“Liberty, civil and religious, has sweet and attractive charms. The enjoyment of this, with property, has filled the English settlers in America with a most amazing spirit . . .”
Reverend Ezra Stiles saw the United States as the spiritual replacement for the Jewish state described in the Old Testament. In his sermon, “The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor,” Stiles described his understanding of the role that God had for the new nation using biblical imagery. In this extract from a much longer text, Stiles began by outlining his approach to an understanding that the new nation was “God’s American Israel.” A well-studied scholar, Stiles’s vision of the population mixed a literal reading of the biblical book of Genesis with an emerging scientific view of population migrations and the origins of the American Indian population. He then focuses on the future geographical expansion of the nation to the west, as well as its population growth. Stiles closes with a brief history lesson regarding the great changes that had occurred in the past decade, demonstrating to Stiles that what might be seen as an outrageous vision for the future was not only possible, but assured, with the “help of God.”
Ezra Stiles was one of the intellectual leaders of the new United States, which was in the process of gaining recognition as a sovereign nation by the major European powers of the day. In September 1782, formal negotiations had started with the British regarding independence, with a preliminary treaty signed in November of that year. Although it would take until September 1783 for the treaty to be formally signed, by the end of 1782 people in the United States knew that the American Revolution had been a success. Mere survival was no longer enough for the new nation. It was time to start planning for the future of the United States. As president of Yale College (now Yale University), Stiles was invited to speak at the state election in Connecticut regarding that future. Throughout the colonial period in New England, leading pastors were asked to deliver sermons when people gathered together to elect the political leaders for the next year. At this first general election since the signing of the preliminary treaty, Stiles not only reflected upon the past, he also looked to the future, not only for Connecticut and New England, but for the entire United States.
As was usual for New England Congregationalist (Puritan) preachers, Stiles referred extensively to the Old Testament in his sermons. Although the term manifest destiny would not be coined for about sixty years, Stiles focused on the destiny of the new nation. The Puritan population of New England had always seen themselves as a people chosen by God to grow and prosper in their corner of the New World. In his sermon, Stiles applied that belief to the new nation as a whole, a sentiment that would echo down through generations of Americans as the nation expanded geographically, politically, and economically. Given the opportunities that Stiles saw on the expansive continent and the immigration from Europe, Stiles believed in a future that many might have thought was beyond all possibility: that of a powerful and populous nation expanding as far as the continent would allow it. Stiles reminded those gathered on that day of the unexpected and unforeseen changes that had taken place since the Battle of Lexington in April 1775. If those overwhelming military odds could be defeated, he argued, then what limitations could be placed upon the United States? Stiles answered his own question with an affirmation that nothing stood in the way of the new nation. He reasoned that as God had guided the American militias to success in the revolution, continued guidance would lead the United States to its rightful place in the global community.
Ezra Stiles was born December 10, 1727, in North Haven, Connecticut, the only child of Isaac and Kezia Taylor Stiles. Ezra’s birth had not been easy and his mother died when he was five days old. He was sickly during his infancy and remained small in stature throughout his life. As the son of a minister, he grew up in a household that valued education. Once he started formal instruction, he learned quickly and completed his basic studies by age twelve. He entered Yale in 1742, receiving bachelor’s degree in 1746 and a master’s degree in 1749. He was ordained in 1749 and became a tutor at Yale that same year. He resigned from the ministry to study law and practiced in New Haven from 1753 to 1755 while remaining a tutor at Yale.
In 1755 he was invited to become the pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island. While initially rejecting the call, he ultimately accepted. In February 1757, he married Elizabeth Hubbard, who died in 1775. At the time of George II’s death in 1760, he preached a sermon warning the British government not to attempt to take away the colonists’ liberties. In 1764, he was one of the founding trustees of a new college in Rhode Island, which ultimately became Brown University. Also during his time as a minister in Newport, he began a friendship with a visiting rabbi, a relationship that allowed Stiles to gain a more thorough knowledge of Hebrew. His improved Hebrew allowed him to read Old Testament scriptures in the original language and, as needed, translate them into English. With the American Revolution, people and congregations had to choose sides. Because of anti-British sentiment, the church in Newport was closed when the British took control of the area. During the period between 1777 and 1778, Stiles was the pastor of a church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Stiles became the president of Yale in June 1778. While at Yale, he taught astronomy and philosophy and was a professor of ecclesiastical history and divinity. In October 1782, he married his second wife, Mary Checkley. Stiles served as president of Yale until his death in New Haven on May 12, 1795.
Simply put, Ezra Stiles and many of his contemporaries believed that the United States was special. The new nation was special not just in the sense that it was the first colony in the Western Hemisphere to gain its independence from a European power; rather, according to Stiles, it was special because it was chosen by God to continue the legacy of ancient Israel as the beacon of God’s power to the world. Using biblical language, as well as contemporary scientific observations, Stiles looked to the future when the United States would be a world leader as a large, populous, and powerful nation. For him, what he saw as God’s intervention in the miraculous deliverance of the colonies from the hands of Great Britain would be replicated in the future to propel the United States to world leadership. This was the destiny of the new country. At the time of transition from war to peace, he believed it was important to remind the nation’s people of what could lie ahead.
Sermons in the eighteenth century were often quite lengthy, and Ezra Stiles’s 1783 election sermon “The United States Elevated to Honor and Glory” was no exception. Less than 10 percent of the sermon is included in the extracted text. The full work began with a quotation from the book of Deuteronomy: “And to make thee high above all nations, which he hath made in praise, and in name, and in honor; and that thou mayest be an holy people unto the Lord thy God.” This passage refers to God’s promise to Moses that God would make the Israelites a nation above all nations. (This is repeated in part I of the text.) Stiles then went on to discuss how this was partially fulfilled in the Jewish state. Complete fulfillment did not occur, in Stiles’s opinion, because of the sins of the Jews. However, in Stiles’s mind, the complete fulfillment of this prophecy was about to happen in “God’s American Israel.” For Stiles, this is where the spiritual descendants of Abraham would gather as God’s chosen people. It is at this point, at the end of the sermon’s introduction that the first section of the extract picks up.
At the excerpt’s beginning, Stiles moves slightly away from his use of the biblical image of Moses looking toward the Promised Land. Up to this point, he has used the biblical story to get the listeners into the proper frame of mind, envisioning their new nation as a promised land. In line with his Puritan theological heritage, Stiles assumes that the blessings of these ancient scriptural passages apply to the Christian church as the heirs to the Old Testament. As appropriate to the occasion, Stiles explains that the sermon’s focus is “the political welfare of God’s American Israel.” As a new Israel—that is, as God’s new chosen nation—Stiles asserted that promises such as the one made to Moses applied to the United States, although indirectly. In a somewhat altered form, the promise to Moses reflected “the future prosperity and splendor of the United States.”
As can be seen from the extracted text, Stiles then gives two propositions regarding the thesis he wishes to present, followed by two distinct sections related to the first proposition. The first essentially asks why anyone should expect this fledgling country to not only survive, but to thrive. Part of the answer is contained in the way that Stiles frames the proposition. “By the blessing of God” was a major part of his expectations for the success of the United States. Recall that this sermon was delivered before the Constitution framed our current government. Instead, the Articles of Confederation set up a weaker federal government and a looser confederation of the thirteen states. Thus Stiles’s use of “States” with a capital S was only partially due to the grammatical styles of the day, which dictated that nouns that the author thought were important should be capitalized. In this case, the word States was capitalized, because under the Articles it truly was a confederation of strong states in a weak national organization. Thus it was not a given that the states would really work together to create “a great American Republic.” Stiles did understand that for the United States to become the equal of the European powers (Great Britain and France, for example), it would be necessary for the states to cooperate. He closes this paragraph with the sermon’s opening quote from the first portion of Deuteronomy 26:19.
The second proposition focuses on what role religion should have in society. Stiles does not inquire about the purpose of religion for the individual. Instead, he focuses on the new nation, asking which qualities of religion are important for a civil society. Stiles asserts that the best method for interaction between citizens and the government, as well as the government’s use of power, does not naturally occur. The way in which government operations and citizen interaction would work best was with “the diffusion of virtue among the people.” The result of this would be the “greatest secular happiness.” Thus, for Stiles, any system of government, but especially a democracy, would work best if the citizens were good people and moral in their affairs with one another. According to Stiles’s reasoning, if everyone were a Christian then society and the government would function better.
Since he was a Christian minister, this point of view might be considered obvious. However, in this case he was advocating Christianity as a building block for a better society rather than for personal salvation. Thus Stiles advocates that “holiness ought to be the end of all civil government” in order to have a better functioning government and a stronger society. He ends this proposition by repeating the last part of the quote from Deuteronomy.
Subdividing the first proposition, Stiles addresses what “true political welfare and prosperity” is and how a system should be structured to achieve it. The solution, he says, is the creation of a secular government. For Stiles, the word secular was not a negative term. In seeking the “highest secular glory,” Stiles is seeking a social and political system that would work best to achieve the highest possible standard of living for Americans. As can be seen from the previous paragraph, Stiles believes that religion is one factor which makes “secular happiness” possible. The second aspect of the first proposition focuses on the new nation’s people and what makes them special. Stiles felt certain that the people of the United States were chosen by God, “the ordering of Heaven,” to become the greatest society on earth.
In the full text of the sermon, the second section expands upon his first proposition, although it might be said by some that in this part of his answer Stiles becomes sidetracked by a mixture of biblical and scientific anthropology. Stiles considered the fact that North America was not as thickly populated as Europe to be evidence of God’s blessing. This was very much in line with Pilgrim and Puritan beliefs that New England was a gift from God. What many Americans saw as empty land to the west of the Appalachian Mountains—though numerous American Indian tribes called that land home—allowed plenty of room for “a new enlargement of Japheth,” that is, room for Europeans to settle. This was where Stiles’s literal views on biblical history became mixed with his relatively advanced understanding of population geography. At that time, Christian European tradition held that Noah’s son Japheth’s family moved into what is Europe and that their descendents spread across the continent. Stiles draws a parallel between the settlement of Europe and the settlement of the United States. However, unlike Europe, which Stiles states has stagnated at a population of one hundred million, he expects that the United States will grow exponentially, and continue to grow with God’s grace. Stiles predicts that within the next few hundred years the American population would be triple that of 1783 Europe. (In actuality, it took about 225 years for the population to reach the three hundred million mark.) Stiles then points out the relative success of the British settlers versus those from other European countries. He also shows that he is very much a man of his time, making clear that in reference to the population of the United States he is only talking about “whites,” not African Americans or American Indians.
Moving back into his biblical anthropology, Stiles then proclaims that this extensive population growth is “the fulfillment of the prophecy of Noah.” In Genesis 9:1, God commands Noah and his sons to “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” and promises that Noah’s ancestors will command the earth and all of its creatures. Thus, Stiles is certain that if Americans work to fulfill this command, they too will rule over the land.
In a second prophecy from the same chapter Stiles states, “I rather consider the American Indians as Canaanites,” meaning that in biblical terms they were descended from Noah’s son Ham and Ham’s son Canaan. At the end of the flood narrative, Ham displeases Noah, who then curses Canaan makes him a servant to his son Shem. Thus, in accordance with Stiles’s beliefs, with the coming of Europeans into North America it was appropriate for American Indians to be expelled from the land, or at least to be subjugated by Americans of European descent.
While Stiles expounds his biblically based views of the world, he incorporates into that system insights which were being discovered by explorers and scientists at the time. In this, Stiles notes the linguistic similarities of what is now called the Indo-European family of languages. To Stiles this meant that some of Japheth’s descendents traveled from Europe into what is now Iran and on into India. Modern anthropologists speak of the Aryan migration into those areas, as well as into Europe. Stiles thought it might have been possible for some Canaanite refugees to have traveled to America via the Atlantic Ocean, quoting from tales of Atlantis as well as one archeologist’s finds in North Africa. Ultimately Stiles believed most of the Canaanites moved northeast into northeastern Asia, with some of them crossing over into North America from that direction. However they got to the Americas, Stiles was certain that “all the American Indians are one kind of people.” From a modern scientific view, Stiles was correct in terms of the migration of people from Asia into North America. Similarly, he was correct that all the various American Indian tribes were related. He added scientific support for his ideas by what he perceived as similar physical and linguistic characteristics among the various Siberian and North American peoples.
The final section of the extract can be found just over one third of the way through the complete sermon. In this section, Stiles asserts that the United States is unique in world history because of four aspects of its society. Liberty, private property, free enterprise, and a democratic system of government combined to give Americans “a most amazing spirit” and “great energy.” He states that ancient nations did not give their people the same opportunities that are available in the new nation of the United States. For Stiles, the result of this unique opportunity is that even those who do not normally respond to sentiment would be “charmed with the sweets of liberty.”
Stiles again points out that the greatness of the United States is based on its rapidly growing population. He estimates that within a hundred years, the population would be fifty million. It is interesting to note that the 1880 Census showed a total population of only slightly more than this figure. The territorial growth he anticipated also came to pass. With American settlements all the way to the Mississippi River in 1783, Stiles believed that the United States would “overspread the whole territory westward for ages.” Although Stiles’s projection that the population of the United States would be greater than that of China by the year 2000 turned out to be way off mark, his other predictions were remarkably accurate.
To the doubters, Stiles points out that throughout history, there have been certain pivotal points bringing forth tremendous change. He mentions Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and how it would have been inconceivable for first-century Christians to believe it possible for a Roman emperor to be a Christian. Similarly, the rapid growth of the British colonies in North America would not have seemed possible for someone from the early 1600s. Stiles’s prediction that the Ottoman Empire would be destroyed by the Russian Empire was not quite accurate, although during his lifetime most wars between the two had ended in Russia’s favor. His final proof that greater things were in store for America, was the relatively brief, yet decisive war for independence. The chronological distance between Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Yorktown was “less than eight years.” By May 1783, the United States had been recognized as a sovereign nation by the four major European powers, “one of which should be Britain herself.” Because of the colonies’ progress towards becoming a relatively prosperous country, Stiles declares “we live in an age of wonders.” All of this made Stiles certain that the United States was “God’s American Israel.”
In the final paragraph of the extract, Stiles reflects upon the events of the previous decade. He writes that the great changes in the colonies were possible because of “the good hand of our God upon us.” The American Revolution was a success because of God’s assistance. The Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, were the opening of that war. Although Stiles exaggerates slightly in stating that twenty thousand men responded to those battles, the number was at least fifteen thousand. As alluded to by Stiles, the Battle of Bunker Hill was the first time colonial forces stood their ground against a concerted British attack. Although the British ultimately took the hill on the third attempt, the substantial casualties suffered by the British and the spirit of the colonial troops gave many the same thought as Stiles when he wrote, “We were satisfied.” Again using biblical language from the Old Testament, Stiles refers to the colonies as Israel, George Washington as Joshua, and then the colonies as Joseph. In all of these instances, Stiles reaffirms his view that Washington’s leadership “was raised up by God, and divinely formed.” Stiles states that the inspiration given the Continental Congress to appoint Washington was a vision of things to come. As the military forces seemed to have come together in a miraculous manner, Stiles is certain it was God who performed an actual miracle.
With the fighting over and a formal peace treaty about to be signed, many in the United States contemplated what lay ahead. Reverend Ezra Stiles arrived at a very definite conclusion to this question. The United States was the heir to the biblical promises and blessings given to the Jews, who were God’s chosen people. This was an expansion on the traditional New England Puritan view that they had been chosen to take up the mantle of biblical tasks and blessings. Thus Stiles preaches to the leaders of Connecticut about “the future prosperity and splendor of the United States.” As would be expected in a sermon based upon Puritan theology, there are many metaphors referring to the Old Testament and Stiles’s theology is based upon a literal reading of the scriptures. Unity, democracy, religion, and exploring geographical and scientific frontiers were key components in Stiles’s view for the new nation. In his mind, Stiles is thoroughly convinced that the United States would be a world leader in the not-too-distant future. This was based not only on the natural resources available to Americans, but also, in Stiles’s mind, on the idea that the United States truly was God’s chosen nation.
Using various biblical references as justification for European American dominance over American Indians, Stiles again was very much in line with his Puritan predecessors. While the sermon must be understood as a product of the historical context in which it was delivered, one term that could easily be misunderstood is his use of the word “secular.” For him, secular and sacred were not opposites, rather they were complimentary aspects of humanity. Thus, he and others of his time stated that religion was a useful means of developing a better secular society because virtuous citizens were more willing to cooperate with each other; conversely, a strong secular democracy insured religious freedom, which strengthened religion. Thus, for Stiles, liberty, in all its forms, had “sweet and attractive charms” that were at the heart of a prosperous future for America. Stiles had no doubt about what was ahead, because his certainty was based upon his religious faith and what he perceived as the prophecy of God’s word going back into antiquity.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles. 1962, 1974. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2011. Print. Stiles, Ezra. “The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor.” ed. Reiner Smokinski. Digital Commons. University of Nebraska, 1998. Web. 16 May, 2012. Morgan, Edmund S. American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America. New York: Norton. 2009. Print. Stiles, Ezra. The Literary Diaries of Ezra Stiles. Charleston: Nabu, 2010. Print.