« PreviousContinue »
and if that were taken away, they would work all impurity with greediness, whenever they could withdraw from the public eye. Human laws would often be of little avail, without a sense of divine legislation; and the sanctions ot men have little force, unless they were enforced by the authority of God. There would then be no security for the public peace: the mutual confidence l>etween 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 nomore regarded than if he were an image of stone. Human life would be thrown into confusion, the safety of mankind would be endangered, and the moral world totter to its ruin, if such a pillar were to fall. And what is it that maintains and spreads religious principles in the world? What is it that keeps alive on the minds of the people, the fear of God and the belief of his providence? It is the public institutions of religion; it is the observance of the Lord's day; it is our assembling together in this place, for the celebration of divine worship. The people, in general, have no religious principles, and no rule of life, Out what they learn here; and if these churches wera once shut up, the hand of the civil magistrate would soon force them open, in order to reclaim the criminals that would thus be let loose upon the world.
III. Let us view the effect of religious institutions upon men, with regard to their political state.
The political systems that lake place in the world, the facility with which the many are governed by the few, is one of the most wonderful things in the history of man. That mankind in all ages, and in all countries, should allow a few of their number to divide this globe among them; to appropriate to themselves the possessions, distinctions, and honours, and leave nothing to the majority but burdens to bear, if we had not beheld it from the first, would have appeared one of the most astonishing of all events. Would it be at all surprising to hear a man struck with a sense of this state of tilings complain thus:—" Is nature unequal in the care of her children? A mother to some, and a step-mother to others? Has she appointed me to labour iu the sweat of my brow, and another to riot in the fruit of my labours? No. The fault is not in nature. She has no favourite;. She gives to all her sons an equal right to inherit the earth. The fault is in them who. tamely bend their necks to the yoke, who kneel and kiss the rod which the haughty lord waves over their heads. It never surely was the will of heaven, that the worthy should be scorned by the vile, and the brave be trampled upon by the coward. Cannot I then find a band of men as valiant and as determined as myself, to rectify these caprices of fortune, to vindicate the rights of nature, and restore mankind to their original inheritance? By doing violence at first, this usurpation on nature was made; and by a similar violence, nature requires that her reign be restored." What is it that prevents such a spirit as I have been now describing, from frequently breaking out? What prevents bloodshed and devastation, and all the evils of war? What prevents the world from being turned upside down?—Nothing so much as the influence of religious principles upon the minds of men. Christianity gives honour to civil government, as being the ordinance of God, and enjoins subjection to the laws, under its own awful sanctions.
And not only by particular precepts, but by its secret and less visible influence, it prepares the minds of men for submission to lawful authority. When we meet together in this place, under the sanction of law, and under the protection of the civil magistrate, we are put in mind of our relation to the state, and of our duty to the higher powers. "Fear God and honour the king," have more than a local connection in Scripture*. Obedience to spiritual authority paves the way for subjection to the civil power. Hence wise Legislators have, even on this account, favoured the progress of religion: hence those who have attempted innovations in government, applied, in the first place, to the ministers of religion, and endeavoured to gain the pulpit on their side. Julian, known by the name of the apostate, the most formidable enemy the Christians ever had, was so sensible of the influence, and of the effects of preaching to the people, that he appointed a similar institution among the heathens.
"My ton, fear thou the Lord and the King," (said the wisest of mankind), and meddle not with them that are given to change." In confirmation, we may observe.
• Seel r«t.ii. 17.
that men characterized as given to change, have either, from infidelity, not attended upon ordinances, or, from enthusiasm, been above them. For, who have been innovators and disturbers? who have been the authors of seditions and rebellions? who have been the enemies of order and civil government, in many an age?—a mixture of atheists and fanatics; two classes of men, who, though seemingly opposite, have been found in close bonds of union.
IV. We have to consider the influence of religious institutions upon men, with respect to domestic life.
It is chiefly on account of their domestic situation, that we can pronounce men happy or miserable. Here the pleasures are enjoyed which sweeten life; here the pains are felt which embitter our days. No uneasiness abroad will sit heavy on a man, when the pleasing reflection rises in his mind, that he has happiness at home: No enjoyment from without will give real and lasting satisfaction, when he knows that he has a curse in his own house.
It is no small advantage attending the institutions of divine worship, that they minister to the happiness of domestic life. A new bond will be added to the conjugal union, when those whom it connects walk to the House of God in company, take sweet counsel with one another, and set out jointly in the way that leads to life. Watered by the dews of Heaven, which fall here, the olive-planU will flourish round your table. What sacred sensations will fill the bosom of a parent, when, viewing his family sitting at the feet of Jesus, he says, in the fulness of a grateful heart, "Lord ! behold me, and the children whom thou hast given me!"
There is a beauty, also, when the rich and the poor, when the high and the low, who seldom meet together on other occasions, assemble here in one place, one great family, in the presence of their common Lord, when they are stripped of every adventitious circumstance, and where virtue makes the only distinction among them. It is the image of those golden times when society began; it is the image of the state which is to come, when God shall be all in all.
Such are the effects of religious institutions upon men, -with respect to their religious capacity, their moral character, their political state, and their domestic life.
Whoever, therefore, habitually absents himself from atC
tending on public ordinances, has to answer for it to his God,—to his neighbours,—lo his country,—and to his family. He partakes with other men in their sins; he associates with the enemies of mankind; and does what in him lies, to undermine the basis on which the order and happiness of civil society is built. He teaches the false swearer to take the name of God in vain; he directs the midnight robber to his ncighour's house; and he delivers into the hand of the assassin, a dagger to shed innocent blood.
But, blessed be God! that, corrupted as the world is, there are not wanting instances of exemplary piety, in every station of life; not only in the middle, the lower, and the higher, but in the highest of all. While piety shines as it now does, from the Throne: while it has the beam of Majesty to adorn it; let none of the subjects fail in copying the pattern: and while we meet together in this place, let us remember, that many who have worshipped, in times past, within these walls, are now in the Higher House, in the Church of the First-born, in the Assembly of Angels, and in that Temple where the beatific presence of.the Lord displays his glory, in a manner which hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive.
Rom. xii. 11.
Fervent in prayer ,. serving the Lord.
rT^HE manners of mankind are perpetually varying.— -*- Two nations differ not more from one another, than the same nation differs from itself, at different periods of society. This change of customs and manners has given rise to two opinions, both of them generally received, and both of them founded on mistake. These are, that we arc always improving upon our ancestors in art and in science, and always degenerating from them in religion and morals. When we talk of any work of ingenuity or of industry, composed or performed by our forefathers, from the highest liberal science, to the lowest mechanic art, if we allow it any prais? at all, our panegyric runs in this style: "II is very well for the time in which it was done." On the other hand, we always ailow our ancestors the preference in virtue. For these five thousand years past, the philosophers and moralists of every nation have extolled the times of antiquity, and decried the age in which they lived, as the worst that ever was known. "These wicked times,"—" This degenerate age," are phrases that have rung in the public ear almost since the general deluge. The ages of antiquity are alway* ages of gold ; the present always an age of iron.
The origin of these opinions I take to be this. As customs aud manners are perpetually fluctuating, the reigning mode is always reckoned the best, because they have no other standard but fashion. But fashion is not the standard of morals. The hand of the Almighty hath written the moral law, the standard of virtue, upon the living tablets of every human heart. Here then the standard is fixed and eternal. Accordingly, as quite a different sec of virtues and vices prevail in one age, from what prevail in another ; as we are naturally disposed to bury the faults of our forefathers in oblivion ; as we insensibly contract a veneration for whatever is great in antiquity; hence arises the opinion, that the virtues of a former age are greater than those of a following one. We think we degenerate from our fathers, because we differ from them. But were I to pronounce of the times in which we live, I would say that the present age is not inferior in virtue to the past. We have improved upon our ancestors in humanity, charity, and benevolence; we have exchanged the rage and rancour of animals of prey, for the meek and gentle spirit of the dove. The gall of asps is transformed into the milk of human kindness. Great and enormous crimes are less frequent than they have been; we are better members of society, better neighbours, better friends than our ancestors were. People of different opinions and sects of religion, who some hundred years ago would have been putting one another to death, now live together in amity and peace.
Would to God I could carry on my panegyric, and add, that we are more religious and devout than our ancestors