“National Revolutions are in Harmony with Individual experience and Material Phenomena”: William Leask’s 1848 ‘National Revolutions: A Sermon’

Between 1848 and 1871, Western Europe and North America underwent a series of political upheavals, many of them violent, that pitted broadly liberal nationalist movements against conservative (and even sometimes liberal) monarchies. The liberal revolutions of 1848 began in February of that year when the Parisian populace overthrew Louis-Philippe and the liberal Orleanist monarchy. Orleanism had given France a constitutional settlement that offered the Kingdom of the French—so France was called after 1830—an order similar to Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy. Frenchmen weren’t Britons, however, and Louis-Philippe’s deposition eventually brought Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s ambitious nephew, to the presidency of France in elections held in the Fall of 1848.

Liberal nationalist movements occurred across Europe in 1848, with the noted exceptions of Great Britain and the Russian Empire. Evangelical Protestants in both Great Britain and the United States observed their progress with interest. British and American Evangelicals read liberal nationalist revolutions very differently in the 19th Century, but both groups nonetheless were broadly sympathetic, but these sympathies were not unqualified. William Leask, a minister in Scotland’s United Presbyterian Church—whose roots lay in the eighteenth century Secession movement—saw moral and spiritual realities driving the 1848 revolutions. “National Revolutions,” he told a congregation in March of 1848, “are symptomatic of moral disorder. I say symptomatic, for they are not a cause, but an effect.” Nationalist revolutions were “the result of one or more causes, of an evil, or a series of evils, which have been long accumulating and gathering force and strength, until the terrible crisis comes.” When a political crisis finally came, social and polticial forces, “like the central fires of earth rushing to the volcano,” finally erupted and filled politicians “with astonishment,” while filling the “oppressed with awe.” Nationalist revolutions, Leask, proposed, were “manifestations of injustice” and “evidences of the moral disorder to which I allude.” The three moral disorders which Leask believed caused national revolutions were religious persecution, the withholding of political rights, and positive oppression. “Deep in the heart of a nation, which is but an aggregate of human beings, there is an intuitive perception that these things are a breach of the moral law of equity.” When the “pride or perversity of governments, which has often been the case, prompts them to persist in their evil courses, notwithstanding warning, the issue must be a dreadful recoil on their own heads. The history of the world is full of illustrations of this.” Leask noted that in the Old Testament, God allowed His people to be conquered for their unfaithfulness while also bringing low empires who set themselves up in the place of God. “Though Israel be carried away captive because of their iniquities, yet if their captors say to them, ‘Bow down that we my go over,’ God arises to vindicate their cause, and puts ‘the cup of trembling’ into the hands of those that oppress them.”

Leask did not hide his fundamental sympathies with nationalist movements. “National Revolutions,” he extolled, “are in harmony with individual experience and material phenomena. The individual is the type of the nation. Constant mental quiescence is inconsistent with the state of a being who is subject to training for another world. There is much to learn, and much to unlearn.” Leask argued that individuals and nations had “good to embrace, and evil to shun.” In the experience of individuals there were “periods of repose, followed by periods of excitement; times of deep thought, succeeded by times of levity; seasons of patient endurance alternated by seasons of resistless passion. Exactly so is it with communities.” Nations, said Leask, were “but the individual on a broader scale. The body politic is congregated men. mass is the man multiplied.” He accounted “also for those popular outbreaks in its neighbouring countries, which generally follow a great revolution in a given nation.” Popular movements “are the actions of social sympathy; the declarations of approval, the upheaving of the hidden fires, the aspirations of intelligence, or passion, if you will, after something better, or something which is supposed to be better.” It did not matter to Leask’s argument “whether the revolution be wise or foolish, just or unjust, or whether the change effected be for the better or the worse. This is not a problem for us to solve.” He was “firmly persuaded that the security of a nation is not in the form, but in the moral integrity of its government. ‘Righteousness exalteth a nation.’” Leask asked “not for equality of condition, but equality of justice; not for uniformity in individual position, but uniformity in administration.” He deprecated “injustice, whether it emanate from a throne or a presidential chair; and tyranny, whether it come from a man or a mob; and slavery, whether it exist under a despotism or a republic.”[1]

[1] William Leask, National Revolutions: A Sermon (London: Benjamin Green, 1848), 3-4.


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