David Tappan (1752-1803) was a minister from Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard in 1772 and was a pastor of a church in Newbury (1774-1792). Tappan was a professor of divinity at Harvard from 1792 through his death.
This sermon was preached on this statewide fast day as a result of a proclamation by Governor Increase Sumner. The text of this sermon has been updated to reflect modern spelling and grammar.
Delivered to the Religious Society
To the Christian Congregation
On April 5, 1798.
Being the Day of the Annual Fast
Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
By David Tappan.
PROVERBS XIV. 34.
RIGHTEOUSNESS EXALTETH A NATION; BUT SIN IS A REPROACH TO ANY PEOPLE.
To point out the political springs, the merely natural and secondary causes of national exaltation and depression, is the peculiar province of the historian and the statesman. To trace each of these effects to its moral source, or to display the important influence of virtue and vice in their several forms on the social as well as personal condition of man, is the part of the ethical philosopher, especially of the public religious instructor. To such moral reflections we are invited by the words just read, and by the solemn occasion of this day. For as the true spirit of a public Fast implies a general contrition for past offences and produces future reformation and obedience; so the text urges this pious sorrow and amendment by declaring their utility, yea, indispensible necessity to national happiness. RIGHTEOUSNESS EXALTETH A NATION; BUT SIN IS A REPROACH TO ANY PEOPLE.
I shall not detain you with critical remarks on the word RIGHTEOUSNESS in its various scriptural acceptations. It is sufficient to observe that as it here stands opposed to sin, it must be understood in an equal latitude; and must, therefore, comprehend the whole of virtue as it respects God, our neighbor, and ourselves. A truly righteous or just character must, in the view both of reason and revelation, imply supreme love to God and impartial benevolence to man, expressed in a sober, charitable, and godly life. When the Bible designates the various dispositions and offices both of piety and morality by the single character of justice or righteousness, it strongly imports that vital religion in all it is but the payment of a just debt or the conformity of our exercises to truth and right. When it is here predicated of righteousness or religious goodness that it exalteth a nation; the general idea is that it invariably tends to national honor and prosperity and in the ordinary course of things will ultimately secure them. When it is affirmed, on the other hand, that sin is a reproach to any people; the meaning is that every species of irreligion and vice contributes, either directly or remotely, to disgrace, enfeeble, and destroy a community.
The words then, in concurrence with the present solemnity, call our attention to the intimate and solemn connection between the moral character and the general condition of political bodies, especially of Republican Communities like ours.
The opposite effects of righteousness and sin upon civil society may be argued in the FIRST PLACE from the nature of things, or the essential tendencies of virtue and vice.
To place this topic of argument in a clear and strong light, let us distinctly attend to the principal braches of holiness and sin and trace the particular influence of each on the character and state of society.
The first branch of virtue is piety, or suitable regard to GOD. A steady belief, a commanding impression of an invisible Almighty Lawgiver and Judge, diffused through a community may be compared to the vital heat or the enlivening spirits which pervade and animate the human body, supporting and recruiting its various powers of action and enjoyment. This awful and affectionate sense of a Supreme Being lays the strongest bond to fidelity on every member of the public body; for it seizes his conscience, his inmost feelings and springs of action; it sensibly places his whole conduct, with its most secret motives, before the piercing eye of omniscient purity. What force must this have to restrain, yea, to extinguish those numerous lusts and vices, and to encourage and invigorate those multiplied dispositions and offices of virtue which human laws can neither define, inspect, nor reward! How must it disarm those temptations and discouragements which attend the faithful discharge of duty, especially in the higher departments of society! What meaning and efficacy must it give to an Oath, that great hinge of social order, justice, and security! A prevailing principle of piety effectually secures the practice of all those virtues which nourish and adorn a community; it constrains to universal goodness by a view of the perfect character and law, of the present and everlasting favor or displeasure of an infinite Being. – But when this regard to God and a future retribution declines in the avowed principles or reigning manners of a people; when speculative or practical atheism or infidelity is a prominent feature in the public countenance; when the ceremonies of religious worship in the family and the church are lightly esteemed, coldly performed, or entirely neglected; or when these sacred rites are profanely used to cover, to expiate, or to promote worldly and iniquitous designs; such prevailing impiety has a most baneful influence on social order and happiness. It not only argues a high degree of national depravity but it undermines the interests of moral virtue and opens the floodgates to every brutal excess, to every outrageous and destructive vice. If all sense of religion were erased from the human mind, no tie would be left to bind men to regular behavior in society except the fear of legal penalties or of present inconveniencies; and the terror of these would be unspeakably abated. Even capital punishments would, in a great measure, lose their salutary effect if men, with some modern political reformers, regarded death merely as a momentary pang or an endless repose from the toils and inquietudes of the present state. If religious principles were set aside, the most despotic forms of government, the severest laws, the most dreadful tortures would be absolutely necessary and at the same time insufficient to restrain the commission of crimes or to preserve a tolerable degree of order in the societies of men. It is owing, my brethren, to the secret influence of religion that we in this country can safely and advantageously enjoy a free constitution, a mild and liberal administration of civil government. It is this influence which supplies the unavoidable defects of the best political institutions and measures. It is this which softens their rigor and at once enforces and sweetens their observance.
We may even venture to affirm that absurd, superstitious, yea, idolatrous systems of religion are far better both for communities and individuals than avowed impiety and atheism. For though the former operate in numberless ways to debase and injure mankind; yet the mixture of religious and moral truth contained in them exerts on the human character a salutary influence which overbalances the contrary evils. But absolute infidelity, while it robs society of this needful and beneficial influence, leaves nothing in its room but unrestrained license, disorder, and misery. It may, indeed, substitute in place of religion the boasted spirit of philosophy and liberty, of patriotism and philanthropy; the desire of personal safety and honor, combined with the love of national glory. But these principles, not enlightened, strengthened, and controlled by religion are very feeble, uncertain, and capricious both in restraining and prompting human actions. Perverted and stimulated by the evil genius of infidelity, they are in danger of destroying that social virtue and happiness which they affect to guard and promote.
I cannot forbear adding, if a false system of religion has a far better aspect on the public welfare than impiety, how great must be the beneficent influence of a religion wholly pure and divine! Figure to yourselves a community, all whose members are steadily pious and devout upon evangelical principles. Suppose their hearts constantly to feel and cherish that reverential love and gratitude, submission and confidence towards the GOD AND FATHER OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST which correspond to the majestic and endearing display of His perfections in the person, doctrine, and redemption of this Son, and which the promised influences of His Spirit are designed to produce, to strengthen, and exalt. Suppose this inward piety daily expressed and improved by secret, domestic, and public offices of devotion and uniformly influencing the temper and conduct of it subjects. I ask, must not the effects of such elevated piety on the public interest be indescribably happy? Must not those noble and commanding principles which are implied in filial veneration of the SUPREME PARENT AND RULER; a sacred ambition to resemble and to please Him by imitating and obeying His glorious and beloved Son and by promoting the virtue and happiness of His rational family; an awful respect to His sovereign authority, His righteous commands, and His final retribution; must not these principles effectually restrain all classes of society from injuring the general peace and prosperity? Will they not give birth to the most mild and equal laws, to the most paternal and beneficent administration of the public concerns, to the most grateful submission and vigorous concurrence on the part of the people? Will not the best abilities and efforts of all the citizens be conscientiously devoted to one object, the advancement of the common good? – But this directly introduces
THE SECOND GREAT BRANCH OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, VIZ. SOCIAL VIRTUE or proper expressions of benevolence towards man.
This part of moral duty is intimately connected with the preceding. The man of religion, regarding his fellow men as the offspring and image of Deity, expresses his affection to the Father by loving and doing good to the children; he studiously imitates and honors God by fulfilling the designs and spreading the triumphs of his infinite benevolence; he obeys both the natural and revealed law of his Creator by steadily practicing every social virtue and thus contributing his part to the general stock of mutual benefits and enjoyments. Thus piety is the broad and effectual basis, while justice and beneficence form the rising and beautiful superstructure of universal goodness. This spirit of justice and kindness in the several members of a State towards one another and the public resembles the mutual sympathy and vigilant care of the various parts of the human body for the welfare of each other and of the whole. Accordingly, a political society actuated throughout by this spirit is like a body in full health. “The rulers, with patriotic zeal performing their proper functions, resemble the greater and lesser arteries, through which the vital fluid flows on without obstruction, and refreshes the most minute and distant parts; while the bulk of the people yielding in their various spheres a ready obedience, and leading an honest and peaceable life, convey back, like the numerous veins, the recurrent fluid to its source; and thus the whole frame is easy, vigorous, and happy.” – The principle of mutual justice and benevolence reigning in a community directly forms the faithful ruler, the obedient subject, the patriotic citizen, the obliging neighbor, the united and prosperous society. Like the great law of mutual attraction, it fixes each member of the political system in his proper station and devoted his whole influence to the order and felicity of the whole. At the same time it gives him the personal and sublime pleasure of conscious goodness and enables him to enjoy, by delightful sympathy, the virtue, friendship, and prosperity of all his fellow members, yea, the whole mass of natural and moral good which is spread over the universe.
But the want of this benevolent disposition on the prevalence of a selfish spirit in society shuts out these refined enjoyments and directly tends to every species of calamity. It destroys social union and order. It turns rulers into rapacious, unfeeling tyrants, and subjects into restless, turbulent demagogues and traitors. It poisons the fountains of justice by subjecting judiciary courts to the pernicious influence of affection or fear, of party prejudice, animosity, if not of gross corruption and venality. It subjects the most important elections to the government of local interest of unprincipled intrigue, or factious malignity. By creating a thousand separate and jarring interests in the bosom of the community it disjoints and convulses the national constitution; while it prompts the votaries of these several idols to sacrifice to them conscience, religion, humanity, country, posterity, and every sacred and endearing obligation. Thus it renders the citizens of a State unrighteous and oppressive, false and perfidious, cruel and revengeful; while it leads its public administration in its treatment of sister communities to violate the most solemn bonds of justice and good faith, and thus expose the nation confided to its care to the merited and perhaps fatal resentment of foreign powers. In a word, selfishness in the moral system operates like a universal principle of repulsion in the natural; it tends to a catastrophe in the former, analogous to that which such a principle would produce in the latter. It evidently leads both to private and public ruin.
In this respect, too, the Christian religion is an unrivalled friend to our social happiness. For it forbids and corrects the vicious and destructive selfishness just described and forms its disciples to the most pure, self-denying, and active benevolence. It sets before us, in the character and benefits of God and His Son, the most alluring patterns and motives of disinterested, condescending, triumphant goodness. It binds us to our fellow men by a variety of peculiar and most engaging ties. It annihilates those degrading distinctions which the littleness of human pride has created and instructs us to regard every man, especially every fellow citizen, as our neighbor and our brother. Thus it exalts the friend and the patriot into the universal philanthropist. It tends to unite the whole world into one peaceful and happy fraternity under the auspices of rational and virtuous liberty. While it requires us to love and do good to all men, it consecrates a peculiar share of our attention to the household of faith; it demands a special regard to the civil and religious interests of our own country, which Providence has especially committed to our care, endeared to our affections, and placed within our notice and influence. Christian patriotism is nothing else than general benevolence embracing, with peculiar sensibility and active energy, that portion of mankind to which our capacity of usefulness imminently reaches. On this ground the Gospel enjoins a cheerful and conscientious submission to the CONSTITUTED AUTHORITIES of our country. It binds us to reverence these authorities as the ORDINANCE OF HEAVEN. In a word, the spirit of Christianity is eminently just and equal, gentle and kind, humble and peaceable, loyal and free. It enforces and exalts the whole train of social virtues. It is, emphatically, the directing and animating genius of republican freedom, order, and happiness. Those individuals or communities who despise the Christian religion or practically contradict its generous maxims have the spirit of tyrants and slaves: their sordid minds are incapable of duly comprehending, enjoying, or defending the superior charms and blessings of genuine freedom.
This leads us to the THIRD ARTICLE of moral goodness, VIZ. PERSONAL VIRTUE; which consists in that temperate and prudent deportment which every man owes to himself, to his private security and happiness. Intemperance, luxury, and debauchery are equally pernicious to individuals and the public. They waste both the bodies and minds of their votaries and render them diseased, effeminate, and timorous; unfit either to plan or to execute any great and noble design. How weak and contemptible must a nation soon become which is generally composed of members like these! What an easy prey to every daring invader! – These vices too, joined with idleness their usual associate, melt down private and public property, produce bankruptcies, stagnate useful arts and improving science, and dissipate or stupefy the mind in such a manner as to render it insensible both of the prevalence of virtuous sobriety and diligence conduces at once to bodily health, to mental vigor and improvement, to flourishing business, to increasing wealth and reputation, and thus to the permanent defense and prosperity of a nation.
In this particular also the Gospel equally befriends our present and future felicity. It lays the ax at the root of irregular appetites, affections, and indulgences, by forbidding the first motions of concupiscence, anger, or hatred in the heart; by offering and conveying supernatural influences to cleanse this fountain of moral action; and by enforcing it as a primary duty to guard our secret thoughts and dispositions. Its doctrines and moral precepts, its motives and examples inculcate a high pitch of moderation and self-denial, of patience and fortitude, of meekness and contentment, of humility and prudence, of conscientious industry in our secular callings, joined with holy diligence in our Christian vocation. Thus the personal, as well as the social and divine virtues of our religion, eminently conduce to exalt a nation.
As the truth of the text is thus confirmed by the natural operation of things; so in the
SECOND PLACE, it is equally established by the MORAL ATTRIBUTES AND GOVERNMENT OF GOD. As the perfect moral rectitude of the Supreme Being may be certainly argued from his natural perfections; so His providential and moral government of His rational creatures is a necessary deduction from both. Those natural tendencies of virtue and vice which we have been considering, are the effects of a divine constitution and agency and, therefore, exemplify a righteous moral administration. But since these tendencies, though powerful and striking, are frequently obstructed in the present state by accidental and temporary causes, we are necessitated to look forward to a future and more perfect order of things; in which the happiness of virtuous individuals and the misery of vicious ones, will be unmixed and complete. But the case with political bodies is in this respect essentially different. These have no existence in a future state. Consequently the rectitude and dignity of the divine government seem to demand a present and conspicuous treatment of such bodies according to their visible moral characters. This is requisite no only to exhibit and maintain the governing righteousness of God but to comfort virtuous nations under temporary affliction, to encourage their efforts in repelling the most powerful, insolent, and prosperous enemies, and to reform or restrain wicked communities by the fear of impending and desolating judgments; a motive which frequently operates upon those who have become hardened against the terrors of a distant future retribution. Some public and striking instances of divine severity against impious, oppressive, or dissolute nations are also necessary to check the progress of infidelity and vice in the surrounding world, to lessen the numbers and break the combinations of wicked men and thus to deliver mankind both from the contagion of their example and the cruel effects of their injustice and tyranny. – This reasoning from the justice and goodness of the Supreme Ruler of nations is sanctioned.
THIRDLY, by the EXPRESS DECLARATIONS OF HIS WORD. AT WHAT INSTANT, SAYS JEHOVAH, I SPEAK CONCERNING A NATION, TO PLUCK UP AND TO PULL DOWN AND TO DESTROY IT; IF THAT NATION AGAINST WHOM I HAVE PRONOUNCED, TURN FROM THEIR EVIL, I WILL REPENT OF THE EVIL WHICH I THOUGHT TO DO UNTO THEM. AND AT WHAT INSTANT I SHALL SPEAK CONCERNING A KINGDOM TO BUILD AND TO PLANT IT, IF IT DO EVIL IN MY SIGHT, THEN I WILL REPENT OF THE GOOD, WHEREWITH I SAID I WOULD BENEFIT THEM. [Jeremiah 18:7-10]
The Bible is full of promises and threatenings of admonitions, expostulations, and entreaties which convey the same general idea. The Theocracy established in the Jewish nation, and the whole train of divine proceedings respecting that people, are conducted upon this principle. This conduct of Deity was designed as a specimen of the usual methods of his administration towards all public bodies; though it does not warrant them to expect such immediate and extraordinary retributions of Providence as were dispensed to ancient Israel. As God was the political Sovereign of the Jews, as they held their peculiar privileges (and even the land of Canaan) on condition of their loyalty; so they were under a peculiarly equal Providence, which not only awarded immediate prosperity or adversity to their general obedience or disobedience but instantly chastised a single presumptuous transgression even of a ceremonial or positive precept. Though in these respects Israel was a distinguished people and though some other nations may seem to derive immediate prosperity from their public or private vices or to be depressed for a time by their strict adherence to virtue; yet reason, Scripture, and fact assure us that national rectitude must and will finally prosper, and that a vicious community will be ultimately degraded and ruined even by those crimes which, at first, produced or assisted its elevation. Agreeably, the declarations and history of the Bible point us not only to God’s covenant people but to many less favored bodies of men who were severely threatened and punished by infinite justice for transgressing those moral and religious obligations which were notified to them merely by the voice of nature and tradition. How much greater reason have those communities to fear similar judgments who, like Israel of old, have enjoyed a supernatural revelation of the true God and His laws, have solemnly owned Him for their King, have been eminently guarded and prospered by His goodness, and yet have publicly dishonored Him by unthankful, irreligious, and immoral behavior! Let the past and present state of the Jews, and of many Christian nations, answer this question.
This brings us in the FOURTH PLACE to observe that the leading sentiment of our discourse is verified by EXPERIENCE. It is inscribed as with a sunbeam on almost every page both of ancient and modern history. It is a well-known fact that the most celebrated states and kingdoms of the earth have risen by virtue and fallen by vice. Even a very partial conformity to religious and moral truth by ignorant and idolatrous nations has been crowned by providence with a glorious temporal reward. Experience proves that political bodies, like the animal economy, have their periods of infancy, youth, maturity, decay, and dissolution. In the early stages of their existence their members are usually industrious and frugal, simple in their manners, just and kind in their intercourse, active and hardy, united and brave. Their feeble, exposed, and necessitous condition in some sort forces upon them this conduct and these habits. The practice of these virtues gradually nourishes them to a state of manly vigor. They become mature and flourishing in wealth and population, in arts and arms, in almost every kind of national prosperity. But when they have reached a certain point of greatness, their taste and manners begin to be infected. Their prosperity inflates and debauches their minds. It betrays them into pride and avarice, luxury and dissipation, idleness and sensuality, and, too often, into practical or scornful impiety. These, with other kindred vices, hasten their downfall and ruin.
The rise and fall of the four great monarchies of the world are striking confirmations of these remarks. The history of the ancient Republics of Greece and Rome is, in this view, peculiarly instructive to the people of America. The prosperity, declension, and ruin of those states, experimentally show that virtue is the soul of republican freedom; that luxury tends to extinguish both sound morality and piety; and that the loss of these renders men incapable of estimating and relishing, of preserving, or even bearing, the blessings of equal liberty.
What a dark veil of ignorance and barbarism, of bondage and wretchedness, have the degeneracy of man and the righteous judgment of God, long since drawn over many extensive countries which once enjoyed the light of science, of freedom, of great worldly glory, yea, of Christian knowledge, virtue, and joy! The justice of offended Heaven has suited its treatment of those once favored but unthankful nations to the complexion and aggravations of their crimes. It has withdrawn from them those temporal and spiritual privileges which they had treated with careless and disdainful neglect or with wanton and licentious abuse; it has doomed them for a series of ages to experience the opposite evils.
Our own times exhibit many affecting instances of the same general fact. A few of these we will notice in as tender and delicate a manner, as justice to the subject will permit.
You cannot, my fellow citizens, forget the striking displays of a righteous Providence which marked the commencement, progress, and termination of the late American Revolution. How signally did just Heaven overrule the oppressive measures of a great European nation towards her colonies in such manner as to make them instruments of their own defeat and of remarkably chastising the wicked selfishness and pride by which they were dictated! How wonderfully did God appear as the Friend and Patron of righteousness by granting uncommon wisdom, union, energy, and success to the councils and efforts of our infant country and by turning to her advantage the most flattering schemes, successes, and prospects of her enemies! How properly and effectually were the corruptions of the parent nation employed by infinite rectitude to punish the similar and growing degeneracy of her children, and in particular to correct and subdue their inordinate affection to and confidence in her, their blind and pernicious imitation of her follies and vices! How conspicuously did Providence make use of the two countries to administer needed and wholesome discipline to each other! By these methods was America qualified for, and led on, to happy and confirmed Independence; Great Britain was prepared to part with her on just and amicable terms; and both nations, thus separated, were disposed to cherish that friendly and beneficial intercourse which they could not enjoy in a nearer connection. What a various and instructive scene of Providential retributions is here! How ought it to live in every American bosom to the latest period of time!
What a memorable chastisement has Providence inflicted on those European powers who, a few years since, combined in a scheme to control the dearest rights and change the internal policy of an independent nation! 1 What a series of great and almost unprecedented defeats and calamities has attended this conspiracy! We have seen the invaded nation employed as an eminent executioner of divine wrath upon a large portion of the Christian and Protestant world for its great apostasy, oppression, and wickedness. We have seen this people permitted to shake, and in some instances subvert, those ancient establishments of civil and religious order which had either grown up to systems of debasing and cruel tyranny or, at best, had not been thankfully acknowledged and virtuously improved.
On the other side, that spirit of irreligion and atheism, of domestic faction and tyranny, of foreign ambition and conquest, which has too generally characterized the popular leaders and successive rulers of the nation in question, has been awfully punished by a corresponding series of internal jealousy and disorganization, carnage and misery. While the greatest splendor and triumph have founded their external operations, their condition at home has been and still is a picture of horror. Under the boasted pretext of high republican freedom, it exhibits all the terror and debasement of military despotism. And it is easy to predict that their bold impiety towards God, their insolent treatment of man, their open contempt and violation of those principles which are the only security of union, order, and good faith, either among themselves or with foreign nations, must ultimately draw upon them exemplary national punishment. In this respect they will resemble that haughty Assyrians of old; who, after having, as Jehovah’s rod, scourged the surrounding nations and particularly His own backsliding people for their transgressions, were in their turn conspicuously punished for that very pride, impiety, and cruelty, by which they had unintentionally fulfilled the purpose of heaven. 2
In the contemplation of these equally righteous and benevolent yet sublime and mysterious dispensations, can we forbear exclaiming, GREAT AND MARVELOUS ARE THY WORKS, LORD GOD ALMIGHTY; JUST AND TRUE ARE THEY WAYS, THOU KING OF SAINTS. [Revelation 15:4] SURELY THE WRATH OF MAN SHALL PRAISE THEE; AND THE REMAINDER OF WRATH THOU WILT RESTRAIN. [Psalm 76:10]
The preceding doctrine suggests many useful reflections.
It furnishes a strong natural proof of a FUTURE RETRIBUTION. The many signal interpositions of a SUPERIOR POWER in favor of righteousness and for the punishment of sin, the general operation of virtue and vice to the happiness and misery of communities, their strong and immutable tendencies to personal enjoyment and suffering joined with the many circumstances which at present hinder these tendencies from producing their full effect prove, at once, the commencement of a righteous moral administration in this world and its future completion in a more perfect state.
Our subject, by thus pointing to a more perfect order of things hereafter, affords a clue to those perplexing labyrinths in which the conduct of Providence respecting both societies and individuals is frequently involved. Though public bodies are, in general, treated according to their prevailing characters; yet we find that nations, as well as persons, are prevented by various causes from receiving an immediate and full retribution. For as the outward prosperity and calamity of both depend very greatly on the free agency of others and is natural effect; so good and bad communities, as well as individuals, are often so linked together, that they unavoidably share, in considerable degree, the same benefits or evils. As Providence frequently spares and prospers a great sinner that his affluence, power, or luxury may bless his virtuous connections, or that his guilty neighbors may be duly punished by his pride and injustice; so it sometimes apparently smiles upon a wicked nation for the sake of its few worthy members; for the benefit of its deserving allies or dependents; for the accomplishment of some great work of justice and utility exactly suited to its temper and circumstances; or lastly, that the Divine character may be signally honored, and mankind eminently instructed by its final and remarkable punishment. If irreligious or immoral societies were in all cases amply and speedily punished, no proper scope would be left for that trial, discovery, and maturity of individual characters which are necessary to prepare them for a future state. Wicked men would be cut off from those opportunities and means of repentance which a state of probation requires; and righteous individuals, being intimately connected in society with a vicious majority, would too generally, as well as prematurely, perish from the earth. The actual measures, therefore, of the Divine government towards communities and particular persons appear full of wisdom and beauty. While the former receive such a recompense of their conduct, as gives a general though incomplete display of the governing justice of God; the latter have sufficient advantages and motives to prepare for and confidently expect the ultimate triumph of virtue in the unmixed and endless happiness of its friends, and the final destruction of its obdurate enemies. 3
This leads us to infer the UNRIVALLED EXCELLENCY OF THE CHRISTIAN REVELATION and our obligations to God for blessing us with it. By ascertaining a perfect moral government and a future recompense, by insuring pardon to repentance, present succor and everlasting bliss to feeble, imperfect, and afflicted virtue, Christianity at once justifies the ways of God, and furnishes man with the best motives and helps to universal goodness. While the best human legislators and philosophers have set up temporal good as the object of their institutions, and called in religion and morality merely as engines of worldly policy; the Christian Lawgiver holds up spiritual and everlasting good as the prize of his followers. But though political and national prosperity is but a secondary object of our religion; yet its doctrines and rules, while they form individuals for the kingdom of Heaven, secure to society the greatest earthly felicity. Though the salutary influence of this divine system has been greatly obstructed by human error and wickedness, it would be easy to show that it has in fact unspeakably meliorated civil society; that it has in many important particulars improved the laws, customs, and manners of nations, and thus augmented the sum of virtue and happiness in a degree which baffles computation.
Let us then, my Brethren, reverence and sacredly adhere to the principles of righteousness, especially of Christian piety and morality. Let us regard these as the only foundation either of private or social happiness. I am sensible that modern infidelity pretends to great benevolence and public utility as well as to liberal, philosophic refinement. But recent facts have proved that no spirit is more bigoted and fanatical, more imposing and sanguinary, than that of impiety and atheism, especially when united with pretended or misguided ardor for republican equality. This spirit in a part of Europe has, indeed, abolished the objects and ceremonies of popish superstition; but it has created a thousand new imaginary deities, which under the names of reason, nature, philosophy, liberty, or abstract moral virtue, have been adored with as much veneration, and the least dissent even in speculation from the established idolatry has been persecuted with as much ferocity as ever characterized the dark and bloody ages of popery. What advantage then can Americans propose to themselves or their country by exchanging Christianity for infidelity, and thus introducing what some call the golden age of reason? Suppose, for a moment, that our religion were as visionary, as deceitful, or as slavish a superstition, as some pretend: Yet, experiment has abundantly shown that irreligion subjects mankind to a superstition far more degrading and cruel and at the same time destroys those mighty restrains from vice and engagements to virtue which the Gospel provides. Even the professed enemies of this institution derive from it not only that religious knowledge which they employ against it, but that regular and apparently virtuous character which renders any of them useful members of society. In a word, as a free government like ours, which originates from and is supported by the people, must owe its success to their enlightened virtue; so this virtue must receive its chief animation, stability, and improvement from religious and Christian principles.
We learn then who are the truest friends to their country. They are those whose example and influence contribute the most to cherish and extend the knowledge and practice of righteousness and to prevent or eradicate infidelity and wickedness.
We also learn with how ill a grace those persons boast of their patriotism, and publish their zeal for the liberty and happiness of the people, who are themselves the slaves of vice or the patrons of irreligion.
Further, our subject may assist us to a right understanding and performance of the solemn business of this day. Both reason and Scripture assure us that no forms of humiliation for sin, whether public or private, can be either sincere or beneficial which do not involve an effectual resolution to forsake our evil ways and return to the practice of universal righteousness. Our leading petition, therefore, on this occasion of prayer, should be for the influences of God’s Holy Spirit to renew our hearts and reform our lives. Such a reformation is the main ingredient both of personal and national prosperity. We have no warrant to wish or pray for outward and public blessings without a concurring, yea, ruling desire, of that Heavenly grace which will at once insure the virtuous use of these blessings and qualify us for far nobler and more lasting enjoyments. To confine our secret wishes to a prosperous year in temporal respects argues at once low sensuality, egregious folly, and daring impiety. It discovers a mind blind and dead to the true happiness and glory of man. It implies a request to God to protect and prosper us in sin or to become a minister to our carnal lusts. It involves a prayer for that, which if granted, will only pollute and destroy us. In short, it implies the absurd desire of a natural impossibility, viz. to be made happy without a right disposition and practice.
That our united humiliations may be sincere, our petitions fervent, and our future behavior agreeable to both, let us this day solemnly review our individual and national transgressions. Let us lament before the throne of God that growth of speculative and practical infidelity; that cold and contemptuous treatment of the truths and ordinances of our holy religion; that decay of the social and patriotic virtues; that rage for wealth, amusement, and splendor; that servile attachment to foreign principles and manners, whether in religion, politics, or the common modes of life; that unthankful and murmuring temper, amidst distinguished national blessings; that unnatural jealousy and censure of the best public characters and measures; in short, that growing apostasy from the exemplary piety and virtue of our venerable but imperfect ancestors, which too much characterize the present generation. Let us realize the aggravated turpitude of these evils in a community so enlightened, so exalted by Divine favors as ours. Let us consider the threatening aspect of these dispositions and manners on our personal and everlasting welfare, on the rising glory of our young confederate republic, and on the great interests of liberty, good government, and Christianity throughout the world.
In this connection let me bring home to your bosoms and my own the concluding words of the late excellent Doctor Price, in his Advice to America. “If the return of peace and the pride of independence should lead them (the Americans) to security and dissipation; should they lose those virtuous and simple manners, by which alone Republics can long subsist; should false refinement, luxury, and impiety spread among them, excessive jealousy distract their government, and clashing interests break the federal union; the consequence will be, that the fairest experiment ever tried in human affairs will miscarry; and a revolution which had revived the hopes of good men, and promised an opening to better times, will prove only an opening to new scenes of human degeneracy and misery.”
If this great friend to America and mankind justly entertained such anxious apprehensions for the result of our revolution at the date of his Advice; what would have been his feelings had he lived to the present moment? Is not the present crisis far more threatening to the freedom and order, the religion and happiness of both hemispheres? Are not the people of this country in a very hazardous predicament arising from the influence of various causes, especially from the prevalence of party spirit both in our national councils and among our citizens at large? Is not this spirit peculiarly inauspicious at a time when our very existence as a sovereign and independent nation is threatened from abroad? At such a period of external danger how devoutly is it to be wished that the noble spirit of 1775 may revisit every American bosom; a spirit of united invincible attachment to our own country; a determination to sacrifice every local interest, every dividing prejudice and passion, to the common safety; and a resolute trust in God to prosper us in our own necessary and righteous defense against the claims and assaults of insolent foes! Let us remember the high toned spirit of that memorable period and what heroic achievements it accomplished. Let us call the same spirit to our aid at the present crisis. Let us lose every party feeling and epithet in the glorious title of independent Americans. Let us renew that solemn oath which introduced and sealed our national existence; an oath that we will not be dependent upon or tamely submit to any power on earth; that we will acknowledge no master but God alone. For the sake of preserving the blessings of peace, let us be willing to give up everything but our national honor and essential interests. These let us sacredly defend and transmit at every possible hazard. For the security of these interests let us, above all things, return to and place our confidence in the God of our fathers, in the way of sincere repentance, obedience, and prayer. Then we may firmly hope that the present dark clouds will ere long dissipated. Then, according to the beautiful language of the Prophet, THEN SHALL OUR LIGHT BREAK FORTH AS THE MORNING, AND OUR HEALTH SHALL SPRING FORTH SPEEDILY; AND OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS SHALL GO BEFORE US; AND THE GLORY OF THE LORD SHALL BE OUR REARWARD. [Isaiah 58:8]
1. Should we even suppose, with some politicians, that France was the real aggressor in the late extensive European war; yet this circumstance cannot justify the original and well known objects of the coalition formed against her; since this coalition went much farther than mere self-defense and meditated on attack on her essential freedom and property. On this principle the above remarks appear to me well founded and proper. (Return)
2. Though the author has touched upon the affairs of two great European powers with studied brevity, caution, and impartiality, that he might not needlessly irritate the sprit of party, or grieve any weak and prejudiced hearers or readers; yet the late conduct of one of those governments towards its own subjects, towards neighboring countries, and especially towards America, must, he thinks, soon open the eyes of all our sober citizens and unite them in prudent yet vigorous measures of defense. Even our ardent affection to the people of France must impel us to make a stand against those self-seeking tyrants who have bound the and their legislature in the most cruel chains. Our respect to the general order, dignity, and happiness of our species forbids us, by abject submission, to encourage and strengthen the determined plunderers and oppressors of mankind. Our reverence of the SUPREME RULER and regard to Christian piety and morality, forbid us to countenance those who are the avowed enemies of His throne and existence and who are zealously employed in exterminating His holy religion. Finally, our own dearest interests as a free and independent nation must forbid our degrading and ruinous submission to the insolent and rapacious demands of foreign despots.
The writer feels himself both warranted and obliged to use this explicit and decided language by the recent communications of the President to Congress. The open sincerity and rectitude, the moderation and humility which mark the proposals of our Government and the conduct of is envoys, form a most striking contrast the mingled pride and meanness, the unblushing avarice and profligacy, which appear on the opposite side. This contrast affords to the American people matter of honest triumph and pious gratitude, as well as much useful instruction. It calls upon us to rejoice and bless God that the United States have, from the beginning of their revolution to this day, been favored with MEN OF VIRTUOUS PRINCIPLES to lead and protect them both in war and peace; and in particular that, at this awful crisis, they have a President who has long approved himself and honest man, an able politician, and inflexible patriot, and an exemplary Christian; whose established character, joined with his manifest interest, his high responsibility and ample means of information, effectually confutes the calumnies of his domestic and foreign enemies and claims the liberal confidence and respect of his fellow citizens. (Return)
3. The above paragraph, and a few other sentences in this discourse, were omitted in the delivery for want of time. (Return)