Manifestations of the Beneficence of Divine Providence Towards America

Called Unto Liberty, Bishop James Madison: 1795, Founding Era Sermons

A cousin of President James Madison, Madison was educated as a lawyer under George Wythe after graduation with high honors from the College of William and Mary in 1771. He became a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the college but soon decided upon the ministry. He was ordained in England in 1775 as an Anglican priest. Two years later he became president of William and Mary and held that position until his death. A strong advocate of independence, he went so far, we are told, as to speak of the republic—rather than kingdom—of heaven. He served as the captain of a militia company of his students and saw considerable action during the Revolution. After the war, Madison devoted himself to reviving the College of William and Mary; in 1784 he taught political economy using Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as a textbook. As a surveyor and cartographer, he established the boundary between Virginia and Pennsylvania and later drew the map of Virginia commonly called Madison’s Map (issued first in 1807 and corrected in 1818). He was a leading scientist of the day and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson about scientific matters.

Madison also devoted himself to the reorganization of the Episcopal Church in Virginia after the war. Consecrated the first Bishop of Virginia (in Canterbury in 1790), he was the third of three American bishops through whom the episcopate came to the United States. Disestablished and with its properties under attack, the church faced formidable problems that, rather than being solved during Madison’s tenure, further deepened.

The sermon reprinted here was preached on February 19, 1795, proclaimed a day of national thanksgiving and prayer by President Washington.

Only fear the Lord, and serve him; for consider how great things he hath done for you.

[I] Samuel XII. 2[4].
Brethren,

There are few situations more interesting to the human race, than that which the people of America this day presents. The temples of the living God are every where, throughout this rising empire, this day, crowded, I trust, with worshippers, whose hearts, impressed with a just and lively sense of the great things, which he hath done for them, pour forth, in unison, the grateful tribute of praise and thanksgiving. Yes, this day, brethren, “the voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous”; and with reason, for the history of nations doth not exhibit a people who ever had more cause to offer up to the great author of every good the most fervent expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving. Let, my brethren, the sons of irreligion, wrapped in their dark and gloomy system of fatality, refuse to open their eyes to the great luminous proofs of providential government, which America displays; let them turn from a light, which their weak vision cannot bear; but let the righteous, let those who trust in God, who can trace in that good and glorious being, the relations of father, friend and governor, let them, with eagle eyes look up to that full blaze of salvation, which he hath vouchsafed to this new world. Permit me then, upon this occasion, to turn your attention to those great things, which the Lord hath done for us, to those manifold displays of divine providence, which the history of America exhibits; and let the subject afford an opportunity to revive within us sentiments of lively gratitude, and excite sincere resolutions to fear the Lord, and to serve him; in a word, to increase daily in piety, and in all those noble affections of the soul which dignify the christian and the patriot.

I. Who can tell how many ages had been swallowed up in the all-absorbing gulph of time, before the bold navigator first essayed to visit these distant regions of the earth? Who can tell, how long this western world had been the habitation of the listless savage, or the wild beasts of the forest? At these questions chronology drops her epochs, as incapable of conducting her to periods so remote, and which have escaped her grasp. The ways of heaven must oft appear to us, weak mortals, dark and intricate. But the first suggestion, which here presents itself, is, that providence seems to have thrown a veil over this portion of the globe, in order to conceal it from the eyes of the nations of the east, until the destined period had arrived for the regeneration of mankind, in this new world, after those various other means, which the wisdom of the Almighty had permitted to operate, in the old, had proved ineffectual. In vain had reason, the hand-maid of pure religion, long attempted to convince men of the reciprocal duties, which equality and fraternity impose. Still there would arise some one,

“of proud ambitious heart, who, not content
with fair equality, fraternal state,
would arrogate dominion undeserved
over his brethren, and quite dispossess
concord and law of nature from the earth.”*

In vain had even thy dispensation of love and peace, blessed Jesus! long essayed to disarm ambition of the ensanguined sword, and to diffuse benevolence, equality and fraternity among the human race. Millions still groaned under the heavy pressure, which tyranny imposed. Yes, even thy gospel of love, of universal fraternity, had been, too often, perverted into the most formidable system of oppression; and mankind, instead of seeing it diffuse the heavenly rays of philanthropy, too frequently beheld it as imposing a yoke, to degrade and enslave them. The princes of the earth sought not for the sacred duties, which it enjoined; but they sought to render it the sanction of their exterminating vengeance, or their deep laid systems of usurpation. Is not the history of almost all Europe pregnant with proofs of this calamitous truth? If you can point to some small portion, where the religion of the blessed Jesus, untrammeled with political usurpations, was left to operate its happy effects upon the passions and the conduct of men; or where toleration extended wide her arms of mercy to embrace the whole family of Christ, the spot appears like a solitary star, which in the midst of night, beams forth alone, whilst clouds and thick darkness obscure the rest of the innumerable host of heaven. Alas! what avails the voice of reason or religion, when the lust of domination has usurped the soul! At the shrine of this fell demon, the human race was sacrificed by thousands. Nay, too many of the sons of Europe are still bound with cords to the altars of ambition, and there immolated, not only by thousands, but by tens of thousands. Do you doubt the assertion, afflictive as it seems to our brethren of the old world? The last four years have, in their flight, scarcely wanted a moment to testify the melancholy truth. I will not add the long catalogue of those innumerable scourges, which, from time to time, have visited Europe; I will not speak of those various tempests, which, by divine command, have so often shaken the guilty nations of the east, but which seem in vain to have uttered the voice of warning and reproof: Domination still rivetted her iron chains; the fangs of governments; avaricious, arbitrary and vindictive, entered even into the souls of the suffering people. The heritage of the Lord were only as sheep destined to be shorn or slaughtered, whilst the unfeeling despot exacted in return, not obsequious obedience only, but even professions of gratitude for the innumerable blessings, which flowed from his hallowed protection. How were these chains to be burst asunder? How was the human race to be restored to their inherent rights, rights, which the God of nature consecrated at the birth of every individual? How was the dignity of man to be vindicated? How were those sentiments of equality, benevolence and fraternity, which reason, and religion, and nature enjoin, to reassume their sovereignty over the human soul, and to dash against the heads of usurpers the chains, the burthens, the oppressions, which had so long brought down the grey hairs of the multitude with sorrow to the grave? How could the principles of a revolution so important, so essential for the happiness of the human species, be generated, but by raising up, as it were, a new race of men, in some remote, some blessed clime, where, from their infancy, unfettered by those errors, which time appears to sanctify, they should be trained not only to a knowledge, but to a just sense of the duty of asserting and maintaining their rights; and above all, where the love of equality, the basis of all rights and all social happiness, should be congenial to man? This favoured region, favoured indeed of heaven, is America. It is here, a knowledge of those political truths, which the immortal Sydneys and the Lockes of former years investigated with philosophic eye, bursts spontaneous forth. It is here, that men, led by the hand of nature, their minds unawed and unobscured by opinions and customs as barbarous and unfriendly to social rights as the dark chaotic ages, which gave them birth, see and acknowledge as axioms, what philosophers have toiled to establish by deductions, long and intricate. It is in America, that the germs of the universal redemption of the human race from domination and oppression have already begun to be developed; it is in America, that we see a redintegration of divine love for man, and that the voice of heaven itself seems to call to her sons, go ye forth and disciple all nations, and spread among them the gospel of equality and fraternity.*

II. These considerations present to our minds the first traces of the beneficent designs of providence in the history of this new world. Nor ought it, in the 2d place, to be here forgotten, that the current, or general tendency of providence is also to be traced back to the source, whence the present free and enlightened race of America sprung. For surely, our fore-fathers, amidst the wreck of human rights, and the convulsive tempests with which ambition had so often overwhelmed the nations of the east, still evinced, at times, no small portion of that etherial spirit, that ardent love of liberty, which glows in the American breast. It was this indomitable spirit, this attachment to the inherent rights of man, stronger infinitely than the fear of those storms, which agitate the immense atlantic, or of the fierce and cruel tenants of the howling wilderness, or the ravages of disease, and famine and death itself, which urged our fore-fathers to these distant shores. Yes, brethren, it was this noble principle, this love of liberty, which defying all dangers, conducted our fore-fathers to America; but who doth not see, that this principle, whilst it only could prompt to the bold enterprize, was no where to be found so pure, so energetic as in Britain? Who doth not see, that thus to have transported it to America, thus to have incorporated it with the primary social institutions of this country, may be justly deemed an event most fortunate for mankind, nay, most worthy of providence itself? Had this principle been equally transported to the fertile plains of Mexico, or Peru, instead of the Auri sacra sames, they also would have had their apostles, nay, their martyrs to liberty. Yes, even Mexico, and Peru, e’re this distant period, would have had their Washington, would have unfurled the banners of liberty, and would have fought, and bled, and conquered. If then we dare attempt with mortal eye to trace those causes, by which the Almighty operates, it will not be thought presumptuous, I trust, not only to ascribe to his directive wisdom the introduction of a principle, which here fostered, will redeem the captive nations of the earth; but also, the introduction of it, at a time, when its active, but daily increasing energy should accelerate the great and glorious revolution, which it has already effected in America, which it has commenced in Europe, and which will not be arrested in its progress, until the complete restoration of the human race to their inherent rights be accomplished, throughout the globe. Let the tyrants of the earth set themselves in array against this principle; “they shall be chased as the chaff of the mountain before the wind, and like the down of the thistle before the whirlwind.”*

III. But these reflections, pleasing as they are to the friends of piety, of reason and of liberty, give way to others, excited by more obvious dispensations of providence. Suppose, my brethren, when our forefathers here first rested the soles of their feet, delivered from those waters, which seemed almost to cover the face of the whole earth, the guardian angel of America withdrawing the curtain of time, had opened to their view the prospect, which this day presents; had shewn to them, America, free, independent, and holding an eminent rank among the nations of the earth; had shewn to them her sons and her daughters, numerous as the stars of heaven, assembled in the houses of their God, and with one voice, offering up the grateful incense of adoration, praise and thanks-giving, “for the great things that he hath done for them”; had shewn to them the first instance, which the world has ever exhibited, of written social compacts, together with her plans of government, founded on the eternal basis of wisdom, equality and justice; had shewn to them, the thousand blessings, which peace, from her horn of plenty, scatters round, with the arts and sciences gradually advancing in her train; had shewn to them, her navies, loaded not with the desolating weapons of war, but with the fruits of the earth, vexing with their prows the most distant seas; had shewn to them the bright portrait of that heroic citizen, whose prudence, whose fortitude, and whose wisdom shine equally refulgent in war as in peace; and lastly, had shewn to them, the fairest portion of the old world, by the example of America, by the influence of that energetic principle, which she had nurtured and matured, awaking as from a dream, “putting on strength as in the antient days, in the generations of old,” uprooting the deep founded systems of usurpation, and gathering the oppressed under the wings of liberty and fraternity: And whilst he presented the glorious, the animating prospect, should say to them, all these events, my sons, great and astonishing as they are, shall come to pass within the short period, of a patriarchal life; would they not have fallen down upon their faces, and worshipping the God of their fathers, exclaimed[,] “This is the Lords doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes”? We, brethren, fortunate as we are, have lived to see this triumphal day. And is there a soul here present, is there one throughout this rising empire, who doth not trace, in the eventful history of America, the conspicuous displays of the hand of providence? Is there one, who is not ready also to exclaim, “it is the Lords doing”? Where, in what records of mankind, will he discover a progress from infancy to manhood, so accelerated, so astonishing in all its stages, so superior to all those ordinary means, by which empires are matured? I will not call your attention to that heroic contest, which so lately distinguished this country, and which, unequal, bold and hazardous as it appeared in its commencement, soon terminated in the establishment of liberty and independence, soon held aloft to the nations of the earth, the sublime example, which called, and still calls aloud, “awake, awake, put on strength, O nations of the earth; awake as in the antient days, in the generations of old.”* I will not retrace those scenes of blood, of horror and desolation, through which the patriot sons of America once triumphant passed. Ministers of the gospel! be it yours to bind up and to heal the wounds, which contentions and wars inflict. But ah! who does not remember, when the fate of this rising empire, nay of mankind, hung trembling between the fury of the oppressor, and the weakness of the oppressed? how many were our prayers to the God of battles! how often did we look forwards upon the mightiness of the adversary; how often backwards upon our own imbecility, upon our wives and our tender infants? In that awful crisis, who does not remember, that in God alone was our trust? Yes, “O people, saved by the Lord, it was his right hand and his holy arm,” which rescued thee from the strength of the lion and the bear; it was the same wise and gracious providence, which delivered the youthful unarmed David from the hands of Goliath, accoutred as he was, “with a sword, and with a spear, and with a Shield,” which also delivered thee, from the hands of the mightiest of nations.

Do these our conclusions appear to some to savour of presumptive arrogance, or do we discover to the philosophic mind an enthusiastic imbecility in ascribing these events, so peculiar to the annals of America, to the particular direction of providence? Let such bethink themselves, if such there be, that it is a just reliance upon the superintending providence of God, a reliance dictated by the concurrent voice of reason, of philosophy and religion, which compels the humble, the grateful and the wise to consider all those dispositions or events, which so remarkably coincide with the general plan of the moral government of the world, as indications of the design and direction of omnipotence. Causes and effects are, doubtless, in the hands of him who willed their connexion. But his will is the general happiness. They who indulge this idea, so consolatory to man, will therefore consider it as the homage which is due to the creator, regenerator and preserver of the universe, to ascribe to his superior direction, effects so concordant with his goodness, and which so greatly transcend all human means. Yes, brethren, if the effects, which we have, in your hearing, thus slightly traced; if the period of time when America was discovered, the necessity and the consequent production of other means for the restoration of human rights, than those, which had hitherto operated; if her origin, and the consequent possession of a principle, which, nurtured and matured, is now pervading, and will animate and excite the whole family of mankind to vindicate their lost rights; if her astonishing progress from infancy to the station, which she now possesses, a progress, which the opposition of a ten-fold force served only to accelerate: if, become free and independent, having accomplished the most unparalleled revolution, a revolution unstained by fratricide, or the blood of the innocent, she hath given to nations the first lesson by which their rights may be preserved, and men reassume their native dignity, by realizing that sacred compact, which before existed only in idea, and by accurately delineating the boundary beyond which, her servants, whether legislators or magistrates, dare not pass; if she hath established upon a rock, the empire of laws, and not of men; if America, as a tender and affectionate daughter, is ready, from her exuberant breasts, to afford the milk of regeneration to her aged and oppressed relatives; if, in short, from a beginning the most inauspicious, she hath thus outstript all political calculation, thus risen to this day of glory, thus ascended on high, thus triumphed over every obstacle, and if all these be effects worthy of the divine interposition, then we will still cherish the fond idea, we will cling to the full persuasion, that our God hath been, “our strength, our refuge, and our fortress,” a God, who, at the birth of creation, destined man for liberty, for virtue and for happiness, not for oppression, vice and misery.

IV. But, my brethren, to rest contented with merely viewing the hand of providence, or in acknowledging the plan of divine wisdom, which is here operating for the general felicity, would be to halt at the threshhold of the temple of God. Gratitude, warm and fervent, united to a sincere resolution “to fear and to serve him,” is the return, which the Almighty beneficence claims from every worshipper. It is the first sacrifice of a heart capable of being touched by acts of unbounded love, by deeds of mercy and kindness so eminently extended not to us only, but, through our agency, to the whole human race. I confess to you, brethren, who detest ingratitude even to man, as the sure but melancholy symptom of a heart, dark, gloomy, and void of every virtuous sensibility, when I recall to mind the past, contemplate the present, and pursuing the confederacy of causes, look forward to those blessings of peace, of order, of justice and of liberty, which are daily advancing with an accelerated progress, my soul becomes sublimed with the grand idea of the undeviating love of God to man; I trace in the moral, as well as in the physical world, the evident vestiges of a Providence, all wise, all merciful, and all gracious: my hopes, temporal as well as eternal, instead of fluctuating in the uncertain ocean of those degrading sentiments, which overwhelm the soul with fear and despondency, are anchored even at the footstool of the throne of God. Yes, brethren, struck with the awful image of a goodness so generous and so extended, my heart overflows with gratitude, I form new resolutions to fear and to serve him, I exclaim with the Psalmist—“Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee. O let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for thou shalt judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth.”

But, brethren, important considerations still demand our attention. Has heaven been thus propitious; are we possessed of all those blessings which flow from governments founded in wisdom, justice and equality; doth the morning of America break forth refulgent with unclouded glory? Then it behoves us, above all things, to inquire, how are these blessings to be preserved? how shall we ensure to her a meridian splendor, worthy of such a morning? This inquiry immediately resolves itself into another. What is there in this sublunary state, that can attract the smiles of heaven, or ensure political happiness, but virtue? Never was there a mortal so depraved, never was there a conscience so deaf to that internal voice, which always whispers truth, but must acknowledge, that virtue only gives a title to hope for the favour of that high and lofty one, who inhabiteth eternity. Fellow-citizens, let virtue then, I entreat you, be the ruling principle, the polar star, which should influence every sentiment, and guide every action, since it alone will conduct us into the haven of felicity. But will you trust, for the diffusion of virtue, to that political morality, which a vain philosophy would substitute in the room of those lessons, which the heavenly teacher delivered? Shall virtue trickle from the oozy bed of political catechisms, or shall it gush, pure and in full stream, from the rock of our salvation? Ah! brethren, the moment that we drop the idea of a God, the remunerator of virtue, but the avenger of iniquity; the moment we abandon that divine system of equality, fraternity, and universal benevolence, which the blessed Jesus taught and exemplified; the moment that religion, the pure and undefiled religion, which heaven, in compassion to the infirmity of human reason, vouchsafed to mortals, loses its influence over their hearts, from that fatal moment, farewell to public and private happiness, farewell, a long farewell to virtue, to patriotism, to liberty! Virtue, such as republics and heaven require, must have its foundation in the heart; it must penetrate the whole man; it must derive its obligations and its sanctions, not from the changeable ideas of the political moralist, or the caprice of the wisest of human legislators, but from the unchangeable father of the universe, the God of love, whose laws, and whose will we are incited to obey by motives, the most powerful that can actuate the human soul. Men must see and feel, that it is God himself, their maker and their judge, who demands obedience to duties, which constitute their individual, their social, their eternal happiness. Then, and not till then, will virtue reign triumphant in the hearts of citizens; then will she have her sacrifices in the midst of the deepest obscurity, as well as in the open day, in the most private and secret retirements, as well as upon the house tops.

There is, we will grant, a sublime philosophy, which may form her sages, and even her virtuous and heroic sages. But, will her abstract doctrines concerning moral obligation, stript of those awful sanctions, which religion annexes, touch the hearts of an entire nation, the poor, the simple, the unlettered, as well as the learned and the wise? No, brethren, these sages of philosophy will appear, once perhaps, in a century; her lessons of wisdom, admitting them to possess the efficacy contended for, can be extended but to a few; whilst religion diffuses her soul-saving leaven thro’ the whole political mass. It is not for the learned and wise only, that she reserves the knowledge of her heavenly precepts; they are addressed to the whole family of mankind; the whole universe is her school. She has, moreover, this distinguishing advantage; she lays her divine hands upon the infant, and whilst she embraces him with the arms of mercy, stamps upon his tender, susceptible mind, the indelible, but just and awful idea of a God, the judge as well as the creator of the universe, a God, whose all-seeing eye delights only in virtue, a God, who has promised thro’ Jesus Christ, a glorious and ever blessed immortality as the reward of well-doing, whilst the torturing hour of shame, remorse and misery is shewn to await the impious and the wicked. Thus taught by religion, man becomes acquainted with his real character; instead of being amenable only to human laws, whose utmost vigilance he may and often does elude, he sees himself accountable to a being, as just as merciful, as omnipotent as omniscient. He finds himself destined, not to the narrow range of the beasts that perish, but to immortal life. The bright prospect invigorates his soul; sentiments of conscious dignity elevate him above what is low or mean; his views are fixed upon what is truly great and good, patriotic and brave; no tears appal him, but confident in his God, he evinces himself, whether in adversity or prosperity, the inflexible friend of justice and humanity.

And yet, great God! how many are there among the sons of men, urged, we hope, rather by the delusive phantoms of their imaginations, than by the lust of wicked passions, who would tear from the human heart, prostrate in the dust, nay obliterate from the face of the earth every vestige of that divine, that beneficent system of justice, fraternity and equality, which Jesus Christ delivered! rash, unthinking mortals! listen, at least, to the prayer which that divine system, ever breathing charity and compassion, still offers up for its vindictive enemies; “Father! forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

Fellow-citizens, it is an easy task for those who may have the honour of addressing an American audience this day, to point out the excellencies of our civil governments, to shew their superior aptitude for the promotion of political happiness, to evince that obedience to laws, constitutionally enacted, is the only means of preserving liberty, and that every expression of the public will is obligatory upon every citizen; to prove, that representative republics, instead of being the prolific parents of anarchy and confusion, are, on the contrary, of all the forms of government, under which men have yet associated, either thro’ compulsion or choice, the most promotive of private and public happiness, the most susceptible of that energy, which is equally capable of curbing the licentiousness of the multitude, or of frustrating the wicked designs of the ambitious; it is easy for them to shew, that virtue is the vital principle of a republic, that unless a magnanimous spirit of patriotism animates every breast, unless a sincere and ardent love for justice, for temperance, for prudence, for fortitude, in short, for all those qualities, which dignify human nature, pervades, enlivens, invigorates the whole mass of citizens, these fair superstructures of political wisdom must soon crumble into dust. Certainly, my brethren, it is a fundamental maxim, that virtue is the soul of a republic. But, zealous for the prosperity of my country, I will repeat, and in these days, it is of infinite moment to insist, that without religion, I mean rational religion, the religion which our Saviour himself delivered, not that of fanatics or inquisitors, chimæras and shadows are substantial things compared with that virtue, which those who reject the authority of religion would recommend to our practice. Ye then who love your country[,] if you expect or wish, that real virtue and social happiness should be preserved among us, or, that genuine patriotism and a dignified obedience to law, instead of that spirit of disorganizing anarchy, and those false and hollow pretences to patriotism, which are so pregnant with contentions, insurrections and misery, should be the distinguishing characteristics of Americans; or, that, the same Almighty arm which hath hitherto protected your country, and conducted her to this day of glory, should still continue to shield and defend her, remember, that your first and last duty is “to fear the Lord and to serve him”; remember, that in the same proportion as irreligion advances, virtue retires; remember, that in her stead, will succeed factions, ever ready to prostitute public good to the most nefarious private ends, whilst unbounded licentiousness, and a total disregard to the sacred names of liberty and of patriotism will here once more, realize that fatal catastrophe, which so many free states have already experienced. Remember, the law of the Almighty is, they shall expire, with their expiring virtue. God of all nature! Father of the human spirit, preserve these prosperous, these happy republics from so dreadful a calamity. May thy gracious providence, which hath hitherto nurtured, protected, and conducted them to this day of praise and thanksgiving, ever be the supreme object of their regard? May the blessings already received, inspire every heart with just sentiments of gratitude, and with the inflexible resolution to perform those duties which become us as christians, and as citizens. May peace and happiness, truth and justice, order and freedom, religion and piety ever proclaim thy praises, thy providential goodness, thy love to man, not only in this land of liberty, but wherever the human race is found. Amen.

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