REV. MR. DWIGHT’S
RELIGION, THE ONLY PRESERVATIVE 0F NATIONAL FREEDOM.
DELIVERED IN THE
THIRD CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF PORTLAND;
ON THE DAY OF
THE ANNUAL THANKSGIVING
DECEMBER 1, 1836.
BY WILLIAM T. DWIGHT.
PUBLISHED BY REQUEST.
ARTHUR SHIRLEY, PRINTER~
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William T. Dwight was the sixth son of Dr. Timothy Dwight, President, Yale College 1795-1822, and a great-grandson of Jonathan Edwards. Born 1795 in Greenfield Hill, Conn., died 1865. Dwight graduated Yale College (1813) with honor, subsequently practiced law in Philadelphia for about ten years. About 1831, upon attending the Arch street church in Philadelphia, he came under the conviction of the preaching of Dr. Skinner, and from that, eventually pursued a career in the Ministry as pastor of the First Congregational Church in Portland, Maine until his retirement in 1862.
[ Source: Sermon on the occasion of the death of Wm. T. Dwight, by Henry Boardman, D. D., Phila., 1865. Pp.17-18 ]
Page numbers in the original publication are shown in brackets as such: [ 3 ]
The following begins the original text:
II CORINTHIANS, iii. 17.
"WHERE THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS, THERE IS LIBERTY."
THE goodness of God has assembled us once more, upon the recurrence of this ancient and venerated Anniversary, that we may publicly express our gratitude for the continuance of His numberless benefits. The same kind providence has protected us during another year from every enemy and danger, and has poured upon us its usual profusion of comforts: the same rich grace has repeated its offers of salvation to all, and imparted the blessings of the covenant to those who believe. We meet each other today, as so many witnesses to the loving kindness and tender mercy of Jehovah: how evidently then, should our hearts overflow with thankfulness and love!
As we are assembled on this anniversary, so others have been assembled from one preceding year to another, for many generations. When this custom of publicly commemorating the bounties of God’s providence and grace at the close of the year was commenced by our pious ancestors, I have no means of ascertaining: from a note in Holmes’s American Annals, there is reason to refer it as far back as 1682, while occasional seasons of public Thanksgiving were observed almost from the landing of the Pilgrims tm the Plymouth rock in 1620. But whatever may be the date of the first anniversary, we know that no national custom can be more proper: a people, who have been so signally blessed as ourselves and our ancestors with all that renders
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this life peaceful and happy, and that gives promise of unending joy after this life is over, should annually present their devout and most grateful acknowledgements upon the altars of their infinite Benefactor. "He hath not dealt so with any nation:" our gratitude and obedience should be proportional.
But while we would thus gratefully commemorate the past and the present, it is not unnatural nor inexpedient on this occasion to look forward into the future, and to inquire whether our children and more remote descendants will probably continue the observance of this sacred festival; whether the rich inheritance of domestic, civil and religious blessings which we have received, is to be transmitted unimpaired to distant generations. Should the institutions of freedom, of knowledge, of piety, which have distinguished us among the nations, remain unchanged, unshaken, then our sons’ sons, it cannot be doubted, will endeavor to perpetuate the observance of this day: but should the former be overthrown, the latter will be disregarded and soon sink into oblivion. Are we then, through the Divine blessing, to continue to be, as we ever have been, a free people; for on the prolongation of our freedom evidently depends the continuance of our religion and of our intelligence as a nation. This is a question, which many of the wise and the good among us have lately asked with deep solicitude: for in the gathering signs of the times they have seen, as they have feared, much that is dark and portentous of disunion, of the overthrow of a government of laws, and of the substitution of a government of force. It is a question which is also most momentous to ourselves, to this country and to the world, and which we ought therefore often anxiously to ponder; and which, as properly embraced within the range of subjects that are open to the minister of Christ on this anniversary, it is my design now to consider. And the form in which I shall examine this question will be, an attempt to establish the following proposition; that RELIGION IS THE ONLY PRESERVATIVE OF NATIONAL FREEDOM. As Religion can never prevail extensively among us, should our freedom be lost; so our freedom cannot be maintained and perpetuated, without the constant and
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perpetual support of’ religion. This proposition we may, not improperly, deduce from the text. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is,"—wherever religion, which is His blessed work, generally prevails, "there is liberty;" liberty, not only, as in the literal sense of the passage, from the bondage of Jewish ceremonies and from the slavery of sin, but liberty also in its civil and political acceptation. Religion renders man free from every species of bondage: it breaks the chains of superstition, of sin, and of tyranny alike.
The course which will be pursued in establishing the proposition, that Religion is the only preservative of National Freedom, will be to evince : first, that other supposed preservatives of Freedom are wholly inefficacious; and then, that Religion is a sure preservative.
I. NOTHING BESIDES RELIGION CAN PRESERVE OUR NATIONAL FREEDOM.
And in illustrating this division of the subject, I would remark particularly: that Written Constitutions of government cannot preserve a nation’s freedom. Such Constitutions are the work of modern times alone; and they evince a prodigious advance in the minds of men towards perfection in human governments, beyond all that was known in previous ages. Some resemblance indeed to such constitutions may be traced in the laws of Athens and of Sparta, but it is only a faint resemblance: the United States have given the first example in the history of mankind, of a nation deliberately and peaceably establishing its form of government, as defined by a Written Constitution—of which the provisions are as comprehensive and full, as they are explicit and universally known. We have thus accomplished for ourselves, what God was pleased to accomplish for the Israelites by the hand of Moses ; and the work in our own case has been far more complete as well as distinct, because the Israelites were not fitted in that early age of the world for the complexity yet precision of our forms of government: neither is it to be doubted that the example which we have thus given, will have a decisive influence
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in hastening the approach of the Millenium. Men must know what their political rights are, that they may watch against their violation and subversion; and they must be in some sense parties to the instruments that specify these rights, or they will not be ever ready to defend them. Every American should accordingly be devoutly grateful to the God of his fathers, that they were guided by the hand of Providence in establishing our national Constitution, as a series of written and public provisions, which are just and equal in their operation; and that our State Constitutions are of the same character. But these written constitutions, with all their excellence, still furnish no guarantee, as some have fondly imagined, that the freedom which they establish will be perpetual. France has been subjected, since the commencement of her revolutionary era, to eight or ten different forms of government, each of which in imitation of our example was enacted in the form of a written constitution; and each of which, after having been for a short period supreme, was then overthrown and abolished. Mexico has sought in the same manner, to secure for itself comparative freedom; and that unhappy country has still been, almost uninterruptedly, a prey to one tyrant or succession of tyrants after another. A written constitution is the consequence, and the evidence, of national freedom; it is the instrument by which the blessings of freedom are completely diffused throughout the nation, and in the happiest manner: but it cannot, of itself, perpetuate freedom. As the fierce strife of parties has agitated our own country, how often has our National Constitution been construed and tortured in one and another directly opposite modes: and let this strife but increase to a given degree of frenzy with which we have already, once and again, been threatened, and from which nothing but the goodness of God has preserved us, and our constitution will be valued no more than the parchment on which it was originally written, but will share the fate of those of France and Mexico. What are laws, what are constitutions, if a nation has become corrupt; or when did their influence alone ever preserve a nation from becoming corrupt ? History is silent here, she gives not one
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affirmative answer. Equally futile will be our hopes as to the perpetuation of our own freedom, unless they are directed elsewhere.
Neither can our Free Institutions perpetuate themselves.
These gave birth to our Written Constitutions, and they comprise all that is meant by our national freedom or liberty. Most of them we have inherited from our ancestors, some of them are our own work, and for their continuance to this time, in their different forms of the rights of person, of property, of character and of conscience, as enjoyed under our free and prosperous government, what a debt of thankfulness does not each of us owe to the Giver of all good! It is these institutions, in connection with the Christian religion, which distinguish us from the heathen or the Mahomedan; which prevent our being identified in every thing but time, with our savage progenitors who inhabited the British isles at the commencement of the Christian era. But precious as are these institutions, and they are beyond all price, they have no inherent principle of self preservation: they must be supported by some extrinsic power, or the freedom which they constitute will soon decline and fall. For if these free institutions can perpetuate their own existence, all that is necessary to secure a nation’s freedom is, for it once to become free:
if the torch, when once blazing, will always feed itself, nothing is needed but to kindle it, to secure a perpetual flame. But who that has read the annals of once free and long since enslaved, if not extinct, nations knows not to the contrary? Nothing that owns an earthly origin, has any tendency to immortality. Even the seeds of piety, though sown by a Divine hand, must be daily watered by heavenly dews and warmed by the Sun of Righteousness, or they will decay and die. Far less have free institutions, which are human merely in their origin, their aims and their operation, any self-existent character. How often was the freedom which Athens actually enjoyed, perverted into the worst of tyrannies by its populace, and at last hopelessly overthrown; how surely did the liberty, such as it was, of republican Rome introduce the usurpations of successive generals, and finally the
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despotism of the Caesars! What also was the fate of the free institutions of France, when thes word of the nation was entrusted to Napoleon; and what has been the history of the mushroom republics of South America and Mexico, from their birth until the present hour ? In the graves which were dug for the liberties of these nations, we may see the omens of our own doom, unless we are to be sustained by some power which did not uphold them.
Neither can we more confidently rely on the efficacy of Patriotism. This emotion, as an energetic principle of conduct, is not necessarily selfish. It may be instinctive or natural, as is the affection of parents towards their children; or it may be excited in the same manner as is the love of the Swiss mountaineer for the wild and stormy regions, in the midst of which he was born and nurtured. But whatever may he its origin or its prevalence among a people, still, if it springs not from pure religion, it has not sufficient strength to sustain for a long period the liberty of any country. For the patriotism of a free people is neither more permanent nor more efficacious, than that of a people who are not free. The Icelander is as heart-sick, when separated from the frozen plains and volcanic rocks of his lonely island, as is the Briton who has left the freedom and the enjoyments of his native home for the sultry skies of Hindostan: the French conscript, who was torn from his native village to bear the eagles of Napoleon over the sands of Egypt or among the snows of Russia, fought as desperately for the glory of his country and his Emperor, as did our ancestors for the freedom of their much loved land during the Revolutionary war. Nay, it is questionable whether the patriotism of American citizens is not less constant, less powerful, than that of the natives of many countries which know not our privileges and blessings. For if we are united whenever dangers from abroad impend, if no European monarch can refuse us our national rights without striking at the same moment an electric spark that instantly pervades the land; no sooner are these foreign tempests dispersed, than the storm of party discord and alienation begins to rage among ourselves.
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The South arrays itself against the North, as if we were two hostile nations; or our constantly succeeding national and state elections divide the whole country, each state, county, city, town and hamlet, into parties which think and write and speak of each other—not as if they were countrymen and fellow citizens, but as if they formed two opposing armies, or rather two bodies of banditti. Such is American patriotism, when all is peaceful abroad: instead of being a fraternal and strengthening principle, it scatters "firebrands, arrows and death." But admit that some of this hideous party discord is superficial merely, and that there is a deep-seated love of our country and of its institutions beneath, as I trust is still the case; when has patriotism alone, or in conjunction with similar principles only, preserved the freedom of any country ? Party spirit destroyed the patriotism and the liberty of Athens; the Roman ceased to love his country, when Rome had become the mistress of the world and her great men contended for empire; and which is the modern republic that has been ultimately overthrown by a foreign foe, that did not previously become the prey of intestine divisions.
The general intelligence and education of our citizens are equally to be distrusted, as a guarantee of the permanence of our freedom. These are peculiarly the distinction of our land, elevating New-England above every other country, and the United States as a nation above every other except Scotland. But general education and intelligence, in themselves alone, are neither piety nor morality; and they cannot accomplish what is peculiar to piety and morality. The latter are always friendly to the former, and sustain them as their most useful auxiliaries; but there are immense numbers of intelligent, educated men, who are not only indifferent but hostile to religion. This was signally the case in France at the first eruption of its terrible revolution, and it has been the case until the present moment: the vast majority of her men of science and education are now, either avowedly or covertly, infidel. And while almost all the men of real science and learning, and most of the intelligent men, of our own country are ostensibly friendly to religion, and
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many of them are truly religious, it is still an alarming confirmation of the preceding remarks that many of our newspapers, and particularly not a few of those which are printed in our principal towns, are rapidly becoming hostile in their influence to religion—if not also to decent morality. No man can examine these papers for a few successive months, without being constrained to adopt such an opinion : religion, its ministers, its institutions— especially the Sabbath, and its Bible are either derided or coarsely alluded to; and every violation of morality, however gross, is constantly published in these papers with indifference, if not as a theme for sport. But our newspapers are read by the whole community, and their influence upon innumerable readers is second only to that of the Bible and the pulpit. The education and general intelligence of a nation may be as thoroughly perverted, as the intelligence and science of an individual may be perverted: if guided by the spirit of the gospel, they will be powerful instruments of good—if arrayed in opposition to the gospel, they will rapidly prepare the way for the downfall of freedom and its attendant blessings. They cannot indeed long survive the subversion of freedom, and the corruption of religion: no enslaved and corrupt people have ever been distinguished for their general intelligence.
Did the limits of this discourse permit, it might be also shown that no local advantages of soil or climate, nor of distance from Europe, nor of freedom of intercourse among ourselves, afford any assurance that our free institutions will be permanent. While our distance from Europe secures us from the dangers of conquest by a foreign foe, it leaves us open to dissension and civil war : we have no advantages of soil or climate over many other countries, which are now not free: and our constantly increasing facilities of intercourse among ourselves have not, in fact, lessened our political or geographical jealousies.
The conclusion, it would then seem, is clear, that none of those supports of national freedom on which so many fondly rest are sure and immovable. Neither our Written Constitutions, nor the Free Institutions which originated them, nor Patriotism,
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nor our General Intelligence as a people, nor any peculiar advantages of climate or facilities of domestic intercourse, either single or united, can promise that our descendants shall receive undiminished the inestimable legacy which we now possess, and which demands our heartfelt gratitude to God this day. But while these must prove ineffectual, there still exists one adequate support, and I would now remark:
II. THAT RELIGION, SO LONG AS IT GENERALLY PREVAILS, WILL RE A SURE PRESERVATIVE OF OUR NATIONAL FREEDOM.
And as one evidence of this it should be observed that, where Religion has thus prevailed, nations have continued free. This is an appeal to history, to facts, from which we learn the true character of every practical principle. Now history informs us of one ancient nation that was a truly religious people, and this was the Israelites: and the Israelites were, also, the free people of antiquity. That the first of these assertions is true, none will deny; and that they were also a free people—free in the modern and best sense of the word—none will any more deny, who attentively examine the form of government and the codes of laws, civil and moral, which the Most High prescribed in the Pentateuch. These laws define the rights of person, of property, and of character, and secure the enjoyment of these rights by adequate penalties: and the form of government, which continued for three hundred and fifty years after the entrance of the Israelites into Palestine, with occasional intervals of subjection to foreign nations as a punishment for their transgressions, was perfectly free—Jehovah Himself being their only sovereign. Even after the kingly government had commenced, that portion of the nation which adhered to the family of David appears to have retained many if not most of their personal rights, and to this portion of the nation the worship of the true God was confined: neither were they finally subjugated by Nebuchadnezzar, until they had almost wholly abandoned the religion of their fathers. Had the Israelites continued to be the same religious people as when they entered the promised land, or as during the reigns of
David and Solomon, their independence and their freedom would have been also secure. This, in substance, the Bible repeatedly declares.
The two most religious nations of modern times are, Great Britain and the United States; and these nations have also been for the last two centuries—the period during which their religion has been most prevalent, incomparably the freest people upon earth. Compare the forms of government which, for the last two centuries, have existed in these countries—contrast the security of life, of property, of character, and of the rights of conscience, which their inhabitants have enjoyed—with those of any or of all other countries; and the difference is no less great and striking, than that which exists between a civilized and a half civilized people. It is not national pride, it is not empty vanity, to assert this: it is plain, indisputable matter of fact—of fact also, which is to be wholly accounted for upon the great principle which is the basis of this discourse. The freedom of our own country commenced with its settlement by our Pilgrim ancestors, who brought with them from England the same religion, which animated their brethren whom they left behind to resist the tyrannical aggressions of Charles I. The character of these men of whom the world was not worthy, was the same in either country—they loved freedom with an unalterable affection, because they loved their religion still more: and as nothing could induce them to renounce their religion, neither the flatteries nor the frowns, neither the bribes nor the oppressions, of the court— so nothing could shake their determination to secure their inalienable civil and political rights. This is the history of the origin of British and American liberty, and this is the history of its preservation in either country until this hour. The religion of Britain maintained those principles which drove the bigoted James II. from his throne, which introduced William and Mary, and which afterwards established the monarchy in the present Brunswick family. The religion of the United States, and preeminently of New-England, prompted our ancestors to resist the secret as well as open aggressions of the mother country, until
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our freedom was placed upon its present basis by the victories of the Revolutionary war. And just so far as the principles of rational, consistent liberty now prevail in either country, so far are they supported by the religion of that country, and ever have been.
This then is the testimony which history affords: do we need any more instructive and decisive? But it should be also observed, that the essential spirit of Religion is a spirit of civil and political equality. The great precept by which the Bible defines our duties towards our fellow men, is this: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." The whole word of God is but the expansion of this precept, so far as it respects our duties to one another. Now this precept, if fully obeyed by mankind in all its details, would banish despotism and every other species of tyranny from the earth: kings and other rulers would cease to oppress, the great would no longer encroach upon the unprotected, magistrates would decree justice and enforce its claims, and every demagogue would sink into the obscurity which is his proper sphere. Religion teaches the inhabitants of any particular country to love and not to hate each other, to desire that each may enjoy, not only the same natural bounties of Providence, but all those blessings which spring from a just and equal government, from impartial laws, from an equality of political privileges. It teaches them all this, because it requires them to live as brethren, as children and subjects of the same heavenly Father and righteous King—who has made them of one blood, redeemed them by a common sacrifice, and destined them to the same immortality. The Bible, while it does not authorize wanton resistance to any established form of government, requires every ruler as well as every subject so to live, as would, were it obeyed, extirpate all that is practically hostile to liberty even in the most despotic governments, in a single year. But wherever a free government actually exists, the religion of the Bible, so far as it prevails, erects around that government and its institutions a wall of brass, which can be neither overleaped nor undermined nor battered down. It proclaims that all are equal in the sight
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of God, that governments are His institution—appointed for the benefit of the people and not for that of the ruler, for the whole people and not merely for a favored part; and that they are to be administered in His fear, and with the constant sense of the ruler’s accountability at His bar. It also proclaims that the laws are to be steadily obeyed, that none but just and equal laws are to be enacted, that wise and virtuous rulers are a blessing and those of an opposite character a curse; and that a people who are self governed, ought accordingly to elect none to preside over them but those who fear God and obey His commandments. Now who sees not at a glance, that a religion of which all this is the spirit, is the very aliment and life of freedom, and the irreconcilable enemy to every form of misrule and oppression ?
Nor should it be less remembered, that Religion, so far as it prevails, destroys those individual and national sins, which are hostile to freedom. These are the same in an individual as in a nation, and they include every violation whatever of the law of God, but peculiarly those of a gross and flagrant character. These are profaneness, sabbath-breaking, lewdness, intemperance, fraud, perjury, falsehood, the idolatrous love of money, and various others; sins, which are not less the foes of true and rational freedom, than they are of public and private morality, and of domestic happiness. So far as these iniquities have abounded in other nations, and particularly in those which have been more or less free, they have undermined at the same moment the pillars of law, order, public prosperity and private harmony : such is their necessary and invariable result. Athens and Rome lost not their freedom, until their citizens and rulers had become thus corrupted; such, we have also seen, was the ruin of the Israelites; such has been the ruin of the French republic: such, if we are to lose our freedom and become the last, melancholy sacrifice on the altar of despotism, is to be our ruin But the religion of the Bible can resist even this desolating flood. If it should generally control our citizens, it will not only say "Hitherto shalt thou come but no further, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed :" but it will dry up the very fountains
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which feed this burning river. The fear of God and the love of Christ, as shed abroad in the heart by the power of the Holy Ghost, are stronger than even the fiends of the bottomless pit:
they can overcome every vice, and hold selfishness in chains, and purge the inmost recesses of pollution, and render a great nation not less than a single individual moral, peaceful, free and happy. These principles, if generally operative, will raise up for us rulers like Washington, and the first Gustavus of Sweden, and Alfred of England—like Daniel, and Nehemiah, and Moses:
they will render our citizens more virtuous and holy than were our Pilgrim ancestors, or than the Israelites who followed Joshua into Palestine. Let the religion of the Bible exist throughout the United States for the next two centuries, as it did exist throughout New-England from 1620 till 1720, and we need fear nothing for our children or for their grandchildren. The same sun which now shines upon the sepulchres of our fathers, and which thus reminds us—so blessed with all that renders home and country dear, of the debt of gratitude which we owe under God to them:
will then shine upon our sepulchres, and will remind our descendants who shall then be free, virtuous and happy, that their devout thanksgivings should ever ascend for the matchless birthright which they have received from us, their departed sires.
With these views of the great principle which has been the subject of investigation, we may properly remark:
The Christian is, as such, a true patriot. The Christian is the man who is controlled by that Religion which is hostile to all misgovernment, and which is the only sure preservative of national freedom: his ruling principles of conduct render him the friend of law, of order, of equality, of true liberty—wherever it is known. A nation of Christians, as we have now seen, would never destroy nor impair their civil and political rights, but would maintain them and transmit them to successive generations. The individual Christian ought therefore to be universally deemed the true and unchanging friend of his country: whoever else ceases to love his native land or to be watchful over its interests, he will not and cannot become a traitor. His patriotism is fostered
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by his fear of God, and while the latter continues undiminished, the former can never die.
The great Religious Charities of our country deserve the support of every friend of freedom. Each of these, in extending the power of religion, is cementing the bulwarks of our liberty:
in circulating the Bible, in educating ministers, in scattering religious tracts, in training the child at the Sabbath-school, the friends of these institutions are really acting as the purest and most enlightened of patriots. Let these great charities become co-extensive, as they ought to be, with the necessities of our country, and they will accomplish more for the perpetuation of our free institutions, than legions of spies and half a million of bayonets can accomplish in sustaining the despotism of Austria or of Russia. How plainly then, on these principles alone, ought every lover of his country to afford these charities his cordial support !
How perfect is the harmony, which pervades the moral government of God. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty:" liberty, not only from superstition, and ignorance, and slavish fear;. but also from civil and political tyranny, and the still more galling bondage of corruption. He whom the truth makes free, is free indeed. The righteous Lord designs that slavery, and misrule, and oppression of every form, shall disappear before the gospel of His Son; that man, so long enslaved by earthly and infernal tyrants, may become ultimately fitted for the glorious liberty of heaven. Each of us is free, this day, from the bondage of human despots: how should we then, that our liberty may be made eternal and complete, seek the Son of God—whose sole prerogative it is to bestow that freedom, which the angels and the spirits of the just now enjoy!