THE MURDERER AND HIS FATE
OCCASIONED BY THE
EXECUTION OF HARRIS BELL
MURDER OF MRS. WILLIAMS.
PREACHED IN THE
PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, HONESDALE, PA.,
SABBATH EVENING, OCT. 1, 1848.
HENRY A. ROWLAND
BARKER & LEWIS, PUBLISHERS.
Harris Bell was executed at Honesdale, PA., Sept. 29, a.d. 1848, for the murder of Mrs. Williams wife of Rev. Gershom Williams, of Scot Township. This discourse was prepared and preached at the request of the murderer, on the Sabbath evening succeeding the day of his execution; and on the succeeding Sabbath evening, it was repeated by request in the Methodist Chapel. Some have earnestly solicited that it should be given to the press, believing that its publication will do good. It is therefore submitted to the public, as an off-hand production, the subject of which is of local interest to many who reside in this vicinity, and who are acquainted with the circumstances.
Honesdale, Oct. 10, A.D. 1848.
THE WAY OF TRANSGRESSORS IS HARD.
When we see a gallows erected, and a fellow-creature upon it struggling in the agonies of death, the thought instantly occurs to us, that “the way of transgressors is hard.” When we visit a prison where there are numbers of our fellow-men condemned to seclusion from the world, buried alive, as it were, and forever severed from the kind endearments of home and friendship, the same thought again suggests itself. So also when we look abroad upon society, and see one after another of our fellow-men, who are impeached of no crime of which the law takes cognizance, but who, in consequence of their vicious and abandoned life, have reduced themselves and their families to penury, and are suffering in their own physical frames the consequences of unrestrained lust, or the delirium occasioned by intemperance, do we again accord with the testimony of the Bible, that “the way of transgressors is hard.”
Go, visit the hospitals of the insane, and you will discover a large proportion of their inmates who have reduced themselves to the pitiable condition of lunatics, and some even to a state of idiocy, in consequence of their own evil practices. The bright and active lad, who gave promise of future success in life, and has advanced from youth to manhood the object of envy perhaps to many who seemed far inferior to him in mental capacity, has begun to droop – his mind unsteady, his bodily health impaired; and he has sunk to lunacy, and finally to idiocy, in consequence of the unnatural indulgence of his passions. So also has many a female, who might have been an ornament in society, thus brought on herself premature disease, and found in the cells of an insane hospital, or in an early grave, the certain result of a disregard of God’s commands. If you will examine the report of any institution established for the benefit of the insane, you will discover that almost a third of its inmates have brought themselves into their unhappy condition in this way; and these, it is generally conceded, are cases the most hopeless of relief.
Or, if summoned to the room of one who, by intemperance, has brought on himself delirium, you will need nothing more to convince you that “the way of transgressors is hard.” The unhappy man, once kind to his family and a worthy member of society, respected in the circle in which he moved, has long persevered in a course, of the result of which he was forewarned, and which he had every reason to know would bring on himself swift destruction. Perhaps this course may have been concealed: his most intimate friends, and the partner of his bosom even, may not have known the extent of his self-indulgence, till, in an evil hour, the nervous restlessness occasioned by the disease is on him. The wild, rolling eye, the hideous look, excited by visions and fancies which he deems realities, exhibit the power of that terrible disease.
Sometimes, in this state, he becomes apparently religious, and calls for mercy on that God whom he has scorned; sometimes he shrieks in terror at the visions of his own fancy; sometimes he seems to feel that he is the sport of fiends, and is already shut up in the prison of the lost, and rushes with fury away from his keepers, and dashes himself from his chamber-window to the ground, unsatisfied till life has paid the forfeit of his transgression. Did you never, as I have done, visit a family whose head had become the subject of such delirium? It was once a peaceful and a pleasant home. Little did the wife suspect the husband of her love of such a course. But, in an instant, the transgression of a long life is developed. The wife and mother is oppressed with the extent of the calamity which has befallen them. Tears flow, but they cannot remove the load of sorrow which she bears. Could she have seen her husband die, and followed him weeping to the grave, it would have been an evil far less to be deplored.
Herself and family would have avoided the disgrace which now attaches itself to a drunken husband and father, and she would have had some hope that death in his case would prove a happy exchange of the sorrows of earth for heaven. But now, all hope is extinct, and she must go down broken-hearted to the grave. It is dreadful for one to die by the halter, and the fate of such an one awakens emotions of deep sympathy in the breast of every beholder; but, oh! It is far more dreadful to die in the delirium of intemperance. And no one can view such an end, and not say, in the language of the text that “the way of transgressors is hard.”
Often is there exhibited to view instances of suffering in life not inferior to those which have been noticed. We see one who has long been reputed a man of integrity, who has occupied a station of trust, and enjoyed the confidence of the community, suddenly detected in some criminal act, some embezzlement of funds, or some out-breaking sin, which casts him from his elevation, and bears down with him his innocent family to the degradation and misery attendant on such crimes. Investigation will often show that long before, in an evil moment, this individual was tempted to depart from the path of virtue. At first it was done with trembling, and the attempt at concealment was successful. Again and again has this temptation ensued, and as often with success concealed; till at length, emboldened by impunity, he makes a false move, and all is discovered. And then ensue the degradation and woe consequent on such crimes. The unhappy man becomes the scorn of the society in which he was once an ornament. A star has fallen; and the sufferings which ensue are not un-aptly compared to those of the fallen angels in their wretched abode. Surely, it cannot be denied that “the way of transgressors is hard.”
But this truth is still further illustrated in the case of the unhappy man who has just now paid the forfeit of his life for the crime which he has committed. This individual was naturally possessed of a capacity sufficient, had it been properly educated, to have enabled him to fulfill the duties of life in a creditable and becoming manner. But he was the child of vicious parents, and from his childhood had been cast out upon society to lead a wandering life and to become a vagabond. He was neither taught to read, nor was he the subject of any moral or religious instruction. His parents, and brothers and sisters, he said, were as vicious and abandoned as himself. In early years he yielded himself up to the power of lust, and to the practice of that solitary vice which has wrought such havoc on the intellect and morals of the world.
This, said he, has ruined me. It was this, he said, that inflamed his passions, and was the means of bringing him to an untimely grave. He had no parent to warn him of his danger, nor friend to reclaim him from his pernicious and wicked course. As he advanced in years, the natural consequences of this vice began to exhibit themselves. His mind became impaired; and in proportion as self-control was weakened in him, his passions became excited, and began to assume the mastery. Twice was he convicted of an attempt to commit the species of crime for which he has suffered, and years of imprisonment did he endure in consequence. He thus became, by his own vicious courses, the creature of passion; and so strongly did it rage within him, as to become at times almost irresistible. This is but the natural result of self-indulgence.
The miser and drunkard both, from long indulgence, come under the influence of such passions, that it seems to them impossible to resist them. So also does the slave of lust. It was the case with the wretched man who has suffered the penalty of his crime. In the fits of passion which came upon him, he lost all self-control, and acted without regard to the consequences. Thus ensued the tragedy of crime for which he died. The particulars of that scene I need not here relate. It is sufficient to state, that meeting an unprotected female in the wood, where he had purposely gone with that design, as he knew that someone would likely pass that way, he seized her for a brutal purpose, and in the struggle which ensued deprived her of life. No man could be more sorry than he was, he says, after the deed was done. But the evil could not be repaired. He was taken, confined in prison, tried, and condemned to lose his life as the penalty of his transgression.
The defense set up was, weakness of mind verging on idiocy. But this was unavailing, because it was proved that he sought to conceal the evidences of his guilt; indicating that the force of conscience was not extinct, and that in this instance he knew right from wrong, both of which are sure evidences of moral responsibility.
Sympathy has been awakened I his behalf from the developments of mental weakness in him; and yet no one can doubt, from the evidence exhibited on trial, and from his own confession, that he was justly convicted. His appearance in prison justifies a belief in the accuracy of this view of his case. His conversation was marked by not a little shrewdness, accompanied with much that was the opposite. The characteristic qualities of his mind, in the judgment of men who had made the study of disease the business of life, indicated with unerring certainty what had been the course of his former years; and this view of his case was fully confirmed by his own frank acknowledgments the day before he was executed. He had just that amount of mind left, and those qualities of mind which would naturally exist in one who had been the subject of vicious practices.
Such effects are discoverable in every community, and their final development is generally in the hospital of the insane. Instances have fallen under my own observation, of a painful character, one of which I will bring to your notice. I had a classmate in College, who was of a retiring and modest demeanor – a young man of property and character, who maintained a reputable standing, and who graduated without a blot on his fame. Some twelve years had passed since we had separated, when, on a visit to the establishment for the insane at Bloomingdale, in the vicinity of New York, I discovered among several hundred patients, one whose lineaments I recognized. He was this classmate. He was pacing up and down the apartment, and wore that demented look common in such cases. In fact he was a perfect idiot. He remembered nothing of the college scenes through which we had passed, nor could I awaken any recognition of them in his mind; it was a blank; and it had become so, not from disease, not from any sudden stroke which bereft him of reason, but it had sunk, by slow degrees, under the influence of that solitary vice which ruins thousands, before they have a suspicion of their danger.
These are but the natural consequences of that course of life, which the criminal, who suffered upon the gallows, followed. In his case, the evil had not advanced so far. His animal frame had more power to resist it, that that of more cultivated, and of more mind. And yet his shrewd cunning, and silly laugh at trifles, together with his whole appearance, and his confession, place it beyond a doubt that he brought himself into the condition in which he was, by the practice of vice. And yet reason was not so far dethroned as to render him irresponsible. His memory, in some respects, was good; his sense could not be denied, and he had the full consciousness of wrong doing in the commission of crime. An idiot has no conscience: but a more accurate description of the power of conscience and its effects, I never heard, than was given from his lips. And in the dark hours of night, while in his cell in the prison, the cries and screams of his murdered victim, and her appearance when de3ad, presented themselves to him with such power as almost to render him frantic with terror. His discovered, when too late, that “the way of transgressors is hard.”
Some there are, who object to capital punishment as the relic of a barbarous age, and wrong, and who have therefore cherished a sympathy with the individual who suffered, as being the victim of a sanguinary law. So far as it respects this case, my own feelings would have been gratified to have had his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. And yet I have no hesitancy to avow my full belief in the justice and expediency of that law which requires the crime of the murderer to be expiated by his blood. I regard it of such unspeakable importance to protect human life, that the highest penalty in the power of man to inflict should be incurred for taking that life away. The object of the penalty in such a case is not vindictive, but for the protection and safety of the community; and no man can doubt in this age, that individual life is, in some cases at least, to be held subject to the general good. Some there are, who, with marked inconsistency, will urge on a sanguinary war, in which thousands of lives are offered on the altar of public ambition, who yet clamor against the justice of that law which sends the murderer to the scaffold.
It is time that such inconsistencies were abandoned. Let the principle be assumed, either that the State has no right to require the sacrifice of life in its own defense; or that equally for its defense, but in another way, it has a right to require this sacrifice. Who will deny that it is as important that society be protected from the dagger of the assassin as from the guns of an invading enemy? And if it is just to demand our fellow-citizens to enroll themselves to meet an invading foe, it is equally just to demand that the murderer die upon the scaffold. As a question of justice, therefore, or of strict rectitude, no reasonable doubt can be entertained.
The whole inquiry, as it seems to me, turns on the expediency of the one or the other course, as best adapted to protect society from crime. And on this point my mind is equally at rest. There is no other punishment proposed, which is of equal force to deter from crime. Who will pretend that a life of captivity and of imprisonment, even supposing this penalty in all cases to be inflicted, is comparable in terror to the penalty of death? The common sense of the community, expressed by law, has long ago decided this point, by making imprisonment for life a secondary penalty. And since, even with death in view, men do commit murder, we have reason to think that this crime would be less regarded, and more common, in proportion to any relaxation of the penalty. It belongs, therefore, to those who would remove the penalty of death from the statute book, to show that imprisonment for life is a greater and more fearful penalty than death, and would prove more efficacious in the prevention of crime, which no one can be made to believe, if he regard the future world as a state of reward and punishment, or respect his own consciousness of what he would himself prefer were he convicted. We need not go to the Bible to settle the question of the right to take the life of the murderer in such a case; for it is a right agreeable to the law of nature; and unless directly prohibited in the word of God, exists in all its strength. It belongs to the right of self-protection, which every community enjoys, to use, for this purpose, the wisest and most effectual means.
Another subject of inquiry introduced in this connection is, what is the comparative guilt of that crime which introduced the murderer to the scaffold, considered as an offense against law? Law is of two kinds, as it constitutes the rule of duty enjoined by God, or that which is enacted by men for the regulation of human conduct in society. The great law of moral duty is that which God has prescribed in the ten commandments. This, in its different precepts, is one law, all of these several commands constituting one code, which is of universal authority and obligation. The moral duties enjoined by this law, human legislation cannot change; and no law is of any force which is contradictory to them.
But in addition to the law of God, are those framed by human wisdom for mutual protection and safety, and to promote the ends of government. Those laws affix different penalties to crime in proportion to the injury which that crime is thought to do to the community. Thus, in the case of murder, every man’s life is protected by the law which requires that the blood of the murderer shall be shed; and there is every degree of penalty inflicted for various offenses, according to their estimated guilt.
In making an estimate of guilt in any crime, it is common to consider the degree of penalty which attaches itself to its commission, and whether it be a mere nominal fine, imprisonment in the penitentiary, or death upon the scaffold. In the common estimation of mankind, a man who commits a murder and dies upon the gallows, is a monster of iniquity; and one who perjures himself and becomes an inmate of the penitentiary, is cast out of society with loathing and contempt. This is right. The penalty which they suffer, is just that which they invoke by their conduct, and which society properly inflicts. But is human law the only and true standard of morality? By no means: for this law differs with the customs of every nation. There is but one true standard of morality in the universe, and that is God’s unerring law.
Blackstone allows, and it is affirmed by the wisest expounders of law, that all that is just and right, and conducive to happiness in human legislation on moral subjects, is based in the ten commandments of the divine law. It is according to this, that all questions of morals, are finally to be solved. Men may have opinions on this subject, and may give them the force of law; but all their opinions are finally to be adjudicated and settled in the grand chancery of heaven, and by that law which Jehovah has prescribed for our guidance. When settled by this test, how does the morality of that act which has brought a wretched man to the scaffold, differ from the morality of a thousand other acts committed by other men in the daily walks of life, and which are attended by no such immediately ruinous consequences? We do not ask how they differ in the eye of man, but of God.
Man, we know, makes a great difference between the two immoralities of the profane swearer and the murderer. Does God know any difference between them? Both are the express violation of his law; and who shall decide, that to blaspheme the name of God, and bring his person and government into contempt before men, is a less criminal act in his sight than to take the life of a fellow man? The immediate effects on society differ: and for these, the law makes provision by inflicting a heavier penalty on the murderer; for human law pretends not to take cognizance of offenses committed against God. But who shall say that God himself does not attach a heavier guilt to the conduct of the profane swearer, than to that of the murderer? By the one offense, a fellow being is deprived of life; by the other, a whole community may be perverted, in their hearts steeled against God, and their immortal welfare jeopardized.
You look with horror on the poor wretch who has expiated his offense against human law with his life, while you glory perhaps in your own goodness, as being a more excellent man, even while you lift up your voice in blasphemy toward the God who made you, and who would lead all around, by your example, to unite in blaspheming his holy name. But when the murderer shall have expiated his offense by death, and you have paid your fine, and both expiated your violation of human law, and come to stand side by side before God your judge, whose offense, think you, will appear greatest? He has violated the second table of the law, you the first. He has injured man, you have injured God. He has defaced the image of his Maker exhibited in man; you have defied the great God himself, and openly insulted and abused him; and were a jury of sinless beings to decide your comparative guilt, you would not be bought in second in wickedness. If there be any difference, it would be against you. In respect to the morality of your conduct, when judged by the true standard, you would stand, at least, on an equal footing with the murderer, for each and every offense you have committed. He has committed one murder; you have taken God’s name in vain every day, and perhaps every hour.
It is important to view this subject in its true light. Let us then reason it still further. God has commanded you to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. This precept belongs essentially to that moral code which affects our relations to God and the worship and reverence with which he should be treated. No views of man can alter or change this great law, the substance of which is, that one seventh part of our time is to be devoted exclusively to the worship of our Creator. But according to human law, the forger is sent to the penitentiary and the Sabbath-breaker punished by fine. This difference in penalty has no respect to the different degrees of criminality in the two cases, but merely to the influence of these offenses on society considered with reference to this life only. But, as estimated by God, how do they differ? The one offender robs man of a portion of his property, the other robs God of that respect and reverence which are his due. And when both shall have expiated their offences against human law, the one has endured his time in the penitentiary, and the other paid his fine, and shall come to stand before God in judgment, which will be esteemed the most immoral? The one has done an injury to man, the other robbed God; the one has appropriated to himself another’s property, the other has withheld from the Sovereign of the universe, his creator, preserver, and benefactor, that which he had a right to demand, and treated him with utter contempt and scorn. You may think this to be a new view of these subjects. It may be new to you, because your opinions have been formed in accordance with the estimate of crime made by man. But do you not perceive how partial and defective this standard is?
We may go still further and ask, which is worse in point of morals; the man who commits a single act of disobedience of the law and puts a fellow creature to death, or the man whose example, influence, and occupation, directly tend to make his associates profane, Sabbath-breakers, gamblers and drunkards? In some of our large cities, there are places not inaptly called Hells. One characteristic of these dens of infamy is, that they keep and expose for sale intoxicating drinks. In connection with this, there is a billiard room, and secret rooms for gambling and other vile purposes. Into this place young men are enticed to procure various articles of food, common to such establishments. Drinking is there resorted to, and this forms an introduction to the secret chambers and into the very heart of vice. Now it diminishes nothing from the character of those places that the wines and brandies are kept concealed, or that they are set up in bottles beautifully labeled on the shelves, and that an air of neatness and gentility pervades the place. This but enhances the mischief.
And here many a son of a widowed mother takes his first step in the downward road to infamy; and many a parent’s heart bleeds and is broken, and many a child of promise and of hope is ruined for this life and for that which is to come, by the enticements offered. Can you compare the man who keeps such a hell, in point of morality, with the victim of the law who has died upon the scaffold? Horrible as was his crime, and dreadful as was his punishment, yet, when before God my judge, if any choice were admissible, I would prefer the lot of the degraded and miserable Bell, to that of any rum-seller on earth; much more to that of the keeper of an infamous hell, where drinking, and gambling, and Sabbath-breaking, and profanity, go hand in hand; and where vice is created by wholesale to ruin for this life, and to damn for eternity the hopeless victims of such enticements. I speak it boldly and in the fear of God, that in point of morality, and as estimated by the eternal rule of rectitude, the man who panders to vice, that he may extract gold from the groans, the sighs, and the miseries of his fellow men, is as much inferior in point of morality to that wretched murderer, as he was inferior, in the estimation of mankind, to the thousands who pass their lives free from the reproach of such an out-breaking sin.
It is not to justify and defend the murderer that I thus speak, but to waken your attention to that which is sometimes overlooked and forgotten. There is many a man dressed in fine apparel and in high station, and many a woman too, who, when they shall come to stand before God in judgment, will sink in the scale of morality, as estimated by Gold’s righteous law, far below the man on whose character and fate we look with such pity and horror. Amid greater light and favored with higher opportunities, they have treated God and his law with more injury and contempt than this poor, ignorant, and vicious man. Elevated in point of privilege far above him, they may at last discover, that in guilt and infamy, as God estimates character, they are far below. For it is a rule of rectitude which the just Sovereign of the universe will assuredly regard, that of those to whom much is given, much will be required; and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment day, than for those who have known their duty better, but have continued to live in its habitual neglect.
But we turn from pursuing these inquiries, to consider the fate of that man whose character we have partially noticed. When first imprisoned, I called on him; but having been informed after his trial that he had invited a clergyman of this borough to be his spiritual instructor, I did not call again till requested by him with the view of attending him in a few days to the place of execution. Though prompted by my natural feelings to refuse this request, yet how could I decline to regard the wishes of this poor man at such an hour? I accordingly visited him in prison, and had repeated opportunities to converse with him. He seemed very much the same as when I before visited him, excepting that the consciousness that his lamp of life had almost expired, rendered him more serious and concerned. He told me much of his early history so far as he could remember it; that he was from his youth initiated into vice; that his parents, and brothers and sisters, were of the same stamp with himself; that having been cast forth upon the world, he was led to practice feigning himself deaf and dumb, to inspire sympathy in others and obtain food, and that he practiced this way for a year or two; that he has wandered about all his days; that when he asked people for food, people said, go to work, and when he asked for work, they would give him none; then, said he, “I pretended to be a cripple to obtain food from the sympathies of the people, for I could not starve.” Alluding to the practice of vice in which he had lived, he said to me, with considerable emotion, “it was that which ruined me;” and he repeated again, “it was that which has brought me to this wretched state.”
In respect to the foolish speeches he had made, he felt self-condemned, for he introduced the subject of his own accord, and said, “I have made a great many foolish speeches; but people came in here to see me out of mere curiosity and ask me questions, and I answered them anyhow, I did not care how;” but, said he, “I did not feel as I talked.” He evidently wished to impress me with the fact that he was sensible of the impropriety of many things he had said, and that it was mere talk to amuse the by-standers, and to make them laugh; but that his real feelings were at heart very different. Of this I have no doubt; for not infrequently has he been discovered weeping, and has evinced more feeling than he has generally had credit for possessing. He never talked foolish things to me, for I always addressed him kindly and seriously; and I very much doubt if many who have tried to laugh and jest with this poor weak-minded man in view of his awful fate, will reflect with pleasure on the course which they have pursued.
In respect to his future prospects, he said that he hoped to be saved through the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. I asked if he thought He could save such a wicked man as himself, and his reply was, he did save the thief on the cross, and he had no doubt he could save him. He said that he repented, sincerely repented of all his sins, and received Christ by faith as his Savior; and that it was the voice of conscience in him which told him how wicked he was, and led him not to deny but confess his sins. I questioned him before others and alone, to ascertain the extent of his knowledge and the sincerity of his feelings. And now, when all is over, it appears to me, on reflection, that no fault can be found with the views and feelings expressed; and how far he was truly penitent, or what were his relations to God his Savior, can be known only in the final day.
When taken from his cell, and clothed with his scaffold robes, and the rope was put on his neck preparatory to being led forth to the gallows, his countenance was solemn and expressive. When he trembled, and was asked by a by-stander “Are you cold, Bell?” he replied, “No, it is fear!” This was not the response of an idiot. That changed and solemn look was not the countenance of an idiot. Those answers which he gave, and views presented of a religious nature in his cell, were not the language of an idiot. His whole appearance, and his brief address and prayer on the scaffold, had nothing of the aspect of idiocy. No, he was far from being such a person. He was an ignorant, vicious, and weak-minded man; and may we not hope, amid all his foibles, that he was truly penitent? On the scaffold, he publicly thanked the sheriff and his family, and those who had befriended him, for their kindness – expressed his hope in the pardoning mercy of God, and that death would be a happy exchange for him; and at the close of the concluding prayer offered in his behalf the drop fell, and he was gone from this world forever!
Poor, unhappy Bell! My heart pitied your untimely fate. Without knowledge, without education, without any religious culture, without a friend on earth to care for you – who never knew even a virtuous mother’s love, and who drew in vice from the breast of her who gave you being – when you shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ in the last great day, and we shall be assembled there, may you not appeal to God, you judge, in the sincerity of your heart, and say, “No man cared for my soul?” Poor Bell! Let the man who would look upon you as the basest and most wicked of mankind, ask himself if he has never violated that precept of God’s holy law which says, “Thou shall not commit adultery.” Let those who stand well with the world, and with the Church of Christ, ask who has made them to differ, and whether they are living as they ought to do, in view of their superior education, and their higher privileges. Yea, were the blessed Savior present in this assembly, and should say, as he once did to those who criminated one who was brought before him, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone,” whose hand would be uplifted against this murderer? Who would dare to cast him down and take his place, as innocent of all transgression, before that God who searches the heart, and who will judge the world in righteousness, in the last great day?
Go, you who take God’s holy name in vain; you who desecrate the Sabbath; you who pander to the vices of men to win their gold; you who seek in the private walks of life to allure the virtuous into the paths of infamy for the gratification of your beastly passions; you who do, in the darkness of the night, deeds which, if exposed, would mantle your cheek with shame – go, boast of your virtue, pride yourself before your fellow-men on that moral excellence which you do not possess, and treat with utter loathing and contempt the poor wretch whose life has been forfeited, justly forfeited, to the law; but know that the eye of God is upon you; the judgment seat of Christ is full in view before you, and how – O! how will you appear, when you shall stand before that awful tribunal?
In view of this subject, we may perceive,
1. How necessary it is for the young to guard themselves against every vicious tendency.
It was the earnest desire of Bell, that the young should be warned against that vicious course of life which may ruin them, as completely as it did him. Many a young man starts fair, and makes fair promises; he means to be virtuous, but is not prepared to resist at the outset the various enticements which are thrown in his way. Allured by thoughtless companions, he enters with them the portals of sin, and Oh! How often is it never to return!
Do not, we entreat you, think that you are exposed to no danger. The danger is on every side. Oh! Shun it, as you would the gates of hell, did they stand open before you. Allow no dalliance to sin, no, not for a moment; but turn with all your heart unto wisdom’s way; for it is the way of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
2. We learn what a curse in the community those men are, whose occupation it is to corrupt and lead into vice those whom they are able to entice, and who pander to vice, and make a gain of that which ruins men. Not only do they do nothing to make the world better than it is, and to increase the sum of human happiness, but their influence is adverse to these great ends. Let their character and influence be appreciated at what they are worth, and their means to do injury to others will be proportionately impaired. When it is so difficult to reform mankind of their vices, and so easy, in consequence of the depraved inclinations of the heart, to lead them astray, how fatal must be the course which some pursue to the happiness of thousands! Oh that those who give their influence for the gain it brings them, to the promotion of vice, would repent of their wicked conduct! Let them observe the counsels of wisdom, lest in the final day he who has died for the murder of one victim, shall rise against them and condemn them as worthy of being beaten with more stripes, because when they knew they were doing wrong they still persisted in their course, and not only became the murderer of the bodies, but of the souls of men.
3. The evil tendencies of sin are here portrayed in vivid colors, and the miseries which sin occasions. It necessarily destroys peace of mind, troubles the conscience, and induces shame and remorse. And they who live in sin, will assuredly become sensible of this by their own experience. For the day is coming when the secrets of every heart shall be revealed and a guilty world shall stand trembling before God.
4. We learn the value of the Gospel, as containing a system of forgiveness with God, and of mercy to the repentant. No man can die happy, whether upon the scaffold, or on his bed, without an assurance felt of pardoned sin, and of forgiveness through the blood of Jesus. And with this assurance, he may die in tranquility and in peace; yea, he may feel in a dying hour joys which he cannot express.
It is the Gospel which offers this mercy to all who humbly seek it. The thief on the cross was as freely forgiven, as the most noble of the earth who repent; and I think I never felt the force of many of the kind expressions of the Gospel to sinners as I felt then, when I stood by the side of the murderer on the scaffold, who professed penitence with tears, and openly professed Christ as his only hope of acceptance into paradise. “It is a faithful saying, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” He “came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” He “came to seek and to save them that are lost; for God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son, that whoso believeth on him should not perish.” “Wherefore he is able to save unto the uttermost, all who come unto God by him.” Precious, precious Gospel! It brings its offers of cleansing and saving mercy down, not only to the ignorant, but to the vicious, yea, to the chief of sinners, who may stand trembling upon the trap of the scaffold which is about to fall.
This Gospel, sinner, offers salvation to you, and if offers it on the same terms. It calls on you and on all men everywhere to repent. O listen to its voice of mercy – listen now; “for if he who despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses, of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who has trodden underfoot the Son of God, and counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was cleansed an unholy thing, and has done despite unto the Spirit of grace.”
We are all advancing to the last of earth, and to the tribunal of the great God our Maker, before which we must soon appear. The few brief years, or hours, perhaps, which intervene between this moment and that, are swiftly passing away. The river rushes from its mountain springs, not swifter or more certainly to the ocean, than are we borne on the rapid stream of time to meet our doom. Tell us not of plans for rising to ambitious honors, for amassing wealth, and mere worldly enjoyment, for these may be dashed in pieces in a moment. Like the ship amid the ocean waves which is struck with a tempest, founders, and is lost, so may be your hopes. No mortal vision can see what is before you, or how near you have come to death and to the judgment. “You have five minutes yet to live,” said the kind-hearted sheriff to the trembling Bell. How solemn the annunciation! And yet you may advance to the very moment of death and breathe your last, while cherishing the expectation of many years to come, and that you will repent before you die.
But whatever may be the circumstances of your departure from the world, know, that you cannot escape the judgment. You cannot elude the vision, or avoid the glance of that august Being who sits upon the throne. And since you must stand before his Judgment Seat; since, whether sooner or later, death will introduce you to that standard of morality which he has set up, or to the consequences of being found there impenitent and un-forgiven, let me implore you to reflect upon your future prospects, on the sins which you have committed against a holy and just God, on the mercy which is offered you in the Gospel, and on the value of the present opportunity to obtain forgiveness, and the assurance of eternal life through Jesus Christ. I feel that the admonitions suggested by that awful scene which has recently transpired, are of infinite value, and that they ought not to be trifled with or scorned. It is not I, but the Eternal God who addresses you. He adjures you by the miseries which follow sin; by the tears and sorrows of the prisoner in his gloomy cell; by his agonizing cries to God for mercy, as he stood trembling on the scaffold; by his own precious love which is offered you through his Son, to turn from the path of the destroyer, and to give no rest to your soul, till repentance has sealed your forgiveness, and you can truly say, that God is yours.
You may slight these admonitions because it is the purpose of your mind the rather to give heed to the pleasures of the world than seek them; but remember, that it is not God’s happiness, but yours, that is in jeopardy. You assume all the responsibility respecting it. If you would be happy; happy in this world, happy throughout the endless ages which are to come, the door to this happiness stands open before you; but if not, there is the world and all that it can offer you; and there, at the termination of these pleasures, the dark portals of hell are thrown wide open. Enshrouded with gloom, and over its massive gates, it is inscribed in letters of fire: “The way of transgressors is hard.” There read and learn the end of the wicked. There, the smoke of their torment ascends up forever and ever. Behold hat black and awful cloud as it rises, while groans and sighs, and cries of agony reach your ears! It is the smoke of the torments of the wicked. And see upon it, written as if with the pencil of the Almighty, which had been dipped in the burning lake below, “The way of transgressors is hard.”