“Duties of the Hour”...Again!
I. President Lincoln and Silverside Church
Legend has it that on July 8, 1835, while tolling the death of the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall, the liberty bell cracked. Three months later, a little bit south of Philadelphia, a new church was born out of a church that cracked.
First Baptist Church of Wilmington had taken a stance not at all uncommon in those days among churches of various denominations that a church’s primary responsibility was to praise
an all-powerful God who didn’t need mere mortals struggling to advance God’s cause; thus, a missions program was not only superfluous, but also potentially offensive to God. Christian
education was not held in high esteem for many of the same kinds of reasons. Education was held in contempt by many of the Baptists at the time, especially as the growth of Baptists was most pronounced on the American frontier; few people were educated formally, and many folks were distrustful of an educated clergy. If the preacher didn’t need education to preach Gods word, why did the lay people?
Baptist historian and educator, Walter B. Shurden, has pointed out that between 1820 and 1840, the Anti-Missions Controversy rocked frontier Baptists. From the frontier, the controversy rippled in all directions. Even in Delaware, the First Baptist Church had embraced anti-missions and anti-education
This didn’t suit the whole membership. A small pro-missions/ education group pulled out of First Baptist Church to establish Second Baptist Church. About three months after the liberty bell had cracked, Wilmington’s Second Baptist Church was born. In 2000, Second Baptist Church became Silverside Church. When Second Baptist Church was established in 1835, Baptists in the United States had only been organized to do any cooperative work since 1814. There weren’t multiple Baptist denominations as exist today; instead, there was really a single Baptist denomination. The Baptists were regionally identified and invited to send messengers to a denominational meeting every three years. Baptists who participated in these meetings were identified as members of the Triennial Convention. Though not all participants in the Triennial Convention were pro-mission people, the Convention itself was, and a good bit of the Convention’s business had to do with supporting missionaries.
When, shortly before Second Baptist Church of Wilmington turned ten years old, the Triennial Convention met in 1845 at the First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, the Baptists from northern states expressed unwillingness any longer to support missionaries from the southern states who owned slaves or who, if not slave owners, were supporters of the institution of slavery. The result was another crack. Baptists in the North and Baptists in the South would no longer be connected.
The groundwork was laid that year for the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the plans were ratified a year later at a meeting in Richmond, Virginia, of Baptists from the South. The Baptists from the South established their own foreign mission board and home mission board; they would send whomever they pleased as missionaries--slaveholders or not. Baptists in the North were still known as Triennial Baptists and wouldn’t have another name until 1907. After the split, they began establishing independent societies to accomplish their work. In Washington, DC, on May 17, the Triennial Convention took over the Baptist Education Society, the Baptist Home Mission Society, the Baptist Missionary Union, and the Baptist Publication Society and became the Northern Baptist Convention. The Governor of New York, Charles Evans Hughes, was elected the first Northern Baptist Convention president, continuing his job as Governor while he served.
Jump back a bit. Speaking in reference to the eighth pastor of Silverside Church, President Abraham Lincoln said: “That one, little, loyal, clear-headed Baptist minister of Wilmington, James S. Dickerson, saved Delaware to the Union” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 108). Dickerson’s antislavery sentiments reflect the congregation’s longstanding commitments to inclusivity and social justice that prevail to this day.
Wilmington, Delaware’s Silverside Church has had twenty-three pastors in its 175 years. I am the twenty-third. Its eighth pastor, the Reverend J. S. (James Stokes) Dickerson, served Second Baptist Church (now Silverside Church) from 1861-1865; Dickerson was admired by many antislavery citizens, the most notable of whom was none other than President Lincoln.
How President Lincoln knew about Dickerson’s efforts to support him in his antislavery efforts, we, today, do not know. Somehow the President knew about Dickerson and Second Baptist Church. One recorded meeting took place on a rail car. President Lincoln, on his way to Philadelphia, had the train stop in Wilmington to pick up the Delaware’s governor and Reverend Dickerson to ride with him and have conversation about the war.
II. The Most Famous Sermon in Silverside’s History
On Saturday April 13, 1861, the day after Fort Sumter was attacked, Dickerson decided he could not preach, the next morning, the sermon he had planned to preach. He went to his study at the church that Saturday afternoon and wrote out a full manuscript for a new sermon to be preached in its place. He went with “a heart fired with loyal zeal and fully alive to the character and magnitude of the struggle that had commenced between freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, government and anarchy” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 104). The sermon, entitled “The Duties of the Hour,” went down in history. In a long and colorful preaching career, that sermon would be remembered more than all the others Dickerson had or would preach.
On Saturday evening, Pastor Dickerson met with several of his congregants whom he knew shared his perspectives on the slavery issue. Not all members did, and certainly not all of the political leaders of Wilmington supported his antislavery stance. Dickerson asked his supporters to see that the pulpit, the next morning, would be draped with an American flag. Even his most ardent supporters were unsure of the wisdom of taking that step, but before the sermon was preached on Sunday April 14, 1861, some brave parishioner or parishioners saw that it was done. “A few, and but a few, rallied nobly to his support. Some of his members, knowing the excitement that prevailed in the community, asked him if he would like to have an armed guard by him in the church. He declined the proposal, preferring to trust God and the right for his protection. Some of the brethren, however, without his knowledge, arranged that an armed force should be present, both to shield him from attack, and the church from threatened injury” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 106).
A large crowd gathered the following morning to hear J. S. Dickerson!s sermon; plenty of those in attendance were enemies to Dickerson and his cause; some, his “violent opposers” (p. 106). Dickerson prayed fervently for his country and sang with high energy the patriotic hymns of the day. He preached his sermon eloquently. A few of the listeners walked out on him as he preached against slavery. He paused as each one exited “in recognition of their withdrawal” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 107). There was no violence.
We have no transcript of the sermon itself, nor any other reference to the content of the sermon beyond what Mrs. Dickerson mentioned in the biography she wrote of her husband’s life. We know that the duty of the hour in his mind when he preached the sermon was to call people to take up the dual causes of standing against slavery and implementing the freeing of the slaves. Though the controversial stand taken by Rev. J. S. Dickerson bought him the antagonism of several church members, many of whom were lost to the membership of the church, Dickerson did not mince words, and he did not back down.
This style or pattern has become a standard for Silverside Church and its leadership. This was never the church for those who wanted their ears tickled, those who wanted to come to church never to be challenged, those who wanted the Sunday hour to comprise the sum total of their spiritual duties for the week.
In a sense, some version of Dickerson’s sermon has been preached many times by several his successors in the Silverside pulpit. Members of this church, even in times of membership and financial scarcity, have risen to the occasion when it was time to affirm the rights of women in society and the rights of women in ministry; the congregation has stepped forward to feed the hungry and house the homeless; the congregation has joined other citizens of Wilmington to say that the poor need decent, safe housing--not shacks and shelters. This congregation has welcomed gay and lesbian members and friends, and prayed fervently for peace through many a war.
If that sermon, “Duties of the Hour,” were preached today, what would we be challenging ourselves to take a stand on?
- Well, the poor are still with us, and in the present economy lots of people are poor who never thought they would be. One matter, in this regard, on which we must take a stand is integrity and fairness in government and big business so that the dollars of the un-wealthy masses are utilized fairly. We cannot have the government or big business stealing from us.
- The battle against racism isn’t over, and no where is that more evident than in how the President of the United States is treated by fellow workers on capital hill--from the Supreme Court to the House and to the Senate.
- We must never become complacent about war. Whatever you believe about Jesus and whatever it is about his teachings that captures your attention, we cannot overlook his commitment to peace. To the degree that he is our model or our rabbi, we must pray for and act for peace.
- The church must take a hard and fast stand against all violence and bullying--whether it’s happening on the roadways, in our public schools, in the privacy of someone’s home, or via the technology we have created.
- Health care for all is a basic right. We have to continue implementing that and not let it be lost so that what is left is what we had before--overpriced healthcare for the privileged only.
- We must take a stand against ridiculous political rancor that allows those in elected office to collect their pay from our tax dollars so that they can argue and fight and scheme instead of trying to solve real problems.
- Finally, with full respect for freedom of speech for all, this church must take a stand against religion-based superstition and theological violence, which includes affirmation of scripture that portrays God as a terrorist and Jesus’ death as a mandatory, God-planned event; necessary in order for God to love humanity.