William Whewell.

A sermon preached before the University of Cambridge, on the day of the general Thanksgiving, November 15, 1849 online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryWilliam WhewellA sermon preached before the University of Cambridge, on the day of the general Thanksgiving, November 15, 1849 → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

















expressive of the pervading feeling may, under such
circumstances, be willingly accepted.

I dedicate this Sermon to you, Mr Vice-Chancellor,
as the Head of the University, with the sentiments of
respect which belong to that high office, and with great
personal regard :

And I am,
Your faithful and obedient Servant,




Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled : thou takest away their breath,
they die, and return to their dust.

TT7~E are in many ways taught our dependance upon
' God. Perhaps there is in the heart of man a native
and spontaneous sentiment of this dependance ; or at least
a deep and pervading conviction of it among those who
think of God at all. We know and feel that we did not


make ourselves ; that we cannot preserve ourselves from
day to day without using the means which are supplied
to us by a higher power ; that our strength is feeble,
limited and mastered by a greater strength ; our thoughts
confused and narrow, seeking in vain to penetrate far
into that full light of knowledge of which from time to
time we obtain glimpses ; that our time is short, while
the source out of which we and all things spring con-
tinues the same from age to age. We are as children,
weak, ignorant, helpless ; but even by the light of na-
ture we can see that we are His children ; ' so one of
your own wise men has declared' said St Paul to the
Athenians; and doubtless the hearts of all the better
natures among his hearers responded with reverent
satisfaction, when he added, to this text of natural rea-
son, his noble comment, ' In Him we live and move and
have our being.' They would recollect to have heard


expressions of the like import utterances of similar
feelings floating among the groves of Academus and
echoing along the columns of the Portico, though, in
that former time, not given forth with the power and
authority which belonged to him who then stood on
the Areopagus. They could readily allow, and would
agree in proclaiming, that there was one whose bright-
ness was the light of the world, so that if He were to
turn away his face all things would straightway be
troubled : that there was one whose Spirit was the life
of all that live, so that if He were to take away their
breath they would die and return to their dust.

But though the heart of man naturally uttered or
readily echoed this whisper of a universal Father, whose
children we all are, a universal Spirit, by whose per-
mission and protection we all breathe ; God did not leave
man to learn this lesson from his own heart alone. He
also taught it to him more expressly and directly in the
words which He, by His Holy Spirit, put into the mouths
of His most favoured worshippers, and through them
transmitted to all others, and finally, in the course of
ages, to us. In the book which contains the teaching
so vouchsafed to man, we have far more distinct and
forcible representations of the mastery of God over all
things, and the dependance of all things upon God, than
we have even in the most sublime and felicitous expres-
sions of natural piety which ever fell from the ancient
poets and philosophers. The psalm from which our text
is taken will at once rush into your memories, and you
will see how vague and unsubstantial, how pale and
colourless are all the images of pagan poets, compared
with the description of the real spiritual constitution of
the universe, given by the servant of God, speaking as
it were, with a knowledge of the case, and with the

clearness of an eye-witness. We are there told, in no
loose and doubtful manner, but with deep conviction,
leading to devotional awe, of Him who has laid the foun-
dations of the earth, and confined the sea within its
boundaries ; who has poured forth His springs to give
drink to every beast of the field, and provided habita-
tions for the fowls of the air; who brings forth corn
and wine and oil for the use of man, and who calls forth
man to the work of the morning, when the lions, which
had been heard in the night as asking for their food,
have laid them down in their dens. When he has thus
reviewed the provision made for all kinds of creatures,
the psalmist exclaims, in the fulness of reverence and
awe which such a spectacle, naturally produces, " Lord,
how manifold are thy works ! in wisdom hast thou made
them all : the earth is full of thy riches. All creatures
wait upon thee that thou mayest give them their meat
in due season. They gather that which thou givest
them : thou openest thy hand and they are filled with
good." And then comes the thought of the opposite
supposition ; of the contrast which would follow if this
perpetual and universal sustaining power and protecting
care were withdrawn, even for an hour. What would
happen if God did not open His hand, if He did not pour
His riches in this constant stream among the inhabitants
of the earth ? if He ceased to regard them with an eye of
kindness and favour ? The thought of the text is, that on
this supposition, darkness and destruction would forth-
with fall upon all. "Thou hidest thy face, they are
troubled : thou takest away their breath, they die, and
return to their dust."

And this lesson of our dependance upon God, thus
plainly and strongly inculcated, in this, as in many other
parts of our bibles, when once taught, must surely be

constantly suggested to our minds. It must recur with
every return of the night and of the morning of which
the psalmist thus speaks : with the aspect of the moun-
tains and the ocean, the springs of the valley and the
trees of the forest, to which he appeals : it must be
taught by the moon when she marks the appointed
seasons, and the sun who knoweth his going down, and
at that moment especially draws our thoughts to solemn
contemplation. It must recur with every meal which is
spread on our tables by his bounty ; with every evening
that smoothes our bed and curtains our slumber under
His protection ; with every morning that summons us to
our labour, which, whatever it may be, is His appoint-
ment, and ought to be for His service. On all these
occasions, God himself teaches us that we are entirely
dependent upon Him, by making such a thought the
natural accompaniment of all serious and solemn feel-
ing ; and by giving us, in His word, the expression of
this thought, confirmed, expanded, animated by the
influence of His Holy Spirit.

But this lesson, of our dependance upon Gt)d, and
constant need of His bounty and His support, is not only
taught us by His works and by His word, whispered to
our secret thoughts and proclaimed with the tongues of
men and of angels, but it is also inculcated by all the
ordinances of devotion, public and private ; for what act
of worship is there of which this acknowledgment does
not form the basis and the beginning, of which every
part does not involve the declaration that we are God's
creatures, His by creation and preservation, and with-
out Him nothing ? This is what men declare in their sab-
bath assemblies, in their secret prayers, in their petitions
for a blessing on what they do and on what they have.
We in particular, who spend our days in this place,

under the sway of those rules of piety which our wise
founders have laid down for us, can hardly forget that
lesson of our dependance upon God which is contained
in the course of daily life, and in the pages of the sacred
volume. For in our courts and halls at least the voice of
pious prayer and praise is not heard at distant intervals
only, and locked in silence from sabbath to sabbath. In
each of the houses which we inhabit, we are constantly
reminded by our own ordinances, that we enjoy those,
and all our other privileges by the Divine mercy. The
Divine blessing is invoked upon the assembled meal,
which by the Divine bounty we are about to partake ;
and when the meal is ended, we address the Father and
the God who has so bountifully fed us, and pray that we
may shew our gratitude in our lives. And the daily
worship of God, to which we (in this as in so many other
things, a favoured people) are called, puts in our mouths,
and surely ought to put in our hearts, abundant senti-
ments of filial fear and love towards God, as they have
been moulded into language by those excellent men of
former times who have transmitted to us the forms of
our prayers; and as they have been expressed by writers
like the psalmist, elevated by the Spirit of God above
the feeble and wandering utterance of unassisted man.
Each one of the psalms in which God's power and good-
ness and providence are celebrated in strains so lofty
and so tender is placed upon our lips in the course of
our ordinary worship in the house of God ; and the
moon who is appointed for seasons, never makes her cir-
cuit of the skies without bringing to us the evening on
which we have to join our voices in that noble effusion
of devotion from which our text is taken. So fre-
quently have we to utter these very words which con-
tain the acknowledgment of the effects of God's presence



and of His absence ; of His protection of His creatures
and His desertion of them : " Thou openest thine hand,
they are filled with good: thou takest away their breath,
they die, and return to dust."

So familiar and frequent, then, is the recognition of
God's care and our dependance upon it, that it might
seem impossible that we should forget it for a week or
for a day. The course of nature and the course of wor-
ship, the thoughts of solitude and the voice of the con-
gregation, alike remind us of it alike press it upon us.
But is it indeed so, that men do always bear in mind
the thought of their Heavenly Father? Do they really
and truly consider themselves as preserved from month
to month and from day to day, by the care of the Great
Governor of the World ? Is He often present to their
thoughts, as no less actually existing, no less operating
upon their being, than the human creatures, their fel-
low-men, whom they see with their eyes and hear with
their ears? Do they indeed see the working of God's
hand in all the events which occur around them? Do
they see the riches of His bounty in all the blessings
which they enjoy ? Is this an abiding, substantial, prac-
tical belief with the greater part of mankind? My
brethren ! we know that it is not so, we know that the
greater part of mankind habitually forget God. God is
not in all their thoughts. The events of the natural
world, storm and sunshine, season succeeding to season,
the earth, the air, the waters ministering to our life,
call up in their breasts no thought of a Ruler of these
elements, of a Giver of these bounties. They accept
them, as if they came from some Chance or Nature
which has no will and no choice. Even if the name of
God be on their lips with reference to such things, how
faint and feeble is the thought which accompanies it in


their hearts ! How often is the verbal acknowledg-
ment of God's goodness and of our dependance on Him,
a mere empty sound which signifies nothing really pass-
ing in the mind of him who uses it ! The very frequency
and regularity of the occurrences which should speak to
us of God's providence produces upon us a contrary
effect. One day telleth another, one night certifieth
another, of their great Maker ; but we become deaf to
the voice which goes out into all lands exactly because
it is constantly uttered. The returning seasons bring us
their gifts in unfailing order and in ample measure,
and we are led to look at the seasons as our servants
rather than His. We live on from year to year inhaling
health from the atmosphere, seeing little of disease
except as the result of our vices, little of death except
as the natural progress of human decay; and we think
that health is the proper right of man, and that the
extent of the conquests of death is limited by fixed
boundaries. In ordinary and prosperous times we for-
get that our health, that of all who are near and dear
to us, that of our neighbours among whom we live, that
of the nation through all its numbers, is the gift of God :
we forget that death is but a rod in the hand of the
Most High, and that it is as easy for Him to mark out
with it among the people of the land a larger as a
smaller portion to be taken away from among us;
easy to encircle with its black line, not one in a hundred
or one in fifty, but one tenth, one fourth, one half of
the whole population.

This is easy for God; how easy it is, in ordinary
times we constantly forget ; and therefore it is most
fit that He should, in His good Providence, remind us
of this momentous truth, by extraordinary visitations.
If we forget Him in times of plenty, is it not most


fit that He should send upon us times of scarceness?
If we forget Him in times of health, is it not most fit
that He should send upon us times of sickness? Is
not this most suitable to His relation to us, to the
reverence which is due to Him, to the discipline which
we need ? Is not such a mode of visitation an evidence
of God's good providence of His best providence;
that which provides for our spiritual improvement and
brings us nearer to Him? Is it not evidence of His
paternal love, that He thus chastises us, for whom the
Lord loveth He chasteneth? Is it not for our benefit
that He should thus trouble us by turning away His
face from us, if this trouble be needed in order that
we may so turn to Him that He may again turn upon
us His forgiving eye and His fatherly smile ?

And such visitations as we here speak of; such as
that under which we have been suffering, which we
would now fain trust is past, and which with humbled
and thankful hearts we to-day look back upon, such
visitations do indeed give to men in general a sense
of God's power and presence, such as, under the ordi-
nary course of things, they are slow to entertain.
When diseases come, not like familiar and motley
visitors, undistinguishable in the ordinary crowd of
life, but like an invading army, all wearing the same
garb, and with their dense ranks trampling down the
people, then we see that they are indeed God's army.
When the pestilence walketh in darkness, we know
that He has sent it on its mission : when the arrow
which smites thousands flies by noon-day, we know
from whose quiver it comes.

When we see our neighbours, our friends, the mem-
bers of our family, snatched from us in rapid succes-
sion, in awful numbers, we are no longer satisfied


to deem ourselves under the sway of an abstract Mor*
tality; we acknowledge that we are dealt with by a
personal God. When the lament of bereaved households
arises in our dwellings, when the frequent funeral
darkens our streets, or the coffins, too numerous for
complete rites, are piled in unwonted receptacles, then
we turn in fear and trembling to Him in whose hand
are the issues of life and death. Though our eyes
have been blinded, though our thoughts of heavenly
things have been torpid, though our hearts have been
hardened like those of the Rulers of Egypt, yet like
them, when a cry arises in the midst of the night, and
we awake and find our first-born dead, then, like them,
we are compelled to acknowledge the hand of the
Lord, and are willing to lend ourselves to His service.
The discipline of God's Providence is sharp, but it is
not ineffectual : His rod is heavy, but He smites to
purpose. Man, so chastised, turns to the hand which
chastises him, in reverence and awe, in supplication
and prayer. We know that such has been the effect of
this visitation among ourselves. We know that we
have been ready to throw ourselves at God's footstool,
and to own that we received the infliction as His judg-
ment. We know that men have eagerly crowded into
the houses of prayer for this purpose : have humbly
listened while the preacher has spoken to them of God
as seen in the pestilence. The lesson which, as we
believe, God intends that we should gather from such
events, has been, in some degree at least, accepted and
studied. And now we are called upon to turn our
thoughts again to the same subject, under its more
cheerful aspect. We have had to contemplate the in-
fliction ; we are now allowed and invited to look at the
relief. We have had to begin our lesson with the


arrival of this terrible visitor, let us try to complete
the lesson on his departure. Let us endeavour to place
before ourselves some of the instructions, some of the
warnings, which such an occasion obviously offers. Let
us consider what impressions of a religious and profit-
able kind are left upon us by the dark cloud of disease
and death through which we have passed.

In the first place, and as the most obvious moral of
what we have had to suffer and to fear, we may learn
Humility. This moral is on the surface of the occasion,
and surely it was not given to us till it was called for.
For have not men of late been prone to a temper of
self-gratulation and self-admiration, for which a lesson of
humility was much needed ? I speak not of men's sen-
timents with regard each to himself personally, but of
their feeling with regard to the achievements of their
age and generation. And on this subject have we not
been accustomed to hear the most loud and frequent
expressions of exultation and self-complacency? The
inventions of our time, it was often said, had placed us
at a vast elevation above all previous ages. We, it
cannot be doubted, are wiser than our fathers were, and
do familiarly what they deemed impossible. We pass
across the waters though adverse winds oppose us ; we
rush along the earth more rapidly than the wind itself;
the lightning is our minister, and conveys our thoughts
from place to place with its own rapidity : there is an
unheard-of activity of thought prevalent, in which all
ranks and classes share. The culture of the mind is now
no longer confined to a few, but is acknowledged as the
right and promoted as the benefit of all. If our ances-
tors could see us, they would be filled with admiration;
they would look with comparative contempt, or with
humbled vanity, on the scanty inheritance of human


power and human knowledge which was allowed to their
generation. Such sayings have been frequent among
us. Perhaps, even in their first aspect, not wise say-
ings ; for what can be wise which involves so much of
pride and self-applause ? Perhaps not wise sayings ; for
is not this thought, How much others would admire us
if they could see us, rather the thought of a vain
child, arrayed in some new and gaudy vestment, than
that of a wise man, who knows that spectators do not
so easily transfer their admiration from themselves to
others ; and to whom it may occur, that our ancestors
may have thought as much of what they did in their
time, as we think of what we have done in ours ; and
with equal reason : to whom it may occur, also, that
there have been ages in which the amount of manifest
progress of man was far greater than it is in ours : for
instance, the age of Columbus and Gutenburg, or the
age of Luther and Galileo. But still more plainly is this
exultation in our own age a mark of doubtful wisdom,
when we see how little all the inventions of which we
boast, all the wonders at which we marvel, have done to
subdue human misery and vice ; have availed to make
men happier and better. With all this diffusion of
knowledge in the land, are there not thousands and
millions who have no knowledge of God, and to whom
it is supposed the country cannot afford the means of
giving such knowledge ? With all these modes of con-
veyance which bring to us the wealth of every land,
food from the west, and spices from the east, are there
not thousands and tens of thousands who lie shivering in
squalid poverty and pining hunger, in dark and desolate
dens, in the very middle of our luxurious palaces? Among
all this regaling of our poorer brethren with intellec-
tual food, are we not often compelled to pass a fellow-


creature, who, with a form as noble as ours, can find no
food for the body ? With all our material devices and
improvements, have these moral and social evils dimi-
nished? Are there not as many poor, and the poor
as miserable ? as many ignorant, and the ignorant as
brutal? as many destitute of the means of earning
food, and those thus destitute, as desolate, as in the
age of our fathers? And if this be so, how poor is our
pride, how misplaced our self-gratulation. The rich
man can command the elements, can annihilate space
and time, can cull the sweets of every climate, can
gather about him those who can reveal to him the
secrets of nature. Be it so : even he may be not a whit
the wiser or better for all this. But how are we wise, if
we rejoice and wonder at these achievements of our
contemporaries, while poverty and vice and ungodliness
grow and multiply around us till we cannot, for shame
and fear, look them in the face, and, as was said of old
by one who, while writing the story of a great empire,
thought of its abject and gloomy decline, can neither
bear our diseases, nor the remedies which they need ?

Looking at such views as these of our condition, we
might, it would seem, learn humility, rather than pride,
even from the ordinary state of things about us. But if
the ordinary state of things fails to impress upon us this
lesson, God has other ways of making us feel it, by the
means of extraordinary visitations, such as the pestilence
which He sent among us for a time. This calamity,
while sweeping away its thousands and tens of thou-
sands, in spite of all the resources of modern skill and
knowledge, was well fitted to dispel all our visions of
our own strength and power, to bring down the high
thoughts of our pride ; to remind us that we are men,
and to remind us how poor and helpless and blind, man,


at the best, is; to teach us that pride was not made
for man, and cannot be his sentiment, except so long as
he shuts out of his thoughts God, and the service of
God, and his relation to his brother men, children
along with him of God ; bound to him by the tie of a
common nature, a common Father, a common Redeemer,
a common hope of immortality. Has he dealt with his
brethren in this view ? They have been passing away
by thousands to the presence of God ; passing away
to give an account of themselves ; and also, my brethren,
of us ! to tell how we have dealt with them ; how
we have helped them in that common task of theirs and
ours ; the task of living as God's servants and children
in this world, and of preparing to meet our Judge
our Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier in a world beyond
the grave. When we consider what the account will be
which they who are gone will have to give of us who
remain, may we not well lay aside all high thoughts ?
May we not well feel humbled in our own eyes : may we
not eagerly put away from us all the conceit of the
superiority of our own generation, which perhaps we
have been entertaining ? And if the late visitation has
taught us this lesson, surely it has not been sent in vain.
Surely it will be to those who thus turn it to account,
not an evil but a good, not a curse but a blessing.

We may remark further, that this visitation was
specially fitted to break down any conceit which we
may entertain of the great skill of our time in matters
which concern the health of the body. For now, after
this pestilence has twice stalked through the land, the
wisest of our physicians presume not to say that they
know more of its nature and origin, or of the means of
resisting its invasions and healing where it smites, than
they knew when first it appeared among us. Of all


these things they are ignorant now as they were igno-
rant then. And thus, while men were loudly boasting
of their knowledge of the human frame, and of the laws
of life, and of the means of directing the vital powers
so as to cast off disease and procrastinate death ; the
very first event which occurs, deviating from the com-
mon and familiar course of things, is utterly beyond
the circuit of the field to which this knowledge extends,
and puts to complete shame their self-complacent boast-
ing. Is it, then, too much to say that the infliction
which has fallen upon us, and which we, here assembled,
acknowledge for a judgment of God, was fitted to teach


Online LibraryWilliam WhewellA sermon preached before the University of Cambridge, on the day of the general Thanksgiving, November 15, 1849 → online text (page 1 of 2)