NOVEMBER 26, 1857
THE RT. REV. ALONZO POTTER
BISHOP OF PENNSYLVANIA
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2009
Behold, therefore, the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. ROMANS xi, 22.
THESE words indicate the principle on which nations are dealt with by their Great Ruler. They refer more immediately to the rejection of the Jews, and the calling of the Gentiles. Israel had been chosen as the special instrument through whom the Messiah was to be introduced to his work on earth. Hers were the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the Law, and the service of God, and the promises. One temple rose to attest his unity, and sacrifices and oblations were continually offered as memorials of what he had done in the past--as intimations of what he was yet to do in a more gracious and wonderful future. To add to the effect of all these, there were not wanting, from time to time, stupendous displays of judgment and of mercy. All the way through which the Most High led them for forty years in the wilderness, was but a [1/2] rehearsal of that longer way through which, for nearly two thousand years, he conducted them, that he might humble them and prove them, and see whether--when the great crisis of their history came, the grand trial of their obedience and faith--they would be found true. The result we know. They proved unfaithful, and retribution fell. The natural branches being unfruitful are cut away with unsparing hand, and the wild olive is grafted in, to be a partaker of the root and fatness of the true plant.
We have here an epitome of the history of all nations with respect to natural and civil advantages. What Israel was in respect to spiritual and supernatural privileges, all are in respect to those which are earthly and temporal. They are stewards. Soil and climate; race and language; domestic and social economies; laws and government; schools and churches;--all are but a trust, and nations grow or decline, rise or fall, according as they prove faithful or unfaithful. Need I say that with no trust of this kind was ever nation charged (since the days of Israel) more eventful, through which more of blessing may be won to humanity, or more of glory to God, than is that with which we, the American people, find ourselves possessed? We have all that could be desired to occupy our powers and to incite them to higher and nobler effort--vast expanse of territory--exhaustless riches of mine and forest and field--the two oceans of the globe at our feet--navigable rivers, whose sum of length is measured by tens of thousands of miles--and inland seas, which, almost without help from art, open to the voyager an unobstructed path from the far-distant interior to the remotest ports of China or Japan. [2/3] We have in our veins the blood of a race which has thus far proved itself invincible by sea and land. A race which has belted the globe with its commerce and its arts. And from the experience of nearly six thousand years; from the manifold vicissitudes of the nations that have gone before us; from all their mistakes and all their successes, we have had bequeathed to us a precious legacy of power and wisdom. Young in years, but old in the fruits of the world's toil and travail, enriched with spoils gathered by those who through all time have wrestled, whether as sages, legislators, and patriots, for man, or as apostles, prophets, and martyrs, for God, we are here to-day as trustees--trustees of all the past, for the benefit of all the future. We are here, not merely with a glorious heritage to be enjoyed, but with one also to be improved, that they who come after us may say, Well done, good and faithful stewards. And never has the Lord our God been wanting to us. How often has He interposed by his providence to avert the dangers with which we were threatened or the judgments we had provoked! How often, too, as a loving Father, has he striven, by reasonable correction, to chastise our presumption, or rebuke our idolatry of the world! Sometimes he has caused a blight to fall upon our fields, sometimes pestilence to stalk through our cities. At one time he has sent confusion into the councils of our rulers; at another madness into the hearts of our people. To-day we meet to celebrate harvests more bountiful; health more general; peace with the world more profound, than ever perhaps were ours before. And yet, what signs not to be mistaken are around us of suffering; of perplexity; of fear! [3/4] With one hand God seems to have given to us, as to his people in the wilderness, meat for our lusts, but with the other he has sent, also, leanness withal into our souls. The table is spread, the banquet is all prepared, and pressed upon our acceptance; but the appetite is wanting!
What a spectacle to move at once to gratitude and to humiliation,--to gratitude for Heaven's gifts, to humiliation for our abuse of them! We have means and appliances through which, God being our helper, we may rise to such a height of glory and beneficence as the world has not yet seen; but, shall we have the moderation, the private and public virtue, the loyalty to our fathers and our past, the fidelity to the Gospel of Christ, of which we are put in charge, without which our greatest pride will be apt to become our greatest shame? Is not our domestic and social life too often fevered by excitement, and harassed by vain and silly ambitions? Is not our business life pitched too often at the extremest point of risk, so that no one knows but a single turn of the die, his own or another's, may consign him to bankruptcy or lift him to affluence? Is not that business life wound up too, to an unnatural strain of effort, so that little time or heart is left for repose or for devotion, for the gentle amenities of home, for the blessed charities of friendship, for the generous pursuits of literature, for patriotism or philanthropy?
And the stern yet loving virtue, the high-hearted faith which first came as exiles to this far-off wilderness, which so inspired and sustained that little company who landed amidst wintry storms, on the sterile coast of New England; which were as a tower of [4/5] strength to that small band of Quakers, who, sixty years later, came to found in our forests a commonwealth (now numbering nearly 3,000,000 of freemen), on the simple principle of glory to God and good-will to men. Brethren, I ask if the solemn league, then struck between private virtue and public probity, has been maintained unimpaired? Yes, that trust in God, that simple love of Jesus and of those for whom he died, which prompted William Penn to come out to this new land, that he might make what he calls "the holy experiment," setting "an example to the nations of a just and righteous government," that spirit of true and universal brotherhood which drew from him, as he stood unarmed and undefended under the great elm at Shakamaxon, and saw "as far as his eyes could carry," the painted and plumed children of the forest gazing upon him as a new and strange ruler; that love to God and man, which then impelled his great heart to say to them, "I will not call you brothers or children, but you shall be to me and mine as half of the same body;" which two years later, when he left for England, prompted him to send to this city of brotherly love, which he had founded, the message, "And thou, Philadelphia, virgin of the province, my soul prays for thee, that faithful to the God of thy mercies in the life of righteousness, thou mayest be preserved unto the end:"--And again, when he wrote replying to the charge, that he had manifested, while here, restless ambition and lust of gain, and made this memorable prediction, "If friends here (i.e. in Pennsylvania) keep to God, and in the justice, mercy, equity, and fear of the Lord, their enemies will be their footstool; if not, their heirs and my heirs [5/6] too, will lose all." Brethren! Has our course as a people, been thus loyal to God? Has it been true to this, our beginning--faithful to justice, mercy, and the fear of the Lord? If not, we may plume ourselves upon our wealth and enterprise, upon our far-reaching domain, upon our achievements in arts or in arms; but we should tremble, when we remember with whom as a nation we are to reckon. We should tremble, when we consider that his retribution is unerring for nations as for individuals, and, that while in the case of individuals, just punishment may wait to another life, in the case of nations it must fall here.
When we look around us and over the past, do we not see ruined empires almost without number; once the admiration of the world, but now having a name only in history? Monarchies and Republics, Oligarchies and Feudalities, have all shared one common fate, and that fate, if it witness more to one truth than to another or to all others, it is to the truth that God governs nationalities; that by Him kings reign, and princes or people decree justice; and that his government is administered only in righteousness--with long-suffering patience, 'tis true--but yet with ultimate and rigid justice. Go to the dawn of historical civilization in the East, trace the rise and fall of one nation after another, and everywhere as religion and virtue decline, strength and glory decline with them, till at length we seem to hear the great Ruler and Proprietor say, Give an account of thy stewardship, for thou mayest be no longer steward. Whether theirs were the one talent, or the five, or the ten, it is the same: the portion of the unprofitable or unfaithful steward is taken from him, and given to those who [6/7] may afford promise of more fidelity. And lest they should glory in being thus preferred, a voice of warning seems to be addressed to them, as to Israel when she was about to pass over Jordan to possess nations greater and mightier than herself. "Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the Lord thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, For my righteousness the Lord hath brought me in to possess this land, but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord doth drive them out before thee. And the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land. And when thou hast eaten and art full, beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God in not keeping his commandments; beware, lest when thou hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein, and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thine heart be lifted up, and thou say in thine heart, my power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. For it shall be, if thou do at all forget the Lord thy God and walk after other gods, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish."
Such is the grand law not for Israel only, but in effect for all nations. To them it was proclaimed through inspired Prophets, sent on purpose; to most kingdoms and states, it has been taught by the still small voice of conscience and reason, as well as by their experience that have gone before. It tells--this law--of no manifest destiny, of no irreversible fate. It hints at no possible condition of things which can subvert the principles or arrest the march of God's superintending Providence, which can guarantee perpetual and increasing greatness, though vice and [7/8] iniquity abound. Pharaoh tried it, and we see the result, as he and all his formidable host went down, in their power and pomp, as lead, in the mighty waters. Nebuchadnezzar tried it when he cried, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?" And, while the word was in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, saying, "O King Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom is departed from thee. And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field; they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee, until thou know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will." So when you follow the funeral train of the other great nations, once known only to be feared, now remembered only to be pitied, you everywhere find that they fell rather by their own suicidal hand than by foreign invaders. First puffed up with the pride that betokens a fall, because it relaxes effort and lulls vigilance; then given over to sordid gains and ignoble pleasures; then rent by the strife of contending factions; then full of cruelty to the weak, and of license to the baser passions, and of hatred of all whose voice and example are raised to rebuke the reigning degeneracy. Socrates and Cicero, Aristides and Demosthenes, are reckoned unfit to live, because they protest, and warn, and will not prophecy smooth things. Neibuhr's picture of Rome, after the fall of the Republic, may stand as a likeness for all: "As regards the manners and mode of life of the Romans (says he), their great object at this time was the acquisition and possession of money. Their moral [8/9] conduct, which had been corrupt enough before the social war, became still more so by their systematic plunder and rapine. Immense riches were accumulated and squandered upon brutal pleasures. The simplicity of the old manners and mode of living had been abandoned for Greek luxuries and frivolities, and the whole household arrangements had become altered. The Roman houses had formerly been quite simple, and were built mostly of brick, but now every one would live in a splendid house, and be surrounded by luxuries." We know what followed. With deeper degeneracy came a more profound self-confidence, and a more stolid indifference to all but selfish pleasure, till not even the tramp of barbarian invaders, could disturb their security. As at the Capitol, so in the provinces. Carthage was then called the Rome of Africa, where, less than two hundred years before, Cyprian had suffered martyrdom; near which, only nine years previous, Augustine had yielded up his life. Where churches abounded, and Christ was preached by a multitude of priests and deacons:--Yet Genseric came with his Vandals, "and while his troops were mounting the ramparts, the people were descending to the circus. Without was the tumult of arms; within, the resounding echoes of the games. At the foot of the walls were the shrieks and curses of those who slipped in gore, and fell in the melee; on the steps of the amphitheatre were the songs of the musicians, and the sounds of accompanying flutes." So elsewhere. Too idle and cowardly to march against the conquering tribes, the people were still delighted at seeing the agony of the dying gladiator; and, at Treves, no sooner had the invaders finished their work [9/10] of rapine and desolation than the returning inhabitants cried out for a renewal of the Circensian games. In Cicero's time, he marked the beginning of this most opprobrious end, when he said, speaking of the Roman Senate, "Beware of a body who think that even though the Republic should perish, they will be able to preserve their fish-ponds."
To hint that the history of Rome's decline and fall can be reproduced on our continent and in our land may seem a dotard's dream. But we cannot have more faith in our "manifest destiny" than they had in theirs. And a so-called Christianity, our imagined panacea for all social ills, is it not possible that as it failed to save the Empire, then so it may fail, if we do not give good heed, to save our Republic now? I look at the vast territory, the many tribes of people, the diversified languages and civilization, over which the Roman eagles floated in the fourth and fifth centuries, and everywhere Christ seems to be owned. Temples rise in his name; expensive offerings are made, Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage, Constantinople, Rome, are so many splendid centres of the religion called Christian. I look three centuries later, and in all of those cities save one the crescent has supplanted the cross.
In the deserts of Arabia an obscure man, some say ignorant, some say mad, part fanatic, perhaps, and part impostor, appears and claims to be the prophet of the Most High. He preaches three years with unwearied zeal, and has made but fourteen proselytes. With what supreme indifference was he regarded in the splendid palaces of Rome or Constantinople! With what serene and lofty contempt was he looked down upon by philosophers and divines, by governors and [10/11] Proconsuls! That strange compound of superstition and libertinism, of industrial force and unmeasured self-confidence, which hangs as a small cloud upon our western horizon now, does not seem to us one whit more despicable than did Islamism for many a year to the civilized world, whether East or West.
Christianity is a great conservative power, but not that Christianity which has lost its Christ. So longas it remained true to its one work, and kept, through humility and self-denying works of charity, near to its Lord, so long as his loving presence was in the sanctuary and in the hearts of his people, they seemed to reanimate the waning civilization of the earth. But when the altar lost its fires, and the gold became dim, and disputation took the place of faith, and pageantry was substituted for the sacrifice of meek and lowly hearts, Christianity was thenceforth only half Christian; it ceased to be equal to the most difficult of all works,--arresting the progress of social declension. And when nations intrusted with such a treasure as the Gospel prove derelict to it, we need not wonder that they are overtaken by swift retribution. The greater and more flagrant the dereliction, the quicker should be the punishment. Hence the striking fact that the oldest empire and the oldest civilization in the world is not Christian but Pagan, while most great nations that profess the Gospel are of recent origin. They who first embraced it proving unfaithful, were soon deprived of their stewardship. Others like Spain rose rapidly to a lordly eminence, but declined so soon that now they are hardly counted in settling what is called the balance of power. The four leading powers of the world, or at least of the [11/12] western portion of it, were none of them leading powers six hundred years ago. Four centuries ago America was the habitation of barbarians only; Russia was but "one of many races who shared the plains of Tartary; the French hardly defended their independence against England and Burgundy; and the English could call their own, but half a narrow island, and their number scarcely perhaps exceeded the present population of a first class Chinese city." On the other hand, China, because, faithful comparatively to the light she had, has stood almost unchanged for two thousand years, numbering in population one-third of the human race, and that population hardly surpassed on earth for industry, for thrift, for contentment, and for order. In view of such facts, does it become us to be high-minded? Let us rather fear, remembering "the goodness and severity of God; on them which fell, severity; but towards us goodness, if we continue in his goodness; otherwise we also shall be cut off."
Thus, we are brought to our conclusion. Were we to look only at the past, we might conclude that what has befallen other nations must, at no distant day, be our lot. The candle burns more and more dimly, till at last going out, the candlestick will be removed. But, let us thank God that experience is not our only teacher in this case. He who has promised abiding and increasing honor to all who honor him speaks to us words of hope. He tells us that all depends on the faith and virtue of the people, and he forewarns us that, with advancing prosperity, these will decline, unless his own people are more than ever steadfast, prayerful, watchful. Our Master passes us, now and then, as he did his chosen people of old, [12/13] through fiery trials. This day, he writes before all eyes, especially before ours, who, as a people, have on this point, I fear, grievously sinned, the peril and the folly of presuming too much on our own wisdom, of imagining that our life consisteth in the abundance of the things that we possess, of resolving that we will be rich, and that speedily, though the care of our souls and the proper training of our children be neglected, and though our business, stained too much with craft and speculation, be wanting in the three grand requisites of justice, mercy, and the fear of the Lord. No religion will meet our social necessities but one that is simple, hearty, and unworldly; one that seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, nothing doubting that if we labor, and are upright, frugal, and discreet, the Providence that feeds the fowls and clothes the lilies of the field will not leave us destitute. No religion of pretences will stand us in stead. Christ, when on earth, courted not the society of ostentatious Pharisees, looked not for support to the self-complacent but hypocritical religionists of the day. Let us bethink ourselves whether, were he to come again among us, he might not still find too many who draw near him with the lips, while their hearts are far from him. To think of that august Presence in some of our places of business, presiding at some of their transactions too, who claim to be foremost among his followers, looking into hearts that are ready to grace every proposition with a text, and back every argument with a prayer, and are yet cold, grasping, merciless, measuring the so-called munificent offerings of the rich to the Lord's treasury against the poor widow's two mites! Who that [13/14] imagines this, does not feel that our piety should be of a higher, holier type? that we need more of the humble, self-condemning spirit of the publican in the temple, more of the open-handed, high-souled liberality of Zaccheus? Religious faith is a vast power in almost every nation's history. Imbedded in the deepest instincts and intuitions of the soul, it must, in some form, blend itself with the life of the people. But to be at once a conservative and an impelling force, guaranteeing to the social system all the good we have, and helping to develop whatever good we need, it must ally itself with morality and with humility before a sin-hating God. Its hopes must promise nothing to the unrelenting love or practice of sin. A self-indulgent, self-complacent religionism, loose in its notions of what we owe to others, exacting in what we think due to ourselves, striving to embrace at once the promises of heaven and the lying plausibilities or debasing sensualities of earth, such a religion has for nations no power to save, but only to destroy. It may have its open Bible, its Protestant and orthodox creed, its tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, but where are the weightier matters, judgment, mercy and truth? "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." Churches without humility and all-embracing love, Christians without the life of God in their souls, followers of Jesus who seem to know little of the blessedness which he affirms only of the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the meek and merciful, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Such Christians, such churches, such creeds save and exalt a nation? Never! never! The appointed regenerators of the world are [14/15] Faith, Hope, and Charity, not faith without charity, not hope without faith, but all three as one. "And here abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three, but the greatest of these is Charity."
Have I spoken of our future with distrust and doubt? It is not that I despair. It is not that I am unable or unwilling to discern how much there is in our condition to excite to hope, to inspire confidence. I see it with exulting pride. Yes, "I can see," to borrow the strain of Milton, the great republican of England, when speaking of his own land under the Commonwealth, "I can see, methinks, in my mind's eye a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle, nursing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unsealing her sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance, while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about amazed at what she means." "I see her a city of refuge, the mansion-house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with Divine protection, where there are not more instruments for the defence of justice or beleagured truth, than there be pens and heads sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, and revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching future, and others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement." Glorious vision of a day, however, that may be overcast--that in England's case was overcast speedily. It was painted by the great poet and patriot but a very few years [15/16] before that land fell back, under Charles II, into the lowest depth of the lowest despotism. Prosperity, always dangerous, is specially dangerous in free states. All these mighty energies in which we so exult may, in our case, as in hers, be turned on the citadel of our own national life, and spend themselves in the work of self-destruction. "Let us not then be high-minded, but fear." The grand secret of a nation's enduring and advancing greatness is to combine with a consciousness of her gifts, a proper sense of her dangers, and difficulties, and responsibilities. "Behold, therefore, the goodness and severity of God. On them which fell, severity; toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness, otherwise thou also shalt be cut off."