Project Canterbury


The healing of the Nations:






THANKSGIVING DAY, Nov. 29, 1855,


M. MAHAN, D. D.,









Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2007


Dear Sir:

In behalf of the Congregation, the undersigned desire to express the great gratification afforded them by the discourse delivered by you, in St. Peter's Church, this morning, and to request that you will furnish them with a copy for publication; and receive assurance of the sentiments of high respect and esteem towards you, with which they solicit this favor.

Albany, Thanksgiving Day, 1855.



DEC. 1, 1855.

In compliance with your request, I send a copy of the Sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day, in St. Peter's Church.
With many thanks for the very kind expressions with which the request is accompanied, and with very sincere good wishes to yourselves and the Congregation of St. Peter's, I am,

Very truly yours,

To Messrs. M. T. REYNOLDS, D. D. BARNARD, and others.



A tree, says our Lord, is known by its fruits. By its fruits it is properly judged; for in them its very nature and essence are made obvious to the senses.

The leaves are useful mainly as a shelter to the growth of the fruits; and differ from those parts of the tree, which minister nourishment directly, principally in this respect, that they form no part of its solid, or permanent framework. The root is essential to the inward life of the tree; the trunk to its outward or visible existence; upon the three-fold ministry of the branches, the boughs, and the twigs, the perfecting of the fruit depends; while all these together, "fitly joined and compacted by that which every joint supplieth," make up, as it were, the body of the tree. They are the organized system of which fruit is the ultimate product. If [5/6] they bear also blossoms and leaves, the former are but transitory signs of the coming fruit; the latter are its transitory shelter and protection. The blossoms disappear when the fruit is seen; the leaves change and wither, as it ripens. And when their temporary object is answered, they drop from the tree, and fertilize the soil, or are gathered for medicinal purposes; and others, in due season, flourish and decay in their stead.

This is true, in the main, of ordinary fruit-bearing trees. The Tree of Life, however, has this peculiarity, that contrary to the wont of all other trees, it bears, we are told, twelve manner of fruits, yielding her fruit every month.

But, if this be the case, we may reasonably infer, that there is a similar variety in the leaves of the Tree. For every month--for every period, that is, in the history of mankind,--fresh fruits are yielded, suitable no doubt to the changes of the times. With the fresh fruits fresh leaves appear. The circumstances of growth are perpetually changing. New customs are developed; new manners, new laws, new modes of thought. Each age has a character and temper of its own. Each generation has its own work [6/7] to do, its own trials to meet, its own resources to develope, its own account to give to the Judge and Maker of us all.

The Church, in like manner, is compelled to vary with the natural variations of the times. The work she did yesterday is in many respects different from the work she does to-day. The manner of her working to-day may be in many ways unsuited to the altered circumstances of to-morrow. New necessities call out new resources. New resources imply new agents to wield, new instruments to apply them. Customs, like leaves, are transitory things. And so long as Christianity preserves its essential system; so long as it remains unchanged in its word, its ministry, and its sacraments; so long, moreover, as it continues to bear fruit in high aims, good works, and holy men; we need not be surprised at its changing in other matters. Like the leaves of a tree, its manners, its policy, its expedients, its adaptable and variable modes of action, may answer a variety of purposes. They protect the fruit, but they may be also a shelter to the soil. They may benefit the world, as well, as the Church. They are designed for the healing of the nations. And as the distempers [7/8] of the nations are ever assuming new types, and breaking out, from time to time, into new forms of evil, so the leaves of the Tree of Life must continually appear to men under new adaptations.

Thus, the first age of the Church was a struggle, as it were, for bare existence. Unacknowledged by the power, the wisdom and the prejudices of the world, Christianity set foot upon a state of society, admirably civilized indeed, but corrupt, effeminate, and utterly enslaved to vice and superstition. She had for that age, then, a special work to do. The heroic spirit,--in other words the spirit of earnestness,--had vanished from the earth. Men were everywhere lovers of pleasure and lovers of themselves. Rottenness had entered into the bones of the entire social body; and the high aims, pure motives, and disinterested struggles, which had once shed a glory upon heathen life, were now in danger of being swamped in a universal slough of the most degrading apathy and sensuality.

Under these circumstances Christianity came as an element of life into an effete world. Her office was to arouse, to awaken, to raise from [8/9] the dead. She addressed herself therefore, to the task in a purely heroic spirit. "Clear as the sun, fair as the moon, terrible as an army with banners," she would make no compromise with such a civilization as then existed. She desired. no toleration such as heathenism accorded to all other forms of religion. She could abide no half-way measures. The poetry of heathenism, its arts, its luxuries, its witcheries, its exquisite letters, and its still more exquisite philosophy; all were to her, for the time, but as Babylonish garments,--as the whited walls of a sepulchre, full of corruption within, and of dead men's bones. Christians would have nothing to do, therefore, with any of these things. Simple in life, severe in manners, they shunned the amusements of the world; they held themselves aloof, as far as possible, from its ordinary business. The luxuries of religion even, were to them unknown. They had no gorgeous rites to attract the eye, no melting music to enchant the ear. They had no temples, no altars, in the heathen sense of the word. Worshipping in caves, and dens of the earth, and around the tombs of their martyrs, they bore a startling witness to a sensual age; and to bear [9/10] that witness effectually were obliged to go about holding their life in their hands.

The martyr spirit thus took the place of the departed heroic spirit. Rome in her decrepid age beheld deeds of daring self-devotion, such as had never been witnessed even in her glorious youth. And as her giddy populace assembled by myriads in the theatre, on the great festal day of the Saturnalia;--to see, perchance, how an aged Bishop [* The Martyrdom of S. Ignatius.] could die, who had ventured for the love of God to gainsay the Master of the world;--and as they witnessed the beaming smile, with which the venerable old man descended into the arena, and welcomed the embrace of the lions, thousands of them must have felt, at such a moment, a new pulse of life beginning to beat within their hearts; and whatsoever there was of true, still lingering in their nature, whatsoever there was of honest, pure, lovely, or of good report, must have been kindled into action, or at least into vehement desire. In this way the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. It is equally true, that the severity of manners, which distinguished the martyr Church, was for that age, at least, [10/11] the healing of the nations. Through all the abject dependencies of the Roman Empire a new life was infused, a new spirit was awakened. Men began to see, that there was something in life to live for, something to hope for, something to die for. So that, when at last, after a struggle of three hundred years, Christianity ascended the steps of the imperial throne, and swayed equally with the Caesars the sceptre of the world, it was because men felt, that she had been indeed a Tree of Life to as many as came under her shadow; that the spiritual energies of the race had been quickened and liberated by her; and that the torpor and palsy of a worn out civilization had been healed, as it were, and admitted to a new term of life.

But in the age that followed, the Church had another, and a different work, to do. She had struggled successfully with the civilization of the world. She had now a war to wage with its barbarism. The North was letting loose its hordes of irresistible warriours; and up to the very gates of Rome, of Carthage, of Athens, and of Alexandria, a flood was raging, which threatened to sweep before it every vestige of Christian, as well as of heathen culture.

[12] It was not a revolution merely, with which the world was then threatened. It was not a change of dynasty, or a new form of government. It was an utter destruction of the slowly accumulated work of more than a thousand years. Law, and order, and religion itself were at stake. The peaceful arts, the refinements and restraints of social life, the graces of poetry, the consolations of philosophy, all in fact that distinguishes the civilized man from the savage were exposed to a series of storms, under the force of which the pillars of society were reeling and tottering to their base.

But, for this fearful issue also, Christianity had been forearmed. The Tree of Life had clothed itself, as it were, in a new set of leaves. From a seeming enemy of social cultivation and refinement, the Church had become by force of circumstances their principal patron and defender. The arts of the Heathen had all been enlisted in her service. Their philosophy, and poetry had been in like manner converted. Even the cultivation of the soil, that peculiarly Roman art, which however had gone to decay under the withering influence of slavery, had [12/13] been revived and improved by the sturdy toil of innumerable Christian brotherhoods. Last, not least, the Roman civil law had come under the mild yoke of the cross of Christ. And at the present day,--My Brethren,--when this stupendous monument of the wisdom of the ancient world begins once more to be admired, and to be imitated too in the codes of modern nations, it should be thankfully remembered, that to Christianity it is indebted for many of its finest features; and that heathen though it was in its framework, it was baptized, and, as it were, new-born, in the spirit of the Gospel.

In this way the change, that had taken place in the policy and manners of the Church, was not, as many have esteemed it, a perverse departure from the standard of primitive Christianity. It was rather a necessary accommodation to an entirely new state of things. It was an unconscious arming for a new sort of warfare. And as Noah prepared for the flood by building an ark, and by gathering into it specimens of every kind of clean and unclean beast, with fowls of the air, creeping things, and seeds to cover the earth again with its garniture of varied beauty; so Christianity prepared [13/14] for the flood of barbarism, that was destined to sweep over the world. She gathered into the ark every thing that was worth preserving, of ancient civilization.

Of the long and dreary struggle that followed, and its strange vicissitudes, it is impossible to speak satisfactorily in a discourse like this. Much less can I treat of the change of leaf, hardly yet much more than commenced, which marked the period of the Protestant Reformation. What I have said will be sufficient, perhaps, to illustrate, though not of course to prove, the principle with which we started; and if considered thoughtfully may reconcile us to many perplexing facts in the history of Religion. To benefit the world, as such, is not the main object of Christianity. It is, however, one of its objects. The leaves of the Tree, at least, are designed for the healing of the nations. And if these leaves: if, in other words, the policy of the church as developed under circumstances when the temporal and spiritual were almost hopelessly entangled with each other; seem sometimes of a character to mar the perfection of the fruits, we should at least bear in mind, that society may have been [14/15] benefitted by them; and so far as society is benefitted, the fruitfulness of the tree itself may be eventually increased. The diseases of the nations are different at different times. Sometimes they require a positive, sometimes perhaps a more negative mode of treatment. It is enough to prove the efficiency of Christianity on the whole, that all the nations, which have come under its influence, have been enabled, according to the promise, to renew their youth; and in spite of many revolutions, and decays, are still comparatively in the prime of their manly vigour.

Mohammedanism is at least six hundred years younger than Christianity. Yet what Mohammedan country is now able to cope at all with any of the Christian powers? A few centuries ago the Turks were as vigorous a people, as either the English, or the Franks. They are now the victims of premature decay. And so with all the races, which have sat under the baleful shade of the system of Mohammed. Their growth and decay have both been as rapid as the existence of the prophet's gourd. Not one of them at present can look with hopeful eyes to the future. And [15/16] the day may not be distant, when the Christian communities, which for a time they have been permitted to oppress, shall rise once more from the dust, and renew their youth in the strength of a living Gospel, and exhibit to the world another glorious spectacle of national regeneration.

In the mean time, my Brethren, let us value duly the privilege we enjoy of belonging not only to a powerful, but, what is the true secret of its power, to a Christian nation. Mere strength alone is not a sufficient surety of abiding health. To be "fat and full of bread" is to nations, as much as to individuals, often the forerunner of speedy dissolution. With all the blessings we enjoy,--blessings of the Heaven above, I trust, as well as blessings of the deep that lieth under,--with all our countless privileges as a people, and all the special favors, for which we give thanks this day, as individuals, there are still many things around us, which should warn us against the folly of "feasting without fear." The growth of luxury has been at least as rapid as the growth of wealth and power. But as luxury prevails there is a corresponding decay of sterling virtue. [16/17] With the rapid developement of the rising generation, there is a worm at the root of their strength, in a growing spirit of irreverence. Parents are not honored, age is not reverenced, woman is regarded with less of chivalrous respect, and the commandment, which says, "thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people," is practically set at nought. With distempers such as these in the body of the times, we can lay little claim to that promise of long life,--a promise more applicable to nations than to individuals,--which is annexed to the observance of the fifth commandment. We have the greater reason, therefore, to take to heart, on occasions such as this, that we are nevertheless a Christian nation. The Tree of Life is planted in our midst; it spreads its shadow over us; and to its leaves we are indebted for whatever of a healing, tempering, conservative, and regenerating influence is to be found among our people.

Let us thank God, then, first of all, for this His unspeakable gift. And if there are any other good gifts, which we believe to come from God, let us show our belief by giving a due portion of them back to the service of the [17/18] Giver. The thanks we offer God have no sort of value in themselves. Like the presents of children to their parents, they are valuable only as they are precious in the eyes of the giver. Let us be careful, then, to offer that to God which we ourselves esteem. If we esteem words merely we may content ourselves to make a mere offering of words. If we esteem other things, however; if our heart is with our treasures, our luxuries, our amusements; then, let us be sure to offer something that the heart will go with. For the affection of the heart is the essence of thanksgiving.

In like manner, my Brethren, let us be watchful to maintain the privileges, and blessings, for which we this day give thanks. It is a tendency of the times to put the laws and institutions of the country on a purely rationalistic basis; and under the pretence of favoring no particular creed, to keep legislation as far away, as possible, from any direct influence of Christianity. In this way our common school system, upon which more than any thing else the future of the country depends, is in danger of becoming a mere educator of the brain, without any corresponding training of the religious [18/19] and social affections. This, I need hardly say, is a fearful evil. Hot heads and cold hearts are more portentous by far, than the direst conjunction of the planets. Knowledge indeed is power. But power without the restraining influence of an enlightened faith, is merely an element of destruction.

Let the school house, then, be an object of solicitude to Christians even more than to men of the state. Let some shadow, at least, of "the Tree of Life" fall upon it. Let some infusion of "the leaves of the Tree" be mingled with its potent waters. If the power of Christianity is unhappily too much broken, and divided, to be brought to bear as a whole upon the training of the young, let us be so much the more earnest, each in his place and according to the measure of his influence, to "strengthen the things that remain, which are ready to die."

It is undoubtedly well, in a country such as ours especially, to be on our guard against "priest-craft." But priest-craft, it ought to be remembered, does not depend upon the shape, or colour, of the coat. The Devil has his priests, as well as God. The clap-trap lecturer, [19/20] who to win a laugh, or a round of popular applause, will pervert the Scriptures themselves into a ribald joke; the reckless demagogue, who in like manner tickles the ears, that he may drug the conscience of the people; the profane and unscrupulous editor, who believing in nothing himself, and having no reverence for God or man, jeers at everything, and drowns religion, honour, principle, and every other sacred name, in a tide, that has no day of Rest, of diabolical laughter; these, and such men as these, whatever they may profess to be, are in reality the priests of Satan: and it may be doubted, whether there was ever a priest-craft, in the darkest ages of the world, more fruitful of evil than theirs. An over-skeptical temper is as bad in politics almost, as in religion. When we can put no confidence in men, we lose our confidence also in sterling principle. And it is one of the worst features of the times, that chiefly through the arts of irresponsible talkers and writers, we are afflicted now with a spirit of almost universal mistrust. To make a mock at sin has become, through the levity of some of the leaders of the press, an important part of the daily education of the country. But when [20/21] men make a mock at sin, they can be serious about nothing else. The spirit of Thersites becomes the spirit of the land. The politics of the country degenerate into a mere game of chance; and the man, who is too scrupulous to play with loaded dice, retires with disgust and indignation from the unequal contest.

For distempers such as these, my Brethren, a decided, earnest, and high-toned Christianity is, we may rest assured, the only remedy. The Tree of Life was designed to be a shelter against all evils. Its leaves are specifics for national disease. Let us be zealous, then, in maintaining the cause of positive religion. Let us uphold it as a remedy for the evils of the times. And in our zeal for other causes; in our anxiety to carry out this or that measure of the day, let us bear in mind, that the whole is greater than the part; and that where Christianity suffers, everything inevitably suffers with it. The life is more than meat. The body is more than raiment. Religion is the life of every other cause. It is the body of every other principle. Let us cherish Religion, then: let us contend for godliness in the State, as well as in the Church. For godliness has the promise of [21/22] the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come.



Project Canterbury