Election Sermons and Collective Identity in Massachusetts, 1760–1775

Prewar Politics (<1775)

August 5, 2021
by Christopher Walton Also by this Author


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“It is Hoped that this People will Unitedly Exert Themselves:”[1]

In August 1765, crowds gathered on the streets of Boston protesting Parliament’s Stamp Act, which they deemed a tyrannical effort to tax them against their consent. Eventually, protests turned destructive as rioters ransacked the home of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. The violent outburst posed a dilemma for Bostonians: could they work against abuses of the British government without suffering the consequences of revolutionary excess? Recent scholarship has depicted an American Revolution more violent and fragmented than older popular portrayals. Episodes like the Boston Stamp Act Crisis upend the image of a monolithic America, revealing substantial disagreement and division among colonists.[2] An influential group of elites did try to make the Patriot cause a monolithic movement by how they spoke to, and how they spoke about, contemporary events. In Massachusetts, some of the strongest voices in this group were Congregational ministers. When it came to the Stamp Act Crisis, Rev. Mr. Jonathan Mayhew denounced the mob’s attack on the lieutenant governor’s home. Like many of his colleagues, he tried to forge a middle path that supported Whig principles of liberty while steering clear of what he perceived as excesses of the crowd.[3] Many Congregational ministers attempted to control the revolutionary fervor around them, and in the process, they helped forge a collective American identity. One of their premier instruments was the election sermon.

Election sermons delivered to the Massachusetts Assembly in Boston from 1760 to 1775 were delivered before the assembly and governor, having them as their primary audience, but a central purpose of these sermons was shaping the collective identity of the people of Massachusetts. Although election sermons were a familiar source in older historiography,[4] revisiting them illuminates contemporary historiographical concerns about religion’s role in forging collective identity and early American national unity. Pushing back the timeline set by current scholarship for the religious formation of national identity illustrates the importance of identity rhetoric in pre-Revolutionary election sermons.[5] Uncovering the identity rhetoric and power of election sermons illuminates the vital, yet complex, relationship between religious leaders and the formation of American identity during the broader Revolutionary era.

The Significance of the Election Sermon

Sermons are religious statements. As such, they often pronounce a theological ideal and put forward a religious vision. But election sermons were also public, civic events. How would this affect their significance? Massachusetts election sermons in the years leading up to the American Revolution actively propagated an ideal of “the people” that rhetorically molded collective identity. Philosophically, ministers grounded their political vision on theological principles of the providence of God and the societal hierarchy that He had established between rulers and subjects. These ministers had much to say about “the people” against “the rulers.”[6] The theme of “the people” is a significant one in these sermons, despite their attention to government officials as the honored audience.[7] But how did they define the people? Or, perhaps more to the point, how were their sermons active in shaping the way the colonists viewed themselves collectively?

If the people held a fundamental place in civil society, then the people’s delegation of political power to civil rulers was a central civil act. Elections were important. And yet, Massachusetts’ political society was not democratic by modern standards. In general, only adult white males who owned property could vote.[8] Up against the backdrop of this reality, what was the popular rhetoric of these sermons doing? The fact that Massachusetts operated according to such narrow conceptions of voting rights implies that election sermon references to “the people” were not simply invoking the vast majority of individuals in society.

Moreover, the timing of the election sermon after the “popular” vote implies that the popular rhetoric was less about immediate electoral results than about overall identity and long-term formation. The election sermon was one of a series of civic events on election day, and its context underscored its own ceremonial importance and the non-democratic element of the colony’s election process. Public events of the day began with assembling the newly-elected representatives to be sworn into their offices and with a procession of the governor. The governor received the newly-elected speaker of the house, and (accompanied by a body of militia) he processed with the Assembly and sitting members of the Council to the religious meetinghouse to hear the election sermon.[9]

The sermon specifically addressed the annual election of the colony’s council by members of the general assembly of Massachusetts. Assembly members themselves had already been elected. The sermons thus came in the middle of the election process. By occupying a unique point after the “popular” elections and before the assembly’s election of the council, election sermons could address an audience that was both entering into a year of civil authority and preparing to cast votes. Combined with its impressive ceremonial context, the election sermon’s timing maximized the sermon’s importance and effect by giving it a platform to speak to electors and elected simultaneously. But its placement complicates a simple explanation of the ministers’ fixation on “the people.” Since it was not geared toward the popular election, we must look deeper than a desire to sway the popular vote. A closer analysis of their popular rhetoric shows that election sermons were trying to form a people.

The Rhetoric of the Election Sermon

One of the primary ways election sermon rhetoric constructed collective identity was by setting apart American colonists from their cousins across the Atlantic—in other words, by “othering” Britain. On some occasions, the ministers seemed willing to speak of colonists as part of the British people. Rev. Mr. Moses Parsons extolled the political system of the “British nation” by claiming that “we had the best plan of civil government, of any nation or people under heaven.”[10] Note his use of the first person “we”—he was describing colonists and inhabitants of Britain as one people. But later in the same sermon, his rhetoric reversed course, stressing the distinctness of the Massachusetts colonists: “it would require volumes to recount all that this people have done, to settle and support themselves as a people, without any charge to Great-Britain.”[11] The tension of identity is apparent. Did the colonists of Massachusetts constitute a distinct people?

Election sermons during this era seem to dwell in this tension. Rev. Mr. Charles Turner spoke of “the people of this land” as having been raised to respect “the House of Hanover” but also underscored the importance of not having “this country” be under the control of “a distant Legislature.”[12] “This” land and country was set apart from a Hanoverian king or a “distant” Parliament. And yet, the ministers did not advocate political independence from Britain during this era. Reverend Cooke approvingly declared of the colonists: “They glory in the British constitution, and are abhorrent, to a man, of the most distant thought of withdrawing their allegiance from their gracious Sovereign, and becoming an independent state.”[13] Whether his analysis of colonists’ allegiance at that time was completely sound or not, Cooke was promoting a view of loyalty as if it were the true and only colonial view. These sermons promoted the othering of Britain, while also seeking harmony.

Several sermons given in 1766 after the repeal of the Stamp Act demonstrate the rhetorical balancing act of distinguishing the colonies from Britain while also lauding harmony between them.[14] Rev. Mr. Charles Chauncy’s words went so far as to unite Massachusetts to other American colonies as opposed to Britain, speaking of “these American lands” and distinguishing between “the American inhabitants” and “their mother country.” At the same time, he insisted that the colonists did not have “a thought in their hearts . . . of being an independent people.”[15] He thus condemned rebellion while still driving a rhetorical wedge between the identity of “America” and Britain.[16] Simultaneously, such rhetoric distinguished colonists from British identity and forged a camaraderie with other American colonies by objectifying a collective, American identity. Indeed, Chauncy proclaimed that “such a union in spirit was never before seen in the colonies.”[17] Such a declaration was both descriptive and active: by highlighting and extolling the unity that was there, Chauncy sought to validate and strengthen it.

A second way in which Massachusetts election sermons in the years leading up to the Revolution attempted to frame the identity of the people was by envisioning a unified people of Massachusetts. Detractors became outsiders—the mob was not “the people.” Sermons on the repeal of the Stamp Act by Revs. Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Edward Barnard all described the joy of colonists concerning the repeal in universal, unifying terms. Thus, Barnard proclaimed that in the aftermath of the repeal “every eye sparkles with joy, and every mouth is opened in mutual congratulations.”[18] Mayhew agreed, noting that “almost every person you meet” “wears the smiles of contentment and joy.”[19] Chauncy likewise concurred: “No man appeared without a smile on his countenance. No one met his friend but he bid him joy.”[20]

Yet, Chauncy also acknowledged that there had been disunity while the Stamp Act was in force, for the political climate had been so hot that “it was hardly safe for any man to speak his thoughts on the times.”[21] Similarly, Mayhew saw the need to encourage more unity in Massachusetts, decrying “many unwarrantable jealousies” and “bitter mutual reproaches.” He called for the people“to abstain from all party names and national reflections, respecting any of our fellow subjects.”[22] Somehow, then, unity was not complete. But by speaking of patriotic sentiment and unity as a universal reality in the colony, these ministers set other opinions and actions out on the fringe.

By speaking of “the people,” then, Boston ministers fostered a sense of collective identity around Patriot ideals for the inhabitants of Massachusetts. But why was it so important for the inhabitants of Massachusetts to be a distinct people? In light of the tension between seeking a popular basis for a civil regime and the actual suffrage practices of the colony, the solidification of a people was vital to legitimatize civil government. If the populace could be considered as a body instead of a conglomeration of individuals, then officials could come from (and be chosen by) one section of the populace and still represent the entirety of the people.

This concept of the people and representation could provide an intellectual basis for rhetorically upholding the rights of the people while also preserving the stratification of Massachusetts society. Hence, a final way in which the rhetoric of election sermons served to mold collective identity was by supporting established hierarchical norms. At times, there seemed to be a simple acknowledgement of the reality of different classes in society, as when Eliot mentioned “the lower sort of people” or Chauncy referred to “different degrees” among the people.[23] Yet, the ministers also saw hierarchy in society as a guide to members of society to perform their role. Rev. Mr. Ebenezer Bridge exhorted his audience to each “do his own business, in his particular department.” The people were to “guard against envy and detraction.”[24] Rev. Mr. John Tucker preached similarly that the stations of both rulers and subjects were “assigned them by Divine Providence.” Hence, all members of society were to fill their “proper part.”[25]

In this conception, even though the stratification of society was a fact of life, it did not mean that Massachusetts could not maintain the basic unity of a people. After all, in Mayhew’s estimation, there had been “universal consternation and anxiety among people of all ranks and ages” owing to the Stamp Act.[26] To Mayhew, even “slaves apparently shared in the common distress,” and many women of the colony were inclined to stand up to Britain.[27] They were together experiencing the oppression of the Stamp Act. Indeed, thorough democracy of voting rights did not even seem necessary. Rev. Mr. Jason Haven reminded his audience that while the king appointed the governor, “the other branches of the legislature, we have the liberty of choosing.”[28] His implication that the council was elected is instructive. The “we” electing the house and the “we” electing the council were essentially the same—the people as a body were electing both the house and council (even though in reality, the house was elected through popular vote, while the council was elected by the house).

Thus, the rhetoric of Massachusetts election sermons in the years leading up to the Revolution prompted colonists to think of themselves as a unified, stratified, patriotic people, separate from Great Britain. By speaking of “the people” as a singular entity, these sermons helped solidify a collective identity around certain interpretations of civil liberty. Hence, when some Bostonians rioted over the Stamp Act, Chauncy rhetorically distanced himself (and the “true” Massachusetts) from mob violence by his description:

There has indeed been no public disturbance since the outrage at Lieut. Governor Hutchinson’s house. That was so detested by town and country, and such a spirit at once so generally stirred up, particularly among the people, to oppose such villanous conduct, as has preserved us ever since in a state of as great freedom from mobbish actions as has been known in the country.

The perpetrators were “sons of wickedness,” a troublemaking fringe opposed by “the people.”[29] In an increasingly democratic world, the power to define “the people” was crucial to the project of establishing the goals and boundaries of the revolutionary project. While election sermons were not the only public formers of collective identity, the context of these sermons gave them power, and ministers used that power to speak into existence their vision of “the people” of Massachusetts.


[1]Charles Turner, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq; governor: the Honorable His Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 26th. 1773,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership),  name.umdl.umich.edu/N10283.0001.001, 43.

[2]Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 1-9, 135-139.

[3]For a brief sketch of the riots and an explanation of Mayhew’s reaction, see J. Patrick Mullins, Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017), 96, 97, 151ff.

[4]See, for instance, Nathan Hatch’s use of public sermons to chronicle the millennial public theology of New England ministers in The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[5]See William Taylor’s work on Presbyterians and early national identity, as well as Spencer McBride on ministers’ nationalist rhetoric more generally. William Harrison Taylor, Unity in Christ and Country: American Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758-1801 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017). Spencer W. McBride, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (Charlottesville and London, University of Virginia Press, 2016). Taylor begins his examination of denominational unification in the pre-Revolutionary era, but both of these works center the narrative religion’s contribution to the construction of national identity around the Revolution and early national periods instead of the pre-revolutionary years. Neither work looks at the uniqueness of election sermons as a source, querying the implications of their cultural significance and rhetorical power.

[6]For example, note Rev. Mr. Andrew Eliot’s formulation: “The duty of rulers and subjects is mutual; rulers ought to love their people and to seek their welfare; and the people on their part, ought to be subject; to the higher powers, to obey magistrates, and to submit to their lawful commands, both are necessary to the public happiness.” Andrew Eliot, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Francis Bernard, Esq; governor, the Honorable His Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 29th 1765,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership),  name.umdl.umich.edu/N07811.0001.001, 40-41.

[7]For instance, Charles Turner’s election sermon references “people” 54 times; Moses Parsons’ sermon uses the term 61 times; and John Tucker’s sermon uses the term 59 times. Such statistics are of limited value, since they fail on the one hand to count other terms that referred to the people (such as “subjects”) and on the other hand to account for uses of the term people for another group (such as “the people of Israel”). Yet, it still is useful to generally point out that the people, not merely the magistrates, figured a large part in these election sermons. See: Turner, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson”; Moses Parsons, “A sermon preached at Cambridge, before His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq; governor: His Honor Andrew Oliver, Esq; lieutenant-governor, the Honorable His Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 27th 1772,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership),  name.umdl.umich.edu/N09821.0001.001; John Tucker, “A sermon preached at Cambridge, before His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq; governor: His Honor Andrew Oliver, Esq; lieutenant-governor, the Honorable His Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 29th. 1771,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership), name.umdl.umich.edu/N09629.0001.001.

[8]As Chilton Williamson describes, there was a qualification requirement of property ownership. But he questions whether the personal property qualifications in Massachusetts were actually very restrictive in practice. The fact that the ownership requirement of forty pounds sterling worth of property was not evaluated according to the tax books (which tended to underestimate property value) facilitated greater inclusion than otherwise would have been the case. Although regions varied, Williamson surmises that “anywhere from 50 percent to virtually the entire complement of adult male residents could vote.” Nevertheless, there are discrepancies between scholars’ estimates of the electorate during the Revolutionary era. See Chilton Williamson, American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy, 1760-1860 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1960), 32-33, 22, 24. Alexander Keyssar observes that the property qualifications were debated in the colonies during this time, but he summarizes that legal precedent and tradition led them to generally accept a “restriction of voting to adult men who owned property.” Although colonial women were generally not allowed to vote, Keyssar notes that some Massachusetts widows were able to vote since they held property and the restriction was not gender specific See Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 4-5. Even so, John Adams’ argument against granting suffrage to the poor, women, and children indicates that this was an uncommon phenomenon and that generally it was propertied adult freemen who had the right to vote (Keyssar quotes Adams on page 1). Thus, in spite of Williamson’s optimism regarding the percentage of adult males who were eligible to vote in Massachusetts, they would have still comprised a relatively narrow swath of the total population. Indeed, Williamson points to 20 percent as a viable estimate for the portion of the population that were adult males (Williamson, 24). Ira Berlin describes the remarkable practice of the Negro Election Day in New England, a ceremonial event in which Africans and African Americans demonstrated both their political knowledge and their outsider status in Massachusetts. See Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 190-194.

[9]“Boston, June 3,” Boston Post-Boy, June 3, 1771. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Boston News-Letter, May 30, 1771. Boston News-Letter, May 28, 1772. Tucker’s Sermon confirms that the election sermons were given in a church, indicating to the audience that they were assembled “in the house of God” (50).

[10]Parsons, “A sermon preached at Cambridge,” 15.

[11]Ibid., 25, italics added. Notice the importance of the history of the colonists of Massachusetts to Parsons’ formulation of a separate identity: “all that this people have done.”

[12]Turner, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson,” 21-22, 25.

[13]Samuel Cooke, “A sermon preached at Cambridge, in the audience of His Honor Thomas Hutchinson, Esq; lieutenant-governor and commander in chief; the Honorable His Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 30th, 1770,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership),  name.umdl.umich.edu/N09097.0001.001, 45.

[14]In addition to the election sermon of that year, at least two other special sermons celebrating the repeal were delivered (and printed) in Boston by two of the city’s leading ministers: Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew.

[15]Charles Chauncy, “A Discourse On ‘the good News from a far Country,’ delivered July 24, in “Discourse II. Dr. Chauncy’s Thanksgiving Sermon on the Repeal of the Stamp Act, 1766,” The Pulpit of the American Revolution: Or, The Political Sermons of the Period of 1776, by John Wingate Thornton (New York: Burt Franklin, 1970), [105-146]; 128-130, 133-134.

[16]Interestingly, Chauncy’s rhetoric embraced other American colonies: the tension is between America and Britain rather than Massachusetts and Britain. Jonathan Mayhew encapsulated the same dichotomy by using the term “British American.” Jonathan Mayhew, “The Snare Broken [1766],” in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, ed. Ellis Sandoz, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1998), [231-264], 247.

[17]Chauncy, “Discourse,” 128.

[18]Edward Barnard, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Francis Bernard, Esq; governor and commander in chief, the Honourable His Majesty’s Council and the Honourable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 28th. 1766,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership),  name.umdl.umich.edu/N08018.0001.001, 35.

[19]Mayhew, “The Snare Broken,” 251.

[20]Chauncy, “Discourse,” 128.

[21]Mayhew, “The Snare Broken,” 249.

[22]Ibid., 261-262.

[23]Eliot, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Francis Bernard,” 57; Chauncy, “Discourse,” 123-124. Chauncy particularly compared colonial society with the aristocracy of Britain: “There is scarce a man in any of the colonies, certainly there is not in the New England ones, that would be deemed worthy of the name of a rich man in Great Britain.”

[24]Ebenezer Bridge, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Francis Bernard, Esq; governor, His Honor Thomas Hutchinson, Esq; lieutenant governor, the Honorable His Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusets-Bay in New-England, May 27th, 1767,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership),  name.umdl.umich.edu/N08277.0001.001, 58-59.

[25]Such a providential explanation of hierarchy was broader than the relationship of master and enslaved, although it included that. Tellingly, the ministers under consideration here often used the terms “liberty” and “slavery” in political ways that refer to white colonists’ relation to civil authority but leave out slaves. The silence can be deafening, but it is also noteworthy that one of the election sermons of this era spoke out against the incongruity. Samuel Cooke took the occasion in 1770 to “plead the cause of our African slaves,” and wished for the abolition of the slave trade. While he acknowledged the inability to give “an adequate remedy for what is past,” he called for change: “Let the time past more than suffice, wherein we, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the Christian name,—and degraded human nature, nearly to a level with the beasts that perish.” Samuel Cooke, “A sermon preached at Cambridge,” 41-42. But if one sermon spoke out against slavery, a dozen others did not, and in general the ministers did not push an egalitarian vision for Massachusetts.

[26]Mayhew, “The Snare Broken,” 245.

[27]Ibid., 247-248. Mayhew attempted to explain the sympathy of slaves to the Patriot cause by rationalizing that perhaps they did not want their masters to be unable to provide for them or that they “thought it would be more ignominious and wretched to be the servants of servants, than of free-men” (247). His comment on women is also instructive: they were also included within the solidarity of the people, perhaps implying that the family as a unit was represented by male suffrage. This interpretation of the solidarity of the family within the solidarity of the people harmonizes with the fact that some widows were able to vote (see note 8).

[28]Jason Haven, “A sermon preached before His Excellency Sir Francis Bernard, Baronet, governor: His Honor Thomas Hutchinson, Esq; lieutenant-governor, the Honorable His Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England, May 31st. 1769,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection (Text Creation Partnership),  name.umdl.umich.edu/N08840.0001.001, 46.

[29]Chauncy, “Discourse,” 138. The celebrations of the repeal, Chauncy insisted, were not “disorderly conduct.”

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