This Sermon, delivered on the evening of November 1st, 1840, (being the evening before the general and state elections in New-York) is published at the request of the congregation of St. Paul's Church. In justice to himself, the author would take the liberty of stating, that it was written late in the previous week, amidst a press of parish duties, and is now printed, as delivered, without further revision.
The Bible alone teaches us the true philosophy of history. If we open any uninspired record of the past, we find that the secret spring which produced every change is entirely concealed, or is lost to view in a cloud of uncertain speculations. The rise or fall of empires is ascribed to the march of this conqueror, or the abilities of that leader, while no notice is taken of that Almighty Power, which "girded them with strength for the battle," and crowned their efforts with success. The writers are contented with looking only to second causes, one link after another to the chain, but forge that last link which binds it to the throne of the Eternal. This it is which renders all profane history so vague and unsatisfactory. But scripture, on the contrary, tears aside the veil, and discloses the secret causes which produced all these results. It pourtrays to us the powerful monarchies of the elder [3/4] world--the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian stricken in their pride, and crumbling successively into the dust, because God had determined it should be so. It reveals Him as raising up the foe which was to work their ruin, and so overruling all things that human wisdom and human valor were powerless to arrest the blow. [Isaiah v. 26; xiii. 1-5.] And that the world might know beyond a doubt that His hand was the one which did it, the prophets were directed centuries before to proclaim, that these events should happen. Here, then, is the true philosophy of history--the solution of all its mysteries--that revelation which shows us the Most High ruling among the inhabitants of the earth, and visiting the nations for their sins.
He has established certain immutable principles of justice and right, by which it is the duty of nations to be guided. And unless they do so, He visits them, as nations, with his judgments. They can no more escape the certainty of retribution, than can an individual hope that his sin will be covered, and he evade the searching eye of the Omniscient. And it is the duty of the ministers of God, at times to raise their voices, and to publish these great and solemn truths to their countrymen, that the land in which they dwell may not forget there is a God who is shaping out its destinies. When wickedness is rife around them, and national sins are waxing greater, they must proclaim the [4/5] startling warning--"the nation and kingdom that will not serve God, shall perish." Let it not then be said, that subjects like these are inappropriate to the pulpit. It is not thus to be narrowed down in its influence. These themes fall within its legitimate domain. The ministers of the sanctuary arc stationed upon the towers of Zion, to look over the horizon, and discern if possible, the approach of any threatening evil. The cry goes up to them, "watchmen, what of the night?" When they see, therefore, the gloomy clouds arising, and a moral darkness rolling over the land, they must needs answer, "Behold, the night cometh."
And for this course, they have the examples of all who have gone before them. See how pointedly the ancient prophets rebuked the national sins of their countrymen. Isaiah could turn his eyes from the glorious visions of the Messiah's kingdom, to declare the fall of this world's empires, and to pronounce the most, stern and withering rebukes against the vices of his nation. So unsparing were his denunciations, that they caused at last his death, and he was "sawn asunder," a martyr to the truths he uttered. In the same spirit, we hear Jeremiah, when he had enumerated the sins of Israel, proclaiming the decision of his God--"shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord; and shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?" Ezekiel too, as he sat with the captives by the river Chebar, or trod the streets of Babylon, reiterated [5/6] so often those judgments of Cod which were to punish
"the dark idolatries
Of alienated Judah,"
" ----- in the sacred porch
Ezekiel saw, when by the vision led,
His eye survey'd the dark idolatries
Of alienated Judah."--Paradise Lost, b, i. I. 455.
that he also poured forth his blood in the land of their exile. These men were patriots, who knew both the vices and the sufferings of their people, and who felt like Amos, when he exclaimed, "the Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophecy?" And, to look at an example nobler still, read the instructions and rebukes of our Lord. He too, in his human nature, was a patriot. With the power and knowledge of a God, he united also the warm sympathies of a man, and his bosom glowed with the purest love for the land of his birth. He could sternly chide its sins--proclaim the national judgments which were at hand--and then weep bitterly for the departing glories of Judea, and the miseries which were soon to overwhelm the holy city.
National sins, then, are not a forbidden topic to the ministers of God. Acting, therefore, on this authority, and endeavoring, if possible, to perform the task in the spirit of those who have furnished these examples, I would ask you this evening to look with me over our land, and see what lessons of humiliation and of duty its present state may teach us. The time, surely, is propitious. Individual [6/7] interests are now for a season forgotten, and the future destinies of our country occupy every mind. The first truth then which I shall state is, that AS A NATION WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE TO GOD. It must be so, for men are surely amenable as individuals, and when mingled into one mass they must be accountable as a people. The sins of a nation are but the aggregate sins of its members. They cleave to them when united into one, and must have their retribution, for God will not suffer his laws to be evaded.
We learn this from the fact, that to each people there is a national character. They possess one for arts and literature, which is well defined, and why should it not be so also in morals? We know the character which is assigned to each nation of Europe, and in what traits it differs from that possessed by its neighbors. Often, too, this is retained unaltered for centuries. The Arab is unchanged from what he was in the days of the patriarchs--still wandering, in lawless freedom, over his waste and dreary heritage--still the foe of all about him, and every man's hand also raised against him. And in religion, this difference of character is even more evident. We see at once where a nation has bowed to the precepts of our faith, and its spirit been breathed through all their institutions and moulded their laws. And we can read at a glance in every department, social and civil, the proofs that a people have rejected the pure light of Christianity, and [7/8] sought out for themselves other guides. This, then, is their national character, which is distinctly marked, and for which they are accountable.
Again--there is such a thing as a national influence. By means of it, countries act upon each other and upon the world. They avail themselves of that community of thought and feeling which binds us together as members of one great family. Their commerce wafts them to distant climes their emigrants carry to other lands the feelings into which they have been moulded at home--and their press, if they have one, speaks with its countless voices, to millions with whom in this world the writers never meet face to face, nor is this influence confined to a single age. Ancient Greece, by her literature, has animated and quickened into life the intellect and thought of successive generations: and even now, at the distance of two thousand years, Aristotle speaks to us from his tomb, and Plato inspires with visions of glorious beauty, the mind of many a scholar in this distant land, of the very existence of which he was ignorant. The age of the II. Charles in England, when her palaces echoed with licentious mirth--when godliness and disloyalty were classed together--and when "Christianity was set up as a principal subject of ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world"--that age sent down a tide of corruption, to pervert and [8/9] destroy for many generations. [Bishop Butler.--Preface to his Analogy of Religion.] Her profligate writers still mutter from their graves, and will perhaps go on poisoning the young, even when centuries have rolled by, since these emissaries of evil passed to their account. They were but embodying and speaking out the sentiments of their day, and this it was which gave them such fearful influence.
There are, then, national sins, which, if punished at all, must be visited in this life. The retribution of individuals may be postponed to the next, because as an individual each must stand before the judgment seat of God, but with communities it is not so. The tie which binds us together as a nation is severed at the grave.
And how fearful the record of facts which rises from the history of the past to confirm this truth! See how in ancient times God swept kingdoms away, when "the cup of their iniquity was full." Amalek and Moab, the Canaanites and the Philistines, passed from the roll of nations, and their names live only on the page of history. Behold the noblest cities of the Eastern world--Ninevah, and Babylon and Tyre--when they exalted themselves as independent of all fear of change-under foot by nations whom God had "gathered from afar," and commissioned to be his ministers of vengeance, the very spot they occupied is now forgotten, and the traveller stands upon their ruins, scarcely conscious that there was once the noise and busy life of crowded millions. See, in later times, [9/10] how entirely power has passed away from the halls of the Caesars, until "the eternal city" is desolate on her seven hills. These were smitten in their pride, because God was angry. And even his favored people Israel escaped not, but were forced from their own experience to learn this fearful lesson. Captives to the fierce idolater--transferred from nation to nation--"emptied from vessel to vessel"--they were taught at last in bitterness and tears, that God had marked their idolatry, and "would not give his glory to another." Such, then, is the way in which he visits national sins.
And, now, brethren, are there not SINS OF WHICH WE AS A NATION ARE PECULIARLY GUILTY? And here I would speak to you as those who are bound together by the tie of countrymen. I know indeed, from the days of the crusades to the present time it has been proved, that when the pulpit is used to advance a party cause, religion suffers, and the church mourns. But on the other hand, it is equally the clear duty of its ministers to speak, when they behold sins against God, great and many, which otherwise might pass unrebuked. Without uttering the watchwords of a faction, or putting on them the livery of a partizan, they can look over the length and breadth of the land, and publish their message with the warm feelings of a patriot, but the chastened spirit of a Christian.
Think, then, of our national pride. Are we not becoming a proverb, for our jealous sensitiveness to [10/11] attack? A criticism upon our institutions or social condition is treated as an insult, although often we might learn from it a valuable lesson for the future. We have been for years employed in burning incense to ourselves. Our orators have again and again repeated the assertion, that we are the happiest and the wisest nation upon earth, and we have grown up in the belief that it is so. The very theory of our government aids in strengthening this sentiment. Political power is gained by the flattery of the multitude--by fostering their passions, and bowing humbly to their dictates. Each individual, whatever may be his intellect or means of improvement, is appealed to as one who is abundantly competent to decide the weightiest points of policy and government. We ascribe therefore to ourselves, as a people, a wisdom which has never been exceeded--an intelligence which can never go wrong. This has now become sin established maxim, never to be controverted. We have totally forgotten that injunction of scripture, "not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; but to think soberly."
But is this the true spirit for a nation, just growing up under the fostering care of God? If there were any who could pride themselves upon our elevated state, it would be those by whose blood and labors this result was brought about. But your fathers, who bore the heat and burden of the day, recoiled from the thought of this self-exaltation. They ascribed all to God, for in those days he was [11/12] acknowledged in our councils, and his hand was recognized. But Ave, who have come in to enjoy their labors--who have done nothing but inherit the fruit of their toils--we have pride. And must not this be displeasing to God? When were other nations smitten, but when, through the loftiness of their heart, they forgot him?
Look again, at another sin--our humiliating worship of wealth. Before the idol of Mammon, we bend with a ceaseless, degrading adoration. I know that this has been a sin in all ages, but does it not peculiarly mark this period? Even our language proclaims it. When we now ask the worth of an individual, we have no reference to his moral or intellectual acquirements, but to the amount of riches he may possess. The impression seems to be growing stronger, that the acquisition of wealth is the most important business of life, and that he is best fitted for intercourse with the world, who possesses the most sagacity in heaping it up. The consequence is, that the standard of morality has been gradually sinking to a lower ebb. In the excitement produced through our land by the acquisition of sudden fortunes, strict and stern integrity has been too often forgotten. How frequently, for instance, do we see individuals rolling in wealth, and "faring sumptuously every day," when their unpaid creditors, whose claims the law has cancelled, are perchance suffering privation! How often do men mount up to fortune, by means which [12/13] should draw upon them the withering scorn of all who value integrity and right! But yet it is a melancholy fact, that there/is a tone of feeling prevailing through society, which induces it to call such things by soft and lenient names, and even to look with favor upon the skillful perpetrator of an equivocal act. Wealth spreads a charm about him, which covers the multitude of his sins. He is regarded with complacency, on account of the power which the possession of fortune has placed in his hands, and all enquiries arc prudently forborne, as to the manner of its acquisition. His very success seems to sanctify the efforts he used, and to cast into oblivion all his former departures from the path of honor and justice.
And how often do those who preserve their integrity towards men, in this respect, fail in their duty towards God! Look at such an one, and where can you see any thing in his character, which is not "of the earth, earthy?" Through the day, he labors with absorbing earnestness in the work which he has marked out. At night, as he sinks in weariness to slumber, his latest waking thoughts are planning out the business of the morrow; and even in his midnight dreams, visions of countless wealth flit before his eyes, and he awakes, to mourn that it was not a reality. Thus, one day after another of his life passes away, forgetful of his God forgetful of every thing, but his desire to be rich. His dealings are all with the mortals around him. [13/14] He thinks not of those glorious intelligences, who dwell in that distant land reserved for the righteous--who arc the ministers of their Master's will to the beings of earth, and who may be around his path, watching over his steps, and lamenting his strange infatuation. He is so deeply engaged in settling the books which record the debts of his fellow men, that he never remembers how much he owes to his Lord. He never, in all his calculations, looks forward to that volume which shall be opened at the judgment seat of Christ, when the whole human race shall assemble for moral retribution, and their accounts be balanced for eternity. He is too much occupied with the "cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches," to think of any thing more elevated. His mind is ever in a state of feverish anxiety, looking with solicitude for what the next change of fortune may bring him, and always reaching forward to something just beyond his reach. But is this the kind of service which God requires of his reasonable creatures? No: his Master is writing an account against him, which he will one day find it difficult to discharge. And yet; this is a portrait which thousands in our land might claim, for in this we behold one striking form of our national sin.
It is time then, we think, that the pulpit should speak out--that the ministers of Christ should raise their voices to rebuke this prevailing idolatry of wealth, which they see ushering in so long a [14/15] train of evils. They should inculcate upon their hearers, the lesson of moderation which the gospel teaches to those, whose? "life is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." They should proclaim to those who are grovelling in the dust, that there is something more valuable than money, and the search after which is more dignified for an immortal spirit. They should point to the snares which gather around the steps of him who surrenders himself up to the inordinate love of gold, and who is thus illustrating by his own example, the truth of that declaration "he that maketh haste to be rich, shall not be innocent."
Again: another of our national sins is, the degrading influence of the Press. The power which is thus placed in our hands of sending instruction through every class of our population, is one of the noblest gifts of Heaven, and one for the use of which we must surely be held accountable. Yet how fearfully is it perverted! See the spirit which guides the press through our land, how utterly it is at variance with every law of Christianity. See its conflicts for victory, not for truth, in which no weapon which an unscrupulous ingenuity can forge, is neglected--no artifice, which falsehood can devise, is left unemployed. Daily its tones are heard--penetrating to every hamlet in our land sowing the seeds of bitterness--arraying against each other the citizens of a common country--[15/16] infusing into them an animosity to which else they had been strangers--and exciting to the utmost all those unholy passions which make a serpent's nest of the human heart. It has, in too many cases, ceased to be respected as the vehicle of truth, but is regarded only as the instrument of party warfare. Wherever it goes, it teaches a lesson as opposed to the dictates of our faith, as if it advocated the creed of Mahomet, and proclaimed, that the world must be converted by the sword.
And where too can anything be found, which is sacred from its virulence? Official rank, and retiring worth--venerable age, and the innocence of youth--alike are the objects of its attacks. It violates the privacy of the domestic circle, and sports as ruthlessly with female character, as if it were not scattering around, "firebrands, arrows, and death." And yet, raise but a ringer to repress its violence, and "the liberty of the press" is at once echoed through the land. This is the shield which the assailant of reputation hides, and from whose cover he securely breaks in upon all charities and amenities of life. I know indeed that there are some honorable exceptions to this--the more honorable, because they have had strength to resist that impulse of our corrupt nature, which bids us "render railing for railing--" yet what are they among so many? As a national evil, this is one most fearful and demoralizing. On this point brethren, I beg you will not mistake my meaning. [16/17] I would look at this sin in no other light--I would speak of it in no other way--than as a minister of the gospel of Christ. Yet as a commissioned teacher of that pure morality which He first inculcated, I hesitate not to say, that a press like that which is now attempting to regulate public opinion in this country--so little baptized in the spirit of the gospel, and so utterly reckless of the golden law of charity to our fellow-men--would be blighting and desolating to the best moral interests of any land. Better than this, would it almost be, to have that stern censorship, which in some of the empires of the old world, represses intellect, by narrowing the circle in which its discussions can take place. Better exclude the light, than suffer it to enter, when pestilence must come in also. As it is, we are "using our liberty for the cloak of maliciousness."
These then are some of the most prominent of our national sins. There are others which I had intended to bring before you, but the time would fail me, were I to attempt it. I must forbear to enlarge upon the injustice we have done to the original owners of this soil, whom we have driven from their fathers' graves, but whose cry, while it sounds fainter in our ears, is rising up shrill and wild in the hearing of that God who hath declared, "cursed be he that removeth his neighbor's landmark." I must omit, the increase of infidelity among us--our fierce contempt of the restraints of [17/18] law, when they conflict with our passions--the profanation of God's holy day, thus wresting from him the little portion of time he has reserved--and that increasing luxury, which may be but the herald of our fall. These are facts, which must come home to us. The Christian community cannot gather itself apart and say, "we see it not--we share not in it;" but the guilt cleaves to us, and so will the punishment also.
Does any one ask then--"WHAT IS MY DUTY IN THIS CRISIS?" I answer--1st. Become yourself a Christian in heart and life. This must be the preparatory step, to qualify yourself for usefulness. Then you will estimate clearly the claims of truth and justice, and be freed from all those idle sophistries which pervert and entangle the worldly wise. Then, you will feel your own obligations, and labor as one who knoweth that he must give account. Then, you will be qualified so to train up your children, that in future years they may be a blessing to the land of their birth, and your influence, long after you are sleeping in the dust, live and act in the virtuous conduct of those who bear your name, Oh, if there were no such thing in our country as an irreligious home--if the rising generation could be sent forth into the conflict of busy life, purified by the refining influence of religious culture--rich in the memory of a father's holy example and a mother's tender prayers--how changed would be the spirit of this community! How [18/19] hallowed and elevating would be the influence going out from our land, through all the earth! Then we should need no other pledge for its safety--we should ask no other security for its ultimate prosperity. Holy watchers would be about us, to guard from every evil. The elect of God--the virtuous and holy--would be every where, sanctifying our land. Ceaselessly would there ascend to Heaven, the fragrance of "the golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints," and "God, even our own God, would give us his blessing."
Again--you must exert your influence to elevate the tone of public feeling. The responsibilities which in some countries rest with the few, here are placed upon the many. Each one whom I now address, has a power which he may use. In the unrestrained intercourse of private life, unnumbered opportunities are occurring in which you can assert the cause of truth and holiness, and aid the advance of those great principles which are to live and go on their way, long after this world is no more. In the discharge, too, of your public duties, by showing that you contend for "principles, not men"--that your sympathies and love can rise above all petty distinctions, and embrace the interests of our common country--you will set a dignified example, honorable to you as a patriot, and worthy your profession as a Christian. But above all things, learn that patriotism and religion must go hand in hand; for how can he love his country who is doing any thing [19/20] to produce its moral degradation, and thus making the Omnipotent its enemy? Should iniquity become rife among us, and we desert the God who hath hitherto borne us safe through every trial, every page of scripture prophecies our fate. "The nation that will not serve Him shall perish; yea, that nation shall be utterly wasted." The elements of discord which now exist within our land would burst forth into violence--its conflicting interests be soon arrayed against each other--and our history be written in the blood of the living, and inscribed upon the monuments of the dead. The Spirit from on high, which imparts wisdom and peace, would be felt no longer--God's protecting presence be utterly withdrawn--and the voice of the Divinity be hushed in silence, until, as in Jerusalem of old, it is heard saying, "let us depart hence."
In the midst, then, of temptations which at times beset us--when the excitement of a political contest is sweeping like a whirlwind over the land arraying friend against friend, and neighbor against neighbor--remember, that ye are brethren. Suffer not the spirit of alienation to creep in, rending the bonds of peace, and severing in unkindness the children of one great family. The past is appealing to you by all its glorious recollections. Your fathers have bequeathed to you a heritage, rich in all that can produce happiness. The land for which they labored stretches out before you in its tranquil beauty, and is filled with the works of civilization, and [20/21] art and refinement. These are their memorials the fruits of their toils, and the purchase of their sufferings. You worship at their altars, and stand amid their graves. Every scene whispers the recollection of their virtues. Can you be insensible to these appeals? Can you thus show, that you are wanting in one of the noblest elements of human nature? Can you prove recreant to this mighty trust? Can you dishonor the memory of your forefathers, disclaim their spirit, and forsake their God? Oh, think, that your children, and your children's children, are to review your course. Think, that "this generation goeth away, but another generation cometh," and that you must live, not for yourself--not for present interests, but for those who are to succeed you--for the world--and for eternity.