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are qualified for it, judge ; is not this the one nation upon earth, in which regard to God is taught in the greatest purity, and treated with the greatest contempt?
But a worse symptom yet is, that whilst irreligious persons are active in the cause of infidelity; some of them with so self-denying a bigotry, as to teach it their servants, their very wives and children: the generality of such, as think themselves very competently religious persons, scarce appear to have any practical impressions at all made on them by those truths, which they acknowledge for the law of their lives. They forget, it may be feared, almost totally, the exercise of private piety; and behave in regard to public devotion with a negligence, which they would think highly indecent towards their earthly superiors : allow themselves in such levity of speech on the most serious subjects, as would scarce be justifiable in some of the most trifling ones ; form their conduct avowedly on principles, that have no tincture in them of the faith, which they profess; and in effect declare themselves to think of nothing but this world, whilst yet they are really persuaded of another to come. To this it must be added, that very many, who not only believe, but are influenced by their belief in other respects, instead of confessing their Lord and Master before men, as he hath most solemnly commanded them *, are silent and indifferent, whilst he is denied, or disregarded ever so much ; and seem ashamed of a cause they ought to glory in: by which means they give bad persons a colour for pretending, that few or none are Christians in earnest; and take away from such, as are well-disposed, the encouragement of seeing how great a number yet remains. For, God be thanked, they are still no small number, who continue after all bearing testimony to the Gospel of Christ. But of how many sins against it, not a few even of these are guilty at the same time, by deviating from the form of sound words *, by unwarrantable divisions, and uncharitable animosities; it is a great deal better that they should consider, than that others should say: only thus much cannot but be said, that these things add a peculiar gloom to the view, which we are taking.
* Matt, x, 32. Mark vii. 38. Luke ix. 26.
Religion, it must be owned, hath never been practised any where as it ought. But have not both the practice and profession of it decayed most remarkably, in this nation, within the compass of but a few years ? Is not the prospect before us, that of its declining yet much lower in the generation that is coming on? And what do we imagine this will end in ? If God is, it must be a matter of ill desert, either wilfully or thoughtlessly to treat him, as if he were not. If he hath given a revelation of his will to mankind, it cannot be innocent to neglect it, as if he had given none.
And if he is the righteous governor of the world, he will support his government by punishing where guilt appears. If the guilt be national, it must be expected the punishment will be so too. And though it were not, yet amidst the innumerable connexions of things, one part of a society cannot suffer, but the whole must partake.
· What judgments in particular God will execute at any time on impious nations, we cannot say. : All nature is in his power : and they, who offend, have every thing to fear. But one sure method of correction, (a very merciful method, as the lower degrees of it give warning of the higher, but a dreadful one in
* 2 Tim. i. 13.
deed, if that warning be not taken) is by appointing the natural consequences of every sin to be part of its reward. The consequences of irreligion then what are they, and what must they be, on every community ? True piety cannot induce men to injure their country; and comprehends peculiar inducements to serve it, of the greatest force. But in times of public danger especially, belief of religion gives a spirit, and defence of religion a motive for exerting it, which considerations of a lower nature will never equal. For what is there that can equal the exhortation, Be of good courage, and let us behave ourselves valiantly for our people and for the cities of our God: and let the Lord do that which is good in his sight *. Fear not, neither be dismayed: for the battle is not yours, but God's t. Whereas, if some, through infidelity have no hope in him, and others through wickedness have only fear of him, so far as these ways of thinking can influence, all hands will be feeble, and every heart will melt f.
But indeed the belief of a just and good Being, who sees and will reward, is at all times the great support under the sufferings of life, the great incitement to every thing worthy, the great restraint to every thing base. Human weakness evidently wants these things: and there is nothing else, that can always furnish them. The virtuous dictates of their own minds will have little influence comparatively on most men, when they are considered no longer as the voice of God speaking inwardly to them. And the penalties of human laws, without those of the divine law superadded, will often be evaded, and not seldom desperately braved. For if once men think there is nothing beyond death, they will soon come
i Chiron, xix. 13. + 2 Chron, xx. 15. * Isa. xiii. 7.
to think there is nothing in it, which ought to withhold them from preferring a short life spent as they like, to a long one spent otherwise. Feeling themselves free from the terrors of religion, they will fly out into profligateness, merely to shew they are free: and it will be encouragement enough to them, to pursue every appetite, passion, and fancy, without reserve; that whatever inconveniences may happen to arise from it, one moment can deliver them from all at once, whenever they please. How then will they act in the numberless cases, to which the power of the magistrate either cannot or is not likely to reach at all, or but imperfectly at best? How, for instance, will the properties, and even the lives of men, be secured, when perjury is no longer dreaded ? a consideration of peculiar weight in this country: where, with amazing inconsistence, we are multiplying oaths, as if we could depend upon them for every thing ; and slighting the care of religion, which alone can give us cause to depend on them for any thing. But in general, what or whom can we possibly hope mankind will regard to any constant good purpose, if they will not regard God: and how can we pretend to regard him, whilst we go on as we do? Nor let it be thought, that the belief of a future recompense is necessary to the lower part of the world alone: though if it were, they will never preserve it long, when they see their superiors have it not. But the higher men's station, and the greater their power is, the more is the importance, both to others and themselves, that they be strongly influenced to do good and not evil, by this only motive that can never be outweighed.
It is very true, neither irreligious persons are always so bad, nor religious ones always so good, as their notions lead them to be: but still every way of thinking produces, more or less, its natural effects. The deeper root religion takes, the more benefit will spring from it: and the wider irreligion spreads, the more mischief it will bring forth. At present it must endeavour to appear as harmless as it can, to recommend itself: and some degree of the good old impressions will remain, and have influence for a time, even on those who have done their best to wear them out. But when profaneness shall once have attained its maturity, then it will be felt, if men are resolved not to see it before, which were in the right: the weak and credulous creatures, who contended for honouring God; or the persons of superior knowledge and freedom of thought, who scorned and forsook him.
But we must remember, our Maker is forsaken, when virtue, the law he hath given to mankind, is transgressed; as well as when his worship is deserted, or his being denied. Let it then be a second article of inquiry, what our condition is in this respect.
The consequence appears a very plain one, that when religion decays, morals must. However, let us look into fact. In speaking of virtues and vices relating to the public, no matters of controversy ought so much as to be hinted at in this place: a place to be kept sacredly separate from the contests of parties; and only employed, when occasion requires, to call on every party alike, as in the name of God, to consider their doings. Where divisions and mutual accusations run so dreadfully high, there must be great faults on one side or other; 'tis well, if not on all. And all should consider very seriously, what they are aiming at, and by what means; what they are risking, and to what good end. But that above the rest