A Brief Recognition of New England's Errand into the Wilderness
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The minister Samuel Danforth preached this election sermon in Boston on May 11, 1670. Election sermons were preached one a year on the day that the freeman of Massachusetts elected their governor and magistrates. The election sermons dealt with public themes, especially with the covenant relationship between the Puritan colony and its God.
In this most famous of election sermons, Danforth reminds his audience that they are on an "errand into the wilderness"—a mission to establish pure Chrisitanity in the new world. In the part of the sermon excepted below, Danforth argues that the colony has deviated from its original purpose.
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Whether we have not in a great measure forgotten our Errand into the Wilderness. You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men, that the Cause of your leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers houses and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness, was your Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the order of the Gospel, and your enjoyment of the pure Worship of God according to his Institution, without humane Mixtures and Impositions. Now let us sadly consider whether our ancient and primitive affections to the Lord Jesus, his glorious Gospel, his pure and Spiritual Worship and the Order of his House, remain, abide and continue firm, constant, entire and inviolate. Our Saviour’s reiteration of this Question, What went ye out into the Wilderness to see? is no idle repetition, but a sad conviction of our dullness and backwardness to this great duty, and a clear demonstration of the weight and necessity thereof. It may be a grief to us to be put upon such an Inquisition; as it is said of Peter, Job.21.17. Peter was grieved, because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? but the Lord knoweth that a strict and rigid examination of our hearts in this point, is no more then necessary. Wherefore let us call to remembrance the former dayes, and consider whether it was not then better with us, than it is now.
But who is there left among you, that saw these Churches in their first glory, and how do you see them now? Are they not in your eyes in comparison thereof, as nothing? How is the gold become dim! How is the most fine gold changed! Is not the Temper, Complexion and Countenance of the Churches strangely altered? Doth not a careless, remiss, flat, dry, cold, dead frame of Spirit, grow in upon us secretly, strongly, prodigiously? They that have Ordinances, are as though they had none; and they that hear the Word, as though they heard it not; and they that pray, as though they prayed not; and they that receive Sacraments, as though they received them not; and they that are exercised in the holy things, using them by the by, as matters of custom and ceremony, so as not to hinder their eager prosecution of other things which their hearts are set upon. Yea and in some particular Congregations amongst us, is there not in stead of a sweet smell, a stink? And in stead of a girdle, a rent? And in stead of a stomacher, a girding with sackcloth? and burning in stead of beauty? yea the Vineyard is all overgrown with thorns, and nettles cover the face thereof, and the stone-wall thereof is broken down, Prov. 24 31. yea, and that which is the most sad and certain sign of calamity approaching, Iniquity aboundeth, and the love of many waxeth cold, Mat. 24 12. Pride, Contention, Worldliness, Covetousness, Luxury, Drunkenness and Uncleanness break in a like a flood upon us, and good men grow cold in their love to God and to one another.
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