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The Orations

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jul 4 2010


Over the course of more than three hundred years, it has been the occasional practice of the clergy of Old South Church to preach what we refer to here as “historical sermons” … sermons whose content is intended to illumine some facet of the past: some practice, personage or event.
This is such a sermon.

John Hancock did it. So did George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison each did it. Oliver Wendell Holmes did it, as did Francis Scott Key, who authored “the Star Spangled Banner.” Educator and statesman, Horace Mann did it. So, too, did author and humorist Mark Twain. Henry Cabot Lodge, politician and historian, did it; Daniel Webster, statesman and orator did it, as did lexicographer, Noah Webster. The Reverend Lemuel Haynes, whose image hangs in our elevator lobby, did it. Over the course of a couple of hundred years, any number of Old South leaders, both clergy and laity, did it. Many different kinds of people did it: presidents, patriots and poets, pacifists and pastors … authors, attorneys and abolitionists, governors and generals, entrepreneurs and educators.
Each was chosen to pronounce a Fourth of July Oration.*
Here’s the story:
Within a few years of the signing of the Declaration of Independence the morning of the Fourth of July was set aside. This was certainly so in Boston, but also in a great many cities, towns and villages across the land. The Puritans described the Fourth of July as “our National Sabbath.”
In Boston a warrant was issued to call the town together for a Meeting to be held on July 4th.
Often it was in the Old South Meetinghouse that the town gathered, which, as the historical record indicates, “by the consent of it proprietors, has long been used on this occasion.”
The morning of the Fourth was all excitement. Bells pealed cheerfully from every church steeple.
Inside the Meetinghouse, as the townspeople arrived, a band was playing rousing music. People were talking in animated tones. There was a holy racket.
At the appointed hour, the bells were quieted, the music ceased and the event was opened with prayer. Following this, all rose for the annual reading aloud of the Declaration of Independence.
This was followed by the purpose of their gathering: the Oration.
A personage held in high regard (a John Hancock, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass) one who was hopefully gifted with a silver tongue, an orator’s eloquence, but also possessing a keen and discerning mind … one who had been invited to this task with grave and solemn purpose.
This one now arose. The Orator arose, stepped gravely to the pulpit, and there, before the citizens of Boston, of both sexes—before all who could possibly be crammed into the Meetinghouse—he pronounced his July Fourth Oration.
The Oration was followed by a Benediction, then more music, following which the town meeting was adjourned … after which the townspeople dispersed to picnics and games.
The day after, on the morning of July 5th, the newspapers carried assessments and analysis of the orations. A successful oration was typically described with words such as “elegant,” “eloquent,” “appropriate,” “inspiring,” “patriotic,” “literate,” “spirited” or “substantive.”
But these orations were not mere flights of rhetorical fancy. Nor was it the business of these orators to simply pat the back of a nation beaming with pride. They were serious business—the serious business of a nation still seriously wrestling and tinkering with the forms of government freedom had won them. The townspeople were gathered together, in earnest council, to contemplate and consider the burden of democracy.
For instance, in Benjamin Hichborn’s oration of 1784, he warned against the dangers of having standing armies. “Military force,” he said, “has always proved dangerous to the liberties of the people.” Hichborn stood opposed to a standing army … but he argued vehemently for a well-regulated militia as necessary and effective safeguards for a new, young nation.
Old South member Justice Thomas Dawes, in his 1787 oration, espoused the importance of education, (and here, one can imagine his finger wagging in the direction of particular members of the audience) “especially for those filling government seats.”
In 1845 Charles Sumner, a pacifist, proclaimed on peace and, what he argued to be the unlawfulness of war. The following year, however, an attorney named Fletcher Webster proclaimed otherwise. He took the opportunity to pronounce on the lawfulness and usefulness of war.
In 1859 the Rev. William Alger’s oration included his anti-slavery views regarding the slave power in the South, and he denounced—and named!—its upholders in the North (some of whom were among the assembly). Following this oration the powers-that-be refused to pass the customary vote of thanks to their honored Orator. But seven years later, in 1864, the chastened city fathers deemed such a vote past due. The vote of thanks was passed and communicated with apology to the Reverend Alger.
In 1879, Henry Cabot Lodge used his invitation to argue for States’ rights.
Throughout the years, decades and centuries that followed 1776, Orators used this opportunity to pronounce on immigration, women’s rights, labor rights, war, peace, government (its executive, legislative, and judicial branches), on international relations and more.
How do we, who are now free, organize ourselves? Now that we have escaped the tyranny of an oppressive monarch, how do we govern ourselves? To what laws, to what principles, under what leaders and authorities are we willing to submit for the sake of a greater and common good?
That was the question that drove Moses to climb to the top of Mt. Sinai to confer with God.
Having escaped from Egypt and Egypt’s Pharaoh … having escaped the painful, humiliating yoke of slavery … having secured their freedom … now what?
Moses hikes up to the top of Mt. Sinai to confer with God. He is there for an awfully long time.
Whatever is happening up there is bombastic. From below, the newly freed and skittish Israelites observe fire and smoke, thunder and lighting. Eventually, Moses returns. He is carrying with him the tablets, the Ten Commandments.
What does a newly freed people need? These Ten Commandments; these non-negotiable ten rules for living with God and each other. This is enough. It is all we need. We don’t need a king.
We’ve got one. God is our king. We don’t need a pharaoh. We don’t need a president or any other sort of potentate. These laws are enough.  These laws will define our common life. If there’s a question or concern (and inevitably, there will be), Moses will be the referee, the arbiter, the interpreter of God’s law. Moses will act as judge. Why? Because Moses talks to God.
How do we, who are free, organize ourselves? To what laws, to what principles, under what leaders and authorities are we willing to submit for the greater and common good?
Well, that’s the same question that Samuel and the Israelites are anxiously asking in their day.
They are facing a succession problem. Samuel is the Moses of his day. Samuel is the judge-arbiter, the interpreter of the Ten Commandments. Samuel is great. Samuel is God’s right-hand-man. He is respected and beloved.
Here’s the problem: Samuel’s sons are a disaster. They are as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. They sell justice to the highest bidder. Samuel can’t pass on to them the family business (the nation’s welfare).
Anyway, the people argue, it’s time for a change. Why not get us a king? It’s easier that way. The king takes on all the responsibility. King’s fight wars for us. King’s protect us.
Samuel counters: You’ve got a king. Yahweh is his name. He’s all the king you need.
Well, say the people, we want an earthly king … a king with chariots and armies … a king to go out before us, to govern us, and to fight our battles.
Samuel counters that while kings do generally come with chariots and armies, they typically come with other baggage as well, like oppressive and rapacious ways. And, talk about fighting your battles, who do you think the king will send out to the front line?
Samuel and his people are arrived at a pivotal moment in the history of the Israelites. They meet the moment by engaging in real and substantive discussion and discernment about how to live together … about what sort of leadership and government is useful and necessary.
Samuel identifies the crisis as a spiritual one: a failure to trust God.
The others identify the crisis as a military one: a failure of strength.
How do we, who are free, organize ourselves? To what laws, to what principles, under what leaders and authorities are we willing to submit for the greater and common good?
These are time-honored questions. They emerge for us, both from the ancient biblical texts and from the immediacy of our American context.
The song that follows, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, was written by Congregationalist and English professor at Wellesley College, Katharine Lee Bates. The words came to her while standing atop Pike’s Peak, a mountain in the Front Range of the Rockies.
I suggest the song qualifies as a Fourth of July Oration. It is elegant, appropriate, inspiring, patriotic, literate, spirited and substantive. It brings into view the majesty of God’s earth, honors our forebears, implores the Author of the Universe to mend our flaws and, not least, it unites ancient biblical principles of liberty and law.

*Materials about Fourth of July Orations used for this sermon come primarily from two sources: 1) the online digital library of the University of Missouri which has digitized and made available hundred of these published orations and, 2) James R. Heintze,’s A Chronology of Boston City Council Orators on the Fourth of July, 1783 to 1997.