The Providence of God Displayed in the Rise
Delivered at the
Trinity Church, New-Haven,
on Wednesday the 7th of May, 1828.
By NATHANIEL S. WHEATON,
RECTOR OF CHRIST CHURCH, HARTFORD
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
At a General Assembly of the State of Connecticut, holden at New-Haven, in said State, on the first Wednesday of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty-eight.
RESOLVED, That the Hon. Nathan Johnson, of the Senate, and Jeremy Hoadley, Esq. of the House of Representatives be a Committee to wait upon the Rev. Mr. WHEATON, and to present to him the thanks of both Houses of the Legislature, for the Sermon he this day delivered before them, and request a copy thereof for the press.
A true Copy of Record,
Thomas Day, Secretary
JEREMIAH, xviii. 7-10.
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it: if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil I thought to do unto them.
And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it: if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.
THERE is not a more common errour, than that of assigning to immediate and secondary causes, those fluctuations which are observed to take place in the affairs of the world. With our limited faculties, it is given us to see but a small part of the complicated relations, which events bear to each other; and when we have discovered a cause which appears satisfactorily to account for a succeeding effect, we assume at once the air of philosophers, and fancy we have penetrated to the bottom of the difficulty, when in fact we have only removed it one stage farther off.
The causes, to which the present imbecility of Old Spain has been popularly attributed, afford an [5/6] illustration of our meaning. The historians, who have narrowly looked upon her downfall, ascribe it to the influx of gold from the mines of the newly discovered continent. This, however, is only going back a single step, to discover the cause of the catastrophe. It is merely saying, that the nation was enervated and demoralized, by the riches which were poured into it by the galleons of Mexico; of which, the prostration of her national enterprize was the unavoidable consequence. A christian philosopher might still ask, why was her ruin permitted at all? Where was the moral fitness of passing a sentence upon her, by which she is held up to the pity or the derision of the world! The investigation of this belongs as much to the searcher into the providence of God, as to the statesman; and perhaps equally eludes the research of both. It might have been a divine retribution for the relentless bigotry, which for ages had sprinkled the fires of the inquisition with the blood of martyrs. Perhaps it was a requital for the intolerable cruelties, of which Holland had been the theatre, during a seventy years' war on the religion and liberties of that suffering country. Or, to hazard another conjecture, God was making bare his arm to avenge the barbarities inflicted on the victims of Spanish avarice in the new world. At all events, the measure of her iniquities was full—the hour of her decline drew nigh; and the treasures, on which she was permitted to seize with such delighted anticipations, became, in the hands of an overruling providence, the immediate cause of her ruin.
Instead of stopping then at those causes, which stand so nearly related to the event that they cannot [6/7] well be mistaken; the christian philosopher is tempted to carry his researches among those which lie more remote, and to connect them with that providence, which leaves nothing to the disposal of chance. Should the investigation lead him into much that is mysterious, he will also find, much that is intelligible—much to invite the attention of those, who are studying to advance a nation's welfare, or to avert the evil day of its decline.
I. Let it be observed then, in the first place, that nations are usually permitted to enjoy their liberties no longer, than while there remains a large portion of moral worth and intelligence, in the mass of the population. History reads us an instructive lesson on this point. It was not, till Spartan moderation and Athenian virtue had disappeared before the tide of corruption, that Greece crouched beneath the sceptre of Philip of Macedon—While Rome retained the sterling virtues which formed the pillar of her greatness, she reigned mistress of the world: but, enervated by luxury and vice, she became successively the meed of the most fortunate usurper: and at length, fell an almost unresisting prey to the roaming hordes of the Danube, whom she would have despised in the day of her power.—Among the modern nations of Europe, which have sunk into political insignificance, the truth of our position receives a striking confirmation; they have ceased to be virtuous before their fall was decreed. It may however be thought, that one empire of continental Europe exhibits an exception to our remark, that national prosperity does not long survive the extinction of religious principle—that France presents to us, at this [7/8] moment, a portentous union of national power with general atheism, infidelity, and moral degradation. But it is worthy of consideration, whether those violent outbreakings of force, of which Europe has felt the tremendous effects during the last forty years, are a just criterion of the moral and intellectual force of the empire—whether they did not less resemble the easy exertions of a vigorous and healthy constitution, than the convulsive struggles of insanity. The first paroxysms of the French revolution were self-destructive; but were soon turned against the neighboring states which refused to follow France in her political regeneration. At length, however, a keeper was found, who had the address to manage those frenzied spirits, and to employ their ferocity in cementing the fabric of his own power. Scarcely forty years have elapsed, since France undertook the bold experiment of building up an empire on the ruins of religion; and the success of the trial yet remains to be seen. During this period, the nation has been oppressed by every species of misrule, from the anarchy of a Jacobin Assembly, down to the perfect military despotism of one: change followed change, with a rapidity which astonished all Europe; and it requires a faith of no common properties to believe that she has yet passed through her last.
That the principles of English liberty are still upheld, is to be attributed to the spirit of enlightened piety and moral worth, which pervades the body of the English people. For we cannot compliment the sagacity of him, who judges of the morals of the aristocracy, by the debauchery of a few in elevated life; and measures the virtue of the nation at large, [8/9] by the number of convictions in the court of King's Bench. There is a vast and increasing amount of uncorrupted religion in the English nation; nor will the hour of its decline arrive, until its thousand institutions for the alleviation of human wretchedness, and the dissemination of christian light, have been extinguished; its halls of science deserted, and its altars and temples of religion overthrown.
It appears then, from this hasty review, that the general doctrine of the text is confirmed by experience. The good which Providence designs to bestow upon a nation may be prevented by its own wickedness; and the evil prepared for it may be averted by a timely repentance. If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them. If that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil I thought to do unto them.
II. Our second proposition is, that the subversion of religion in a state is not only the sign of its approaching downfall, but the very instrument under Providence, of hastening the catastrophe; while its prosperity is ensured by the prevalence of religious virtue and intelligence among the people.
The doctrine of an over-ruling Providence is often erroneously supposed to imply an agency working without means, and attaining its purpose by arbitrary and unnatural exertions of power. It does indeed sometimes happen that God proceeds by methods too obviously judicial to allow of their being mistaken. [9/10] The maxim, that he first infatuates those whom he designs to destroy—applies to nations as well as to individual men. By a secret but irresistible power, he smites their refined policy with a curse, and turns their counsels into foolishness; being resolved that all the kingdoms of the world shall fall down before him, either in his adoration or in their own confusion.
But his more usual method of dispensing judgment among the nations would seem to be, by such a disposition of natural causes, as shall produce the desired results. Does he design to render a people flourishing and happy! The object is attained, not by subverting the order of nature, but by rendering their virtues conducive to their own advancement, according to an immutable law of his providence. And, on the other hand, is it his purpose to make bare his arm for the overthrow of a people the measure of whose iniquities is full? To accomplish this, he need not summon to his aid the famine and the pestilence, those direful ministers of his wrath. He has only to withdraw the aids of his Holy Spirit, to allow the people to cast off the restraints of religion, to abandon them to the natural consequences of their own depravity, and their ruin is sealed. For there is that in the counsels of unprincipled men, which sooner or later leads to confusion and defeat. The wicked is snared in the work of his own hands: in the net which they hid, is their own foot taken.
The reason of this is apparent, when we consider the absolute dependance of social order on religion for its support. It is necessary to the well-being of [10/11] a state, that the laws should be reverenced and obeyed: but all experience has shown, that temporal penalties are insufficient for this purpose—that unless obedience is yielded for conscience sake, society will exhibit little else than a perpetual struggle between the rulers and the ruled. The ascendency of law can be maintained in such a world as ours, only by the hope of reward or the fear of punishment: but it is evident that mere temporal sanctions are feeble, compared with those which are drawn from the considerations of a future state, in which every man will be rewarded according to his works. Of what avail is the solemnity of an oath, without a belief in a judgment to come? Remove the sanctions of religion, and civil government could not stand for a moment before the impulse of corrupt nature. It is religion alone which binds law on the conscience. Under its peculiar influence, man feels that he must give account to God, even when most secure of escaping the eye and the sword of human justice. We are no advocates for a political alliance between religion and the state; but let it never be supposed, that the magistrate can rule or the laws be obeyed, without the support of religion. The church needs not the protection of the state; but the state has great need of support from the church. The ministers of the gospel can do more to uphold the system of social order, and cause the laws to be reverenced, than the ministers of justice can do to uphold the gospel. Wherever this exercises a commanding influence in society, there stability is given to the civil institutions, and submission is yielded to every ordinance of man, for the Lord's sake. But when the [11/12] mass of the population becomes corrupted—when the fear of God is lost in a general profligacy of manners; and the doctrines of eternal judgment and a future recompense come to be treated as chimeras; it needs no prophetic spirit to pronounce that the end of such a people draweth nigh. The ingredients of anarchy are immediately thrown into active fermentation; and sooner or later explosion becomes inevitable.
Hence, it appears, that when God is about to judge a people for casting off his laws, he has only to leave them to themselves. The poison is already at work, which portends dissolution: the sin of national infidelity, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
This, then, is the constituted order of providence. A general corruption of morals is not only a sign that national ruin is at hand; but becomes, by an immutable law, the means of hastening it, in the natural order of cause and effect.
On the other hand, when God speaks concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; he accomplishes his purpose, by rendering the piety and the virtue of the people conducive to their own elevation. He resorts to no extraordinary means; for the intelligence, and sobriety, and rectitude, which wait upon the footsteps of religion, cannot fail, under the ordinary blessings of Providence, to build up and perpetuate a nation's welfare.
III.  The last consideration to which we shall advert, is the absolute necessity of popular intelligence and virtue, to give stability to free political institutions like our own.
In those countries where the subject has little to do with the laws except to obey them, the safety of the government is not so immediately and fatally endangered by a general profligacy of manners. Vice may for a while be repressed by the strong arm of power; the fountains of justice may remain unpolluted; and there is, to say the least, a hope, that the nation may be recalled from the errour of its ways. But it is otherwise in a republic, where it is left to the people to decide whether they will be restrained or not.
Here the evils of popular atheism and licentiousness are counteracted by no redeeming power—the springs of social order are poisoned at their source—the taint circulates through every limb and artery of the State, portending convulsions and death. The religion and virtue of a people once lost, they are fit only for the rule of arbitrary power. You may watch the holy ark of your constitution as jealously as you please, and sound an alarm on the least appearance of danger; still, it is hardly worth preserving, when the people have ceased to be worthy of liberty, and no longer know how to use it.
The dangers to be apprehended from popular degeneracy are multiplied in proportion as the right of suffrage descends to the lower grades of society. Whether there is a seeming anomaly in admitting [13/14] the lowest subjects of a foreign state, just landed on our shores, with no possible interest in our welfare, or knowledge of our institutions; or the worthless dregs of our own population, to an equal share in the disposal of life and property, with the most intelligent and virtuous, and responsible of our citizens; this is neither the time nor the place to enquire. Whether good or evil, the principle has already been wrought into the texture of our political institutions, and the day has forever gone by for separating it. This power, placed in such and so many hands, is a formidable one. There is nothing so high as to be beyond its reach; nothing strong enough to withstand it; nothing sacred enough to be secure from violation in times of high political excitement. To render its exercise harmless, it is necessary that there should be the smallest possible amount of ignorance and vice in those to whom it has been committed. They must be qualified for the trust, by the possession of intelligence, and firmness, and integrity. They must know how to detect the wily arts of political demagogues; who, under the pretence of patriotism and a kindly interest in their welfare, are only desirous of rendering them the convenient tools of their own political advancement.
History is full of examples to show that freedom cannot long survive, amidst general ignorance and relaxation of morals. The people of England once took the reins of government into their own hands; but the event proved their want of ability to guide them: and after an unsuccessful trial, they surrendered them, almost without a stipulation in favor of [14/15] liberty, to the son of the monarch they had dethroned and beheaded. France, too, in a moment of political delirium, became enamoured of the charms of a republic; but after a ten year's experiment, rendered unavailing by general licentiousness and insubordination, she beheld all the glories of her political regeneration depart like a dream, and quietly submitted to a tyranny, as despotic as ever rivetted the chains of an Eastern slave. The voice of history is therefore a voice of warning; and it becomes every American patriot to look deeply into the causes, which have proved fatal to all the republics which have heretofore existed. We are now making the experiment, how long and how successfully a government can continue in operation, which rests solely on the religion and intellectual worth of the people. If it stands, its strength must be derived from this source alone: if it is predestined to an early fall, the catastrophe will probably be occasioned by national degeneracy and relaxation of morals.
Let then the efforts of the ministers of religion be seconded by the wise and good, who are honored with their country’s confidence. The example of those, whom merit or accidental circumstance has placed in the eye of public observation, cannot fail to influence the opinions and the conduct of other men. Like a city set on an hill, they cannot be hid: like beacons lighted up on some lofty promontory, they shine afar by the very position they occupy: they are set, in a word, for the fall or the rising of many, as they cast the weight of their personal influence into the scale of vice or of virtue.
 Let it be remembered, too, that the obligations of truth and justice are as imperative on the conscience, in the hall of legislation, as in the relations of private life. It has often been remarked, that men will act collectively on principles, which, as individuals, they would be the first to condemn; and silence their consciences by the plea of expediency, and the consideration that they did not act alone. This principle is as dangerous as it is immoral; and there is no act of injustice or oppression, which might not be expected from a body of men, entertaining such loose ideas of morality. An upright legislator will be governed by the same laws of integrity in public transactions as in private; and decide in all cases as if he alone were responsible for the consequences. Men may sin in a body, but they must be judged alone.
The Jewish lawgiver was directed to provide out of all the people able men, such as feared God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and to place such to be rulers over them. It is in the hands of such men only, that the public welfare is safe: nor can it be supposed, that God will continue long to watch over a people, who have so little regard for themselves, and so little respect for his laws, as voluntarily to introduce irreligious and unprincipled men into office of trust. Wo to a nation, when her dearest interests are committed to such hands! It will always happen that a few, by intrigue and clamor, by party zeal and loud professions of patriotism, will push themselves into office even under the best ordered state of things; [16/17] but the discovery of their real character will be the signal for casting them out. What has a contemner of God, and of every thing holy, to do with legislating for a christian people! Should it ever happen, that important public trusts shall be confided to men of this stamp, in preference to those of long tried experience and sterling integrity; should the fear of God, and the love of truth, no longer be thought important in the legislator or the magistrate; should offices be sought, and sought successfully, by adopting the prejudices, and flattering the self-love of the lowest of the people, instead of studying to win their confidence by the allurements of intellectual worth and blameless integrity; there will be reason to suspect that the pillars of social order are already beginning to decay. And should the time ever come, when they, to whom we have entrusted the vital concerns of the nation, shall lay aside the proper duties of their office, to cabal and intrigue concerning matters unconnected with their station—when the most important relations of the country shall be decided on, not by a reference to the principles of justice and general utility, but on party considerations and sectional prejudices—when every thing shall be carried by passion and clamour—when statesmen shall forget the decent courtesy of gentlemen in their angry debates; and consume, in coarse denunciations and bitter personalities, the time, which ought to be devoted to temperate, and wise, and anxious deliberations, on those high interests, which a too confiding people have committed to them; and that people shall not only tamely submit to it all, but applaud and support the actors: it will be high time to consider [17/18] whether any remedy for the abuse exists, either in public opinion, or in the nature of our political institutions. It will then begin to appear more problematical than we have hitherto been willing to allow, whether there can be long maintained amongst a people sufficient steadiness and decision for the purposes of self-government.
Nor let us flatter ourselves that a nation once demoralized, degraded, overthrown, can easily be restored to moral soundness. Once slain, it lives no more. We would not affirm its political resurrection to be absolutely impossible; but the example of a state, rising a second time to eminence, and running again the race of power and national prosperity, is nowhere recorded in history. If there is anything in this fact, to chill the warmth of our anticipations in favor of the once flourishing, but now prostrated states of Europe; if it "casts ominous conjecture" over the issue of the chivalrous, but ill-concerted struggles of modern Greece; if it tempts us to ask doubtingly, whether Italy, or peninsular Europe, is ever to cast off the bonds of ignorance and corruption, and stand forth again in the dignity of freedom; it also brings a solemn admonition to us, not to be high-minded, but fear. The causes which decide a nation's destiny have been shown to be the religion or the impiety of its population; and it yet remains to be seen, whether we will continue to invoke the Divine protection, by acknowledging God in all our ways; or forget in the pride of our hearts that there verily is a God that judgeth the earth.