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Sermon - Fire - 1840
William Rogers - 01/26/1840

This sermon was preached by Rev. William M. Rogers in 1840 after the loss of the ships Harold and Lexington.







January 26, 1840.


Rev. William M. Rogers,

Dear Sir,

We were so much interested in the Discourse, delivered by you yesterday, in regard to the destruction of the ‘Lexington,’ and the dreadful loss of life on that occasion, that we are anxious to have it published. We hope that our belief, that good may be done thereby, will be a sufficient reason for you to comply with this request.

With sincere regard and respect,

Your friends,


Boston, Jan. 27, 1840.


Agreeably to your request, I submit the manuscript to your disposal. With many thanks for your favorable judgment on my labors,

I remain, yours in the Gospel,


To Messrs. John C. Proctor,
Thomas A. Davis,
Daniel Noyes,
Henry Edwards,
John R. Adan,
Wm. J. Hubbard.




God only is unchangeable. All else is mutable. Amidst the vicissitudes of things he sits upon the throne of his eternity, inaccessible to change and unapproached of death, the same yesterday, to-day and for ever. Pervading nature by his universal presence, and unmoved amidst all fluctuations, He controls every event, and turns every change to the accomplishment of his own sovereign purposes. There are no accidents in the government of God, no calamities which come unforeseen, unanticipated. But all is known, and predetermined, and for purposes good to man and worthy God. When calamity overtakes us, it is difficult to discern his hand in events which bring with them only unmingled sorrow. Faith is overborne, the heart is over-tasked, and the defences and refuges of piety are prostrated by the first rush of affliction. But when the soul has had time to regain her balance, it becomes her to know, that God is good in sorrow as in joy, in these fearful events which crush our hopes, as in his providential bounty and care, as in the mercies of the cross and the joys of an eternal heaven.

What then is the voice of God in this calamity? What the lesson of his mercy, taught us in blasted hopes, in the hearts broken, in homes desolate and empty? What is the teaching of God, when he makes the dead---our friends, brothers, sisters, children, fathers, to utter his truth? From the graves God hath opened for them embosomed in the waters, let the dead speak to-day, and let us hear their voice a the voice of the eternal God our Father.

There is sorrow on the sea; there are evil tidings on the land. Why is it?

I. There is sorrow on the sea.

Separation from home, parting from friends, coarsness of fare, daily toils and exposure to the diseases of other climates, with sudden death upon the deep; these are the life, not the sorrows of those who go down to the sea. Their sorrows are of a deeper cast. Who has not seen the good ship swing from her moorings, and lift her canvass to the breeze, while the pier-head was thronged with eager friends cheering her parting and waving their last kind wishes for a happy return. The flag of her country waved above her---the emblem of her power and protection, far as the wind may bear, the billows foam. But, ah, she goes where the might of a nation is powerless---among the wonders of God in the sea. How often does the sailor mark the gathering storm, and brace him to meet it with the resources of seamanship. He has seen the sea tumultuous, he has felt the blast of the tempest before, and he walks the deck, strong, in his own resources. The thunders utter their voice, the lightnings flash, deep calleth unto deep, and lift their waves like arms to embrace and engulf the ship. She bends to the tempest, and braces her yards to its blast, or flies before it with resistless speed. But how little can man do. Her canvass is rent to shreds, a rope parts, spar after spar goes by the board, the ship does not answer her helm and she is overborne by the storm, or lies upon the waters, unmanageable, the plaything of its tumultuous waves. How often are the horrors of fire or the leak accompaniments and accessories of the storm, until the good ship goes down with all her rich freight, and the waters gather over her, as if she had never been. Truly God walks the sea in fearful majesty. It may be the sturdy men that walked her deck betake them to their boats, with hope of rescue and of home yet warm about their hearts. But how often is it a living death. The night brings no rest, the sun no cheering. They look for land, and see it not; they discern a sail, and it turns to cloud. An hungered, athirst, starved to the very bone, the kindliness of nature is overpowered, and they glare upon one another with hungry and cannibal eyes. They live in their coffins and their graves are beneath them.

There is sorrow on the sea. Even within the protection of our bays and harbors, where clustering vessels had sought a refuge from the storm, God hath broken the ships of Tarshish with an East wind, and while the shores were blackened with the many who sought their rescue, ready to peril life for life, within sight of their danger, within hearing of their agony, the storm has overmastered them and given back their mutilated corpses to the land again.

There is sorrow on the sea. We have spoken of familiar and recorded sorrow. But who can measure the griefs unwritten save in the book of God; who can catch and utter again the voice of human agonies amid the waste of waters unheard but by the ever present One? Who can describe the bitterness of their death, who went down to the grave struggling hopelessly, with no eye but His upon them? There are none of you familiar with the seas, who have not often passed in mid ocean a spar, a timber, rounded with the ceaseless wash and wear of waters, barnacled and tasseled with weeds, once doubtless a portion of some noble ship. But what was she, and whence? Where are the men that peopled her? She went forth and came not again. Her history is brief. She left her port and was never heard of more. The merchant, who has freighted her deep with the abundance of his warehouse, pores over the registers of arrivals and departures---but her name and her fate are hidden. The mother, whose boy has wandered from his home to the deep, looks for his coming---but he does not come; and often she asks, are there tidings---but tidings there are none. There is unknown sorrow on the sea.

But these are the common and expected casualties of the sea. They are the history of every day and the burden of every print. We meet them without surprise and leave them without abiding impression. Indeed it has come to be accounted a natural death for the seaman to perish by the waters; and when he dies, he dies often unknown, unvalued, with but a passing sensation upon the public mind. Sometimes, indeed, one we have known, and loved, leaving a family circle bound up in his life, finds his grave in the sea, and even then the teachings of that sorrow are too much limited to the firesides which shall know him no more for ever. In such casual and insulated calamities, the public mind is moved too much as the sea, when it open to embosom the sinking ship. There is a wave, a ripple, and it flows on as before. It is moved to sympathy, but passes on uninstructed. The voice of God is hushed amid the thronging cares of life. It is under such circumstances, that our God has often broken the common order of his providences by signal and general calamities. There always has been sorrow on the sea, but now there are evil tidings on the land. It comes to every church, to every congregation, to the families and firesides of our city, and our Commonwealth. It is not the nameless and homeless sailor who has fallen; it is the known, the loved, the honored, the pride and joy of many hearts. Truly God hath spoken with fearful distinctness, and to us all.

II. There are evil tidings on the land.

The facilities of communication between distant points introduced by steam, have been accompanied with a corresponding increase in travel itself. They who seldom travelled before, except under the pressure of circumstances, now mingle in the throng crowding our great routes. The men of business are there oftener than ever, and with them the man of science, the minister of the gospel on some errand of mercy, the father, the mother with helpless infancy, drawn by the ease of transfer from a quiet home to meet and bless once more the absent and the loved. A calamity here, touches society on the nerve. The dismal history of the Home, the Pulaski, the Lexington, shows a long, sad list of the honored and loved, filling every position in human society, and touching each a thousand hearts in his fall; and so will it be in the future. The community may expect, that whenever calamities occur upon our great routes, it will not be the nameless alone who will perish, but with them, the best life society can furnish.

Who did not feel this when the evil tidings of the Lexington came upon us, and the fearful list of dead became distinct and legible? Who but shrunk from the perusal; who but denied to himself the first overwhelming tidings, and disbelieved in spite of evidence, for hope overmastered fear. And when confirmation strong blasted all hopes, with what deep horror did men look upon one another. It was felt to be and it is a public calamity. Its pressure falls heavily on many firesides, but its shadow is over all.

There are evil tidings for us, for who were there? The men of business, whose foresight and energy pushed enterprise to its utmost; they who were the authors and centres of plans branching and extending until they girdled the globe; they whose activity gave bread to hundreds, they were there. And with them the minister of the gospel, one who had found a home in a land strange to his infancy, and whose integrity, learning and worth had won a place for him in many hearts, and a position honorable amongst men, he was there. And with them, one who had crossed many seas and looked upon death right often, and whose protracted absence had given rise to sad forebodings of his fate, when the glad news of his safe arrival filled many hearts with joy, he was there, and he came to crown the hopes of years, and to meet her who was to be his bride. 1 He hastened to his bridal, but it was with death; and she who was to be a wife was more than a widow. And they too were there who reverently took up their dead, that they might bear it to the family tomb, to rise together in the last day, and together God buried them. And helpless infancy enfolded in a mother’s arms, now first no protection, and veiled and enshrouded, the last sad office of a mother’s love, it was there. The eager crowds that thronged that boat were fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends, and with life vigorous at their hearts, and hope bright before them, they rushed, they knew it not, to their own graves. But could the private history of the individuals on board that boat be known, could we follow the tidings of death to each desolate home, and broken heart, there would be more of anguish in the circles of friends who live to suffer, than in the horrors of that night.

But among them never can we forget one, a brother of this church, with whom we have taken sweet counsel, and walked to the house of God in company, with whom we have broken the bread, and lifted the cup, the emblems of a Saviour’s sacrifice, with whom our prayers have gone up to God, and our labors been joined on earth;---possessed of a sweetness of temper, touched lightly by the cares and vexations of life, with a religious character ripening and maturing with great promise; loved as a son and as a brother, and loved in relations more tender than either, life was worth to him all it could be worth to any man. He entered that boat, committing himself, and the record yet remains to us, to his covenant keeping God, and his God in covenant hath taken him to join the sister and the brother, “not lost, but gone before.” And there with his God in covenant let us leave him, assured that redeeming love is a portion richer for the soul than any earthly good. 2

III. There is sorrow on the sea, and evil tidings on the land, and why is it?

In a government administered by infinite wisdom and goodness, nothing can transpire except in consistency with mercy. Sorrows come not forth of the dust; they spring not out of the ground. They have their purpose, and it is one worth the gaining, even at the price of life, and of such life. If we shrink sensitively, and who does not, from the horrors of that night, let us remember that the purpose of their death in the government of God, is as glorious as they were dreadful. In the heavens, one world calls to another to praise God, and in all their glorious circles, day to night, and night to day, proclaim him Creator. That is the voice of his majesty challenging the reverence of man. But here the dead speak to us, and from the enfolding depths where God hath them sure against the resurrection, I seem to hear them admonish us. This is the voice of his mercy---and it tells us to be ready to die at any time and in any way.

It is most solemn truth, that God has pledged himself to no man, how or when he will bring him to his grave. He has cast the shadows of futurity about it and bidden us be always ready. He will not give us this knowledge, to calculate how long we may live in sin, and when it is indispensable to become Christians. He will not sanction our being aliens while we may, and children when we must; but everywhere, in every open grave, in the common course of his providence, in unusual and marked calamities, in the warning of his word and the voice of all experience, he bids us be ready for any death at any time, for there is no safety to the Christless. This is the voice of God’s mercy to the living, coming up from those waters lit up by the fires of death. There never was a calamity so fatal, which to the eye of man seemed so needless, and so improbable; never one where the means of relief from within themselves or rescue from without so promising; and yet every hope was blasted, every expedient fruitless, and death closed the harrowing scene. It is often the case, that God leaves man to the sympathies of home, and the soothing kindnesses of affection; but often as here, he visits him in the midst of his strength, with all the appurtenances of safety about him, yes, in the very midst of his triumphs over nature, where he has imprisoned the fire, and made the air and the water, and the rugged iron toil for him like bondmen, in the very supremacy of his dominion over the elements, the hand of God is upon him and he dies. No miracle attests the present God. The fire and the waters and the air retain their nature, and, acting each in conformity with unvarying laws, they accomplish the purposes of God, and man finds his wisdom foolishness, and his strength helplessness. There is no safety to life in human devices.

And when the outcry rang through that ill-fated boat, that death threatened them in a form most appalling to humanity, how soon were the distinctions of society annulled. Poverty stood side by side with wealth, knowledge with ignorance, strength with feebleness, all were upon a common level. Of what avail was wealth? The coined silver and gold were not worth their bulk in water to quench the burning boat, but were emptied out and trodden under foot as worthless, with the life in peril. Here let the eager and the greedy for gain measure the value of their gettings. Here let them learn that gold will not save the life, though it may ruin the soul. Here let the proud take the guage and dimensions of their distinctions; they never have barred the pathway of death. Here let the vigorous, full of life, and trusting to see many years, acknowledge a mightier strength, before which theirs is but imbecility.

Oh, that was a scene of many and crowding thoughts. Home, and the hearts bound up with them in the issues of life, wives, husbands, parents, children, brothers, sisters, all were present to their thoughts. All that made life worth the having, concentred in the hour; but all that made life desirable could not make the cup to pass from them, which wrung the life from out their hearts.

That was a place of prayers. If men ever pray in earnest, it is at sea, when the help of man utterly fails, and God only can rescue. Doubtless men prayed who never prayed before. God grant their prayers were heard. And there were Christians there to test their piety, and cast themselves upon God, “for he who trusts in Jesus is safe, even amid the dangers of the sea.” But even prayer coming up amid voices of agony, and dying men, was heard unanswered, and they died. Does not God teach us to rely for life neither on human skill or strength, upon wealth or the ties that bind to life, nor even upon the piety of the Christian, for God hath richer blessings for him than life, stored up in heaven. There is assurance of existence no where. God warns us then to be ever ready to die in any way, for he has pledged himself to no man how or when he will bring him to his grave.

There is a duty which yet remains to me in closing this discourse. I address myself to those who never have professed to be Christians, and ask them,

Are you ready to die? Had your soul been in their souls’ stead, what would be now your condition? It is by the mercy of God that you are spared, and spared to the service of this day, to hear the solemn truth of this discourse, that God has not pledged himself to you, how or when he will bring you to the grave. Within the year, three members of the congregation and one of the church have found a sudden death on the sea, while a father of a member of the church has shared the same fate. Of the members of the congregation one was a child of the church, baptized and nurtured for God; the other in the vigor of manhood, generous, energetic, kind and affectionate, found his death by the burning of the Harold in mid ocean. The third in the vigor and promise of life was lost in the Lexington. These events which have filled the house with mourners, and touch every heart, are enforced and deepened by the sorrows of many bereaved by the recent calamity, teaching the same lesson in God’s providence. Be ready to die in any way, at any time. Are you ready? Men have died to teach you the lesson. Many hearts have been wrung with anguish to impress it. And while the weeds of wo are before your eyes, let the voice of the dead come to you as the voice of God, “Be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.” Be in earnest in the care of your soul. Put off from you this listlessness and indifference which is stamping death upon your immortality, and robbing you of heaven. Strip yourselves of that foolish and wicked pride which fears the world more than God, and shrinks from personal and earnest thought and action in religion. You have chosen a pastor as your guide to Heaven. Make him so frankly, openly, disclosing your hopes, your fears, your doubts and difficulties, never shrinking from a manly avowal of your estate, or from the use of opportunities to know yourself and God. And above all, go to your God, for you have a soul to be saved, and he alone can save it through Christ. So shall your end be peace, and the very grave, which hath enlarged herself to enclose the coming, shall yield to you the fruits of eternal life.

Brethren of the church: A brother has gone, for God has taken him. He mingles his voice in these services no more. He will break bread with us never again on earth. It would seem more natural for the eye to rest upon him in the vigor and bloom of health, worshipping among us, than to speak of his death. But such is the inscrutable purpose of God. We yet remain, but how long? He who hath taken him alone knoweth. And are we ready? Is our work done? Could we leave the earth in peace, feeling that nothing remained for us to do? Oh, it is not so. How much is yet undone! How brief a space to finish it! As we think of the dead, let us cherish no fears for him. We may exultingly take hold upon the promise of Christ, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” There is enough of sureness and blessedness in the promise to cheer and sustain us in this bereavement. But let us think of the living, of our duties to our own souls, to those who are without hope in the world, and to God himself. Put away the fatal sloth and inaction, which preys upon the piety of a church, like a canker. Awake to righteousness and sin not. Let us humble ourselves before God for our negligence and remissness in his work, our coldness and unbelief, and implore the aids of his Spirit in humble dependence. Let us do these things, for death cometh and afterwards the judgment.

To the bereaved of this church and congregation, we extend our sympathies in their sorrows, and implore in our prayers the blessings of the Almighty Father upon them. But look to richer consolations than are found in any human hearts. Remember that your sorrows, keen as they may be, proceed from one who has tasted death, and known its bitterness, deepened a thousand fold by the accumulated sins of a world. He who hung upon the cross, and tasted death for every man, He it is who hath permitted these bereavements to come upon you, and for the self same end for which he died. They are means to the renewal of the heart or the sanctification of the soul. They are intended to prepare for you a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Let not affliction fail of its end. Let it not be needful, that sorrow come again. Go then to the Saviour, who has smitten in tenderness, not in wrath, and learn to read this life in the light of heaven---and to hear the voice of God from the graves of your dead, bidding you be holy, trust in Christ, and be happy forever.


1. Capt. Carver, of Plymouth. After a passage so long as to excite serious apprehensions for his safety, he reached his port, and, by his request, every preparation had been made to consummate his marriage immediately on his arrival home. He entered the Lexington in that expectation, and was lost. (Return)

2. ‘Among the passengers who perished, was Mr. James G. Brown, of Boston, a young gentleman of devoted religious character, and greatly endeared to all who knew him. On the morning of the fatal 13th, he took, leave of his friends in Newark, where he had recently formed a most tender connection. Among his baggage, since found on the beach, and restored to his friends, is his pocket Bible, and a little volume called “Daily Food,” consisting of texts of Scripture for every month and day in the year. The texts for January 13th, (the fatal day) were, with singular appropriateness, these---“He that endureth to the end shall be saved.” “Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.” These passages were marked by his own hand by a turned down leaf, and from his known habits had doubtless been the theme of his meditation just before the melancholy catastrophe. The portion of Scripture marked as recently read is the 23d psalm, embracing the triumphant exclamation of David, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”’ Newark, N. J. Advertiser.(Return)

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