Project Canterbury


The duty of bridling the tongue





Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

AUGUST 29TH, 1858.







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


RHINEBECK, September 15, 1858.

DEAR SIR--If agreeable to you, the undersigned respectfully request a copy of the sermon preached by you on the evening of Sunday, August 29th, and repeated on Sunday evening last, for publication.

The above request is not made as an idle compliment to you, but is prompted by a belief, that its circulation in our community, would accomplish a good work.

Very truly your friends,




RHINEBECK, September 17, 1858.

MY DEAR FRIENDS--The sermon preached by me last Sunday evening, which you have kindly requested for publication, is at your disposal. Very truly your friend and Pastor,


Messrs. E. PLATT, M. D., I. F. VAN VLIET, M. D., T. GILLENDER, Esq., and others.


THIS MAN'S RELIGION IS VAIN.--Epistle of St. James, I: 26.

The Apostle St. James here inculcates the observance of an important duty; namely, that of bridling the tongue: by which he means, our restraining the faculty of speech within certain specific bounds, so that it may not be betrayed into those indiscretions which may affect the reputation and good name of our neighbor.

And he directly asserts, that whoever neglects this duty, and indulges in the free expression of his sentiments and opinions respecting others, by which their character and conduct may be questioned or condemned, is guilty of an offence that is utterly inconsistent with the spirit of that religion which he professes, and is flattering himself with a christianity that is vain and worthless: that such an one appears to be what he is not: bears the name, and occupies the position of a "religious" man, but is blinded by the grossest self-deception.

Such is the evident meaning of our text. The words, "but deceiveth his own heart," are manifestly not put in opposition to "seemeth to be religious," but, to "bridleth not his tongue," as is clearly apparent from a more literal translation, after this manner: "If any man among you seemeth to be religious, not [5/6] bridling his tongue, but deceiving his own heart, this man's religion is vain:" from which we draw the legitimate conclusion, that an unbridled and ungoverned tongue, is a certain sign and evidence of a man's being only seemingly religious; and is a sure indication that his Christian character is defective and incomplete.

St. James had doubtless witnessed the many and grievous evils which resulted from an unrestrained indulgence of what he calls, "a little member," although a most "unruly" one. These he depicts in a most graphic manner in another part of his epistle: and at the same time warns all, especially christians, whose intercourse should always be characterized by "sound speech that cannot be condemned," against those habits and tendencies which produce them.

And it is painfully manifest that what he complained of and condemned is the prolific source of many, if not most of the evils which afflict society, and interfere with the peaceful relations both of nations and individuals: so that it has with much truth been asserted, "it is the more necessary to bring this subject under the notice of Christian congregations; not only because the evil of an unbridled tongue is of such a magnitude as seriously to affect the happiness of the social state: but because human laws oppose but a feeble and ineffectual barrier to the inroads of this unruly member. These laws," the same writer continues, "may guard us in some degree against the direct and open attacks of perjury or calumny: but human life may be, and is, embittered in a thousand ways, by detraction, by misrepresentation, by ridicule, by whisperings and backbitings, which no definite legal punishment can [6/7] reach. Here then it is, that religion finds ample scope for the exercise of its authority. If the laws of a free state cannot restrain these offences, we must look to the laws of God for protection. Men must be taught, that though they may indulge with impunity in the present life, an unbridled licence of speech, yet the time is coming when 'every idle word that men speak, they must give an account thereof in the day of judgment.'"

The subject then which the text presents for our consideration, is, sins of the tongue: the danger of indulging in them and the duty of resisting and overcoming them, lest our religion prove to be of a vain and hypocritical character.

"No sins perhaps," it has been observed, "are more frequently alluded to: or more severely rebuked in scripture, than those of the tongue: and for this reason, because there are none to which we are so frequently tempted: none we are so prone to commit, or so bold to excuse--none which are so fruitful of disorder and discomfort to society."

They are certainly a direct infringement of the ninth commandment, which forbids our bearing false witness against our neighbor. They conflict, it is true, with most of the commands of the decalogue, but with this more particularly; as they have a more direct bearing upon those sacred relations of life which bind man to man, and hence augment the means of human happiness, which it is the evident design of this law to protect and encourage. And how often do other sins, of apparently greater enormity spring out of this, of evil speaking: which begins perhaps with suspicions faintly breathed into the ear of another, and divulged only upon condition of [7/8] the utmost secrecy; but which when once expressed, emboldens to a repetition of the unfounded charge, which now becomes public property, and is forthwith sifted and discussed with a malicious, yes, fiendish avidity and relish. And thus the rolling story gathers as it goes, each relator adds some new and more startling circumstance, the product of his own fertile imagination, until a comparatively insignificant error has been magnified into a most aggravated and repulsive crime.

And hence it is that the social standing of an individual is jeopardized: he is denied the position he once occupied, and his name becomes the synonyme of ignominy and disgrace. A censorious and fault-finding temper is something quite congenial to our fallen and depraved nature. The evil thoughts and suspicions which brood within the heart, form abundant material for the active employment of all our faculties. They supply the senses with the food they so constantly crave, and excite the passions to an unbridled indulgence--insomuch that the eye, the ear, the hands and tongue become so many outlets through which they are constantly working the destruction of man by bringing him into "captivity to the law of sin which is in his members." The tongue however may well be considered the great disturbing instrument of society. By this a train of circumstances is frequently set in motion, which is charged with issues most fearful to contemplate. This engenders suspicions and jealousies--and these are speedily followed by dislike and ill-will--then come estrangements: then hatred--then revenge: until persecution or murder is the sad result: so that in tracing the history of individuals who have become the victims of slander, we may [8/9] read the fulfilment of the inspired declaration--that "the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire of hell." It is "a little member," but how "great things it boasteth!" It is a "little fire," but how "great a matter it kindleth!" That which was intended to be the glory of our frame, has in reality become our shame! "No man can tame it: it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith" says the Apostle, "bless we God, even the Father: and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing."

We hear much in these days, about the liberty of speech but may we not very properly inquire, whether that liberty has not degenerated into licentiousness? The great danger to apprehend is not that men should talk too little, but that they should talk too much. Where is the community that is not afflicted with the presence of a certain class of individuals, described by St. Paul as "idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also, and busy-bodies, speaking things which they ought not." These are the gossips and news-mongers of society whose meat and drink it is, to pry into the affairs of their neighbors--to watch the movements of others, and observe their conversation. These delight in circulating unfounded rumors--in giving fresh currency to thread-bare stories, and imparting a new and more romantic feature to some circumstance or incident which long since has been dismissed from the public mind as both frivolous and vain. What, I ask, with all seriousness can be more [9/10] despicable, what more ungenerous, than such an occupation as this? What can be more detestable, than the employment of inventing and propagating idle reports that must inevitably affect the moral character and happiness of an individual, perhaps for life, perhaps for all eternity! This is striking at something which most men prize more highly than aught beside--and the loss of which they deprecate more bitterly even than worldly wealth.

"Good name," says the poet, "in man and woman,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse, steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me, my good name,
Robs me of that, which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed."

To be the propagator of a tale which we know to be false, is one of the most degrading acts of which we can be guilty. This must necessarily demean us in our own estimation, as it certainly merits the contempt of our fellow men. "This," says the learned Barrow, "is to become the hucksters of counterfeit wares, or factors in this vile trade. There is no coiner who hath not emissaries and accomplices ready to take from his hand, and put off his money: and such slanderers at second hand are scarcely less guilty than the first authors. He that breweth lies may have more wit and skill, but the broacher showeth the like malice and wickedness. In this there is no great difference between the great devil that frameth slanderous reports, and the little imps that run about and disperse them."

How derogatory is it then to our manhood, thus to indulge in a practice so injurious both to ourselves and to others. [10/11] How directly opposed to the spirit of that religion which enjoins upon us "to speak evil of no man, to be no brawler, but gentle, showing all meekness unto all men." The Word of God repeatedly denounces this and kindred vices. It shows their meanness and puerility, and issues sundry commands and prohibitions against them. They are classed in Holy Scripture among the most heinous sins: and are denounced and condemned in the most express terms. Thus in the book of Exodus we find them expressly alluded to. "Thou shalt not raise a false report, nor join thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness;" and they call down the judgment mentioned in the thirty-first Psalm, "let the lying lips be put to silence, which cruelly, disdainfully, and despitefully speak against the righteous." In another place we read, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale bearer among the people."

It cannot be questioned that the sin which is here forbidden, is utterly at variance with the spirit of that holy religion which proclaims peace and good will to men. This requires that we love our neighbor as ourself--that we "bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them which despitefully use us and persecute us: that we may be the children of our Father which is in Heaven." But where, brethren, is our love, if we are unwilling to do to others, as we would they should do to us? Where is our Christian principle if we refuse to bear the burdens of our weaker brethren, and so "fulfil the law of Christ:" What is our religion worth if it has not led us to cover even a "multitude of sins:" to be "tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven us?"

[12] Hard speeches, uncharitable reflections and fault-finding tempers are by no means, however, confined to the men of the world. They have invaded, we grieve to say, even the Christian Church, and set the members thereof at variance with each other. They have broken up all intercourse between those of the same household of faith, and have rent the seamless robe of Christian love into a thousand fragments. The Church on earth is a type of the Church in Heaven. There no disturbing influences arise to mar the friendship which unceasingly vibrates between heart and heart: and there

"Bright peace, with healing wings outspread,
For evermore shall dwell."

And what should prevent a like state of things in the church militant? Ah! brethren, the old "leaven of malice," has not yet entirely been driven out: the conversation of her members has not been such as becometh godliness: their speech has not alway been "with grace, seasoned with salt, that they may know how they ought to answer every man." There has not been "a sufficient agreement between things and words, without falsehood; and betwixt the tongue and heart without dissimulation." Conduct has been scrutinized with an evil eye, and motives have been weighed with an impartial judgment. Opinions have been rashly formed, and conclusions hastily arrived at. Censures have been passed, and verdicts pronounced upon character and conduct, through one-sided and contradictory statements. The endeavor has been, not to conceal the infirmities and failings of others, but to drag them forth to the light and expose them.

Now this is what St. James denominates, as "seeming to be religious:" this what he likewise pronounces, as a "vain [12/13] religion." To denounce our neighbor either in respect of his social relations, or his religious opinions, with an unbridled tongue, he cites as a sufficient proof that we are lacking in the most essential elements of Christianity. Whoever has studied his own heart, whoever has had discovered to himself by that spirit which "brings to light the hidden things of darkness," his own sins and infirmities: who has felt with distressing consciousness the depth and aggravation of his own depravity, and the sins and temptations which most easily beset him, will be the least disposed to sit in judgment upon his fellow men, or countenance reports which are calculated to blast their reputation and dishonor their name.

Christ our perfect pattern, has left us an "example that we should follow in His steps." What a sublime spectacle does He present, standing alone, on a certain occasion, with the woman in the midst! Mark all the circumstances of that thrilling scene! With a smooth tongue, but a false heart, with much apparent sanctity and yet with a concealed hypocrisy the Pharisees prefer against a transgressor of the law, a most serious charge. They seem to gloat with fiendish delight over the misfortune of the unhappy culprit as they hurry her forth to condemnation. In thus exposing the failings of another they hope to cover up their own iniquities, and likewise obtain a name for superior sanctity and a jealous regard for the honor of the law which had been violated. But that eye which could penetrate those "whited sepulchres," made their charge to recoil upon themselves. Without dishonoring the law of Moses by excusing the crime which it condemned, He bids those who preferred the accusation, to [13/14] look to their own hearts, and examine their own consciences, whether they were not guilty of the like, or as great a sin. He sanctions the justice of the punishment to be visited upon the offendor, and assents to its infliction but upon certain conditions. "He said unto them, he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

The rebuke was severe and pungent. It came home to the hearts of that guilty throng with convincing effect. "When they heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, they went out one by one, beginning at the eldest even unto the last."

How true is it, that we stand too near ourselves to discover our own miscarriages. The eye that sees everything sees not itself, hence it is, we are so ready to detect the mote that is in our brother's eye, while we are unconscious of the beam that obscures and bedims our own vision. The tongue that indulges in acrimonious censure, is least aware of the poison with which it is charged. The heart that harbors evil surmises and suspicions of others is most ignorant of the evils which lurk within itself. And hence the danger of self deception, of flattering ourselves with being pre-eminently religious, when we are giving the lie to our professions by a breach of charity, and a violation of that divine law which enjoins that we "think no evil."

The religion of Christ has not left those who have assumed its exalted obligations in any doubt, respecting the course they are to pursue in their intercourse and communion with others. If we discover anything amiss in our brother, we are to "go and tell him his fault," in a private way, and thus gain him [14/15] back to a proper state of heart and life. We have no right to discuss his lapses and errors with others, and blazon them before the world. The relation he bears to us forbids it: a disciple of the same master, a member of the same body--a partaker of the same hope--holding with ourselves "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." We have before us the Apostolic rule, and would that it were more generally followed: "if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thy self, lest thou also be tempted."

To rejoice in another's misfortune is good evidence that we are ignorant of our own frailty, and have never obtained any adequate view of the corruption that reigns within, and which perhaps is only awaiting a proper occasion for its development. In speaking at any time of our neighbor, let our words be fitly chosen; let not a mistaken zeal betray us into indiscretions of language that may seriously affect our own piety and defeat our purpose in seeking to promote that of others. Let it be our Christian work, to lift up our wounded brother, as he lies by the wayside, deserted and dying; let us pour into his torn and aching heart the wine and oil of consolation, and tenderly care for him until he is healed. Let us feel more deeply the solemn responsibility which is wrapped up in the words we use, the sentiments we utter, and the opinions we express. And sensible of our own weakness and the temptations that may assail us, let us earnestly seek for more prudence, more discretion, and above all, for more charity in the use of the faculty of speech. Let our prayer be that of the Psalmist, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, keep the door of my lips."

[16] And let us, brethren, ever keep before us the divine example of Him, "who did no sin, and no guile was found in His mouth." Thus shall we be able to "give to every man that asketh us a reason of the hope that is in us with meekness and fear." Thus shall we prove the honesty and truth of our religion, that we not only seem to be, but are what we profess, "an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in spirit, in faith, in purity;" maintaining at all times a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men; exhibiting in all our intercourse, "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely and whatsover things are of good report." Amen.


Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth, through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Collect for the First Sunday after Easter.

Project Canterbury