Sermon – Fasting – 1808, Massachusetts

Thomas Thacher (1756-1812) graduated from Harvard in 1775. He was the minister of the 3rd Church in Dedham, MA beginning in 1780. Thacher was a member of the Massachusetts convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. This sermon was preached on the annual fast day of Massachusetts on April 7, 1808.





APRIL 7, 1808.








S E R M O N.


But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me. So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lust, and they walked in their own counsels.

This language of the Almighty to his ancient people may with pertinence be applied to any nation, once eminent for piety, and dignified for the severity and correctness of their virtue, but degenerated into the extreme of impiety and licentiousness. Abandoned by their protector, and the influence of his wisdom being withdrawn, they will be exposed to the ruinous consequences of their passions, and will walk in their own counsel.

This melancholy case was exemplified in the history of the Jews, of whom the sacred records have given us many particulars. The spiritual and temporal benefits, conferred on them by the Supreme Being, the ungrateful returns on their part, the apostacy and declension of their national character, are facts delivered to posterity by the authority of inspiration, for the purpose of conveying instruction and reproof to mankind. From these we are informed that when they had filled up the measure of their iniquity, there were left to follow their own hearts’ lust, and end was made of their political existence; their country, the very soil of which had been sacred by the visits of the Deity and the exhibition of his supernatural power, became a theatre, as remarkable for extraordinary judgment and correction, as before for those mercies, which for a series of ages this nation had both received and abused.

Would to God, my fellow citizens, there were not a “fatal pertinence” in the words of the text to the people of the United States! Can we examine closely into their import without finding our traits and features of national character moral and religious so nearly delineated, that they are a natural picture, rather than a general resemblance? Have we not revolted in principle, as well as practice, against Religion and Morality? Do we not already feel from the effect of our national wickedness, that we are left to follow our own counsel? Are there not those omens of public death to be discerned at this day, which have been the precursor of destruction to other communities, once famous for religion and civil liberty, for arts and arms? Is it not feared, by the most wise and sagacious contemplating the wars and convulsions, which have recently changed the face of all civilized Europe, and reflecting on the danger and ruin, to which we are exposed, that the angel of fate, by command of the Eternal, is now winding up the last threads of our political duration? Doth not the pious and devout mind, observing the history of God’s moral providence, and comparing the same with the profaneness, licentiousness and almost total absence of moral principle, so obvious at this day, behold the handwriting on the wall, shewing how soon our destinies will be completed? Doth not he perceive from the signs of the times, the great and terrible voice of an angry Deity proclaiming through the land “Your end is come, and your days shall not be prolonged?

A short explanation of the text, an application of its sense and spirit to ourselves, inferred from existing facts, will furnish us with such considerations, as are proper and necessary for the solemnities of the day.

This Psalm was composed in the time of David, and it is very probable from several passages, that it was occasioned by some public festival, prescribed in their law, in which their 1 liberation from Egypt was celebrated. The divine goodness is particularly related in that event, in order to contrast it with their ingratitude and obstinacy. The charges made against them seem to be divided into two distinct articles; the first is, My People would not hearken to my voice; the second, though it seems synonymous in common language, yet implies a far higher grade of depravity, Israel would none of me.

The first related to the charge of idolatry, as you will see by the 9th and 10th verses. There shall be no strange God in thee, neither shalt thou worship any strange God. I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt. We may also conceive that it refers to their neglect of the moral, positive and municipal laws of Moses, or in a word, to their violating every condition, on which their national happiness and prosperity was promised.

The second charge, uttered against them is, that Israel would none of me. From the very climax of the sentiment, we think that it implies, not merely coldness, neglect and practical disobedience, but it carries in its sense the very extreme of aversion and malignity. In the Greek translation, this clause may be thus rendered; Israel would give me no manner of attention. The sentiment in our common bible is however still stronger; it implies not only contempt but open hostility. Should the expression be used respecting an individual, it would indicate, that he has not only ceased to pay any respect to religion; but that he had a fixed and rooted hatred to it, and wished to expel it from the earth. So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lust, that they should follow or walk in their own counsels. A brief representation this of the final catastrophe of vice and impiety. Such men were left to suffer the natural and necessary consequence of individual and national crimes; this is a punishment as great, as in this state of things can possibly be inflicted. The Supreme Being has determined in the very laws of nature, that natural calamity shall be the result of moral evil, that an incorrigibly wicked man has an avenging fury in his own heart, awarding him, as the consequence of his sin and folly, evils more terrible than can be produced by any external enemy, however formidable, malignant or persevering.

An awful and affecting lesson is here presented to every member of the community, whether in his collective or individual capacity. While men pride themselves in their imaginary independence of all restraint and discipline, and while they trample under foot religion, virtue and decorum, they are but the executioners of divine vengeance on themselves, they are industriously procuring the wrath of heaven, so often expressed against the profligacy of mankind. In their corrupt and contaminated heart, the seeds of ruin and desperation are first of all originated and sown; the soil is fertile and the harvest will be abundant.

In the further consideration of the subject we shall,

1. Inquire, what duties are so plainly pointed out and enjoined by Heaven on nations, or rather on man in his collective capacity, that they may be properly called the voice of God.

II. Exhibit those marks of national disobedience and depravity, which demonstrate that the divine commands are totally neglected.

Under each of these, we shall intersperse such moral and practical reflections, as may arise on the subject.

1. We shall inquire, what national duties are so plainly pointed out by Heaven, that they may properly be called the voice of God.

1. The great and general obligations of religion are as binding on society, as on individuals. We do not intend by national religion, a system either of rituals or doctrine, prescribed by law, admitting persecution, and embracing intolerance. Nothing is more opposite to real piety, to the rights of conscience, and to the general happiness of man in society, than either pomp and ostentation in the manner of worshipping God, or a connection of religion and its external forms with the honors and the interests of this present world. Still, however we affirm, that the belief of the doctrines of religion is a necessary qualification for the practice of social duties. Associations ought to exist among men for the purpose of united worship; the external institutions of social worship, which men by long use and habit have made a medium for instruction, and for the cultivation of truth and moral duty, should be treated with reverence, and affectionately cultivated and protected. By their violation, the foundations of civil government are shaken, the mutual confidence of individuals weakened, and mankind, stripped of the greatest restraint on their passions, are prepared for the most atrocious crimes. I am aware that objections may be brought against the last named opinion; it will be said – that religion is a contract between God and the soul of every man, – that of this covenant, and fidelity in observing it, every man’s conscience is the sole and sovereign judge. –Men are to give an account of themselves hereafter personally to the Supreme Being for the actions performed in this life-Nations and communities exist only, as such, in the present world, and therefore man, in his collective relations, has nothing to do with religion-Therefore as civil government is confined entirely to objects relating to this present world, it can have no manner of right to enjoin religious duty, or to prescribe any rituals for national worship.

To these objections we briefly reply, that no religion ever did, or ever will exist in the world, but what has in some of its circumstances, required the union of several persons. It is equally certain without external religion, or some symbols of devotion of a corporal nature, that internal worship cannot exist. If then there be an obligation on man to worship God, and he be unable to perform this duty, without union and association; it will necessarily follow that an obligation on man exists as well in his social, as in his individual capacity.

The obligations to national religion are still greater, when we consider, 1st, its beneficent effects on the community; and, 2d, that it is the strongest chain, by which individuals are connected. No credit would be paid to an oath, were the existence of a God entirely disbelieved. Were we to eradicate the idea of rewards and punishments from the minds of men, crimes and enormities of the blackest dye would soon commence, which no human law could describe, nor any human power be able either to punish or detect. Destroy those two grand principles of religion, and neither faith nor honor will be left among mankind sufficient to admit of organized society. For it is not possible to conceive, that even a band of robbers, or a ferocious horde of savages could exist in any social connection, were all ideas of a future state, or of invisible powers controlling human actions entirely annihilated.

2d. To a people professing Christianity, not only the general institutions, but the positive precepts it enjoins, are a subject of such moment, as to be considered the voice of God. The essence of Religion is, we grant, superior to all external circumstances; but it is equally true that, where every form or ritual is abolished, every vestige of religion will be lost. If a tree with a good and deep root were constantly lopped of all its branches, as fast as they grew, it would as certainly perish, as if it were torn up by the roots. Man compounded of soul and body must worship God with each. And if he discard every aid to piety arising from his senses, he will find that none will finally exist in his understanding. The Almighty has told us he will be glorified not only with our spirit, but with our body; for both arise from the same cause, and are the property of the same original.

3d. The cultivation of private and public virtue, particularly those branches of it, which are of the utmost moment to society, is to be considered as an obligation of the first importance, and is therefore to be treated as the voice of God; and the same obligation exists, derived from the same source, that they should repel and discourage vice whether affecting individuals or society. Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is the reproach of any people. And it may here be observed, that every man, just, generous, temperate, industrious, brave and honorable is an important pillar of the community; on the other hand, every man, intemperate and lewd, corrupt and unprincipled, profligate and impious, is an enemy to his country, let his pretensions to patriotism be ever so great, and supposing his political principles are theoretically correct. Taking these last classes of men in the aggregate, they are a moth and a canker, which will greatly deface and injure, and eventually will destroy any free and happy government, in which they reside; more especially will they be able to effect this, if they, by their influence, consideration and example, induce the greater part of society to adopt their own depravity and corruption, and can cause the restraints of law, fear, shame and decorum to loose all their efficacy and moment.

Under the list of public virtues originating from divine authority is the duty of loving our country, commonly denominated patriotism. This consists in a manly, just, and independent spirit, exciting us to place the peace, honor, and prosperity of our proper nation on a level with that of our private fortunes, or should any rivalship or collision of interest exist between private and public good, a real patriot will sacrifice the former to the latter. This noble and benevolent affection, by no means consists in outrageous zeal for party, or intemperate and intolerant attachment to popular opinion; but is displayed by the patriot in a genuine, and constant regard to the best interests of public liberty, order, and a free constitution of government. He has no ambition to promote foreign conquest, nor that his country should rise to opulence and grandeur, by the tears and misery of the rest of mankind; but when his native soil is exposed to war and invasion from any foreign power, he has a head to conceive for the common good, a heart undaunted, and a stranger to fear, and a life to devote for the liberty and sovereignty of the whole.

4thly. Public manners are a care worthy a divine Lawgiver; the preservation of these in a pure and correct state is of such moment, that we find a great part of the political and municipal laws of Moses consisted in prescribing minutely private manners to the people of Israel as the voice of God. That sacred code so blended manners with religious ceremonies, that they can scarcely be separated. The same method and attention has been paid by every wise Legislator acting only by human authority; and it is evident from the history of all civilized nations, that all wise rulers place the importance of public manners on the same grade, with that of their morals and religion. Chastity and simplicity have held the first rank in social duties; pomp and luxury have been discouraged, next to prohibition, in every free Government. Age, fortified by dignity and character, in such societies demands reverence and attention from the young. Youth ought ever to be decorated with the graceful blush of modesty, nor ever to appear audacious and obstreperous, unless acting in the field against the enemies of their country. Private fortunes, obtained by bad arts, should be viewed with disgrace; poverty, contracted by beneficence and patriotism, should ever be an object of affectionate veneration. Monuments of gratitude to public benefactors ought to be erected, nor should the popular influence of envy and worthlessness ever be permitted to defame their memory. That fame and honor offered to those, who, by the sacrifice of life and fortune for their country, have merited permanent applause, is a great incitement to virtue, and is the parent of noble deeds and splendid patriotism in posterity. These are maxims sanctified by the wisdom, and confirmed in a very direct manner by the voice of the Deity. We see from contemplating this part of the subject, that manners are of a more importance than laws, because that the former have a more imperious influence in society.

We shall proceed now to the

II. General head of discourse; to exhibit those marks of national depravity and disobedience, which demonstrate, that the divine commands are both neglected and resisted. Here I take the liberty to premise, that in applying the remarks in the test to our own country, that I wish not to be considered, as designing any party of personal reflections. It has been my constant aim and care to avoid political acrimony; the maxims about to be introduced are of high weight and moment; they existed and have been promulgated to mankind many years before our country existed, and carry with them those marks of truth, which demonstrate their divine original.

I shall not, in attempting to support this proposition, draw a contrast between the present generation and former periods, of our national history, nor occupy your time in inveighing against innocent amusements and recreation, as is customary with some public teachers of religion on this occasion; though I think that in regard to piety, pure morals, simple and industrious virtues we should suffer very much by a comparison with our forefathers; yet they, it must be owned, were disposed to be unnecessarily severe and uncharitable in minute affairs. No rational benevolent man could wish to see that spirit and principle revived, which banisheth innocent, social delights, and places insignificant pastimes in the same grade of moral turpitude, as the vilest crimes committed by man. There is superior evidence of serious and alarming vice, of profligacy, infidelity and irreligion to engage our attention; we shall therefore proceed.

1. To examine the state of religion among us, as it relates to society. Let me then ask if a coldness and indifference to religion, both in its form and essence, be not so plain and obvious a characteristic of our nation, that no man of sense and observation would hesitate to affirm the fact? Has not the same progressed to open contempt and disgust at sacred rituals and institutions? Is it not evident the churches are thinly attended, and the Sabbath treated as an ordinary part of time, I add not unfrequently devoted to labour or amusement? Have not days, set apart for public humiliation or gratitude been openly and ostentatiously perverted to purposes foreign from their design? Have not associations of men for promoting religion and morality been treated both with severe acrimonious opposition, and with scurrilous malignity? We do not assert, but that in such a debilitated state of religion its forms and ceremonies may exist for a small space of time; but, like the names of men inscribed on tombs and monuments, those few and feeble traits will every day be less perceptible, till, to the next generation, they will be known only by history and report.

To all those last named signs of declension and apostacy, should we add, there is a prevailing spirit of profanes and infidelity exciting men to deride the divine authority of revealed religion, and to assault, with virulent abuse and rancorous defamation, the sacred characters, whose lives and actions are recorded in the scripture, what is to be expected will be the fate of religion among us? Are not these subjects treated with indecorous levity on many occasions both by age and youth? Doth not assuming ignorance feel competent to decide on them, without so much as affecting either cool reasoning or an appeal to common sense? Cannot instances be produced, in which religion itself is the song of the drunkard, and the mirth of those obstreperous fools, who make a mock at sin? Will not religion itself, both in form and essence, be soon eradicated, and the community retain no more of it, than their Christian name?

2. From the state of religion, let us next proceed to contemplate our moral character as a nation.

That we may condense and abbreviate, this subject, as much as possible, we shall omit the enumeration of smaller faults, more especially those of a private nature, and examine into our deficiency, in respect to public virtues, and into those crimes and follies, too well known to exist among us, which in their very nature bring confusion and ruin on society. And here we observe first of all, that truth and justice are cardinal virtues, and the exercise of them essential to the existence of society in a happy and civilized condition. We here limit our ideas of truth to that branch of it, in which a nation is most importantly interested, i.e. in relating facts as they really exist; that the same principle be equally observed toward an enemy as a friend; that from no sinister motive should we allow ourselves to violate truth for the sake of degrading a rival or an opponent, nor yet for establishing one, whom we consider as a useful partisan. We define justice, or as it is more commonly called honor (in the restricted sense we here use the word) as consisting in exhibiting candour towards a political adversary; we go further and affirm that the same principle is to be observed towards national enemies, except in cases, where direct self preservation may suspend its exercise. Not only ought all falsehoods to be discountenanced; but in common instances there ought to be fair opportunity given an opponent that he may disavow principles and conduct injustly ascribed to him, nor should we give our assent until facts are proved against him, either by clear testimony, or by such probabilities and inferences, as render the charge supported beyond question.

It will at once be admitted, that in no country on earth has this branch of truth been more grossly and shamefully violated, than in the United States; more especially do I refer to the abominable desperate falsehoods uttered by party in the intrigues of an election. I do not wish to have this applied to one party in particular, but to all. In exercising our highest acts of sovereignty, we are not uncommonly influenced by those, who from sinister motives and party rage, propagate, at the time of election, not only wicked misrepresentation and deception, but bare faced lies, without a shadow of foundation. By these not the political character, but the private morality of an obnoxious candidate is outrageously attacked. When the turn is served and a good man removed from office, the wretch, who was the author, has no other apology to make, than that the end sanctifies the means, that the lie was successful and custom and the depravity of public opinion have ceased to censure the crime, and eventually it becomes a subject not of compunction, but of triumph. May we not expect, that when conduct like this is countenanced, that it will totally destroy the oral sense in all political transactions, that it will eventually excite such ferocious passions in the heart, as will be the parent of civil war, and its concomitant calamities? However men may contaminate their own character, and justify wickedness, from necessity; yet the nature and fitness of things remain the same, the command of God is, that we never should do evil that good may come. Thus saith the Lord, trust ye not in lying words; but speak ye truth every man of his neighbor.

If, in the next place we examine into the state of justice or honesty as relating to individuals, a disgusting picture of our public morals will be presented. How often are debts of justice, honor and gratitude neglected, when no human law compels their payment? How often, from a base mercenary love of pelf, will men take every advantage of their neighbor? Every day we live develops some new base unprincipled wretch, who has lost all shame at vice, as well as all fear of God. Men of this description are at present far worse, than formerly—They then were corrupt and fraudulent in practice, they are now so in principle. The abandoned, after successful villainy, skulked in the corners of our streets, they now walk abroad at noon-day. The number of the guilty, not only prevent them from being excluded from the civilities of life, but even render them a horde too formidable for solitary virtue to oppose.

From the last mentioned evil, i.e. the defect of moral honesty, others have arisen as a necessary consequence; we here refer to the prevalence of luxury, false taste, and expensive amusements; these have pervaded every corner of our country. From whence it has happened, that there is little of moderation visible in private families and common life; the demand of fashion and example obliges every man to such expense, as his private circumstances can very ill admit. Hence it is, that many are clothed in purple and fine linen and fare sumptuously every day at the expense of their creditors, and of truth and honor-that palaces have every day arisen in our populous towns on the site of the humble dwellings of our fathers; from the same source we may trace the ruin and infamy of many individuals as well as families. From the same affection to grandeur and equipage we may place the numerous calamities and infamy occurring both to the old and to the young-to the debtor and to the creditor. How frequent is it that when the head of a family is taken away by death in the midst of life and business, we see so many widows and orphans shedding tears of despair! They once lived elegantly and deliciously, but in one hour are stripped of all comfort and consideration, and pass to the extreme of poverty and dependence. It is from the same madness for acquiring sudden wealth, that the slow and moderate gains of humble industry are despised, that recourse is so often had to swindling and fraud, and that so many young men, possessed of enterprising energetic minds, devote their talents to pursuits, highly infamous, and flagrantly dishonest. We may place to the same account the small estimation, in which good men are held, who have sacrificed their time, happiness and fortune to the public good, and are obliged to recur to some humble condition in society for support. They are despised because they would not become rich by crimes; and their honorable poverty is ascribed to a want of energy and of a knowledge of the world.

Let us next attend for a moment to the circumstances of domestic life, from whence a picture may be drawn of our national manners, dark and deformed. The want of family government and the impetuous temper and manners of the young augur sad and dreary events to our country. The character of many of them at the present day seems to exemplify the last clauses in the text, so I gave them up unto their own hearts lust, that they should follow their own counsel. At how early life do we see children usurping the privileges and assuming the manners of men? Not merely despising, but treading into the dust their aged and venerable parents? Instead of submitting with reverence and fear to their commands, they not uncommonly, by their boisterous passion and manners, force them to many things against their own inclination and judgment. What numbers are there, who appear neither to fear God nor regard man, who very plainly show the connection existing between bad principles and corrupt morals! Of these how many have ruined themselves and their families by intemperance, fraud and dishonorable profligacy! Some of this abandoned class of citizens have brought down the grey hairs of their aged parents with sorrow to the grave. How many do we see young in years, yet old in constitution, who, given up to their own hearts lust, have early progressed to decrepitude and decay!

The spirit of discord and party rage existing at the present day affords to the pious mind another argument, that we are left to follow our own counsel. What a spirit of jealousy, censure and malignity have pervaded every order and grade in society! This furious ungoverned temper has insinuated itself into all the transactions of private life. It has long ago entered the walls of our senate house, and has advanced to all the primary assemblies of the people. Wherever it has been introduced it shuts men’s ears against hearing truth, and blinds, by falsehood and unconquerable obstinacy, their understanding when light and conviction are presented. By this pestilential fiend all benevolence and candour are erased from the minds of good men towards each other when they hold different opinions, she breaks into the recesses of private life, poisons the very source and fountain of domestic happiness, and overturns decorum as well as all the charities of life. These seeds of animosity thus sown, and the plentiful crop already produced are, and ought to be a subject of infinite regret to every true patriot. But when he considers how near our country is approaching to a foreign war, how much are his painful apprehensions increased! I tremble even to contemplate what such an event would produce. What little confidence have the parties in each other, and how many virulent head strong men would prefer the standard of the enemy to that of fighting under an opposite faction? To expose the weakness and divisions of our country would be highly criminal in one of our own citizens, did not the facts appear clear as the noon day sun. If these facts were not confirmed by every diurnal gazette, by every public meeting of the citizens; yet still there are enough hardened, abandoned wretches, who from revenge, from corruption, and the most criminal malignity against their native land, would announce the same to foreign nations. In the language of inspiration, every good man ought to wish that we were wise, that we properly estimated these evils, and would consider our latter end.

The above named evils existing among us, have originated more properly from our own misconduct, than any misfortunes from any foreign cause; but to these may be enumerated the external depredations on our trade, by which all commerce is at an end. We do not mean here to implicate or impeach the conduct of our national rulers. Respect and honor for those, who guide our affairs oblige us to suppose they were driven to the measure by imperious necessity. Still however it must be considered, as a great and terrible calamity. Never, since the Boston post bill in 1774, have our public affairs worn a darker aspect. The transition from the highest degree of national prosperity and private opulence to a total stagnation of business, the sources of wealth excluded from the rich, that of employment from the poor, are circumstances so painful to the benevolent mind, hat it cannot wish to dwell long on the subject. The only consolation of the good man is, that while convulsions shake the natural and moral world, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth; the wrath of man will praise him, and the remainder of that wrath will he restrain. We hope that the foundations of liberty, of religion, of order and human happiness, though convulsed, will never be rooted up from this land either by the rude hand of a tyrant, or by the licentiousness of the people. We cannot suffer ourselves to believe that a country so highly favored of heaven, so protected in various examples, is reserved to glut the wealth, and satisfy the ambition of a despotism encircling the rest of the world. Should it be however the will of the Eternal, that our country must fall, that the knell will be sounded to summon us to the funeral of its liberty and independence, let it be our care, that in addition to the portion of common calamity we receive, we may not have the burden of a guilty conscience; but that each of us may be able to lay his hand on his heart and protest, in the presence of Almighty God, that he has omitted no known public duty, and that he never has, by avarice, ambition, negligence or party zeal, contributed to the debasement and ruin of his country.

While therefore,

On bended knees we invoke the forgiveness of that Deity we have offended, while we ask his blessing on our soil, and a continuance of his former kindness; let us humble ourselves before him for our national sins, and resolve on public reformation; let this day dismiss from our hearts every passion inconsistent with the common good. May a spirit of sagacity direct our public councils; may a sublime patriotism succeed that ferocious zeal for party, which, in this threatening aspect of affairs, is more fatal to our existence, as an independent nation, than a foreign enemy, brave and well armed, consisting of one hundred thousand men. May every member of the community after satisfying his conscience what his duty to his country is, perform it without regard to the fear of man. May our country be the first object of our earthly affection; at its sacred call, may every valuable enjoyment, as well as life itself, be devoted. We will not cease therefore to pray, that God will spare his people, and not give his heritage to reproach; that he will rebuke the Devourer for our sake, nor suffer any impious hand to overturn the beautiful fabric of civil liberty and human happiness erected in this land. For Zion’s sake we will not hold our peace, nor for Jerusalem’s sake we will not be silent, till her light go forth as brightness, and her salvation, as a lamp that burneth.


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