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The Plague

An Address Delivered on the Occasion of the Public Day of
Humiliation Proclaimed by the President, on the 3d of August, 5609.

O Thou Hearer of prayers, answer us in thy mercy, for unto Thee, our Father! does all flesh fly for refuge. Let mankind pass on in their stubbornness, unwilling to acknowledge thy power: they will, never­theless, turn and seek Thee, when they feel thy potent wrath, with none to help them; for then they see that their own arm is weak, and that their idols are vain, and they come, therefore, to crave of Thee, whom they will not recognise in their prosperity, that the evil may be staved and the storm averted.

It is therefore, Almighty God! that this day has been devoted by the ruler of this great people, in whose midst we dwell, as one, of humiliation before Thee; because Thou hast permitted the destroyer to go abroad, coming with terror and armed with resistless force to slay in the city and the field, upon the waves of the ocean and in the distant desert, overleaping boundaries which the fear of man has set unto him, and defying alike the art of the coward and the daring of the brave; and wherever he has appeared, the slain are behind, the dying before him, and there is wailing in the hamlet and weeping in the densely crowded streets of the busy towns where commerce has taken up her dwelling; and the conquering armies and the flying hosts alike stoop before the unseen enemy that strikes down the aged and the young, the matron and the virgin.

Who does not see Thee, O God; in this visitation? Who feels not that this evil is from Thee? Who, that has been taught thy ways, does not understand that thus Thou wouldst demonstrate thy power, and chasten thy wickedness of the heart of man? For full well do we know <<290>>that prosperity renders us proud, and uninterrupted peace but lifts up our heart, and causes it to say, “My own strength of hand has acquired me all this wealth.” But, when we see our prosperity suddenly checked, and our homes made desolate, as it were, in a moment, we then turn aside from our worldliness, and ask, “Whence has this evil come upon us?” Behold us, therefore, here this day, O most merciful Father! to acknowledge, in thy presence, that we are sinful, and have done evil before Thee, and that, for the sins of our own committing, and those of others, Thou hast again visited this hind, and sent sorrow and mourning into the dwellings of its inhabitants. We have also, in accordance with the instruction which we have received in thy revelation, repaired hither to call on thy holy name, to have compassion on the land, and to avert thy anger from us, and to restore us all to wonted health and vigour. For behold all feel the weight of thy indignation, and high and low have experienced the bitterness of the cup of confusion which so many have been made to drink; and all, therefore, whose hearts have been touched by thy power, who have been led to fear Thee through the might of thy outstretched arm, now invoke thy grace to avert, hence­forward, the wrath which has been poured out, and to be again favourable to the, land.

Hear us, then, O Almighty Father! hear us! and accept our prayer as an agreeable savour in thy presence; and let us and all mankind be made to feel that Thou alone art able to wound and to heal, and that there is none that can save from thy hand. Yea, teach us thus to fear Thee, and to remain firm and true, though Thou shouldst deem affliction best for us; yea, were it even that Thou shouldst remove us to another life, cutting short in a moment our brief span of years on the earth. Hear us! O Father! and remove the evil which now afflicts us, and permit us to continue longer on the earth, that we may have time to repair the wrong we have done, and cut us not off in our iniquity. But grant that the solemn warning which we have received may aid us to overcome our evil propensities, and induce us to seek light and instruction from thy word, and to devote unto Thee all our strength—to serve and adore Thee with a perfect heart and a willing soul. So shall we be acceptable before Thee, and know that Thou art our God, the Father of all spirits, who is good and true in his word and promises, and merciful to all, because He delighteth in mercy. Amen!


On an occasion like the present, when our assembling at the house of God is not in obedience to the usual demands of our <<291>>religion, but in consequence of the invitation of the chief magistrate of the country [President Zachary Taylor], which only happens on the recurrence of some national calamity, or a national cause of thanksgiving, it is well to reflect on the motive which prompted the constituted chief of the nation to step aside from his usual functions, which concern the temporal government of the country, and to recommend a religious observance, which, in the ordinary routine of events, is not within his province. Indeed, it is not often that such a thing takes place in a commonwealth like this, where the civil government is wisely precluded from an interference in the religious affairs of the people, over which they have conferred no power on their rulers. Consequently, it must be something momentous which can authorize and sanction such a step, and which can obtain so general an acquiescence from nearly all shades of opinions for a proclamation of a general day of prayer as we witness this moment. Perhaps there never was a period in the history of the country when a request emanating from the executive of the Union met with so general a response. And why? Because all feel that there is ample cause for a whole people to call, with a united voice, for mercy and protection, from the only Source whence all that is good proceeds, even the great God of Israel, the Creator and Protector of the universe; and the President of the United States has done well to state that, “at a season when the providence of God has manifested itself in the visitation of a fearful pestilence, which is spreading its ravages throughout the land, it is fitting that a people whose reliance has ever been in His protection should humble themselves before His throne, and, while acknowledging past transgressions, ask a continuance of the Divine mercy.” Yes; God has spoken in tones of rebuke to the earth; and from afar came over the sea the muttering of his wrath; and nation after nation looked with dread on the progress of the destroyer, fearing that its turn would come next, and that the evil would, sooner or later, step over into its boundaries; and one by one fell under the sword: and now, notwithstanding the distance at which we are placed from the birthplace of the cholera, it has a third time overleaped the breadth of the Atlantic ocean, and has spread with more than its former swiftness over the whole surface of the land. We have found it true, as the Psalmist says, that <<292>>

משמים השמעת דין ארץ יראה ושקטה׃ תהל ע״ו׃

“From heaven hast-thou (God) caused us to bear judgment; the earth is affrighted, and is stilled.”—PSALM lxxvi. 10.

From afar it was heard, as though a voice spoke from heaven, somewhat more than thirty years ago, that a new pestilence—new, at least to the present generation, and but obscurely spoken of in the books of science—had been born in the country fertilized by the magnificent Ganges. It was told us, in fearful whisperings, how men were stricken down as in a moment, and how conquering armies quailed and fell, in a single night, before the irresistible arm of the unseen destroyer. For a time it rankled at that great distance, in a land well calculated, from its soil and climate, to produce debility and to nourish pestilential vapours. Perhaps no one then thought that it would stride over the ices of the north, and climb the perpendicular walls of snow-capped mountains. But if men thought after this fashion, they were grievously deceived; for gradually it progressed from its native swamps, until it had overspread all Asia, the known parts of Africa, and all Europe; and soon after establishing itself on the western confines of the latter portion of the world, it followed hitherward the track of the voyagers, and spread with desolating violence, in a very brief space of time, through many a degree of latitude; till the whole land groaned under the terrible visitation. Seventeen years it is this very week since we met here, in this house, in obedience to the proclamation of the Governor of this state, to ask for heavenly aid during the first visit of the cholera; the plague was stayed soon after, and we were enabled to rejoice that of those who then worshipped in this place, not one had fallen before the destroyer and when, two years later, the epidemic appeared in a milder form, we again had cause for thankfulness in a renewed exemption from the plague. From that period until lately we had indulged in the vain hope that henceforward we should be spared from the ravages of a disease which had already slain its millions, on the Ganges, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Wolga, and the Mississippi. But no; again the alarm was sounded that the enemy approached anew; and, as vain as had been the efforts of governments to exclude the scourge from their countries—idle as had been the exertions of the most skilful physicians and naturalists to grapple with it and to con<< 293>>quer it at its first irruption—so vain and futile were the renewed efforts and exertions which we lately witnessed, and the stoutest hearts now quail when the news of its presence in a city is noised abroad; and well may we say, in the words of our text, that “when God causes his sentence of judgment to be heard, the earth is affrighted and is hushed,” for man feels now his utter helplessness, and how incapable he is to save himself by his own endeavours. This, therefore, is the cause why the President of the Union has requested all the inhabitants of the land—who are all alike under the sentence of condemnation—“to meet this day in their places of worship, to implore the Almighty, in His own good time, to stay the destroying hand which is now lifted up against us.” And is it not right that we should do so? To whom shall we fly for protection, if not to Him who is emphatically the One who slayeth and bringeth to life, and from whose hand no one can save us? The occasion of our assembling to-day is, accordingly, one of the greatest moment; and it is necessary that we ponder well on the same; and not suffer it to escape us without endeavouring to let it make a lasting impression on our minds, and to influence our actions likewise.

Let us consider. Man is so very apt, in the moment of his prosperity and peace, to consider himself as something superior, that often calamities are to him the source of the greatest blessings, inasmuch as they cause him to reflect on the vanity and transitoriness of sublunary possessions, and to fix his eye on that imperishable world which opens to us a bright future through the midst of the gloom of the portals of death. Ay, death is a gloomy prospect; the bravest of heart, the most devout and resigned to his Maker’s will, may well shudder at the reflection that, before many years, the earth will claim her own in his frame, and dust will again mingle with the dust, and the light of the eyes will be blotted out, and, the brain, the seat of so many thoughts and aspirations, will deprived of the principle which set it in motion, mingle with the clod of the valley, undistinguishable from other dust which surrounds it; and the tongue, which now speaks forth great thoughts and daring ideas, will be stilled, and feel no more. And yet, took at the vast majority of mankind, and you see them toil for mere worldly things, as though they could toil on for ever; they heap up riches, as though their end would never come; <<294>> they hunt for pleasure, as though the changing year would always find them in the beauty of youth and the strength of manhood. Is not this the course of man? But look at him again, and you will see that he toiled in vain; the success which first smiled on him only deceived him to rush upon an utter destruction; and him that confided in his wealth you may often see stripped of what he so greatly coveted and so closely guarded; or you will behold the proud beauty speedily changed by disease into an object of loathing, or see him who trusted in his manly vigour crippled in limb and helplessly deformed. Is not this a picture of life? Yet, even let nothing but success, and plenty, and strength, and joy accompany the son of man uninterruptedly from his birth till the highest old age, still what will then be the end? Will not the silver cord be loosened?—will not the bowl be broken at the fountain? Put off the day of evil as long as you will, it must come; it approaches hourly, momentarily; and each word  spoken, each syllable uttered, each breath drawn, we have performed a step which brings us nearer and nearer to the grave. No grace, no virtue, no wealth, no vigour, no beauty can snatch us from the open gulf which either looms up in the certain distance or yawns at our feet, ready to swallow us up in its insatiable jaws. All that are born are born to die, all that have life are doomed to the grave; and earth, and air, land water, and fire are pledged to carry out the Creator’s will; and thus the end of life is death, and all that is bright on earth is sure to be dimmed by the hand which gathers in the rich harvest which always ripens for the grave.

Were it, therefore; that all men would thus reflect, and look upon earth as a place of preparation for another world, constant prosperity would not be a bar to their happiness hereafter. But tell a man, in the day of his success, to think of the future, and it is probable that he will deride you as a gloomy fanatic, who, because the world goes hard with him, because he has no joys himself, would only be too glad to render every one as miserable as he is. “Enjoy the day,” “sufficient for the day are the evils thereof,” or some other similar saying; will perhaps be the only answer to your well-meant admonition, and you will have cause for grief to see the unthinking hurrying along on their destructive path, notwithstanding that your words bore the lessons of wis<<295>>dom. But see the worldling again, when the sun of his prosperity is clouded, or when disease invades his domicile, which he was fain to imagine inaccessible to the calamities of other men and you may perhaps find him changed in his estimation of his own importance, and he may perhaps then listen to the breathings of consolation which are found on the path of religion.

Yes, when men are brought to tremble at the majesty of God—yes, when nations have learned that prosperity is not of their own making; will they bow in submission to Him through whose bounty they live, through whose goodness their power is established. It is then that they come to search into their conduct, to see whether or not they have not deserved the misery under which they suffer; whereas a constant stream of success would only have rendered them obdurate, and inspired them with the arrogant assurance that their conduct, their entire course, had been consonant with the laws of mercy and justice.

When a calamity then befalls us, we should not arraign the Divine Providence for injustice,—not accuse the Merciful One of caprice, of unmindfulness of our claims to immunity; but we should at once set about examining into our own conduct, and seek for the source of the evil in what we have done or omitted. If a man discovers that gradually afflictions overtake him, he should immediately look over carefully in what he has failed, see whether or not his heart has become proud and rebellious, whether he is yet as entire with his God as he was wont to be. If he then discerns the sin of pride lurking within, if he beholds the demon of covetousness preying on his vitals, if he detects the spirit of unbelief springing up in his soul, or if he is made conscious that he has not at any time served his God with the true, entire devotion which the Scriptures demand of him, he should unhesitatingly condemn himself, and accept the punishment as a wise chastisement sent to recall him from earth to heaven. He should accordingly stifle the arrogance of pride, though it be but in an incipient state, for only then is it conquerable, before yet the contempt of our species, and the inordinate exaltation of self have degenerated into a passion. He should overcome by all possible efforts the undue desire for worldly possessions; he should apply himself with humble prayer to the study of the word of God, so as to overcome the tendency to scepticism which he has discovered, <<296>>and lastly, he should make the practice of religion a daily exercise, and contemplate at every hour of the day, at any employment in which he may be engaged, the goodness and mercy of God, how He bestows so many benefits on his creatures, blessing the undeserving even, and not withholding all good from every generation, whether they be virtuous or forgetful of his laws. And should, after all, the calamity not be removed, let him not omit persevering in his altered righteous course; for he may be sure that the evil is calculated for his mental elevation, inasmuch as a renewed prosperity might withdraw him anew from the path of repentance which he has just commenced. But we know from experience that to the righteous a light always springs from darkness, and that, in bearing the evils which beset them in a manner becoming those who love their God, and confide in Him in resigned meekness, they set a beautiful example to the world of the superior efficacy of a pursuit of religion, and they confer a benefit on all by proving that man needs but little to enable him to live in cheerful content, and that even amidst bodily ailments he can glorify his Maker, provided only that he places his trust in Him who never deceives, and whose spirit always is with the afflicted, to aid them in their struggle with the adversities of life. It is thus that what we call evil is to rivet closer the union which connects the creature with the Creator, and is thus calculated to stimulate him to persevere in doing what he is taught to be right, or to return to it in case he should have acted contrary to its dictates. The individual, moreover, can easily scan his whole conduct, if he has independence enough to judge himself without favour, and if he is sufficiently alive to the dictates of duty which revealed religion asks of him; wherefore every admonition he receives, whether it be through words of advice or unforeseen affliction, can be properly received as incentives to an amendment of conduct; wherefore he can be at once held amenable if he refuses to listen, and he may therefore not complain of injustice if the chastening hand is not withdrawn whilst he continues in his obdurate state.

Nations also often sin nationally; that is to say, they are guilty of collective wrongs, for which the whole body politic becomes liable to divine visitation. Now the Almighty has appointed three prominent agents to chastise whole communities, and they << 297>>have ever proved the scourge of erring man, afflicting perhaps not all, but an indefinite number of the inhabitants of one or more countries. I speak of war, famine, a pestilence, which slay their thousands without destroying, except under rare circumstances, entire communities. But this emphatically proves that a Providence regulates the evils, especially those which proceed on their mission without human intervention. Were it that the pestilence, for instance, should sweep off the population of an entire district, it might be ascribed to some unknown change in the atmosphere, to some organic modification which is hostile to human life. But all the researches of philosophers have hitherto utterly failed to prove that such a change or modification of the atmospheric air which we breathe is the cause of the different pestilences which have ravaged the earth at various times; and they have at length, though reluctantly, been compelled to acknowledge the mysterious  agency of a divine visitation. The sky is often clear, without a spot on the beautiful blue vault which is spread like a tent over us; the sun shines with a brilliant clearness; a pleasant breeze is wafted over the earth and sea; a teeming mantle of green covers with a luxuriant growth the field and meadow;—and yet each breath drawn in such a sky, in such a season, is fraught with death. Nevertheless, all do not die, exposed though they be to the same influences, breathing as they do the same death-loaded atmosphere: and often the robust and healthy sink rapidly before the destroyer, whilst the decrepit and the diseased survive, and perform the last sad rites to those who vainly imagined that they would outlive the others. What does all this teach, but that the pestilence obeys the laws of its Sender, that in the midst of its rages not one is stricken down, on whom is inscribed the sign of life? I would not thereby convey the idea that it is vain to observe rules of prudence in epidemic visitations as useless. Far from it; we must use all the precautions and remedies which experience has recommended as useful; but I would only show that, with all human, care and foresight, which we justly employ as agents placed within our reach by Providence, we at length are dependent on Him only for the success of all remedial agents; inasmuch as so many fall who are well fortified, whilst those are spared who are weak and exposed.

In short, the whole course of history proves that no one can account for the various inflictions of evil which occasionally visit the earth. All cares cannot ward off the plague, if God bids it to go forth. No one can arrest the famine, if the decree from above sends blight and disease on the fruits of man’s labour. No counsels of the wise can altogether prevent the calamities of war, even now, in this enlightened age, when so great a progress has been made in the construction of deadly engines, which renders the contest of nations so much more bloody now than it was ever before, though immense slaughters have signalized the ages of darkness no less than the present. All human foresight is in vain to ward off the instruments of vengeance which the Lord holds in his hands; and let, therefore, no nation, no matter how mighty and enlightened, pass heedlessly by, when either of the great national calamities befall it or its neighbours. Victory itself is but a slight recompense for the calamities of war; a rich return for a superabundant harvest at home cannot compensate the feeling heart for the sufferings which scarcity of food occasions in other lands; and the exemption from bodily ailment is no source of exultation, when we see the grave closing hour after hour upon those we value and hold dear.

When Moses now, in addressing the Israelites as a nation, and in this capacity only was the law governing their commonwealth imparted to them, independently of those ordinances which concern the individual only, wished to set before them the practical fruits of obedience, he promised them exemption from war, famine, and unusual mortality. Concerning war, he said: “If you will walk in my statutes, then will I give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid.” (Levit. xxvi. 6.) Concerning plenty, he said: “And I will give your rains in their season, and the earth shall yield her increase; and the tree of the field shall give its fruit. And the threshing season shall reach with you the vintage, and the vintage shall last until seed-time; and you shall eat your bread to satisfaction, and you shall dwell securely in your land.” (Levit. xxvi. 4, 5.) Likewise in Deut. xi. 14 is the same idea repeated: “And I will give the rain of your land in its season, the first and the latter rain, and thou shalt gather in thy corn, thy wine, and thy oil.” Besides these, there are several other passages, which it is needless to quote at <<299>>present as what has been given is sufficient for our purpose.

And lastly, concerning sickness, he says: “If thou wilt hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do what is just in his eyes, and listen to his commandments, and observe all his statutes, every sickness which I have inflicted on Egypt I will not inflict on thee; for I am the Lord, thy physician.” (Exod. xv. 26.) So also: “I will fulfill the number of thy days,” (Exod. xxiii. 26,) which refers also to the verse immediately preceding, which is in these words: “If ye serve the Lord your God; then will he bless thy bread and thy water, and I will remove sickness from the midst of thee.”

For the present, we must be satisfied with these few extracts, which indicate in what manner Moses applied the blessings for obedience to the nation. He spoke to them collectively, not individually; wherefore he set before them national blessings, such as peace, plenty, and health; for spiritual excellencies in a future state cannot affect nations collectively, since they are only imaginable in a bodily existence, as we are on this earth of ours. So, on the other side, the condemnation of the soul of the sinner cannot have any terror for entire communities, for the same reason; wherefore Moses threatened war, famine, and pestilence to affect the Israelites nationally, in case they, as a nation, would rebel against the Lord, whilst he handed over the individual malefactor to the vengeance of the outraged laws of the commonwealth. I refer you to chapter xxvi. of Leviticus, and xxviii. and xxxii. of Deuteronomy, for the effects of a national backsliding. I have detained you already so much to-day, that I will omit the passages which specially bear on our subject, satisfied as I am that you will readily supply the deficiencies by a simple reference to your Bibles.

Understand, however, that though spiritual punishments and rewards are not laid down in so many words, they are nevertheless plainly alluded to in various passages, especially in Levit. xxvi. 11, 12, for the rewards, and verse 30 for the punishments.

But enough for our present purpose that we have established by Scriptural authority that the recurrence of every national calamity ought to induce us to seek for the cause in some wrong in which the nation which is especially afflicted, or the whole mass of mankind, may be collectively concerned. We may also assert that a general system of oppression, fraud, licentiousness, <<300>>or profanity is a national or general wrong, sufficiently great to bring down one of the calamities which afflict the world. It were easy enough to prove, by actual reference to the history of the present age, that it is not a whit better than its predecessors in oppression and wrong inflicted by the stranger on the weaker party. There are occasionally glimpses of sunshine, which would lead one to suppose that a better era was approaching when alas! the illusion is soon and painfully dissipated by the recurrence of some terrible outburst of violence and bloodshed, by a wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands, in the streets, perhaps, of some quiet city, and by other acts of cruel barbarity, which have disfigured the history of the last few months. I will concede that refinement has progressed, that the arts and sciences have advanced to a height formerly unknown; but these are national blessings, not national virtues, and ought to have excited the gratitude of mankind toward their Benefactor; whereas in fact they have presumed on their gifts to question not rarely the providence of Him by whose bounty they were blessed. Do you therefore wonder that the earth has been visited with dreadful disasters?—that blow is struck on blow?—and that one visitation closely follows on the other? Happy indeed will it therefore be if the present calamity induces the masses to think, and to cause them to lay aside strife, injustice, and oppression towards each other, and a rebellious ingratitude to God. In this all men may be guilty or meritorious, as the case may be; and herein all can participate, no matter what their persuasion, or conviction on theoretical religion may be. All civilized men acknowledge but the self-same code of morals, and by that must they be judged, and by this same standard must they collectively and individually probe themselves.

We see how for the last fifty years one evil has followed on the other; we also see that but little progress has been made in the moral improvement of man. On the contrary, we are compelled to acknowledge that in simplicity and truth there has been a great and woeful falling off from a high standard. Is it then not time that each man search in his own heart for any latent evil which he may cherish there? Nations are but collections of individuals; nations must repent, therefore, through their individuals; wherefore each one is called upon to endeavour to do all his duty, and to induce others to do the same.

If this is demanded of all, even those who are not of Israel, how much more is it requisite for us to return to the good old standard of religious conformity, to the simplicity of that faith which characterized our predecessors. Much as we may value the progress of free and liberal opinions, we most also deplore the decay of that high-souled devotion which caused the oppressed Hebrew of former years to find in his faith a home which his country denied him, a hope which nothing could quench, and an abiding trust which nothing could shake. But now, what are we? Worldlings, seekers after pleasure and gain, anxious for a name on earth, though our inheritance in God’s house be thereby forfeited. And is this our gratitude? Alas! that truth compels us to acknowledge this guilt. And who knows but that through our misdeeds in part is this evil brought upon the world? Wherefore it is time that we arouse ourselves, in common with the other inhabitants of the country, Let them follow their convictions; let them go each in the light they have received; but let us go in the name of the living God, the everlasting King, who gave us his law to observe as an ever-enduring covenant. But let all, not excepting ourselves, take heed that they do not add the sin of national hypocrisy to their other transgressions; and let them not assemble this day merely to show themselves penitent, without feeling sincerely that they have transgressed. The mere observance of any day is nothing, but it is the spirit alone which sanctifies the evil; and so we are taught in Joel ii. 12, 13: “And now also saith the Lord, Return unto me with all your heart, and with fasting, and weeping, and mourning, and rend your hearts, and not your garments, and return unto the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, long-suffering and great in kindness, and repentant of the evil.” Let us act thus, and be resolved henceforward to obey the commands of the Lord, and there may be hope that He will arrest the destroyer, and be gracious to us and all the land. Amen.

August 3, Ab 15, 5609.