Called Unto Liberty, Founding Era Sermons
Samuel Sherwood, 1776
… Since these prophecies and predictions, relating to the trials and sufferings, the wars and conflicts of the church with her anti-christian enemies and adversaries, may be justly taken in such a large, extensive sense and latitude; we may rationally conclude that many of them have reference to the state of Christ’s church, in this American quarter of the globe; and will sooner or later, have their fulfilment and accomplishment among us. The providences of God in first planting his church in this, then howling wilderness, and in delivering and preserving of it to this day, are in a manner unequalled, and marvelous; and are reckoned among the most glorious events that are to be found in history, in these latter ages of the world. And there are doubtless yet more glorious events in the womb of providence, which the present commotion thro’ the nation and land may (however unlikely in the view of some) be the means of bringing to pass. There is no part of this terraqueous globe better fitted and furnished in all essential articles and advantages, to make a great and flourishing empire; no part of the earth, where learning, religion, and liberty have flourished more for the time. And as to the rapid increase of its inhabitants, and swift population, it cannot be paralleled in all history. There is no part of the world where its inhabitants, through such a large extent of territory, are under such bonds and obligations, from self-interest, to keep in the strictest union and harmony together. They have every motive and inducement to this, that can well be conceived of. And this union, by the blessing of heaven, is become as general, perfect and complete, as could well be expected in such a corrupt disordered world as this in which we live.
These united colonies have arisen to such a height as to become the object of public attention thro’ all Europe, and of envy to the mother from whence they derived; whose unprovoked attack upon them in such a furious hostile manner, threatening their entire ruin, is an event that will make such a black and dark period in history, and does so deeply affect, not only the liberty of the church here in the wilderness, but the protestant cause in general, thro’ the christian world, and is big with such consequences of glory or terror, that we may conjecture at least, without a spirit of vanity and enthusiasm, that some of those prophecies of St. John may, not unaptly, be applied to our case, and receive their fulfilment in such providences as are passing over us.
I do not mean to undertake a nice, exact calculation of the periods pointed out in this prophetic book; nor to range thro’ the history of the world for events to find their accomplishment. I am of opinion, that the church of Christ in every age, may find something in this book applicable to her case and circumstances; and all such passages that are so, may lawfully be applied and improved by us accordingly. There are many cases which happen, that bear a near likeness and resemblance to each other, and which the same prophecy may well suit, in the most material parts of it. It has pleased that God who exercises a universal providence over all things, so to dispose and order events, that the calamities and afflictions of the church, in some measure, run parallel one to another; and all the former efforts of that tyrannical persecuting power, called the beast, may be the types and figures, as it were, of his last and general effort against the faithful witnesses of Christ, and the true members of his church.
These preliminary observations may assist us in explaining and improving these prophecies of St. John; particularly the passages that have been read, to the consideration of which I now proceed.
Verse 14. “And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”
The woman in this passage, is represented in verse 2. as in a pregnant state, travailing in birth, and in violent pangs to be delivered, which is doubtless designed as an emblem of the true church of Christ. She is elsewhere spoken of as the spouse of Christ, who owns himself to be her head and husband. A woman, we know, is the weaker sex, and looks to her husband for support and protection. So the church has always been the weakest part of the world, in herself considered, and had her dependence on Christ her head, for preservation and safety in times of peril and danger. This woman, the church, being in such a near relation to Christ, the brightness of the Father’s glory, and express image of his person, amidst all her own natural weakness and infirmity, has never appeared contemptible; but the most glorious society that ever existed in our world. She is the king’s daughter, all glorious within. She is spoken of, verse 1. as being cloathed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars; which is a magnificent description of her comeliness, beauty and lustre. She is enlightened, invested and adorned with the rays of Jesus Christ, the great sun of righteousness, which makes her form illustriously bright and majestic. She is in such a state of dignity and triumph, as to have the moon, with all sublunary enjoyments and terrors, under her feet. And on her head, to compleat her glory, a crown of twelve stars, an emblem of her being under the light and guidance of the twelve inspired apostles, who had been improved as master-builders under Christ, in laying the foundation of this honourable society, and were such useful and distinguishing ornaments to it. One would think that such a society as this, would have nothing to fear from all the combined powers of earth and hell; and indeed, they have not in reality, since stronger is he that is for them, than those that are against them. However, they are not exempted from trials and sufferings in this world. We find, when the great red dragon appeared with his seven heads and ten horns, that frightful monster the devil instigated the tyrannical persecuting powers of the earth, against this harmless and innocent woman, the amiable spouse of Christ. He had impudence and boldness enough to make an unprovoked attack upon her, which occasioned her to leave the imperial and wealthy abodes of earthly grandeur and magnificence, the courts and palaces of emperors and princes, and retired to some obscure, solitary condition, for the sweets of liberty and peace. This furious attack of the great dragon on the woman, was an event of such importance, as to produce war in heaven between the angels of light, and the angels of darkness. See verse 7. “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought, and his angels.” This Michael was the tutelar angel and protector of the Jewish church. Daniel x. 12. And he performs here the same office of champion for the Christian church.
He, and the good angels who are sent forth to minister to the heirs of salvation, were the invisible agents on one side, as the devil and his evil angels were on the other. The visible actors in the cause of christianity, were believers, whether in a civil or ecclesiastical character, with the glorious martyrs and confessors. And in support of the opposite side, were the persecuting powers of the world, with the whole dark train of the artillery of hell. In this great conflict and war, let it relate to what period of the church it will, which I am not anxious to determine with mathematical certainty; we find that those on the side of God and true religion, overcame their formidable enemy, with all his confederate powers, by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. They were of such a brave, heroic spirit, as to chearfully expose themselves to the greatest dangers in this glorious cause; and many of them actually met death in the terrible conflict. But they fell, as one observes, to rise, and triumph, and reign. The dragon being thus defeated and vanquished at his head-quarters, pagan or papal Rome: He takes a wider scope and range, thro’ the other nations and kingdoms of the earth. He was doubtless greatly enraged at the ill success of his first encounter, and marshals up all his forces abroad, and proceeds with violence, to persecute the woman which brought forth the man-child. Upon this the woman has a second flight into a more distant and solitary wilderness, “unto her place”; to prepare her for which, two wings of a great eagle were given her, which is not mentioned in her first flight; and probably she did not then need them. There seems an evident allusion here, to what God said to the children of Israel, Exod. xix. 4. after their deliverance from cruel oppressive slavery in Egypt, when encamp’d before Sinai, and on their way to the good land of Canaan, “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings, and brought you unto myself.” He was not conducting them from a land of liberty, peace, and tranquility, into a state of bondage, persecution and distress; but on the contrary, had wrought out a very glorious deliverance for them, and set them free from the cruel hand of tyranny and oppression, by executing his judgments in a most terrible and awful manner, on the Egyptians, their enemies; and was now, by his kind providence, leading them to the good land of Canaan, which he gave them by promise, for an everlasting inheritance. Hence, as the trials and sufferings of the Christian church were parallel in some measure, with those of the Jewish, and there is a great similarity and likeness in the manner of God’s dealings with the one to the other; it must be evident, that expositors have been mistaken, when they represent this flight of the woman into and the wilderness, as denoting the church’s going into greater peril, danger and affliction, where she was to be more violently distressed and persecuted, for a long time. The word wilderness might possibly suggest to their delicate, but inattentive minds, this frightful and shocking idea. It is true, our fathers had the difficulties of an uncultivated wilderness to encounter; but it soon, by the blessing of heaven on their labour and industry, became a pleasant field or garden, and has been made to blossom like the rose. The passage, in its most natural, genuine construction, contains as full and absolute a promise of this land, to the Christian church, as ever was made to the Jewish, of the land of Canaan. It is, in an appropriated sense, “her place”; where she is nourished, from the face of the serpent. And the dealings of God in his providence, in bringing his church from a state of oppression and persecution, into this good land, are very parallel and similar to his dealings with the Israelites, in delivering them from the tyrannical power of the haughty, cruel monarch of Egypt, and conducting them to the good land of promise in Canaan. Thus, they that wait on the Lord, shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings, as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Thus the church, in this difficult, distressed season, whenever it happened, was supported and carried, as it were, on eagles wings, to a distant remote wilderness, for safety and protection. And what period or event is there in all the history of her trials and persecutions, which these expressions more exactly describe, and to which they can be applied with more truth and propriety, than to the flight of our fore-fathers into this then howling wilderness, which was a land not sown nor occupied by any ruling power on earth, except by savages and wild beasts? It is an indisputable fact, that the cruel hand of oppression, tyranny and persecution drove them out from their pleasant seats and habitations, in the land of their nativity; and that the purest principles of religion and liberty, led them to make the bold adventure across the wide Atlantic ocean; for which they surely needed the two wings of the great eagle, to speed their flight, and to shelter and cover them from danger, while seeking a safe retreat from the relentless fury and shocking cruelty of the persecuting dragon; and a secure abode for unadulterated christianity, liberty and peace. It is remarked by the inspired penman of this prophecy, and is worthy of notice, that when the woman fled into the wilderness, she came into her place. This American quarter of the globe seemed to be reserved in providence, as a fixed and settled habitation for God’s church, where she might have property of her own, and the right of rule and government, so as not to be controul’d and oppress’d in her civil and religious liberties, by the tyrannical and persecuting powers of the earth, represented by the great red dragon. The church never before this, had prime occupancy, or first possession of any part of this terraqueous globe, in any great extent of territory. In all countries and kingdoms wherever Christianity had been planted, before its introduction into this American wilderness, the ruling powers in possession of the property, and right of jurisdiction and dominion, were in opposition to this benevolent institution; and the church had to make her way through the greatest possible difficulties and dangers. While thus in an enemy’s land, her persecutions and oppressions, her bloody trials and sufferings furnish out the chief subject of her history from her beginning to the present day, in other parts of the world, from which she is not wholly exempted in this. However, her degree of peace and quiet rest has been greater than she has ever known since she has had existance and being. When that God, to whom the earth belongs, and the fulness thereof, brought his church into this wilderness, as on eagles wings, by his kind, protecting providence, he gave this good land to her, to be her own lot and inheritance for ever. He planted her as a pleasant and choice vine; and drove out the heathen before her. He has tenderly nourished and cherished her in her infant state, and protected and preserved her amidst innumerable dangers. He has done wonders in his providence for our fathers, and for us their sinful posterity: “They, and we have many a time, stood still, and seen the salvation of the Lord.[”] The woman, the church of Christ, has such a gift and grant from heaven, of this part of God’s world, for the quiet enjoyment of her liberties and privileges, civil and religious, that no power on earth can have any right to invade, much less to dispossess her of them. And every attempt of this kind to oppress and enslave her, must be absolutely unrighteous, and a gross violation of justice and truth. He that has all power in heaven and on earth, who will soon destroy the man of sin, and all his confederate powers, by the spirit of his mouth, and brightness of his coming, declares in this prophecy, that the “woman” shall be nourished and preserved in her place here described, “from the face of the serpent.” The serpent spoken of, is the great dragon, called the Devil and Satan; the chief directing agent in all the dark plots of tyranny, persecution and oppression; from whose malignant rage, the church has a promise of future protection. This old serpent shall never be permitted to shew his deformed face, much less to lift up his monstrous head, and frightful horns in this place here given to the woman for a safe retreat and secure abode, “for a time, and times, and half a time”; which probably means, “to the end of the world,” or till all the times and periods spoken of in this prophetic book are fulfilled and accomplished. I know that expositors take these expressions, “for a time, and times, and half a time,” to include only the period of one thousand two hundred and sixty days, mentioned verse 6, and so understood the phrase “for a time,” to mean one prophetical year, and “times,” to mean two years, and “half a time,” an half year; in the whole, three years and a half: But it seems more natural, and more agreeable to the phraseology of scripture, as well as the connection of these prophecies, in the events foretold, to interpret this passage as signifying all future time indefinitely. Or, if we apply it to distinct periods, the first expression, “for a time,” I should think, might, with great propriety, be taken for the time or period, that hath already been mentioned. This construction appears natural, and not in the least forced or strained. Then the “times” will mean such times or periods as follow after the fulfilment of the above; and the “half time,” must signify the closing period, when time is near run out, and just come to an end. Taking the passage in its proper connection, and plainest and most obvious sense, we may well understand it as containing a prophetic promise to the church, of safety and preservation, during the period that had been described above, and thro’ all succeeding times, even to the end of the world. Not but what the old dragon, with his black train of tyrannical persecuting powers, might greatly afflict and distress her. Yet, with all his cunning, art, policy and power, shall never be able to establish his enslaving doctrines, nor to erect his head and horns, to exercise his usurped authority and uncontrouled dominion, as in papal Rome. We may expect, however, that he will be putting forth most violent struggles and efforts for this base, malignant purpose. …
Source: Samuel Sherwood. Excerpt from his 1776 Sermon, The Church’s Flight Into the Wilderness.
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