understanding has become so pervasive, partly because of the confusion of the term "election day" that the Unitarian minister the Rev. Forrest Church wrote in an election sermon:

There’s a noble tradition in the ministry, going back to the 17th Century.
One or two Sundays before an election, almost every preacher in the land
devoted his sermon to the body politic.

It’s a great literary genre.  Often, the brimstone was so hot
that an Election Day sermon was the one sermon a minister might be remembered by....

Here’s how it went.  The world has gone, or is about to go to Hell.
The reason is simple. God is punishing you for your sins.
Whatever is wrong in this world is wrong because you are wrong-headed,
wrong-hearted, inattentive to God’s commandments,
 and God is watching and God is angry,
 and if you keep on messing up you will burn forever.
Until reading up on it, my understanding had been that the Unitarian tradition of election sermons was always, as Forrest Church suggests, as we practice it now.  But like most traditions, this one has apparently changed over time.  That doesn't mean that what we now do is meaningless, just because the tradition isn't "pure," but that we must find the meaning in it not from the sake of tradition, but because it is worthy in its own right.  For now, I think there's something important about speaking to the event at hand on the eve of an election, and am planning what I will say in my own this year.

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