PREACHED IN GRACE CHURCH,
ON SUNDAY MORNING, APRIL 30th, 1854,
THE DAY AFTER THE
DESTRUCTION OF ST. PAUL'S CHURCH BY FIRE.
WILLIAM E. WYATT,
RECTOR OF ST. PAUL'S PARISH.
Published by Request of the Congregation.
ACTS xxviii., iv.
"When the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang upon his hand, they said among themselves,
no doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea,
yet vengeance suffereth not to live."
AMIDST all that the adorable perfections of God have plainly done for man upon the earth, the hasty observer can sometimes find only incongruities and mysteries; the impatient spirit, little more than a predominance of evil. All the bounties of nature may have been long dispensed with a liberal hand,—healthful climate, copious fountains and streams, abundant harvests, just remuneration for the labor of the artist and mechanic, public security and peace, and the enjoyment of these,—may be so rarely suspended or impaired, that their possessors look upon them at length, as inalienable privileges, belonging necessarily to our earthly condition and destiny; and not as proceeding, day by day, and hour after hour, from special acts and decrees of a gracious but sovereign Providence. But when this sovereign Providence super-adds to these prevailing characteristics of a community, dispensations to individuals of a less welcome, though [3/4] equally wholesome nature; when sickness enters the cottage of a peasant who had for years known only the voice of gladness; when labour becomes painful to one in the decline of his days, and disappointment blasts the schemes of some bold speculator, and poverty is the bitter fruit of sloth and excess; and death—the original, never remitted penalty of transgression—death withdraws from the happy fire-side, one of the long endeared circle; then the feelings of such individuals or families take their tone from the single occurrence. The salubrious climate, and the fountains and harvests, and public prosperity, are all overlooked. The years of quiet enjoyment are forgotten. And the repining, impatient heart breathes out its unbelieving, rebellious judgments of God and His Providence, as if naught but sorrows and disasters were ever to be met with in the world.
Now it is not to be denied that pain, toil, sadness and death are abroad among our fellow men; that each of us is liable to be visited by them, and that few can long escape the corrosion of one or more. And for many reasons, we should study to take just views of what may at any moment prove to be our own destiny. The severity of the trial, the degree of its power to afflict us, as well as of its salutary influence, must depend in a great measure, upon proper views of its origin and design. Thus justice to ourselves demands examination of the subject. Justice to the sovereign and wise Dispenser of the appointment, demands that we should give prominence in our minds, not only to the single sorrow, or to the few and recent circumstances of our disquietude, [4/5] but to the bounties and endowments, bodily and mental, to the deliverances, and successes, and quiet pleasures, which from the very cradle have accompanied us in so close succession, that it would be madness to attempt to enumerate them. How easy is it at once to exhibit all the trials and disappointments of him who considers himself the most unfortunate man in society! How impossible for that same impatient and repining being to approach a summary of the acts and manifestations of divine love! But there is another motive for endeavouring to form just views of the nature and design of God's afflictive dispensations; and that is, justice to our fellow men. With a perverse and criminal sort of inconsistency, at the same moment that some men are charging their Maker with injustice, or cruelty, or indifference, if not ignorance of what is passing in the world, because He allows disasters sometimes to befal us,—they are availing themselves of those very disasters as evidence of guilt in the sufferer. They dispute the Providence of God, because He has not banished pain and sadness from the earth; but they look at that very pain and sadness as the penalty which supposed unworthiness at least, in the sufferer, has called down from the incensed justice of Heaven. It is to the illustration of this single point, that I shall confine a few familiar observations today, "a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, as the morning spread upon the mountains." And an incident in the history of the Apostle to the Gentiles, furnishes for them an appropriate basis.
 After a tempestuous voyage, ending in shipwreck, in which the lives of nearly three hundred persons were in long and imminent peril, Paul, a prisoner, was cast with his company, at the welcome dawn of day, upon the island now known as Malta. The barbarous people received the exhausted and famished voyagers with zealous hospitality; and forthwith kindled a fire, and strove to shelter them, notwithstanding their numbers, from the rain and cold. And when Paul, aiding in the work of mercy, had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them upon the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened upon his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous reptile hang upon his hand, they said among themselves, no doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, divine vengeance suffereth not to live. The undismayed Apostle, remembering no doubt the promise, that the followers of Christ, in their work of evangelizing the world, should tread unhurt upon scorpions and serpents, shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. The incredulous multitude looked, expecting that he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly. But after they had continued to gaze at him a long time, and saw no harm come to him, knowing the deadly power of the reptile, they changed their minds, and said that he must be a god.
Now it is just in this manner, that many still estimate the dealings of the Almighty with his creatures. They judge that the unfortunate are undeserving, the afflicted are guilty, and only the prosperous are the favourites of Heaven. Silent, patient contemplation of the mysterious [6/7] workings of Providence; unenquiring and reverential trust in the wisdom and power of His measures to bring real and lasting good out of seeming evil; these are not among their conceptions of duty. They suspend not their judgment of inexplicable matters taking place in the world, until the mighty volume of nature and providence, gradually unfolded through months, and years, and centuries, shall have developed its commentary upon the past. But every thing in the moral as in the natural world, is brought to the standard of their own dim vision; and at once pronounced upon, according to its apparent tendency to produce their immediate profit or disappointment. When the vicissitudes of life, the painful allotments which belong in some form and period to every class and individual upon the earth, befall themselves, they rebel as if they had been hardly dealt with. They first reason blindly and presumptuously on the subject of an overruling Providence; they speedily persuade themselves, that judging from what they can comprehend of events taking place among men, the doctrine of a Providence is at least an obscure and doubtful one; and then they forthwith act as if the whole had been refuted. Or if the influence of early religious education should guard them from so dangerous a downfall into skepticism, adversities cast them into despondency. They look upon the prosperous and happy incidents in the condition of their neighbors, as evidence of an arbitrary system of favoritism; and every failure in their own schemes and transactions; every death of a friend; every fit of illness, which perhaps their own voluptuousness and imprudence [7/8] may have occasioned, seems to afford a justification of the gloomy idea that God frowns upon their condition, and that their present trials are sure omens of the destiny awaiting them through life.
This morbid spirit is in itself a calamity more to be depricated than many which come from the Divine hand. For under its influence it is difficult to inspire the most besotted sensualist with a sense of danger and guilt. So long as his success and enjoyment continue, he secretly persuades himself that his life and principles cannot be very sternly condemned by the Almighty. Such, too, is his estimate of others. Popular favour is his sure index of merit, intellectual and moral. The prosperous he looks upon with a servile admiration. Their faults he extenuates at the expense of his reverence for the Gospel of Christ; and their example is allowed to sanction and dignify indulgences which may seduce the young and unreflecting into ruin. Those, on the other hand, who are not distinguished by outward prosperity, become the subjects of his most austere judgment. Where no crime can be discovered, it is presumed secretly to exist. Plans that have been frustrated are supposed to have originated in imprudence, or to have been conducted with imbecility. And the burden of sanctifying trial, which the wise Providence of God had ordained, is rendered, like the calamities of Job, more insupportable, when the sufferer receives distrust and censure instead of sympathy, from the voice of his fellow men. It is an error equally dangerous to suppose that prosperity however brilliant, however wonderfully reached, [8/9] is a certain evidence of the approbation of the Almighty, and that disasters and suffering denote His angry judgments. It is no doubt the established common tendency of some principles and habits to result in a state of things favorable to wealth and true enjoyment; while on the other hand, opposite habits generally terminate in sorrow, want, and shame. "Godliness," the Apostle writes, "is profitable to all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." The experience of the world at large confirms these positions; and the truth and agency of the Almighty are pledged ordinarily to bring about such results; and we may well suppose that if the present were not a merely probationary state; if there were not before us another stage of being which may correct and compensate the anomalies of the past; if our Maker had not at His disposal, equitable retributions—honors, pleasures, faculties, which shall infinitely surpass all our privations here; He would ordain uniformly, and in a perfect degree, the prosperity, which now only in a majority of cases, and in a qualified degree, is the accompaniment of His favour. But according to the world's criterion of worth, Abel, the victim of his brother's jealousy and wrath, was also under a frowning dispensation of Heaven. Job, then, must have been justly subject to the cruel and reproachful imputations of his friends. Joseph, at the moment that he was being sold into Egypt, must be supposed more guilty than callous brethren. The prophets, the martyrs of every age, must have been more deeply stained by passions which affliction is employed to eradicate, than the pagans [9/10] and idolaters to whom they preached. And also, the sometimes profligate owners of hereditary distinction and wealth; the warriors who have opened, with their exterminating swords, a path to military renown, perhaps to a throne; the midnight incendiary, or highway plunderer, who secures a long enjoyment of his spoil, by stifling the testimony of witnesses in their blood; all these must, upon the same principle be deemed the favoured of God. But our knowledge of the Resurrection, the certainty which the Gospel affords of an approaching state of strict and perfect equity in its retributions, solves the whole problem of Providence, and enables the christian to derive from events, which would otherwise perplex and dishearten him, the materials for his most lively and holy anticipations.
The purposes of the Most High, in visiting communities and individuals, with affliction under various forms, are exactly opposite to what is understood by them in the world. The believer has made a solemn and unreserved surrender of himself to God through Christ. In his outward condition, he has all that the combined love and wisdom of his Maker deem best for him. Within, he has the immensity of Jehovah in his adorable perfections, to fill all the powers and wants of his soul. And before him, stretching out into the everlasting future, he has pledged and secured to him a bliss "which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man" to conceive. In such a state to leave the ordering and modifying of minor matters in God's hand, cannot be a very difficult virtue. [10/11] He knows that the Captain of His salvation was himself made perfect through suffering. Contumely, want, persecution, abandonment of friends, calumny, ingratitude, never ceased to accompany the Redeemer in his whole path to Calvary. And the believer refusing not to follow his Master's footsteps, in his covenant with Him, only stipulates for grace to render adversity the nourishment of a heavenly mind, the training for immortality. A gracious, sanctifying process is always going on. At the moment that the Apostle, standing with the venomous reptile fastened upon his hand, was the object of the cruel judgments of the rash crowd about him, he was not only protected and sustained by the unseen ministry of angels, and the might of the God of nature, but by that very incident, to which he submitted in the triumphs of a holy faith, he was qualified to accomplish among that barbarous people the end of his sacred mission. For this purpose he was to be brought out of the promiscuous crowd, and before the natives of the island, was to receive an attestation from Heaven. In a form which their unsophisticated minds would recognize as the hand of God, he was to be proclaimed an ambassador to their souls. And this was most effectually done, by his being seen unharmed by the fangs of the loathsome reptile. And so it proved. For in the next verse it is related that after this signal deliverance, the chief man of the island, whose possessions were in that quarter, received and lodged Paul and his companions courteously several days. And when their faith in his gospel had enabled the Apostle to heal the diseases of many in [11/12] the island, at his departure he was laden with such things as were necessary for their succeeding voyage. Such were the immediate fruits of an incident in itself so alarming and repulsive.
Let me briefly name in conclusion, some considerations by which we should sustain in ourselves a quiet and cheerful submission to the trials and afflictive visitations of God. A paradise of delights was man's primeval abode, until rebellion darkened and defaced it: and sorrow, under any and every form, is only the offspring and original penalty of sin. The fearful and insupportable part of the penalty, the second, never-ending death, was averted from us by the sacrifice and atonement of the Incarnate Son of God. To the temporal consequences of transgression, the justice, holiness, and wisdom of Heaven still hold us subject. And what criminal is there whose aggravated crime exposing him to a sentence of death would reproach his judge with cruelty, if the penalty were commuted for some comparatively trivial humiliation! The pains and disasters of life should awaken in us only emotions of gratitude and trust.
Then it should never be forgotten that adversity is the medicine of the soul, administered as tenderly as wisely. We have instinctive properties to be rooted out; habits to be broken; passions and prejudices to be subdued; and in selecting the medicine, the physician of infinite skill, not only yields to a necessity which our folly and frailty have imposed upon him; but he avails himself of the means, to convert the mere remedy of a spiritual malady, into an instrument of exalting and perfecting us. Submission grows into divine love. Faith, amidst the dark hours of adversity, strengthens the spiritual vision, until the believer sees with rejoicing, and sometimes ecstasy, the bright and glorious inheritance prepared for him before the throne of God. The weaning from the world, and the perception of its delusions, and emptiness, and caprice, which the Christian conceives in seasons of affliction, leave his heart open and purified to be taken possession of by the gifts and graces of the holy Ghost. "The Lord loveth whom He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." And if we know ourselves to be afflicted by a deep and rankling spiritual malady, who would choose to encounter the peril of death eternal, rather than resign himself for a few months or years, to the discipline of a physician of heavenly tenderness and skill!
And in the most inscrutable of God's Providences, when your trials seem the most unmerited, the most painful to bear, the most at variance with what you yourselves would have esteemed judicious and salutary, fail not to recollect the blindness of human judgment, the boundless scope and resources, the unerring discernment of God's wisdom. Be instructed by what has probably been your own past experience, certainly that of the world at large, that events which once we were most disposed to dread and deprecate, have often proved our truest interests. Where we see this to be the case now and then, the Most High may know that it is so a thousand times; and by and by He will reveal to us the whole. Now we see through a glass darkly. But a little while [13/14] and we shall see Him, and His purposes, and agencies, face to face.
Such reflections are eminently appropriate for us upon the present occasion. A strange and mournful event has been allowed to befal this portion of Christ's flock; and we are banished from the altar, at which for many years, surrounded by a thousand touching and holy associations, we delighted to worship. In the language of Isaiah, "our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised Thee, is burned up with fire and all our pleasant things are laid waste." Whatever the cause and agency of the disaster may have been—to us now inexplicable—we are bound to receive it, and to profit by it, as an admonition from God's hand. To enquire humbly what may have been His purposes in permitting, and not arresting the evil; to ascertain whether we were both grateful and humble—grateful and humble in our improvement of our privileges; to enquire if we were cherishing a fervent, docile, right spirit towards the Church and ordinances of Jesus Christ or were bringing the cold, capricious, heartless, critical, calculating spirit of the world, into the awful concerns of religion and eternity; these are subjects, which, with much prayer, we should examine at this season, when God is thus dealing with us. But let us not for a moment forget, that He ordains the dispensation in LOVE, designs it for some great purpose, and can overrule it for the glory of His Name. The momentary interruption to our privileges, may be followed—sensibly, visibly, by many happy results. Through the good [14/15] Providence of God, you have the power at once to rise above the calamity. And while our Christian brethren, who have been most kind and cordial in their sympathy, [* The following Churches were, by their Rectors and Vestries or Trustees, most kindly and promptly proffered to the Rector and Vestry of St. Paul's, for the use of the congregation on Sundays and during the week; Christ Church, Grace Church, St. Peter's Church, Church of the Ascension, St. Luke's Church, Mount Calvary Church; the Rev. Dr. Plummer's, Presbyterian; the Light Street Methodist, by Rev. Dr. Roberts; Rev. Dr. Burnap's, Unitarian; Associate Reformed, through Win. McKim, Secretary of Trustees.] and the community at large, are looking on, anxiously and curiously, to mark your spirit and measures under the trial, you may find yourselves only brought nearer to Christ, in closer brotherhood with your fellow-worshippers, and with a higher and more thankful estimate of future means of grace and salvation. In the meantime, live upon the promises. They bring Heaven down to cheer the path to the grave; and lift up your spirit for a season, to become ripened for glory. Study to acquire indifference to human opinion; not an angry, contemptuous esteem of it, but a calm, independent superiority to be flattered by its sometimes groundless applause, or depressed by its capricious imputations and alienation. Live for God. Live for eternity. Walk with Christ. And soon, like Paul unharmed, you shall shake off the most venomous trials and afflictions; and the admiring assembly of angels, as well as men, seeing your garments of humiliation taken away, shall discover in you the attributes of the favored, glorified, child of God.
READ IN GRACE CHURCH ON THE SUCCEEDING SUNDAY.
In order that the kind allowance of our brethren, in whose Church edifice we are worshipping, may not be to them a cause of material inconvenience, it is found necessary that we should assemble at an earlier than the usual hour; and also, that upon the day for the administration of the Holy Communion, the sermon in the morning should be dispensed with. This is the only departure, from the established order of services, which can be at present foreseen or apprehended. And that it is so, under so severe a calamity as that which has befallen the parish, should be a source of gratitude to the merciful Providence of God, and to the sympathy of our Christian brethren. Little more than a week, full of care and perplexity it is true, has rolled over us, since the disaster; and much has been already meditated, arranged, decided upon, for the speedy restoration of the House of God, with all its precious privileges. The long-tried officers and agents, for the transaction of the secular affairs of the parish, are sparing neither time nor labour, nor study, to promote our common interests; and you may confidently rely, that the best talents and [17/18] experience will be employed by them, to render—if we may so use the language of the prophet—"the glory of the latter house greater than of the former;" and in that place, we humbly hope, will the Lord of Hosts again give peace. That in the meantime, some privations and sacrifices must be sustained, we cannot doubt. Conflicting judgments, and interests, and tastes, in so large a community, must always be expected. Of course, all cannot be gratified; and a spirit of mutual concession and accommodation is essential, not only to the comfort and harmony of the congregation, but to the excellence and prosperity of the great work. But let us realize, that we are under a dispensation of trial from God's hand. And His eye is upon us, to mark with what patience and humility, with what piety and zeal, and steadfastness, and fidelity to our principles, we shall endure the trial. To your pastor, I will not here say, how mournful is the event. In less than ten days if I should be spared so long, I shall have completed the fortieth year of my ministrations to this flock. In all that time, how much was the whole endeared to me! How many offices of religion to you and to yours—to many now in the world of spirits—had that period witnessed! How many touching and noble acts of love and care, had your pastor received from you and yours! What changes have those forty years wrought, in the aspect of the congregation, the community at large, the city, in the hearts of those who are still among us! The last passage which I read to you from the Word of God, on the afternoon of the last Sunday that we were [18/19] together in the sanctuary, now, for a season, in ruins, was this,—"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord." Now take this with you as a rule of conduct for the future. In your love for the Church, the Body of Christ; in your self-sacrificing measures for its welfare; in your zeal, wherever you may be, to hallow the Sabbath; in your daily worship; in your devotion at the altar; "be ye steadfast, unmoveable." Imagine not that any of your obligations to Christ, and the work of salvation, are relaxed, in consequence of your being, for a short time, disturbed in your usual arrangements; but remember, when tempted to omit anything which God, and your immortal soul, and an awful eternity, demand of you—remember, "for all these things, God will bring thee into JUDGMENT."