Leonard Woods (1774-1854) graduated from Harvard in 1796. He was a pastor in Newbury, Massachusetts (1798-1808), and a professor of Christian theology at the Andover theological seminary (1808-1846). Woods was active in establishing the American tract society, the Temperance society, and the board of commissioners of foreign missions.
S E R M O N S
ON PROFANE SWEARING,
APRIL 4, 1799;
THE DAY APPOINTED BY
The GOVERNOR of Massachusetts
For Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.
By LEONARD WOODS, A. M.
Pastor of the third Church in Newbury.
Exodus, xx. 7.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his name in vain.
The sin here forbidden is obviously unreasonable. The mere dictate of an intelligent nature we should suppose would prove an effectual barrier against the commission of it. It is directly opposed to the deep reverence, the sincere piety, the grateful love, which the divine majesty and goodness naturally tend to inspire. But we have an express command. God descended in awful dignity on Mount Sinai, and with a voice infinitely more solemn and terrible, than the loud thundering and lightnings, and sound of the trumpet, proclaimed in the audience of the Israelitish nation, Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his name in vain. Now should we not imagine, if left to judge from the nature of the thing, that the command of God delivered in terms of such dreadful authority, and enforced by a sanction infinitely momentous, would fill the hearts of men with reverence and awe, and prevent the most distant approaches to the crime forbidden. But history and experience teach us a truth far less probable, and far less delightful. If we trace the history of the Israelites, to whom the law was first announced, we shall soon observe in them a total want of reverence for the character and name of God. And if we have lived only a few years, and had opportunity to make but very limited observations on mankind at the present day, we have already learnt that the third commandment, which has lost none of its original authority, is by most men in some degree disregarded, and by innumerable multitudes held in hearty contempt, and grossly violated. This deplorable fact is not an unfit subject of serious contemplation and penitent regret for a day of fasting and prayer. It may well lead us to humiliation and sorrow, and excite our most fervent intercessions, to think that any of our highly favored race should be guilty of profaning the name of Almighty God. But when we consider that such an aggravated crime is chargeable upon a great majority of mankind, and that most, if not all of us are implied in that number; how deep should be our abasement; how melting our grief; how penitent and lowly our confessions; how earnest, and yet how submissive our supplications.
That we may more clearly apprehend the extent and importance of the command in the text; that we may be roused and assisted to yield due obedience to it, and be more humble and penitent under the consideration, that ourselves and others are guilty of so repeated a violation of it; let the following things engage our serious and devout attention.
I. Several ways, in which the third commandment is transgressed.
II. The unreasonableness and futility of several arguments, which are sometimes urged as excuses for the use of profane language.
III. Some of the reasons that may be offered against it.
IV. A few directions how to avoid it.
V. Some reflections arising from the subject and the present occasion united.
Before I enter on particulars, permit me, my beloved hearers, to bespeak your patience and candor. As you have chosen me for your minister, you ought to feel willing, that I should be faithful to God and to you. I could not be so, should I omit the mention of a sin, because I fear some of you are chargeable with it. If any of you are guilty of the sin prohibited in the text, you must expect to have your consciences disturbed and wounded by the following discourses. You ought, however, to remember that it is not an object of the preacher ‘to torment you before the time;’ but by setting before you the nature and consequences of sin, to bring you to repentance, and thus to promote your present and future happiness. This desirable object I cannot expect to obtain, unless I adopt the wise resolution of Micaiah, as the Lord liveth, what the Lord saith unto me, that will I speak.
First. We are to consider several ways, in which the third commandment is transgressed.
I. By perjury; which is the making use of the name of God in confirmation of a falsehood, or the non-performance of the religious oaths we have made. For the security of reputation and property, and the good of society in many other respects, civil government has ever deemed it necessary, in certain cases, to bind the consciences of men by solemn religious oaths. The reason why this measure is adopted seems to be this; that a direct appeal to omniscient God, as the witness of what is said and the judge and avenger of a lie, will to men in general be an additional inducement to speak the truth. It is doubtless so. Many persons, who can utter falsehood in common conversation without trembling, and without a blush, dare not do it, when they have lifted up their hand towards heaven, with a solemn appeal to Almighty God for the truth of what they say. Indeed one would think that no man could be so regardless of that infinite wisdom, which cannot be deceived, and of that infinite power, which will not be mocked, as to call expressly upon God to attest a falsehood. But alas, this is no uncommon crime. Many men, through the original and superinduced blindness of their hearts, have so little sense of the majesty and holiness of God, that they are not afraid to go into his sacred presence, call him by name, and then lie to his face.
Men are guilty of perjury, not only when they swear to a thing, which they know to be false, but also when they swear to a thing, while uncertain of its truth. Nor does their guilt appear small when they give testimony to a falsehood, though they suppose it to be a truth. For we must conclude they are not necessarily deceived, but might, by using the means in their power, have gained proper information. At least, we may safely say, they cannot know that to be a truth, which is in fact a falsehood, and are criminal for positively asserting it, while any doubt remains.
Further, a man is guilty of that, which bears a near resemblance to perjury, and seems to partake of its nature, when he positively engages upon oath to do what he knows not to be in his power. But when some unforeseen providence renders it impossible for him to perform his vow, we cannot see that he is criminal for not performing it. Yet even here it may with propriety to said, that he ought to have entered into his engagement or vow in dependence on divine providence; which would have rendered the necessary omission altogether harmless.
Perjury, in every shape and degree, arises from irreverence and contempt of God; and thus appears to have a near connection with what we shall consider as
The second way of violating the command under consideration, which is, taking an oath without that deep reverence and awe, which are due to the character of the Supreme Being. This is plainly intended in the prohibition. In vain, as it is used in the text, signifies lightly, inconsiderately, and irreverently, as well as falsely. Now although a person is, by some selfish consideration, secured from false swearing; yet, if he make use of the name of God, as a mere form, or civil engine, without being penetrated with a solemn sense of the divine presence and majesty, he is most evidently guilty of transgressing the command before us. The name of God is great and venerable, and ought at all times to be pronounced and contemplated with humble fear as well, as with ardent love; especially when it is formally introduced in confirmation of what we declare. To mention and swear by his name with as little reverence, as we feel in speaking of a fellow creature, is a gross violation of the dictates of reason, an extensive injury to society, and a daring insult to the Sovereign of the world.
3. If it be taking the name of God in vain to introduce it without seriousness and reverence even in confirmation of a truth, when called upon by civil authority; what shall we say to the light and frequent mention of it in order to confirm what is said in common conversation. This, I apprehend, is one of the chief things forbidden in the text. This is surely taking God’s name in vain, in every sense of the word. It is in vain, as it is not necessary; in vain, as it answers no good purpose; in vain, as it is done in a light and inconsiderate manner; in vain, as it is often done in confirmation of a lie.
Altho a person do not often expressly mention the name of God; yet he is a transgressor of the divine law, if he allow himself to swear by any of the works or creatures of God. That the command is of such an extent is plainly declared by Christ. The Jews had perversely limited its meaning, and confined it to false swearing, or perjury. ‘Ye have heard it said by them of old time, thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oath;’ and ye arrogantly suppose that this is all the law forbids or requires. “But I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by thy head. But let your conversation be yea yea; nay, nay;’ simple affirmations, and simple negations. ‘For whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil;’ or, as it may be rendered, ‘from the evil one.’ ‘It comes from the Devil,’ says Mr. Henry. “It comes from the corruption of men’s nature, from passion and vehemence, from the reigning vanity of the mind, and a contempt of sacred things.”
Are any of my hearers guilty of thus trifling with sacred things? Do you allow yourselves in it? ‘Tis high time you should have your sins brought from under the screen of retirement and darkness, and viewed in the light of God’s house and word. Consider then, how odious, now horrid it is for persons profanely to introduce the name of the eternal God or of the holy Jesus in order to add confirmation or emphasis to their assertions! Their wickedness appears so great, that I feel impelled to say here, what I shall largely insist upon under another head; if they persevere in such a daring violation of God’s holy law, they shall assuredly perish forever, unless they can overturn the throne of omnipotent Jehovah. Let all, who hear, remember this solemn warning against the great day.
Some men, scrupling to make use of the name of God directly, swear by some of his works or creatures; as by heavens, by the foul, &c. And when a person simply says, I swear, it is necessarily implied, that he swears by something; which is a direct transgression of Christ’s command, ‘swear not at all.’
4. Persons are guilty of taking God’s name in vain, who introduce it by way of exclamation, saying, on some striking occurrence, good God, – oh Lord, &c. not from a religious sense of God, but to give utterance to the unhallowed emotions of profane mirth and levity; or at best, to express sudden joy or surprise. Nothing need be said to prove, that this is taking the name of God in vain.
5. Persons violate the third command, when they make use of imprecations, or call upon God to inflict some evil upon themselves or others. To pray for blessings upon all mankind, even our enemies, is an indispensable duty. But, from anger or malice, to imprecate damnation, or any temporal evil upon our fellow men is, in such creatures as we are, a crime peculiarly heinous and detestable.—Shall we, guilty rebels, presumptuously attempt to direct God in the distribution of punishments?—Dare we ask him, who is infinitely wise and good, to conform his dispensations to our partial views and malicious desires? Shall we, who must perish, unless we are saved by an act of sovereign forgiveness, call upon God to take vengeance on those, who happen to offend us? To use the name of God for such purposes is to use it worse than in vain. There is nothing which shows greater impiety, more towering pride and arrogance, or more hellish spite, than to call upon God to inflict damnation upon a fellow creature. It is to forget that we are sinners. It is to forget that we are men.—It is an expression of malice and revenge, which ought never to be heard, except from the mouth of Devils. Still more unnatural, more unaccountably wicked does it appear, to call down divine vengeance upon one’s self. But so it is, that if none should be lost, but those, who have expressly asked, or challenged God to damn them, the infernal regions would not want inhabitants. Let me tell you, my hearers, when you thus profanely invite the vengeance of God, there is a dreadful probability that he will take you at your word.
Another kind of wickedness, which may fall under this head, and by which men break the commandment in the text, is the venting of their unreasonable resentment against their beasts in profane and impious curses. The mention of this vice is enough to make human nature blush. That a man should feel such anger and malice against his poor laborious beast, that is destitute of reason, and therefore, incapable of having a bad meaning or design, as to imprecate divine vengeance upon it, is amazingly stupid as well as sinful. When you hear a man damn his beast, you may tell him, if his madness will admit, – it may be, my friend, it may be, that you will know what damnation is long before your beast. – That stroke of vengeance, which you call down upon him, may fall upon one, who deserves it.
A man’s profanity grows still more inconsistent and wanton, when in cool blood, perhaps with emotions of kindness at heart, he mingles curses and oaths in his addresses to his friends. ‘Tis true, he means not as he says; and this proves him guilty of falsehood and profanity at the same time.
We must observe, in the sixth place, that there are many little expressions, sometimes thought to be harmless, which approach so near the boundaries of profanity, that they may, in the sight of God, amount to a violation of the third command, and are evident transgressions of some precepts in the Gospel. I shall not enter into particulars; but only request you to bear in mind, that all idle words and all little profanities, whether polite or vulgar, are recorded in the book of God, and must be answered for at his tribunal.
Should I stop here, there would, perhaps, be some present, who might thank God, that they were not like other men; that they had, to a considerable degree, kept this commandment. But I must add, in the seventh place, that God’s name is taken in vain by insincere and formal devotions. Instead of requiring arguments to prove this, all those who make conscience of family or secret devotion, are ready to own and lament, that they have often, very often taken the name of God into their mouths, and addressed him in words of solemn import, while their hearts were destitute of homage, gratitude, and love. How many times, in the course of one prayer, do some persons take the name of God in vain! How few are free from this charge, when they ask God’s blessing upon their daily food? How few are entirely guiltless in their public religious transactions! How great a part of those, who pretend to pray, do it without humility, without sincerity; without any real desire of the favors they ask, or any love to the character and laws of God. Oh solemn mockery! Oh vain attempt to impose deception upon God! Is this such prayer, as the Almighty requires of us, and will accept? To those, who offer him such hypocritical devotion, God puts the alarming question, ‘who hath required this at your hands?’
We proceed to the second thing proposed; which was, to point out the unreasonableness and futility of several arguments, which are sometimes urged as excuses for the violation of the third commandment. The principal thing I shall keep in view is what we commonly call profane swearing; yet not excluding any of the methods, by which the command in the text is violated.
1. An argument, which many bring to justify profane swearing, at least to palliate the criminality of it, is, that they mean no harm.—-If a man should cast firebrands and arrows at those about him; none surely would think he had offered a reason sufficient to justify his conduct, by his saying, I am in sport; or, I mean no harm. That which was sport to him might be death to them. How strange it is, for a man to break the law, to despise the threatenings, and to pour contempt upon the name of God; to do that, which draws after it consequences pernicious to the interests and to the souls of men; and after all this to say, he meant no harm. There is scarcely a crime committed, which does not admit the same justification. In whatever wickedness a man allows himself, you will not find it easy to make him own, that he really means any hurt by it. The man, who neglects his family and secret prayer, who feels quite regardless of the honor of God, and ungrateful for his infinite favors, will tell you, at least he himself thinks, that he means no harm. The man who disbelieves the sacred scriptures, or rejects any of the doctrines therein contained, pacifies his conscience by pretending, that he means no harm. Whatever duty a man neglects, whatever sin he habitually commits, this is still the plea he makes, that he has no bad meaning—What a striking instance of the deceitfulness of sin, and the almost total ignorance of men in respect to their own hearts! When the Holy Spirit gives men a just and reasonable view of divine things, he makes them feel and acknowledge, that they never committed any sin without a bad intention. God, who looketh on the heart, on the designs and motives of our conduct, will never judge that to be sin, or a violation of his law, which is done without any bad intent. It is absurd then for the profane swearer to endeavor to justify himself by the argument above-mentioned. For however ignorant he may be of it, no command of God can be transgressed without implying a sinful design in the transgressor. And if his saying, he means no harm, will justify his profanity; there is scarcely any crime, for which upon the same principles, a justifying reason may not be assigned. Let it always be remembered, that voluntary self ignorance, or willful self delusion is so far from being an excuse or palliation of a crime committed, that it is a great crime itself. Christ forewarns his disciples of a time, when whosoever killed them should think he did God service. By this, however, he did not mean to exculpate those, who should murder his followers; but to exhibit the united guilt of their superstition, self-delusion, unhallowed zeal, and impious rage.
2. Let us consider another argument, by which men attempt to justify themselves, in part at least, for profanity; that they have a habit of swearing so deeply rooted and inveterate, that they cannot break off from it. They are fully persuaded it is a folly, and dishonor, and sin. But their habit of swearing has become so interwoven with their nature, that when temptation presses them to it, they cannot refrain.
In reply to this, it is by no means difficult to show, that a habit of sinning is so far from being a justification of the crimes committed, that it is a circumstance, which greatly enhances guilt; and that a person’s ill desert is aggravated in some proportion to the strength and fixedness of his vicious habits. What is a bad habit, but an inclination to commit sin strengthened & confirmed by frequent indulgence? Is this a thing that palliates guilt? Is a crime less heinous, because it has been committed many times before? Does guilt decrease, as the number of crimes increases? The repetition of a crime is, by civil law, often condemned by a penalty much more severe, than the first offence. Who ever doubted the justice of this? Who ever thought that a thief deserved less punishment for stealing the tenth time, than the first? Let reason and common sense decide.—The man, whose offence arises from inadvertence or sudden surprisal, is accounted far less guilty, than he who offends from fixed principle. The stronger, the more irresistible a man’s inclination is to commit sin, the more depraved do we think him, and the more deserving of punishment. A long practiced thief or highwayman has an unconquerable propensity to rob and steal. His dishonest, unrighteous principles are so powerful, as to sway all the active energies of his foul. No reason or argument, which can be proposed, has the least effect to turn him from his steady purpose. It is as natural for his thoughts, desires, and actions to be dishonest and wicked, as it is for water to descend. Now will any one say, that the strength of his wicked inclination and habit is a circumstance, which renders him less guilty, less worthy of punishment? Is not the contrary position evidently true, that the resistless source of his depraved disposition and habit raises his guilt to the highest pitch of aggravation? An old miser, whose heart is glued fast to his treasure, who is incapable of entertaining a liberal design or doing a generous action, is looked upon by all, as a depraved wretch, that deserves nothing but mingled pity and contempt from man, nothing but misery from God. The cruel tyrants of the Roman empire, who could no more abstain from oppression and murder, than from their daily food, are justly tho’t to be more guilty, than those, whose temper was less confirmed in cruelty, whose iniquities were less rare. All these instances, which are perhaps unnecessarily multiplied, are introduced to evince, that the strength of a depraved disposition and the invincible firmness of a vicious habit are so far from being a sufficient apology for sin, that they render it much more inexcusable and aggravated.
Let this reasoning, which I think you will allow to be just, be applied to the subject in hand. A man offers it as a plea to justify himself for profane swearing, that he has such a strong and confirmed habit of indulging himself in it, that he cannot leave it off. In other words, you have such a strong and habitual inclination to profane the name of God and to break his righteous law, that you cannot leave it off. Be not offended, if I tell you, according to the tenor of the preceding discussion, that such a disposition and habit are, both in the sight of God and man, awful aggravations of your guilt; and, unless reformed, will add dreadful weight to your future misery. Consider how this plea from the inveteracy of habit would appear at the bar of God. Shall you be able to lift up your head there, and say to Almighty God, —I had such a strong inclination to disobey thee, and my custom of doing it was of so long standing, that I could not leave it off: I therefore hope to be excused?
But I would observe, as a further answer to this plea, that it is possible for your habit of swearing, inveterate as it is, to be subdued. In the presence of great and good men, whom you respect and fear to offend, is not your language decent and pure? Does not this prove that you have power to govern your tongue; and consequently that your profanity is without excuse? Does it not likewise appear from this consideration, that a becoming sense of the presence and the perfections of God would effectually preserve you from the guilt of profaneness? Realizing that the Supreme Being observes all your conduct, loving and adoring his character, desiring to please and honor him, should you dare to profane his sacred name? Your profanity then does not arise from want of power to avoid it, but from want of consideration and sobriety. —Further, the numberless instances of reformation in the most profane, most hardened sinners prove the possibility of yours; and point you to that almighty and compassionate Redeemer, whose peculiar office it is to save his people from their sins. By submitting to the grace of Christ you will become entitled to that most important promise, that no sin shall have dominion over you. When such help is provided and offered, how can you plead, as an excuse for profane swearing, the impossibility, or even the difficulty of reformation?
3. Another reason, by which some men attempt to apologize for swearing, is, that they were in a passion. —Does God, who certainly knows our frame, feels all possible compassion towards us, and makes all reasonable allowances, anywhere excuse men for breaking his commandments, because they are blinded and overcome by passion? It is a sin, my hearers, to be in a passion; that is, to suffer our angry emotions to cloud the eye of reason, or to throw the mind into disorder. Precepts in rich abundance are found in the Bible, which enjoin a meek, placid calm, forgiving temper, and prohibit the indulgence of anger, high spirit, malice, and revenge. Now can one sin excuse another, which is occasioned by it? Can your being in a passion, which is itself a sin, excuse profane swearing, which is a still greater sin?
Some perhaps begin to think that the preacher is too strict, too severe; that he ought to be a little more candid and charitable, and allow that something may be said in excuse for profaneness, as well as many things against it. But my hearers, I must enter into some other school, besides the school of reason, or the school of Christ, before I can learn, that sin, that rebellion against God admits any excuse whatsoever. There is a day not far distant, when every mouth shall be stopped, and all impenitent sinners, in particular profane swearers shall feel and acknowledge themselves to be inexcusably guilty before God.
1. It essentially injures a person in the present life. Depraved as the world is, virtue, those branches of it in particular, which have an immediate and evident connection with the good of society, are generally rewarded with the esteem, at least the veneration of mankind at large, and with that which is much more to be desired, the approbation and love of the good; while vice of every kind, much ore a barefaced iniquity eventually robs a man of his dearest goodly treasure, his reputation. This is emphatically faced in regard to the sin, which we are opposing. —earth not take any pains to prove, that the profane swearer, whether old or young, is on the whole loved much more coldly, and held in much lower estimation, that he would be, were his language at all times pure. Even his wicked associates, though they may for the present applaud him for the countenance he gives to their beloved vices, yet retaining some remainder of common sense, must consider him, as unworthy of their sincere love, esteem, and confidence. But the approbation and friendship of the wise and good are of much higher importance. Of these a man infallibly deprives himself by profane swearing. There is not a sober and sensible man of your acquaintance, who does not esteem and love you less, for every instance of your profanity. It is a disgrace, my hearers, a horrid disgrace. It is a black stigma upon a man’s character, as a rational being, as a citizen, as a friend, and above all as a Christian. Can any be so thoughtless as to suppose it an honor? Will you glory in that, of which you ought to be ashamed? Will you be ambitious to imitate the most low, vulgar, vile creatures, that our country affords, who are often as notorious for their profaneness, as for their ignorance and vulgarity? Will you follow the example of those who are far beneath the common level of human nature? Will you leave your own rank in life to herd with those, who are, in knowledge, only one grade above, in character many grades below the brutal creation?
It may be added, that a custom of using profane oaths for confirmation will be so far from answering your design, that it will in fact render your veracity suspected. The man is indeed an object of pity, who has not reputation enough to be believed, without having recourse to swearing. But, my friend, this will not help the case. No man of sense will have any higher opinion of your honesty and fidelity on account of your profane oaths. If you were conscious of possessing an upright principle at heart, and had proved yourself an honest man, you might justly think yourself insulted and injured, if any one should refuse to credit your assertions. —May we not fear that no profane swearer has a principle of truth and honesty at heart? Do not a man’s impious oaths often spring from the base consciousness, that he has forfeited his character? Is not his readiness to establish in this way what he has said, an implicit confession, that his naked word may be doubted; that his veracity may be justly called in question? So unhappily does he counteract his own intentions. Seeking honor and applause, he meets disgrace and contempt. Seeking to gain credit to his word, h renders it more suspected. What unnatural folly and cruelty it is thus to injure himself! But the injury stops not here. I add
In the second place, profane swearing is, in its consequences, very detrimental to society. The security of our dearest rights depends in a great measure upon the reverence which men have for an oath. Almost all the decisions in our courts of justice are formed on the supposition, that men under oath will strictly adhere to the truth. If therefore men have not proper respect for an oath, nor feel the solemn obligation under which it lays them, one mighty instrument of justice is wrested from the hands of civil magistrates, and our property and reputation left exposed to the assault of dishonest and villainous men.
Now there is nothing which tends so much to wear away all religious reverence of God and all suitable respect for an oath, as the prevalence of profane swearing. To hear those around us lightly mention the name of God, and intermix impious asseverations with their common discourse is apt to inspire us with the same low & dishonorable conceptions of God, the same disregard and insensibility to the solemn obligation of an oath, as appear in them. If to hear profane swearing in others have this tendency, much more does the indulgence of it in ourselves. It is impossible that the man, who is guilty of profaneness, whenever temptation urges him to it, should feel a religious regard for the oath, which he takes before a civil magistrate. —Thus you see that the sin prohibited in the text has a most pernicious influence on the interests of society, by diminishing in ourselves and others that religious reverence, which is due to an oath; thereby freeing men from a most weighty motive to speak the truth, and opening a door for mistaken and injurious decisions in our courts of justice. Its baneful influence extends likewise to all those officers, who are by oath bound to fidelity in the trusts committed to their hands.
As the third reason against profane swearing, we urge the laws of the Commonwealth. The evil has become so extensive and alarming, that our rulers deem it necessary to super add the authority of civil law to that of reason and scripture, hoping thereby to check the spread and influence of so dire a calamity. (Here the ACT against profane swearing was read.) Suffer me now to call upon every one, who lories in being an American, and professes a loyal regard to our Government, to listen obediently to its wise decisions, and not to allow himself in any instance to be guilty of profane swearing. How false is a man’s pretence, that he is a friend to the prosperity of his country, when he lives in the habitual violation of its prudent and salutary laws! Who deserves to be considered, as an enemy to society, if not he who tramples upon the equitable commands of Government? If, my hearers, you have a spark of patriotism in your breasts, any regard to the laws of the land, any desire, or even a cold willingness, that the good of the present and succeeding generations be promoted, be persuaded to revere the name of Almighty God, and to maintain a deep and solemn sense of the obligation of an oath.
4. Profane swearing has a baneful effect upon the minds of men in a religious view. By habituating them to use the name of God without any right conceptions of his character, without religious fear or pious gratitude, their hearts become more and more estranged from the worship of their Maker. —In faithfulness to your souls, I must tell you, that the man, who is in the habit of swearing profanely, is an utter stranger to religion. From the same mouth there cannot proceed blessing and cursing. —A man cannot offer up an acceptable prayer to God, while he allows himself to take his name in vain. —Should a sincere Christian through inadvertence, or the sudden impulse of temptation, be guilty of cursing and swearing, as Peter was; he could enjoy no peace or communion with God, before he went and wept bitterly; before his heart was melted and reformed by deep sorrow and thorough repentance.
Profane swearing tends likewise to injure the minds of others in respect to religion. Its influence is contagious. The contempt of God, the alienation from his service, which you exhibit, others will be apt to catch from you. Thus impiety and irreligion will from you diffuse its deadly poison through the souls of all around.
The fifth reason I shall bring against profaneness is a consideration of the great and holy name of God. —This argument is implied in the text, and more explicitly in what God saith by Moses, ‘Thou shalt no profane the name of thy God; I am the LORD.’ —Permit me to tell you, my hearers, that the word, GOD, which is soften in your mouths, is a word of solemn, of awful import. By the life of your souls, I warn you not to trifle with that momentous word. It points us to the King eternal, immortal, invisible. GOD, —oh weigh the vast meaning of that word, —GOD is an almighty, an all wise, all gracious Spirit. —He is absolutely without beginning, without end. He has created, he supports, he moves the universe. God is everywhere present. Ascend into heaven. He is there. Make your bed in hell. He is there. Fly to the uttermost parts of the earth. He is there. Pass through the starry heavens. Speed your way into the abyss of infinite space. Continue your course swifter than a ray of light, for millions of ages; continue it, while eternity endures; and God is there. And while he is there, while he is everywhere throughout immensity, he is here. He looks on us with as constant attention, as perfect knowledge, as if there were no other creatures in existence, and all his notice were directed to us alone. He is able to save, and to destroy. All nature is at his command, under his control. Before him Angels bow, and Devils tremble. He is our final Judge. His favor is life; his frown eternal death. —Is this a Being to be rifled with, to be mocked, to be insulted? Is the name of this glorious GOD to be profaned?
There is another cogent and moving reason against taking the name of God in vain couched in these words, ‘thy God.’ ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ Although we have renounced our allegiance to God, and exposed ourselves to his eternal wrath; he is pleased, in the dispensation of grace to propose and offer himself, as our reconciled Father and God, and to give us an opportunity of becoming his redeemed people. To use lightly and profanely the name of the Supreme Being, who condescends to stand in such an endearing relation to us, argues an amazing insensibility to infinite obligation. It is a most unnatural wickedness for children to speak lightly of their parents. Whatever be their conduct towards others, if they have a spark of virtue remaining in their breasts, they will feel and manifest great reverence for the name of those, whom they call their parents; especially if those parents be truly wise and good. —The same principle operates in other relations. This even nature teaches. And shall we not revere the name of him, whom we call our God? Is not this a dear and important relation? Whatever we think or say of the Gods of others; let our God be tho’t of and mentioned with grateful respect and filial awe. When God proposes himself, as our God, there is great condescension and goodness implied. Should a man, far above you in rank and merit, condescend to notice you, to confer favors upon you, and to seek to notice you, to confer favors upon you, and to seek your affection, would it not be natural for you to mention him with great respect? Still more, if you lived upon his bounty; if you daily asked of him, and expected daily to receive undeserved protection and support, and in addition to all this were persuaded, that he acted from the purest and noblest principles; should you frequently introduce the name of so worthy a benefactor and friend in a slight and canting way, or as a trivial proverb? And when God, who dwells in the high and holy place, stoops down to notice us and to bless us, to offer us his friendship, and to solicit ours; shall we mention him with contempt? When he has given his Son to die for us, and thereby put himself in the relation of a reconcilable Father and God; shall we not be filled with wonder and love? And is it the way to show our love to the best of beings and the best of benefactors, lightly and irreverently to pronounce his sacred name? Is profane swearing the language of gratitude for infinite blessings, – the language of praise to infinite goodness?
Our last reason, and that of great moment, against profane swearing is suggested in the text. It is the awful sanction, by which the command is enforced. “The Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his name in vain.” If a regard neither to your own interest and reputation, nor to the good of society, nor to the laws of the land, nor to the religious concerns of yourselves and others, nor to the great and venerable name of God, —if none of these, nor any other consideration will keep you from profaning the name of the Lord; know assuredly, that He will not suffer you to pass with impunity. He will remember you in the day of his wrath. —My office, my conscience, and the word of God require me to lift up my voice, to cry aloud and spare not; to tell the people their sins, and to hold up the terrors as well, as the mercies of the Lord. —I must therefore declare to profane swearers, however exalted in wealth, in honor, or in pride; however useful to society; however amiable in other respects, —except you repent, you shall all perish. The Lord will not hold you guiltless for taking his name in vain. Whatever becomes of others, it is certain you shall not escape. All the plagues that are written in the book of God shall come upon you. Even in this life your hell may begin. Your conscience will at times be awakened and tormented. The black face of a tempestuous cloud, the flames that dart through the sky, or the assault of a dangerous disease may set the worm of guilt to gnawing, and kindle a devouring fire in your soul. God will by and by come with the sword of death in his hand. You must tremble then, if you never trembled before. At that solemn time, when you will most sensibly need the friendship of God, his face will appear with a killing frown. You will probably think, —alas, it is too late. Prayers are in vain. I have times without number profaned the great name of God. Now he is my enemy, my eternal enemy; and I dare not go into his presence. He once offered himself to me, as my God. But in that character I slighted and rejected him. Now he is my offended Judge. Shortly must I know what it is to stand guilty at his bar, and be condemned and rejected by him. Or if your conscience remain asleep to the last, or if your sickness deprive you of reason, it is but a momentary respite. At death your soul will go into the presence of an angry God. At the resurrection your body will be dragged from its peaceful lodging in the grave. ‘Legions of Angels can’t retain you there.’ You must come, however reluctantly, to the bar of your Judge. Rocks and mountains, deaf to your prayer, will not cover you from the face of him that sitteth on the throne. The time is short. It is but as tomorrow, before you will stand at the judgment seat of Christ. There you must remember, however unwelcome the remembrance, how many times you took the name of God in vain; how many ‘hard speeches’ you spoke against him. What, oh profane swearer, will be your plea? Will you justify yourself to your omniscient Judge by telling him, when you broke his command, you meant no harm, or you had formed an unconquerable habit of doing it, or you were in a passion? No. Your mouth will be stopped. —You will see justice enthroned; and that will speak indignation and wrath to you. Depart from me, ye cursed, will be the sentence of God to those, who have cursed and sworn by his name. There can be no pardon, no appeal. You must be immediately consumed by the breath of his mouth; be driven away from his presence and from the glory of his power. Miserable and in eternal despair, you must dwell with those infernal spirits, whose accomplices in cursing and blasphemy you had been even in this life. Now you will imitate them to greater perfection, forever cursing and blaspheming that glorious Being, whom you might have enjoyed in heaven; that almighty Being, whom you cannot hurt nor molest. Vain will be your rage. The fire you kindle against him, will burn yourself. The sword, which you maliciously draw, will pierce your own soul. That tongue, which has been so often employed in profaneness, will be parched up with unquenchable fire. That damnation, which you have so often wished upon others, perhaps upon yourself, you shall now suffer. —Oh hearers, people of my charge, will any of you rush headlong to this place of torment? Will you, for the sordid pleasure of profane swearing, fall into the hands of Almighty God, whose wrath is a consuming fire? If any of you have heretofore indulged yourselves in profaneness, I hope you are fully convinced of your folly, wickedness, and danger; and are ready to enquire how you shall escape the dominion and punishment of so great a sin? This brings us to what was proposed in the
IV. Division of the subject, —to give some directions to those, who wish to avoid profanity for time to come. The first directions are to those, who have to this day allowed themselves in it.
1. Be persuaded, that your reformation is possible. ‘It is one of the great artifices of the Devil, to persuade the sinner, that it is lost labor to attempt to amend his life; that his recovery is impossible; that his evil has become too deeply rooted to be conquered. Never give heed to this lying spirit.’ 1 The grace of God is all sufficient. Although your sins are like scarlet, he can make them white as snow; though they are red like crimson, he can make them like wool.—If you set about reformation in your own strength, you can expect but little success. But you cannot too firmly believe, that God is able to reform you; able to subdue your evil habits, and implant the seeds of grace in your hearts; and that he will give his Holy Spirit to those, who ask it in sincerity and faith.
2. Labor to impress your mind with an awful sense of sin, in particular the sin of profane swearing. Consider it in all its aggravations. Some, who once had as slight and superficial thoughts of this sin as you have, are now so deeply convinced of the evil and danger of it, that they would not for the world repeat the offence. Let your heart be impressed with a solemn reverence for the Supreme Being, and with a grateful sense of his unnumbered favors. Then think how heinous a crime it is to profane his holy name. Consider further that this vice cannot plead any of those powerful allurements, which delude and destroy the slaves of intemperance and debauchery; and is therefore peculiarly inexcusable. View it in the glass of the divine holiness and the divine law. Ask yourself what profit it was; what reason you had for it, and whether, for the sordid pleasure it afforded, you would be willing the blessed Jesus should suffer to atone for it. Then
3. Go and humble yourself before God. This is a day of pious mourning and humiliation. You would do well to let alone the sins of others, and to mourn and be humble first for your own. Confess to God your aggravated guilt, and your desert of eternal misery. You must be in earnest; for it is an infinite God you have to deal with, and a matter of everlasting consequence, that is at stake. Entreat God for his name’s sake to grant you the pardon of your sins, and the sanctifying influence of his Spirit. Entreat him to give you a gospel view of his holy and merciful character, that you may abhor yourself, and yet hope in him. Pray earnestly for his renewing, purifying, strengthening grace. Cast yourself on the power and mercy of the Redeemer; and humbly beg of him, that this hateful sin may no longer have dominion over you.
4. Let your resolution be firm and universal, though humble and dependant. Resolve never again to profane that holy name, which you have now solemnly addressed in prayer; that merciful name, on which all your hopes depend. Let your mind be kept in a trembling fear, left after all that has been said, after all your resolutions and prayers, you return again to the practice of profane swearing. Alas, my friends, we tremble for you; and did you know the deceitfulness of your own hearts, you would tremble for yourselves. Without the almighty grace of God, how weak are your resolutions? How ineffectual will be your endeavors? How many there are, who mourn for sin, and, in some sense, wish to be delivered from its power; who yet find themselves more than overmatched by the tyrant? Only make the experiment, and you will feel that sin hath not bound you with cords and withs, from which you can, as Samson did, extricate yourself by a single effort. Your strength is weakness, your wisdom folly, when brought into competition with the power and subtilty of your enemy. But let me observe, that however mighty and skillful your foe, you must conquer, or die. You must vanquish sin, or God will destroy you. Let not a sense of your weakness lead you tamely to submit; but make you more humble, watchful and prayerful. Receive Jesus Christ as your friend and Savior, and then his Grace will be sufficient for you.
5. I must add one more direction which may be a little unexpected; that is, break off from all your sins. The surest way to conquer any one vice is to renounce the whole. There is a kind of alliance or near relation between all sins. A common chain so closely unites them, that he, who from right principles rejects one, must reject all; and he, who is habitually guilty of one, is, in the e of the law, guilty of all. While you secretly love or allowedly practice any one sin, your endeavors to avoid or subdue another will be interrupted and enfeebled, and probably rendered ineffectual. When you pray for grace to conquer that one sin, and at the same time fondly cling to another; you cannot expect that God will answer your prayer. Remember & deeply ponder that all important declaration of the Psalmist, if I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. Let me further observe, that selfish, interested motives may prevail upon you to discontinue the practice of profane swearing, although your heart be not reformed. And even this partial amendment would be matter of joy to all who love you, or regard the good of their fellow men. But there is nothing, except the grace of the gospel, rooted in your heart, and operating in your life, that can save you from eternal ruin.
Suffer me to add a few directions equally applicable to all.
If you would keep yourselves from profanity, avoid all approaches towards it. Allow yourselves in none of the little, half made, vulgar oaths, so common in almost every place. Be careful not to mention the name of God at any time with lightness or vanity. It is recorded of a great Philosopher, that he never pronounced the name of God, without making a solemn pause, as if struck and overcome with the vast idea. There is enough to entertain our cheerful hours, enough to raise our spirits and make us smile, without using the name of God, or any passage of holy writ in a sportive, jesting, or trifling manner.
Another necessary caution is, watchfully guard against intemperance, or excess in drinking. Here is the source of a world of profaneness. A man who, in his sober hours, would carefully shun cursing and swearing, is often known, when partially intoxicated, to break out into the most horrid oaths. A few glasses of spirits often turn a man of decent carriage into a profane swearer, and fill his mouth with such abominable imprecations, as would greatly offend his conscience, if he were sober. Now if you wish to avoid profanity, you must diligently watch against all temptations to it. For the same purpose, keep a constant guard over your passions. If you do not rule your spirit, you will not rule your tongue. Let nothing, therefore, be suffered to raise a commotion in your soul; as this would give great power and advantage to sin. When once you subject reason to the control of passion, you are like a ship without a rudder, or an untamed horse without a bridle. Does not your sad experience prove that you often do things in anger, of which, when your mind was calm, you thought yourself incapable? In particular, that you have no power over your tongue, when your animal spirits are highly raised? Guard then against the first rising of passion; and against those common excitements of anger, warm disputes and contentions upon any subject whatever.
I beg leave most affectionately and earnestly to exhort those, who are young, to shun, with watchful and pious care, every thing that favors of profanity. You have heard others complain, how difficult it is to conquer bad habits; or, if they are beginning to form, to secure a deliverance from them, before it is too late.
Let children hear the same friendly warning. —Dare you speak the name, the awful name of God, while you are sporting and playing? Dare you swear when you are a little angry? Many of you, my young friends, oh that I could say, all of you, have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost? Will you profane that holy name, into which you have been baptized; or into which you must be baptized, if ever you would obey Jesus Christ? Dear children, if you have any regard to your blessed Savior, any affection for your parents, any love to your own souls, don’t allow yourselves to use profane words. God, the great God is your Maker. Dare you flight and affront him? Jesus is your Redeemer. If ever you are happy, you will owe it all to him, and dwell with him forever. And will you disobey Jesus, who has said, swear not at all? I hope you will attend to these things; and that you will keep out of the way of all those bad and wicked people, who allow themselves to swear.
Let us now, agreeably to the subject and the present occasion, take a short survey of our country in respect to the sin of profane swearing. The prophet says, because of swearing the land mourneth. –Have not we reason to adopt the same plaintive strain? Is not this one of the prevailing iniquities of the present day? Does not our land lie, as it seems, pressed down with the ponderous load and groaning to be delivered from it? Let us just move our eye charitably over the several ranks and orders of men, and see if enough is not presented to view, to make our heart faint and our eyes dim; and to draw from us the doleful cry, the crown is fallen from our head; woe unto us, as a nation, for we have sinned.
We will just hint at the state of our Colleges and Universities. They ought to be pure fountains of morality and religion, as well as of human science and refinement. They ought to be as distinguished for virtue and piety, as they are for literary advantages. What cause of grief would it be, to hear the name of God lightly and contemptuously mentioned by those, who have the best opportunity to know his adorable perfections; who are exalted above their fellow creatures by the bounties of nature and providence, and under proportionably greater obligations to love and serve their Maker! How deplorable would it be, should any of the sons of science early enlist into the service of iniquity, and employ their superior natural and acquired abilities in corrupting the minds and the language of others! How baneful would be the effects of profanity and irreligion, should they be found in those, who are regarded by many of their friends and relations, as possessed of superior wisdom and judgment; whose sentiments are, therefore, almost implicitly received, and whose example attracts a ready imitation!
Let us now turn our thoughts upon our seaports and populous places, where the standard of manners and politeness is taken. Here the scene is melancholy and alarming. While passing moderately along the streets, you must stop your ears, if you would not hear the name of God taken in vain; if you would not have your feelings shocked with the most horrid oaths and execrations. The throats of multitudes are an open sepulcher; their tongues blaspheme the name of the Lord. Nor is the charge to be confined to those, who are uncultivated and vulgar. In profane swearing, if in nothing else, the merchant and gentleman often unite with the truckman and sailor. Even the parlor is not untainted with this shameful vice. In many friendly circles of those, who call themselves the polite and tasty, an evening cannot be passed without loading the fleeting moments with impure and impious expressions. To these the card table is by no means a stranger. In the dialect of many, who follow this diversion, profanity is a chief ingredient. And the fair ladies, who condescend to be present, will, by their smiles, smooth over the guilty consciences of their admirers, and almost thankfully receive applause and flattery from those very lips, which is a minute before were defiled with cursing and bitterness. And what is the conduct of females themselves? We are backward to say the truth. We wish we could call them purity and perfection. We wish no female ever polluted her lips and her conscience by profane swearing. If any must be chargeable with this vice, we should desire it might be only the unpolished, ignorant, and obscure. If the well bred, the beautiful, and the gay are ever guilty of this detestable crime, I must, in shame, pass it over in silence.
We have not finished our tragical survey. We fear there are some among our rulers themselves, who, strange as it may seem, at times disregard and transgress the very laws, which their lifted hands have publicly confirmed. And we have reason to think that the want of sobriety and religion apparent in many civil officers, in particular, the irreverent and trifling manner, in which civil oaths are spoken of and administered, is one cause of the growing prevalence of profaneness and perjury.
Farmers and mechanics, who are in general most removed from temptation, and whose employment is very favorable to honesty and sobriety, are not all exempt from the guilt of profane swearing. —Their instruments of labor, their shops, fields, orchards, meadows, and dumb beasts are witnesses against them. Nor can the advanced stages of human life be altogether cleared. Old men, greyheaded and feeblehanded, are sometimes heard rolling forth with their trembling tongues hoarse and solemn oaths; as if their load of guilt were not yet so great as they could bear; or as if they could not curse and blaspheme enough in hell, and so would do a little more before they die.
The prospect blackens as we proceed. Heads of families cannot be excepted. Here, if any where, the effects of profanity are awfully pernicious. –We need not go out of the state, nor out of the vicinity to find multitudes, vast multitudes of fathers, who allow themselves to curse and swear in the hearing of their children. In these cases we must expect that all moral and religious instruction will be laid aside, or, if attended to, that it will generally prove vain and useless; while the poor children, horrible to relate, learn to swear, before they learn to pray. Where parents are less blameworthy, their children often have bad examples near, which they too eagerly follow, to the neglect of those that are good. Alas, do we not often hear little children lisping out profane words, before they know their dreadful meaning?
Shall I stop here? Is not the picture already dismal enough to make us mourn and pray? But I must add tears to sighs, and blackness to shade. –There are professors of our holy religion, who have covenanted with God, and attend the sacramental supper, that are not pure from this crying sin. –Some are known to come to the table of the Lord, to eat his broken body, and drink his atoning blood, and then go away and profane his name, and the name of his Father. Here iniquity is full. Here guilt has arisen to its highest pitch. We confidently trust there are none such in this place. But is there not a more refined kind of profaneness chargeable upon professing Christians in general? Do not many take the name of God in vain, by entering into covenant, & renewing it at the table of the Lord, without the exercises of repentance, faith and love? And is there not room to exhort all professors to guard more diligently against idle words, and to pray, as David did, set a watch, Oh Lord, before my mouth, and keep the door of my lips.
Is not the survey we have taken sorrowful and humbling? Passing in silence over most other sins, we have considered only the sins of the tongue. –Is not the vast amount of these sufficient to make us tremble, and to clothe the whole land in sackcloth and ashes? How strikingly is James’ de4scription of the tongue verified among us! The tongue, that noble organ, which distinguishes man from all other creatures on earth, is by its abuse become a fire, a world if iniquity. It defileth the whole body, and setteth a fire on the course of nature, and is itself set on fire of hell. How alarming are these things? It seems as though a great part of our fellow citizens had presumptuously risen up against our Father and our God, and were resolved at all adventures to kindle his almighty vengeance. See them, with self exalting pride and arrogance, trampling upon his sacred ordinances and holy name; causing their threats and impious curses towards his throne, and making one more desperate effort to dethrone and destroy JEHOVAH. Will his anger sleep? Can we expect uninterrupted public prosperity, while this is our national character? Will his patience last forever? Will not God visit for these things? Will not his soul be avenged on such a nation as this? Yes, my brethren; goodness, long neglected and abused, becomes indignation and wrath. But as God delighteth in mercy, let us, adapting the words of Daniel, when he fasted and prayed, to our own circumstances, fall down before him with this humble confession, and this earnest, interceding prayer. Oh Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him and keep his commandments; we, as a people, have sinned, and committed iniquity, and done wickedly. Oh Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of face, as at this day; to the inhabitants of this Commonwealth, and to all America. All our nation have transgressed thy law and profaned thy holy name. Therefore hath the Lord brought evil upon us, and made our cities desolate, and raised up enemies against us. To the Lord belong mercy and forgiveness, although we have sinned against him. Oh Lord, according to thy righteousness, we beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from our land. Oh our God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our danger. For we do not present our supplication before thee for our righteousness, but for thy great mercy. Oh Lord, hear. Oh Lord, forgive. Oh Lord hearken and do. Defer not for thine own sake. Turn us from our sins, and save us; for we are a people called by thy name, and by the name of thy Son. Amen.