Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818-1902) was one of a trifecta of powerful and influential preachers and theologians that molded and shaped southern civic theology; the other two stalwarts are James Henley Thornwell and Robert Dabney. Palmer was a product of South Carolina, a noble and impressive civilization. His spiritual pedigree was that of New England puritan stock, after serving in several pastorates in South Carolina, at the age of 37 in 1856, Palmer was called to the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, Louisiana. From that pulpit, Palmer established himself as one of the greatest preachers in the country in the mid nineteenth century. During the secession period prior to the civil war, Palmer served as moderator of the Confederate Presbyterian Church in America, Augusta, Georgia, December 1861. In its inaugural general assembly, Palmer preached the opening sermon that was untitled from the first chapter of Ephesians. The following is from this sermon.
“Fathers and bretheren: This assembly is convened under circumstances of unusual solemnity, and any one of us might well shrink from the responsibility of uttering the first words which are to be spoken here. I see before me venerable men whom the Church of God has honored with the highest mark of her confidence – men venerable for their wisdom, no less that for their age – who should, perhaps, as your organ, speak to-day in the hearing of the nation and of the Church. But a providence which I have had no hand in shaping seems to have devolved upon me this duty as delicate as it is solemn. It only remains for me to bespeak your sympathy, and to implore the divine blessing upon what I may be able to say from the concluding words of the first chapter of Ephesians:
“’And gave Him to be Head over all things, to the Church; which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.’ Eph. 1:22,23.
“You have often admired in the Epistles of Paul the vigor of his inspired and sanctified logic; driving, like a wedge, through the complications of the most perplexed reasoning to its very heart. Not less wonderful is that intellectual comprehensiveness, which, stretching across the breadth of a zone, gathers up all the indirections of his theme, and lays them over upon it in rapid and cumulative utterances – till language begins to break beneath the weight of his thought; and the arguments, set on fire with the ardor of his emotion, reaches the goal a perfect pyramid of flame. The passage just recited is a sufficient example of this rare combination of the discursive with the severely logical in the writings of this great Apostle; for the grand thoughts it presents are nevertheless gathered up by the way, and wrought into the texture of his discourse by incidental allusion. Having first traced the calling and salvation of these Ephesian Christians to its source in the free and gracious love of God, through which they were chosen in Christ; and having unfolded the method of grace, by redemption through his blood, he pauses that he may lift them to some adequate conception of the privileges into which they have been introduced. This, however, he attempts hot through cold and didactic exposition, but in the language of prayer, burning throughout with a holy and earnest passion: ‘that the eyes of their understanding may be enlightened, to know what is the hope of their calling, what the riches of the glory of their inheritance,’ and what the almightiness of the power by which they have been transformed from sinners into saints. Then as if to give some external measure of that power, he points them to the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, in which their own spiritual renovation is implicitly contained. Kindling with the grandeur of his theme growing thus by the accumulation of wayside suggestions, he heaps together in rapid description these phrases burdened with the glory of that Headship which belongs to this risen Savior, and the honors of that Church standing to him in such august relations; till even Paul, with his inspired logic all on fire, can say nothing more than that she is ‘His body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all,’ The power of human speech is exhausted in this double utterance; and silence lends its emphasis to the unspoken thoughts which no dialect beneath that of the seraphim may express. Who of us, my brethren, has not been stunned by this holy vehemence of Paul, as he piles together his massive words; each bursting with a separate wealth, and revealing the agony of language in uttering the deep things of God? What resources have we, but to halt at the articulations of his text – until, stored with their digressive sweets we return to follow the wheels of his chariot as it bounds along the great highway of his discourse? Such as excursus I now propose to you: for no theme occurs to me more suited to the solemnity of this occasion, than the supreme dominion to which Christ is exalted as the Head of the Church and the glory of the Church in that relation as being at once his body and his fullness.
“The testimony of Scripture is given with great largeness to this Headship of Christ. In this immediate connection, Paul affirms that He is ‘set at the Father’s own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power, and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come; and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things.’ Eph. 1: 20-23. Again, in Philippians: ‘wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ Phil. 2:9-11. What enumeration can be more exhaustive, and what description more minute of the universality and glory of this dominion? In like manner, we read in the prophetic record the testimony of Daniel: ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near therefore him; and there was given him dominion and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.’ Dan. 7:13,14. The evangelical Isaiah, too, lifts up the voice of the ancient Church: ‘unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace, there shall be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth even forever.’ Isa. 9:6,7. Our Lord himself asserts his claim of universal empire and founds upon it the great commission of the Church: ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and upon earth – go ye, therefore, and teach all nations.’ Matt. 28:18,19. Finally, the lonely Seer of Patmos turns his telescopic gaze into the heavens, and reveals the Grand Assembly in their solemn worship around the throne, ‘and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; and every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying. Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.’ Rev. 5:11-13. Such is the testimony of prophecy, both as it begins, and as it closes the sacred canon.
“Observe, however, of whom all this is affirmed. It is not alone of the Eternal Word which dwelt in Christ; nor yet alone of the man Jesus, in whom that Word was made flesh – but of the Christ, in whom these two natures meet and are indissolubly united. So that we are compelled to look upon both the terms of His complex person before we can apprehend the nature and greatness of the supremacy. We shall discover reasons in both for the sublime agency assigned to him as ‘the whole creation’s Head.’ Looking, then, upon the divine side, it is obvious.”
The discourse is of the universal dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Benjamin Morgan Palmer rose up in the spirit of the guardians of the freedom of the Kirk of Scotland, from the tyranny of the English crown, he was a true heir of the covenanters. Palmer’s sermon will continue in the next post in this series.
Dr. Steven J. Ottolini is President of Covenant Leadership Training Institute. MA Theology, Covenant Seminary, St Louis, MO. Ph.D. Theology, Trinity Seminary, Newburgh IN. Celebrating 32 years of Christian ministry. Married to Molly 35 years, father of 3 and grandfather to Eleanora Jayne Ottolini, 9 months.