The Character of a Good Ruler, Then and Now

Nancy S. Taylor

It is May 30, 1694 – Election Day – and the Rev. Samuel Willard mounts his Boston church pulpit to address the region’s recently elected rulers: “His Excellency the Governor, and the Honorable Counselors, and Assembly of the Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England,” all of whom are sitting in the pews that day.[1]

Mr. Willard’s sermon, called “The Character of a Good Ruler,” is equal parts warning and lecture, aspiration and inspiration, exegesis and instruction. We can imagine these politicians awaited his words with a measure of fear and trembling.

The annual election sermon was a Puritan phenomenon that lasted for well over two hundred years, from 1634 through 1884. It was one of the means by which church and state, the sacred and the profane were twined so tightly together in colonial New England. The election sermon served as a centering and ritualized observance of the purpose of the entire Puritan enterprise.[2] Election preachers were as “watchmen upon Jerusalem’s wall, whose proper business is to descry dangers, and give seasonable notice thereof; to observe the sins of the times, and the awful symptoms of God’s departure.”[3]

Mr. Willard’s election sermon of 1694 is particularly fraught with significance. It is preached one year after the debacle of the so-called Witch Trials, a calamity worsened at every turn by political leadership that assisted in and enabled collective madness.

Although situated eighteen miles from Salem, Mr. Willard’s Third Church (today known as Old South Church in Boston) becomes infected by the hysteria as soon as it begins in 1692. Some of the members are accused. (Capt. John Alden, son of the Mayflower’s Priscilla and John Alden, is one. Mrs. Thacher, widow of our first minister, himself beloved and venerated, is another.) Some of the members are accusers while four others serve as justices on the special court of Oyer and Terminer, which the governor has established to hear so-called “spectral evidence.” Mr. Willard is pastor to them all.

Great Risk

Employing a probing intellect and a pastor’s heart, he investigates the matter and finds the evidence wanting. At great risk both to his life and his reputation he positions himself between accused and accuser and publically demands a return to reason. He places himself between powerful justices and helpless women, between an imposing governor and hapless girls, between those brandishing stones and the targets of their “righteous” indignation. (Is it any wonder that in Old South’s portrait of Samuel Willard he appears to have suffered a black eye?) In meeting after meeting, letter after letter, and sermon after sermon, he defends the victims of the hysteria. He emerges as this country’s original public defender.

Mr. Willard’s persistence is eventually rewarded. He is among those few clergy who finally succeed in persuading the governor to dismantle the notorious tribunal of Oyer and Terminer.

Now, a year later, Mr. Willard preaches the election sermon to the region’s freshly elected magistrates, reminding them that “the Weal or Woe of a People mainly depends on the qualifications of those Rulers, by whom we are Governed …” Surely the Witch Trials are a raw wound to these would-be rulers and Mr. Willard’s words salt. As a pastor it is the weal or woe of the people that matters to him. Will the colonists’ wants and needs be heard? Can they entrust their safety to these leaders? Or will they again be subjected to the foolishness and agony of such tyrannical injustice as blighted the years 1692- 93, leaving thirty-two dead from state execution and almost no New England town or family unscathed?

A Haunted Memory

With this devastating recent memory on everyone’s mind, Mr. Willard insists that civil rulers should be just men. It is not adequate that they understand the law. Surely the justices who presided over the executions in 1692-93 understood the law. That is not nearly enough. They must themselves be just.

“Ignorance,” Mr. Willard declares, “is a Foundation for Error, and will likely produce it.” Injustice will beget injustice and ignorance will beget yet more ignorance. Those invested with the privilege and responsibility of ruling their fellow human beings “must be above Flattery and Bribery, must hate Ambition and Covetousness,” for “if these Rule him, he will never be a just Ruler.”

Finally, looking each newly elected ruler in the eye and punctuating each word, each phrase, as if life and death depend on them (because they do), Mr. Willard says of the ruler, “he must be one who prefers the public Benefit above all private and separate Interests … [I imagine a very long pause here] whatsoever.” Whatsoever!

In truth, there is nothing astounding about Mr. Willard’s words except this – the day’s audience. Here is a preacher directly addressing such admonitions to duly elected public officials. We can only suppose they are listening – perhaps with trepidation. But others are listening as well – the electors, the populace whose work it will be to keep their new rulers’ feet to the holy fires of moral fortitude. (Election sermons were published and made widely available).

Mr. Willard’s sermon is no perfunctory pep talk. It is lengthy and substantive. His words remind the colonists they are embarked upon a moral marathon. He describes civil rulers as “God’s Vice-regents here upon the earth.” In vigorous prose he avers: “A People are not made for Rulers, But Rulers for a People, and just as there is a great Trust devolved on them, so is there an answerable Reckoning which they must be called unto …”

Mr. Willard winds toward his dénouement: “And although God doth not always peculiarly put a Brand in this World upon Impious and Unjust Rulers, yet there is a Tribunal before which they must stand e’re long as other men; only their Account will be so much the more Fearful, and Condemnation more Tremendous, by how much they have neglected to take their greater advantages to Glorify GOD, and abused their Power to His Dishonour, by which they had fairer opportunity than other men.”

Imagine exchanging such a sermon for the jaunty music, celebratory confetti, and bright balloons with which we greet and fête today’s newly elected politicians.

Surely we cannot or even wish to return to such a time and setting. What then? Although we cannot duplicate Mr. Willard’s fearsome warnings on behalf of God and the common good, clergy and persons religious are not without recourse.

Today Mr. Willard’s church is in the planning stages to sponsor a Candidate Forum in Fall 2012. Ecumenical and inter-religious leaders hope to query candidates for state office on matters that we discern are close to the heart of God. By plumbing our sacred scriptures and drawing upon our acquaintance with the terrors and trials of Boston’s least and lost, we will engage our candidates and more. We will provide them with face-to-face testimonials of harassed immigrants, families whose houses and lives are under siege because of catastrophic medical bills, taxpayers for whom Boston’s public transit is deficient, and citizens for whom our public schools are more playground and drug-ground than classroom.

Local religious leaders are regular visitors to the Commonwealth’s House and Senate, to hearing chambers, to the offices of the Governor and Senate President. Through Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, we do call the Commonwealth’s elected officials to account, reminding them that the weal or woe of the people in their care depend not only on their political skills, but also on their character.[4] The upshot: Not only do Boston’s elected officials know the local clergy, in many cases they welcome the moral and spiritual pressures we apply. They need us. The clergy of Mr. Willard’s day understood themselves to be in symbiotic relation- ship with their elected rulers. Should we not also understand and position ourselves in symbiotic relationship with the elected officials of our day? After all, a great many of them entered upon public service with a heart for the common good, only to find themselves frustrated by the machinations of a large and complex political establishment.

An Ever-Demanding Enterprise

But we, too, must be self-searching. As the Puritan divines understood very well, religious leaders have no business holding our political leaders to moral account or challenging their characters if we have not attended to our own characters and our own moral fortitude. We, too, must be just.

American democracy is an exceedingly demanding enterprise. As the Founders knew, democracy is far more labor-intensive than a monarchy. It requires genuine commitment to conversation and deliberation among thoughtful, informed, and virtuous people.

For Founder Samuel Adams (1722-1803), who was a member of Old South Church nearly a century after Willard, a functioning democracy depends on a common commitment to key principles. He conceived of these principles as an interconnected triad of virtue, piety, and love of liberty (not only one’s own liberty, but everyone’s liberty as a God-given, “unalienable right”). By contrast, when democracy is reduced to liberty alone – liberty unhinged from the rigorous disciplines and high principles of virtue and piety – everything gets off-kilter. Today’s politicians routinely give tremendous attention to liberties and liberty, but when was the last time you heard a politician wax passionate on virtue or piety? Perhaps that is where we come in – ensuring a healthy balance to that symbiotic relationship between political and spiritual leadership, each challenging and inspiring the other, each embracing responsibility for the greater good, each serving different functions in a greater whole.

Of course, the risk of abusing public religion runs very high. In the campaign season, God’s name is invoked with reckless ease and absurd confidence. It often serves as a code word for particular audiences, a momentary means to rally and unify an otherwise unwieldy voter bloc.

By definition, however, God is unknown and un- knowable, incorporeal and ineffable. The attempt to bend and wrest God to political purposes (to a party, policy, or politician) is bound to be folly, a betrayal, revealing a lack of connection between rhetoric and morality, campaign promises and common purpose, genuine spirituality and the veneer of civic religion. Exalted references to God on the campaign trail so often appear disconnected from accountability – that is, from any moral urgency to solve our problems, ease the wretched persistence of poverty, or challenge the highly financed business of violence.

From beginning to end, American-style democracy is a strenuous undertaking. There are no shortcuts. It demands the best we have to offer as a nation. Not least, it demands the best that you and I have to offer as people of faith and as religious leaders – as persons trained not only in love of liberty, but also in virtue, piety, and justice. The character of good rulers, in other words, may very well depend on the character of the local religious leaders. As people of faith we are intrinsically vital to the democratic enterprise. The lives and legacies of Samuel Willard and Samuel Adams attest to that.

Nancy S. Taylor ’81 M.Div. is senior minister of Old South Church in Boston. She is a member of the YDS Board of Advisors.

[1] The Rev. Samuel Willard (1640-1707) was the second pastor of Third Church, Boston, from 1678 until his death. A graduate of Harvard College, Willard also served as acting president of Harvard for six years, from 1701 until his death.

[2] A.W. Plumstead, in his essay “The Election Sermons,” published in Religion In American History: Interpretive Essays (Prentice-Hall, 1977), edited by John Mulder and John Wilson.

[3] Ebenezer Thayer in his 1725 sermon “Jerusalem Instructed & Warned.”

[4] The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) is a broad-based organization that works to coalesce, train, and organize the communities of Greater Boston across all religious, racial, ethnic, class, and neighborhood lines for the public good. Our primary goal is to develop local leadership to fight for social justice. We strive to hold both public and private power-holders accountable for their public responsibilities, as well as initiate actions of our own to solve community and economic problems. See