Orville Dewey (1794-1882) graduated from Andover theological seminary in 1819. He held jobs as a teacher, a clerk, and an agent for the American education society. Dewey was pastor for the Unitarian Church in New Bedford (1823-1833), the 2nd Unitarian Church of New York (1835-1848), a church in Albany for a year, a church in Washington for two years, and for the “New South” society (1858-1862). This sermon was preached by Dewey on the 1832 Massachusetts fast day.
MORAL USES OF THE PESTILENCE,
FAST-DAY, AUGUST 9, 1832.
By Rev. ORVILLE DEWEY,
PASTOR OF THE FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH IN NEW-BEDFORD
Isaiah XXVI. 9.
WHEN THY JUDGMENTS ARE IN THE EARTH, THE INHABITANTS OF THE WORLD WILL LEARN RIGHTEOUSNESS.
The visitation of a calamity in some respects of an unprecedented character, has awakened the world to an unusual degree of consideration. It is most desirable that this consideration should be rightly directed; that it should be guarded from all resorts to superstitious reliance’s, and from an absorption in mere worldly fears; and that it should yield some results adequate to the greatness of the occasion. If the world after this calamity shall have passed over it, is to be no wiser than it was before, such a failure must, to every sober mind, believing in the providence, be a deep cause of regret. The end is more important than the means. It more concerns every being to improve God’s discipline, than to escape it. To fail of that end, to fail of the improvement of the discipline, would be a greater calamity than it is to endure the visitation of the pestilence itself. For surely we are not, as Christians, to forget, that there are worse evils than the pestilence—worse evils than all outward calamities—evils so much worse, that all outward calamities are designed to be their antidote and cure.
This consideration, too, of the moral uses of the prevailing pestilence, would tend, more than any thing else, to allay the fears it inspires. To caution the people against being alarmed, to reiterate and multiply admonitions on this point, to warn the timid and terror-stricken, that this very panic is among the surest harbingers of the dreaded disease, to tell them continually that the more alarmed, the more exposed they are, to exhort and urge them, as they value their lives, to be calm, to recommend to them, in fine, by such constant implication, to try not to be afraid—this seems to be very ill adapted to answer the purpose. It is as if we would frighten people out of their fears, or hurry them into moderation and calmness. Besides, it is not easy, unless we look at the moral aspects of this calamity, to prevent some natural tremors, some agitations, perhaps, of unmanly fear. If the elements are left to work their will upon us, if they are working to no end, but to show their awful and destructive power, if the scourge is borne upon the uncommissioned winds, and its pavilion is darkness, and its way is mystery, and its end is death; and no explanation, and nothing for the mind to deal with, but elements, and powers, but inevitable fate, and dire necessity,—how can mortal hearts sustain themselves in the dread encounter with agents so blind, inexorable, and awful! But if there is a Power, beneficent as it is mighty, that stays, at its pleasure, the pestilence that walketh in darkness and the destruction that wasteth at noon-day; if it suffers the prevalence of disease to answer wise purposes; if this calamity, however singular, is, nevertheless, a part of the universal providence; if it is, like all other means for the reform and improvement of the world, to do more good than evil; then surely may we learn to look upon it with calmness and acquiescence. Then indeed shall we look seriously upon it, and we shall look upon it with fear, too, but with a fear that is rational and religious; with a fear that will turn very much, indeed, upon the state of our own minds. We shall think much of ourselves, and so much the less of the outward and physical forms of this evil; we shall think much of the good it is to do to millions of our fellow-men, and so much the less of the mere bills of mortality, dreadful as they are. In fine, we shall have our fears, but they will mingle much of devout and grave consideration with them—a trust and satisfaction in the wisdom of God’s providence; an apprehension lest we, and others, shall not reap the good designed to be communicated; and these moral considerations will assuage and moderate those panic sensations which are now occupied with nothing but danger, and rumors of danger.
There is another argument for attention, and for universal attention. The visitation of this calamity is a voice to the world. Other calamities have been partial in their extent. Other forms of pestilence have been confined to particular countries, or districts of country. No famine ever devastated a whole continent. No war ever raged from ocean to ocean. But to the ravages of this fearful destroyer, neither oceans nor continents have set bounds. It has compassed the habitable globe. From the plains of India, from the mountains of central Asia, its march has been steady and irresistible; it has traversed deserts and seas; it has broken through all the defences which the power and vigilance of governments could set up against it; till that which, for years, has been the rumor of far off evils, is suddenly become terrific reality; and the despoiler of two continents knocks at the door of our American homes.
At such a visitation, it is meet that the world should pause. It is meet that days of fasting and humiliation and prayer should suspend the ordinary pursuits and cares of life, and give an opportunity to meditate upon the ‘ways of God to man.’
I have thus far urged the propriety and advantage of a sober and attentive consideration of this extraordinary calamity. But is there any thing to consider? Is there any meaning in this visitation which can, without presumption, be fixed upon, by us, as the subject of attention?
I. I ask in reply: Is there not a providence in it? Permitted, or produced, does it not come within the range of the Almighty power and agency? Who will say that it is without the sphere of God’s government? Who will tell us where those dread regions are, over which God has no control, in which he does not his pleasure? Has not the whole course of events which take place in the world, a design? Did they receive their original, do they receive their present, impulses, from the tendencies of matter, or the ordinations of fate? But if there re ends to be accomplished by all things, will there not be a relation, an intentional relation, between the means and the ends? Why then—so far as the agency of any event is specific—why shall we not say, that the object, the design, the meaning, is specific?
And now, let me ask, was there ever a calamity in the world, not miraculous, which apparently possessed such a high and solemn moral significance as this pestilence? Was any design of earthly events ever more clear, specific or solemn? We saw an evil, the most insidious and deadly, entering the world by a thousand avenues, and gaining a strength unknown to former ages, by the modern improvements, if improvements we must call them, in the processes of distillation. We saw the produce of the ten thousand harvest-fields wrought, from all wholesome uses, into an intoxicating and destroying poison. We heard the voice of wailing, and lamentation and despair, from ten times ten thousand dwellings; and we asked, with many others, what can stay the progress of this horrible evil? What is to save the world? What is to leave in the world, any innocent father, mother, sister, friend, not utterly broken-hearted? And now, at this very crisis, when good men had begun to be alarmed, indeed, but when the good were more alarmed than the bad were reformed—at this very crisis, there appears in the world, a disease unknown to former times, and it appears as the grand antagonist power to the monster. Intemperance. It strikes as its foremost victims the votaries of strong drink; and to them, its blow, though all others, or nearly all, with prudence may escape—to them its blow is almost inevitable death!
If this be not providence, what is a providence? If this be not a voice from heaven, by what tokens shall we know such a voice? If all the pains and penalties that follow vice, are held, in all creeds but that of the atheist, to be the remedial and disciplinary processes of the Supreme wisdom; if those specific diseases, which set their mark and brand upon particular vices, are justly to be regarded as possessing, in a more striking degree, the same admonitory character, what less shall we think of a visitation like this unprecedented pestilence? If a new species of brain-fever were to appear in the world, and if it made gamesters its principal victims, what more specific and solemn moral would it hold out, than is to be found in this plague of the cholera?
It is true, indeed, that the desire, natural to the reflecting mind, of finding reasons for things, and of finding reasonableness, intelligence and wisdom, in the whole surrounding scene of life, may have carried us too far. It is true, too, that this is one of the subjects that comes not within the range of demonstrative, but only of moral evidence. I do not say that I know that this is a special visitation, designed to check a particular vice; and, on the other hand, no man can say that he knows, it is not. I can only say, that my mind leans to this view of the subject. I firmly believe that if there had been no intemperance in the world, this pestilence would not have been in the world. But what do I say? I had thought that I was arguing, and I find that I am stating a simple fact. Certainly there would have been no such pestilence in the world; there might have been such a disease, and it might have prevailed like other diseases—but there would have been no such pestilence in the world, if it had not been for intemperance. Intemperance is its very haunt, its resort, its prey—that without which, it would have no place on earth—that without which it could not live. Intemperance has occasioned it, created it, called it into being. Has it not? What means, then, the language of every medical report and opinion on the subject? What is to be made of the sense and experience of the whole world upon this point? Why do the intemperate every where feel that it is they who are exposed, that it is they who are meant? And why are so many moderate drinkers, as the disease approaches nearer and nearer to them, setting down the untasted cup? Is it too much to say, that it was designed for the check and destruction of the vice in question?
But it may be said, that the intemperate are not its only victims. It is true, that they are only its chief, its most conspicuous victims; other suffer. But this only comports with the general order of God’s providence. The innocent are every where suffering with, and for, and through, the guilty. It may possibly be said, also, that this pestilence does not, after all, and will not, altogether, reform the world, and so will fail of the alleged end, and therefore could not have been designed for that end. The general answer to both these objections, is the same. God’s providence over the mind, is adapted to the mind; does not compel it, or overwhelm it with flagrant and instantaneous results, but appears to its reason, elicits its powers, respects its freedom, deals with it by influences that are gentle and persuasive, and not coercive and irresistible. Whether the world will be reformed or not—it is warned—and this is the material point for us to establish. It is all the less likely to be reformed, till it feels that it is warned.
It is for this reason that I am concerned to urge the doctrine of a providence, in relation to this stupendous and wide-spreading calamity: for indeed the facts without the doctrine, are sufficient for my main purpose. And so eminently providential does it appear, that it might not be difficult for us to persuade ourselves, that it was designed to teach and explain this great doctrine of a providence to the generation of the thoughtless, the negligent, and skeptical. Let us, then, dwell a moment longer upon this point, to illustrate this use, if not design, of the affliction that is sent upon us.
The difficulty sometimes found with the doctrine of a providence, is, that it is held to be special, that it recognizes the efficacy of prayer, that it is believed to interpose at the call of human weakness, and distress, and penitence. It is the interposition of providence that is by some doubted.
But let it be supposed that the world were to be reformed from the vice of intemperance, and then, the cholera—that peculiar disease which is now prevailing—would cease. It would cease, because it would no longer find victims. The very element which supports it, would be taken away. On what condition, then, would it cease? The answer is, on the very condition of repentance. It would cease at the voice of humiliation and prayer; at the voice of a sorrowing and reformed people. Here, then, in a general view, is the efficacy of prayer, and here is the doctrine of a providence.
And why may we not go farther? Why may we not go beyond the general view? Why should it be thought “a thing incredible” with us, that he who inflicts the blow, should, with an interposing hand, suspend it, when its purpose is answered? It is here, perhaps, that the difficulty about a providence presses hardest. Are not the operations of nature, it may be said—are not the laws that govern the elements, uniform? I answer, we do not know that they are. What saith the visitation of this calamity? It reminds us how wide a theatre there is, for the operations of the overruling hand—how vast a region, before which the vail is lifted up, that none can penetrate. Where is the origin of this dread pestilence? Where are its dark magazines, out of which swift destruction cometh? Where is the secret of its presence, and the hiding of its power? Wisdom is baffled in the iniquity, and experience is but a blind guide. Whether it is in the heaven, or in the earth, or in the waters under the earth, it is questioned, and it is questioned in vain. Whether it is in the atmosphere, or in the human system—whether it is contagious, or infectious, or epidemic, or local, the understanding of the learned has not found out, and the wisdom of the wise has not decided. It has travelled through the world: the eyes of millions have been eagerly bent upon it; the voices of every language, have invoked from it, its dark secret; the seers of every healing art, from the Ganges to the Atlantic shore, have sought for the interpretation of its fearful signs—and still it is shrouded in impenetrable mystery. The object is clear; it is proclaimed as with the voice of a trumpet; all else is darkness and silence. Where the bolt strikes, we can see; we see who are its foremost victims; but the bosom of the black cloud, as it rolls onward, no eye has penetrated.
Let no man tell me, that in the bosom of that black cloud, there is no might, or mystery, beyond the reach and measure of his understanding,—no space for the secret work of God,—for the operations of an inscrutable and interposing providence. Let no man tell me, that he who rides on the whirlwind, and directs the storm, is bound by the chains of any fate or necessity. He doth his pleasure amidst the armies of heaven, amidst the thrones and powers of the firmament, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can say unto him, what doest thou? None can know what he doeth, or may dare to say what he doeth not; what is interposition, or what is not interposition; how far the overruling hand is stretched out, or where it is stayed; what chord in the mighty system of things it toucheth, or what hidden spring it doth unlock; what it bindeth that shall not be loosed, or looses, that shall not be bound.
But the skeptic will perhaps say, in fine, that man is a creature too insignificant to be the object of such attention and care, as we allege; that the Being who sits enthroned above the heavens, and governs millions of worlds, will not stoop to regard a thing so inconsiderable and indifferent as this dweller in the dust. But look at this being, when struggling as a victim in the grasp of the fell destroyer. If it were the lot of man, to drop from the course of life like an animal, a mere inert lump of clay, we might think differently. But what is the death of a man? What is it when it comes in the form of this disease, held to be so terrible? It is not any frightful paroxysm of pain, which makes that hour so awful; it is not the gathering mist that settles upon the closing eye-lids, that makes it so dark; it is not convulsion, and gasping for breath, and the mortal strife, that gives such intensity to every thought and feeling; but it is parting from the thousand ties that bind the heart to life; it is the solemn vision of eternity opening upon the soul; it is that intense spiritual consciousness that seems to concentrate all that is solemn and sublime in the universe, upon that dread moment; it is an element mightier than any earthly power, that imparts such grandeur to the death-bed scene; it is a portion of the Divinity, that is holding conflict with disease, and pain, and sorrow, and death. Will not God regard it, in its great and perilous hour? Can he hold that which was made in his own image, as too mean for his interposition or disposal? Can we believe that thousands and millions in the world, are dying under the stroke of this one peculiar and extraordinary infliction, and that there is no providence and no meaning in all this?
II. But if there is a meaning in this, what is it? If there is a providence, what does it teach? What do facts teach, let the doctrine be what it may? 1
The answer to this question, has been necessarily implied in the previous discussion; but we should be totally wanting to the occasion that has assembled us together, if we did not give it our direct and separate attention. I say, then, that that which providence teaches, that which facts teach the world in this great calamity, is a lesson of temperance. The calamity itself, as I think, naturally leads us to recognize a providence, and a special and interposing providence. But providence, if there be any in this matter, has an end. That end, if there be an end, must be, I repeat, to teach the world a lesson of temperance.
Will it not teach this? Will not increased temperance be the effect? And if it will, why should we not say, that it was intended to be the effect? But will it not, I repeat? Suppose the cholera were to remain ten years in this country, or in Europe: there is no reason to expect its speedy disappearance—it has already returned to some of the cities in Europe—it has been a long period in Asia: if, I say, the cholera were to remain ten years among us; if for that length of time it should hover in the air, ready to stoop with its deadly talons upon any dissolute city, or village, or individual, can it be doubted that by such an agency, the work of reform would be carried on with a success and effect, beyond all former example? Can it be doubted, that ten years, with the sword hanging over every man’s head, would make us comparatively a temperate people? How many is this single Summer’s experience showing, that they can live without spirituous drinks, and that they are altogether better without them! “When thy judgments are in the earth,” saith the Prophet, and surely when such judgments are in the earth, “the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.”
And if they are to learn righteousness, or if this going forth of the pestilence is fitted to teach them, then I am prepared to take another step, and to say, that it is a beneficent visitation. If you doubt whether your ears hear me rightly, I repeat it, and say it is a beneficent visitation. I confess that I do no not partake of the unmixed and supreme horror, which many feel at this disease. There is another calamity, another curse, which, as I believe, it is designed to remove, and which impresses me with greater horror. The Cholera, I am firmly persuaded, will prevent more suffering than it will occasion. The woes of unrestricted intemperance in this country for ten years would be far greater than the woes of a ten years’ plague. I cannot pray, therefore, without the most careful qualification, and the most guarded submission, that this pestilence should depart from our borders. I dare not say, it is best for us that it should depart. I dare not absolutely pray for the removal of this disease, any more than for the removal of many other diseases. I see clearly that the world would sink at once into the ruins of sensual indulgence, if no pain or sickness followed excess. I see that to indulgence, disease, of some kind or other, is the antagonist power. I now see indulgence of one particular species, rising to a most alarming height; and I see a disease breaking out at the same time to counteract it. This, to my apprehension, is the method which Providence has adopted for teaching the lesson of temperance. Say that this pestilence is developed by intemperance itself, or say that its causes, not of any new creation, have always lain hidden in the bosom of the elements; or say that it is the result of general laws; still it is none the less the teaching of Providence. And I dare not absolutely ask that the teaching should be suspended till the lesson is learnt. Though the discipline be costly and dear, I dare not ask it. I know that it is taking from us the lives of some valuable and beloved citizens, but I do not esteem even their lives too precious a sacrifice for the salvation of the land. I see the innocent, indeed, dying for the guilty; but I see in this, only the usual order of God’s providence; I see, indeed, the order of his grace; I see, as it were, Jesus again in his members, dying for the world.
The horrors of the Cholera, I must be allowed to repeat, are not the greatest horrors that are to be found in the abodes of the civilized world. The convulsions of this disease are not, in my eyes, so horrible as the paroxysm of drunkenness—the rioting of its merriment, or the writhing’s of its fury. The delirium of sickness is not so dreadful as the madness of the inebriate man. The dreaded “collapse” presents not a picture so dreadful as the poor wretch who lies by the wayside; no waiting friends or sympathizing kindred around him; senseless to the passing jest or buffet; no longer a human being, but the ghastly ruins of what was once human. And a brief sickness and a speedy death carry no such agony to the bosom of a family as ten, or twenty, or thirty years of dissoluteness in it; no, nor as one year’s woe and shame of intemperance, in one of its before cherished and beloved members. Nor doth the land mourn, nor ever can it mourn for a pestilence, nor is its substance wasted, nor are all its laws and safeguards sapped and undermined, though all the plagues of Egypt fall upon it—no, there is no such peril to any people in all this, as there is in the poisoned fountains of intoxication that are now deluging the world—there is no such sorrow, as the sorrow of millions by their desolate hearths, made desolate by this accursed indulgence; there is no such “cup of trembling” and of “wrath poured out without mixture,” as the horrible cup of excess!
It is impossible not to observe in this connection, that this judgment of Providence on the people at large, is especially a voice of admonition, a call for reform, to cities and populous places. It has always been found that in proportion as men congregate together, and wealth increases in the hands of some, and poverty presses hard upon others, that the vices shoot up into monstrous and fearful luxuriance. The most splendid advantages, the brightest gifts of heaven as they seem at least to most men, are here set in glaring and mournful contrast with the most awful abuses of them. It is here too perhaps, that the noblest virtues are developed and formed; but the powers of good in these circumstances have hitherto held but a feeble and doubtful conflict with the powers of evil; they have not, indeed, been put forth; and Christian men and women in our cities, are yet, perhaps, to learn the measure and the methods of their duty.
It would be dullness, worse than ingratitude, and more inexcusable, not to refer in this view to the noble efforts for teaching the poor and rescuing the vicious, which are now making by a Christian ministry devoted to those objects, in the metropolis of our own State—efforts, which it is hoped will in process of time, present to the world, the model of a Christian City. 2 This Ministry for the poor in cities, like the Sunday School, and the improved Prison Discipline, and the Bethel Churches, I regard as one of the great moral discoveries of the age. Physical causes, I trust, are also to lend their aid. It seems to me, not an extravagant anticipation, that the astonishing improvements about to be introduced in the facilities for carriage and passage,—the railroads, I mean—will have the effect to prevent the enormous growth of cities, to send their inhabitants abroad to build beautiful and delightful abodes in the country, and will thus tend to break up those hot beds of vice, those congregated masses of filth and misery which are now found in them. Meanwhile this pestilence is doing its work—its work of mercy as well as of judgment—its work of physical as well as moral purification. It would be scarcely too much to say, that the cleansing of our cities and villages, especially if it may be a precedent for future years, will save more lives, than the cholera will destroy.
Will there not be a moral cleansing, also? Will not this judgment of the Most High, strike a salutary dread into the scenes of drunkenness, debauchery, and Sabbath-breaking—and of that horrible filthiness which is itself a heinous sin? Is not that very point—the mass of evil in cities—that wickedness in high places, to which, all of the earth, the philanthropist and Christian have looked with the greatest despondency,—is it not to have light poured in upon it—the light of inquiry and of hope? Are not the miseries of those ten thousand thronged abodes, which it makes the heart ache to think of—are they not to be relieved? Is not that pestilential atmosphere of contagious vice, forever hanging over the cities and crowded villages of the world, and every year drawing millions from the healthful airs of a simple and rural life, to breathe it and die—is it not, at length, to be purified? Is not this fearful stroke of the lightning from heaven, to break the heavy and thick and settled cloud, beneath which such iniquities and abominations have been done for ages? When, ye children of darkness and vice and vileness! Will ye hear? Hath not trembling and death come into your habitations? Hath not horror taken hold of your hearts? When, till the judgment-hour break upon you, will ye listen to the voice of God?
I feel, too, that this visitation ought to speak to men in power, to the rulers of the earth, and to those, who, by their influence, reign in society. Why are those masses of vice, and filth, and famine, and bodily prostration, where the cholera finds its haunt, suffered to exist? It is, in part, because great men, aye, and good men, have failed to do their duty.—Much of this prostration, physical and moral, is to be referred, ultimately, to political oppression, to arbitrary distinctions in society, to cruel and unjust laws, and to proud self-complacency and selfishness, “passing by, on the other side.” In Asia, helpless millions have been swept away, the victims of grinding tyranny and of unparalleled social abuses. Such victims are to be found in Europe, too; nor are they wanting in America! When, let me ask then—ye great ones of the earth, and ye good men! When will ye hear? When will the whole power of the world, political and moral, arise to do good, and to heal the wounds of society, and to build up the fallen fortunes of afflicted humanity!
No, I am not indifferent to the fate of the unhappy victims of this visitation, hurried as they are by thousands to an untimely grave, and to a sudden and unlooked-for judgment. Who, with a Christian’s heart, will not mourn for them, as well as for the evil that they have inflicted upon the world? And yet, what can I say to them, or to the partakers of their guilt—what can I say, more or less than this? “You have been reasoned with, pleaded with, besought, warned, by every voice of tenderness and by every voice of terror, that God has given to man, or to woman, to utter, and it has been all in vain. You have resisted the outstretched hands of affection, and the pleading eye, and the breaking heart. You have trampled upon the dearest interests of society, as if it were without remorse. You have trampled upon all the admonitions of God’s word and providence, as if it were, without fear. You have trodden under foot all the agonizing remonstrances of your own hearts and consciences, as if they were but fit to pave your way to the resorts and haunts of indulgence. Would to God, that all this land not been in vain; but it has been in vain. It has been all in vain! You would not hear. You would not relent. You would not give up the deadly draught that bereaved you of every thing to respect, and of every thing to love. The child, the wife, the friend, have asked permission but to respect, but to love you; and you have hardened yourself against appeals, that might have broken—Oh! They might have broken, a heart of stone.” What they shall we say? Must we say and think, that it is hard, very hard that this additional, this last dread infliction, has come upon the victims of excess,—that this bolt has fallen, as it were, direct from heaven, to dash the guilty cup from their hands? God Almighty give them grace to be wise in the day of his rebuke! We dare not prescribe the term of this, to the vicious, tremendous day. May it be shortened, we are ready to say; yet we dare not ask that it may be shortened, but through the intervention of repentance, at the instance of a humbled and reformed people!
This, my friends, is the only escape, of which we can feel any assurance, or ought to feel any very strong desire. This pestilence has a moral mission to fulfill; its fulfillment is the only pledge for its termination. No services, no offerings to God, coming short of this, can promise us any relief. No wall of prayers is to be built up, to keep out this dreaded disease; no mere solemnities of fasting and humiliation, will disinfect the atmosphere; nothing, within our knowledge, but removing the cause, will remove the curse.
One more word, and I will relieve your attention from the unusual task, which I have ventured, at this time, to lay upon it.
What is it, then, I ask, which imparts to the pestilence, whose ravages have been the occasion of setting apart this day of solemn prayer and humiliation,—what imparts to this pestilence, I say, its peculiar horror? And, I answer, it is the terrible speed with which it does its work. It is not that its victims, according to present appearances, are likely to be more numerous than sometimes are the victims of a prevailing influenza, or of a malignant fever; not more numerous, than are, every year, the victims of consumption. It is, that death has been brought near to many minds, as it never was before. The impression has been made upon them, in a character and with an emphasis altogether new, that they might, indeed, die suddenly; that their moral account with this life, might be made up, and settled, and sealed forever, in a few brief hours; that although to-day in the midst of life, to-day walking in the same negligent course as for years before, to-day unprepared to die,—yet that to-morrow’s rising sun might behold them dead, and its parting ray might shine around the grave, that had closed upon them forever.
It is, my brethren, a most solemn and monitory conviction. This pestilence has created an era, I believe, in many of our minds, from which a new spiritual life ought to be dated. We have erred in this matter; we have erred in regard to the strict account, which we have to give, of life. We have been misled, with the negligent world, into the irrational, the absurd idea, that we may lie in sin, and yet die in safety; that we may live without religion, and yet die with it; that we may at last find some gracious dispensation from the law that is to “render to every man according to his living deeds.” We have vaguely and vainly imagined, with multitudes in the same delusion, that our sickness may, at length, do, what our health will not; that the last feeble pulses of life, may be strong enough to turn back the mighty current of tastes, and affections, and habits, that for years has been flowing on with accumulated power.
This is one of the grand ruining delusions of the world. “It is not this day,” men are perpetually saying, and still with every successive period of life they are saying, forever saying, “it is not this day, it is not this year, on which I can venture the decision of the great question for eternity; by and bye,” is the secret thought of thousands of hearts, “by and bye, amidst the days of sickness and sorrow, or of old age, I will prepare for heaven.” Let this solemn visitation of God, let this voice of the pestilence, break up forever that tremendous delusion. It speaks not only to the heinous transgressor, but scarcely less awfully to the careless neglector of his duty. It is in his heart, a voice of weighty admonition. What meaneth,—if it means not this—what meaneth that fear, curdling the very heart’s blood,—the fear of smiting disease and sudden death? Yes, its meaning is moral. It is not a mere dread of pain, or of parting with life. It is a fear, breathed in the deeper recesses of the soul. It is a voice, that speaks of duties neglected, of sins indulged; of the soul, unprepared for death. That very fear, that very voice, believe me, shall yet give witness at the bar of judgment: for us, or against us,—to proclaim our fidelity, or our neglect,—to declare that we have listened to the voice of God’s judgments, or have hardened ourselves in the day of his rebuke. But let me not close with the words of this last dreadful alternative upon my lips. Let us hope better things, and things that pertain to salvation. Let us give all earnestness, to meditation, and watchfulness, and humble prayer, that we may be found faithful to all the teachings of God’s wisdom, and all the tokens of God’s will!
* Originally posted: December 24, 2016.