David Peabody (1805-1839) Biography:
David Peabody grew up working the family farm in Massachusetts. When 15 years old, he told his father he wanted to attend college. His father consented and in 1821, Peabody entered Dummer Academy, where he began the study of Latin, to prepare him for college. He soon realized his personal need of salvation, but it was three years before he acted on it. In 1824, he entered Dartmouth College.
To cover his expenses, Peabody worked as a teacher while attending college, but the stress took a toll on him. After graduating in 1828, he returned home to regain his strength, working as the assistant editor of the New Hampshire Observer of Portsmouth. He began attending the Theological Seminary in Andover and also agreed to run a Young Ladies’ Select School at Portsmouth, but once again the physical strain took its toll and he was forced to resign.
To regain his strength, Peabody moved south to Prince Edward County, Virginia, and began working privately as a tutor for a prominent family. After creating a plan of study for the children, he returned to study at Union Theological Seminary.
In 1831, he received his license to preach from the West Hanover Presbytery and began pastoring a church. Six months later, his health had returned so he left the church and moved back north. In 1832 he became pastor of First Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, but three years later he suffered a serious hemorrhage. He resigned his pastorate and went to work for the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society. His health improved, so he took the pastorate of a Calvinist church in Worchester, but later that year the hemorrhage returned and so he retired.
The following year, his health had improved and he reentered the ministry, only to experience another relapse. On the advice of his doctor, he took a sea voyage and then wintered in St. Francisville, Louisiana. While there, he preached to both black and white congregations, returning to his flock in the north the following spring. He worked hard preaching but by 1838 experienced yet another relapse. To recuperate his health, he and a friend traveled in Vermont and New Hampshire, and while there he was offered the position of Professor of Rhetoric at Dartmouth College. Believing that a change from pastor to professor would lighten the strain on his body, he accepted the position. His health was improving, until he was struck with pleurisy, but this time he refused to slow down and died six months later, at the age of thirty-four. A number of his works were published during his lifetime.
The conduct of Men,
Considered in contrast with the Law of God.
DELIVERED IN THE CALVINIST CHURCH, WORCESTER,
ON FAST DAY, APRIL 7, 1836.
BY D. PEABODY,
PASTOR OF SAID CHURCH.
PUBLISHED BY REQUEST.
PRINTED BY HENRYJ. HOWLAND.
It may be due to those readers of the following Discourse who heard it from the Pulpit, to state, that, as it was originally prepared in a double form, and delivered with sundry extemporaneous additions, it was found necessary, in preparing it for the press, to make several alterations; which, it is believed however, do neither change its character, nor detract from what little value it may have possessed.
“We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts, and from thy judgments.”
In pursuing the rain of reflection naturally suggested by the text, it will be my object, my hearers, to lead you to look at the world—at man—in contrast with the Law of God; to furnish you with some views of human character on a large scale, as it appears in the light which is reflected from the Decalogue; and hence to deduce moties to humiliation and prayer. You are perfectly aware, indeed, that the world lieth in wickedness; and you need no arguments to convince you, that man, as a race, is opposed to the divine Law. All this is familiar, because often affirmed and illustrated; all this, too, is to your minds unquestionable, because you see the evidence of it both on the pages of Revelation, and in living exhibition around you. But we need something more than conviction, something more than knowledge. We need a frequent repetition of well known lessons, a fresh representation of admitted truths, with such variations of light and position, as shall, in some degree, impart novelty to what is old, and impressiveness to what is familiar.
Some men are disposed to complain of us, that we make the world far worse than it really is; that we spread over it shades of depravity much darker than do actually exist, except here and there in the lives of those who are to be regarded rather as anomalies than as fair examples of human character; and that we carefully shut out from view the bright sports of innocence and joy, which no unjaundiced eye can fail to discover. These men, however, we apprehend, are either not over-zealous students of the Bible; or else they imagine, that when that antiquated book was written, human nature was vastly worse than it is at present.
But what is the present moral condition of the world? What is its actual state, compared not with any Utopian scheme of excellence and virtue, not with any standard of perfection which man has devised,—but with the universal, the unchanging, the only obligatory standard—the law of God? Why, in sober truth, its state is such, that a holy and impartial observer—suppose an angel that has never sinned—who should critically survey it in all its operations and principles of action, would conclude at once that men had banded together in one general conspiracy to set the divine laws at defiance, except as far as the observance of them is found indispensable exception; but it makes nothing against our position; for when men act in accordance with law only because their own temporal interest requires it, they cannot be said, in any proper religious sense, to obey law, but only to obey the impulses of a selfish nature. From such an impartial survey, we should be prepared to return to our closets with something of the penitential sorrow of the Prophet, and mourn over what we had discovered in the midst of ourselves and everywhere among men, saying, “we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments.”
Let us see, then, in what this departure consists;—let us compare the conduct of men extensively with the requisitions of the Decalogue, fixing on those points—since we cannot on all—in which the contrast is most strikingly apparent, or which are peculiarly worthy of attention.
Take the first and second Commandments; which together require that men have no other gods but Jehovah, and that they render to him, as a spirit, spiritual worship. With these in your hand, travel abroad among men, and make your observations. First, visit if you will,—though these are not within the province of our immediate concern,—the four hundred and eighty millions of Pagans, three fifths of the human family, who, to a man, have set their faces against God; and here and there a tribe only excepted, have changed his glory into the corruptible image of men, birds, four footed beasts, and creeping things. All that portion of the race you must set aside at once as palpable transgressors of the fundamental and universal law—that law which constitutes the basis of the whole moral code. If from them you turn to the Jews and Mohammedans,—in the one you discern a people, who, though professing to worship the God of Abraham, have long since virtually rejected him; for of them the Savior said, “He that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me;”—and in the other, a people, who, amidst many corrupt notions of the Deity, have in truth elevated their Prophet above his throne. How far all these are from obeying that comprehensive rule, which requires all men to render unto God a spiritual and undivided homage, is sufficiently apparent.
But not to linger on ground so remote, and so little a matter of our concern to-day, you will come back and cast your eye over what is passing in nominally Christian communities. And you will say—“Surely men here have no other gods but Jehovah.” But tell me can He be said to be their God whom they never affectionately acknowledge; whom they never devoutly worship; to whom they erect no altar in their dwellings; whose word and ordinances they regard with indifference; towards whom they feel in their hearts no reverence and no love! If Jehovah be their God, why not serve him; why not confess him before the world; why not make at least some decided demonstration of their homage and attachment? Is it enough that they do not put themselves to the trouble of openly and boldly denying him? Enough that they do not announce to the world that they are idolators or atheists? Judge ye,—for if the Lord be God, he is a great God and a jealous; and if he is chosen by you as your God, you will worship him, ay, in spirit and in truth,—judge ye, how many such worshippers the eye of Omniscience discerns among all the thousands of decent, honest, kind hearted, moral, church-going men in Christian lands! Of how many can the Omniscient Searcher of hearts say—“They have no other gods before me?” If by their fruits we are to know them, few, alas! We must judge, are the spiritual worshippers of God.
Again: Repeat your tour of observation with another article of the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Profane oaths and blasphemies, it is well known, abound among the heathen; and it is a remarkable and melancholy fact, that the first sentences of a Christian language which pagans learn to pronounce, are generally—at least to a great extent—sentences of profaneness and blasphemy. So true is this, that travelers in heathen countries have often been surprised by a salutation accompanied by an oath, in their own tongue, when the speaker could scarcely pronounce any other word in the language.
Of the frequency of this vice among ourselves, you are sufficiently aware. You have daily examples of it, in various forms more or less gross among almost all ages and classes in society, from the brisk gentlemen of the bar-room and the theatre, down to the unruly and vulgar school-boy. By some men, and some too who profess to be men of sense and respectability, one might suspect, a covenant had been entered into with their lips, that they should never utter the sacred name of God, except in connection with an oath! They know not how to approach their Maker in prayer; but they can dare him to vengeance on themselves or their fellow men just to give expression to momentary anger, or,—what is if possible still more contemptuous of Heaven,—to impart grace to a period or pungency to wit! Such is the treatment, from vast numbers, which this third most easy and reasonable requisition of the Divine Law receives.
Again: God demands, in his immutable Law, that one day in seven shall be consecrated peculiarly to him, as a day of holy rest. The voice in which this demand was originally made known, seems, either with full emphasis or in fainter echoes, to have gone abroad everywhere among men, and been reiterated down through their successive generations. But, my hearers, take another survey, and see how this law has been observed. By a great majority, the day has been employed merely to mark into convenient divisions the lapse of time. Some have regulated by it the seasons of licentious festivity and idolatrous worship—sad perversion surely of its original design!
But,—to turn to a more important inquiry,—what is the manner of its observance among Christians? How and to what extent, does it appear that they who bear the Christian name, are in this point obedient to the Law of God? Why, my hearers, you shall find a numerous class of them who regard the Sabbath of our times as a mere human institution. They observe it, not because it has been consecrated by divine authority, but because it is required by human convenience. They honor it not as arising from an ordinance of Heaven, and, of course, they honor not the ordinance whence it arises; but because they consider it as, on the whole, a happy accident of custom, and even perhaps essential to the good order and well-being of society. God and his Law they leave entirely out of view; and the Sabbath, in their estimation, has little more to do with either, than have the stated terms of legislative assemblies and judicial courts.
Another numerous class acknowledge the divine origin and binding authority of the Christian Sabbath; but still suppose it to be designed as a day of rest from labor for the refreshment and reinvigoration of the exhausted body and mind; and not at all as a day holy unto the Lord for purposes of spiritual worship and improvement. Consequently, with them it is a holy day—a season of relaxation and amusement. Possibly they may be found in the sanctuary occasionally in the morning or evening;—but it is to gratify friends, or to fall in with established customs, or to break up the monotony of the week’s affairs.—Their motives in all this are essentially the same with those, which require on the Lord’s Day a particularly sumptuous entertainment or a ride for pleasure, as a necessary part of its sacred observances. They cannot imagine what harm there can be in a little social visiting, with its edifying accompaniment of gossip and gaiety; and if the evening should pass away without a friendly call given or received, why then the holy season has been to them altogether incomplete and unsatisfactory.
And even of that other class, who feel in some measure, or profess to feel, the claims of the Christian Sabbath upon them, as the day of God, the feast day of the soul, the seed time for the harvests of eternity,—how few devote its precious hours to the sublime purposes for which they were appointed! How, even by the best class that can be selected among men, is the intent of the Divine Law, as interpreted by the principles and examples of Christianity, frustrated and lost! Some deem the season well spent, if they have placed themselves within hearing of the ordinary number of sermons and prayers in the house of God, or kept their eye running over the pages of some religious book,—no matter whether or not the mind apprehends or retains a single truth, or whether or not a single devotional feeling is stirred in the soul. Some plead hard the necessity of laboring, at particular times, on this day; and would rather run the risk of diminishing, by their example, the respect that is felt for it in a hundred hearts, than hazard the loss of injury, from the contingency of bad weather, of a little precarious property. On this principle, the farmer drives his team afield, to save a half eared crop from a gathering storm; and the man of business indulges himself and his family in a ride to a neighboring town; or commences or prosecutes a journey to a distant mart of trade; and our wise legislators enact laws requiring the transportation of the mail, and the employing of thousands of hands, and the famishing of thousands of souls; and continue their deliberations on important questions almost till the very dawn of the holy morning—all on the day which they hold to be sacred to religion and to God; and all, I say, on the same principle, That man’s secular profit or convenience may set aside the laws of Heaven. It is nothing more nor less than this. Not one of them can offer any apology for such a desecration of the Sabbath, that does not involve the principle—that mere human profit or convenience may in these cases,—and if in these cases, why not in any other?—countervail the ordinances of Infinite wisdom.
Our country is deeply stained with the guilt of violating the Fourth Commandment. The stain is upon our Statute Books; upon our legislative halls; upon our rulers;—and upon the common body of the people. Touching this matter, we are a guilty nation:—are we not guilty, too, as individuals? Certainly it becomes us to be silent concerning the nation’s guilt, so long as we allow ourselves to act—though perhaps on a smaller scale—on the same unhallowed principle. In view of all this, we surely have occasion to humble ourselves before the Lord to-day, and to say with the Prophet, “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy statutes and from thy judgments.”
Turn now a rapid but honest glance on what is passing in domestic circles. Suspend the precept, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” in the interior of every dwelling; and under it write the multiplied and diversified delinquencies which occur in every household—the unkind words, the disobedient acts, the disrespectful demeanor, the ill wishes, the unuttered heartburnings, and longings for freedom from parental restraint, together with all other varieties of this sin;—do this, not merely in heathen communities, which are proverbial for a want of natural affection,—but among ourselves, where Christianity has labored to exert its purifying power; and then collect the scattered items into one aggregate amount, and weigh them in the balance of the Sanctuary; and say whether there be not matter here, if the Divine Law is to be strictly interpreted, of deep humiliation before God. Is there not a growing prevalence of this sin amongst us, which calls not only for grief and self abasement, but also for active efforts to stay the evil and avert the consequences?
But there is one point on which, you may flatter yourselves, that the most patient and critical scrutiny, will be able to detect no guilt, except among the most inhuman and ferocious of the race. “Thou shalt not kill.” Rarely, you may imagine, is this law broken. Well, then, before you pronounce with confidence, take some post of extensive observation, and note down your discoveries. Confine your view, if you will, to our own Christian community. Let us see with what scrupulosity this Sixth great command of God is obeyed. How often, in the intercourse of life, do you perceive this and that man angry with his brother without cause! They, according to the moral code of Jesus Christ, are murderers. If they cherish anger in their hearts, so that it becomes a settled passion, they are, in temper and spirit, chargeable with the murder’s guilt. It is not necessary, however, to dwell on cases so little tangible.
Look up, now, to the higher walks of life. Who is he whom you see blustering and storming at his fellow in a hurricane of passion? It is a man of honor, who has been entrusted perhaps with the responsibility of enacting laws for you and your country. The delicate scarf-skin of his honor has been wounded by some unkind remark of his friend;—and now, when the violence of anger ought to be subsiding in feelings of forgiveness, he coolly intimates the necessity of reciprocal compliments of pistol-shot to atone for the insult and restore friendship. The challenge in due time and form is given and accepted. Look once more, and see these dignified personages, at the hour appointed, stealing away with their attendants to some solitary glen, on this honorable errand. The ground is measured—the arms are prepared—the preliminaries are completed—the signal is given, followed by the flash and the peal;—and whether both fall, or one, or neither, they leave the ground, dead or alive—murderers, murderers in the sight of God and man.
And these tragedies, as we well know, are acted over by our lawmakers—not to speak of others encouraged by their example—so frequently that the appellation of duelist applied to them excites no surprise; and sometimes almost within sight of the Capitol. Not a few of our most admired statesmen, are men who have thus aimed the weapon of death at a fellow’s breast, and perhaps left the field stained with his blood. And, tell me, as they go back to their sacred work of preserving and enriching the ark of our liberties, does not that blood follow them; and as they put forth their hands to write or seal our laws, does not that blood mark and remain upon the parchment—unseen indeed by men, but read by Omniscience, and heard, too, in its cry to Heaven for vengeance on a guilty land?
There are those,—and their number is not small, as recent occurrences testify,—who seem to care nothing for the shedding of blood, whether of one man or of thousands; who would be willing to involve the country in war, and commit it to all the direful consequences of war, for the sake of a few millions of dollars, or for some other reason, if possible more insignificant, for which this was held up as a mere pretext and disguise. Happily, indeed, through a merciful Providence, the dreaded event has been forestalled. But how must God regard a people on whom he has lavished the riches of his goodness, who to so great an extent and for so unworthy a reason, were almost on the point of sending forth their ships to belch death on the ocean, and drawing up their troops to cut down every one of their once honored allies who should land on the shore!
These suggestions are made in the spirit—not of a political partisan, but simply of a plain advocate of the principles of the Divine Law.
Would, my hearers, that the work of death in our land ended here. But—to pass over that common waste and destruction of the vital energy by means of animal indulgences, which might be set down to the score of suicide—there are ways not yet alluded to, in which men are ready to engage in the wholesale sacrifice of life. Distillers and venders of intoxicating liquor are yet found among us. In a single town in this Commonwealth, five thousand hogsheads, it is said, are manufactured annually. Nor is this the only manufactory general of this essence of misery and death. Many a fountain, it is true, and we would be grateful for the fact, has been dried up; but you may still see them scattered here and there over almost the whole surface of the country, pouring out their deadly streams, to be distributed wherever man’s beastly appetite or love of gold may convey them. And observe, as these streams flow on, how every place through which they pass, is accursed. Disorder, poverty, famine, crime, disease, and death, hold their revels along their borders, and laugh and batten amid the desolations which the poisonous waves spread around them in their course.
And to facilitate the work of destruction, there are, very fortunately, men holding some a more and some a less honorable rank, according to the kind of service to be performed in the general business, who regularly divide and subdivide these streams into smaller currents, and distribute the precious poison for the public good at so much per gallon and so much per glass, that all those families and individuals may be accommodated, who are disposed to ruin their health, squander their estate, and make shipwreck of their souls,—and are able to pay the rumseller for the privilege.
So extensively is this business still carried on in the midst of us, and so prolific is it in all the varieties of human woe, that it would seem as if our Great Enemy might cheerfully consent never more—except as the legitimate fruit of this—to breath famine or pestilence from his shriveled lips, or sound the alarm of war among the nations. One might suppose, that, insatiate as he is, this alone, since it is so easy to obtain auxiliaries often of very respectable character in the work, might suffice to glut his ravenous appetite with victims, and stay the greedy yearnings of his malice.
Ah! My hearers, here is matter of grief and humiliation. From this cause, there is blood on our country;—is there not blood on some of our own hands?
In relation also to the Seventh Commandment—for in this review we must omit none of the Commandments of God—a careful examination would disclose guilt around us, of the extent and deep dyed aggravation of which we are little aware. I shall not dwell here on those offences against the law of purity, which, being confined to the imagination and the heart, are known only to conscience and to God; but which, as Jesus Christ assures us, are regarded as positive transgressions. Nor shall I do more than allude to those dens of wickedness which the persevering efforts of good men have not yet been able to remove from our cities and large towns; to the purlieus of our theatres, and other chambers of abomination which, though perhaps on a small scale, would, if opened, “shame the eye of day.” I should hardly be believed, should I fully describe to you the systematic exertions of wicked men, acting by a common understanding and concert in many of our large towns, with the manifest design of corrupting the young and unsuspecting; and preparing them to become hereafter a prey to the grossest seductions of vice. Such an association of profligates has actually been discovered, within a comparatively short period, together with their obscene pictures and other machinery of like character, with which they carry on their infernal plans. And this is only a sight glance, a mere surface view of the evil, as it exists in the community. Such is its prevalence in our most populous cities, that it is often found unsafe for unsuspecting innocence to trust itself, even in respectable families, without the most vigilant protection. The young and the aged, the married and unmarried, the respected and the despised, are frequently alike guilty. My hearers, it is my sober belief, that if we were fully apprised of the extent to which this sin, in its various forms, prevails; how many licentious practices, natural and unnatural, exist among us; and what wide spread mischief, moral and physical, is their legitimate result,—we should start back with horror to find in the midst of ourselves, so many foul features of resemblance to the people of Sodom whom God destroyed. There is in the community a generation of vipers gliding often under a specious disguise,—possibly there may be some of them in our own neighborhood;—and it becomes families to be on their guard, lest they discover “the trail of the serpent” when too late to escape the poison. Let mothers, let fathers, let confiding youth, beware!
Verily we have reason to enter into our closets to-day, and mourn over the guilt which rests upon us as a people and as individuals; and to say, “O God, we are ashamed and blush to lift up our faces unto thee; for our iniquities are increased over our heads, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens.”
Look abroad then with a microscopic eye;—and what do you discover? Is there no unfairness here—not in singular and solitary instances, but in the common business transactions of men? Is there no study to take advantage, in as honest and polite a way as possible,—but nevertheless to take advantage,—of the ignorance, or the necessities, or the vices of other men?
In the first place, of their ignorance. Is there never a concerted scheme among merchants, or an attempt made by individuals of them, to raise or keep up the market, for the express purpose of augmenting their own gains at the purchaser’s expense, who is ignorant that the balance of trade requires a reduction? I do not speak here of professed merchants exclusively; but of all who are engaged in buying and selling;—and I ask, if they do not often contrive to turn to their advantage the ignorance of those with whom they have dealings, by concealing the true state of the market, or by managing to keep it up where it cannot justly be held?
Again: In respect to the quality of what is manufactured, or bought or sold, is there not frequently a dishonest use made of the ignorance of others? Is it not common with the manufacturer and vender, to make the commodity pass for more than its real value; and with the purchaser, to labor to obtain it for less, crying, It is naught, It is naught, while the bargain is pending, and then, when he has accomplished his purpose, boasting of his adroitness and success? And does the mechanic in his work, study durability and good service, as much as strict honesty would require? Or, is his eye rather on the number of articles he turns off and the amount of profit he gains; and does he not often laugh in his sleeve over the ignorance and gullibility of those who may be so unfortunate as to purchase his fabrics for their use? These may serve as examples of what I mean by taking advantage of another’s ignorance. And, unless I mistake, this is not a rare thing among men who would be held respectable.
In the second place, advantage is often taken of another’s necessities. Suppose that a time of great scarcity is seen to be approaching. Immediately the price of the “staff of life” is raised, and raised sometimes quite above the reach of the poor. What is the consequence? Numbers of them are reduced to great suffering, if not to absolute starvation. But a few are enriched, enriched by the misery and destruction of their neighbors. This may serve as an example of a numerous class of cases of similar kind. I know they are vindicated on the ground of the universal laws of trade. But are they, can they be vindicated by the holy Law of God? Is there a whit more regard paid here to the rights and well-being of these men, than is paid by the high-way robber to those of the man whose property he seizes? In the one case, the alternative presented, is the payment of the price demanded, or death by starvation: in the other, the tribute of your purse, or death by the bullet or the bludgeon. In the one, a demand is made, backed by necessity; in the other, by violence. And in the sight of God, what, judge ye, is the difference between the two, in point of honesty and justice?
And, in the third place, would not a careful observer discover a large class of men, who gladly turn to their advantage the vices of others? Who would sell to another the material of his ruin, but for the profit of it. It is said, indeed, that it is an equitable bargain; that on each side there is so much given and so much received, forming a true and satisfactory balance. One party receives his lucre, and the other his poison, and both are content. But suppose a man calls on you for a half gill of aqua-fortis to drink, under the insane but honest impression that it will do him good; and offers you the fair market price for it; and you sell it to him. Is it, think ye, in the eye of God, an equitable bargain? Our standard, be it remembered, is not human law, but divine. And according to this standard, in other words, in the sight of God, is it an equitable bargain? Is the article, so used, of any value to the purchaser. Does he not pay you for that which is infinitely worse than worthless, when applied to such purposes? And if you should engage in the business of such traffic, would you not, in addition to all other guilt, the guilt especially of being accessory to another man’s self-destruction, which comes under the prohibition of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” would you not be guilty of taking from him that for which you return no proper equivalent—nothing but misery and death;–and so come, to say the least, fearfully near the confines both of murder and robbery? True the purchaser imagines he receives and equivalent; but you know he does not. He consents freely to be imposed on and deluded; but you know it is a delusion. Is it, then, as viewed by a God of justice, a sufficient vindication? Can the imagination of a man whose vices have made him, on this one point, insane, and who under this insanity, offers you a purse of gold for a few gallons of deadly poison, can his imagination constitute the traffic honest, in which you are engaged? What is it but turning to your advantage the hallucinations of vice, and taking from a fellow man, with his consent, under a delusion, it is true, that money which enriches you, but is paid back to him in no equivalent—nothing but disease and death, both of the body and the soul! And this is palpably condemned by the obvious principles of the Divine Law.
The law, which in terms forbids Slander,—“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” may be considered, like all others in the Decalogue, as embracing in its prohibition a large class of sins, but aimed specifically at the highest of the class. In a direct, liberal application, it seems to forbid slander only. But interpreted more generally, yet in perfect accordance with acknowledged principles of interpretation, it will be found to prohibit falsehood of perhaps every conceivable kind. A very large proportion, certainly,—indeed I believe it correct to say, the whole, of the falsehood which is uttered, tends in some way or other to the injury of our fellow men. It may not be aimed directly against their character: yet it may be equally against their happiness. If a man deceives in trade, or by falsifying a promise, or in any other of a thousand ways which might be mentioned, he violates the spirit of this law, quite as much, it may be, as if he sought to injure his neighbor’s reputation.
Write, then, this law on every door-post; inscribe it on the inner walls of every dwelling; and let it stand emblazoned in every place where men congregate for business or pleasure;—and as each breath of slander or injurious falsehood passes over it, let it send back a power that shall silence the tongue of the offender;—and my hearers, how much worse than wasted breath would be saved; how much more quiet would be the public haunts of men, and how much less loquacious, allow me to speak it, would often be the private coteries of women!
Should we extend this prohibition so as to embrace all the varieties of falsehood, what a vast amount of guilt should we find in every community and neighborhood! Even if it was in his haste only, that David exclaimed—“All men are liars”—we are compelled by a deliberate survey, to admit that few are entirely innocent of the transgression. It cannot be concealed that there is much of practical, if not of literal, verbal lying in almost every branch of the intercourse which man carries on with man. It abounds in the commercial, and, if possible, still more in the political world. It has well nigh come to this in our country, that a politician who, on all occasions, boldly speaks the truth and acts the truth, must be set down as scarcely better than a driveller. The cunning, necessary for political promotion and glory, is little else than consummate skill in violating the ninth Commandment. And when that skill is possessed by any individual, who has talents enough to enlist in his favor more than one half the tongues and presses of the people in the same unholy art—his success is sure.
Let me not be misunderstood. I speak not in accusation of a party, but rather in rebuke of a sin, which is too extensively characteristic of the people. To whatever political party we look, and to whatever sphere of action, we find sufficient evidence of the prevalence of this sin, to cover us with shame and confusion.
But once more: The Law of God finally forbids all Covetousness. This is a disposition of the heart, an internal principle of action, a root from which springs no inconsiderable proportion of the vices and crimes most common in the world.1 To give a brief and summary definition of it, it is an inordinate desire of natural, worldly good—of that good or that measure of good, real or imaginary, which it is not proper that we should possess, either because it belongs to another, or would be injurious to us. It seems to have been originally, and to be still, the first principle of evil, the elementary germ of sin in the heart. Most wisely, then, does the holy Decalogue close with this prohibition. The axe, in its final blow, is here laid at the root of the tree; and were this law obeyed, the whole aspect of the sinful world would be changed. Avarice would no longer grind the face of the poor, and hoard its ungodly grains. Ambition would no longer aspire at power, and trample on the rights of men. Sensuality would no longer spread snares for the unwary and riot in polluted pleasures. Pride would give place to humility, and vanity to meekness. Envy would be exchanged for sympathetic joy; and anger, malice, and revenge, for pity, grief, and love. We should be greeted with the smile of contentment and the song of gratitude, instead of the lowering brow of care and the bitter plaint of repining. And in all habitations and along all the walks of men, we should breathe the balmy atmosphere of cheerfulness and peace.
But, alas, what a contrast to this, does the actual condition of the world around us present! What is it, I might almost inquire, that puts every wheel in society in motion,–that keeps all its active elements astir,—but some form or other of Covetousness, an inordinate desire of worldly good? How much of this is embodied in the enterprising schemes of speculators and merchants! How much of it enters into the patriotism of the statesman and the fervid eloquence of the orator! How much of it is couched under that zeal for the public good, so loudly professed by partisan sycophants and aspiring demagogues! Subtract this principle with its kindred adjuncts from the motives which stir and govern the world,—substituting nothing else in its place,—and almost the whole machinery of life would stand still. Here and there would remain a spring still operating, of a temper and elasticity drawn from above; but with this exception, it would be like destroying the principle of gravitation in nature, causing every orb in the firmament to stop in its course. It is covetousness, too often, that, with the help of winds and waves, wafts our Commerce over every stormy sea, and to every sickly shore. It is Covetousness, too often, that smiles at the counter and presides over the day-book of the tradesman. It is Covetousness, too often, that urges on the march of improvement in husbandry and the arts, clothing the earth with richer harvests, and making the most ungovernable elements subserve the convenience and comfort of men. It is Covetousness, too often, that drowns the noise of our water courses with the din of machinery, and causes our villages to resound with the hum of business. It is Covetousness, too often, that distils in the honey of flattery or the gall of invective from the Editor’s pen, and throws off the sheets of political cant from a hireling press. It is Covetousness, always, that oils the lying lips of the cheat; and gives dexterity to the hand of the gamester; and emboldens the thief on his nightly errand; and nerves the assassin’s arm for its deed of death; and feeds the fires of the distillery, and pours off, and transports, and distributes its sublimated poison. It is Covetousness, always, that sits snug in its abundance, closing its ear against the cry from Zion’s wastes at home, and the habitations of cruelty abroad; that prompts the perjurer’s oath, and by the aid of law filches the bread of the widow and the fatherless; and sends forth the adulterer at midnight, and fills peaceful homes with shame, infamy, and wretchedness; and rivets the chains of Slavery; and presses the foot of despotism on the neck of nations; and deluges empires with blood.
Such is Covetousness,—so powerful as a principle, so subtle, so diffusive, so universal in its operation. It finds its way into almost every channel of human feeling and action, sometimes mingling itself with better principles, frequently producing valuable results, but always corrupting and degrading the soul.
And what a dark picture must this be to the eye of a holy God! The law has gone forth from his mouth,—Thou shalt not covet; and as he looks down to see if there be any that do understand and obey, and with the exception of here and there a bright spot partially redeemed from the common waste, beholds the whole world alive and busy with the workings of Covetousness, must not his displeasure be enkindled, as it was against Israel, when he said, “For the iniquity of his Covetousness was I wroth, and smote him!”
Perhaps in no country, certainly in no Christian country, is this sin more prevalent and more pernicious in its influence, than our own. The facilities thrown here in every man’s way, for the attainment of wealth, honor, and power, tend directly to cultivate this passion, and give it a disastrous supremacy over the mind. They have undeniably had this effect; and Covetousness is one of our crying, national sins.
Thus have we taken a rapid survey of the condition of the world, as it appears in contrast with the Law of God. And surely every step of our progress, every discovery we have made, has furnished fresh matter of sorrow—fresh occasion for humiliation and fervent prayer for forgiveness before the Lord. We might have paused, at different points in our progress, to notice what lights there are, in connection with the shades of the picture; but the shades, deep, heavy, and almost unrelieved, form the appropriate object of our attention to-day. The first Table of the Law, prescribing summarily the duties which we owe to God; and the second Table also, prescribing in the same summary manner the duties which we owe to man,—both the more forcibly enjoined for the use of the negative and prohibitory form,—we have seen to be transgressed, to a deplorable extent, among all classes of mankind. Except by a remnant, God is not worshipped in spirit and in truth; his reverend name is blasphemed; and his Sabbath violated by multitudes. Parents are dishonored, it is feared, to an increasing extent; life is often wantonly sacrificed; adultery, in its protean form and fair disguise, steals abroad through the community; virtual fraud often marks the commercial transactions, of men; slander and falsehood are so common as to have become almost a necessary art; and Covetousness is the mighty spring of action and enterprise throughout our busy world.
This picture is not too darkly drawn. The pencil has been dipped in no deeper colors than those employed by the pencil of inspiration; nor than those which an eye that has gazed on Sinai’s brightness, discovers in the present state and character of mankind. There is no view which can be taken of men and their doings, so mournful and mortifying, as that which presents them in full-drawn contrast with the Divine Law. While we honestly endeavor to form a true estimate of the character of men, holding in one hand the Tables of the Decalogue, radiating light from every line, and unrolling with the other the dark moral map of the world, we are constrained to say, “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from the precepts and from the judgments of our God. O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, because we have sinned against thee.” Such a view, as far as time allowed, I have labored to set fully and faithfully before you. Let your minds dwell upon it, my hearers, while in your closets, you bow down at the Mercy Seat, humbly confessing your guilt and earnestly imploring pardon. Let a sense of guilt,—of guilt personal—for are we not personally involved in the prevailing iniquities?—of guilt national—for we as a people have grievously transgressed,—rest on every heart, till with sincere penitence and earnest longings for mercy, you can pray, “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord hearken and do; defer not, for thine own sake, O my God.” “Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger towards us to cease.”
But, my hearers, if the view which we have taken, should be productive of nothing more than mortification and sorrow, our labor will have been in vain. Let it be a godly sorrow, working repentance, that ye may receive damage by us in nothing. Send up not only your importunate supplications for forgiveness, but like Israel, when they returned from their backsliding, enter into a covenant to seek the Lord God with all the heart and, like Jehoshaphat, when he not only sought the God of his fathers, but walked in his commandments.
Ye who love Zion, the design of this day calls you to double your diligence, watchfulness, and fidelity. Let the multitude of your thoughts within you, prompt the individual inquiry—“Lord what wilt thou have me to do?” “What can I do to stay this mighty tide of iniquity!” Let all on whose hearts the Divine Law has been inscribed anew, array themselves close and strong against those sins which abound in the land, and with untiring perseverance and with all the power of example, influence, and prayer, labor to suppress them.
Let the young also set their faces as a flint against them. To you, under God, is soon to be committed, all that remains of the hope of our country. Fall in carelessly with the prevailing tide of sin, and the last rays of that hope are extinguished. Take for your guide the eternal laws of Heaven, and better omens will yet cheer us; the clouds will pass away from the sky; and our sun, now threatening to fall from his mid-day height, will still rejoice, as a strong man, to run his race of glory.
Finally; God calls upon you all, to day, my hearers, to array yourselves under the banner and in support of his righteous Law; relying on his strength, to plant yourselves in eternal opposition to sin, wherever and in whatever form it exists; and to toil on, year after year, in the conflict, till, at least in your own heart, the victory shall be complete. This is the day to commence the work. For to keep a Fast acceptable unto God, is not merely for a man “to afflict his soul, and bow down his head as a bulrush, and spread sackcloth and ashes under him.—But, to loose the bands of wickedness”—(whether they bind your own souls, my hearers, or the souls of other men;) to undo the heavy burdens; to set the oppressed free; and to break every yoke; to deal thy bread to the hungry; to bring the poor that are cast out to thy house;”—in short, to act under the constant impulse of a spirit of heavenly benevolence, irrevocably pledged to a war against sin, to the defense of right, to the relief of woe. “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee; and the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.”
1 “In this disposition seem naturally to be involved, Ambition, Avarice, and Voluptuous wishes for its attainment [the attainment of the good sought]; and out of it to spring as consequences, Pride, Vanity, and criminal Sensuality, in its enjoyment; Envy towards those who possess more of it than ourselves; Anger and Malice towards those who hinder us from acquiring it: Revenge towards those who have deprived us of it; Falsehood as the means of achieving and securing it; Forgetfulness and therefore Ingratitude with respect to such as give it; and Impiety, and consequent Rebellion, Repining, and Profaneness towards Him from whom we receive less of it, than our unreasonable wishes demand.” Dwight’s Ser. 129.(Return)