Jeremiah Eames Rankin (1828-1904) was ordained in 1855 and pastored churches in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. He became president of Howard University in 1889. Rankin preached this sermon in 1876 in Washington, D.C.
Preached in the First Congregational Church, Washington, D.C., January 16th, 1876, by the Pastor.
J. E. RANKIN, D. D.
I wish to speak, this morning, upon “The Bible and American Institutions,” and I have chosen my text from Deut. Xxxii. 46, 47: “Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify unto you this day; which ye shall command your children to observe to do; all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life; and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land, whither ye go over Jordan to possess it.”
Has it ever occurred to us to ask why a volume like the Bible, intended for all the human family, in all its generations, for different individualities, for different types of civilization, for people under different systems of government; should be so largely occupied with the rise, growth and decline of one single nation; and that, one of the narrowest and most exclusive that ever existed upon the face of the earth? To ask what common property and interest all periods of time, all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues can have in the history of a nation occupying so small a territory, so isolated, so short-lived; intellectually, commercially, politically exerting so little influence upon the other nations of the earth?
There is only one answer to this question. There was one respect in which this nation was unlike all that ever went before it, and is unlike all that ever will come after it, to the end of time. It was raised up to be among the other nations, what the model-school is to those who are learning how to teach; to be under the dissecting knife of the student of human history, just what the subject is to the student in anatomy and physiology. In a word, the history of the Hebrew nation, as recorded by the national annalists, prophets, poets; as illustrated in laws and institutions, in subjects and rulers, and especially as it lays bare the secret relations of this nation to the living Jehovah and to His government; the real King of Kings and Lord of Lords; the history of the Hebrew nation in all these respects—being the only truthful history ever written—was intended to teach the founders of other nations what foundations to lay, and the conservators and guardians of other nations what safeguards to insist on, in order that these nations might be successfully established, in order that they might be perpetuated to the latest generation of time.
If by giving us the biography of individuals such as Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; such as Joseph and David and Daniel; such as Peter and John and Paul, God intends to teach us by the example of men of like passions as we are, to give us the benefit of their wisdom and experience in the conduct of our private affairs, in our relations to men, and in our relations to God; so by giving us the biography of this single, this peculiar, this elect nation, He intends to give all future nations the benefit of the wisdom and folly of the successes and disasters, of the rise, the culmination and decline of the Hebrews as a Commonwealth, as an Empire, as the fragments of an Empire; rounding out their history from the captivity of Egypt, until they were scattered as an astonishment, a proverb and a byword, among all the nations of the earth.
The Old Testament, the old Hebrew Scriptures, outgrown are they? Just as much as are the foundations of the earth. They contain the patterns and the prototypes of all human history. They are to human life, to society, to government, to institutions, to laws, to the life and well-being of man, to the life and well-being of nations, just what the earth’s frame-work—the slow product of those countless geologic periods—is to the earth’s herself, the only sure foundation upon which to build, the only grand treasure-house in which to mine, for great principles of truth and justice and honor; as the text has it, they are a nation’s life, and through them shall a nation prolong its days. They teach us that there is a grander figure in human history than great lawgivers like Moses; than great captains like Joshua; than great poets like David; than great prophets like Isaiah; that God is there, though men know it not! In Hebrew history He is discerned there before the history. He calls Abraham from a land of idolators; He leads Israel out of Egypt like a flock; He builds up a great Hebrew dynasty which culminates in the reign of Solomon. His servants, the prophets, minutely predict all the prosperous and adverse events in the perspective of Jewish history. In other history He is recognized only after the event; unless the prototypes of Hebrew history have furnished us with discernment to anticipate the event. And this is precisely what they are for. Emerson says: “The student of history should read it, actively and not passively; should esteem his own life the text, and the books the commentary. Thus compelled, the muse of history will utter oracles.” And so of the history of nations. A man who can read the history of the American people, from the landing of the Pilgrims to the destruction of slavery, when the nation came up out of the Red Sea of civil war, and not see the living God there; who can review the Colonial period; the period of the revolution; the period of national consolidation; the anti-slavery struggle; the Rebellion; without recognizing after the event, if not in the event, the same majestic movement of a Divine purpose as called Abraham and his descendants and gave them the Land of Promise, driving out the heathen before them; as broke the fetters of the bondmen in Egypt, and overwhelmed their pursuers in the Red Sea; the man who can read the past one hundred years of our national history, collating and comparing it with the great events in Jewish history, without seeing the foot prints of the same majestic Being who takes the wise in their own craftiness; who makes the wrath of man to praise Him; who brings good out of evil, and light out of darkness; who made a pathway for His own people, and troubled the chariots of the Egyptians, must be in a kind of moral idiocy!
“History,” says the Greek historian, Thucydides, “is philosophy teaching by examples.” But in Bible history we have the living God as His own interpreter. He tells us why He selects such a man as Saul for the first king of Israel; why He sets aside Saul for David; why He permits the dismemberment of the Hebrew nation; why He sends His people away into their captivities; why He recovers them. He unrolls scroll after scroll of Jewish history, pointing out its signification as the nation lives it. Now, when Robert Walpole says of all uninspired human history, that “it is a lie;” when Napoleon I asks, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” when by confession of all, such history is full of mistakes and prejudices and discolorings; its facts are often manufactured, and its philosophies often false; when frequently great villains are painted like great men, and the world’s real benefactors often unnoticed; and yet uninspired history is put into the hands of our children and youth in our public schools; I would like to know what reason any reasonable or patriotic man can give why Bible history should be excluded; why those who are to be our future citizens and rulers; why those who are to keep pure and to perpetuate our free institutions should not be taught from living examples in Hebrew history, the principles of God’s dealings with nations; why and how He raises them up; how they break with Him, and why He lets them go down to swift destruction.
But, if the Old Testament tells us how to build up and make prosperous a great nation, on what foundations to set it, how to secure the smiles and favor, how to avoid the displeasure of the living Jehovah in public administration; gives us, in the Hebrew nation as a prototype and example, the great principles of national weakness and strength, we have only to turn to the New Testament, to discover man’s duty as a man; as a citizen; to discover the kind of citizens that will perpetuate a nation; the units of which the great aggregate must be made up. The Lord Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world. And yet, in His kingdom here, and in fitting men for His future kingdom, He trains up men and women and children who make the best citizens of earthly kingdoms. He loans to temporal kingdoms the citizens of eternity. In this discussion I shall hold myself to the boundaries of time and sense. In its effects upon individuals, by teaching men to love the Lord their God, with all their hearts; by teaching them to love their neighbors as themselves; by teaching them to pay tribute to whom tribute is due, and honor to whom honor; by teaching them self-restraint and industry and temperance; by teaching them to provide for their own; parental love, filial love, conjugal love, Christian love, the gospel of the Lord Jesus provides the most conservative influence that ever was planted in earthly kingdoms; puts leaven into every one of them, such as tends to make model citizens, model men.
Where has the decadence of nations usually begun? It has begun in the decline of individual virtue. In their early struggles, when the strong oppress the weak, and the weak are pushed out to shift for themselves; when men are encountering the hardships of frontier life; when they are putting in place foundation-stones, nations, like emigrant families, are comparatively secure from temptation from within. The manhood of such men as founded this Republic never had the temptations which have fallen to the manhood of the public men of our own time. The first one hundred years of a nation’s life are not the most perilous. Then, men are occupied with fundamental things; have a deep sense of public responsibility; seem to themselves to be making history; to be acting in the eyes of the nation and for the life of the nation; to be doing work for posterity. And they are. And the dignity and pressure of the part which they are enacting keep them from ease-taking and frivolity; keep them from flinging themselves away in indolence and luxury and corruption. But when a nation has been thoroughly established; when she becomes preoccupied with manufactures and commerce; when no danger threatens her from without, individual virtue becomes more and more imperiled. And the only method of preventing the decline of the nation, through the decline of the individual citizen, is by bringing that citizen under the influence of the principles of a pure morality. And this is done by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ; by teaching them to love God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves. Let it be understood that all questions relating to another life are here thrown out of the account; that man actually dies, as the brute dieth; yet, for him to bring his whole nature, his whole life, individual, domestic, social, private, public, under the power of the Gospel, will make him the best possible kind of a citizen. And this is what every State wants.
Who constitute the dangerous classes in a republic? They are men and women and children who are kept from the Bible and the power of the Bible. You may tell me that some of them are very religious. I admit it. And yet many of them do not understand the first principles of a true Christian morality; are ready upon an emergency to break any commandment of the Decalogue, think themselves doing God service; love neither their neighbors nor themselves; fear not God, regard not man.
I do not speak against them. They are the legitimate fruit of a system. I speak against the tree which bears such fruit; against the system that makes them what they are; that must make men like them; a system which effaces and confounds the distinction between right and wrong; which substitutes the traditions of men, human legends, myths and chronicles, for the sublime oracles of God; which shuts up the Word of God; which dares to bring the sanction of God’s authority to enforce the commandments and devices of men; a system which claims not only ecclesiastical, but civil allegiance from all its votaries in whatever land, whose Head does, in the thought of all his loyal subjects, wear all crowns. I know that it is often said, “Well, if no religion, it is a good police system.” And what could we do, with the influx of such material into our population, without the restraints which spring from it, as a system of police? It has made its votaries what they are. It keeps them what they are. If it had given them the Bible, if it had taught them the principles of religious liberty, if it had trained them to think for themselves, as directly accountable to God and not to the representative of the system, it would not be required for the purposes of police. That was a fair retort to a priest who returned a piece of stolen property taken by a servant girl, with the word: “There, if the girl had been a Protestant you would never have regained this property.” “Ah, if she had been a Protestant, she never would have stolen it.” The system creates the necessity.
And who are the conservative classes in our civilization? They are the families which are under the influence of the Bible; the men and women who are under training of the truth as it is in Jesus; who study the Bible for themselves; who reject tyranny in things ecclesiastical just as emphatically as they do in things civil! You cannot make a free man in things temporal, of one who in things spiritual does not think for himself, is a slave. Bind a man’s conscience in the church, and you may soon gag his mouth and bind his hands in the State.
“What constitutes a State?
Men, high-minded men!
Men who their duties know,
But know their rights, and knowing, dare maintain.”
And, if it can be made to appear that nothing is so good as the Bible, to bring men into such relations to God and man, as will make them “high-minded men,” safe citizens; safe for a republic; that nothing is so well suited to make our population such that they will keep the peace with the God of nations, and not bring themselves under His judgments; as will make them know their duties and their rights, and knowing, dare maintain; then the highest of all laws, the law of self-preservation, makes it incumbent on the State; makes it not only the right, but the duty of the State, not only not to permit the Bible to be crowded out of the place it has occupied in the fundamental instruction of American children, but even to make it the corner-stone of their education; to begin with it, to end with it; to make it a text-book in all our schools.
The first duty of this Republic is that of self-preservation. We have these free institutions to have and to hold, and to transmit. Here comes a gigantic system, magnificent, seductive, subtle, dying in individual men, but living in the generations and ages; the enemy of civil and religious freedom the world over; chameleon-like in its hues, having an insinuating aspect, even in a free land, but unchanging in its nature and essence; claiming supreme authority over every citizen of every nationality under the sun; every one of whose subjects must swear a modified allegiance to all earthly kingdoms; the fosterer of human ignorance and superstition and crime; in the year of grace, 1875, driving Bible-missionaries out of Spain; mobbing and murdering them—American citizens too—in Mexico; admitting through its own organs that if it ever becomes supreme in this land, there will be an end to all religious freedom: stabbing to the heart in the street a little boy in Oviedo, Spain, because he had joined a Protestant church; in this country, refusing burial rites to children who have attended Bible Sunday schools, and doing similar things to grown-up men in Canada; in short, through the Syllabus of the Pope, its infallible Head, stigmatizing and condemning at one breath all the grand characteristics of American civilization, and openly challenging them before the world as ruinous to the true progress of humanity; here comes this system, in its very nature inimical to individual freedom and advancement , and insists that we modify some of our fundamental things; some of the things that Washington, and Jefferson, and Adams, and Webster, and a hundred years of experience have taught us to be essential to our very life as a nation, to accommodate it; to help it keep its votaries in chains of darkness, under the domination of priestcraft; taking the money of the people to found sectarian institutions of its own, and yet denying the right of a great people to keep the simple, unadulterated Word of God in her Common Schools! Known in all history as giving no recognition to the rights of conscience; having the blood of almost every martyr to religious freedom in its skirts; having invented its thumb-screws and racks, and other instruments of torture, having kindled its flames, and dug deep its dungeons, if it were possible, to exorcise from humanity all sense of individual right as between man and God; to exalt itself into God’s place over man; and yet, urging its plea against the Author of the Bible, and the Author of the conscience, and the time-sanctioned usage of the Republic, upon the ground of conscience! What answer shall we give it?
Our answer is this, that the life of a nation is its supreme law. We must have a free, intelligent, moral population, or our doom is sealed. No man can have rights under the Constitution of the United States—call them by whatever name you may please—to undermine this Government, or to plot its overthrow, or to make its future impossible. It is a contradiction in terms. For nearly a half century this country was engaged in throwing sops to the Cerberus of slavery, to keep his bark quiet. He made way with the sops and kept barking. Here were men who claimed that they owed primal allegiance to their separate States, who took their oaths to the United States Constitution with that reservation; who insisted upon this compromise and that compromise, upon this settlement and that settlement, and when they had secured all they could get in the Union, then they determined to break it up! What did the country do? She rose up and stood for life! Nor did she unsheathe her sword in vain. She nerved herself to cut that cancer of slavery out of her own body, and throw it back to the dark ages, where it came from and where it belonged! It was that or annihilation! What became, then, of all the reserved rights of States; of all the compromises: of all the pacific legislation of the past? They were not worth the paper they were written on. And let it be once understood by the American people—as it is becoming understood—that under the specious plea of rights of conscience, this great Ecclesiasticism, hoary with age and crime, whose adherents owe their first and supreme allegiance to him who sits upon the Seven Hills of Rome, and whose temporal power has been sloughed off by the modern nations just in proportion to their vigor and manhood, proposes to sap the foundations of our free institutions; proposes to make an intelligent, moral population in this country an impossibility; proposes to train up within our borders, and to make a portion of our political system, citizens educated at the feet of Jesuits; citizens whose consciences are held in the right hand of their Father Confessors: then there will be another uprising of a great people. And shall we wait for a half century of compromises, before we make ready for it?
But I am asked, Has not a man a natural right to dictate how his children shall be educated, or whether they shall be educated at all? Every child born in this Republic is destined to become an integral part of it, has upon him responsibilities which he cannot meet, which he cannot bear with safety to the Republic, without an education, without moral education. And if parents will not educate their children, then will the State, just in proportion as it is true to its own life, either see them educated in its own schools, or abridge to them the right of suffrage, the right of citizenship. You do not call in an ignorant quack to treat your child when he is in danger of death. And will the State allow that man to tamper with great questions vital to its existence and perpetuity who in morals knows not his right hand from his left, who cannot read, who cannot write? Compulsory education! Education, whether the parent wills it or nills it, and especially if he nills it; education in morals; the imparting of the sanctions of human and divine law against the common tendencies and crimes of human nature, against all those courses which unfit a man for citizenship; education in American history; education in that which makes American citizenship peculiar as a heritage of the fathers; this has come to be a national necessity, and is one of the questions with which the General Government must have to do.
Let a man insist upon his right to educate his child as a thief, or let him come up a thief, will society, will the State recognize this right? The State will punish both him and his child if he undertake it. The State guarantees “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to its citizens upon this single condition, that they will not use these blessings to undermine its foundations. And I have not the least doubt that if it be the judgment of a Great People that ignorance of the historical records of the Bible; ignorance of the law of God and the precepts of the Lord Jesus, is incompatible with citizenship, it is within its legitimate prerogative, from this time forth, to have the Bible taught in every school, public and private, in the whole land. I speak here of right, not expediency; though it be right and wise, it must be expedient; how can it be otherwise? The Bible is not a denominational work. The Bible is not a sectarian work. It is the centre and source and standard of all religious truth. As against the Bible, and the Author of the Bible, there are no rights of conscience. It is like talking of the rights of the eye against the light, or of the lungs against the air. And if any system is afraid of it, wants to temper its clear light; wants to filter the very water of life as it comes from under the throne of God, so much the worse for that system!
But in this discussion I do not urge the claims of the Bible on religious grounds. In passing I simply call attention to this anomaly: that an institution professing to be founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke the very words recorded in the New Testament to the common people, and they heard them gladly; who commended the Scriptures to our diligent study; an institution claiming to be the true church of the living God, to which has been given the duty of preaching the Gospel to every creature; that such an institution shall shrink from the light of the Bible, whatever the version! And I say that such an institution cannot expect the confidence of any thinking people. It is too late in the world’s history for this. It is too free a country for it.
It is also too late to pretend that this great ecclesiastic-political system is not hostile to the Word of God. It reckons among its converts from heathenism portions of more than sixty different nationalities. And into the language of not a single one of them has it ever translated the Bible. When was Bible translation or Bible distribution ever undertaken by it? The Psalmist says: “The entrance of thy Word giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.” But Pope Leopold III warns all people against Bible Societies, and Pope Pius VII quotes his words with approval. Gregory XVI was in sorrow, night and day, because of them. And the present Pope regrets the recent improvements in the art of printing, which so greatly facilitate the free distribution of the Bible and other dangerous books. It is not the Bible in the schools merely, it is the Bible, anywhere and everywhere, against which this system lifts up its voice. It is the light of the Bible which it fears. It is the freedom of the Bible before which it cowers. Shall we not meet it in defence of what it most dreads? Shall we weaken our cause by forsaking the pivotal point on which the issue must be made up: on which the battle must turn?
How to maintain the life of this free nation against ignorance and superstition and crime is come to be the great problem of the hour. For a half century we argued and compromised and debated in a vain endeavor to live at peace with a system with which in a free government there was no peace; which tyrannized over men’s bodies; which put manacles on their limbs, and sold them upon auction blocks; and at last we had to go down to the field of death and cross swords with its defenders before it was exterminated. This work is hardly over, when as though all the great rights of man were to be here tried before the Judge of all the Earth, now rises up this great rights of man were to be here tried before the Judge of all the Earth, now rises up this great ecclesiastical tyranny; this tyranny over men’s consciences and souls; this buyer and seller of men’s souls, and this buyer and seller of men’s souls, and flings itself across the pathway of our progress; brings upon us its entail of ignorance and poverty and crime, imported, created here; seduces our legislators into granting it subsidies and endowments; and then arrays itself against the Bible in our common schools—against the schools themselves; striking a double blow at the very citadel of our freedom; and when we remonstrate, it pleads the rights of conscience! Have we another half century of conflict before us before we open our eyes to the truth, that this is one vast political system, even more than that of slavery; all the more dangerous, all the more insidious, because it bears an ecclesiastical name, and pleads for church rights; that it is a system never to be satisfied until it names for us our law-makers and judges and executives; until it has its foot upon our necks?
We say to the adherents of this system, that in the matter of freedom of worship, of propagating their views, they shall be undisturbed, even though all history has shown the system itself to be hostile to human freedom and human progress; and we know it to be. But when its leaders undertake to brake down the common school system itself, we charge them with being the enemies of our free institutions, and we call upon all the friends of civil liberty to rally against them; to come to some understanding how to check their progress. It is a saying of Edmund Burke that “when bad men combine, the good must associate, else they will fall, one by one, an un-pitied sacrifice, in a contemptible struggle.” Here is a system that is a permanent, undying combination. It is its very instinct to break down all individual freedom. It moves as an army. It is an army. And its leaders, as history knows them, are so crafty and insidious, that having chosen as their appellation the name of Jesus—the purest and most guileless of Beings who ever lived upon earth—in 335 years they have wrought in its derivative, Jesuit, this etymological change; that while Jesus means “holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners,” Jesuit means just the opposite; just the very contrary qualities; means treachery, craft, intrigue; means the wisdom and subtlety of the serpent, with the serpent’s fangs. Can such a well-drilled combination be resisted without a common understanding and a common movement on the part of the friends of civil and religious liberty?
You may tell me that it is inexpedient to agitate this question. That is just what the Pope thinks. He says: “Act, but do not agitate.” That is his policy. Our policy is to agitate. “For,” as Milton asks, “who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” And if we agitate we shall get a free and open encounter; we shall get a thorough discussion of the subject. It is for the majority of this nation to determine whether, at the dictation of this most tyrannical of all tyrannies, of this bitterest and most unscrupulous enemy of civil and religious freedom, the Book which links men and nations directly to God; which gives man an open horizon toward eternity, is to pass out of our common schools. And let us remember this: that it is not a mere question of political expediency; of present policy. It is a question that strikes down into the very foundations of our civil and religious liberty. For s sure as the Bible is the book of God, He has so constituted society and governments that if it be the chart by which we manage our public affairs, the standard by which we determine the character of our civilization, our future is secure; we shall walk upon the high places of the earth; while if we do otherwise, if we discard it or dishonor it, He will turn us into Hell, with all the other nations that have forgotten Him! For if the salt shall lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is henceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men!