William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was the grandson of one of the Newport Sons of Liberty, John Channing. William graduated from Harvard in 1798 and became regent at Harvard in 1801. He was ordained a preacher in 1802 and worked towards the 1816 establishment of the Harvard Divinity School. This sermon was preached by Channing on the annual Massachusetts fast day of April 5, 1810.
PREACHED IN BOSTON,
APRIL 5, 1810,
THE DAY OF THE
BY WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING,
PASTOR OF THE CHURCH IN FEDERAL STREET.
THIS discourse was written without any view to publication, and I send it to the press not without reluctance and hesitation. But men, whom I love and venerate, have expressed a conviction, that it is suited to excite in some degree, that sense of our national danger, and that devotion to the public good, on which the safety of our country depends. I submit to their judgment; and I shall thank God from the heart, if their expectations are in any degree fulfilled.
Some of the sentiments, here expressed, have been derived from a late publication entitled, “A Letter on the genius and dispositions of the French Government,” a production abounding in vigorous thought and elevated feeling. This work carries within itself striking marks of authenticity and truth. One can hardly read it without the impression, that the author is describing, what he himself saw. His representations agree with the accounts of France, which I have received from other publications, and from gentlemen, who have lately returned from that country. I have often heard that the partialities of this author, when he visited Europe, were on the side of France. I have heard but one sentiment respecting the letter itself, that its statements are as correct, as they are solemn and affecting.
I have been led in this discourse to dwell on a very painful subject, the corruption of France and of her government. Some passages will be found to breathe an indignant spirit; but, I hope, it is an indignation originating in Christian benevolence. I hope that not one line is tinctured with malice or revenge. It is my earnest desire to cherish in myself, and to communicate to others, the universal good-will of my Lord and Saviour; to have my abhorrence of depravity mingled with pity and sorrow for the depraved.
I suppose that there are some minds, which will not readily receive all my representations. But where I cannot convince, I hope that I shall not irritate, for I have labored to avoid it; and I confidently trust, that no good man will accuse me of adding fuel to the fires of rage and discord, which threaten to consume our country.
W. E. C.
MATTHEW xvi. 3.
Can ye not discern the signs of the times?
IT is the design of a day of fasting to produce in a people a sense of their dependence on God; and a deep, penitent conviction of those sins, by which they have exposed themselves to his displeasure. This is a day on which it becomes us to contemplate our situation with seriousness; to inquire into our dangers; to ask ourselves whether we have not provoked divine judgments, and whether divine judgments are not hanging over us; and to implore with humble importunity the forgiveness and blessing of Him, whose word fixes the destinies of nations; whose good providence has been our refuge in the past, whose favour is our only hope for the future.
Perhaps, my friends, we have never before assembled on a day of fasting, when we have had such reason for apprehension and humiliation as at this time. The world is in tears. The fairest portions of the earth, the abodes of civilization and refinement, are laid waste. The storm of war and oppression is spreading its fury and desolation. We not only hear it at a distance; it approaches us, and threatens all we hold dear. Nation after nation is falling with a portentous sound; while the conqueror discovers no symptoms of being wearied with his work. It is not enough that so many thousands of victims have bled on the altar of his ambition. It is not enough that so many ancient thrones have fallen at his feet. Every new acquisition serves but to enlarge his views, and is regarded but as the pledge and promise of wider domination.
At this awful period well may we fear. The stoutest heart may be excused, if it trembles at the scenes, which open before us. On this day, when our sins and dangers as a people are the very objects, on which we ought to fix attention, my mind is irresistibly impelled to dwell on the judgments of God, which are abroad in the earth, and on the ground we have for apprehending, that these judgments, will visit us also. In discoursing on these subjects, I do not feel that I am departing from my province as a minister of Christ. As Christians, we ought to have a strong and lively sensibility to the miseries of the world in which we live, and especially to the miseries which threaten ourselves, and all whom we love. As Christians, we have the deepest concern in the present state of the world; for the interests of religion and morality, as well as national independence and prosperity, are threatened by the great enemy of mankind.
I have been led to select the words of the text on the present occasion, as it appears to me that the reproach, which they contain, applies strongly to this country. It may be said of us, as of the ancient Jews, that we do “not discern the signs of the times”;—that we are insensible to the peculiar character and features of the age, in which we live. I will not say, that the present age is as strongly marked or distinguished from all other ages, as that in which Jesus Christ appeared: but with that single exception, perhaps the present age is the most eventful period, the world has ever known. We live in times, which have no parallel in past ages; in times when the human character has almost assumed a new form; in times of peculiar calamity, of thick darkness, and almost of despair.—But to me it appears, that as a people we “do not discern the signs of the times;”—that we have no just impression of the awful, disastrous state of the world; and it is this insensibility which strikes me as one of the most alarming symptoms in our condition. The danger is so vast, so awful and so obvious, that the blindness, the indifference which prevail, argue infatuation, and give room for apprehension, that nothing can rouse us to those efforts, by which alone the danger can be averted.
Am I asked, what there is so peculiar and so tremendous in the times in which we live? My sentiments on this subject I shall now offer, I hope from pure motives, with the spirit of Christian benevolence, not wishing to force my views on others, but to excite serious, impartial attention to a subject, which almost overwhelms me with its solemnity and importance. Am I then asked, what there is so peculiar and so tremendous in our times?—I answer; In the very heart of Europe, in the centre of the civilized world, a new power has suddenly arisen, on the ruins of old institutions, peculiar in its character, and most ruinous in its influence. We there see a nation, which, from its situation, its fertility, and population, has always held a commanding rank in Europe, suddenly casting off the form of government, the laws, the habits, the spirit, by which it was assimilated to surrounding nations, and by which it gave to surrounding nations the power of restraining it; and all at once assuming a new form, and erecting a new government, free in name and profession, but holding at its absolute disposal the property and life of every subject, and directing all its energies to the subjugation of foreign countries. We see the supreme power of this nation passing in rapid succession from one hand to another.—But its object never changes.—We see it dividing and corrupting by its arts, and then overwhelming by its arms, the nations which surround it. We see one end steadily kept in view—the creation of an irresistible, military power. For this end, we see every man, in the prime of life, subjected to military service. We see military talent every where excited, and by every means rewarded. The arts of life, agriculture, commerce, all are of secondary value. In short, we see a mighty nation sacrificing every blessing, in the prosecution of an unprincipled attempt at universal conquest.
The result, you well know. The surrounding nations, unprepared for this new conflict, and absolutely incapacitated by their old habits and institutions, to meet this new power on equal terms, have fallen in melancholy succession; and each, as it has fallen, has swelled by its plunder the power and rapacity of its conquerors. We now behold this nation triumphant over continental Europe. Its armies are immensely numerous; yet the number is not the circumstance which renders them most formidable. These armies have been trained to conquest by the most perfect discipline. At their head are generals, who have risen only by military merit. They are habituated to victory, and their enemies are habituated to defeat.
All this immense power is now centered in one hand, wielded by one mind,—a mind formed in scenes of revolution and blood,—a mind most vigorous and capacious; but whose capacity is filled with plans of dominion and devastation.—It has not room for one thought of mercy.—The personal character of Napoleon is of itself sufficient to inspire the gloomiest forebodings.—But in addition to his lust for power, he is almost impelled by the necessity of his circumstances, to carry on the bloody work of conquest. His immense armies, the only foundations of his empire, must be supported.—Impoverished France however cannot give them support. They must therefore live on the spoils of other nations. But the nations which they successively spoil, and whose industry and arts they extinguish, cannot long sustain them.—Hence they must pour themselves into new regions. Hence plunder, devastation, and new conquests are not merely the outrages of wanton barbarity; they are essential even to the existence of this tremendous power.
What overwhelming, disheartening prospects are these! In the midst of Christendom, this most sanguinary power has reared its head, and holds the world in defiance—and now let me ask, How are we impressed in these dark, disastrous times?—Here is enough to rend the heart of sensibility. Here is every form of misery. We are called to sympathize with fallen greatness, with descendants of ancient sovereigns, hurled from their thrones, and case out to contempt; and if these will not move us, our sympathy is demanded by a wretched peasantry, driven from their humble roofs, and abandoned to hunger and unsheltered poverty. The decaying city, the desolated country, the weeping widow, the forsaken orphan, call on us for our tears. Nations broken in spirit, yet forced to smother their sorrows, call on us, with a silent eloquence, to feel for their wrongs;—and how are we moved by these scenes of ruin, horror, and alarm? Does there not, my friends, prevail among us a cold indifference, as if all this were nothing to us, as if no tie of brotherhood bound us to these sufferers? Are we not prone to follow the authors of this ruin with an admiration of their power and success, which almost represses our abhorrence of their unsparing cruelty?
But we are not merely insensible to the calamities of other nations. There is a still stranger insensibility to our own dangers. We seem determined to believe, that this storm will spend all its force at a distance. The idea, that we are marked out as victims of this all-destroying despotism, that our turn is to come and perhaps is near,—this idea strikes on most minds as a fiction. Our own deep interest in the present conflict is unfelt even by some, who feel as they ought for other nations.
It is asked, what has a nation so distant as America to fear from the power of France? I answer. The history of all ages teaches us, all our knowledge of human nature teaches us, that a nation of vast and unrivalled power is to be feared by all the world. Even had France attained her present greatness under a long established government, without any of the habits, which the revolution has formed, the world ought to view her with trembling jealousy. What nation ever enjoyed such power without abusing it? But France is not a common nation. We must not apply to her common rules. Conquest is her trade, her business, her recreation. The lust of power is the very vital principle of this new nation. Her strength is drained out to supply her armies;—her talents exhausted in preparing schemes of wider domination. War, war, is the solemn note which resounds through every department of state. And is such a nation to be viewed with indifference, with unconcern? Have we nothing to fear because an ocean rolls between us?
Will it be said that the conqueror has too much work at home to care for America? He has indeed work at home; but unhappily for this country, that work ever brings us to his view. There is one work, one object, which is ever present to the mind of Napoleon. It mingles with all his thoughts. It is his dream by night, his care by day. He did not forget it on the shores of the Baltic, or the banks of the Danube.—The ruin of England is the first, the most settled purpose of his heart. That nation is the only barrier to his ambition. In the opulence, the energy, the public spirit, the liberty of England, he sees the only obstacles to universal dominion. England once fallen, and the civilized world lies at his feet. England erect, and there is one asylum for virtue, magnanimity, freedom; one spark which may set the world on fire; one nation to encourage the disaffected, to hold up to the oppressed the standard of revolt. England therefore is the great object of the hostile fury of the French emperor. England is the great end of his plans; and his plans of course embrace all nations, which come in contact with England; which love or hate her, which can give her support, or contribute to her downfall.
We then, we may be assured, are not overlooked by Napoleon. We are a nation sprung from England. We have received from her our laws, and many of our institutions. We speak her language, and in her language we dare to express the indignation, which she feels at oppression. Besides, we have other ties which connect us with England. We are a commercial people, commercial by habit, commercial by our very situation. But no nation can be commercial without maintaining some connection with England, without having many common interests with her, without strengthening the foundations of her greatness. England is the great emporium of the world; and the conqueror knows, that it is only by extinguishing the commerce of the world, by bringing every commercial nation to bear his yoke, that he can fix a mortal wound on England.—Besides, we are the neighbours of some of an important influence on those channels of her commerce, those sources of her opulence.
Can we then suppose that the ambitious, the keen-sighted Napoleon overlooks us in his scheme of universal conquest; that he wants nothing of us, and is content that we should prosper and be at peace, because we are so distant from his throne? Has he not already told us, that we must embark in his cause? Has he not himself declared war for us against England?
Will it be said, he wants not to conquer us, but only wishes us to be his allies. Allies of France! Is there a man who does not shudder at the thought! Is there one who had not rather struggle nobly, and perish under her open enmity, than be crushed by the embrace of her friendship,—her alliance. To show you the happiness of her alliance, I will not carry you back to Venice, Switzerland, Holland. Their expiring groans are almost forgotten amidst later outrages. Spain, Spain is the ally to whom I would direct you. Are you lovers of treachery, perfidy, rapacity and massacre? Then aspire after the honour which Spain has forfeited, and become the ally of France.
Will it be said that those evils are political evils, and that it is not the province of a minister of religion, to concern himself with temporal affairs? Did I think, my friends, that only political evils were to be dreaded, did I believe that the minds, the character, the morals, the religion of our nation would remain untouched; did I see in French domination nothing but the loss of your wealth, your luxuries, your splendor; could I hope that it would leave unsullied your purity of faith and manners, I would be silent. 1 But religion and virtue, as well as liberty and opulence wither under the power of France. The French revolution was founded in infidelity, impiety, and atheism. This is the spirit of her chiefs, her most distinguished men; and this spirit she breathes, wherever she has influence. It is the most unhappy effect of French domination, that it degrades the human character to the lowest point. No manly virtues grow under this baleful, malignant star. France begins her conquests by corruption, by venality, by bribes; and where she succeeds, her deadly policy secures her from commotion, by quenching all those generous sentiments, which produce revolt under oppression. The conqueror thinks his work not half finished, until the mind is conquered,—its energy broken, its feeling for the public welfare subdued.—Such are the effects of subjection to France, or what is the same thing, of alliance with her: and when we consider how much this subjection is desired by Napoleon; when we consider the power and the arts, which he can combine for effecting his wishes and purposes, what reason have we to tremble!
It may be asked, whether I intend by these remarks to represent my country as hopeless? No, my friends. I have held up the danger of our country in all its magnitude, only that I may in my humble measure excite that spirit, which is necessary, and which by the blessing of Providence may be effectual to avert it. Alarming as our condition is, there does appear to me to be one method of safety, and only one. As a people we must be brought to see and to feel our danger; we must be excited to a public spirit, an energy, a magnanimity, proportioned to the solemnity of the times, in which we are called to act.—If I may be permitted, I would say to the upright, the disinterested, the enlightened friends of their country, that the times demand new and peculiar exertions. In the present state of the world, there is, under God, but one hope of a people; and that is, their own exalted virtue. This therefore should be your object and labour,—to fix the understandings of the people on the calamities, that are approaching them; to enlighten the public mind; to improve our moral feelings; to breathe around you an elevated spirit; to fortify as many hearts as possible with the generous purpose to do all, which men can do, for the preservation of their country.—You should labour, not to excite a temporary paroxysm, for the danger is not to be repelled by a few impassioned efforts. We want a calm and solemn impression fixed in every mind, that we have everything at stake,—that great sacrifices are to be expected, but that the evils are so tremendous as to justify and require every sacrifice. We want to have a general impression made of the character, spirit, designs, power, and arts of France;—of the unparrelled wretchedness, the political, moral, and religious debasement, attendant on union with her, or on subjection to her power. To effect this end I have said, that new exertions should be made. The common vehicles of political information have done, and may do much; but cannot do all, which is required. Authentic publications in the names of our wisest, purest, most venerated citizens should be spread abroad, containing the plain, unexaggerated, uncoloured history of the revolution and domination of France.
It may be said, that the people have all the evidence on this subject already communicated to them.—I fear, that many have not received sufficiently distinct and connected information from sources, on which they rely; and I am confident, that many, who know the truth, need to have the convictions of their understandings converted into active principles, into convictions of the heart. I fear, there are many, who are blinded to the true character of the conqueror of Europe, by the splendor of his victories; many, who attach to him the noble qualities, which have been displayed by other heroes, and who repose a secret hope in his clemency. They ought to know, and they might know, that he has risen to power in a revolution, which has had a peculiar influence in hardening the heart; that his character is unillumined by one ray of beneficence; that he is dark, vindictive, unrelenting; that no man loves him, that he cares for no man’s love; that he asks only to be feared, and that fear and horror are the only sentiments he ought to inspire.
I fear there are many, who attach ideas of happiness and glory to France, because they hear of the conquest of French armies; and I fear that this impression reconciles them to the thought of union with her. They might now, and they ought to know, that France is drinking even to the dregs that cup of sorrow, which she has mingled for other nations. They should be taught, that she is most degraded in her moral and religious condition, and wretchedly impoverished; that her agriculture, her manufactures, her commercial cities are falling to decay; that she is ground with oppressive taxes, most oppressively collected; that her youth are torn from their families, to fill up the constant ravages, which war and disease are making in her armies; that with all her sufferings she is not permitted the poor privilege of complaining; that her cities, villages, and houses are thronged with spies to catch and report the murmurs of disaffection. In a word, the people might and should be taught, that social confidence, public spirit, enterprise, cheerful industry, and moral and religious excellence have almost forsaken that unhappy country.
On these topics, and on many others, which would illustrate the character and tendency of the French domination, might not conviction be carried to some minds at least; and might not many sluggish minds be awakened, if persevering, steady efforts were made by men, whose characters would be pledges of their veracity and disinterestedness. Sudden effects might not be produced, and perhaps sudden effects are not to be desired. We do not want a temporary, evanescent ardour, excited for partial purposes and local objects. We want a rational conviction of their great danger fastened on the people, and a steady and generous purpose to resist it by every means, which Providence has put within their power.—Let me entreat all, who are interested in this great object, the improvement and elevation of public sentiment, to adhere to such means only as are worthy that great end; to suppress and condemn all appeals to unworthy passions, all misrepresentation, and all that abuse, which depraves public taste and sentiment, and makes a man of a pure mind ashamed of the cause, which he feels himself bound to support.—Let me also urge you to check the feelings and the expressions of malignity and revenge. Curses, denunciations, and angry invectives are not the language of that spirit, to which I look for the safety of our country. We ought to know, that the malignant passions of a people are among the powerful instruments, by which the enemy binds them to his yoke. The patriotism, which we need, is a benevolent, generous, forbearing spirit; too much engrossed with the public welfare to be stung by personal opposition; calm and patient in exhibiting the truth; and tolerant towards those, who cannot, or who will not receive it. Let me repeat it; the end, we should propose, the elevation of public sentiment and feeling, is not to be secured by violence or passion, but by truth, from the hearts, and lips, and pens of men, whose lives and characters will give it energy.
But as the most effectual method of exalting the views, purposes, and character of our nation, let me entreat you, who are lovers of your country, to labour with all your power to diffuse the faith and practice of the gospel of Christ. The prevalence of true Christianity is the best defense of a nation, especially at this solemn and eventful period. It will secure to us the blessing of Almighty God; and it will operate more powerfully than any other cause, in making us recoil from the embrace of France. No greater repugnance can be conceived, than what subsists between the mild, humane, peaceful, righteous, and devout spirit of the gospel, and the impious, aspiring, and rapacious spirit of this new nation. Christianity will indeed exclude from our breasts all feelings of ill-will, malice, and revenge towards France and her sovereign;—for these are feelings, which it never tolerates. But it will inspire an holy abhorrence of her spirit and designs, and will make us shudder at the thought of sinking under her power, or aiding her success.
But it becomes us to promote Christianity, not only because it will help to save our country.—We should cherish and diffuse it, because it will be a refuge and consolation, even should our country fall; a support, which the oppressor cannot take from us. The sincere Christian is not comfortless even in the darkest and most degenerate times. He knows, that oppressive power is but for a moment; and his benevolence is animated by the promise of God, that even in this world, this scene of cruelty and wretchedness, there will yet be enjoyed the reign of peace, of truth, and holiness under the benignant Saviour. And this is not all. He looks upwards with a serene and ennobling hope to another and a better world, where the wicked never trouble, where the weary are at rest; where the rage of party never agitates; where he shall be associated with wise, pure, and good beings, in retracing and admiring the dispensations of Providence, under which he now suffers; in exploring and extolling the works, ways, and perfections of God, and in accomplishing with an ardent and unwearied love his benevolent designs.—May we, my friends, so pass through this stormy world, so fulfill our duty in this dark and trying day, that we shall be welcomed to the abodes of light and peace through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
I insert this note, that I may express more fully my sorrow and dismay at the influence of the French domination on the moral and religious state of the world. I need not recall to my readers the blasphemies and impieties of the authors of the French revolution. Oh, that their spirit had perished with them! But the shock, which they gave to the religious principles and feelings of their own and other nations, is still felt. I have heard truly affecting accounts of the depraved state of France, of the general insensibility to God which pervades the nation, of the selfishness and licentiousness of the rich, of the fraud and oppression of men in power, and of the want of mutual confidence among all ranks of people.
Wherever the French power extends, the same effects are produced. A cold and suspicious selfishness is diffused through society. Traitors are rewarded with power. An invisible army of spies, more terrible than the legions of the conqueror, are scattered abroad to repress that frank communication, which relieves and improves the heart. The press is in bondage. Nothing issues from it, but what accords with the views of the conqueror. Offensive truth is a crime not easily expiated. Under such strong temptations to flattery and deceit, the love of truth cannot long subsist. I fear, that if the fall of England should place the world in the power of France, the press would become the greatest scourge of mankind. No sentiments, but what are approved by an unprincipled despotism, would reach the next generation; and these sentiments would be poured into their minds, by means of the press, with a facility never possessed before the discovery of printing.
Let me here observe, that the contrast of England with France in point of morals and religion is one ground of hope to the devout mind in these dark and troubled times. On this subject, I have heard but one opinion from good men, who have visited the two countries. The character of England is to be estimated particularly from what may be called the middle class of society, the most numerous class in all nations, and more numerous and influential in England than in any other nation of Europe. The warm piety, the active benevolence, and the independent and manly thinking, which are found in this class, do encourage me in the belief, that England will not be forsaken by God in her solemn struggle.
I feel myself bound to all nations by the ties of a common nature, a common father, and a common Saviour. But I feel a peculiar interest in England; for I believe, that there Christianity is exerting its best influences on the human character; that there the perfections of human nature, wisdom, virtue and piety, are fostered by excellent institutions, and are producing the delightful fruits of domestic happiness, social order, and general prosperity. It is a hope, which I could not resign without anguish, that the “prayers and alms” of England “will come up for a memorial before God,” and will obtain for her his sure protection against the common enemy of the civilized world.