At Salem, January 14, 1796,
OCCASIONED BY THE
EXECUTION OF HENRY BLACKBURN,
ON THAT DAY,
FOR THE MURDER OF GEORGE WILKINSON.
NATHANIEL FISHER, A.M.
Rector of Saint Peter’s Church, Salem.
PUBLISHED AT THE DESIRE OF THE WARDENS AND VESTRY.
Printed by S. Hall, in Boston, for J. Dabney, in Salem
For we must all appear before the Judgment Seat of CHRIST, that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
2d. Corinthians, v. 10.
As the doctrine of a future state of retribution is the principal support of piety and virtue, the great and universal importance of it must be obvious. And that this is a doctrine “worthy of all acceptation,” we have the concurrent testimonies of natural and revealed religion.
Our test leads us to consider – the certainty of a future judgment – some of the peculiarities of this judgment, as revealed in the gospel – and the purposes for which God hath appointed it.
In regard to the certainty of a future state of retribution, let it be observed,
That the judgment we pass upon our own actions, or that faculty by which we discover the difference between good and evil, is the foundation of many of our most pleasing hopes, and of our most disquieting fears. The satisfactions which accompany a life of innocence, are greatly increased by the expectation of a future recompense; and the terrors of a guilty conscience as greatly enhanced.
And we see, in many instances, that the dispensations of Providence in the present state, are promiscuous and unequal. No certain conclusions can be drawn from them, in regard to the virtue or the vice of men. The righteous often suffer, and for being righteous: and the wicked prosper, and prosper through their wickedness.
And although the wife and considerate in all ages, from a conviction that virtue was excellent in itself, and that vice was pernicious in its own nature, have endeavored to reward the former, and to punish the latter, according to their respective merits; yet no human laws have ever been able to effect these most desirable purposes. No human tribunal can investigate the secret emotions of the heart, the source from which all our actions proceed; and in proportion to the relation which they bear to this fountain, they deserve either censure, or praise. The specious hypocrite may come forward, and challenge the severest scrutiny, while the fear of a discovery has led him to commit his vile enormities in the dark. But, that impartial justice may be dispensed, the motives and intentions of the agent must be known. The rich, who, of their abundance cast much into the treasury, will undoubtedly receive their reward; and yet, the poor widow’s two mites may entitle her to a much greater recompense.
Should the internal satisfactions which accompany a virtuous life, and the miseries which commonly overtake the wicked, be urged, as an adequate reward to the former, and a sufficient punishment to the latter, it may be asked, whether any degree of external affluence, in addition to the pleasures which flow from a good conscience, separate from the views of eternity, would be deemed by a wise man, an adequate recompense for the exquisite sufferings with which the inflexibly virtuous are sometimes called to struggle?
As these inequalities have been from the beginning of the world, we have all reason to suppose, that they will continue unto the end of it. And from this state of things, it is natural to conclude, that there will be a future state of retribution, in which all these inequalities will be rectified, and impartial justice dispensed to every man.
And this has been the prevailing opinion, in every age, and in every nation. It is true, that one sect of philosophers among the heathen, and some among the Jews, denied the resurrection of the dead; but those characters were not very numerous; they bore scarce any kind of proportion to the body of the people, the great multitude, who received the doctrine of a future judgment. On no other principle can we account for the worship of the dead; and for the animated descriptions which the poets have given of the Elysian fields: in which all the virtuous are represented in a state of happiness, and in the enjoyment of the fruits of their past labors: while the wicked are excluded those happy abodes, and consigned to the regions of woe and misery forever. And although the rewards and punishments assigned to these characters, in the future world, are very different in their nature, from those which revelation has taught us to expect hereafter, and fall infinitely below them; yet they are strongly expressive of the general opinion concerning the doctrine before us. The Apostle, in his address to the Gentiles, observes, that, “the invisible things of him,” (God) “from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even his eternal power and Godhead. So that they are without excuse, because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God.”
But, although the religion of nature taught men to expect a future state of retribution, in which they would be rewarded and punished, according to their respective deserts; (and the evidences of this great doctrine have been confirmed by every revelation which God has given of himself), yet it gave no intimations of the circumstances which would attend it. For these most solemn and interesting discoveries, we are indebted to the revelation of Jesus Christ; through whom, “life and immortality” are “brought to light:” i. c. more fully and clearly revealed.
The first of these peculiar and important discoveries which I shall mention, is this, – that there will be a DAY, on which all the generations of men, will be gathered together, in one great and general assembly, to receive the respective rewards of their past behavior.
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, then shall be gathered before him all nations – God hath appointed a DAY, in which he will judge the world in righteousness – but of that day and hour, knows no man, not even the Son.” This is one of those “secret things” which “belong to God.” But we are informed, that this judgment will take place “at the end of the world,” an indefinite period; and which may be much nearer than we apprehend! And when it shall commence, we are assured, that it will be accompanied by a universal resurrection – of all who in this world have ever tasted death.
“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” &c. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and even now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear him shall live.” – “Marvel not at this, for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth, they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”
And immediately after this general resurrection, we are informed, the world which we now inhabit will appear all in flames, and be utterly destroyed by fire.
“The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them who know not God, and who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens shall pass away in a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat. The earth also, and all that therein is, shall be burned up. Seeing then, that all these things are to be dissolved, what manner of persons ought we to be, in all holy conversation and godliness!”
Another circumstance concerning this future judgment, revealed in the gospel, respects the person to whom the judiciary powers of that great and solemn day are committed. And this is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The person who once appeared in this world, in the form of a servant, and to save sinners, although “the Lord of life and glory” – “who went about doing good” – and after a life of the purest benevolence, and of unspotted innocence, “was taken, and by wicked hands, crucified and slain. But God raised him up.”
“The Father judges no man, but hath committed all judgment to the Son. It is Jesus that is ordained of God to be the judge of quick and dead – God will judge the world in righteousness, by that man Jesus Christ, whom he hath appointed.”
In some passages of scripture, God himself is said to be the judge of all the earth, and who will do right and that he will reward every man according to his deeds; “To them who by patient continuance in well doing, seek for glory, and honor, and immortality, eternal life; but unto them that are contentious, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil.” But these texts may be reconciled with the former, when we consider, that the future judgment will commence on the day appointed by God; and that all the transactions of it will be managed by his Son; to whom he has delegated his authority and power; and who will perform all the duties of that great and solemn office, in perfect obedience to the will of his Father.
Another peculiarity, and which deserves our most serious attention, is the manner in which he will appear upon that solemn occasion.
“He shall come in his own glory, in the glory of God, and in the glory of his holy angels – he shall sit upon the throne of his glory, and all nations shall be gathered before him. And he shall separate them, one from the other, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God. The dead in Christ shall rise first, and they that are alive shall be changed, and caught up to meet the Lord in the air.”
Further, the gospel of Jesus Christ discloses the purposes of God, in the appointment of this future judgment: namely, that his wisdom, justice, goodness and mercy, may be universally acknowledged and magnified – that all the ungodly may be convinced “of all their hard speeches spoken against him” – and that the glory of the great Judge may be most illustriously displayed – “That all men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father” – Because “thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed him to the important office of Judge, both of quick and dead, “because he was the son of man” – To quiet our fears and apprehensions on that great day, when we shall behold, in the person of our Judge, the greatest benefactor and friend of the human race – one made like unto ourselves – acquainted with all the imperfections of our nature, and disposed to pity and compassionate our weakness.
“It behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest, which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.”
And here, it may be observed, that there is nothing in any of these peculiar discoveries of the gospel, concerning a future judgment, inconsistent with the principles of natural religion. A Being possessed of almighty power can gather together all nations on that great day, as easily as dispose the individuals of which this numerous assembly is composed to meet together on the present very melancholy occasion.
And there can be no absurdity in believing, that the Being who first gave us life can reanimate the bodies which we now possess, and clothe them with fresh powers of life and sensibility, after they have laid ever so long a period in the graves.
And that the unexampled obedience and sufferings of our blessed Lord and Savior should be most openly acknowledged, and rewarded by the Deity, who has declared himself to be the rewarder of all them that diligently seek him,” is most agreeable to all our notions of justice.
And does it not appear to be a merciful dispensation, that the human race should be judged by one in their own likeness?
And is it not proper and right, that the most public and expressive marks of approbation should be conferred upon the righteous; and that the wicked should be as openly exposed to disgrace and punishment?
Let us now attend to a few reflections, which arise from this most interesting and important of all subjects.
Allowing that we know not the nature, nor the proportion of the rewards and punishments to be dispensed in a future state; yet, this is certain, the gospel has represented them, and the solemnities of a future judgment, in the strongest light: and in such a manner, as to excite the most pleasing hopes in the virtuous; and the most awful apprehensions in the wicked.
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. – Then shall he say unto them on his left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Again. From the certainty and circumstances of a future judgment, how great must be the absurdity of dissimulation! On that day, “when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed,” the hope of the hypocrite will perish. None of those arts and subtleties which he once practiced in the world, and with success, will then avail him. He will find no friend to cast the mantle of charity over his deceptions; nor any corner in which to hide his guilty face. He will appear before his fellow creatures, and before the holy angels, in his true character, and be filled with shame and remorse. The greater his duplicity may have been, the greater will be his confusion and distress. He will then reflect on the value and importance of a good conscience: and be ready to acknowledge, that there are no pleasures comparable to those which flow from a faithful performance of our respective duties, and from a heart which cannot reproach us.
Again. As the hopes given us in the gospel of Christ are most glorious, and its promises, respecting a future world, “exceeding great and precious,” not to extend our principal views towards futurity must be the greatest folly. More especially, as our own feelings, and the circumstances of all things about us, are continually suggesting the infinite importance of it. This is the “one thing needful,” and the greatest concern we can possibly attend to. So great is the disproportion between things spiritual and things temporal, that we must see where our interest lies, and cannot be ignorant of the part we should prefer. As we acknowledge, that the pleasures of this world are precarious, inadequate to our expectations, and only for a season, it becomes us to “set our affections on things above, not on things on the earth.”
Further. Although the certainty and circumstances of a future judgment must strike the wicked, whenever they reflect upon them, with the utmost terror; they afford the greatest comfort and consolation to the righteous. There are so many contending interests in the present world, and the passions and appetites of men are so strong and violent, that the virtuous are often reproached, and cruelly treated: and sometimes persecuted unto death. This was the case with many of the primitive chieftains in particular; and who endured the greatest afflictions, and suffered the most grievous punishments, having “respect unto the recompense of the reward.” They comforted and supported one another with the blessed hope of everlasting life – a future state of existence, in which their integrity would be completely rewarded. “Our light affliction which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. For we must all appear before the Judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”
The subject leads to many more very useful reflections; but they cannot be pursued at present: And I shall close this discourse, with an address to the audience, – and to the criminal.
In the unhappy prisoner now before you, surrounded by the executive officers of justice, and fast bound in the chains of death, you behold a miserable sinner; covered with shame and stung with remorse: the usual and just effects of a wicked and profligate life!
One end of the law, in ordering him to suffer, in this public and ignominious manner, is to alarm and deter others – lest they should come into the same condemnation. And if the solemn transactions of this day should not touch, and powerfully affect your hearts, they must be insensible indeed!
And here, permit me to caution you, in great seriousness, against those vices in particular which lead more immediately to the crime for which this unhappy man is now to suffer.
Among others, we may mention a barbarous and cruel temper. It must be evident to those who are acquainted with the human heart, that every kind, and every degree of cruelty practiced upon man or beast, lessens the influence of those tender sensibilities implanted in our nature for the most benevolent purposes, and leaves impressions on the mind unfavorable to the interests of humanity. The person who can wantonly wound and torture a brute, and take delight in his sufferings, will soon become callous to the feelings of his fellow creatures. And society can never be too securely guarded against this brutal insensibility of temper.
Further. All violent and head-strong passions lead to this monstrous crime: more especially when they have acquired, which is often the case, an irresistible authority. A man thus enslaved is every moment liable to the most serious and affecting misfortunes.
And revenge, or a disposition to redress our own wrongs, leads onto the most fatal extremes. Every emotion of this passion, is pregnant with danger: and victims without number have been sacrificed to its rash and precipitate purposes.
But, the most awful effects may be expected from a fixed rancor and malevolence of heart. This is the most unsociable and wicked temper that can possibly possess a man. It is the temper of that degraded being, “who was a murderer from the beginning.” And “every man, who hateth his brother, is a murderer” also.
To these we may add avarice, gaming and dissipation; which excite contentions and quarrels; expose persons to the fevered temptations; and tend to destroy all sense of moral obligations.
There is another vice extremely prejudicial and dangerous, as it leads to the heinous crime of perjury; viz. rash and profane swearing; which has a tendency to lower the Divine Being in our minds, and to take off that reverential awe which is our natural duty to our Creator.
And if we may credit the concessions of many who have suffered for the crime of murder, a disregard to the Sabbath, and to the public worship of God, may be considered as ruinous to individuals, and highly injurious to the peace and welfare of society. And this, I think, will hardly admit of a doubt, when we reflect, that the public exercises of our religion are calculated to keep up a lively and constant sense of God, and his providence, upon our minds; to impress our hearts with benevolent sentiments; and to establish the principles of self-government, by motives of present, and eternal happiness.
And now let me entreat you, in the most serious and affectionate manner, to guard yourselves not only against these great and most pernicious vices, but against every kind and degree of immorality.
If you believe in the existence of a God, who governs the world in wisdom and equity, and that you are accountable to him for your conduct, you have the strongest motives, great and powerful as they are, are often superseded by the solicitations of the tempter, attend to the first advances of vice, which approaches step by step: “First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” Look upon every deviation from the path of duty, however small, as unjustifiable and wrong. Consider, that every irregular indulgence leaves an impression on the mind unfavorable to the interests of virtue. It lessens the fear of shame, that innate modesty which is the natural guard of innocence, and weakens the power of conscience. Be persuaded, that your duty and happiness are inseparably connected; and avoid even “the appearance of evil.”
And, may the inspiration of the Almighty govern your hearts!
You, HENRY BLACKBURN, are this day to suffer the pains and penalties of an ignominious death; for the unnatural and atrocious crime of MURDER: A crime of the highest nature; to which the law of God, and the laws of nations, have annexed this righteous, though awful punishment, “he that sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
You have repeatedly protested, and in the most solemn manner, by immediate appeals to heaven, that neither revenge, nor hatred, nor any other malignant passion, moved you to take away the life of the person who died in consequence of the wound you gave him. But your country, after a most deliberate, solemn and impartial inquiry, has pronounced you guilty – and guilty of willful murder. The matter rests with God and your own soul; that God who cannot be deceived, and “who will not be mocked.”
But, allowing that you had no design against the life of the unfortunate stranger, who fell a victim to your rashness and folly, this will not wipe away, although it may greatly extenuate your guilt. Life is a gift too sacred to be sported with; and the weapons of death are not to be used lightly and wantonly. And, although you may not have incurred the fearful guilt of willful murder, this is certain, you have shed the blood of a fellow creature; and in such a manner as cannot be justified in the sight of God, nor in the opinion of man.
During your confinement, which has been long and tedious, you have had time for the most serious and deliberate reflections: And you have been encouraged and assisted in the great duty of repentance. You have been persuaded, “by the mercies of God, and by the terrors of the Lord,” to repent, to forsake your sins, and to turn most heartily unto God. And from the solicitude which you early discovered for instruction, and from the apparently open and candid acknowledgments which you have made of the errors of your past life, we have reason to hope, that some good fruits have been produced in your heart: but, if you have imposed on your sincerest friends, and deceived yourself, let me exhort you, in the most serious and pathetic manner, by the mercies of God, and by the affection which you bear to your own soul, to renounce your hypocrisy this instant; to acknowledge your multiplied transgressions with your deepest humility; and to turn unto God with your whole heart.
Within a few moments, you will be taken from the house of God, carried to the place of execution, and “appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, to receive the deeds done in your body, whether they be good or bad.” You have just heard the certainty, circumstances, and design of this judgment; and the passing interval before you must awaken all the powers of your soul! It is enough to overpower your sensibility, unaccompanied and alone; and much more so, attended by the habiliments of death, and by thousands of surrounding spectators.
O, my brother! Thus encompassed with the sorrows of the grave, and the snares of death, you stand in need of every consolation. And, to assist and support you in this most distressing hour, and to show the part which it becomes you to perform, “look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” It is true, the difference in point of character is infinite: For, although he died the death of a malefactor, he died perfectly innocent of every crime. He died to support the cause of piety and virtue, and to save sinners: but you will die a malefactor indeed – for your atrocious crimes – because you have disregarded the principles of religion, and shed the blood of one, whom he died to redeem.
Our blessed Lord and Master endured the cross, despising the shame. And he suffered that ignominious and painful death with the most perfect submission to the will of his Father, with the most heroic fortitude and equanimity of mind, and in the exercise of a most charitable and forgiving temper, even towards his enemies, and those who persecuted him unto death, and who insulted him in his last agonies.
And you have the example of one, who was a great sinner, and who suffered with him; and whose faith was not to be shaken by all the terrors of a lingering, shameful death. Although he saw the Savior of the world nailed to the cross, and knew that he would expire within a few hours; yet he believed on him, and died entirely resigned to the will of God. He died with Christian fortitude and submission; he died a sincere penitent; and he died in prayer – “Lord, remember me, when thou comes into thy kingdom.” And as a reward of his faith, penitence and obedience, Christ answered him, and said, “Today shall thou be with me in paradise.” And O that you, my brother, may discover this believing, resigned and heavenly temper, at the hour of your departure, and be admitted into the kingdom of the Great Redeemer!
Now, “unto God’s gracious mercy and protection we commit thee; the Lord bless thee, and keep thee; the Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace, both now and evermore.”
Let us pray, &c.