Alexander Hamilton Vinton (1807-1881) graduated from Yale in 1828 and from a theological seminary in 1835. He was pastor of congregations in: Portland (1835-1836), Providence (1836-1842), Boston (1842-1858, 1869-1877), Philadelphia (1858-1861), and New York (1861-1869). Vinton preached the following Thanksgiving sermon in New York on November 27, 1862.
November 27th, 1862,
Rev. Alexander H. Vinton, D.D.,
Rector of St. Mark’s Church, New York.
To the Rev. Alexander H. Vinton, D.D.:
Dear Sir: At the close of the services in St. Mark’s Church, this day, there was a general expression of wish that the sermon there delivered by you should be printed.
Sympathizing entirely and earnestly in that wish of your congregation, in our own and in their behalf, we beg permission to have it published.
With cordial and affectionate respect,
J. R. Hebrick,
S. A. Dean,
John A. Iselin,
Lewis M. Rutherford,
Meigs D. Benjamin,
Wm. H. Scott,
E. B. Wesley,
E. S. Chanler,
P. C. Shuyler,
H. B. Renwick,
Thos. M. Beare,
Alfred H. Easton,
To The Hon. Hamilton Fish, and Others:
Gentlemen: I thank you very sincerely for the kind feeling that prompts your request for the publication of my sermon on Thanksgiving Day, and cheerfully submit it to your disposal.
Alexander H. Vinton.
St. Mark’s Rectory, Dec. 1st, 1862.
“Thus saith the Lord God, Remove the diadem, and take off the crown: this shall not be the same: exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high. I will overturn, overturn it: and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and it shall be given to him.”
Zedekiah was one of a series of kings who had profaned the sacred royalty of Israel, and God was about to terminate not only his reign but his dynasty. The crown and the diadem were both to be taken away from Jerusalem, that is, the kingly and priestly powers were to be superseded by the rule of a foreigner and a pagan. Nebuchadnezzar was to be their future lord, and Babylon their royal city. Not that his reign should be lasting or his power perpetual; for there was an ancient covenant of God, that of the fruit of David’s loins should come forth a king who should reign forever.
In this grand revolution of Israel God was only preparing the way for his Messiah, and not by this revolution alone, but others that should follow the track and tread on the heels of this. The Babylonian dominion was to be followed by the Persian; the Persian by the Grecian, and that again by the Roman; and then should come the splendor and power of God’s royal Christ. “I will overturn, overturn, overturn it: and it shall be no more until he come whose right it is; and it shall be given to him.”
This very lesson was taught to Nebuchadnezzar himself, for in the remarkable vision interpreted by Daniel he saw a great image composed of various metals, of which Babylon was the golden head, representing three great revolutions of empire, and after these one grander still, in which a stone, cut without hands from the mountain, should break in pieces all other dominion, and should stand forever. This was the divine regency of Christ. Thus it is, that temporal events help on divine plans. Thus in the mind of God political and religious ideas lie side by side. The nation and the Church are coordinate forces in effecting the divine covenant, and Jesus Christ is King of nations as he is King of saints. There are certain grand, fixed purposes of God which run straight through the order of the universe, from the beginning to the end. There is to them no past nor present nor future—that is, no finished facts can add proof to their certainty—no present force or lack of force can stop them from working out into life and actin before our very eyes; and no contingency or peradventure can, for an instant, bar their way to final completeness. Not that the Divine purposes drive on to their inexorable results alone, treading down nature and art and man, as if to show how superior God is to the world that he has made, and to the laws he assigned for it. It is just as true that man is in the world as that God is—man as he was made and is not yet unmade; in the image of God, with intelligence and a will—man a doer not less truly than God a doer. A Divinity moving sublimely in the world does not exclude humanity working actively, although he shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.
These Divine purposes running in parallel strands through the whole course of things, and fastened at each end, are the warp of the universe into which all its history is to be pictorially woven.
They are wound around the great axis of the world, and wrap up the coming centuries, fold beneath fold, and then as the cylinder revolves the warp is unrolled, and comes out to meet and supply the days and months and years and ages, and as it comes, man works into that steady warp his ever-shifting woof. He tosses his busy shuttle back and forth between the strands, with bound and rebound, day and night, with many-colored threads and many-patterned forms, until the straight, strong warp-threads are covered up and hidden, and the whole product seems to be made by man alone. He has worked his mind and passions and will into it so compactly, that history is made up of the freaks of his fancy—the whims of his willfulness, the orderly shapes of his intelligence in business, literature or government; and colored throughout with the complexions of his loves and hates; silvery and golden for his better affections, burning crimson for his lusts, and deadly purple for his antipathies and loathings. So that all history seems man-made. Yet it is not so. This is only the filling and the woof. God’s purposes are still the foundation and the warp. Let any bold hand attempt to thwart these purposes, to traverse the course of Providence, to tear the fabric of events across the fibre, and the man learns a lesson of profitable modesty. He may seem to force a hole in the texture, but the rent will run with the warp, and it is only man’s work that is broken across, not God’s. So much we are taught by universal experience as well as Revelation, while Revelation adds another truth that experience is not yet ripe or universal enough to learn of itself; that is, that God’s purposes in the world have ultimate reference to the glory of his mediatorial Son.
We gather glimpses of this grand truth as we study the history of the world, with Revelation for its key. History loses it profaneness as interpreted by the Bible, and we can recall events and their surroundings which were procured by man acting out his own voluntariness so completely, that nothing but his own personal self is projected on the scene, and yet just these events and just these surroundings made the necessary crisis which manifested the Christ. Could the Savior have been born before the fullness of the time decreed? And what constituted the time’s fullness and fitness? Was it not a universal, earthly monarchy and a universal language? And whence came that monarchy but from human ambition or the universal language, but from commerce, curiosity, luxury, taste, all human purely, and of the earth? Man working in the dark to bring God out into light.
So when the Savior had lived out his human term, the Divine plan that required that he should die contemplated likewise the method no less than the end. The purpose must have its complement in the means. The Christ must have a Judas and a Pilate, or else the world’s salvation were forfeit. Yet were there ever two examples of pure voluntariness and independent action more signal than theirs? Judas plotting, hesitating, chaffering, betraying and repenting; Pilate arguing, excusing, deprecating, yet yielding and condemning, are the very impersonations of free will and voluntary accountability. So do the destroying deeds of devils illustrate the salvation of Christ.
We need not linger on history any longer to establish the principle, as a fast truth of the world, that God overrules the changes of the times, in order to bring out the peculiar glory of his anointed Son—but for our present use, let us look at in its prospective bearings.
Our text is not yet fulfilled. There still are, and shall be, overturnings, overturnings, overturnings among men, of which the presiding purpose shall be all divine and Christly. They shall, each and all, tend to bring out his kingdom into riper development. I say riper development. I say riper development, for all the influences of that kingdom are not yet fruited. The power of the Gospel is a thing of growth and succession. It was necessary to graft it on human nature in separate coins, coming into bearing at different periods. The earliest ages of the Church learned mainly the devotional and pious element of the Gospel, while it is only in its later periods that its ethical influence has burst into growth. The first and great commandment was accepted first, and it sprang forth in the luxuriant godliness which makes the early Church seem so freshly holy through all the ages. But Christians were slower in accepting the second cardinal law of Christ’s kingdom, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Their godliness is not yet thoroughly mated with charity, and this life-principle of Christian ethics yet seeks a nobler and wider development. When this shall have become universal—when godliness and charity, twin sisters of a divine birth, shall walk hand in hand through the world, welcomed and adorned alike with royal honors from men’s willing hearts, then will begin the hallelujah period of the Church; for the kingdoms of the world will have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. Christ’s reign will be unhindered in any one of its declared purposes; deliverance to the captive, the opening of the prison doors to them that are bound, eyesight to the blind, and the healing of all broken hearts. The grand rule of mutual conduct among men will be, “to do to others as we would they should do to us.” The world will need no other redress for its disqualifications and wretchedness. God can claim no worthier tribute for his Son than a world of men changed divinely into an equal and loving brotherhood.
In the changes of the world, then, we are to look for the steady advance of those great principles which grow from the Gospel of Christ, and which Christ’s reign was intended to illustrate. And those principles are, as we have seen, the establishing of human rights and the improvement of the human condition, morally, socially, politically; the awarding to each man his prerogatives as a child of the Heavenly Parent; the loosing of every bond but those of rational and moral obligation; the breaking of all subjection but that voluntary allegiance to law, which is the sublimest act of human independence, and the crown of humanity. This is the liberty wherewith Christ makes all men free. And to this the progress of religion and the revolutions of the times infallibly tend. For not only does our practical Christianity take the form of philanthropy more than ever, in its missions, its hospitals, its asylums; its care for the body, as well as the soul; its remedies for social evils, as well as spiritual; but every civil change of our times looks toward the enlargement and elevation of humanity. Even the first French Revolution, which reversed the proverb that “Satan is clothed as an angel of light,” and was, instead, a celestial idea, mantled with hellish horrors; which wrote its edicts with daggers, drawn and dripping from human hearts; even the mighty overturn left not itself without extenuation, in the thoughts which it set adrift in the world, that stirred the world’s mind to grand and solemn issues.
That sublime idea lived on, when the revolution was past; lived on, when the horrors had subsided into the pit again and the blood stains were faded out; still lives on, in the Christian sentiment of brotherhood, and will live till Christ comes again, and live forever, proving itself celestial by its immortality.
So in the more recent changes of the times. See it in Italy—poor Italy, as we used to think—the cemetery of national character, where you moved among memorials of dead beauty and grandeur, and trod on relics of glory at every step; where the living humanity seemed tapered down to a point, without any pith or fibre, but only soft succulence; where men’s souls seemed shriveled into absorption by the pressure of despotism, civil and spiritual—Italy, glorious Italy now, has been overturned, overturned, overturned. The graves are opened. The manhood that was buried there is awake again, in the strength and beauty of the resurrection. We have stood amazed at the suddenness and completeness of the change, in which despot after despot fled away, in a terror that was ready to call on the mountains to fall upon them and the hills to cover them; while the people possessed themselves of freedom and empire, as calmly as if the right had never been contested nor the possession broken for a moment. What a splendid demonstration it is of man’s capacity for self-government is freedom; and what a long leap of progress our race has taken in the emancipation of Italy! Will any man say that this overturn is not of God, for the speedier manifestation of Christ? We know, indeed, the human agencies that worked the work. We know how French policy, and Austrian fear, and Papal bigotry, and Neapolitan meanness helped on the result, drawing or driving the enslaved people into revolution and independence. We know that not every cause and motive was divine and Christly, but, in part, basely human. Yet the result, how worthy of divinity and of Christ! A free people, a free government, a free Gospel, is not this the liberty of Christ, social, civil and religious?
And when the work goes on to completeness; when, as in the case of Jerusalem, God shall take away not only the crown of despotism, but the diadem too; when king and priest shall tyrannize no more; when he who wears both crown and diadem, claiming to be both temporal and spiritual sovereign of the earth, shall be superseded; when the clay and iron feet of Nebuchadnezzar’s image, which represents the Papal dominion, shall crumble away, and Rome, no longer “lone mother of dead empires,” shall be the royal city of an evangelized Italy, will not all this fresh freedom of soul and body, deliverance to the captive, sight to the blind, demonstrate the acceptable year of the Lord, and prove that Christ is come, whose right it is?
See how the overturn in Russia tends toward the same issue. The serf is a slave no longer, but one with a recognized manhood in him. The agency here was not the same as in Italy. There, freedom was the claim of the people; in Russia it was the gift of the despot. In the one, it came from within; in the other, from without. With one it was an inspiration; to the other a revelation. Yet the same divine spirit of beneficence wrought alike in both, aiming at the same triumph of Christ in the world. We have not, indeed, seen the issue of the measure in Russia, and there are signs that bode confusion. Yet we may safely be hopeful of the result; because the experiment runs in the line of God’s great purposes of love to the race. There is no idea so plastic and creative in its influence on character as the idea liberty; none so fertile of improvement, or that lifts a man so fertile of improvement, or that lifts a man so surely up to the level of his destiny. And I may add, that no social experiment was ever tried that has proved so harmless as the gift of freedom. I say the gift of freedom, because when freedom is quarreled for and battled for, it may sometimes carry its habit of fierceness too long. Born of cruelty and suckled with blood, its first strength may be savage. But let freedom be conferred as a Christian boon, in the spirit and temper of Christ, and there will always be found enough of that essential principle of humanity which responds to a felt divinity to insure for the experiment a grateful welcome, and therefore the perfect safety of gratitude. So far, then, from despairing for the freed serfs of Russia, let us look upon their emancipation as another streak of dawn, heralding the day of Christ.
And now your thoughts fly back from Europe, to brood on our own nest of troubles, hatching and to be hatched. “I will overturn, overturn, overturn it.” And is this God’s overturn, that is shaking our nation almost to pieces, reversing its order, buffeting its enterprise, confounding its ambition, drawing an extinguisher over its glory, and bringing in chaos and old night? Who dares to doubt it?
We know, indeed, but too well, the human agencies that have been busy in it. We can trace out the separate lines of causation which converged into the long, strong pull that almost laid the pillars of our temple flat; and we say, “but for this contingency, or that unprincipled act, the country would have been safe.” We say that, “but for Northern fanaticism, or Southern ambition, the one as restless and the other as craving as the sea, this mischief had not happened.” We saw the very match applied at Fort Sumter that exploded the Union. We charge the tedious train of our disasters upon plotting politicians, and upon imbecile or half-hearted generals; and almost every man thinks that he could right almost every wrong.
Was there ever a crisis in which so many human mismanagements and blunders were crowded together pell-mell? And does God ride on this tempest of confusion? Yes, brethren, and as the sovereign Christ. The times are in his hand, and he holds them for his Son. We did not doubt it once. We used to believe that we were his elect nation. We thought he had gathered here specimen men for all the peoples of the world to make one great nation of, which should stand forth as a model for the world—great because free, and prospering beyond precedent.
We published a manifesto to the world in our Declaration and Constitution, exhibiting the most perfect theory of government ever conceived, and we boasted that in practice it was as benign as it was wise and free. We challenged the admiration of the nations, and they gave us admiration not unmixed with envy; and we were proud of the admiration, and the envy too. Did he not hear our world-shout: “Is not this great Babylon, which we have builded for our glory?” And could we expect him to bear it? Could he bring his Christ upon such a proud nation as we? Could Christ reign here in the glorious beauty of his Gospel, while the national character was bloated into deformity with its self-consciousness and arrogance? Must not his scepter make itself felt in discipline before it could be felt in blessing? We sometimes hear it said, that God is visiting the nation for its sins. And the alleged sins are catalogued, and counted out in long and forbidding series. But many of these allegations are simply commonplace, others are simply absurd, and most of them are only the average sins of nations in all ages. Corruption belongs to courts; and bribery to Parliaments and Congresses; and peculation to offices of trust; and trickery to trade, all over the world. These sins of ours are not peculiar nor preeminent. But our discipline is both. We must, therefore, if we would be wise, seek for the provocation in some sin that is eminently American, and eminently bad. Find it our overweening and profane self-conceit. It is enough to move the displeasure of heaven, for it arrogates the supremacy which God has not abdicated; and he will not give his glory to another.
The old Jew gloried in his Jerusalem, and while he remembered that it was the holy city of his God; his patriotism was piety. But when he mixed in the large alloy of national pride and forgot the nation’s Jehovah, then God took away the crown and the diadem, and overturned, overturned, overturned it. There was a correspondency and a proportion in the case. The punishment bore the same complexion as the sin. So it is with us, and as everything too high topples to the inevitable fall, our towering pride has tumbled us into wreck. The probe has touched the peccant [offending] part. The discipline has struck the fault in its very face, and when the stagger and the blindness have passed off, perhaps we shall accept the lesson of humility as worthy of a thanksgiving. If we do, we are saved, and Christ’s reigning day will then shine upon us gloriously. Although we looked no further than this then, we might say: “It is God’s overturn, and for Christ’s sake.”
But we may look further and higher than this. Although we have been so accustomed to regard our political system as the one best adapted to the great end of human advancement, yet in this we may be in error. A great united people—a national entity, nearly covering a continent, and almost equivalent to a world in itself, is an imposing agency—one, we might almost think, indispensable, to Divine Providence itself; and so we hug the Union, as each man’s other and higher self. It is the object of our reverent love, next only to our religion. Around it our patriotism weaves all its entranced affections. It calls forth the dignified tribute of our self-devotion, even, if need be, to blood and life, and we gladly lay ourselves at its feet as a living sacrifice, and say: “My country, it is for thee.” Ennobling passion, lifting man out of his accidents, and shaking the dust form the wings of his soul, for a flight wider and nearer to heaven. The war has so nobly developed the power of our patriotism, that every man may breathe freer for the demonstration.
But how, if the national entity be broken to pieces—its unity dissolved? Where is our country then, and what becomes of the great human interests that we thought were garnered up in it, and nowhere else? My brethren, these great human interests are God’s and Christ’s, and God will take care of them, for his Son’s sake. Remember that there are no necessities to him but essential truth and right. He can to without us, and without the Union of the nation, but he cannot do without these great ends that the Union was meant to promote; the development of man into the highest freedom of soul and body. This end, no doubt, he will secure, for it is the purpose of the covenanted reign and glory of Christ to exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high; to open darkened eyes, and bid the oppressed go free. But in securing this end, he is fettered by no precedent, and tied to no measures.
He may demolish our republic, and with it its beautiful theory of freedom; and all because the republic has not been true to its theory. But the freedom he will accomplish, if not by our means, then by his own. Nay, we can see already, that whether our Union be maintained or not, that great result is virtually secured. However we may look upon the institution of slavery, from whatever standpoint; and whether our sympathies and affinities go out for the master or his bondman, it is impossible not to see that henceforward it cannot be such as it has been. That same Sumter gun was the morning signal of a new day in America for them that are bound. It is rising up from the horizon, hour by hour. You and I cannot help or hinder its career. Our Union or disunion cannot make or mar its glory now. It is too late. It is the inevitable sun of righteousness, with human healing in its beams. It may be dimmed by a passing cloud of mistaken policy or of disaster to our arms, and we may fail to mark its movement up the heavens. Yet it rises higher and higher, and when it culminates, its meridian light will shine right down upon an emancipated land; and in that mid-day light, there will not be one shadow; among the freemen not one bondman. This is the promised day of Christ’s reign, and if it takes a threefold overturning for its accomplishment, it will come to pass even as God has promised to his Son. Bless him today for this.
But this is future. Have we nothing to thank him for in the past? Yes, for the wonderful demonstration given by our people of their capacity for self-government. How rebellion has awakened a patriotism, whose very existence we doubted! How true has the loyalty of the people been even in its grand anger! How free the land has been from the lawlessness and violence of mobs! How the war has called out the benevolent affections of the people! How religion has been revived, even in camps, and the whole power of Christian zeal and sympathy been enlisted for the army, following the drum-beat with Bibles as well as bandages—with preachers, as well as physicians—nay, inspiring noble women, as well as noble men, with an equal heroism of self-devotion, until the whole people has learned the exalted lesson—may they never forget it—of living outside of themselves, and for others’ good! As we witness this, we may thank God that we have lived to see this; for it is worth living for. We may thank him that war in this land is not an unmitigated horror, and that human blood and wounds can beget the most beautiful forms of character, and nourish the angelic graces of our better life.
And then, since the glorious boon of a free government is dear to us, and since God himself has seemed to love and delight in it, we are by no means to despair of the republic. This danger may be designed to make it yet dearer, by proving its strength and sufficiency. This overturn may be in order to shake the republic into consistency and settle it more firmly on its foundations—to develop powers that have been dormant, and great principles that we have ignored in practice. We are fast learning the value and use of both, from the danger of losing everything besides.
We ought not to despond, moreover, for in this war the nation acts as a representative people—for all other peoples. She has assumed the championship of free principles for all mankind. We have given pledge, in time past, that our polity was adequate to all the emergencies of civil life. Other nations have followed our track with more or less of speed, but none have yet reached the encounter of such a crisis. And now they stand still and look on with various wish. Kings, nobles, castes, and every form of despotism, long for our discomfiture, for we battle against despotism, in its exquisite power; while the real manhood of the world—that huge multitude that makes the mass of human life, whose heart is the heart of humanity, and whom Christ came to lift up and to bless—they rejoice when we rejoice and weep when we mourn. Our struggle is life or death to them. Our defeat would seem to put back the clock of progress to that midnight-hour when its next stroke would be one, and the world would have to begin anew, and wait for the morning. With so much at stake, we must not despair, but peril everything, rather, for success. Our disasters may be God’s method of delay, to bring us more into felt dependence on him, and so more in harmony with his plans. Let every man, then, refresh his fealty by a new resolve to sustain the Government to the last, and let him sanctify this resolve by praying that God would not only retrieve the republic, but wreathe its exalted head with the crowning glory of Christ’s reign, in which pure freedom shall be the universal law of life.
But if in the overturnings of the times our admirable polity should, after all, be fatally dismembered, even then we may not cease to thank God for its happy past; to thank him for a history which has developed some of the brightest and noblest manhood in the world; to thank him for two generations of men to whom our republic was a blessing, and to thank him, finally, if it must fall, that such a republic was necessary to denote, even by its fall, the ripeness of the world for Christ’s full reign.
This, which would be matter of perpetual praise, may well be a theme for this day’s thanksgiving; and even if the grim ghost of dissolution shake its glory locks at us, and the gloom of thick-coming fears darken the day, we can still thank him for the overturning, as we pray, “let him reign whose right it is;” “thy kingdom come.” Amen.