A sermon, preached in Ebenezer Chapel, Birmingham, on
"The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him—in
Every manifestation which God has made of his nature, contains much that is solemn, and much that is amiable; and it is the glory of Deity to be at once both infinitely great and infinitely good. This union of the grand and the lovely is to be seen on the face of nature, and in the administration of Providence; but is most clearly discovered in the pages of that inspired volume which was written to inform us, in some measure, what God is. There it is said—that God is love, and that he is a consuming fire; that vengeance belongs unto him, and that he delights in mercy; that he rides on the heavens, and yet is the father of the fatherless, and a judge for the widows; that he is the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, and dwells in the holy place, and at the same time makes his abode with the man who is of an humble and a contrite spirit; that he is seen against us in the purity and equity of the sentences of his law, and yet with us in the person and work of his Son.
And as the essence of religion consists in the exercise of suitable dispositions towards this great and blessed God, and no dispositions can be suitable but such as correspond to the entire revelation which he has made of his nature, the spirit of true piety is equally removed from unhallowed presumption on the one hand, and slavish despair on the other, and appears in its true character only when seen in the union of holy dread and humble confidence. Our reasons for fear are incalculably increased by the consciousness of our guilt, and can leave no room for any hope but that which rests exclusively upon the promise of mercy through Christ Jesus. Yet has God been graciously pleased to declare that he takes delight in those who fear him and hope in his mercy, that is, they are the objects of his peculiar and infinite regard. These pious dispositions should be constantly exercised in relation to our spiritual interests. We should keep up a holy reverence for God's majesty, and all humble delight in his mercy; a trembling dread of displeasure against sin, and a cheerful hope of pardon through the mediation of Christ—a salutary fear lest we should fall into temptation, and a lively confidence in God's grace to deliver us from it; a deep solicitude lest we should come short of eternal glory, attended with a tranquil expectation that we shall be 'kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation!'
'Our country' is a term of wide and most endearing import. Poetry has sung its charms, patriotism has been inspired by them, and piety has consecrated them. "If I forget you, O Jerusalem," said this trio, when they had hung their harps on the willows, and sat weeping by Babylon's river, "let my right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth." The love of our country is not a mere chivalrous and romantic passion, but one of the noblest feelings that can do honor to man as a member of civil society. It is in the rational community what the great law of attraction is in the world of nature. As that causes the parts of individual bodies to cohere together, and at the same time balances and regulates in their places and motions the orbs forming the universe; so does this generous feeling preserve the identity of particular kingdoms, and prevent the elements of society from sinking into the restless confusion of a general chaos, or being scattered as by a centrifugal force in every possible direction. It is the foundation of the public virtues, and a chief source of public prosperity.
The love of our country will make us tremblingly alive to
her welfare; will produce a deep solicitude when that welfare is in danger
or suspense; will make us anxious to know the reasons which exist for hope
and fear respecting her, that, if possible, we may multiply those of the
former kind, and diminish the latter. The design of the following discourse
is to show what ground there is for fear as to the intention of
Divine Providence concerning us, and what are the grounds of hope.
I. I shall faithfully exhibit what appear to me to be sufficient grounds to apprehend that God may yet visit this nation with his righteous displeasure.It would ill become us, even in holier and more prosperous times than those on which we have fallen, to adopt the congratulatory language of Babylon in the day of her prosperity, and the height of her grandeur, "I sit as queen; I am not a widow, and I will never see grief." Expectations of undisturbed tranquility, and uninterrupted prosperity, in such a world as this, resting, as they must do, on ignorance or pride, are often the prelude to a melancholy reverse, the deceptive calm before the tempest. Much less are we warranted to indulge, in our present circumstances, the hope of exemption from national calamity. It is true, we are not engaged in doubtful war with any foreign foe; no alarms of invasion are circulating through the land, and pestilence and famine are at a distance. But are these the only evils which the power of God can employ to scourge a guilty nation? Can he not find within our own shores ingredients of our curse, and replenishing with them the vials of his wrath, pour them out upon us in a time of external tranquility? Is not every mind now agitated by fear, and does not every eye seem to view the balance of our destiny trembling in the hand of Omnipotence? And are there not just grounds for such fears?
1. Consider the sovereignty which God exercises in disposing the fortunes both of states and individuals."He does his will among the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of earth. His kingdom rules over all. He takes up kings, and puts them down, as it pleases him, and gives the kingdom to whoever he will." The crowns of the earth, as well as its shields, belong unto the Lord. Impressive and humiliating was his language to ancient Israel, "O house of Israel, cannot I do you with you as the potter, says the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in mine hand, O house of Israel." We depend for everything that constitutes national greatness, prosperity, and happiness, entirely upon the will of God, and (which is still more impressive) we depend for all upon his mercy. We are debtors for all we possess. He can cast us down without injustice, and while the groans of our humiliation were ascending, ten thousand impartial witnesses would exclaim, "Just and righteous are your judgments, Lord God Almighty!" There is not a single article that we possess over which we can exercise a power so unlimited, as that of God over us. Surely such a view of our dependence upon a Being whose power we cannot resist, and whose purposes concerning us are utterly unknown, should excite in us, at all times, a disposition very remote from fearless security.
2. Our national transgressions are sufficient to produce very painful apprehensions.I am aware that declamations against the vices of the times, have been at once practiced and despised in every age. It is lamentable that such a topic should be necessary, and still more lamentable that it should be disregarded when it is necessary. It is the last stage in the hardening process of iniquity, when the transgressor either rejects with contempt, or receives with indifference the words of the faithful reprover. May this symptom of a seared conscience be never seen in the case of my countrymen! In speaking of the sins of the nation, I am not going to institute a comparison between the present and any past age of its history, much less between its own moral condition and that of surrounding countries. Comparisons of this kind are seldom resorted to but for the purpose of collecting fuel for our pride, or excuses for our sins. Besides a decision in such cases, where the operation of motive, the measure of light, and the degree of assistance—must be all taken into the account, is a work too difficult for any mind but that which is omniscient. Take the case abstractedly, and say if we are not "a people laden with iniquity, children that are corrupt, a seed of evil doers." "The overflowings of iniquity may well make us afraid." Where shall the eye of the Christian observer rest, and there find no cause for confession, grief, and reformation?
Are there no sins written by the very pen of the legislature amidst the records of our laws, upon which the eye of God looks down with displeasure? Is not gambling legalized in the system of lotteries? Is not the sacred institution of the Lord's Supper abused, degraded, profaned, in being converted by the laws into a qualification for secular offices? Is not the solemnity of an oath converted into a species of profane swearing, by its repetition on the most trivial occasions, through all the departments of the revenue? Is there nothing in our penal code which needs revision and correction, to render our jurisprudence effective in the prevention as well as punishment of crime? When will the voice of reason and revelation be heard, and the legislature have that "quick understanding in the fear of the Lord," which shall move them with holy indignation to expunge these blots from the statute book?
The sins of the people, and such alone are national sins, require more particular attention. "To consider national sins as merely comprehending the vices of rulers, or the iniquities tolerated by law," says a most eloquent writer,* "is to place the duties of such a season as this in a very adverse and very inadequate light. It is to render them harmful—for upon this principle it is our chief business on such occasions to single out for attack those whom we are commanded to obey, to descant on public abuses, and to hold up to detestation and abhorrence the supposed delinquencies of the government under which we are placed. How far such a conduct tends to promote that broken and contrite heart, which is heaven's best sacrifice, requires no great sagacity to discover. It is, moreover, to exhibit a very inadequate view of the duties of this season, as it confines humiliation and confession to a mere scantling of the sins which pollute a nation."
* See Mr. Hall's Sermon, entitled "Sentiments proper to the present crisis," preached October 19, 1803, which, in addition to the transcendent eloquence of the peroration, contains so much that is appropriate to the time and circumstances in which we live, that its perusal and circulation cannot be too warmly promoted by every lover of his country.
At the head of our national transgressions, and as the cause of many that will afterwards be enumerated, must be placed a very lamentable disregard of those duties which are binding upon a people placed under the brightest economy of mercy, with which God ever blessed a sinful world. If we read the Scriptures, we shall find that the greatest responsibility attaches to that nation to whom "is sent the word of salvation, the glorious gospel of the blessed God." It is the very climax of national privileges "to know the joyful sound." Now does it appear from even a general survey of the people of this country, that they are rendering the knowledge of Christ "a savor of life unto life"? Is it not a fact that the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, embodied and expressed in the very appropriate term of "evangelical religion," are by multitudes neglected, by many opposed, and by many ridiculed? By what a large proportion of the community is the whole of religion resolved into a mere compliance with a few ceremonial observances, to the total neglect of the religion of the heart; so that while many do not respect even the forms of godliness, others are satisfied with the mere forms! What a lamentable destitution do we see around us of that religion which begins in deep conviction of sin, intense solicitude about eternal salvation, godly sorrow which works repentance, evangelical humility, belief in Christ for justification; and which when so begun, is carried on by the crucifixion of the affections and lusts of the flesh, the subjection of the whole heart and conduct to the law of God, spirituality of mind, the conquest of the world by faith, the predominance of unseen and eternal things, over seen and temporal things, communion with invisible realities, preparation for celestial glories, closet devotion, family religion, public worship; and which delights in truth, justice, meekness, temperance, brotherly love; does good to all men, and shines as a light in the world! Do we see such religion as this abounding? And what less than this is the religion of the New Testament? Neglect of eternal realities appears to me to be one of the crying sins of our country. Was it not this which procured the death warrant of Judea? She knew not the day of her visitation—and how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?
To the neglect of piety we must add the prevalence of IMMORALITY. How general is drunkenness, that beastly vice which enslaves the mind to the body, while it consumes the body as in liquid fire! How solemn is the thought that the bounties of divine providence should thus be converted into the means of transgressing against their Author, and that the products of nature should be converted into instruments of rebellion against their Creator!
Shockingly common is profane swearing! A dreadful taint of impiety runs through the daily conversation of myriads both of the rich and the poor. It has been frequently said, that in no nation under heaven is the profanation of sacred terms so common as in England. This sin has not even the flimsy excuse of sensual gratification to plead on its behalf, and seems invented for no other purpose than to give expression and effect to the fiend-like passions of enmity, malice, and revenge. It is an impious, though impotent attempt to purloin the fire of incensed justice, to grasp and hurl those thunderbolts of divine vengeance, which ought never to be contemplated but with dread and trembling.
Was female prostitution ever more unblushingly committed, or more widely extended than at this day. What swarms of miserable creatures crawl from their skulking places at the hour of darkness to infest our streets, and spread their toils for their too willing victims. It is computed that London alone contains fifty thousand of these wretched beings, who subsist wholly or in part on the wages of iniquity. "O you who are of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, what a scene of pollution for you to openly look upon perpetually!" The crimes committed by this class have quintupled within the last few years.
I come now to the profanation of the Sabbath; that day of holy rest, given in mercy to man, at once to refresh his body, worn with toil, and assist his soul in the pursuit of salvation. How are the precious hours of this day squandered upon reveling, business, and traveling! It is probable that in this town, to go no further for an example, not above half the population, who are prevented by no uncontrollable cause, attend the solemnities of public worship. It might be said in reply to this, that there is not sufficient accommodation for the inhabitants. But are all our places of worship crowded to excess? Are our church and meeting wardens in every case wearied with applications for seats and pews? Is it not manifest, that tens of thousands in Birmingham go to no place of worship on the Sabbath, merely for of inclination? With still greater force and propriety this remark will apply to the metropolis, whence myriads are to be seen every sabbath morning issuing through its different avenues for a day's pleasure and recreation in the country; who pass the inviting doors of sanctuary after sanctuary with a contemptuous smile upon those who are hastening to appear before God in Zion. Where there is a demand for accommodation (at least it is so among the dissenters), there is generally found generosity sufficient, at any expense, to supply it. It is to be feared that the first day of the week is devoted by a very large portion of the trading part of the community to journeys of business; by the rich to journeys of pleasure; and by the poor to habits of indolence. Who can help mourning in secret for the games, parties, and private concerts, which are given in the fashionable circles of high life on that day which is commanded of God to be kept holy? It would be well if many who are loud and long in their declamations against the growth of sedition and impiety, would not in disregarding the sabbath, encourage by their own example the growth of every evil work.
I am sorry that the charge of employing the sabbath for the purpose of traveling, may be brought with great justice against many professors of religion. It has become, even among them, a very common practice to return home from a journey late on Sunday morning, and to set off on a journey early on the Sunday evening. In the former case the whole day is, in a measure, sacrificed, for after traveling all night the body is not in a state to allow much edification to the mind; and in the latter case, a very valuable portion of the day is lost for purposes of piety. Is any one part of the day less sacred than another? Has not the same authority enjoined all the parts of it to be kept holy? And what an example to the world! I am aware that necessity is sometimes laid upon us in this matter, but it is much oftener made by us. The Christians in Otaheite are already in this particular the reprovers of the Christians in Great Britain, and we shall soon need a missionary from the South Sea islands to teach us how to observe the sabbath!
There is one mode of showing disrespect to this divine institution, which has very much increased of late years; I mean the sacrifice of it to political discussion. Sunday newspapers are a source of moral and political evil, from which a silent stream of corruption has long been flowing through the land, and which has carried through the medium of ale-houses and political clubs, to ten thousand cottages, principles to which, but for such means, they would have been happy strangers to the present hour. But let us not wonder at these things, while their betters make no scruple of frequenting the public news rooms, or reading the newspapers at home. The practice of the poor is but the copy of a picture which hangs above them. It is useless to tell a poor man that he has no right with a paper on the sabbath; we should show him, by our conduct, that none of us have a right with it on that day. The proper observance of the sabbath is so inseparably connected with public morals and piety, that there is no greater national sin than its profanation. And should neglect of the sabbath unhappily ever become generally prevalent, we shall see the removal of the last mound that resists the overflowings of ungodliness on the one hand, and the inundations of divine vengeance on the other.
I shall mention one more national iniquity, and that is, a growing departure in our commercial transactions from the principles of strict integrity. Indeed, 'principle', in a great measure, seems to have departed, while there has come into its place a system of false credit, of rash and ruinous speculation, of dishonest artifice, and unblushing trickery, until the professed disciples of Jesus are imitating the practices of the basest and most degenerate Jews.
It will be expected, probably, that I should allude to two vices, which, although not national, are committed to a certain extent in the nation. No, brethren, infidelity and sedition never have been, never will be, I trust, the characteristics of Englishmen. Insubordination to the laws and authorities of the realm does exist, I admit, among a misguided and deluded party, and must be exceedingly displeasing in the sight of that Great Being who has given his own divine sanction to the authority and arrangements of human government. "Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God's command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves." (Romans 13:1-2)
Infidelity, as if it had become mad by its confinement during late years, has broken its chain, and with the fury of a violent wild animal, has rushed into society, uttering its howlings, sending horror and consternation before it, and leaving infection and death behind it. Many have been bitten by its fangs, who, in their turn, have communicated the contagion to others, until the range of the mischief has reached an extent which we shudder to contemplate. It is at length, we hope, arrested. The multitude are put upon their guard; knowing the dreadful evil that is abroad, they have grasped the weapons of truth, and go armed with the "sword of the Spirit." To every observing eye the prevalence of infidel sentiments has long been apparent in our periodical literature, our current poetry, our commercial habits, and the state of our social fellowship; not so much in the gross and direct form, which Hume or Paine would have displayed, but in practical irreligion, in systematic contempt of divine revelation, in disregard of religious institutions, in ridicule of true piety, and in the absence of all reference to the Word of God, either as the source of instruction or the standard of character.
Such are a part, and only a part of the sins which lie heavy on our country; and they are attended with peculiar aggravation, on account of the mercies which we have received from the hand of God.
At a period when the public attention is fixed so intently upon our national affliction, and when the general complaint seems to imply a state of almost unmitigated calamity, there appears to me peculiar propriety in bringing forward into view the many mercies which are still left us, and which, while they aggravate our sins, should moderate our discontent. The temporal comforts arising from our local circumstances are neither few nor small. Our climate is temperate, our soil fertile, our internal resources as to all that constitutes national wealth and comfort, inexhaustible; our insular situation admirable, both for commerce and defense; and the number, natural strength, and genius of our population very considerable. How happily are we preserved from those solemn visitations which have so often filled other lands with terror, and transformed the most populous and flourishing districts into the valley of the shadow of death!
No volcanoes terrify us with their eruptions, and submerge our towns or cities beneath their streams of lava; no earthquake's convulsive throes bury our population beneath the ruins of their own abodes; no hurricanes carry desolation through our country; famine never whitens our valleys with the bones of the thousands who have perished beneath its reign; no pestilence stalks through our land, hurrying multitudes to the tomb, and filling all that remain with unutterable terrors; war, except in the most mitigated forms, has not been seen within our shores for nearly a century and a half; and although we have been chief agents in the unparalleled scenes of bloodshed and misery which have been exhibited in this quarter of the world during the last twenty-five years, yet have we only sipped of that bitter cup which other countries have drank to its very dregs; and while every country in Europe besides has heard the confused noise of the warrior, and beheld garments rolled in blood, we have only heard reports from afar.
Are not our civil privileges still very great? We have a constitution, which, in theory, is the perfection of political wisdom, and the admiration of the world; and although in practice some abuses may have disfigured its beauty, and the lapse of ages may have impressed upon it here and there the symptoms of decay—it is still, with all its faults, a grand and venerable structure, which, we trust, the crude hand of violence will never be permitted to assail from without, nor the more insidious influence of the prerogative be allowed to endanger from within. How impartially are our laws administered! Are not the life and the property of the peasant as secure as those of the prince? Do we not all repose in equal security beneath the mighty shadow of British Law? That our judges are the faithful guardians of the rights of all men alike, the events of the present reign, and especially of the last few years, and even months, incontestably demonstrate.
Our spiritual mercies are innumerable and incalculable. How great is the loving kindness of God, which, in this respect, has been manifested through a long succession of ages. How long have we been favored in this country with the "glorious gospel of the blessed God." Almost as soon as any Gentiles were admitted "to be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ," were the savage and idolatrous inhabitants of Britain called from the sanguinary rites of Druidism, into the church of the living God. The name of the first Christian missionary to our country is lost in obscurity, but it is universally admitted that the true light shone upon this corner of the earth when nations, much nearer to the fountain of illumination, still sat in the darkness of idolatry.
When Christianity was eclipsed by the dense Saxon superstition, it was again restored, although in diminished purity, by messengers from Rome. In subsequent ages, when the increasing corruptions of popery, like the suffocating clouds which John saw issuing from the bottomless pit, had well near extinguished every ray of heavenly light, the morning star of the Reformation arose upon our island—in the ministry and writings of the immortal Wickliffe, and this beaming signal of approaching day, was afterwards followed by the noontide splendor of gospel truth. The yoke of the Vatican was torn from the neck of the English church, when many of the nations of the continent remained still in bondage. After a dreadful struggle, in which the friends of truth endured for one hundred and fifty years indescribable sufferings, the most precious of all the birthrights of an immortal creature was won from the spirit of intolerance, and religious liberty secured by law to the descendants of those heroes, who had died for it in prison, upon the scaffold, and at the stake. It is our distinguished mercy to "sit every man under his own vine and fig-tree, none daring to make him afraid."
Through the unrestricted enjoyment of this blessing, how have the means of religious instruction been multiplied. What multitudes of holy, faithful, laborious ministers of every denomination, are continually employed in preaching the gospel of salvation, and urging the practice of "whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report"! If men neglect salvation it is not for lack of cautions; if they go astray it is not for lack of guides; if they sin against God, it is not because there are none to warn them. What a universal concern is manifested for the instruction of the rising generation! Through the prevalence of Sunday schools, it is now a rare thing to meet with a person under the age of thirty, who is unable to read. Nearly the whole of the children of the poor are every sabbath taken to those institutions, where they are taught to read the Word of God, and conducted to hear it preached. In addition to this, how general is the circulation of the Scriptures! The Bible Society alone has issued since its formation between two and three million copies of the Word of God. The Bible is in the hand of almost every individual. Societies of every possible description have been formed to diffuse religious knowledge into every dark corner of the land. Commentaries upon the Scriptures, treatises in explanation of the doctrines of the gospel, sermons enforcing the duties of revelation, periodical publications, in which appeals have been made, in the form of essays, to the understanding and feelings of the public; religious tracts in every form, and in numbers impossible to be counted, have all been put into circulation; eloquence, taste, genius, imagination—have all been employed to increase the influence and extend the blessings of religion. What a train of mercies!
Where is the country that can be compared with ours for spiritual privileges? It may in a manner be said of Britain as it formerly was of the Jews, "God shows his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel—he has not dealt so with any nation." And with equal justice may he appeal to us as he did to them, "What more could I have done for my people than I have done?" And yet, after all, what aboundings of iniquity! How unfruitful have we been under all this spiritual culture! To what an extent are the glorious truths of the Christian gospel neglected, denied, and ridiculed! How small is the portion of true Christian knowledge in the land, and how much less still the degree of piety! How has iniquity abounded, and the love of many waxed cold! To form a true estimate of our moral condition, we should certainly take all our mercies into the account—and calculate what ought to be the gratitude, the piety, and the zeal of a people so eminently distinguished.
3. As another reason for fear, I mention the view which God has given of his character in the scripture, together with the threatenings which he has denounced against the guilty.His holiness forms a conspicuous feature of his character, as it is delineated on the page of inspiration. Such is his purity, "that the very heavens are said to be unclean in his sight." Sin is the only thing in all the universe which God hates, and this he abhors wherever he discovers it. With our limited understanding, and feeble powers of moral perception, it is impossible for us to form an adequate idea of the evil of sin, or the light in which it is contemplated by a God whose understanding is infinite, and whose purity is immaculate. That law which men are daily trampling upon, equally without consideration, without reason, and without penitence, is most sacred in his eyes, as the emanation and the transcript of his own holiness. He is also omnipresent and omniscient. There is not a nook or corner of the land from which he is excluded. Of every scene of iniquity he is the constant, though invisible witness. The whole mass of national guilt, with every the minutest particular of it, is ever before his eye. His justice, which consists in giving to all their due, must incline him to punish iniquity, and his power enables him to do it. He is the moral governor of the nations, and concerned to render his providence subservient to the display of his attributes—and if a people so highly favored as we are, notwithstanding our manifold sins, escape without chastisement, will not some be ready to question the equity, if not the very exercise of his administration?
His threatenings against the wicked are to be found in almost every page of holy Scripture. "From the day it was built until now, this city has so aroused My anger and wrath that I must remove it from My sight!" "If you walk contrary to me," said Jehovah to the Jews, "I will walk contrary to you." To the same people he declared at another time, "If you do wickedly you shall be consumed, both you and your king." "Their silver and their gold will not be able to rescue them on the day of the Lord's wrath. The whole earth will be consumed by the fire of His jealousy. For He will make a complete, yes, a horrifying end of all the inhabitants of the earth." Nor are the threatenings of the Bible to be viewed in the light of mere unreal terrors, as clouds and storms which the poet's pencil has introduced into the picture; the creatures of his own imagination, and only intended to excite the imagination of others. No, brethren, they are solemn realities, intended to operate by their denunciation as a check upon temptation; or if not so regarded, to be endured in their execution as a punishment upon our sins!
4. The example which God has made of other nations, might well alarm us.If kingdoms as such, are ever punished for their sins, it must be in the present world, where alone they exist in their collective form. The solemnities of the future day of judgment are intended for mankind in their individual and personal characters. All human associations, families, churches, states, will then be melted down into one general mass of individuals, and every man, amidst surrounding millions, be judged separately. If the rod of the divine anger ever rest upon a collective body, it must be in the present state of things; and the Scripture gives us many examples in which this has happened. It has preserved an account, either in the way of history or prophecy, of the downfall of nearly all the chief empires, kingdoms, and cities of antiquity; and that, not as a mere chronicle of the event, but as a great moral lesson to the world. It carefully informs us, that sin was the cause of their ruin. It does not leave us to gather this truth by any laborious and doubtful inference, but proclaims that the wars and sieges, the bloodshed and miseries, which ended in their dissolution, are to be regarded by every succeeding age as a fearful exposition of the evil nature of sin, written by the finger of God upon the tablet of the earth's history!
Visit, in imagination, my countrymen, the spots where many of these cities once stood, and you shall see nothing but the genius of desolation stalking like a specter across the plain, lifting its eye to heaven, and exclaiming, amidst the silence that reigns around, "The kingdom and the nation that will not serve you, shall utterly perish." As you stand in other places amidst the moldering fragments of departed grandeur, does not every breeze, as it sighs through the ruins, seem to say, as a voice from the sepulcher, "See, therefore, and know that it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against the Lord."
How exactly were God's threatenings accomplished upon the Jews, although they were his chosen people, and the seed of Abraham his friend. Nearly eighteen centuries has the wrath of God blazed upon the mountains of Judea, as a beacon against iniquity; while the tribes that once reposed in honor and peace in her fruitful valleys, are scattered through all lands as living witnesses to the truth of revelation, and living monuments of the terrors of divine justice. And have not the threatenings uttered by the Son of God to John, in his secluded isle, against the seven churches in Asia, been all executed with an exactness that robs every sinner of his last hope of impunity. Those lamps are all gone out, the candlestick is removed out of its place; those cities themselves, some of them, are abandoned to the foxes and the owls; the Koran is substituted for the Gospel; the Sun of Righteousness has set upon those scenes of apostolic labor, and in its stead the crescent of the Arabian impostor sheds its pale disastrous light. Tell me if Britain does not deserve the most severe of their destinies, if after beholding them go down successively to the dust under the power of iniquity, she take not the warning, and by shunning the cause of their ruin, avert her own.
5. Can we look at the present condition of the country without entertaining the most serious apprehensions?It is no false alarm that is now sounded in our ears; all parties agree that we are in a most critical situation, from which nothing can extricate us but such an interference of providence, as we know not how to describe or to expect. A trade reduced almost to stagnation, a bankrupt list augmenting continually, a declining credit, a load of national debt, and taxation almost overwhelming, yet insufficient to meet the exigencies of the state, an exhausted treasury, and an administration at a loss how to replenish it, the rapid removal of British capital to be invested in foreign securities, hundreds of thousands of our laboring population only half employed, and consequently reduced to the greatest distress, a restless faction taking advantage of the sorrows of the poor, one populous district in a state bordering upon insurrection, the Government making encroachments upon our liberty, to defend us from anarchy, the division of opinion that exists both as to the political and financial measures which are necessary for our safety, and, to finish the whole, the expected departure of that venerable monarch, who, in his amiable character preserved a center of union for the country, and who, though long hidden from our view, has sent from his deep and affecting seclusion, in the remembrance of his virtues, a plastic influence, which insensibly molded our hearts to loyalty. With such a picture before our eye (and it is not too deeply shaded,) the stoutest heart may tremble, and everyone turn an anxious look to the unknown but foreboding future.
II. But it is time to seek a source of CONSOLATION, and to enquire if there are not some grounds to hope that the Lord will yet arise and have mercy upon Britain.Thank God, there are many bright specks along the dark horizon to encourage our hopes that the clouds will yet be dispersed, and that we shall be preserved from the gathering storm. So far as secondary causes are concerned, I repose too much confidence in the good sense, loyalty, patriotism of the English people, ever to imagine that they will allow their invaluable constitution to be violently overthrown by anarchy on the one hand, or gradually undermined by tyranny on the other. I cherish a hope, that should the peace of the world continue, and especially our internal tranquility be restored, our commercial and financial difficulties will be surmounted, and the tide of our prosperity again flow. But our expectation must be from God, after all. We must not trust in an arm of flesh, but in the living God, "who delights in mercy, and does not willingly afflict the children of men." There are many reasons why we should balance our fears with our hopes, from which I select the following.
1. The long series of deliverances which God has wrought for this country.We have, indeed, ever been the nursling of his Providence—the records of our history are replete with instances of divine interposition on our behalf. In addition to our early emancipation, first, from the yoke of idolatry and afterwards from the dominion of Popery, what deliverances from each have we subsequently experienced! From the Reformation until the Revolution ceaseless efforts were made to rob the country of its most valuable privileges, by civil tyranny on the one hand, and ecclesiastical usurpation on the other. It has become almost obsolete now to talk of the Spanish Armada, and the gunpowder plot, but neither those deep laid schemes against the Protestant religion, nor the equally malignant designs of the Stuart Kings against our civil freedom, should be allowed to sink into oblivion. We deserve all the terrors which these events produced in the minds of our ancestors, if we allow the memory of them to perish. Let us often go back to that illustrious era, when our merciful God rescued Britain from the slavery to which her infatuated monarch was conducting her, and having banished him as an outcast from the country, gave us in lieu of him that illustrious Prince, who ascended the vacant throne, as with the bill of rights in one hand and the act of toleration in the other. The rebellions of 1545, in favor of the Pretender, are also seldom thought of by us, but they made our forefathers tremble for the safety of all that was dear to them.
To come to our own times, who can forget the alarms we have passed through since the French Revolution? Never had this country, since the period of the Conquest, such a struggle for her existence as an independent kingdom. An enemy arose whose power at one time seemed almost as boundless as his ambition, while both together were directing their uttermost efforts against us. Like Haman, who accounted all his honors but as nothing while Mordecai was not humbled, he regarded all his conquests with dissatisfaction while England was free. In subjugating the rest of Europe, he seemed to have no other object than to convert it into one immense storehouse, from which to collect the materials of our ruin. We saw his progress with dismay, and as he broke the power of one state after another, beheld the evil approaching nearer and nearer to our own coasts. Deliverance, however, at length arrived, and in a way that showed it to be entirely of God. "He sends His command throughout the earth; His word runs swiftly. He spreads snow like wool; He scatters frost like ashes; He throws His hailstones like crumbs. Who can withstand His cold? He sends His word and melts them; He unleashes His winds, and the waters flow. He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and judgments to Israel. He has not done this for any nation; they do not know His judgments. Hallelujah!" (Psalms 147:15-20)
He let loose upon our antagonist all the terrors and forces of winter; he made the elements our allies, and poured upon him the hail and the snow which "he had reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war." It was not by human might nor power so much as by the agency of the Lord, that the pride of France was humbled, and our own deliverance effected. "It was the Lord's doing, and is marvelous in our eyes." At length, however, the mighty foe was completely subdued by the instrumentality of that kingdom which he had so often threatened to annihilate, and he was forsaken on the rock of Helena, and left to be the prey of his own reflections, like Prometheus beneath the beak of the vulture.
Now although we cannot peremptorily conclude from what God has done—that he will continue to do the same, especially as we so little deserve it. Yet may we imitate the conduct of the Psalmist, and in the midst of our difficulties "remember the years of the right hand of the Most High." Instances of past deliverance illustrate the power and mercy of Jehovah—and encourage us to trust in both. How often were the Israelites directed to strengthen their confidence in the Lord, by looking back upon all the way in which he had led them through the wilderness; and to prove by fresh acts of deliverence, that his arm was not shortened, nor his ear become heavy. The first duty we owe to God upon receiving a favor, is to be grateful; the next, to deduce from it a motive to trust him for the future. The pious suggestion of an Israelitish woman, may probably be applied, without presumption, to our case as a nation, "If the Lord were pleased to kill us, he would not have received a burnt offering at our hands, neither would he have showed us all these things."
2. The number of true Christians in the land is a pleasing and strong ground of hope.Amidst the aboundings of iniquity, thank God, we discover no small degree of genuine piety. Probably there is not upon the surface of the globe a spot, where, within the same limits, so many are to be found whom "the grace that brings salvation, has taught to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present evil world." By referring to the Scriptures, we learn this important sentiment, that God often confers favors upon the guilty for the sake of the righteous. In some cases divine judgments would have been altogether averted from a people, had there been among them but a small number of the friends of God. He would have spared Sodom for the sake of ten righteous, and said in after ages to Jeremiah, "Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her." Jeremiah 5:1.
Sometimes God's wrath has been deferred for the sake of the righteous. There was to be peace in Hezekiah's days, though dreadful times were to follow. Josiah was promised that he would go down to the grave in tranquility, and not see the evil which was then to come upon Judea. The vengeance of the Most High is frequently mitigated, and shortened in its duration—on account of the godly. "For the elect's sake," said Christ, in alluding to times of great tribulation, "those days shall be shortened." In one case we find a country delivered from the horrors of invasion, and the dread of impending subjugation, out of respect to a saint who had been dead almost three centuries. "For I will defend this city to save it," said Jehovah, when Jerusalem was threatened by the Assyrian army under Sennacherib, "for my own sake, and for my servant David's sake."
Temporal favors have been conferred on some people out of pure regard to the holy individuals with whom they were connected. Laban was prospered because Jacob was in his service, "and the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake." And in how many instances have spiritual blessings been retained in cities, towns, and villages, on account of those who had sufficient piety to value and enjoy them. When Paul would have departed from Corinth, he was detained there by a revelation from God to this effect, "I have many people in this city." These are instances sufficient to establish the truth of the general principle, that the wicked are often blessed for the sake of the righteous, and to warrant a belief that if we could scrutinize the secrets of the divine government, we would be astonished to discover what an extensive influence the friends of heaven have possessed in the arrangements of providence and the destinies of nations. Nor is it difficult to assign the reasons on which this procedure is founded. Is it not a public testimony borne by Jehovah of his love for his people and his approbation of their principles? Nothing is more common among men than to confer a favor upon a stranger, or an enemy, on account of a friend; nor do we feel anything to be a stronger token of respect, than a kindness shown to another on our account. On this principle does the Lord act in reference to the righteous; they are the children of his adoption, and the favourites of his heart, at whose request, and on whose behalf, he will sometimes bestow his favors upon others. It is thus also that he honors prayer. "I sought for a man among them," he said to Ezekiel, "who should make up the hedge and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it." The righteous answer the description which is here given, and come up to the requisition of the Lord. They stand in the gap, through which his judgments are coming in upon the land, and surround their country with a hedge of prayers. They take the public calamities with them into the closet of private devotion, and make them in the seasons of holy seclusion the matter of their fervent supplication at the throne of grace; and as many a river which carries fertility and wealth through a land, is to be traced to a spring bubbling up in the concealed recesses of some thick embowering forest, or in the hidden cleft of some overshadowing rock, so are many of the streams of national blessings to be found issuing from the retirement where the Christian wrestles with his God.
The Scripture assures us that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much." There seems to be a very strong belief in the minds of men in general, that the saints have "power with God," and considerable interest in the court of heaven. Hence when the wicked are in circumstances of distress, and especially when death stares them in the face, they are most anxious to enjoy the prayers of the godly; Pharaoh entreated for the prayers of Moses; and Simon Magus entreated for the intercession of Peter. A person once told a monarch, who was complaining of an individual who had fallen into disfavor for his plain dealing, "that he had not a better subject in his dominions, since that man could have what he wished of God for asking."
The righteous have great influence on the destiny of a nation, by opposing and restricting that iniquity which brings the judgments of God upon the land. As it is the sin of a people which lays them open to wrath; they who would keep off vengeance must keep out sin. Who are the people that hinder sin most? The godly! They reprove it by their testimony, they discountenance it by their example, they repress it by their authority. Every holy man is an impediment to the universal prevalence of iniquity! As the tide of depravity approaches him, carrying desolation along with it, he in effect says to it, "thus far shall you go and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped."
And, in addition to personal holiness, he avails himself of every scriptural and rational means for the suppression of vice and error. And while the righteous, by doing everything to suppress iniquity, are lessening the causes of the divine displeasure against a land, they at the same time increase the objects, and strengthen the grounds of God's kind regard, by the propagation of true religion. Vital godliness, like every other living thing, contains a principle of dissemination, and its possessor never more perfectly exhibits or enjoys its influence than when actuated by the philanthropic desire of extending its benefits to others. A zealous concern for the glory of God, and the best interests of his fellow-creatures, prompts him to avail himself of every suitable opportunity to enlarge the dominion and increase the subjects of true religion. By this means he multiplies in the nation those who are the friends and favourites of God, and goes on raising up others around him whose praises and piety are continually ascending in clouds of incense to heaven, and returning again upon the land "in showers of blessings."
There is yet another reason why the righteous have such influence in bringing down favors upon others, and that is, to keep up an analogy between the order of providence and the doctrine of grace. It is the peculiar and identifying principle of the economy of grace—to confer benefits upon the guilty for the sake of the righteous. Has not God "made Christ to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him? By the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." What is the salvation of the sinner, upon the gospel plan, but bestowing eternal life upon the ungodly—for the sake of Him who was altogether holy? What unbounded glory and honor will it confer upon our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, when the saints shall be seen at the last day casting their crowns at his feet, acknowledging with transports of gratitude—that it was for his sake they were all bestowed. Is it not then a striking analogy, that as spiritual and eternal benefits are conferred upon sinners for the sake of Christ—so the saints are honored in the arrangements of Divine providence, to have temporal benefits bestowed for their sake upon the world. With this view of the important and beneficial influence diffused by the saints over the interests of the countries in which they dwell, and at the same time remembering how great is their number in this land, I cannot but indulge a pleasing hope in the Divine mercy, that we shall yet be spared from those calamities which existing circumstances and the public apprehension might otherwise lead us to expect.
3. The great moral change which God is employing us to effect in the world, is another ground of hope.Work done for God seldom goes unrewarded. "He is not unrighteous to forget our work and labor of love." In alluding to the act of Phinehas in slaying Zimri and Cozbi, we find him using the following language, "Phinehas has turned away my wrath from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed them not." We are also informed that upon Joshua's zeal in the detection and execution of Achan, "the Lord turned from the fierceness of his anger." There is but little doubt that Josiah's piety in reforming religion and destroying idolatry, wherewith the land was so generally overspread, had considerable influence in keeping off the judgments of the Lord during his life. The Scripture has gone even further than this, by informing us that the service of a heathen prince, in executing the judgments of the Lord upon his enemies, although he was actuated by no other motive than his own ambition, did not pass unobserved or unrewarded by the Almighty. ""Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor strenuously against Tyre. Every head was made bald and every shoulder chafed, but he and his army received no compensation from Tyre for the labor he expended against it. Therefore this is what the Lord God says: I am going to give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who will carry off its wealth, seizing its spoil and taking its plunder. This will be his army's compensation. I have given him the land of Egypt as the pay he labored for, since they worked for Me." This is the declaration of the Lord God." (Ezekiel 29:18-20)
Public acts of zeal then for God's glory and service, rendered to him in the way of accomplishing his purposes, appear to be peculiarly acceptable in the sight of God, and often bring down his blessing not only on those by whom they are performed, but also on others connected with them. The wicked are sometimes spared to assist the righteous in carrying on this work, as the Gibeonites were reserved to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, for the use of the congregation. That part of the apocalyptic visions is often realized, in which the earth was seen to help the woman. Many who are totally destitute of real religion may render essential service to the great work of propagating it in the world. Seldom has a more wicked man appeared than Henry the Eighth, yet he was the instrument of the reformation. Cyrus, a heathen, let go the captives of the Lord, to build the city and the temple. Darius, Artaxerxes, and Ahasuerus countenanced and supported Daniel, Nehemiah, and Mordecai, in their pious and zealous efforts.
England has long been an asylum to which, from all lands, the feet of the oppressed have directed their course for protection, and to which 'the imploring eye of misery' has been turned from almost every scene of human wretchedness. But she is not only the benefactress of the nations, she sustains a still higher, more sacred, and more important character, for she is their evangelist also. When Jehovah placed her upon her rocky seat in the middle of the ocean, and sent commerce to pour its treasures into her lap, and permitted her to take the East and the West for a possession, and made her to be feared through all the earth, and gave the arts and the sciences to be her attendants, and religious and civil liberty to be the children of her adoption, and put the Bible into her hand—it was with this most impressive admonition, "For this cause have I raised you up to be a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be my salvation to the ends of the earth."
In some measure faithful to her calling, she is at this moment bearing the torch of truth, kindled at the fountain of celestial illumination, into "the dark places of the earth," sending heralds of mercy to "the habitations of cruelty;" rending "the veil of the covering cast over all nations," and preparing for the famishing tribes of the earth "the feast of fat things in the mountain of the Lord." By her Sunday schools she is enlightening the minds and reforming the manners and morals of the lower classes at home; by her Bible societies she is aiding the same benevolent design, and at the same time awakening the slumbering churches of Europe, and sending the precious Word of God to the very ends of the earth; and by her missionary institutions she is turning the heathen nations "from their dumb idols to serve the living and the true God."
The successful efforts made at the present moment by
British Christians of every evangelical denomination, to diffuse the light
of Christianity over the face of the globe, find no parallel in the history
of our religion—since its first ages. Nor are these operations at all
suspended or diminished by the difficulties of the times. The funds of the
different religious societies were never greater. In this season of our
depression, when the winds and the waves seem no longer as formerly almost
exclusively employed to bring us wealth; when our fleets are in the docks,
instead of transporting our merchandise to every foreign port; when the
weaver sits down to look with desponding eye upon the loom, in which the
shuttle used to fly to the notes of his joy—now, is our country sharing with
idolaters, the income of her poverty, and employing her diminished resources
to extend the influence and the benefits of her faith. The missionary spirit
is the guardian angel of our nation, and preserves a most auspicious token,
to which the pious turn a hopeful eye; and as they view it, "thank God, and
take courage." Not that these efforts warrant any claims upon God, in the
way of merit, but they seem to interpret his dispensations, and disclose his
III.I shall now enumerate the DUTIES incumbent upon us, which are to be deduced from this subject, as appropriate to our situation.
1. Let us devoutly acknowledge both the source and the justice of our calamities.It is true, that in every case of calamity which admits of the operation of second causes, it is our duty to look at these with a scrutinizing eye, since the origin of the evils that afflict us is often to be found in the sins which disgrace us, and the very removal of our distresses depends, under God, upon ourselves. "An attempt to develop the more hidden causes which influence the destiny of nations, is an exercise of the mental powers more noble than almost any other, inasmuch as it embraces the widest field, and grasps a chain whose links are the most numerous, complicated, and sharp." But when we have arrived at these, let us by no means suppose that this supersedes the necessity of acknowledging the interposition of the Supreme Governor; for, admitting that the calamities of a nation are the natural consequences of certain movements in the body politic, effects which follow causes in the way of established connection, yet still the question may be asked—were not the original movements, the primary causes themselves, appointed by God—in order that we should feel the consequences and effects which follow? Whether it be the long state of warfare in which we were engaged, or the transition from war to peace, or the excess of machinery, or certain financial disarrangements—or all these together, that have produced our present distress, in the way of secondary causes—let us not forget to look up to that great Being by whom all inferior and dependent causes are arranged to accomplish his purposes either of mercy or of vengeance. His rod is not the less to be acknowledged, because our own follies sometimes furnish its materials. There is nothing he more obviously intends by his judgments, than to produce a deep impression of his own dominion. Let us then take care not to bring upon ourselves the woe which is denounced against those "who regard not the work of the Lord, nor consider the operation of his hands." Let us, when surveying, feeling and deploring the distresses of the times, not omit to realize in these things the chastening hand of the Lord. And while we do this, let us confess the justice of his dealings. Let us consider our great and manifold transgressions against him. "You, for our sins, are justly displeased," is the language that best suits us.
2. We should learn from this subject to form a right estimate of the powerful influence exerted by moral causes—over the destiny and prosperity of nations.We have already considered the order of the divine government, in bestowing favors upon some occasions, for the sake of the righteous; but, in addition to this, righteousness itself has a natural tendency to promote the interests of a nation. In the theories and speculations which are always afloat as to the causes of the prosperity or decline of empires—far too little account is made of those of a moral kind. Forms of government, codes of laws, systems of jurisprudence, the state of the arts and sciences, commercial, financial, and political regulations, have each their own appropriate operation; but there is another source of influence, less obvious, though not less powerful than these, and upon which they all depend for much of their efficacy, I mean the state of Christian virtue.
The wisest institutions of human policy can do but little for a people among whom is lacking that degree of principle which is necessary to secure for them a right direction and a proper result. The prevalence of vice in a country, which is blessed in other respects with every advantage for being great and happy—is like the corrosion of an inward cancer upon one of the finest human forms, placed in a healthy situation, and possessing all the sources of wealth and greatness; in spite of every external advantage, and while the deceptive loveliness is upon the countenance—the principles of inward decay are in continual operation.
The prevalence of sin impairs the interests of a nation in innumerable ways; it circulates disease in the life's blood of the state through every part of the system, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot. It diminishes the revenue on one hand or misapplies it upon the other; it withers the genius, enervates the strength, paralyzes the industry, and dissipates the wealth of the population; it destroys mutual confidence, removes the only guarantees for the right direction of the public energies and the public institutions. In short, the prevalence of sin extinguishes all those principles of honesty, justice, truth, sobriety, and subordination, which are the seeds of national prosperity—and encourages the growth of a class of feelings which shed poisonous influences around them.
A country where Christian principle is at a low ebb, cannot be a happy nation—and cannot, for any long series of years, be a great one. Had the Roman empire possessed even the partial and defective virtues of the Republic, it would have resisted the attacks of the northern barbarians, whose successive armies would have been defeated by the old Roman valor and patriotism—as Pyrrhus, Hannibal, and the Gauls had been conquered before them. Instances from modern history might be cited, in which, when the most auspicious events presented themselves to benefit a people, they had not virtue sufficient to secure a happy result, but converted the very means that would have blessed them into a source of the heaviest curses.
An English prelate, in a work which does honor to the human intellect, has most clearly proved the natural tendency of national virtue not only to prosperity, but to power. "Could we," Butler observes, "suppose a kingdom or society of men upon the earth universally virtuous for a long succession of ages, it is easy to conceive what would be its internal situation, and what the general influence which such a community would have in the world by way of example, and the reverence that would be paid it. It would plainly be superior to all others, and the nations must gradually come under its dominion; not by means of lawless violence, but partly by what would be allowed to be a just conquest, and partly by other kingdoms submitting themselves voluntarily to it, and seeking its protection one after another in successive emergencies."
Instead, therefore, of having our attention absorbed in the contemplation of the political causes of national prosperity and adversity, let us look with more intense regard to those of a moral and spiritual kind. Let every friend of his country, according to the measure of his ability, and in the most direct line of his influence, labor to consolidate the strength of our empire by the powerful cement of religious principle. Amidst improvements in agriculture and commerce, in arts and manufacturing, in jurisprudence and finance—let us recollect that without an increase of true scriptural rectitude—there is nothing solid, nothing lasting. Whatever may increase, if at the same time infidelity and irreligion increase with it, it is but the expansion of a bubble, which, the more it is inflated, approaches the more rapidly to the moment of its dissolution!
3. Personal repentance and reformation are eminently appropriate to the present season.We have seen that it is sin, under the influence of which the interests of a nation wither and die, like a tree that has been smitten with the blast of heaven. There can be little hope for us in the mercy of God, except "the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and everyone forsakes his evil way, and the violence that is in his hands—and cries mightily unto him. And who then can tell but that God will turn and relent, and turn away his fierce anger from us!" As national wickedness is made up of the sins of individuals, let it be lessened by individual penitence and reformation. Let each one of us, for himself, say, "In what way am I contributing to the general stock of guilt? What is there in my conduct that tends to make God angry with the country? Wherein do I accumulate divine vengeance upon the land?" Let us not merge our individuality in the throng. It is most vain and hypocritical to lament the general depravity, while our own particular transgressions escape our notice! Such 'general lamentations' are too often resorted to as an easy composition for the severer duty of personal repentance. Who is there living in habits of drunkenness, of profane swearing, of sabbath-breaking, of uncleanness, of falsehood, of neglecting the great salvation? These are the people who, while they are bringing upon the land, as it were, "hailstones and coals of fire," "are kindling for themselves a fire which shall burn to the lowest hell." The ungodly should consider their dreadful situation—hastening from sinning to dying, from death to judgment, from judgment to the bottomless pit, and then from age to age of torment without end or mitigation! What is any political alteration or reform, to such people, or to any of us, compared with that spiritual change which is absolutely necessary to, and inseparably connected with eternal salvation! O, if only a small portion of the time and feeling that is given to questions which in a few years must cease to interest us, were devoted to those matters of everlasting importance which a million ages hence will be as dear to us as at this moment, it would be far happier both for ourselves and for our country.
By all the value of the immortal soul, and all the solemn importance of eternity; by the joys of heaven on the one hand, and the torments of perdition on the other; by all that is rapturous in the smile of God, and all that is tormenting in his frown—I entreat you, my brethren, to concentrate your chief desires and most vigorous pursuits on that change of heart and conduct, which is necessary to the possession of eternal life!
In addition to the greater importance of personal and spiritual reform, over every other kind, it has this advantage—that it is more within our reach. Our efforts to reform others may be unsuccessful; we cannot command their judgments, nor turn their hearts; but by the help of God, no sincere and fervent effort shall be in vain, which is directed to the improvement of our own character, and the attainment of our own salvation. In this sense let each one seek to reform one, and thus while promoting those interests which shall flourish when the earth and all the countries that are therein shall be burnt up, we shall most effectually advance the present welfare of the land, and we shall open to ourselves one refuge to which we may repair under every personal, domestic, or national calamity, and which will not fail us at last, amidst the wreck of matter, and the crash of worlds!
4. Importunate prayer for the divine favor will commend itself to all but atheists, as peculiarly seasonable in the present juncture of our affairs.If God is the ruler of the nations, let him have the honor due unto his name. Without neglecting a single means that human wisdom can devise for lessening the difficulties which exist, let us resort sincerely, and fervently, and collectively—to the source of illumination, and the fountain of grace. Amidst the innumerable expedients which one and another is suggesting, let a minister of the true God propose, that whatever else be adopted, the duty of prayer should be performed with fresh ardor. Have we any right, or any reason, to expect the divine blessing, except it be solicited? Let something by all parties be spared from invective, something from accusation, something from discussion—and given to prayer. It may be affirmed that those who rail most—pray the least. If any prayers prevail—it will be those of the righteous. Let them, therefore, diligently employ themselves in this holy exercise. How great will be their joy, should their supplications succeed; and if not, they will have the comfort to reflect that they did all that was in their power to avert the judgments of the Almighty—so that in either case their prayers will bring peace to their own bosoms.
Especially let us pray for those who are at the helm of affairs, that in this time of storm and peril, they may have wisdom given them to steer the national bark into still water, and bring her safely to an anchor, without casting overboard any of those precious rights and privileges with which she is so richly freighted. Let us intercede that they may be permitted to adopt no measure which shall exasperate; where we would charitably hope it is their intention to heal. And if there are any who have little confidence in the existing administration, there is the more need for them to pray to God, whose wisdom can confound the mightiest, as it can assist the weakest minds.*
* A public prayer meeting, in which seven congregations unite, is held once a month in Birmingham, for the state of the nation. Instead of an address, which it would be difficult so to frame as to avoid all cause of offence; each minister reads a portion of Scripture before he prays.
5. Let us exercise a scriptural and constitutional submission to the just authorities and laws of the realm."There is, in my apprehension," says Mr. Hall, "a respect due to civil governors, on account of their office, which we are not permitted to violate—even when we are under the necessity of blaming their measures. When the apostle Paul was betrayed into an intemperate expression of anger against the Jewish high priest, from an ignorance of the station he occupied, he was no sooner informed of this than he apologized, and quoted a precept of the Mosaic law, which says, 'You shall not say evil of the judges, nor curse the ruler of your people.' In agreement with which the New Testament subjoins to the duty of fearing God, that of 'honoring the king', and frequently and emphatically inculcates submission to civil rulers, not so much from a fear of their power, as from a respect for their office.
Apart from the personal characters of rulers, which are fluctuating and variable, you will find the Apostles continually enjoin a respect to government, as government, as a permanent ordinance of God, susceptible of various modifications from human wisdom, but essential, under some form or other, to the existence of society. The wisdom of resting the duty of submission on this ground is obvious. The 'possession of office' forms a plain and palpable distinction, liable to no objection or dispute. Personal merits, on the contrary, are easily contested, so that if the obligation of obedience were founded on personal virtues, it would have no kind of force, nor retain any sort of hold on the conscience; the bonds of social order might be dissolved by an unguarded statement. If respect for for authority is destroyed, nothing would remain to ensure tranquility, but the servile fear of men. In the absence of those sentiments, as the mildest exertions of authority would be felt an injury, authority would soon cease to be mild; and princes would have no alternative but that of governing their subjects with the severe jealousy of a master over slaves ready to revolt—so narrow is the boundary which separates a licentious freedom from a ferocious tyranny.
We shall do well to guard against any system which would withdraw the duties we owe to our rulers and to society, from the jurisdiction of conscience. Let the general duty of submission to civil authority, therefore, be engraved on our hearts, wrought into the very habit of our mind, and made a part of our elementary morality. Not that from anything here said, I would restrict the constitutional right of the people freely to discuss the measures of Government. "The privilege of censuring these with decency and moderation, is essential to a free constitution; a privilege which can never lose its value in the eyes of the public until it is licentiously abused. The temperate exercise of this privilege is a most useful restraint on those errors and excesses, to which the possession of power supplies a temptation. The free expression of the public voice is capable of overawing those who have nothing besides to apprehend, and the tribunal of public opinion is one, whose decisions it is not easy for men in the most elevated stations to despise. While, therefore, we maintain the privilege with jealous care, let us be equally careful not to abuse it."
6. We should be zealously active in the support of every proper measure for disseminating the principles of divine truth.If the 'foul spirit of infidelity' be abroad, let the 'friends of the gospel' follow her through all her dark and winding ways, opposing energy to energy, and contrivance to contrivance. Her element is darkness, her food is iniquity. Let us endeavor by every possible means to pour a blaze of 'scripture light' upon the land, and reform the vices which exist, and she will then retire like the wild beast of the forest from the light of heaven—to starve and perish in her den! Let those who profess to believe in the truth of Christianity, be more careful than ever to exhibit in their conduct the purity, the benevolence, the meekness, and humility of the gospel. Let everyone embody in his own character the internal evidence of Christianity, and prove that it is from heaven, by showing that it makes him heavenly. The sublimity, purity, and benevolence of its morality have ever been considered as the superscription of deity upon the gospel; let these be drawn out in living characters in our temper and conduct!
Infidelity is generated in the corruptions, blemishes and defects of inconsistent Christians, and fed from the same source.(A holy and venerable friend of mine being in London, felt compassion to call upon the infidel Carlile, before his trial, to reason and expostulate with him, and to deliver to him the warning voice. The blasphemer listened with calm and patient attention to the messenger of God, and on my friend's retiring said to him, "sir, if all the professed disciples of Jesus were such Christians as you, I and my party would very probably have thought differently of Christianity.")
Who can wonder at the great prevalence of infidelity in France, when the only view of Christianity which was there exhibited to the world, was in the form of lying Jesuits, lazy monks, haughty ecclesiastics, and a population who thought to atone for every vice by a few prayers in a language they did not understand—or a few acts of penance to a gilded or a painted image! We need not be surprised that the sarcasms of Voltaire should have been employed against the New Testament—when this was all he saw of its influence. A corrupt religion is the parent of infidelity, and it is no marvel if such a daughter rise up to the destruction of such a hypocritical mother; or that in her mad fury she directs her efforts against the holy being, whose name the hypocrite had borrowed and belied! Infidels find it much easier to attack Christianity through the inconsistencies of its professed believers, than to make their advances direct against itself! It is much readier to sneer at the hypocrisy of the adherents of the Bible, than to disprove the reality of miracles. This is as unfair a method of proceeding as to impute to British jurisprudence the crimes tried at the Courthouse; or to impute to the British Constitution the seditious practices of rebels.
It is useless, however, to plead the unfairness of the proceeding, and the only way to meet it is to determine, that as infidels will judge of Christianity by the conduct of its professors, they shall see in them a fair, and full, and faithful exhibition of its influence. Let us go on with the spiritual education of the children of the laboring classes. I say the spiritual education, for depend upon it we mistake if we suppose it is enough merely to teach them to read and write. There is nothing in such a system to operate as with the power of a 'magical charm', in the transformation of character.
In addition to this, it is principle, principle that is needed. Let all our Sunday schools become what they ought to be, what it was originally intended they should be, and what many of them are—a scene of spiritual cultivation, where the vast wilderness of mind which is found in the lower classes shall be broken up, and by being sown with right principles, shall become as the garden of the Lord, and yield in rich abundance the fruits of righteousness, peace, and order. If we merely teach them to read and write, we only plough and harrow the soil, and then leave it for the enemy to sow with tares, or raise upon it a crop of poisonous weeds. Let our Sunday school teachers labor to the uttermost to produce devout impression, to implant religious conviction, to form the character to habits of piety, order and loyalty.
And let the respectable, and well educated, and senior parts of the community, come forward and lend a helping hand to this great work. We have the next generation of the laboring population at the present moment under our care, in the form of children and in the character of pupils, and if we let slip the opportunity, we shall deserve indeed to suffer for our folly. Let us be doubly zealous in the circulation of the Holy Scriptures. The word of God is a moral sun, whose flood of radiance poured upon those lower and baser flames, presumptuously kindled by a spark from the bottomless pit to outshine his splendor and supply his place, will ultimately extinguish them all. Thank God for such an institution as the Bible Society, which was never more necessary nor more seasonable than at the present day, and which is encircling the moral interests of the poor with a barrier more unscalable to the enemies of revelation, than the great wall of China is to the wandering Tartars of the desert. Let this mighty defense be kept up with unsparing expense and labor, and let every Christian who has a dollar to give, feel himself put in requisition to assist the work. I can easily conceive with what rage and despair the genius of scepticism must look up at this impassable barrier, while scowling along its base she "counts the towers, and marks well the bulwarks thereof."
Let us renew our efforts in the cause of Christian missions. Such efforts, while they destroy idolatry abroad, and bring down the blessing of God upon our country, are perpetuating, by their success, the evidence of Christianity arising from its prevalence. The religion of Jesus is the only system of theology that ever supplanted another by the mere power of persuasion. And this it did; it dissolved the colossal edifice of ancient idolatry with the spell of words, and laid prostrate in the dust, by the mere force of truth, systems dear to the taste, the prejudices, and the pride of millions; thus proving that the conversion of the heathen world was the act of the same omnipotence which brought the earth from chaos. Now as we employ the same means, our success, so far as it goes, is a continuance of this species of proof. Every converted Brahmin, Tahitian, and Hottentot, is a beam of evidence shining upon the gospel, which has thus become the power of God to his salvation. We may send the deist to the once polluted groves of Tahiti, where cannibalism, murder, and promiscuous fornication were so lately committed without shame, and without remorse—and after he has surveyed the change which Christianity has produced, bid him do so with his enchantments, if he can.
Be zealous then, my countrymen, for the Lord God Almighty. Gratitude, justice, duty, all demand it of you; and if these are not sufficient, I plead one other motive—personal interest requires it. When the claims of the Almighty are generally, devoutly, practically acknowledged, then will the scales of our national destiny vacillate no longer, but settle into quiescence, and preponderate on the side of our salvation; then may Britain repose her hopes on the mercy of God, and cherish the high expectation that she shall be preserved a great and happy nation, until the conflagration of the universe!