Charles Lowell (1782-1861) graduated from Harvard in 1800. He studied law for a time but decided to enter the ministry. Lowell preached at the West Unitarian Church in Boston from 1806 through his death. This sermon was preached in 1812 at the Massachusetts state prison.
PREACHED AT THE
November 29th, 1812.
BY CHARLES LOWELL,
Minister of the West Church in Boston
This Sermon was necessarily composed in much haste. In committing it to the press, the author has yielded to the wishes of friends, whose judgment he respects, and who thought the publication of it might be useful. The intelligent reader, recollecting the occasion and circumstances, will not be surprised at its plainness and simplicity.
Romans, ii. 4.
The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.
In addressing an audience like the one which is now before me, it may, at first view, appear extraordinary that, of all the attributes of God, I should select his goodness for the theme of my discourse. Deprived of that liberty, which is usually considered as the most precious birthright of man; prohibited, in a great measure, that social intercourse, to which the instincts of our nature forcibly impel us; and destitute of those domestic enjoyments which, next to religion, give the sweetest relish to human life, it may seem as if you, my friends, have but little reason to meditate on the goodness of God. His justice, indeed, has appeared to overtake you, and, in exhorting you to repentance, you might think it proper for me to dwell on the further infliction of that justice, if you continue impenitent. But where have been the proofs of his goodness, and what motives can be drawn from thence for penitential sorrow?
Listen to me, my hearers, with serious attention, and I will endeavour, in plain and simple language, to shew you that God has indeed been good to you, and that the recollection of this goodness ought to lead you to repentance.
In common with those of your fellow creatures whose situation is apparently more favourable than yours, you have received the gift of life. Life is in itself a blessing, and if rightly improved, is a source of much happiness. If you have not improved the blessing as you ought, if you have rendered life a source of unhappiness and misery, it is your own fault, and not the fault of God. It was good in him to bestow life, and in bestowing it, it was his design to confer happiness.
In common with others of your fellow creatures, you have received the gift of reason. This raised you above the brutes of the field, rendered you capable of acquiring knowledge and virtue, of holding intercourse with your fellow creatures, and of enjoying felicity both here and hereafter. If you have abused and perverted this gift, it is your own fault, and not the fault of God. It was good in him to bestow reason, and in bestowing it, it was his design to promote your happiness.
In common with other, you have received the gift of conscience, to deter you from sin, or to admonish you of guilt. If this faithful monitor has been disregarded, and its reproaches stifled, it is your own fault, and not the fault of God. It was good in him to bestow this gift, and it was his design that it should prompt you to virtue and happiness.
In common with others of your fellow creatures, you have been possessed of parents and friends. Your parents watched over you, and, under God, provided a supply for your wants, when you were unable to take care of yourselves; and many other of the friends whom God had given, have probably added to your comfort and enjoyment. Some of you have undoubtedly had parents and friends, who were anxious to bring you up in the fear of God, and thus to make you a blessing to yourselves and to society. If you have not been sensible of the value of these blessings, or heeded the advice or admonition you may have received, it is your own fault, and not the fault of God. It was good in him to bestow these blessings, and it was his design that they should promote your benefit and increase your happiness.
In common with some of your fellow creatures, you have been offered the gift of religion, of that religion which points out to you the path of duty and happiness here, and which promises you, if you accept of it, through the merits and mediation of Christ, the possession of perfect and everlasting enjoyment hereafter. If you have despised and rejected this gift, if you have turned a deaf ear to the voice of those who urged you to accept of the terms of salvation, it is your own fault, and not the fault of God. He was good, infinitely good, in offering you so great a blessing; and it was his design, that you should accept of it and be happy.
In thus enumerating the instances of God’s goodness towards you, my friends, I have necessarily confined myself to a general view of it. The particular circumstances of your past lives are best known to yourselves. You can, each of you, call up to mind numerous and essential benefits with which you have been favoured. The enjoyment of health, relief in seasons of distress, escape in times of danger, the favourable opportunities you may have possessed, however misimproved, for gaining knowledge and piety, or for success in the world by honest industry. All these things, and many more of which each of you must be conscious, are proofs, strong and affecting proofs, of the goodness of God.
And now let me ask you, let each one ask himself, what return he has made to God for so much goodness? Alas, my friends! The situation in which you are now placed, is a most sad and impressive reply. But, even here, even in your present circumstances, confined within the walls of this prison, you have reason to acknowledge and adore the goodness of God. Why were you not arrested in your career of iniquity by the hand of death, and hurried, with all your sins unrepented of, into the presence of an offended God? It was, because he would give you a longer space for repentance, not willing that you should perish, but that you should turn unto him and live.
Reflect, for a moment, how dreadful, how unspeakably dreadful would have been your condition, if, at the instant you were perpetrating the crime for which you were condemned to this place, you had been called, not to an earthly tribunal, but to the tribunal of the Almighty; of that Being who is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and who cannot look upon iniquity, but with the utmost abhorrence; of that Being, who is not only able to destroy the body, but can destroy both body and soul in hell.
Why, I may further ask, are you placed in a situation comparatively so comfortable, where you have the means of religious instruction and improvement, and where those who superintend the institution, are so anxious to lessen the evils of your lot, instead of being secluded in a dark and gloomy cell, or confined to a place where you would be destitute of the advantages you here enjoy? It is, because God is good to you.
Let me ask you again, what return have you made for all this goodness?
God gave you life, that you might glorify him, and promote your own welfare, and that of others. How unmindful have you been of the important ends for which life was bestowed upon you! Instead of devoting it to the service of God, have you not devoted it to the service of the enemy of God and man? Instead of promoting your own welfare, and that of others, have you not been pursuing a course destructive of your own welfare, and highly injurious to the welfare of your neighbor? Instead of a blessing, have you not been a pest to society?
God gave you reason, that you might know and love and adore him, that you might fulfill your duty in this world, and make preparation for a better world. How much have you abused and perverted this precious gift! It raised you above the level of the brute creation; have not many of you, by drowning it in intemperance and debauchery, often sunk yourselves far below their level? Instead of seeking to acquire a knowledge of God, have you not shewn by your conduct that you desired not the knowledge of his ways? Instead of glorifying God with the speech which he had given you, have you not often blasphemed his holy name and imprecated his vengeance upon yourselves and others? Instead of fulfilling your duty in the world, and devoting your powers and faculties to an useful purpose, have you not neglected your duty, and employed your powers and faculties in devising and executing plans of mischief and wickedness? Instead of preparing for heaven, have you not been pursuing the broad way that leadeth to destruction?
God gave you conscience to deter you from sin, or to excite you to repentance for it. Instead of heeding this faithful monitor, have you not stifled its reproaches, and some of you even seared it “as with a hot iron?”
God gave you parents to take care of you when you were unable to take care of yourselves, and friends to promote your comfort and happiness in life. How dreadfully have you requited those parents for their care of you, and how poorly have you fulfilled the claims of friendship!
Perhaps some of you have even abused the parents who gave you birth, have reviled them, have lifted up your unhallowed hands against them, or by your misconduct have brought down their heads in sorrow to the grave. This may have been the case with some of you whose parents not only gave you birth, and took care of your infancy and childhood, but endeavoured to teach you your duty to your God and your neighbor, that you might be respectable, useful and happy; who wept and prayed and labored for you. Oh, unfeeling, ungrateful men! Where was the vengeance of the Almighty that it did not forever silence the tongue that was uttering reproachful words of a father or a mother, that it did not wither the hand that was raised to smite a parent, that it did not at once arrest the guilty wretch in his mad career, and consign him to endless woe? How long-suffering, how compassionate is God!
Perhaps some of you have wronged the friends who trusted to your friendship and confided in your honour; or have corrupted and ruined them.
God offered you the gift of religion. He provided a way of salvation for you by Jesus Christ. He sent his son into the world to die that you might live; the just for the unjust that he might bring sinners to God. Have you not despised the gift? Have you not been unmindful of the sufferings and death of Christ on your behalf? Have you not turned a deaf ear to the invitations and warnings and threatening’s of God’s word? Have you not neglected the means and opportunities of religious instruction? Have you not followed the devices and desires of your own evil hearts, and been careless about the one thing needful, even the salvation of your immortal souls?
God has spared your lives, and given you a space for repentance in this place. How well you have requited this great and unmerited goodness, I cannot tell. But in the review of the goodness of God, and of your own ingratitude, disobedience and guilt, let me exhort you, let me earnestly exhort you, to deep and sincere repentance. I would fain hope that there are many of you who can be touched with a sense of the goodness of God, and with sorrow for having sinned against so much light, and so much love. This is the foundation on which repentance should be built. This is the repentance that will be most acceptable to God.
But if any of you are so hardened as to be unmoved by the recollection of the goodness of God, perhaps you may be affected by the view of his justice, which will assuredly be exercised upon you to the utmost, if you do not repent. An awful judgment day is at hand; it may come upon you unawares, and dreadful indeed will it be, if it find you unprepared for its arrival. Your portion will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Be persuaded then, be excited to repentance and prayer, to seek earnestly for the forgiveness of your sins, for an interest in your Saviour, for peace with God. Let the sincerity of your repentance be manifested by a meek and quiet spirit, by respectful obedience to those who have the rule over you, by an obliging and affectionate conduct towards each other, and by a diligent performance of the work assigned you.
Many of you are here but for a limited period, and some of you are perhaps soon to return again to that world, which was the scene of your temptations and your guilt. Let me beseech you to endeavour to carry with you such principles and habits, as will enable you to redeem the time you have lost, and to compensate to society the injury you have done it. Perhaps you have parents still living, prepare to be a comfort to them in their old age, to sustain their feeble hands, to support their faltering footsteps, and to smooth their passage to the grave. Perhaps you have a wife, tender and affectionate, prepare to make her happy by a life of sobriety and virtue. Perhaps you have children, whom by your example, if not by your precepts, you may have been training up to vice and misery. Prepare to be yet a blessing to them, and to teach them by your future conduct, that having tasted the fruits of sin, you have found them indeed bitter. Thus you will be respectable and happy. You will regain the affection and esteem you may have forfeited, and retrieve the character you have lost.
Let those of you who are destined to finish their earthly course within these walls, endeavour to acquiesce in their lot, as the appointment of a wise and righteous Providence. Be thankful, my friends, that you have so many comforts, and especially, that you have the means of spiritual improvement. Use these means with diligence, I entreat you. Be earnest in your prayers, and sincere in your repentance, and you may then hope, through divine mercy, when the term of your probation is ended, to exchange a state of bondage and imprisonment, for the glorious liberty of the sons of God.
The most painful and arduous task I have yet to fulfill, in addressing you, my unhappy brethren, who by the sentence of the law are condemned to die. 1
How awful, how exceedingly awful is the situation in which you are placed. But a few short days will pass away, before you, who are now in health and in the vigour of life, will suffer an ignominious death, and appear at the judgment seat of God. How shall I address you? What words shall I use to impress you with a true sense of your condition, and of the importance of devoting the few remaining days of your life to diligent, to unwearied preparation for eternity?
You have heard me discourse of the goodness of God, and you have a witness in yourselves, that he has been good to you; that you are allowed this space for repentance, and that the officer, 2 to whose charge you have been committed, is so attentive to your spiritual, as well as temporal welfare, is a strong, but unmerited, proof of divine goodness. Do not, I conjure you, do not cast away from you the privileges you now enjoy!
How great, how aggravated have been your offences, against the clearest light; against the dictates of your reason; against the admonitions of your consciences; against the warnings of your parents; against the laws of society of which you could not be ignorant; against the suggestions of the Spirit, and the invitations and threatening’s of the word of God; against love unparalleled, mercy unbounded;
Let the goodness of God lead you to repentance. You have a little space left to you; fill it up with duty. Does any thing burden your consciences? Relieve yourselves from the burden. Can you repair any injury you have done to a fellow-creature by confession and acknowledgment? Do it. You are bound by all your hopes of happiness hereafter to do it. Have you kept back anything, that you have been exhorted to reveal? Do so no longer; you cannot deceive God, and in his presence you will soon appear.
My friends, this is the last time that I shall address you in this public manner. Soon, very soon, the curtain of eternity will hide you from my view; and the execution of the awful sentence of the law will deprive you, forever, of the means of instruction, will place you beyond the reach of any warning voice. I feel the solemn, the unspeakable importance of my situation. Oh, that I could be instrumental in exciting or encouraging repentance! Oh, that I could be instrumental in bringing you to your Saviour and your God! Turn ye to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope! The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin. Pray, earnestly pray, that you may be cleansed in that blood, and that you may secure an inheritance above, before it is forever too late. Let me again and again, entreat you, by the goodness of God, by the tender mercies of your Saviour, by the convictions of your own consciences, and by the prospect of a judgment to come, to seize this moment, which is given you for repentance.
Farewell—a long farewell.—Go to your cells again, and in that solemn retirement, where God only is present with you, meditate on what has now been said.
May God of his infinite mercy, carry it home to your hearts, and to the hearts of each one of us. And at last, when our course of duty and of discipline on earth is ended, may we all meet again in heaven, to celebrate, forever, the goodness of God, and the wonders of redeeming love!—Amen.
2 The Marshal of the Massachusetts District, who has been unwearied in his humane attentions to these miserable men, and anxious that they should have, to the utmost, the benefit of religious instruction.