Sermon Preached before the General Convention, September 11, 1795.
By the Right Reverend Samuel Provoost, Bishop of New York
From Morgan Dix, A History of the Parish of Trinity Church in the City of New York
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1901, Pp. 271-279
The following sermon was preached by Bishop Provoost before the General Convention at Philadelphia, Friday, September 11, 1795. Being of special interest, as completing, we believe, the series of sermons preached before the General Convention, it is here reprinted in full:
"In the eight Chap: of St. Mark's Gospel and the 38th verse are these Words:—
"Whosoever shall be ashamed of me and my Words in this Adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed, when he cometh in the Glory of his Father with the holy Angels.—
"In an Age when Infidelity comes forward with greater boldness than at any former period, and without a blush openly avows its tenets—the choice I have made of these words of our Saviour for my Text—an exhortation to Christians to appear with equal confidence in defense of their holy profession and not to be ashamed of the truly valuable and Heavenly Doctrines of their Lord and Master will not I hope be deemed improper.
"The Superiority of the Christian Institution over the Sublimest System of Heathen Morality clearly evidences the truth of the former; to be convinced of this, we need but oppose to the numerous contradictory systems of human Structure the Sacred Code delivered for our Instruction. To the feeble exhortations of the Heathen panegyrist—the commanding Authority of our Heavenly Master, and lastly to the gloomy apprehension and wild impieties of the desponding pagan—the Humble Joys and Holy confidence of the Expiring Martyr. The pagan Theory, and Gospel Doctrine cannot derive themselves from the same original, if therefore the weakness and inconsistency found in the former, prove it the child of human Error and Imperfection, the exalted nature wonderful connexion, and benevolent tendency of its precepts, evince the latter to be the undoubted offspring of Heaven.
"My design in the following Discourse is in the first place to consider how widely the profession of faith required from the believer of Christianity differs from the simple acknowledgment of its truth. Secondly to point out the reasons why such a profession was enjoined, and in the last place to represent the extreme folly and dangers of being ashamed of the gospel of Christ.
"A Distinction of Doctrines, the one respecting utility as its object, and the other only aiming at the discovery of truth, almost universally prevailed among the sages of antiquity. When these considered themselves as acting in their Legislative Capacity, we find them all except the sect of Epicurus, no longer devided in their Sentiments, but earnest and unanimous in inculcating a set of tenets accommodated to the apprehensions of the people and calculated to enforce obedience to those laws whereon the well being of the Community depended. But when seated on the Philosophical chair, and surrounded by the favoured few they assume a different character and conduct. The diversity inseparable from human enquiries into the nature of God, and future existence of the soul appears in every question of their abstract reasonings upon the mysterious subjects; but even in this case reflecting with themselves, that they were Members of Society as well as votaries of Truth, they studiously involved in clouds and obscurity, those Doctrines, which if publickly professed, they were persuaded would prove prejudicial to mankind; for although they concluded, from the immunity of the Godhead from human passions, that rewards and punishments in a future state of existence could not possibly flow from his arbitrary appointment, yet they clearly saw the beneficial tendency of the popular Doctrine, and the exalted love they bore to their country, prevailed with them to profess and inculcate it, although they were persuaded it was false.
"I might here exclaim, shall the Christian who is fully sensible of the beneficial tendency of the Doctrines of his Master hesitate to profess them when he knows them to be true? but I will not anticipate in my reflections upon this subject.
"The case of Socrates must be allowed an exception to what I have been advancing; he was singular in believing the Doctrines he recommended to the practice of mankind, it was therefore in a peculiar manner his Duty both as a lover of his country, and the friend of man to hazard his life in defence of his opinions, and resolutely to oppose the reigning corruptions of his age and nation.
"Whereas the great Disciple of Plato who maintained the old Separation of Doctrine may notwithstanding the censure of Origen be easily vindicated in a contrary conduct: he also was in danger of persecution on account of the reputed unorthodoxy of his Tenets but he, wisely retreating from the impending storm, left his opinion to the mercy of his accusers and surely he may be justified in doing so, for believing Truth to be disjoined from utility, he was under no obligation to hazard his life in its defense.—
"The discriminating character of Christianity as opposed to the principles of the pagan theorists, consists in an open avowal of those sentiments, which the reason and conscience of the believer declare to be founded in Truth. 'If thou shalt believe in thy heart, and confess with thy mouth that Jesus is the Son of God thou shalt be saved.' The Apostle of Christ believing that the gospel of his Master was the gospel of Truth, could not consistently with his principles retain the old distinction of doctrines. He was under the necessity of instructing the meanest of his converts in the same principles of belief he inculcated to those whose intellectual accomplishments had most separated them from the Vulgar. To a more diffusive species of benevolence, than what animated the labours of the Heathen Sage was superadded the Express commandment of God. He might not be silent for woe was denounced against him if he preached not the gospels. He might not prevaricate for he was Guilty of the Blood of Men if he declared not to them all the counsel of God. If therefore the generous ardour with which the unenlightened Instructors of Mankind persisted in their voluntary Labours notwithstanding the almost full persuasion that the grave was the Termination of every prospect, must ever recommend them to our admiration and esteem, the compleat assurance of a Celestial Crown proposed as the reward of his Obedience, shall surely vindicate from all charge of enthusiasm the faithful servant of Christ, even when he seals his Testimony with his blood.
"The reasons why so extraordinary a perseverance was primarily enjoined yet remain to be enquired into—they are founded in the peculiar nature of the Doctrines themselves.
"The Character of Adulterous (another Term for Idolatrous in Scripture Phraseology) with which our Saviour stigmatizes the generation he lived in clearly points out from what quarter the most furious persecution of the gospel might be expected to arise. As a preacher of the Moral Law, he had nothing more to apprehend than what exemplary characters have always experienced in every age the aversion of those who hate to be reformed—but as he was necessitated in order to the full accomplishment of his Design, to combat the religious prejudices as well as the vices of men, it was not from the wicked only he had to expect molestation. Sensible how strongly inveterate errors maintained their hold upon the human mind, he foresaw that his infant religion would behold with an equal degree of apprehension the patriotic Virtues of a Trojan, and the profligate principles of a merciless Nero. He therefore prepared his disciples to expect the fiercest opposition from the prince of this world while they were laying the foundations of a structure that was to rise on the Ruins of every preceding Establishment.
"Had not Christianity by means of what Pliny calls the inflexible obstinacy of its professors given early proofs of its unsociable Temper, it would perhaps have been eagerly embraced as a new mode of superstition by the credulous Vulgar, but as it was impossible any communion should subsist between Christ and Belial, the rearing of the celestial Standard of Truth, was also the signal for the powers of Darkness to assemble in order to maintain the possession of a world that they esteemed by right of prescription their own. In this case if the soldier of Christ dismayed at the formidable onset, had deserted the plains, and retired to the strongholds of a merely mental confession, success would have emboldened the army of aliens, until the fortress of faith, deprived of all means of succour from without, and betrayed by the fears of the garrison within, must at length have surrendered to the fury of the Besiegers.
"The Doctrines which the Disciples of our Saviour were commissioned to teach all nations were the Unity of the Supreme Cause of all things and the Redemption of Man; Let us consider what effect a conduct contrary to that of the primitive Christians must have had upon the propagation of these important articles of our faith.
"Whatever may be the nature of the worship paid by the highest order of creatures to the universal creator, the worship of men in this state of imperfection must always be partly external. Religious as well as Civil Bodies require some Rules and Regulations, the welfare of Society and indeed the very frame of our nature demands the use of some external forms as means of begetting and maintaining a Spirit of Devotion in our hearts. The generality of mankind too Lazy to enquire into the real motives of action, have always shewed a disposition to consider compliance with these as an unerring criterion of the inward persuasion of the mind. Now, as it was professedly the aim of the Christian not only to save himself, but those who heard him, Dissimulation would as effectually defeat his purpose as real apostacy, for, however strongly his own heart might be established in the fulness of faith, yet the pagan must necessarily have interpreted his compliance with the Rites of Heathen superstition as a formal renunciation of Allegiance to his Sovereign and of course have rejected both his credentials and Doctrine. Although, therefore, the Disciple of Christ was justified in asserting that the Almighty dwelleth not in Temples made of hands, and that he who acceptably worships him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth, yet this silent adoration would have little availed towards establishing his Temple in the Hearts of Men, while by eating of meats offered unto Idols and swearing by the Emperor's Genius he in a louder language Disclaimed his Authority and denied his existence.
"The same methods of reasoning may be employed to shew how fatally dissimulation must have obstructed the advancement of a Doctrine which at the same time it inculcates the all sufficiency of the one oblation once offered for the Sins of the whole world declares an absolute inefficacy, and forbids the continuation of any other Rite of Atonement.
"But moreover the sacrifices in which the pagans acknowledged the existence and power of their gods were federal acts of the same nature as the rite instituted by our Saviour in commemoration of his Death, and the Baptismal engagements of the Christian. The obligation in both cases to security was the same, as a distinction between the secret intention of the heart and the evident meaning of the outward form, cannot obtain in a federal act of any kind without an entire disposition of those Bonds by which human Societies are connected. And, therefore, the primitive founders of our faith, had they so far complied with the Rites of Heathen Superstition, as to offer sacrifices on the altars of the Pagans, could not have vindicated their insincerity in those compacts, although their Dissimulation had in the end proved successful. For professing to believe that the same almighty power, which in these latter ages hath spoken to mankind by his Son, before the Christian dispensation spoke to man by the voice of natural reason, must have convinced them that the language of the God of Truth, must be always consistent with itself; and that therefore it was impossible he should permit his gospel to be extended by means of a violation of a duty which the law of Reason declared inviolable.
"A very little experience in the ways of men is sufficient to convince us how much superior is the influence of example in directing the will to the force of the clearest deductions of Reason. And this very frequently in points where the obligations to a duty are obvious to the meanest capacity. In matters even of mere speculation reason rules not alone, but instead of presiding in concerns of Religion the evidences of which should always be submitted to her sole arbitration, she seems scarcely to have been admitted as an advocate in the courts of pagan Theology. Although, therefore, the arguments in favour of Christianity when once become the prevailing religion in a country must clearly evidence its truth to every candid enquirer; yet there is little ground to imagine its reasonableness alone, would have ensured its advancement in an age, abandoned to the grossest superstition.
"But it may be argued, would not the wonder working powers the Apostles were endued with, have carried irresistible conviction to the heart of every unbeliever? to which it may be answered, that this method proved in a great measure ineffectual towards converting the
unbelieving Jews, to whom such a testimony was peculiarly well adapted. In the second place, it is not so clear that the Apostles were enabled to exert this power upon every occasion. However, it is certain few miracles are recorded to have been performed upon the two great Theatres of Arts and learning. Unless, therefore, some other means had been employed for the conversion, these seats of Literature, notwithstanding their boast of a superior share of intellectual light, must together with a great part of the Gentile world forever have set in darkness and the shadow of Death.
"Indeed, the enemies of Revelation have asserted that miracles were really attempted to have been performed there as well as at Jerusalem, but denying that any real miracles were performed at all, have accounted for the deception in the one case, and the supposed detection in the other. From the known credulity of the Jews, and the scrupulous temper of the Heathen whose minds were strengthened and improved by silence, to this we may apply what really seems to have been the case. That the Heathen might he guilty of the weakest credulity in believing the fact, but yet incredulous enough with regard to its author, and therefore the miracle itself might perhaps have been universally acknowledged, but abus'd as they had been by the Delusions of their priests and perhaps by the real illusions of Satan, there might be some Difficulty in persuading them that it proceeded from the father of Lights. But allowing that the pagans might be persuaded these miraculous facts proceeded from the agency of a benevolent power, yet it does not appear probable men in that age would immediately draw the same conclusion that we do in favor of the Doctrine these facts were intended to establish. Most if not all reasonings are plainly the result of associations introduced by education and custom, and confirmed by inveterate Habit. As the associated circumstances differ, the assent or dissent of the mind to the same propositions (even to those which have often been esteemed strictly demonstrative) is varied accordingly; and hence we frequently observe a mode of reasoning universally prevail in one age and country, which may be held ridiculous or rejected in another.
"Since the Institution of Christianity its defenders have so strongly and frequently insisted upon the pretensions of a Doctrine to credibility when confirmed by the apparent exertion of Supernatural powers, that such a train of reasoning is in a Christian country, in a manner become natural to the Human mind. Nay, so strong is the association that when no doctrine is proposed to be established, or visible purpose intended by the miracle, the highest degrees of evidence are thought insufficient to establish the fact. Whether or not this inference be strictly logical I shall not here attempt to determine, it is sufficient to my purpose, that the modern mode of reasoning did not prevail among men when the gospel was promulged, and that a contrary mode must necessarily obstruct the rapidity of the progress of such an Institution. The highest aim of the Heathen imposter was to raise astonishment in the minds of the Vulgar, in order the more easily to accomplish the purposes which Interest or Ambition has suggested. And the people thus deluded, were for ages accustomed to consider supernatural appearances, either as merely portentous, or at least as declarative of nothing farther than the exalted character of the person in whose favor they appeared to have been exerted.
"Miracles as yet had never been considered as instrumental in Demonstrating the Divine Authority of a system of moral Duties, much less were they accustomed to trace the footsteps of a benevolent or malevolent power in the Doctrines these miracles were intended to enforce. It was therefore natural to expect that this method of argumentation would have little or no influence upon minds so far from being prepared to receive such an evidence that they were prejudiced by associations almost invincible in opinions, which must in a remarkable manner incline them to overlook and reject it.
"The behaviour of the Lycaonians to St. Paul and St. Barnabas, seems to confirm the justness of the observation. When the limbs of him who had a long time been lame were in an instant restored to soundness and strength, the astonished spectators exclaimed that they were gods come down in the likeness of men. But when St. Paul's own attestation, and the evidence of the Jews had persuaded them, that the apostles were men of the like passions with themselves, we find that the multitude attended to nothing but their disappointment, until at length their fury prevailed over their late conviction, and that astonishing strength of argument with which the apostle recommended and enforced his Doctrine.
"From reflecting on some circumstances in their former behaviour, we might be led to imagine that the ambassadors of Christ, thus finding their offers of reconciliation rejected would immediately have had recourse to open violence; and have thought it high time to call in to their assistance those legions of angels, which their master had informed them were attendants of his power. But this the Spirit of their Religion and the example of their Saviour forbade, Christianity had therefore nothing to rely on, but the zeal of its professors in propagating their Doctrine by the milder arts of persuasion, and the inflexible firmness with which they persevered in its defense. When every other method had failed the sufferings of the Martyrs at length roused the attention of the slumbering World, and men became disposed from a motive of mere curiosity to enquire from what principles so extraordinary a fortitude was derived. The refusal of the followers of Christ to join in unavailing offerings for sin, seemed less to deserve the name of obstinacy, when it appeared not to proceed from national prejudice, but from the full conviction that the grand atonement was already made for the sins of mankind. When advancing still farther in their enquiries, the Heathen perceived, that the course of the Christian was supported in the midst of his agonizing torments, by the full assurance of a happy immortality, they could not but confess that conduct was no other than might be expected from men influenced by so animating a prospect. The reasons of this hope became the last subject of their enquiry. And now that the charge of enthusiasm, could not much longer be maintained by the adversaries of the gospel, Truth broke forth from the cloud and men became persuaded it was their interest to be obedient to the Heavenly vision.
"I have been so very diffuse upon the two former heads of my Discourse that I must leave it in a great measure to the consciences of my audience to make the application. It may not however be amiss to observe that the threatenings denounced in the Text are not confined to the times of persecution, but are justly applicable to every age of a sinful and adulterous generation. The difficulties with which Christianity has to struggle now it is nominally professed, are perhaps no less formidable than those which it encountered when opposed by the secular power; insomuch that it requires as great a share of resolution to live a Christian as it did in former times to die a martyr.
"What remains of this Discourse more particularly claims the attention of you my Revered Bretheren of the clergy.
"The real labourer in the Vineyard of the Lord laments that his toils are rendered fruitless through the obstinacy, immorality, nay open prophaness of those of the same profession with himself. And our weaker Bretheren complain of the scorn and contempt with which those are treated who avow their principles and dare to appear in earnest in their Duty. Strange indeed that the empty scoffs of the unlettered Libertine should avail more than the applauses of the Learned and wise; yet stranger still that men whose minds and understandings have been enlarged and adorned by science should ever blush to own themselves ministers of a dispensation which even the Angels of Heaven desire to look into.
"To the consideration of the timid and half-professing Brother I would urge the terrors of the Lord, if I knew how to describe them in stronger terms than they are already expressed in the Text.
"To those whose guilt is of a deeper dye I am persuaded that such arguments must ever prove ineffectual as some virtue is required to be duly sensible of the punishments that await its base Betrayers. In this case it may be expedient to answer the Fool according to his Folly. Let such therefore reflect that the world though leagued with Infernal powers in opposition to the Cause of Christ in this eminent opposition seems to combat in its cause. The monstrous inconsistencies of their conduct with the sacred character they bear, strikes even the souls of riot with astonishment, who when lost to every other sense of goodness, are yet frequently observed to treat with becoming scorn a minister of the gospel who turns either a Reprobate or an Apostate."
NOTE.—The original of this sermon was loaned by General James Grant Wilson to a clergyman. On the death of that clergyman, a copy of the sermon was found among his papers, but the original had disappeared. It is from the copy, therefore, that the sermon has been printed as above. This will account for the obscurity of one or two of the sentences. Possibly, also, we have not the end of the sermon, as in all the original MS. sermons of Dr. Provoost, the final ascription is invariably written out or indicated.