Cyrus Augustus Bartol (1813-1900) graduated from Harvard divinity school in 1835. He was a co-pastor with Charles Lowell at the West Church in Boston in 1837 and became the sole pastor of that church in 1861.
“SNOW AND VAPOR.”
PREACHED IN THE WEST CHURCH
C. A. BARTOL.
Ps. cxlviii. 8: “Snow and vapor.”
For many weeks, one universal object of sight, and subject of conversation, has been the snow; and as the snow is not only in the street, and in our talk, but also in the Bible, it may not be out of place in the pulpit. But some may say, What to do with religion has this frozen mist of the air, which, at certain seasons, comes to block up the ways, and make bad walking,---to chill the atmosphere, and require additional clothing for our warmth? There are those who allow themselves by it rather to be made irreligious; for they are even out of humor with the snow, and call it many hard names, as in it they walk staggering, or drive uneasily about; while not a few, I fear, will regard any attempt to give to it any thing like a spiritual meaning as the weakest play of fancy, and most superficial show of flowery rhetoric, quite unworthy the attention of a serious man. But evidently, to justify its introduction, I need only remind you that David elevates this creature of the snow into his choir of the divine praise; and, if he makes it worship, I may try to make it preach. For I would rather be of that sect which perceives a spiritual sense in every material thing, as in the mere mention in the Scripture of rain and dew, than belong to that other denomination of worldlings and skeptics, to whom nothing great or holy is suggested by the strong agencies, and fine motions, and visible spectacles, of the creation in which we live. Let the snow, then, in its extraordinary accumulation, be the burden of our discourse till we can humbly receive its religious teachings.
First, it impressively sets forth the divine power. “Snow and vapor,” the Psalmist well says; for snow is but vapor undergoing a change of structure as it passes out of one stratum of the atmosphere into another of different temperature. That by this simple law---which noiselessly turns a globule of moisture into a frosty flake, falling softly through the air, or borne as a feather before the wind---there should be gathered, from the treasure and boundless generation of the clouds, such an innumerable flock to whiten the ceiling of heaven and the floor of the world, making, north and south, the ocean-coast but one bank of spotless luster, and spreading westward till mountain and prairie are clad in the same thick, unblemished dress; that there should be marshaled such a mighty host of particles, each in itself insignificant, to hurl tempests athwart the unmeasured concave, more terrible and resistless than ten thousand armies with banners, rocking old ocean to its depths, and wrapping the earth in its winding-sheet, sifting down the closely folding, widely drifting substance so thick and copious from the sky, that, but for the “thus far and no farther” of God’s restraint, we should soon all be in our whited sepulchers, and all life of plant or animal gasp and die under the enormous load; this---shall I call it overwhelming avalanche from heaven, or light whirling of an instrument so delicate, to sweep the face of nature, and balk all the ability and mechanical contrivance of man---is surely a striking token of the Divine Almightiness. And it is good there should be such a demonstration of power, to convince us in and self-confident mortals that there is a Being at work, beside and above ourselves, for whom it wakens our acknowledgment and stirs our adoration. I know that this moving massive column, which the Creator wields, may seem like a scourge, as it stops the traveller on his journey, lays across the track its old bar, against which the fire-breathing engine---nothing else dare face---impotently frets its force away; puts out the lights that shine over the sea from the headlands, and blinds the poor sailor on the freezing deck or the stiffening shrouds; turns the deep into a gloomy pit, in which his laboring bark pitches to unknown ruin; casts away many a noble ship on the rocks, or founders her in the waves, and keeps back the precious cargo whose arrival would be wealth, and whose detention is poverty. I know well, from many a tale and many a sight, that, in alpine passes and fathomless ravines, its smooth and level look deceives and destroys the incautious wayfarer; that its huge piles slide in fury to overwhelm villages and plains in an instantaneous and unexpected grave; that it creeps in enormous glaciers, which I have seen and penetrated into and shuddered at, down the slopes, threatening the abodes of man; and shoots up into frowning peaks and mountains of ice, that, with eternal forbidding, warn him and his arts and cultivation for ever off. But all this is only material, bodily, worldly menace and harm. The exhibition of power that I speak of touches the soul, raises the heart’s ascriptions and doxologies to God, fetches men in fear and danger to the knees perhaps not bent before in supplication, or put anthems of deliverance on lips that had never sun, till David’s harp rings again, and our hymns flow with new meaning from our mouths; while, all over the land and the water, innumerable eyes, that had sought only pleasure or gain, look up trembling and grateful through the windows of heaven, thus terribly opened, to the Source of all things. And this, I say, is good: all these devotions or thanksgivings, born of the blast, are man’s best blessing in his tribute of awe to his Maker. Let the tempest come, if it will drive us to such refuge; let the hurricane blow, if it will make us pray; let the snow fall, if its descending lines are the pillars for our ascending thoughts! Tornado and gulf shall be welcome, if, tossed by the one or sinking in the other, we find out God. Business and intercourse are interrupted, you say. And is it not well, for such a diviner end, that their wheels, so fast and constant, should sometimes stop, restless creatures be brought to a stand, and a holy season instituted in the midst of the week? I pity the man, who, when the snow kept him one day from our temple, could not turn the hinderance itself into worship.
But it is not to ravage and lay waste that the storm is shaped from the clouds and precipitated upon the ground. The snow is a preacher of goodness as well as power, and has very important ministries, in the economy of nature, for human welfare. In our northern climate, it prevents the frost from penetrating so as to be fatal to the roots and seeds in the soil. While it appears to dart cold into every thing, it is but a garment to warm the ground; and, in polar regions, men resort, for protection from “the eager and nipping air,” to caves in the snow, which afford them comfort, and are the houses in which all their fatigues are refreshed and wants satisfied. In its melting, it fills the spr springs, and waters the fields, whose growth also, from its peculiar composition, it so stimulates and increases, that it has been called the fertilizer of the poor man’s farm. But what would be the richest landholder’s resources compared with its aid? All the labor and capital in the world could never compass the valuable ends it achieves. Are we dissatisfied with the snow? And do we wish it away, saying, as some do, We shall be glad when it is gone, and moving our foot impatiently as it slumps or slips in the road, and, it may be, indulging ourselves in some of those epithets and superfluous expletives of cursing or complaint, which arise always from our ignorance or folly, and express sometimes our impiety and sin? Or saying only, We are thankful at any signs of the winter’s breaking up, as though we could be thankful for nothing in the winter itself? But let us beware lest we cross our own interests, and maltreat our friends. The snow you spurn, dissolving in due time, and taking to itself wings from the air and the sunbeams, or making the clouds its chariot, may light in the flower whose fragrance you shall by and by inhale, or flow in the juices of the fruit or grain you shall relish. It shall run in the veins of the earth, or fly over the territory to infuse richness and drop fatness, producing verdure and blossoms and harvests, whose origin you may not suspect,---an unostentatious benefactor, concealing its gifts,---and, in the plenty it lavishes and the wide existence it creates and supports, atoning a million times over for the property or life which, in its assaults, it may have crushed. Useful beyond all estimate, exchanging its wintry pallor for summer glow, it unfolds the doctrine of love no less than of omnipotence.
But it were a poor treatment of the snow to stop with considerations of household economy. It is a preacher of beauty as much as of utility. Ye who love shining gems, behold it! Every particle of it is a perfect and magnificent crystal, in its momentary formation as exquisitely fashioned as the diamond which inconceivable ages are required subterraneously to mature. In its organization, it is as complete as any star that rides in the heavens, and sometimes lies in sight with a roundness and radiation as regular as the planetary sparkle and orb. Its fleece, the sudden production of nature, sent forth by God, as the Scripture says, like wool, is knit into a texture whose grace and delicacy no loom ever rivaled. Falling broad and gentle through the sky, what phenomenon is brighter, what meteor more attractive, what object more cheerful? Robing hill or alley, and, by its dazzling brightness, provoking comparison and contest even with the beauty of greenness and flowers, into which, at last, this Proteus of nature converts itself; crusting the trunks and branches of the forest, so that we are content they should exchange their garniture of waving leaves for such brilliance,---it would seem as if the Creator spread it out for a feast to the imagination, as well as, in its wondrous instrumentalities, for food to the palate; and that he would shut up joy for the heart, even in its sometimes biting and bitter quality, as he stores away the best of our happiness in the reservoirs of our pain and the discipline of his afflictive providence. Let not the vision, the beautiful apparition of the snow, be withdrawn till you observe the marvelous scenery with which it curtains this theatre of the world. How God himself must love beauty, and desire to feed with it his creatures, when he sends it not alone in softness on zephyrs, but with every fierce element and hard and cruel change in the creation!
I would never be fanciful in the thoughts or counsels of this place; but the snow has always, moreover, appeared to me a preacher of purity. Coming so clean and spotless from above, the most unstained of all things that ever reach the eye, it admonishes us of that raiment of innocence we should wear, and the immaculate purpose alone we should entertain. “Holy, holy, holy!” the angels cry to God; and this visible type seems to come down from above as the shadow of his holiness, and a lesson for our own purity. Yet how soon the snow is trodden under foot, contracts a soil, and flows in a muddy stream through the world! O “young men and maidens, old men and children,” let not your uncorrupted feeling be a cheap and common thing, to be thrown out by the wayside or trampled in the dirt! But as much of the snow, caught aloft on the pinnacles of temples or the summits of the earth, keeps its whiteness for ever, so maintain the purity of your heart.
I hope, in your thoughts, I trust in many of your deeds, you have anticipated one other point,---that the snow is a preacher of charity. It is God’s messenger to indicate the objects for your mercy and care, and awaken those humane affections in your breast which are the supreme blessing alike of those who cherish them and of those on whom they are fixed. Wherefore does the snow fall, but to direct you to ill-defended roofs, to the shivering poor, to unclad or houseless sufferers? What is its office but to summon you to supply the wants of unemployed laborers and hungry souls? What, indeed, does it immediately make of you, if you will, but a minister of Heaven’s bounty, with God’s gifts in your hands, seeking chambers where the fire has gone out and the board is unfurnished? Yes, the storm is your commission for that great and long war against human need and distress, grander than any war of man against his fellow-man. The snow is your investiture with the divine office of clothing the naked. Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, in your circles of industry, so to toil for this purpose, according to Christ’s precept. Let this cold winter itself warm our hearts to the needy! He who can sit in his comfortable room, and luxuriate at his abundant table, and fold about him his costly garments, and call for his carriage to convey him whither he lists, and be utterly deaf to the exhortation of the elements, to the command from the lowering clouds, to the charge laid upon him by darkness and ice, wind and hail, to attend to the necessities of the ragged and cold and weary and famishing,---this man may be a formal worshipper, and may pass for a respectable citizen; but he disobeys precepts writ as plain on the tables of nature as on the pages of God’s word. All God’s creatures, animate and inanimate, preach to us, as well as his book; and his creature of the snow is one of the most pathetic of his monitors, and its preaching the preaching of all duty. Its preaching, did I say?---nay, its practice, active and faithful servant that it is. In what a round of well-doing it goes! How it changes its shape to accomplish its beneficent errands! It rose distilled from the sea; it formed itself in vapor; it was congregated in the cloud; it journeyed through the sky; it descended to the ground; it has departed already, or is departing, in the circuit of the divine benignity, in currents over the earth or through the air, doing good at every step, reviving and cleansing, till it reaches again the parent ocean from which it came. What an example, in its little figure, to the soul to be diligent, never resting from the works of holiness and motions of kindness, till it, too, attain to its Source!
My friends, the snow, that now admonishes us with such lessons, will one day lie on our graves. It has fallen on the graves of many dear to us. Their mounds of earth are covered with a dress that may signify to us the white robes they wear, we trust, in glory. Would we might live such lives, that the falling snow may by and by be, over our poor mortal remains, no untrue emblem of our spirit! Oh, may it then only come from the heaven to which we have gone! May its descent remind those we leave behind us that we were as diligent in God’s service as are all the elements he makes the unconscious angels of his power and love. As they muse in memory of us, may they feel that something of the unspotted simplicity of childhood was left with us when we died, and that we have ascended where nothing that defileth can come!
C. A. B.