From “A Reformation of Morals Practicable and Indispensable,”
a sermon by Lyman Beecher, 1775-1863
With respect to the difficulties which may be expected to attend a work of reformation, one obvious impediment will be found in the number and character of those who will be immediately affected by such a work. The children of the devil, in a time of declension, are numerous and daring. Emboldened by impunity they have declared themselves independent both of God and humanity, and are leagued by a common interest and a common feeling to defend their usurped immunities. They are watchful and zealous and the moment an effort is made to execute the laws, every mouth is open against the work and their clamours and sneers and threatenings and lies, like the croakings of Egypt, fill the land. This direct opposition may be expected to receive, from various sources, collateral aid. In this wicked world, where the love of money is the root of evil, there are not a few who traffic in the souls and bodies of people. Not immoral always in their own conduct, they thrive by the vices of others and may be tempted to resist a reformation, which would dry up these impure sources of revenue. They would not justify intemperance, nor the means of promoting it, but pretexts are never wanting to conceal the real motives of people and justify opposition to whatever they deem inconsistent with their interest. Though reformation, therefore, might be admitted to be desirable, either the motives of those who make the attempt or the means by which they make it, will always be wrong and it will be impossible ever to devise a right way till their interest is on the other side. In many cases, it is to be hoped that integrity would get the victory over cupidity but in many more, it is to be feared that avarice, secretly or openly, would send recruits to the standard of the opposition.
To the preceding must be added the opposition of all the timid, falsely called, peacemakers. They lament bitterly, the prevailing evils of the day and multiply predictions of divine judgments and speedy ruin. But if a voice be raised or a finger be lifted to attempt a reformation, they are in a tremor, lest the peace of society be invaded. Their maxim would seem to be, “better to die in sin, if we may but die quietly, than to purchase life and honour by contending for them.” If men will be wicked, let them be wicked, if they will but be peaceable. But the mischief is, men freed from restraint will be wicked and will not be peaceable. No method can be devised more effectual to destroy the peace of society than tamely to give up the laws to conciliate the favour of the villainous. Like the tribute paid by the degenerate Romans to purchase peace of the northern barbarians, every concession will increase the demand and render resistance more hopeless.
Another class of men will encamp very near the enemy through mere love of ease. They would have no objection that vice should be suppressed, and good morals promoted, if these events would come to pass of their own accord but, when the question is asked, “what must be done?” this talk of action is a terrifying thing and, if in their panic they go not over to the enemy, it is only because the enemy also demands courage and enterprise. In this dilemma, it is judged expedient to put in requisition the resources of wisdom, and gravely to caution against rashness and innovation and zeal without knowledge, until all about them are persuaded, that the safest and wisest and easiest way is to do nothing.
There is another class of men, not too indolent, but too exclusively occupied with schemes of personal enterprise, to bestow that time or labour upon plans which regard only the general good. If their fields bring forth abundantly, if their profession be lucrative, if they can buy and sell and get gain, it is enough. Society must take care of itself. Distant consequences are not regarded, and generations to come must provide for their own safety. The stream of business hurries them on, without the leisure of a moment, or an anxious thought concerning the general welfare.
Another impediment to be apprehended, when the work of reformation is attempted is found in the large territory of neutrality around, which, on such occasions, is often very populous. Many would engage in the enterprise cheerfully, were they quite certain it could be done with perfect safety. But perhaps it may injure their interest or affect their popularity. They take their stand, therefore, on this safe middle ground. They will not oppose the work, for perhaps it may be popular, and they will not help the work, for perhaps it may be unpopular. They wait, therefore, till they perceive whether Israel or Amaleck prevail and then, with much self-complacency, fall in on the popular side.
This neutral territory is especially large in the government of a democracy, where so much of the profit from office and the gratification of so much ambition depend upon the votes of the people. It requires no deep investigation to make it manifest to the candidate that if he lends his influence to prevent travelling on the Sabbath, the Sabbath-breaker will not vote for him; if he lay his hand upon tippling shops, and drunkards, all the votes of those who are implicated will be turned against him. Hence many who should be a terror to evil-doers, do bear the sword in vain, They persuade themselves that theirs is a peculiar case and that for them it is not best to volunteer in the work of reformation.
To reduce the power of this temptation, it may be laid down as a maxim, that when the toleration of crimes becomes the price of public suffrage, when the people will not endure the restraint of righteous laws, but reward magistrates who violate their oath and suffer them to sin with impunity, and when magistrates will sell their conscience and the public good for a little brief authority, then the public suffrage is of but little value for the day of liberty is drawing to a close and the night of despotism is at hand. The people are prepared to become slaves and the villainous to usurp the government and rule them with a rod of iron. No compact formed by people is more unhallowed or pernicious than this tacit compact between rulers and subjects, to dispense with the laws and tolerate crimes.
In the midst of these difficulties, there are not a few who greatly magnify them by pusillanimous dejection. Like the captive Israelites, they sit down and fold their hands and sigh and weep and wish that something might be done, but inculcate unceasingly, the disheartening prediction that nothing can be done. Because the work cannot be done at a stroke, they conclude that it can never be done. Because all that might be desirable cannot be obtained, perhaps ever, they conclude that nothing can be obtained. Talk of reformation and the whole nation, with all its crimes, rises up before them and fills them with dismay and despair. It seems never to have occurred to them, that if we cannot do great good it is best to do a little and that, by accomplishing with persevering industry all that is practicable, the ultimate amount may be great, surpassing expectation.
There is yet another class of people who by no means despair of deliverance. But they have no conception that human exertion will be of much avail.
They say, “If we are delivered God must deliver us, and we must pray and wait till it shall please him to come and save us.”
But we may pray and wait forever, upon this principle, and the Lord will not come. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of means, and though the excellency of the power belongs to him exclusively; human instrumentality is indispensable.