Election Day Sermon : Rev. Joseph Sewall (1740)

Posted at This Day in Presbyterian History:

“Ninevah’s Repentance and Deliverance”
by Joseph Sewall (Dec. 3, 1740)

Joseph Sewall (1688-1769) was a Boston scion, the son of a Chief Justice, who later was offered the presidency of Harvard (from where he graduated in 1707). He delivered this early Fast Day sermon before the Massachusetts’ Governor and Council in 1740. Indeed, by order, the Council commissioned both this Fast Day and the preaching. Sewell, a pastoral fixture at Boston’s South Church from 1713-1769, launched this homily by revisiting the epic of Jonah’s revival in Ninevah. His text was Jonah 3:10, and he intended to address the signs of divine displeasure at the time. This is one of the earliest political sermons in our series. At his death, Sewall would be commemorated by Charles Chauncy (see his sermons in this series) for being “a strenuous” defender of “our civil and ecclesiastical charter-rights and priviledges. . . . the purchase of our forefathers at the expence of much labor, blood,” and treasure.

Pastor Sewall briefly reviewed the first two chapters of the Book of Jonah and pointed out that Jonah was a type of Christ (acc. to Mt. 12:40). The preacher estimated the high value of the rebuke that stirs genuine repentance, as it did in Jonah’s case of finally preaching to Ninevah—a great city. Civic repentance, this Boston pastor taught, surely had its legitimate place.

Next, he highlights the legitimacy of the civil governor calling for a day of fasting: “This great Monarch humbled himself before the Most High . . . The King of Nineveh arose from his Throne, and laid his Robe from him, and cover’d him with Sackcloth, and sat in Ashes, v. 6. Thus did he practically confess, that he had behav’d unworthy his royal Dignity, and deserv’d to have it taken from him. And the Proclamation requir’d the strictest Abstinence.” Then drawing on Jeremiah 18:7-8, Sewall diagnosed that when Ninevah sincerely repented “GOD turned from his fierce Anger, and gave them Deliverance; which is agreable to that Rule of his Government which we have declar’d, Jer. 18.7.8.”