This sermon was preached by Reverend William Harris in 1799 at the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church.
S E R M O N
B O S T O N,
PROTESTANT EPISCOPAL CHURCH
M A S S A C H U S E T T S,
On Tuesday the 28th of May, 1799.
By WILLIAM HARRIS,
RECTOR OF ST. MICHAEL’S CHURCH, MARBLEHEAD.
A Prayer compiled from the Liturgy of the Church,
Used before the Sermon.
ALMIGHTY GOD, the Giver of all good Gifts, who by thy divine providence hast appointed divers Orders in thy Church; Give thy grace, we humbly beseech thee, to all who are called to any Office and administration in the same; and so replenish them with the truth of thy doctrine, and endue them with innocency of life, that they may faithfully serve before thee, to the glory of thy great name, and the benefit of thy Holy Church—And humbly we beseech thee, most Gracious God, to bless those who are in authority over us. Direct and prosper all their consultations to the advancement of thy Glory, the good of thy Church, the safety, honor, and welfare of thy People; that all things may be so ordered and settled by their endeavours, upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety, may be established among us for all Generations—These and all other necessaries for them, for us, and thy whole Church, we humbly beg in the name and mediation of Jesus Christ our most Blessed LORD and SAVIOUR.
St. Matthew’s Gospel xxviii, 20th.
And lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the World.
THESE words were spoken by our Blessed Saviour, to comfort and encourage his Disciples just before He was taken from them into Heaven. He had previously assured them, that all power was committed to him, both in Heaven, and Earth, and he engaged to be with them even unto the end of the world. Amidst the many and great discouragements which the faithful Minister of Christ is sure to meet with, these words of his divine Master, cannot but afford him consolation and encouragement. It is not, I conceive, to be doubted, that the promise here made was to be extended, not only to the Apostles, but to their Successors and to every succeeding faithful Minister of Christ, “Lo I am with you always,” &c. That is, I am and will be with you and your Successors, I will strengthen you by my power and authority, I will encourage you by the blessing and assistance of my Holy Spirit, I will be with you to uphold my Ordinances, to protect, encourage and reward you, and all your Successors in the faithful discharge of your trust. This promise, my Brethren, has been most remarkably fulfilled. God has never at any period been wanting to this Church. He has often rescued it from impending ruin. He has raised up, successively, able defenders of it, and has carried them through the greatest troubles, distresses and persecutions. Even in the present degenerate age, he still upholds his faithful Ministers, and by his mighty power will continue so to do till the end of the world. He has engaged to defend them, not only against all the subtleties, the craft and cunning of evil and malicious Men, but even against the enmity and malice of Satan himself, so that the Gates of Hell shall never prevail against his Church.
This gracious promise of protection and support is, my Brethren, at the present day, a great encouragement to us in the faithful discharge of our duty. It is our lot to live in a degenerate age; an open and professed disregard to religion is become, through a variety of unhappy causes, the distinguishing character of the present times. And the evil, far from receiving any check or opposition, is fast increasing. When did Infidelity and the contempt of everything serious and sacred, when did strife and division, envy and malice, when did the profanation of God’s holy name and Sabbaths, and the utter contempt of all laws civil and sacred, so shamefully abound? Where is that sense of the divine presence, that regard to the divine Authority, that hope of the favour and approbation of Heaven, which once directed the views, and influenced the actions, of our pious Forefathers?
When did we ever stand in more need of the aid and support of religion; and when was there ever such wicked arts employed, secretly to undermine its foundation, to destroy its influence and weaken its hold on the publick mind?
How is our holy religion treated with every possible mark of ignominy and insult by the Scorner? How have they endeavoured to hold up its divine Author, his laws, his ordinances, his institutions, his Ministers and his Altars, to universal abhorrence and contempt?
How often do we hear them affirming that Christianity is only a cunningly devised fable, when it is in truth a Revelation from Heaven—a Revelation supported by such a body of evidence as is sufficient to convince every unprejudiced mind; by a long train of prophecies, most undeniably completed, “by the most astonishing and well attested “miracles, by the strongest internal marks of truth, by the purity of its precepts, the sublimity of its doctrines, the perfect and unspotted character of its divine Author, by an innumerable company of Confessors, Saints and Martyrs, who have sealed their testimony to it with their blood,” and lastly by its wonderful prevalence and success, against all the combined efforts, of the wit, malice and power, of men and Devils. If to these arguments of its truth, we add the visible good effects it has had in promoting the welfare, comfort and happiness of mankind, where shall we find a religion so worthy of our belief, so deserving of our veneration, gratitude and love.—A Religion so holy and so pure, we every day hear the Infidel proclaiming to be no other, than the contrivance of Statesmen and Priests to rule and deceive the people.
Would to God, the people could see the hearts of these their pretended friends—They would then no longer glory in that, which ought to be their shame, nor be ashamed of that, which ought to be their glory!
But Mankind, lest they should be thought over zealous, have not become indifferent to all religion. Hence the cause of the rapid progress of infidelity. Hence it is that a plan has been laid to subvert our holy religion. A Plan dark and subtle as the Agents who have been, and still are, employed in its execution. It has for its object, the renovation of Society—an entire alteration in the religious, moral and civil principles of Mankind.
As Religion is the basis of all order and virtue, it was necessary to accomplish their scheme, to make that, the first object of attack. They well knew that it would be in vain to attempt so thorough a change, while religion and the fear of God, had any hold upon the minds of men—but if they could only succeed in removing this principal obstacle; they conceived that their plan might be executed, not only without difficulty, but with the greatest ease and dispatch. Accordingly, they first begun by undermining the foundations of the Gospel. If some of them extolled one part of Christianity, it was in order to subvert the rest. If they approved of the moral precepts, they denied the miracles, and all the characteristic doctrines of the Gospel. It was their first object to reduce the Gospel simply to a moral system, and if we believe the Philosophers, or rather the Philosophists of the present age, we are under no more obligation to receive and practice the precepts of Christianity, than we are to receive and practice the rules contained in any other moral tract. Volney’s treatise of the Law of Nature, is with them of equal authority with the precepts of the Gospel. These were their first attempts, and it is greatly to be lamented, that they were so fortunate in their beginning—their success has encouraged them to proceed to greater lengths; and for many years they have been indefatigable in spreading their licentious and irreligious tenets. Societies have been established in almost every Christian Country, for the express purpose of disseminating their poisonous principles, and now it is evident, that the subversion of Christianity, is only a part, and the beginning of their diabolical plan. Their horrid designs, could not be accomplished, while any fear of God or dread of futurity existed in the minds of men. In order therefore, to extirpate every religious sentiment, and to introduce the true principles of modern infidelity, one of their Champions has entirely thrown off the mask, and without disguise speaks the sentiments, and discovers the principles of the whole sect. “We want (says he) no other sermon but the rights of man—no other doctrine but the constitutional precepts—no other Church than where the Section of the Club hold their meeting. Man when free wants no other Divinity than Himself. This God will not cost us a single farthing,–not a single tear—nor a drop of blood. Reason dethrones both the Kings of earth and the Kings of Heaven—no Monarchy above, if you wish to preserve a Republick below. Volumes have been written to determine whether a Republick of Atheists could exist. I maintain that every other Republick is a Chimera. If you admit the existence of a heavenly Sovereign, at that instant you introduce the wooden Horse within your walls, and your Republick is no more.” 1
These my Brethren, are the principles which the Philosophists of the present age, are so industrious in propagating. If they are successful in their endeavours, it needs little foresight to predict the consequences. It is an indisputable fact, that nine tenths of Mankind have been governed more or less by religious principle; take off this restraint—persuade the multitude that there is no future state—no God, to whom they are accountable, and you open a door to every kind of wickedness. The most horrid crimes would then be committed without shame or remorse. In vain would the rich have recourse to Bolts and Bars to secure their property, neither would they find any better security in the Laws of the Land; the unjust Steward in the parable, characterizes the great body of Mankind, if they fear not God, neither will they regard Man. “Human Laws, says an elegant writer, will be of little avail without a sense of divine Legislation, and the sanctions of Men have little force, unless they are supported by the Authority of God. Thus without religious principle, there would be no security for the public peace—the mutual confidence between man and man would be destroyed. The bond which keeps Society together would be broken—Oaths would become mere words of course, and an appeal to the great God of Heaven no more regarded, than if he were an Image of Stone. Human life would be thrown into the utmost confusion—the safety of Mankind would be endangered, and the moral World totter to its ruin, if such a Pillar as Religion were to fall. We ought, says Bourdaloue, to consider the principle of Religion in Individuals and Societies, as we do the first moving power of the Universe—this first moving power hath an influence so great, that is not only maintains all the Heavenly Bodies in their order and motion, but extends itself also to the bosom of the Earth, and is the cause of all the beauty, harmony and usefulness, of this lower would; were this first moving power, to suspend its operations, all nature must be destroyed; all must be trouble, confusion and ruin; so if you take away the principle of Religion from Individuals, especially from the leading Members of Society, you destroy all principle of obligation, you are no longer to look for charity, regularity or order among Individuals, or in human Societies; so true it is, that the tie which binds us as Brethren to each other, is our common obligation to God.
It is against this religious principle, the foundation of all order and happiness in Society, that the Infidels of the present age are contending. In France they have obtained a temporary victory, but not satisfied with that, they strive with unwearied industry, to obtain a similar triumph over morals and religion in every Country upon Earth. Nor will they be diverted from their purpose, unless their own pernicious principles should prove their destruction, until they have effected an entire change in the face of Society—all religion, morals and Government, shall fall before them, and Mankind will be brought back once more, to a state of ignorance, darkness and barbarity.
How justly has St. Paul, in his description of the Romans, delineated the Character of these modern Heathen. They were, says he, filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness full of envy, MURDER, debate, DECEIT, malignity, whisperers, backbiters, HATERS of GOD, DESPITEFUL, PROUD, BOASTERS, INVENTORS OF EVIL THINGS, disobedient to Parents, without understanding, COVENANT BREAKERS, WITHOUT NATURAL AFFECTION, IMPLACABLE, UNMERCIFUL. Such a race of MONSTERS, we could scarcely have believed that the Earth ever bore, were not the fact asserted by an Apostle; and did not the present day afford us an example of their equals, if not of their SUPERIORS, in every species of wickedness and vice.
In short the French have not only an Army of Veterans, but what is worse, and more dangerous to the World, a Satanic Host of Principles, and where the former cannot reach, they make their boast, that the latter will penetrate to accomplish their horrid work of Revolution, anarchy and ruin. To effect this, their Philosophers have been most wickedly industrious in printing and disseminating their licentious Pamphlets. In these publications they address the multitude, and in order the more effectually to dupe them, they bring down their reasoning to a level with their comprehensions. “The whole poison of Infidelity is compressed into the narrow compass of an essence, or an extract, to render irreligion easy to the meanest capacity. It was by such small tracts disseminated among the lower Orders in every part of France, that the People there were prepared for that most astonishing event, the public renunciation of the Christian Faith.” 2 From these artful snares of their Philosophers, we are more in their power, than they can accomplish by their Arms—here lies our greatest danger. It is their Army of Principles which we have to oppose—and he must be blind indeed, who does not see that the present contest, is a War of Principles—its baneful effects are not confined to the European Powers now at variance—but in every Country, it is a war of vice against virtue, of Infidelity against Religion—of the Savage and brutal part of Mankind, against the refined and civilized.
Against such Men, and such principles, it is the duty of every pious Pastor to guard and defend his Flock.—And, my Reverend Brethren, at this eventful period, how can we be silent, consistently, with the solemn engagements we have made? At the peril of our Souls we have undertaken the Office of the Ministry. As the Messengers, the Watchmen and Stewards of the Lord, it is our duty to teach and admonish, to use all faithful diligence to oppose every error, either in faith or practice, nor are we to cease our labour, our care or diligence, until we have done all that lieth in us, according to our bounden duty, to bring all that are committed to our charge, to a due faith and knowledge of God, to a ripeness and perfection in Christ, so that no place be left among us, either for error in Religion, or viciousness of life. 3
It is therefore our duty, and becomes an important part of our sacred trust, publickly to bear testimony against those impious and destructive principles; which have proved so ruinous in other Countries, and which, unless they are speedily and successfully opposed, will prove no less ruinous and destructive in our own.—And in order that we may oppose them with success, it should be our first and principal care, to revive a spirit of Religion and Virtue, both among Rulers and People.
It is truly an alarming symptom, when there prevails in any Country, a cold indifference towards Religion—A greater calamity cannot befall a Nation—The Pestilence, the Famine, and the Sword, are often commissioned by Heaven to waste and destroy a negligent and careless People.—After every other method has been tried to awaken them from their slumbers, here remains but one expedient: The divine Judgments will then be poured out, effectually to rouse them to a sense of their duty and danger. That this is true of us, that, as a Nation, we deeply partake of this Character, is too evident to require any proof, or admit of any doubt.—Indifference in matters of Religion, is become an epidemic, which few, if any, have escaped.
I know that the degeneracy of the times has been a common complaint in all ages; but nevertheless, some periods have been more sunk in dissoluteness and irreligion, than others,–never surely was there juster foundation for complaint than at the present day. The great prevalence of infidelity, the profligacy of multitudes—the utter neglect of their eternal interests—the shameful profanation of God’s holy Name and Sabbaths—the wonderful increase of false philosophy, together with an unbounded love of pleasure and dissipation—these, to say nothing of other things,–are truly characteristic of the present age, and exhibit a most distressing and discouraging prospect, to the sincere friends of Religion and Virtue.
At this alarming period, my Reverend Brethren, all our zeal, our utmost diligence, our most fervent prayers, together with the most exemplary patience, prudence, fortitude and compassion are required.—It concerns us to be more active and faithful, than ever we have been, in discharging the duties of our functions; and above all, to be careful, at all times and in all circumstances, to cause our light so to shine before men, that by our example, credit and honor may redound to the Holy Religion we profess, and to the sacred doctrines that we teach.
To revive a true spirit of piety and virtue among the People, much will undoubtedly depend on our exertions; for no class of Men, are capable of doing greater service, or greater prejudice, to the interests of Religion; but our endeavours however earnest, though we should redouble our care and diligence, will not be sufficient.—If we are left alone in the arduous task of reformation, to what purpose are our most zealous exertions? Would those who are in the higher stations of life, vouchsafe to add their countenance and example, it would be of the greatest efficacy, not only to revive our spirits, but also to enkindle a true spirit of piety and virtue, and to diffuse it through every class of men. Their example would soon bring the study and practice of Religion into repute. Acts of impiety and profaneness would then become matter of shame and reproach, in the eyes of men, as they always are in the sight of God.
And believe me, my hearers, at this alarming crisis, good men ought not to forsake their Ministers; it is a time when the united efforts of virtuous and religious Men of every description should be exerted, in order to oppose those pernicious principles which threaten, like a deluge, to overwhelm our Country, and to subvert the fair fabric of our Government, Laws, and Religion.—It is not now a question, whether this or that Church shall prevail; whether this or that mode of worship is best; but the question is, whether there shall be any Church—whether there shall be any such thing as Christianity? We have not now to contend with Christian Brethren who hold to the essentials of Religion, and differ from us only in points that are immaterial. But our contest is with the bold unbelieving Infidel, “who is against the Gospel, because the Gospel is against him.” We have those for our adversaries who will not be satisfied with correcting errors, and reforming abuses:–Nothing less than the total subversion, and utter extermination of Christianity can content them.
Let it not be said that these are idle conjectures, and vain apprehensions—that there is no danger—that we “fear where no fear is.” Other Nations have flattered themselves that they were equally secure, and never could be persuaded to suspect, that either their Religion or their liberties were in danger, till sudden desolation and destruction came upon them. Let their fate be a warning to us. We had better be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined, as they have been, by too confident a security.
It therefore becomes Christians of every rank and description to stand forth in defence of their holy faith, and to use their most zealous endeavours to enkindle, if possible, the almost “expiring lamp of Piety.”
To this end, let all who are in authority have the fear of God before their eyes, and the good of their Country at heart.—Let them remember that their success will depend not only on their political, but on their moral, and religious conduct, for except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain.—Let them no presume to leave the Supreme Governour of the World out of their Councils, neither form Plans independent of him and his Providence, lest he should blast all their councils, and defeat their most vigorous exertions.
Let the Ministers of Religion, by an exalted piety, and exemplary virtue, add dignity and efficacy to their religious instructions; carefully preserving themselves, not only from the guilt, but even from the suspicion, of impiety and wickedness.
Finally, Let all who are any ways distinguished either by their education, wealth, or wisdom, add the weight of their example, and manifest their regard for Religion, and their love of their Country, by a serious and constant attendance on Public Worship, and by becoming models of everything that is great and good.
If we are thus sincere in our exertions, the restitution of religious principle, and virtuous practice, will not be so difficult a task as is imagined. We may then confidently expect the aid of our divine Master, who has promised to be “with us even to the end of the world.”—While we value the Christian Religion according to its real worth—while we are prudently zealous for its honor, and strive to recommend it to the world by an exemplary piety and virtue, we have no reason to fear the loss of this best of blessings, but if we are careless and indifferent—if we can patiently hear its holy Author—its divine precepts and heavenly doctrines ridiculed, despised and trampled upon, then surely we are unworthy of so great a benefit, and shall have reason to fear that the kingdom of God will be taken from us, and given to those who will duly value and improve the inestimable gift.
But thanks be to God, we are not so degenerate a People, but that there may be found, even in this age of Infidelity and Indifference, some eminent examples of real piety and virtue.—We have still those among us “who are not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, and whose praise is not of Men only, but of God.” Who knows how far the influence of their example may extend. That it may become universal, is most devoutly to be wished. Then our holy Religion and invaluable privileges would be safe and secure. While we are with him, the Lord hath promised to be with us, and if He be for us, who can be against us. What though “the Heathen rage, and the People imagine a vain thing, He that sitteth in the Heavens shall laugh them to scorn.” If we have either secret or open enemies, their hearts are in his hand, their designs are always under his eye, and he can change them as he pleases. He can humble their pride—assuage their malice and confound their devices—He can prevent the mischief they contrive, or cause what they design for our destruction, to prove the means of our happiness and salvation—“He who stilleth the raging of the sea and the noise of his waves, an also at his pleasure restrain the madness of the People.”—The righteous Lord loveth righteousness, and to favour a righteous and religious nation, he will, should there be occasion, bring light out of darkness, good out of evil, and order out of confusion.
Wherefore, dearly beloved, let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering, since we are assured that he is faithful who hath promised to be with us always, even unto the end of the World.
May this gracious promise of Christ’s spiritual and perpetual presence with his Ministers excite us, my Brethren, to greater diligence, zeal and fervor in the cause of piety and virtue,–may we account no labour too great, no services too painful, and no sufferings too severe, so that we may finish our course with joy, and fulfill the rust committed to our charge. And since we all profess to believe in Christ; and are well assured that our faith is not founded on the cunningly devised fables of Men—since as Christians, we cannot but be interested in the honor of his Gospel, and are bound by the most sacred and solemn engagements to advance its reputation and success—since as protestant Episcopalians, we still hold fast to the form of sound words, and continue steadfastly in the Apostles doctrine and fellowship; Let us, therefore labour, more and more, that the “word of Christ like a fountain of living water may dwell richly in us in all wisdom, and flow liberally from us, in all holy conversation and Godliness.”
Now to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, the One Eternal and ever blessed GOD, be ascribed by us and by all Men, all possible adoration and praise, might, majesty and dominion, world without end.