Assistant Minister, and Professor of Systematic Divinity in the Massachusetts
IT is a good relic of the olden time, my brethren, that the civil authority which governs our Commonwealth, should call upon its citizens to unite, in solemn Thanksgiving, to 'Him who governs the universe, by whose favour kings reign, and princes execute judgment.' It is good that, in some form, we should have a public recognition of religious truth from the rulers of nations. And happy would it be for them, and for us, if the form were always united to the substance of pious gratitude--if the proclamation were truly the honest herald of the universal desire to 'Praise the Lord for his goodness, and for all the wondrous works which he doeth for the children of men.' Let us however, for our part, try to meditate awhile on this much neglected [3/4] duty. Let not our assembling together be without some effort to raise our hearts to God. And in order that we may the more readily attain the frame of mind which is suited to the occasion, let us consider, briefly, our causes of special thankfulness as individuals, as a people, and as a favored portion of the most distinguished nation upon earth.
1. As individuals, it would be hard to particularize the hundredth part of our motives to pious gratitude; for who but the Lord himself, can reckon up the instances of his Fatherly kindness, his Providential care? To him we owe it, that our lives have been given to us in a land of freedom, in an age of intellectual light, in a society of moral sentiment and of Christian privilege. We might have been brought into existence in the days of bloody intolerance and superstitious bondage; when the liberty of conscience was shackled by fetters, and punished at the stake. We might, at this moment, be among the barbarian tribes of Africa, with minds yet darker than the gloomy tincture of our skin. We might be bowing down before the hideous idols of the East, or crouching before the pride of Turkish despotism. We might be roaming the wilderness, among the Indian remnants of our native soil; or trembling beneath the lash of a hireling overseer, [4/5] who cannot comprehend that a slave possesses rights and feelings, as precious as his own. And is it nothing that the Lord, in his gracious Providence, has placed us in a lot, comparatively so blessed above millions of our fellow creatures? Is there not here, alone, a powerful claim upon us, for the heart of thankfulness, and the voice of praise?
But, even around us, there are grounds for still further gratulation. Why are we not among the poor victims of early ignorance and vice, which abound in our most polished cities. Why are we not a part of the degraded, profligate, and miserable wretches, whose trade is iniquity, whose path, even in this world, leads to infamy and ruin. By nature, we are not a whit better than the worst among them, and what but the kind Providence of God, has so directed our parentage, our education, our circumstances through life, as to place us in comparative respectability and honour. But even this is not all. There are thousands suffering the bitter pains of want, whilst we possess a bountiful sufficiency--thousands stretched on the bed of hopeless disease, whilst we have strength to come up to the house of prayer in company--thousands languishing in prison, without any weightier offence than poverty and disappointment, whilst we can [5/6] move abroad at will, and breathe the blessed air of freedom. And yet, alas! how seldom do we think of the value of such privileges, or feel as we ought, for those, to whom they are denied!
2. We do not design to dwell on the peculiar causes of religious gratitude, which all men might discover, if they would, in their private personal history. The special preservations from danger, the special instances of success, the various methods by which the Providence of the Almighty has lightened the pressure of affliction, and brought good out of evil, the innumerable examples of his guardian care in which domestic life abounds,--all these we leave to your own retrospection, my brethren, as only fully known to God and to yourselves. Neither shall we enlarge on the inestimable gift of the Gospel, the blessing of blessings, without which every other must be worse than vain; since it is our happiness to belong to a church, which never meets for worship without a special expression of gratitude, 'Above all, for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.' But, reserving our brief limits for those topics, which do not recur in the ordinary course of ministration, we proceed to notice our motives of thanksgiving as a people, in [6/7] which we shall find abundant reasons for the exercise of praise.
Considered in this respect, how striking the contrast which a few years present! When the channels of business were impeded with difficulties, which, to many, seemed insurmountable, and public hope and confidence had almost sunk into despondency, and your streets were filled with the voice of complaint, and your fire-sides were saddened with the gloom of apprehension, how few anticipated the prosperous change which awaited you! How few believed it possible, that, in so short a time, new avenues to wealth would be opened to your enterprise, new energies imparted to your progress in improvement, and a new system of vast political importance and social power, developed and applied! It belongs not to the time or place, my brethren, nor yet to the office of your minister, to enlarge on such a topic; but it would be inexcusable to pass it by, in an enumeration of our motives for gratitude to Him, who is the author and giver of every blessing.
Far more impressive, however, does the contrast become, when we direct our comparison to the other nations of the globe. If we cast our eyes to the southern portion of our own vast continent, we [7/8] behold all the horrors of anarchy, and the fierce struggles of revolution. If we look to Asia, we see the darkest idolatry, the most cruel superstition, the most lawless tyranny almost every where prevailing. Even Greece, though lately emancipated from the Turkish yoke, is agitated and distracted, in want of civilization, and of settled principles in learning, civil polity, and religion. If we look to Africa, with the exception of a few small spots of comparative promise, all is a frightful wilderness of barbarism and moral desolation. And when we turn to Europe, christian Europe, the nurse of knowledge and the arts--what a spectacle is presented to the serious philanthropist! Almost every nation in it laboring, in the actual conflict of blood, or in a fearful preparation for it. Almost every throne, more than half undermined, and tottering to its fall. And the contest between irreconcilable principles of government, growing more and more loud, until it seems as though nothing, short of the restraining power of the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, could hold back the revolutionary storm, or controul its fury. Yea, even England herself, our mother country, though no longer engaged in wars abroad, is fearfully convulsed by the same elements of intestine division. And God only knows, [8/9] how much longer she may present the majesty of her unbroken empire, to the admiration of mankind.
But this is not all which marks the melancholy history of the times, in that interesting quarter of the globe. Plots and conspiracies, insurrections and rebellions, the miseries of war and the wretchedness of famine, have not sufficed to fill the cup of bitterness. A new pestilence has appeared to ravage the earth, and spread terror among the nations. And while our sympathies are thus addressed by an actual complication of national calamities, each one of which, alone, would be felt by us, as an awful visitation, what should be our emotions of gratitude for the distinguishing mercies of that gracious Providence, who has crowned our beloved country with all the united blessings of health and prosperity, education and refinement, abundance and peace;--who has so distinguished our favored land in the eyes of all men, that it is the chosen asylum of the wretched, the refuge of the oppressed, from every corner of that very Europe, which has hitherto occupied so preeminent a station among the people of the earth.
3. There still remains, however, a topic of comparison, well entitled to our grateful [9/10] acknowledgement. We form a part of a mighty confederacy, marked by many shades of local difference. Large portions of our sister territories, placed on equal ground with ourselves in the common blessings of national peace and independence, are yet suffering grievously under difficulties, from which we are happily exempted. The curse of slavery broods not over our public order and our private security. The lash of the task-master and the cry of oppression startle not our ears by day, nor are we compelled to watch the very inmates of our houses, lest our slumbers, by night, should be invaded by the knife of domestic assassination. Nor are our minds agitated by the violence of faction, which, weary of only one half century of Union, and tired of a political experiment, the brilliant success of which is the standing wonder of the world, are busy in the wild attempt to break the wholesome bond that ties our commonwealths together, and to paralyze the only power, which can blend our jarring interests into one. It is not for him who addresses you, to mingle amongst the fiery elements of party strife, but we are all alike called upon to thank the good providence of God, that our institutions are truly free, unstained by the tears and blood of our fellow beings; and that, however our community may be [10/11] agitated by the other breezes of political excitement, there is but one sentiment of respect and veneration for that Union, which has thus far preserved us from the sword of civil warfare, and conducted our nation to an unexampled height of social, moral, and political distinction.
The contemplation of the blessings which we possess, and to which we have adverted as the grounds of this day's thanksgiving, is interesting and delightful to every mind. But it is our peculiar duty to say to you, my brethren, that the mind of the Christian, alone, can truly understand their causes, and the means by which they may be rendered permanent. The moralist may speculate, and the statesman may declaim; and all the devices of sagacity, and the treasures of learning, and the splendours of eloquence, and the achievements of valour, may unite to secure the establishment of national prosperity; yet all will be in vain without the blessing of the Most High. 'Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be the praise, for thy mercy and truth's sake.'
But such, unhappily, is not the prevailing theory of our day. When, for example, the presumptuous spirit of worldly wisdom is asked to account for the success of our revolutionary war, we are usually [11/12] entertained with a panegyric upon the lofty daring, the determined patriotism, and the resolute perseverance of our forefathers. And then, too, the disadvantages under which the enemy laboured, in subduing a country at such a distance, and the want of prudence in their counsels, and all the minutiae of detail, are cited, as a supplementary evidence, that the result was a reasonable and necessary consequence of the existing state of things. But the page of history, though filled with the struggles of nations for thousands of years, exhibits no combination of human means, that have ever produced a result so sublime and so extraordinary. It was not the mere fact of emancipation from the authority of Great Britain, although that was in itself a wonderful achievement; it was not that an exaction, apparently so trifling, should have induced the spirit of resistance, although it is most true, that a whole people, scattered throughout a vast extent of country, and made up of heterogeneous and discordant materials, were never, either before or since, moved to a revolution, for the sake of a principle which had produced so little practical oppression. But it was the fact, that after the conflict was over, and the victory won, all the jarring opinions of men were brought to acquiesce in a species [12/13] of government, without example or parallel--that no hand was raised to grasp the sceptre of dominion--no voice was heard to advocate the separation of the general union--no soldier flushed with success, no politician thirsting for distinction, was able to oppose any serious difficulty to a peaceful, magnanimous accordance in the astonishing result, which has not only, under God, made us what we are, but will, probably, continue to extend its moral influence, till it has revolutionized the world.
Will second causes account for this? If so, how does it happen, that after the great work has been completed, and crowned with a glory of success, which yearly calls forth the oratory of the whole land to celebrate it--how happens it, that after our politicians have repeated the string of second causes, until they have them all by heart, and have talked of the patriotism and virtue of their fathers, until the anniversary of American Independence has exhausted every mode and shape of panegyric--how happens it, my brethren, that the rulers of the nation sometimes forget to imitate the virtue which they praise? The men of this generation are fully equal to their sires, in physical strength and mental cultivation. It is idle to pretend, that they are not as deep in political science, and equally idle to deny [13/14] that they are heartily and sincerely anxious for the real welfare of their country. Why, then, is it, that the union which the fathers so happily established, the sons are labouring to destroy? Why is it, that the rewards of office are claimed as the wages of party strife, when integrity and merit should be the only qualifications? Why is it, that the theatre of national government has exhibited scenes of violence, angry passions, disgraceful personalities, and privileged slander, in the discussion of comparative trifles, when all the mighty and perplexing difficulties of the revolution were disposed of in dignity and peace? Why is it, that in the short period of forty years, political purity seems to have given place to corruption, the true spirit of patriotism, to the demon of ambition, the eloquence of enlightened reason and lofty sentiment, to the virulence of rancour and the declamation of the demagogue, and the fair contest of sober argument, to the assault of the pistol. I know not how the wisdom of this world will justify the melancholy difference, but I will tell you, my brethren, the Christian's mode of accounting for the change.
You all know, by tradition as well as history,--the spirit of the Pilgrims. It was the spirit of the Gospel of Christ. Religion was their chief pursuit [14/15] their comfort and their glory. They had their weaknesses, their mistakes, their extravagancies,--when was human nature perfect,--but, withal, the world has, probably, never seen a people, so honestly and unreservedly devoted to the truth of heaven. They planted the cross in the barren wilderness, and the blessing of the God whom they served, smiled upon their work. And, although their memory stands not unstained by the intolerance and bigotry which characterized their age, still, we may vainly search the history of nations, since the days of ancient Israel, for a brighter assemblage of all that is virtuous and elevated in the character of a people.
The descendants of these devoted men, themselves most piously trained in the principles and practise of religion, planted the standard of freedom, and the first nourishment yielded to the tree of liberty, was drawn from the soil of New England. From the soil did I say? nay, my brethren, from the heart's blood of her sons.. But was this commencement of the revolutionary struggle, the excitement of a sudden brawl? And was- it followed up with nothing more than noisy harangues at festive meetings? Ask the solemn days of fasting and prayer; ask the religious character of that remarkable people; ask the fervent and lofty spirit [15/16] of devotion in which they cast their cause upon the Lord; ask the principles of that holy faith, which promises every good gift, to the persevering supplications of the humble and the contrite, and denies it to the arrogant self-confidence of the presumptuous and vain. There lay the strength of the fathers of our freedom. In the language of ancient Israel, they cried unto Him, who is mighty to save and to destroy. 'Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name; and deliver us, for thy name's sake. Wilt not thou, O God, go forth with our hosts? Give us help from trouble, for vain is the help of man. Through God we shall do valiantly, for it is he that shall tread down our enemies. Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name, be the praise, for thy mercy and truth's sake!' (a)
Here was the secret principle of the power, which resulted in the establishment of our institutions. And it was manifested to an extraordinary degree, in many of the public acts of Congress, and in the character of the christian hero, who exerted an influence, so incalculable, over the destiny of his country. That commander of the American forces was not a fiery duellist, a man of oaths and violence, reckless of temper, and stubborn of will. [16/17] He was a believer in the truth of the Gospel; and relied for his success, not merely on the efforts of mortal bravery and prudence, but on the answer to earnest prayer. And He, who is the hearer of prayer, not only granted him the victory in the unequal struggle, but gave him the far greater glory of humility in the hour of triumph, and enabled him to earn the surpassing eulogy of being ' First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.'
The comprehensive wisdom which then settled the principles of our Government, and which has been found, in the actual experiment, so admirably adapted to promote the best interests of all, might excite our unqualified astonishment, if it were not for the same religious solution. The same God guided the whole. He gave them prudence in council, and conquest in the field. He gave them unanimity of purpose, and firmness in execution. And it is yet to be seen, whether the nation may not have cause to wish that the Constitution, as then established, had been suffered to remain in its pristine integrity, unmutilated and unchanged. (b)
It would, however, be going beyond the province of your minister, my brethren, to dwell any longer on these details, than may be necessary to sustain [17/18] the connexion of religious faith with the prosperity of nations. In our days unhappily, this connexion is but lightly regarded. The spirit of strong and elevated devotion which marked the first settlers of our land, has left but few traces on the principles and habits of our generation. The press has established a theory which displays but few points of coincidence with the Gospel. Politicians have discovered that the private character of an aspirant to office, has nothing to do with his public claims; he may be untrue to his personal duties, and yet punctual in the discharge of his official obligations; he may be honest to his country, and yet false to his God. It was the maxim of the great Redeemer, that 'he who is faithless in that which was least, is faithless also in much'--but the logic of our day undertakes to shew, that a candidate may be faithless in that which is greatest,--his allegiance to his Maker,--and yet be perfectly worthy of confidence in any post to which it may please the people to call him. (c)
But this course, my brethren, will not and cannot prosper. In proportion as religious principle is banished from the list of requisites, which qualify men for the task of government, in the same proportion will the blessing of the Almighty be [18/19] withdrawn. The strife of opposing interests will increase in the councils of the nation. Pride, prejudice, and passion, will be manifested more and more. The encounter of talent, uncontrolled by principle, will only elicit, more powerfully, the fire of contention; and we may discover, when it is too late, that the legislation of an hour, in the sober wisdom of the fear of God, would have been infinitely better than years of eloquent excitement. It should never be forgotten that 'it is the Lord who maketh men to be of one mind in an house,' that the hearts of all are in his hand, and that all the abilities and all the faculties that were ever congregated together, must fail to preserve our national integrity, unless he gives them the 'unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.' (d)
If, however, the demon of discord should prevail, and civil dissention should mar the system, which has been, thus far, fraught with so many blessings, if our annual thanksgivings should be turned into lamentation and woe, and all our causes of peculiar gratitude, leave us, one by one, until we are sunk to the common level of the nations, and share, with them, the general alternations of war, pestilence, and famine,--let not the justice of God be impeached, or his goodness brought into question. He has [19/20] told us that 'Righteousness exalteth a nation, and that sin is the reproach of any people.' He has told us that 'Godliness is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as that which is to come.' He has 'so loved us, that he withheld not his only begotten Son, but freely delivered him up for us all,' and has assured us that 'with Christ, he would freely give us all things.' And if we will make light of all that his word has promised, and his infinite love performed,--if we will reject his counsel and have none of his reproof, what can we expect but to forfeit our privileges on earth, as well as our felicity in heaven!
But God, of his infinite mercy, forbid that it should be so! May we, on the contrary, my beloved brethren, behold a long continuance of the blessings which we now enjoy; and not only seek their preservation, by the exercise of pious thankfulness and active faith, but diffuse around us, to the utmost limit of our power, the sacred influence of Christian obligation. And may the primitive zeal of our land, return, cleansed of its dark intolerance and bigotry, and clad in the pure robe of charity and peace; that we and our posterity may rejoice in our salvation, and be enabled, with the deep sincerity of humble gratitude, to say 'Not unto us, O [20/21] Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name, be the glory and praise, for thy mercy and truth's sake. Let the people praise thee, O God; yea, let all the people praise thee. Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, and God, even our own God, shall give us his blessing.'
One is strongly reminded, by the devotional spirit of those days, of the sacred fortitude of Luther, where he says (Enar. in Ps. 45) Oves Christi quis defendet? Haud enim dubia est victoria, si ovis cum lupo commitatur, et tamen Christus hoc solet, ponit suos fideles milites, tanquam oves in medio inimicorum, subministrat eis vim et tela, quibus prosternentur hostes, convertantur autem et serventur sui, invitis etiam portis inferorum.
The allusion here made, refers more particularly to that amendment of the Constitution which took away the power of citing a State as party, before the Federal Court. It seems manifest that had this power remained, nothing short of open and undisguised rebellion could have disturbed the Union.
'Atque haud scio,' says Cicero, (De Nat. Deorum, Lib. I, § 2.) 'an, pietate adversus deos sublatâ, fides etiam et societas humani generis, et una excellentissima virtus, justitia, tollatur.' If he thought religion so necessary to the very existence of human society, in the darkness of heathenism, what would he have said, had he seen the revelation of God so lightly esteemed by the rulers of a Christian people?
'Etenim Theologia edicit,' says Bacon (De Aug. Sci. Lib. 8, c. 3.) 'Primum quaerite regnum Dei, et ista omnia adjicientur vobis. Philosophia autem simile quiddam jubet. Primum quaerite bona animi, cetera aut aderunt, aut non oberunt. Quamvis autem hoc fundamentum, humanitus jactum, interdum locetur super arenas; quemadmodum videre est in M. Bruto, qui in eam vocem, sub exitum sunin prorupit:
At idem fundamentum, divinitus locatum, firmatur semper in Petra. Hic autem doctrinam de negotiis, concludimus.' What a people should we be, if all who held the same high rank as the author of this beautiful sentiment, would bring their philosophy into such happy agreement with the Gospel!