For a glimpse into Masonic thought at the creation of the United States, I share with American Creation a small portion of a sermon delivered before a group of Freemasons in 1784 on St. John the Evangelist Day, one of two feast days traditionally celebrated in Freemasonry. December 27 has been reserved for historic occasions, such as the founding of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813; and standard events, such as the following church sermon, alike.
To Fear God:
The 1784 St. John’s Day Sermon
On St. John the Evangelist Day 1784 at Morristown, New Jersey The Rev. Uzal Ogden delivered a sermon before Lodge No. 10. As best I can determine, he was not a Freemason, but with the surname Ogden, it is easy to see he had family connections to the fraternity, most probably to Moses Ogden and others at St. John’s Lodge in Newark. As for Lodge No. 10, this is the mysterious lodge in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, chartered by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
The reverend, an Episcopalian, was known to preach at Trinity Church in Newark and at the more famous Trinity Church in Manhattan, as well as at St. John’s Church in Elizabethtown. He graduated from Princeton University at age 18, and was ordained in 1773 at 29. He was an experienced speaker by age 40 when he preached this sermon to the local Freemasons, and he did so without notes. The reason we have it today is the lodge requested a written copy for publication, causing the reverend to put quill to paper after the fact. Historically, we readers find ourselves one year after the Revolutionary War ended and almost two years before the founding of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey.
This sermon is far too long to reproduce here, so I will summarize one of its four key ideas: “to notice what it is to ‘fear God.’”
What is it to fear God? When the candidate for the degrees of Freemasonry seeks admission to any of New Jersey’s lodges, the Worshipful Master orders that he be in “the fear of the Lord” upon entering. It must be important because it’s in all three degrees. It is more specific than belief in a higher power. What does it mean?
To fear God, Ogden said, is to love or to serve Him. He illustrates this with multiple quotations of Scripture, including two attributed to King Solomon: “It shall be well with those who fear God.” (Ecclesiastes 8:12) And “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)
By the fear of God, he continues, “we are to understand a due observance of religion, which it may be said, consists of three particulars: knowledge, faith, and practice.”
“The first principle of religious knowledge requisite we should be acquainted with,” Ogden says, “is that there exists some Being superior to ourselves, who gave excellence to Creation, who inhabits eternity, whose knowledge is infinite, whose presence fills all space, whose power preserves and sustains all nature, and who possesses all possible perfection.”
“Can we behold the heavens above or the earth beneath,” he adds, “without acknowledging the infinite power, wisdom, and goodness displayed by some, though to us, invisible Architect?”
Faith, Ogden’s second particular in fearing God, also is the first of the principal rounds of the ladder—Faith, Hope, and Charity—reaching to Heaven that Freemasonry discusses in its First Degree. Ogden begins: “But it is to no purpose we are informed of these things unless we believe them. ‘Without faith,’ it is said, ‘it is impossible to please God, for he that comes to Him must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.’”
“To hope for the friendship of God,” he adds, “while we disclaim His authority…would be irrational, as futile, as it would be to…behold the light if deprived of the organs of vision!”
Of the third of his particulars—practice—Rev. Ogden is all about character. “Although it is most reasonable we should offer to our Almighty Creator and divine benefactor the oblation of our hearts; and though Christianity is calculated to deliver us from infamy and woe, and to exalt us to honor and happiness, how often are its benefits rejected?” he asks. “How many are there, even of those professing to revere this dispensation of mercy, who live regardless of its precepts, and who, in their actions with men are so far from ‘doing as they would be done unto,’ that no feelings of humanity, no sense of honor, nor any fear of divine vengeance, nor any thing but present punishment can divert them from acts of dishonesty, barbarity, and flagrant impiety?”
While there is no obvious documentation of Rev. Uzal Ogden being a Freemason, it is clear that Lodge No. 10 chose its speaker for St. John the Evangelist Day wisely. He anticipated his audience and crafted his remarks accordingly, and we are fortunate the lodge opted to have his sermon printed so posterity may enjoy it.