The Sermon That Landed Francis Makemie in Jail

As Francis Makemie himself wrote on March 3, 1707: “This is the Sermon, for which I am now a prisoner.” He spoke of the sermon he preached in New York City on January 19, 1707 titled “A Good Conversation.” It was based on Psalm 50:23: “To him that ordereth his Conversation aright, will I shew the Salvation of God.” The texts cited on the cover page when it was published were Matthew 5:11 and Acts 5:29, which deal with persecution for the faith, and obedience to God over man. It was the preaching and publishing of this sermon without a license in Anglican New York that led to the imprisonment of the Presbyterian minister Francis Makemie. The case became a major landmark in the history of religious liberty in America.

Also of note is that this sermon is “probably the earliest Presbyterian sermon in America now extant, and was certainly the first preached in the City of New York.” It is certainly the earliest sermon currently available to read at Log College Press.

The “conversation” spoken of by Makemie, who utilized the King James Bible, is an older word for “conduct” or “manner of life.” As Makemie says,

A Conversation agreeable to First Table Commands and Second Table Commands, and to Gospel Precepts, is the only regular Conversation. How much therefore is it the concern of every Soul, to be acquainted with this Law, and to make conscience of conforming their Lives thereunto.

3. A Well-ordered Life and Conversation, consists in being adorned with the shining Grace, and gracious fruits of the Spirit of God; wherein the Gifts and Graces of the Renewing Spirit of God are legible and conspicuous, even in all parts of Conversation. This distinguishes the life of a Christian, from the Conversation of the most refined and polished Moralists in the world, and renders the Conversation of a true sincere Christian, to surpass by far the lives of Pagans.

The sermon is a lengthy treatise (originally designed for two discourses, as the author states) on how to live well for the glory of God and to make one’s calling and election sure. Far from being unorthodox, and far from being seditious, it was a testimony to lawful, submissive Christian living. Yet, without a license to preach, the sermon (especially being preached by an Irish-American) became, in the eyes of Lord Cornbury, the royal governor of New York, an intolerable symbol of resistance to the Crown.

Makemie further wrote about his experience in his “Narrative of the Imprisonment of Two Non-Conformist Ministers” (1707). In his account we learn about the time he spent in prison (two months) on the charge of preaching without a license before being released on bail, and the fact that during his trial he was able to produce the preaching license he was given previously in Barbados, after which he was acquitted and released, at great personal financial cost.

Both the sermon and the narrative are fascinating reads, and they give insight into the situation that Presbyterians in early America under British colonial rule faced. Take time to study these works, for your edification and understanding. They represent a window into a time and a heritage that America should never forget.