Samuel Stillman (1738-1807) was the pastor of a Baptist church on James Island, South Carolina beginning in 1759. He preached in various congregations in New Jersey for a time and was the pastor of a Baptist church in Boston (1765-1805). Stillman was a Boston city convention member, a convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. This Thanksgiving sermon was preached in Boston on November 20, 1794.
Thoughts on the French Revolution.
November 20, 1794:
The Day Of
By Samuel Stillman, D. D.
Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Boston.
Matthew XXXIV. 6, 7, 8.
And ye shall bear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.
It may be thought by some, that this passage is inapplicable to the present occasion. But, my brethren, we live in an age when it is strikingly exemplified. To endeavor to trace effects to their causes, and to account for the solemn state of things in the European world, its influence and issue, will be no improper employment for this day; because it will naturally bring into view abundant reasons of thanksgiving to God, who guides the affairs of empire.
The text is found in our blessed Lord’s conversation with his disciples, who struck with the magnificence of Solomon’s temple, invited his attention to it: to whom he said, See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. This solemn declaration of an event so contrary to their expectations, excited to desire in them to be informed when it should happen. Tell us, say they, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name saying, I Am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences: and earthquakes in divers places. All these are the beginnings of sorrows.
The text is a prediction of events, that were to befall the Jewish nation in the first instance; and may be divided into these two inquires:
I. On what does Christ found this declaration. Ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars?
II. What does he mean by this saying, see that ye be not troubled?–
I. On what does Christ found this declaration, Ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars?
It is founded on his foreknowledge. In him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily: hence he thought it no robbery to be equal with God. As such, at one glance he foresaw all those events, that would take place from the beginning to the end of time. In the concise but expressive language of inspiration it is said, He sees the end from the beginning.
Peter ascribes omniscience to Christ: Lord, said he, though knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. His heart, but this confession, lay open to the Son of God. If his, then the heart of every other man. To know the heart is a divine prerogative.
Jesus Christ, who was in the bosom of the Father from eternity, and possessed the same nature with him, perfectly understood the whole economy of Providence, consequently those event that would befall the Jewish people.
This prophecy was literally accomplished: for horrid wars preceded the destruction of the city Jerusalem; which are mentioned by Josephus. During the siege of the city by the Roman army, thousands were slain. Several times did they groan under the dreadful calamities of civil war. These, however, were but the beginning of sorrows, compared with the evils that have befallen them since their dispersion. In the prospect of which our blessed Lord thus laments; O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, though that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not. Behold your house is left unto you desolate.
This declaration was also founded on our Lord’s knowledge of the depravity of the human heart. He knew what was in man, and needed not that any man should teach him. From within, said he, out of the heart of man, proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. Matt. XV. 19.
He also perfectly knew how that depravity would operate, or what events would arise out of it. Depravity in man is the fruitful source of evils in the world. From whence come wars and fightings among you? Says James; come they not hence even of your lusts, which war in your members?
In the front of the degrading catalogue I place ambition as a principal; which involves pride and a spirit of revenge. An ambitious man is insatiable in his desires for honor and power; and generally artful and determined in his attempts to acquire them; and implacable in his resentments in case of disappointment. Ambition has slain its ten thousands. In the small, and in the great world, it hath done unspeakable mischiefs. Its influence is evident on individuals, in families, in religion and government.
Individuals in general are anxious to excel; hence the competition we see among persons of the same, as well as of different professions. From this source ariseth also a spirit of resentment against those, who treat them contrary to the opinion they have of their own merit. Hence come contentions and every evil work.
One person of this restless temper in a family, is capable of destroying all its happiness by a haughty and overbearing conduct; and a readiness to resent every supposed neglect.
Ambition is too frequently apparent among men who profess a friendship for religion; yet religion enforces the necessity of the deepest humility. Even the immediate disciples of Christ disputed who should be the greatest. From this spirit, so contrary to the gospel, have arisen persecutions and martyrdoms.
Had mankind in general, and Christians in particular, been willing to allow to others the liberty they take, of thinking for themselves, these horrid scenes would not have taken place. But they have strangely and unreasonably imagined, in many instances, that they only have this right. Hence the frequent attempts that have been made by the civil magistrate, in countries where Christianity is established by law, to check by force the growth of opinions contrary to his own.
In government it is perpetually at work, having full scope for its baneful influence. In this instance it has often appeared as a monster with a thousand heads.
Though a republican form of government, in the opinion of the preacher, is the best calculated to promote the freedom and happiness of the people, there always will be found men of boundless ambition, who become heads of parties, and spare no pains to get into place. One circumstance is sufficient to be mentioned here, which all men must acknowledge, and that is, the competition there continually is, between them who are in, and them who are out of office. They who are in wish to keep in, and they who are out to get in: hence the contest that often happens, and the ungenerous attacks that are frequently made on personal characters, with a design of injuring them in the public opinion.
The best of men and measures are often treated with the greatest severity, in order to promote the designs of certain ambitious men. But while human nature remains in its present state of imperfection, the great body of the people should act with caution: their political salvation, under God, depends on themselves. It has often happened, that the men who have made the highest pretensions to patriotism, have been the most ambitious in heart.
In a monarchical government, where the supreme power is vested in an individual under certain limitations, this vice will exert itself. The various expensive appendages of royalty are food for an ambitious mind. The prince feels his importance, and is tenacious of his prerogative; and there always will be men enough, who surround his person, to flatter his pride and to oppress the people. The number of these sycophants is easily increased by places and pensions; till finally the best form of government, in its principles or administration, becomes corrupt.
The people groan under the yoke, complain and remonstrate without effect; for a venal majority are always ready to support the measures of the prince. At length matters become desperate; government is opposed by force of arms, many lives are lost in the conflict, and a revolution takes place. Hence the revolution in England, headed by the Prince of Orange–Hence too the revolution in America, with an excellent band of patriots, and our immortal WASHINGTON at its head.
Permit me to declare, my brethren, that I bless God he ordered me into existence at a period, which gave me an opportunity of observing the origin, progress and glorious issue of my country’s contest with her oppressors. She is free, happy and independent. Let the people praise thee, O Lord; let all the people praise thee!–the snare is broken, and we are escaped.–This is the Lord’s doing, and is marvelous in our eyes.
To return. What man can look into the present state of Poland without a mixture of grief and indignation, while he beholds that unfortunate people deprived of their liberties, and their country divided between the Empress of Russia and the King of Prussia? But they bravely struggle: and every friend to the freedom of mankind will wish them success.
It we look into France, whose present condition engages the attention of the world, we shall learn awful lessons of pride, ambition and cruelty.
To investigate the dealings of Providence toward that great nation, may tend to throw light on their present state, and help us to ascertain the reason why God contendeth with them.
The events that have taken place in France are very different in their nature. Some of them are pleasing, others painful–Some we approve, others we condemn. We highly applaud the principles of the revolution, and the noble opposition of that nation to civil and ecclesiastical tyranny. But we are obliged to censure and lament their sanguinary measures, their numerous executions, their rejection of religion, and the fluctuating state of their politics.
Sensible and dispassionate men will distinguish the good from the bad, and neither approve nor condemn in the gross. Rather they will make up their judgment with that caution, which ariseth from a consideration of the distance at which they are from the scene of action, and the misrepresentations which commonly attend such times of confusion.
Persons in every country, who are opposed to the French revolution, perpetually hold up to view their cruelty, irreligion and instability; and on the account of these condemn the whole. But this conduct is very unreasonable, and creates a suspicion, that they are in heart unfriendly to the liberties of mankind. This is the counterpart of that conduct which we Americans experienced during the revolution in our own country.
In France, “the passions of men have been enraged,” says one, “and, in the paroxysm of resentment, fear and despair, the best of causes, the cause of liberty, has been stained by the commission of crimes which afflict a great majority of their own nation, and all the genuine friends of liberty and justice through the world. None can contemplate them but with the keenest anguish, except those who are watching for occasions to slander all who resist oppressors.”
“There is no nation existing which, first and last, has produced such a number of faithful witnesses against papal corruptions and tyrannies, as France. No people have so long a lift of martyrs and confessors to show, as the Protestants of that country; and there is no royal family in Europe which has shed, in the support of Popery, half the blood which the Capets have shed. They slew above a million of Waldenses and Albigenses, who bore testimony against the corruptions and usurpations of Rome.–Who set on foot, and headed the executioners of the massacre of Bartholomew, which lasted seven days, and in which, some say, near fifty thousand Protestants were murdered in Paris, and twenty thousand more in the provinces? The royal monsters of France. A massacre this, in which neither age nor sex, nor even women with child, were spared; for the butchers had received orders to slaughter all, even babes at the breast, if they belonged to Protestants. The king himself stood at the windows of his palace, endeavoring to shoot those who fled, and crying to their pursuers, Kill ‘em, kill ‘em. For this massacre public rejoicings were made at Rome, and in other Catholic countries. Unnumbered thousands of Protestants were slain in the civil wars of France, for their attachment to their principles.”
It is impossible, in the time allowed for the present service, to recount the horrid cruelties that were inflicted on the Protestants, upon the revocation of the edict of Nantz by Louis XIV.
“He it was,” says the same writer, “who gave the death-wound to the civil liberties of France, by taking from the parliaments all remaining power, and from France every shadow of freedom. Their ancient constitution had been long impairing. It was undermined by the long impairing. It was undermined by the crafty Lewis XI. and had been nearly swept away by the daring and sanguinary councils of Richelieu under Lewis XIII. The assembly of the states had been diffused ever since the beginning of this monarch’s reign. The last time of its meeting was in the year 1614. But all civil liberty did not then expire. Its complete extinction was left for this tyrant, Lewis XIV. From his days to the time of the revolution 1789, the people were strangers to both civil and religious liberty. The same system of oppression was pursued, though not always to the same length; the same tyrannic laws continued to force, and were exercised whenever the king or his courtiers conceived it necessary for the promotion of their measures. The late banishments and imprisonments of the members of the parliament of Paris, for refusing to register those loans (because they thought them oppressive to the people) which the court demanded, are in every one’s memory;” and may be though to have hastened the down fall of that unfortunate prince, Lewis XVI.
The Bastille, that engine of horrors and misery, which no language can fully describe, continued during this reign; in which numbers of unhappy victims to despotism had been confined for years, and some of them died in their chains.
In all these banishments and murders of the tens of thousands, who fell in the cause of civil and religious liberty in France, “what Protestant nation ever did anything worth calling an exertion in their favor? Not one! When an opportunity offered for doing something for them, at the peace of Ryswick in 1697, and again in 1741, at which time four hundred were still groaning on board the galleys, or perishing in dungeons, there was not one stipulation in their favor! But the fall of this tyranny which inflicted these enormities, produces a shock which is felt from one end of the earth to the other.” And European princes, in dreadful combination, fly to arms to restore the French monarchy, or punish the nation; and by interfering with their internal affairs, with which they had no right to meddle, have become accessary to many of the horrors that attend the revolution.
Whose heart does not bleed this day at the recollection of the miseries, which the Protestants and people of France have suffered, for many centuries, under despotic and cruel princes, nobles and priests!
But, my hearers, there is a God who judgeth in the earth. Though he bear long with such awful crimes, he will not bear always. He is now making inquisition for blood. The following words of john the divine are applicable in this case; Thou are righteous, O Lord–they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and though hast given them blood to drink, for they are worthy. Rev. xvi. 5, 6. Amidst the distresses of the scene, let us not however forget the providence of God. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge.
For many ages, Protestants have been praying for the downfall of Popery. Jehovah is now accomplishing that great event, but with circumstances that wound our feelings. Yet his language to us is, Be still and know that I am God–I will be exalted among the heathen: I will be exalted in the earth. He is doing terrible things in righteousness.
The kingdom of France hath been for many centuries, a very important pillar of Popery. And her kings, nobles and priests have been impiously combined against the civil and religious liberties of the people. But their judgment hath come upon them as in one day. On them have the calamities of the times fallen with peculiar weight, even to their utter extirpation.
In Rev. xi. 13. we read, And the same hour there was a great earthquake; meaning great changes and convulsions among the people–and the tenth part of the city fell. That is, I support of the Papacy was lost by her. And in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand names of men. In the original it is, seven thousand names of men; meaning all their dignified titles and orders of nobility. This has been literally accomplished in the revolution in France, by the demolition of titles and privileged orders. Citizen is their universal appellation, and Liberty and Equality their national motto. They do not mean an equality of property, abilities or influence, but of rights: It is a political equality; and is well expressed in the bill of rights of this Commonwealth–“All men are born free and equal.”
Remarkable are the words of Peter Jurieu, as French Protestant minister, written by him above a hundred years ago. He says, “The tenth part of the city which here fell, will at some future time appear to be the kingdom of France, where a revolution will take place about the year 1785, and a separation from the Papacy follow; when the names of monks and nuns, of Carmelites, Augustines, Dominicans, &c. shall perish forever; and all these vain titles, and armorial bearings, which serve for ornament and pride, shall vanish; and brotherly love make all men equal. Not that there shall be no distinctions, for it is not a kingdom of anarchy, but government shall be without pride and insolence, without tyranny and violence, and subjects shall obey their governors with a humble spirit. And all this cannot be brought about without confusion and tumult. The popish empire cannot fall but it must cause blood and a mighty noise.”
The following extracts from Dr. Goodwin’s exposition of the Revelation, who wrote one hundred and fifty years ago, merit your attention–“The saints and churches of France, God has made a wonder to me in all his proceedings towards them, first and last; and there would seem some great and special honor reserved for them yet at the last; for it is certain that the first light of the gospel, by that first second angel’s preaching in chap. xiv. (which laid the foundation of antichrist’s ruin) was out from among them, and they bore and underwent the great heat of persecution, which was a great, if not greater than any since–And so as that kingdom had the first great stroke, so now it should have the honor of having the last great stroke in the ruin of Rome.”
In his 5th sect. on Rev. xi. he says, “By the earthquake here is meant a great concussion or shaking of states, politic or ecclesiastical. The effect of this earthquake and the fall of this tenth part of the city, is killing seven thousand names of men. Now by men of name in scripture are meant men of title, office and dignity. As in Corah’s conspiracy, so here, a civil punishment falls upon these. For having killed the witnesses, themselves are to be killed (haply) by being bereft of their names and titles, which are to be rooted out forever, and condemned to perpetual forgetfulness.”
Whether this prophecy in Rev. xi. 13. was designed by the Holy Ghost to set forth the present events in France or not, it appears from what precedes, to be capable of a very easy accommodation to them.
Several circumstances in the French revolution are really astonishing. That twenty-five millions of people, devout admirers of kings, and dupes to a crafty and avaricious priesthood, should suddenly reject both, was not to be expected according to the common course of things. That they should be able to maintain their ground against all their internal enemies, and a most formidable combination of the European powers, is surprising; and much more so that they should be victorious in almost every quarter. I pray God that they may know when and where to stop. That they should have passed at once from the greatest religious superstition, to a rejection of all religion, is a very strange and serious event. How far this is the case of the great body of the people of France, we cannot determine, not having the necessary information. We rejoice however to find, according to the latest intelligence, that their leading men are returning to the principles of justice and moderation, and a professed belief of natural religion. Every good man will most earnestly pray, that they may soon embrace the whole gospel of Christ.
Their new calendar has a natural tendency to abolish the Lord’s day; and most important institution of Christianity. Yet I humbly conceive that this strange circumstance, however dark it may appear to us, will be overruled for good. It is not reasonable to suppose, that it will tend to obliterate from the minds of the people, especially children and youth, every idea of saints days, feasts and fasts, &c. which make a great part of the superstition of the Romish church? Succeeding generations will be without any knowledge of these follies of their ancestors, unless their ancient calendar should be preserved. If so, it will help on the downfall of antichrist.
If it should be said, that with the destruction of the Romish superstition, the people will be in danger of losing the Lord’s day, and its religious institutions, I answer–The Bible, the source of a Christian’s knowledge, is carefully preserved in France; and religious worship kept up on that sacred day as usual, by a number of churches of different denominations of Christians. By whom Christianity and its important institutions will, no doubt, be preserved. This was the case in their hottest days of persecution, though in a private manner, and will doubtless be the case now, seeing every man has full liberty to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience.
II. Let us now inquire, what our Lord means by this saying, See that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end it not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.
Most certainly he who hath taught us, both by precept and example, to pity the distressed, and to lessen as much as possible the miseries of mankind, could not mean to teach his disciples to be unaffected with the calamities, that, in a short time, were to overwhelm the Jewish nation; nor us to be unconcerned at the distresses of our fellow-men.
Shall we hear of the horrors of war–of garments rolled in blood–of countries depopulated and laid waste–of the thousands who have been slaughtered during the present contest in Europe–of the miseries that accompany famines, pestilences and earthquakes–and not be troubled? It cannot be.
Perhaps the meanings of Christ is, Be not discouraged, or through fear, hindered from the faithful discharge of your duty, in preaching the gospel. Or, Be not troubled as though these dark and calamitous events were undirected. The government, as if he had said, is on my shoulders; I do my pleasure in the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth. These things must come to pass, as punishments of nations for national crimes.
But the end is not yet–that is, the end of Jewish sufferings. For greater calamities did come upon that people for their unbelief, and rejection of the Messiah; calamities which bid defiance to description.
But the text is not to be confined to them; it has respect to the world in general, and emphatically describes its present state.
I pass now to the conclusion of the discourse.
We live, my brethren, in an interesting period of time. God is doing wonders among the nations of the earth. He rolls on, in quick succession, events that justly astonish us.
What the issue of these things will be, is the anxious inquiry of many worthy persons; concerning which give me leave to hazard a probable conjecture.
The present war in Europe is a war of kings against the people, of power against opinion. Power must be supported by fleets and armies; these cost immense sums of money. Should the war continue long, all the resources of the nations engaged in it will be exhausted, and necessity force them to terms of accommodation. But opinion is easily propagated, and can never be conquered by power. It has already passed from America to France, and pervaded the millions of its inhabitants; who have risen in a mass to oppose those powers, that are at war against their opinion of the rights of men. In Poland it prevails, and is, beyond doubt, secretly spreading among different and distant nations. If so, the probability is, that the great majority of the people, at a favorable moment, will join in the general cause against oppressors, and not only France, but all mankind finally be free.
Should this be the case, religious liberty will not be forgotten. We see in France, even in their present condition, that every man is at liberty to worship God according to his conscience. Hence we conclude, or are willing to believe, that when mankind cease to be agitated by wars and oppression, they will be convinced that they cannot live and be happy without religion. Hence will arise a spirit of inquiry, and at least a readiness to encourage it as good for the state. At the same time good men, who love the cause of Christ, will use all their influence to check, by example and instruction, the progress of vice and infidelity, and to convert mankind to the truth as it is in Jesus.–But most of all do we expect this glorious event, from the full persuasion that the cause is Christ’s; and that he will accompany the dispensation of the gospel with his special influence, as he did in the first ages of Christianity; when the difficulties it had to encounter, were greater than they will probably be at any future period.
Human nature is universally the same; men have consciences. And when religious truths are proposed to their consideration, said to be calculated to make them happy here, and hereafter, is it not probable they will listen to them, and numbers of them be turned from darkness to light? Man is a rational and inquisitive being; he wishes to be happy, but is taught by experience and facts, that this is not his rest. He knows he must die, and cannot help being concerned about his future well-being. The gospel then is excellently adapted to his condition is a sinner, and a dying man, because it brings life and immortality to light. This then is not conjecture, but a certain truth founded on the testimony of God, That the knowledge of the Lord shall ultimately cover the earth as the waters do the sea. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.
Let us give glory to God, my brethren, that we enjoy this gospel, and its various important institutions; and study to improve them in a proper manner.
Let us bless the Lord this day for our happy condition as a people. While wars distract and depopulate Europe, and the wrath of man spreads desolations far and wide, we have peace. At the same time we sincerely lament those circumstances that damp the joy of the day. The Indian war creates extreme distresses to the inhabitants of our frontiers. Even here the prospect brightens, in the late success of our arms. It is the wish of every benevolent man, that this victory may issue in peace with these sons of the wilderness; and that they and we may here after dwell together as brethren, on terms of reciprocal advantage.
The western insurrection gives pain. How astonishing it is, that men should be so lost to all regard to themselves, to the government that protects them, and to the order and happiness of society, as to oppose, by an appeal to arms, a law which has been sanctioned by the majority of the people, or their representatives in Congress. This painful event hath, however, tended to display the energy of government and the excellency of our executive, in the methods that have been taken first to conciliate, and case of failure, to subdue the insurgents: also the determined spirit of our fellow-citizens to support the laws of the Union.
Let us unite in giving glory to God for our Federal Government, which hath already raised the United States to wealth and eminence. The experiment hath realized the expectations of its warmest friends, and is calculated to silence gainsayers. Our prosperity as a people cannot be denied, notwithstanding the depredations that have been committed on our commerce by the power at war, especially by the rapacity of Great-Britain.
We will bless the Lord that our land hath yielded her increase, and the people have enjoyed a remarkable share of health through the year; while fatal illness has swept off great numbers of our fellow-citizens in other parts of the Union, which we sincerely lament. But so many are the blessings conferred upon us by a kind Providence, that if we would attempt to speak of them, they are more than can be numbered
In fine.–Let love and friendship abound amidst our different political opinions. We should studiously guard against misrepresenting one another; which is too often done by men of warm passions. It ought not to be said, That the friends of the French revolution approve of all the circumstances attending it. they love the cause of liberty, and wish its universal triumph, but lament every event that checks its progress and injures its reputation.
On the other hand, let not the warm friends of the French nation, accuse their fellow-citizens of being enemies to liberty in general, who, in the warmth of their zeal for humane and moderate measures, have said some very severe and improper things against that people. If the citizens, thus opposed to each other, were to think coolly upon the subject, I flatter myself, they would unite in approving the principles of the French revolution, and in condemning every abuse of them.
Our beloved President does not hesitate to call the French republic, “The great and good friend and ally of the United States.: “It was some time (says he) before a character could be obtained, worthy of the high office of expressing the attachment of the United States to the happiness of our allies, and drawing closer the band of our friendship.–I beseech you therefore, to give full credence to whatever he shall say to you on the part of the United States, and most of all, when he shall assure you, THAT YOUR PROSPERITY IS AN OBJECT OF OUR AFFECTION.
I am confident, my brethren, you heartily approve of these expressions of attachment to that nation, who fought by your side, and assisted you in securing your freedom and independence; and who are at this moment engaged in a most important contest, in the issue of which all mankind are interested. May Almighty God make them glad according to the days wherein he hath afflicted them, and the years wherein they have seen evil; and cause these great events among the nations, to terminate in the universal establishment of the rights of man, and the peaceful kingdom of Jesus Christ. And let all the people say, AMEN.