William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was the grandson of one of the Newport Sons of Liberty, John Channing. William graduated from Harvard in 1798 and became regent at Harvard in 1801. He was ordained a preacher in 1802 and worked towards the 1816 establishment of the Harvard Divinity School. This sermon was preached by Channing in 1814 in Boston.
SEPTEMBER 18, 1814.
AT THE REQUEST OF THE HEARERS.
BY WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING,
Minister of the Church in Federal-Street.
In the present state of our country, the author has not felt himself at Liberty to reject the urgency of those, who have requested this discourse for the press. It is always with great reluctance that he addresses the public on political subjects. But the moment has come, when private feelings are to be discarded. A good citizen owes himself to his country, and he will withhold no effort, however feeble, which may purify and elevate public sentiment, or in any manner contribute to public safety.
Be thou instructed, O Jerusalem, lest my soul depart from thee; lest I make thee desolate.
These words were addressed by God to his ancient people Israel, at a period of great national calamity, when destructive armies were ready to overwhelm Jerusalem, and the whole kingdom was threatened with slaughter and desolation. At this solemn moment God sent his prophets to warn the people of their danger, to call them to reflection and repentance, and to assure them that amendment would secure his favour. I have chosen these words as applicable to our present calamitous situation. “Be thou instructed,” is the language God addresses to this people, “lest I make thee desolate.”
At such a moment as this, when every mind is fixing a fearful attention on the state of the country, it is impossible that a religious instructor should escape participation in the common feeling. His sacred calling does not require him to separate himself from the community, to forget that he is a citizen, to put off the feelings of a man. The religion which he teaches inculcates public spirit, and a strong and tender concern for all by whom he is surrounded. He would be unworthy his sacred function, were he not to love his country, to sympathize with its prosperous and adverse fortunes, and to weep over its falling glory. The religion, which it is his duty to dispense, regards men in all their relations, and affords instructions and motives adapted to every condition whether of individuals or communities. You will not then consider me as leaving the province of a religious teacher, if I speak to you of the dangers, and claims of our country, if I address you as citizens, and attempt to point out your duties at the present solemn period.
The present is indeed a solemn period. The sad reverse which this country exhibits astonishes as well as depresses us. But a few years ago, we stood on the eminence of prosperity. Amidst the storms which desolated nations, we were at peace, and the very storms seemed freighted with blessings for our tranquil shores. Separated by an ocean from Europe, we hoped to escape the whirlpool of her conflicts. Who could have anticipated the change which a few years have made?—And is it indeed true, that from this height we have sunk so low, that our commerce is swept from the ocean, that industry has forsaken our cities, that the husbandman has resigned the ploughshare for the sword, that our confidence is changed into fear, that the tumult of business has given place to the din of arms, that some of our citizens are perishing in foreign prisons, and others shedding their blood on a foreign soil, that hostile fleets scatter terror through our coasts, and flames through our cities, that no man feels secure, that the thought of invasion and slaughter mingles with the labours of the day, and disturbs the slumbers of the night, and that our national government, impoverished, and inefficient, can afford us no protection from such imminent danger? Yes—this is true—we need no reasoning to convince us of its truth. We see it in the anxious countenance, in the departing family, in the care which removes our possessions, in the obstructions and perplexities of business, and in the events which every day brings o our ears. At such a moment, it becomes each man to ask himself what are his duties, what the times demand from him, in what manner he may contribute to the public safety. It is a time for seriousness, for consideration. With prosperity, we should dismiss our levity. The period of duty may to many of us be short indeed. Whilst it continues, let it be improved.
I. The first remark I will make is, that it becomes every man at this solemn moment, to reflect on his own character and life, to enquire what he has done to bring down the judgments of God on his country, to confess and lament his sins, and to resolve on a thorough amendment and sincere obedience of God’s commands. We ought to remember that God is a moral governor. He regards the character of communities as well as of individuals. A nation has reason for fear, in proportion to its guilt; and a virtuous nation, sensible of its dependence on God, and disposed to respect his laws, is assured of his protection. Every people must indeed be influenced in a measure by the general state of the world, by the changes and conflicts of other communities. When the ocean is in tumult, every shore will feel the agitation. But a people faithful to God will never be forsaken. All history and experience teach us, that there is a direct and necessary tendency in national piety and virtue to national safety and exaltation. But this is not all. A virtuous people may expect peculiar interpositions of providence for their defence and prosperity. They may expect that God will direct events with a peculiar reference to their welfare. They are not indeed to anticipate miracles. They are not to imagine, that invading hosts will be annihilated like Sennacherib’s by the arm of an angel. But God, we must remember, can effect his purposes, and preserve the just without a miracle. The hearts of men are in his hand. The elements of nature obey his word. He has winds to scatter the proudest fleet, diseases to prostrate the strongest army. Consider how many events must conspire, how many secret springs must act in concert, to accomplish the purposes of the statesman, or the plans of the warrior. How often have the best concerted schemes been thwarted, the most menacing preparations been defeated, the proud boast of anticipated victory been put to shame, by what we call casualty, by a slight and accidental want of concert, by the error of a chief, or by neglect in subordinate agents. Let God determine the defeat of an enemy and we need not fear that means will be wanting. He sends terror, or blindness, or mad presumption into the minds of leaders. Heaven, earth, and sea, are arrayed to oppose their progress. An unconquerable spirit is breathed into the invaded; and the dreaded foe seeks his safety in dishonourable flight.
My friends, if God be for us, no matter who is against us. Mere power ought not to intimidate us; HE can crush it in a moment. We live in a period when God’s supremacy has been remarkably evinced, when he has signally confounded the powerful and delivered the oppressed and endangered. At his word, the forged chain has been broken; mighty armies have been dispersed as chaff before the whirlwind; colossal thrones have been shivered like the brittle clay. God is still “wonderful in counsel and excellent in working;” and if HE wills to deliver us, we cannot be subdued. It is then most important that we seek God’s favour. And how is his favour to be obtained? I repeat it—God is a holy being, the friend of the righteous, the enemy of the wicked; and in proportion as piety, uprightness, temperance and Christian virtue prevail among us, in that proportion we are assured of his favour and protection. A virtuous people, fighting in defence of their altars and firesides, may look to God with confidence. An invisible, but almighty arm surrounds them, an impenetrable shield is their shadow and defence.
My friends, how far have we sustained the character of a pious and virtuous people? It may be true, that, compared with other nations our morals are in a measure pure. But other nations are not the standard by which we are to be judged. We are descended from ancestors of singular piety, who have transmitted to us principles of conduct, institutions and habits, peculiarly favourable to individual and national virtue. God has placed us at a distance from the corruptions of older countries, and has warned us by their woes. He has also signally prospered and enriched us, and crowned us with blessings. Never did a nation enjoy more abundant means of instruction, or more powerful motives to gratitude and obedience; and can we hope that we have exhibited that purity of manners, that regard to God’s word, that justice, that charity which our privileges and blessings demand? It is hoped that we have many righteous, many Christians. But have not our sins multiplied with our blessings? Does not every heart feel, that we deserve the judgments we suffer? Let us seek by repentance and amendment to avert the judgments we fear. To all of us, and especially to the profligate, the licentious, unjust, and irreligious, this day of rebuke calls loudly for consideration, for penitent confession, and for sincere purposes of future obedience to the divine commands.
II. Having recommended penitence in general assuited to the present moment, let me particularly recommend one branch of piety which the times demand of us. Let us each be instant and fervent in prayer. Let us pray to God, that he will not forsake us in this dark and menacing day; that he will remember the mercy shown to our fathers; that he will crown with success our efforts in defence of our possessions, our dwellings, and our temples; that he will breathe an invincible courage into our soldiers; that he will guard and guide our rulers; that he will turn the invader from our shores; or, if he shall otherwise appoint, that he will be our shield in battle, and will send us deliverance. For these blessings let us daily besiege the mercy seat of God, deeply convinced that he controls the destinies of armies and nations, that he gives or withholds success, and that without him all exertion is unavailing, and all hope will sink into despair. By this, it is not intended that we are to do nothing but pray; that we are to leave our shores without defence, or neglect any means of security. God gives us powers that we should exert them, weapons that we should wield them. We are to employ every resource which he grants us; but, having done this, we must remember that on God, not on ourselves, depends the result of our exertions. The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. God gives victory, and to him let every eye and heart be directed. You who have no other weapons, contend with your prayers for your country. It will not be imagined from these remarks, that by importunity of prayer God can be bent to favour an unjust cause. But when our cause is just; when, instead of waging offensive war, we gather round our city and shores for defence, we may be assured that sincere prayer, united with sincere purposes of obedience, will not be lost. Prayer is a proper and appointed acknowledgement of our dependence, an essential means and branch of piety; and they who neglect it have no reason to hope the protection, which they will not implore. Let us then take heed, lest the tumult of military preparation make us forgetful of the Author of all good, lest in colleting armies and raising walls of defence we forsake the footstool of the Almighty, the only giver of victory.
III. This is a time when we should all bring clearly and strongly to our minds our duties to our country, and should cherish a strong and ardent attachment to the public good. The claims of country have been felt and obeyed even in the rudest ages of society. The community to which we belong is commended by our very nature to our affection and service. Christianity, in enjoining a disinterested and benevolent spirit, admits and sanctions this sentiment of nature, this attachment to the land of our fathers, the land of our nativity. It only demands, that our patriotism be purified from every mixture of injustice towards foreign nations. Within this limit we cannot too ardently attach ourselves to the welfare of our country. Especially in its perils, we should fly to its rescue with filial zeal and affection, resolved to partake its sufferings, and prepared to die in its defence. The present moment, my friends, calls on us for this fervor of patriotism. The question now is—not whether we will carry invasion, slaughter, and desolation into an unoffending province—not whether we will give our strength and wealth to the prosecution of unprincipled plans of conquest—but whether we will defend our firesides and altars—whether we will repel from our shores an hostile army. On this question our duty is clear. However unjustifiable may have been the measures by which we have been reduced to this mournful extremity, our right to our soil and our possessions remains unimpaired; the right of defence can never be wrested from us; and never, whilst God gives means of resistance, ought we to resign our country to the clemency of a foe. Our duties as patriots and Christians are clear. Whilst we disclaim all share in the guilt of that war which is bursting on our shores, we should resolve, that we will be true to ourselves, to our fathers, and to posterity—that we will maintain the inheritance we have received—that whilst God gives us power we will not receive law as a conquered people.
We should animate our patriotism at this moment of danger, by reflecting that we have a country to contend for which deserves every effort and sacrifice. As members of this Commonwealth in particular, we have every motive to invigorate our hearts and hands. We have the deeds of our fathers, their piety and virtues, and their solicitude for the rights and happiness of their posterity, to awaken our emulation. How invaluable the inheritance they have left us, earned by their toils and defended by their blood! Our populous cities and cultivated fields, our schools, colleges and churches, our equal laws, our corrupted tribunals of justice, our spirit of enterprise, and our habits of order and peace, all combine to form a commonwealth as rich in blessings and privileges as the history of the world records. We possess too the chief glory of a state, many virtuous and disinterested citizens, a chief magistrate who would adorn any country and any age, enlightened statesmen, and, I trust, a fearless soldiery. Such a community deserves our affection, our honour, our zeal, the vigour of our arms, and the devotion of our lives. If we look back to Sparta, Athens, and Rome, we shall find that in the institutions of this Commonwealth, we have sources of incomparably richer blessings, than those republics conferred on their citizens in their proudest days; and yet Sparta, and Rome, and Athens inspired a love stronger than death. In the day of their danger, every citizen offered his breast as a bulwark—every citizen felt himself the property of his country. This elevating sentiment seemed to communicate to them a more than human power, and the men who bled at Thermopylae hardly appear to possess the weaknesses of our nature. It is true, a base alloy mingled with the patriotism of ancient times, and God forbid that a sentiment so impure should burn in our breasts. God forbid, that like the Greek and the Roman, we should carry fire and slaughter into other countries, to build up a false fleeting glory at home. But whilst we take warning by their excesses, let us catch a portion of their fervor, and learn to live not for ourselves, but for that country, whose honour and interests God has entrusted to our care.
IV. The times especially demand of us that we cherish a spirit of fortitude, courage and resolution. The period of danger is the time to arm the mind with all the force and energy it can attain. In communities s in individuals there is a proneness to excessive fear. Especially when untried, inexperienced dangers approach, imagination is prone to enlarge them; a panic spreads like lightning from breast to breast; and before a blow is struck, a people are subdued by their fears. There is a rational fear, which we ought to cherish, a fear which views in all its dimensions approaching peril, and prepares with vigilance every means of defence. At the present moment we ought not to shut our eyes on our danger. Our enemy is formidable. A veteran army, trained to war, accustomed to success, fresh from conquest, and led by experienced commanders, is not to be despised, even if inferior in numbers, and even if it have received a temporary check. But such an army owes much of its formidableness to the fearless spirit which habit has fostered; and the best weapon under Providence which we can oppose to it is the same courage, nurtured by reflection, by sentiments of honour, and by the principles of religion. Courage indeed is not always invincible and when God destines a nation to bondage the valour of the hero is unavailing. But it is generally true, that a brae people, contending in a just cause, possess in their courage the pledge of success. The instrument by which God rescues nations is their own undaunted resolution. Let us then cherish in ourselves and others, a firm and heroic spirit, a superiority to fear, a settled purpose to front every danger in the cause of our country. Let us fortify our minds, by reflecting on the justice of our cause, that we are standing on our own shores, and defending invaded rights. Let us remember what we owe to ourselves and to the honour of this commonwealth. Let us show that our love of peace has not originated in timidity, and that the spirit of our fathers still lives in their sons. Let us call to the support of our resolution the principles of religion. Devoting ourselves to God, and engaging in this warfare from a sense of duty, let us feel that we are under HIS protection, that in the heat of battle he is near us, that life and death await his word, and that death in a service which he approves is never untimely and is never to be shunned. Let us consider that life at best is short, and its blessings transitory, that its great end is to train us to virtue and to prepare us for heaven, and that we had far better resign it at once than protract it by baseness of spirit or unmanly fear. Death awaits us all, and happy he who meets it in the discharge of duty. Most happy and most honoured of men is the martyr to religion, who seals with his blood those truths, on which human virtue, consolation and hope, depend—and next to him, happy is the martyr to the cause of his country, who, in obedience to God, opposes his breast to the sword of her invaders, and repays with life the protection she has afforded.
V. I have thus, my friends, set before you your duties to God and your country in this period of danger. Let me close with offering a few remarks on your duties to your enemies. You will remember that we profess a religion, which enjoins benevolence towards all mankind, even towards our personal and national foes. Let not our patriotism be sullied with malignant passions. Whilst we defend our shores with courage, let us not cherish hatred towards our invaders. We should not open our ear to every idle tale of their outrages, nor heap calumnies on their heads because they are enemies. The brave are generous. True courage needs not malignity to feed and inflame it. Especially when our foe is an illustrious nation, which for ages has defended and nurtured the interests of religion, science, and humanity; a nation to which grateful Europe is now offering acknowledgements for the protection she has extended over the oppressed, and for the vigor with which she has cooperated in prostrating the bloody and appalling power of the usurper; when such a nation is our foe, we should feel it unworthy and debasing to encourage a rancorous and vindictive spirit. True, she is sending her armies to our shores; but let us not forget, that our own government first sent slaughter and conflagration into her unoffending provinces. True, she is not in haste to give us peace; but let us remember, that our own government rejected her offer to suspend the havoc of war, at the very moment when we knew that the principal ground of hostilities was removed. Let not approaching danger disturb our recollections, or unsettle our principles. If we are to meet her armies in battle, which God in his mercy forbid, let us meet them with that magnanimity, which is candid and just even to its foes. Let us fight, not like beasts of prey to glut revenge, but to maintain our rights, to obtain an honourable peace, and to obtain a victory which shall be signalized by our clemency as well as by our valour. God forbid, that our conflicts should add fury to those bad passions and national antipathies, which have helped to bring this country to its present degraded and endangered condition.
My friends, I have placed before you your duties. God give you grace to perform them. In this day of danger, we know not what is before us; but this we know, that the path of piety, of virtue, of patriotism, and of manly courage, will lead us to glory and to immortality. No enemy can finally injure us, if we are faithful to God, to our country, to mankind. In such a cause as ours, I trust, prosperity and victory will be granted us by the almighty Disposer. But whether success or disaster await us, we know that the world is passing away, and that all of us will soon be placed beyond the reach of its changes. Let us not then be elated or depressed; but with a firm and equal mind, let us acquit ourselves as men and Christians in our several spheres, looking upward to heaven as our rest and reward.