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GOD'S VOICE TO THE NATION.*
BY REV. A. B. VAN ZANDT,
PASTOR OF THE TABB STREET PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, PETERSBURG, VA.
“Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils ; for wherein is he to be
accounted of ?"--ISAIAH ii. 22.
The world has nothing to fear from any degree of influence which the ministry may attain, and the cry of priestcraft will become obsolete, or at least unmeaning, so long as the Pulpit is confined to its legitimate themes. The sacred office was forever dissevered from the strifes of politics and of parties, by that declaration of the Master at the bar of Pilate : "My kingdom is not of this world." Fully asserting his regal character, he yet exalted his mission, and the mission of his ambassadors, far above the petty conflicts of a secular ambition. Preferring himself the crown of thorps to the imperial diadem, and the robes of sepulture to the robes of state, he has also taught us, from the standpoint of his cross, to look down upon all the factitious distinctions of life, and to regard all mankind alike, as sinners to be saved or lost. The end of his coming into the world, and the end of our office, have respect to man as a spiritual being. We are called to study the diversities of his temporal condition, only as they bear upon his present character and his eternal prospects. And though not blind to the essential differences among men, yet unswayed by these, our faith must equally discern beneath the tinsel of rank, the insignia of power, and the rags of beggary, a guilty immortal spirit. The high argument of that spirit's loss and recovery carries us far beyond and above the range of topics suited to the Senate and the Forum ; and instead of aiming to concentrate and sway popular opinion upon the agitating questions of human interest and policy, it is the office of the Pulpit to withdraw the minds of men to the transcendent interests of eternity, to the thoughts of God, and to the sublime economy of Redemption.
Our own country is a happy illustration of the truth, that governments have least to fear from clerical interference or priestly usurpation, when the pulpit is left to the free and untrammelled exercise of its functions. It is where the Church has been drawn into an unholy alliance with the State ; where it has been degra
A sermon occasioned by the death of Zachary Taylor, President of the United States.
ded into a mere appendage to temporal power ; or has ingloriously consented to be subsidized by and dependent upon govern. mental patronage, that with the loss of its spiritual and heavenborn dignity, it has sought to cover itself with the robes of secular power, and the tinsel of earthly aggrandizement. Yet, even then, the degradation which would hide itself beneath the unseemly habiliments of external grandeur, has been induced in the first instance by the encroachments of the civil upon the ecclesiastical power, and not by any inherent tendencies in the latter. With all due allowance for that personal arnbition, from which even the purest minds are not exempt, and the influence of which has always been felt upon the ministry, as well as upon all other classes of men, yet the desire" to be the greatest” never would have drawn the sacred office as a party into the arena of political strife, but for the seductive influences of the State itself, alternately bribing and coercing the Church to a participation in her conflicts. The mitre had never been joined with the soeptre, but that the regal first laid its hand upon the sacerdotal office, and sought to add another jewel to its crown, by arrogating the prerogative of Christ-the headship of the Church.
It is a history which deserves to be studied by those who would cloak their carnal enmity to the gospel under the witless and worn-out cry of “priestcraft,"—the record of the origin and progress of that hated and hateful union of Church and State. Side by side with that record let them study the relation of these two, which have so long been unjustly regarded as antagonist powers, as that relation exists in our own country. The ministry have here no civil power. Their profession is in many States a disqualification for office. They are nowhere pensioners upon the public purse. Precluded from the hopes of preferment, they have no temptation to a fulsome adulation of the great. Exempt from all civil and secular interference with their office, they need not connive at wickedness in high places, or withhold the sternest sanctions of the truth from any who may come under its rebukes. And yet in no country in the world has the sacred office a more extended and legitimate influence over the people than in this; whilst, at the same time, we may appeal to facts when we assert, that in no country in the world is it so entirely free from the charge of mingling and meddling in questions foreign to the great end of its institution! Individual exceptions there may be, of those who have mistaken their calling, and have carried into the pulpit the language and spirit of the hustings. But we aver, without fear of contradiction, that in the discharge of its peculiar duties, and the utterance of the simple truths of the Bible, the ministry. of this land has thrown around its rulers the surest guarantee of public respect for their persons and offices ; has given to law its strongest hold upon the citizen ; and among conservative influences has been second only to the Gospel which it proclaims.
fully e entrance of miranted and in it is to dispel
If we thus magnify our office, it is to dispel the prejudices of those whose unwarranted and injurious suspicions are a barrier to the entrance of the truth. But whilst on the one hand thus fully conceding its limitations, on the other hand the occasion requires us to assert for the Pulpit a wider range of discussion than some are willing to allow. Its utterances are not to be confined to a few familiar and fundamental truths. Neither the teachings of the Master, the example of the Apostles, nor the spirit and design of our office, require us to be silent upon the moral and religious aspects of the great questions and events which may agitate communities and nations. Religion claims, and was designed to extend, a healthful influence over man in every stage of his history, and in all the relations of life. She greets with her blessing his entrance into the world, and clusters around the cradle of his infancy the associations and the hopes of an immortal life. She is charged with the culture and discipline of his youthful powers. She meets him at the opening of the world's active scenes with her monitory voice, and pointing to the highway of sin and folly, strewed with the wrecks of blighted hopes ; the while with inspiriting words, she seeks to waken in his soul the noble purpose to tread the path of virtuous endeavor. When man would smooth that rugged path and sweeten its sorows by the endearments of domestic life, Religion lends her sanction to the union of willing hearts, and leaves her benediction on their joys! In the chamber of sickness her presence is the harbinger of hope. She has her consolation for the hour of trial, and beside the bed of death she whispers the name of Jesus and the resurrection. But preparing hinn thus for his duties and his destiny, Religion has also her lesson for man as a citizen. Hers is the true philosophy which unfolds the origin and the nature of the social compact. From the fountains of unerring truth, she declares the just authority of governments, and the relations of the governed. Enforcing upon rulers a due sense of solemn responsibility, she enforces equally upon the ruled the maxims of a loyal obedience to the laws, and upon all a constant recognition of Him, who rules among the nations, and whose Providence none can withstand.
An occasional recurrence to topics like these, with a view to impress upon the public mind a sense of Divine government, and the mutual obligations of men to each other, based upon their higher obligations to God, is not only within the province, but imperatively incumbent upon the ministry. Nor is this exhibition of ministerial prerogative and duty at all foreign to the present occasion, or to the scope of the text. In proportion as Religion and its teachings on any subject are neglected, the wisdom of the world is substituted for the truth of God; an undue reliance is placed upon an arm of flesh; and men become so far practical atheists in the world. The first step in the progress of error, is a neglect of the truth ; then come in the maxims of a false philosophy, when the doctrines of the Word are forgotten :
and the defection is complete, when unbelief has thus gathered strength and courage to deny what none have been zealous to maintain. The most pestiferous notions in morals and in politics have thus gained to themselves form and currency in the world. Your modern philosopher, whether in science, or ethics, or gorernment, takes his place at first beside the Bible, not to oppose, but to supplement įts teachings. His nostrums find a ready market, under the received impression that there is no balm in Gilead : and when the poison has well diffused itself, and worked its way down through the varied ranks of society, if it is at length discovered that God has spoken, and his Word conflicts with the deductions of a shallow but specious logic, behold! too often error triumphs over truth, and the conjectures of man outweigh the sure Word of inspiration. The Bible indeed is not a detailed system of philosophy, and it was not designed to be a treatise on political economy. But it is a grand system of truth, in which are revealed all the principles which are necessary to regulate all the diversified relations and duties of mankind. Our times especially demand that those principles should be brought out. And in a day when novel theories of government are rife; when the flowing and refluent wave of revolution is mingling thrones and dynasties and republics in promiscuous ruin ; and when amid the din of factions and conflicts of arms the hoarse voice of anarchy is heard clamoring for the overthrow, with the pretext of reconstructing society ; it is befitting that the voice of God should also be heard, his word interpreting his Providence, and, in the failure of human schemes, in the disasters and judgments attendant upon human presumption and folly, saying, " Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils." It is time we were made to understand, that verily there is a God who ruleth in the earth; and that people and rulers alike were found humbly inquiring at his holy oracles.
It cannot be disguised that at this present juncture, the text has a peculiar and solemn significance to us, as a nation. Since the adoption of the Federal Constitution, there has not occurred in the history of this Republic, a period so fraught with peril as, the crisis through which we are now passing. That we have successfully encountered other dangers, has served to inspire public confidence in the stability of our institutions ; and in the very thickest of the gloom, which has so darkly veiled our prospects of late, we have yet been cheered by the glimmering star of hope. Nevertheless we are persuaded that even now, if we consider well the elements of conflict, and the issues at stake, it is rather the proof of folly than of foresight, to be unconcerned at the aspect of the times. Were the struggle with a foreign power, we might be confident, either in the justice of our cause, or in the brave hearts and strong arms of a united people. Were the question one of party policy, we might commit it to the decision of the ballot-box, and rest secure in the verdict of majorities. But the causes for present alarm are different, and more dangerous than
these. There has been a severing of fraternal ties ; a rupture of social affinities ; a reckless disregard of national associations and sympathies; a narrowing down of patriotic impulses to the aspirations after a sectional triumph ; a mutual jealousy and distrust, and a mutual acerbity of feeling and of language, which if continued must soon be fatal to the existence of a confederated government.
It is ordinarily true, that in a representative State, the rulers reflect the feelings and sentiments of the people. We could hope that at the present juncture our own country is in some degree an exception to the rule. But if the spirit which seems to prevail at the capital of this nation, is to be taken as the exponent of national sentiment, no forms of law, no constitutional provisions, no lingering remains of patriotism can long hold in union interests so discordant, antipathies so inveterate. It is not our purpose to trace to their causes the present distractions of the country, or to sit in judgment upon those who may be supposed to have produced them. We refer to facts as the omens of danger. And the flippancy and unconcern with which men in high places and in low places, have come to speak of that terrible alternative disunion,” we regard as not the least among the causes of alarm. To predict with certainty the results of such an event, would baffle even the political sagacity of a Burke. But it needs no prophetic gift, to anticipate from it results of great and lasting evil. And though it should be considered as beside our province, yet we will not stifle the impulse or suppress the sentiment, that we do most heartily deprecate such an event, as fraught with disaster to the latest generation! We claim no superior forecast, yet we think that mind must be blinded by passion or prejudice, which can look beyond this consummation which we dread, and not have the field of its vision filled with a record, like the mystic roll of the prophet, “written within and without with mourning, lamentation and woe!”
Now in a crisis like this, and with dangers so appalling, we may garnish the sepulchres of our patriot fathers, and bid the storied marble rise; we may appeal to their kindred blood, mingled on many a battle-field; we may recall their sentiments, their self-devotion, and their sacrifices. And it is well! Let these memorials at least rebuke, if they cannot exalt, the degenerate spirits of their descendants. Here and there perhaps a kindred soul will catch the generous glow of their lofty virtue, and, mindful only of their country and of their country's future, will dare to breast the swelling tide of faction, and, true to the sacred compact of the Constitution, to be nobly great, though it be only in the estimation of the good. Such men we trust there are, and, as the occasion of this discourse reminds us, such men there have been! We look with hope to those who yet remain. But our hope can only rise to confidence, when we