Edward Hitchcock.

The religion of geology and its connected sciences online

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been strenuous opposers of special and miraculous providence. If they have
admitted, as most of the latter class have done, that some miracles were
performed in ancient times, they have strenuously maintained that the
doctrine of special providence in these days is absurd, and that God
cannot, without a miracle, bestow any special favors upon the virtuous in
answer to their prayers, or inflict any special punishments upon the
wicked; and that it is fanaticism to expect any other retributions than
such as the ordinary and unmodified course of nature brings along with it.

The unvarying constancy of nature, in consequence of being governed by
fixed laws, is the grand argument which they adduce in opposition to any
supposed special providence. _Since the fathers fell asleep_, say they,
_all things continue as they were from the beginning._ God has subjected
the world to the government of laws, and he will not interfere with,
counteract, set aside, or give a supernatural force to those laws, to meet
particular exigencies. For the adjustment of all apparent inequalities of
good and evil, suffering and enjoyment here, we must wait for the
disclosure of eternity, when strict retributive Justice will hold her even
scales. When natural evils come upon us, therefore, it is idle to expect
their removal, except so far as they may be mitigated or overcome by
natural means; and hence it is useless to pray for their removal, or to
expect God will deliver us from them in any other way. When the heavens
over us become brass, and the earth under our feet iron, and the rain of
our land is powder and dust, and want, and famine, as the consequence,
stalk forth among the inhabitants, of what use to pray to God for rain,
since to give it would require a miracle, and the age of miracles has
passed? When the pestilence is scouring through the land, and our
neighbors and nearest friends are within its grasp, and we may next become
its victims, - nay, when we, too, are on the borders of the grave, - why
should we expect relief by prayer, since sickness is the result of natural
causes, and God will not interpose to save us from the effects of natural
evils, because that would be contrary to a fixed rule of his government?
When dangers cluster around the good man in the discharge of trying
duties, it would be enthusiasm in him to expect any special protection
against his enemies, though he pray ever so fervently, and trust in divine
deliverance with ever so much confidence. He must look to another world
for his reward, if called to suffer here. Nor has the daringly wicked man
any reason to fear that God will punish his violations of the divine law
by any unusual display of his power; not in any way, indeed, but by the
evils which naturally flow from a wicked life. In short, it will be
useless to pray for any blessing that requires the least interference with
natural laws, or for the removal of any evil which depends upon those
laws. And since our minds are controlled as much by laws as the functions
of our bodies, we are not to expect any blessings in our souls, which
require the least infringement of intellectual laws. In fine, the effect
of prayer is limited almost entirely to its influence upon our own hearts,
in preparing them to receive with a proper spirit natural blessings, and
to bear aright natural evils; to stimulate us to use with more diligence
the means of avoiding or removing the latter, and securing the former.

Not a few philosophers of distinction, and some theologians, have adopted
these views. Even Dr. Thomas Brown uses the following language: "It is
quite evident that even Omnipotence, which cannot do what is
contradictory, cannot combine both advantages - the advantage of regular
order in the sequences of nature, and the advantages of a uniform
adaptation of the particular circumstances of the individual. We may take
our choice, but we cannot think of a combination of both; and if, as is
very obvious, the greater advantage be that of uniformity of operation, we
must not complain of the evils to which that very uniformity which we
cannot fail to prefer - if the option had been allowed us - has been the
very circumstance that gave rise." - _Lecture 94._

"Science," says George Combe, "has banished from the minds of profound
thinkers belief in the exercise by the Deity, in our day, of special acts
of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs; and it has
presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend,
and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. Many educated laymen, and
also a number of the clergy, have declined to recognize fasts,
humiliations, and prayers, as means adapted, according to their views, to
avert the recurrence of the evil, [the potato blight.] Indeed, these
observances, inasmuch as they mislead the public mind with respect to its
causes, are regarded by such persons as positive evils."

"The most irreligious of all religious notions, as it seems to us," says
the North American Review, "is a belief in special providences; for if the
doctrine has any weight at all, it is gained at the expense of a general
providence. To assume to detect God as nearer to us on some occasions is
to put him farther off from us on other occasions. To have him in special
incidents is to forget him in the common tenor of events. The doctrine of
special providences evidently has no other foundation than this, that men
_think they can detect_ God's purpose and presence more signally in some
incidents than in others; so that the doctrine, after all, is only a
compliment to man's power of detection, instead of an acknowledgment of
God's special presence."

Such views and reasonings seem, upon a superficial examination, to be very
plausible. But when we look into the Bible, we cannot but see that the
main drift of it is directly opposed to such notions. That book does
encourage man to pray to God for the removal of evils of every kind; evils
as much dependent upon natural laws as the daily course of the sun through
the heavens. It does teach us to look to God in every trying situation for
deliverance, if it is best for us to be delivered. It does represent the
wicked man as in danger of special punishment. It exhibits a multitude of
examples, in which God has thus delivered those who trusted in him, and
punished those who violated his laws.

In every age, too, the most devotedly pious men have testified, that they
have found deliverance and support in circumstances in which mere natural
laws could afford them no relief. Moreover, when men are brought into
great peril or suffering of any kind, they involuntarily cry to God for
help. When the vessel founders in the fury of the storm, the hardened
sailor employs that breath in ardent prayer which just before had been
poured out in blasphemies. And when the widowed mother hears the tempest
howling around her dwelling at night, she cannot but pray for the
protection of her child upon the treacherous sea. When violent disease
racks the frame, and we feel ourselves rapidly sinking into the grave, it
is scarcely in human nature to omit crying to God with a feeling that he
can save us. In short, it is a dictate of nature to call upon God in times
of trouble. Our reasoning about the constancy of nature, which appears to
us while in safety so clearly to show prayer for the removal of natural
evils to be useless, loses its power, and the feelings of the heart
triumph. It now becomes, therefore, an important practical question, which
of these views of the providence of God is correct. Is it those which our
reasoning derives from the constancy of nature, or those inspired by piety
and the Bible? I have already said, that the subject of this lecture
removes all presumption against the latter view; and I now proceed to show
how God can exercise a special providence over the world, so as to meet
the case of every individual, whether for blessing or punishment, and
that, too, without miracles.

Whoever believes that geology discloses stupendous miracles of creation,
at various epochs, will not doubt that all presumption against miraculous
agency at any other time is thus removed. For we are thus shown that the
law of miracles forms a part of the divine plan in the government of the
world. But this does not prove the same to be the fact in respect to a law
of special providence.

It is indeed true that geology gives us no distinct examples of special
providence, in the sense which we have attached to that term in the
present lecture. But it does furnish a multitude of instances in which
changes of physical condition in the earth were met by most wisely adapted
changes of organic nature. And even though these changes were the result
of miraculous agency, they disclose this principle of the divine
government, viz., that peculiarities of condition are to be met by special
arrangements, so that every exigency shall be provided for in the manner
infinite wisdom sees to be best. Now, this principle constitutes the
essence of special providence; and, therefore, geology, in showing its
past operation in the world's early organic history, affords a presumption
that the same unchanging God may still employ it in his natural and moral

But does not this principle of special adaptation to individual exigencies
demand miraculous agency in all cases? Can the wants of individuals be met
in any other way than by miracles, or by the ordinary and settled laws of
nature? I maintain that there are other modes in which this can be done;
in which, in fact, every case requiring special interference can be met
exactly and fully.

_This can be done, in the first place, by a divine influence exerted upon
the human mind, unperceived by the individual._

If it were perceived, it would constitute a miracle. But can we doubt that
the Author of mind should be able to influence it directly and indirectly,
unperceived by the man so acted upon? Even man can do this to his fellow;
and shall such a power be denied to God?

Now, in many cases, - I do not say all, - it only needs that the minds of
others should be inclined to do so and so towards a man, in order to place
him in circumstances most unlike those that would have surrounded him
without such an influence. Even the very elements, being to some extent
under human control, can thus be made subservient, or adverse, to an
individual; and, indeed, by a change in the feelings and conduct of others
towards us, by an unseen influence upon their minds, our whole outward
condition may be changed. In this way, therefore, can God, in many
instances, confer blessings on the virtuous, or execute punishment upon
the wicked, or give special answers to special prayer; and yet there
shall be no miracle about it, nor even the slightest violation of a law of
matter or of mind. The result may seem to us only the natural effect of
those laws, and yet the divine influence may have modified the effect to
any extent.

_In the second place, God can so modify the second causes of events out of
our sight, as to change wholly, or in part, the final result, and yet not
disturb the usual order of nature within sight, so that there shall be no

A miracle requires that the usual order of nature, as man sees it, be
interrupted, or some force superadded to her agency. But if such change
take place out of our sight, it might not disturb that order within sight;
and, therefore, to us it would be no miracle.

The mode in which this can be done depends upon the fact that in nature we
often find several causes, essential to produce an effect, connected
together, as it were, in a chain; so that each link depends upon that
which precedes it. Thus the power of vision depends upon the optic nerve,
in the bottom of the eye. But this would be useless, were not the coats
and humors of the eye of a certain consistence and curvature, in order to
bring the rays together to form an image on the retina. Again, these coats
and humors depend upon light, and light depends for its transmission,
probably, upon that exceedingly elastic medium called the _luminiferous
ether_. This is as far back as we can trace the series of causes concerned
in producing vision. And yet this elastic ether may depend upon something
else, and this cause of the movement of the ether upon another cause; and
we know not how long the chain may be before we reach the great First
Cause. Now, if any one of this series of second causes be modified, the
effect will be a modification of the final result. This supposed
modification may take place in that part of the chain of causes within our
view, or in that part concealed from us. If it took place within sight, it
would constitute a miracle; because the regular sequence of cause and
effect would be broken off, or an unnatural power be imparted to the cause
producing the ultimate effect. If the modification took place in that part
of the chain of second causes out of our sight, the final effect would be
no miracle; because it would be brought about by natural laws, and these
would perfectly explain it. Nevertheless, this ultimate effect would be
different from what it would be if God had not touched and modified that
link of causation which lies out of our sight, back among the secret
agencies of his will. And I see not but in this way he might modify the
ultimate effect as much as he pleased, and still preserve the unvarying
constancy of nature. For in all these cases we should see only the links
of the chain of causes nearest to us; and, provided they operated in their
usual order, how could we know that any change had taken place in the
region beyond our knowledge? If the whole chain of causation were open to
our inspection, then, indeed, would the transaction be an obvious miracle;
but now we see nothing but the unchanging operation of natural laws.

To illustrate this principle, let us imagine a few examples. Suppose the
land visited by drought, and its pious inhabitants assemble to pray for
rain. We know very well that the causes on which a storm of rain depend
are very complicated. How easy for the divine Being, in answer to those
prayers, to modify one or more of these secret agencies of meteorological
change, that are concealed from our sight, so as to bring together the
vapors over the land and condense them into rain! And yet that storm shall
have nothing about it unusual, and it results from the same laws which we
have before seen to be in operation. Still, it may have been the result of
a special agency exerted by Jehovah in answer to prayer, yet in such a
manner that no known law of nature is infringed upon, or even rendered
more powerful in its action.

Equally intricate and complicated are the causes of disease, and
especially of those pestilences that sometimes march over a whole
continent, with the angel of death in their train; and alike easy is it
for God, in answer to earnest prayer, to avert their progress, or to
cripple their power, or turn them aside from a particular district,
without the least interference with the visible connection of cause and

The beloved father of a family lies upon a bed of sickness, and disease is
fast gaining upon the powers of life. His numerous and desolate family, in
spite of the cold suggestion that it will be of no avail, will earnestly
beseech the Being in whose hands is the power of disease, to arrest the
fatal malady. And could not their Father in heaven, in the way I have
pointed out, give them their request, and yet their parent's recovery be
the natural result of careful nursing and medical skill? imposing,
however, upon that family as great an obligation as if a manifest miracle
had been wrought to save him.

The widow's only son, in spite of her counsels and entreaties, becomes a
vagabond upon the seas, and, at length, one of the crew of the battle
ship. The perils of the deep and of vicious companions are enough to make
that widow a daily and most earnest suppliant at the mercy-seat of her
heavenly Father, for his protection and salvation. But, at length, war
breaks out, and the perils of battle render his fate more doubtful. Still,
faith in God buoys up her heart, and she cannot abandon the hope of yet
seeing her son returned, reformed, and becoming a useful man. And at
length, rescued from the storm and shipwreck, and the carnage of battle,
and the yet more dangerous snares of sin, that youth returns, a renovated
man, and cheers that mother's setting sun by an eminently useful life.
Now, all this may have happened simply by the operation of natural laws.
But it may also have been the result of divine interference in answer to
prayer; and hard will you find it to convince that rejoicing mother that
the hand of God's extraordinary providence was not in it.

The devoted missionary, at the promptings of a voice within, quits a land
of safety and peace, and finds himself in the midst of dangers and
sufferings of almost every name; _in perils of waters, in perils of
robbers, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in weariness,
in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and
nakedness_. The furnace of persecution is heated, and he performs his
duties with his life constantly in his hand. But he uses no weapon save
faith and prayer. He feels that "he is immortal till his work is done."
And, in fact, he outlives all his dangers, and, in venerable old age,
surrounded by the fruits of his labor, - a reformed and affectionate
people, - he passes quietly into the abodes of the blessed. Here, again,
why should we hesitate to refer his protection and deliverance to the
special interposition of his heavenly Father, in the manner I have pointed

On the other hand, the history of dreadfully wicked men is full of
terrible examples of calamity and suffering, as the consequence of their
sins. True, the evil came upon them apparently by the operation of natural
laws; but shall we hence infer that God in no case has so modified these
laws, by an agency among the hidden causes of events, as to make the
result certain? He certainly could do this; and to say that he never has
done it, is to remove one of the most powerful restraints that operate
upon the wicked.

In several examples recorded in the Bible, both of deliverance for the
virtuous and of punishment for the wicked, so many natural agencies are
concerned, that we are left in doubt whether the events are to be regarded
as miraculous or not. Let the deluge, the destruction of Sodom, and the
passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea, serve as examples. In the
first, we find the flood imputed to a forty days' rain and the overflowing
of the ocean; and its reduction to a wind. In the destruction of the
cities of the plain, the phenomena described correspond very well with the
effects of volcanic agency; and we find accordingly that the region where
those cities stood shows marks of that agency. In the passage of the Red
Sea, the removal of the waters, to allow the Israelites to pass, is
imputed to a strong east wind all night. Nevertheless, the pillar of a
cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night were a manifest and standing
miracle in this transaction.

Now, may it not be that, in all these cases, so far as natural agencies
were concerned, they were made to conspire with the miraculous in the
manner which I have described, viz., by such a modification of some of the
remote causes by which they were brought into action, as exactly to answer
the divine purpose in the catastrophe of the deluge, of Sodom, and in the
passage of the Red Sea?

_A third mode by which the purposes of special providence can be brought
about without miracles is by such an adjustment of the direct and lateral
influences on which events depend, that the time and manner of their
occurrence shall exactly meet every exigency._

Although it expresses a truth to represent the second causes of events as
constituting the links of a chain, it is not the whole truth. For, in
fact, those causes are connected together in the form of a network, or,
more exactly still, by a sphere filled with interlocked meshes; or, to
speak more mathematically, the forces by which events are produced are
both direct and indirect. It would be easy to calculate the effect of a
single direct force; but if, in its progress, it meets with a multitude of
oblique impulses, striking it at every possible angle, what human
mathematics can make out the final resultant? Yet, in fact, such is the
history of almost every event. The lateral influences, which meet and
modify the direct force, are so numerous, and unexpected often, that men
are amazed at the result, sometimes as unexpected as a miracle. "When an
individual," says Isaac Taylor, "receives an answer to his prayer, the
interposition may be made, not in the line which he himself is describing,
but in one of those which are to meet him on his path; and at a point,
therefore, where, even though the visible constancy of nature should be
violated, yet, as being at the time beyond the sphere of his observation,
it is a violation not visible to him." "And herein is especially
manifested the perfection of divine wisdom, that the most surprising
conjunctions of events are brought about by the simplest means, and in a
manner that is perfectly in harmony with the ordinary course of human
affairs. This is, in fact, the great miracle of providence, that no
miracles are needed to accomplish its purposes." - _Nat. History of
Enthusiasm_, p. 128.

This complication of causes does not merely give variety to the works and
operations of nature, but it enables God to produce effects which could
never have resulted from each law acting singly; nor is there a scarcely
conceivable limit to these modifications. Indeed, in this way can
Providence accomplish all his beneficent purposes, and meet every
individual case, just as infinite wisdom would have it met. "By this
agency," says M'Cosh, "God can at one time increase, and at another time
lessen, or completely nullify, the spontaneous efforts of the fixed
properties of matter. Now he can make the most powerful agents in
nature - such as wind, fire, and disease - coincide and cooperate to produce
effects of such a tremendous magnitude as none of them separately could
accomplish; and again, he can arrest their influence by counteracting
agencies, or, rather, by making them counteract each other. He can, for
instance, by a concurrence of natural laws, bring a person, who is in the
enjoyment of health at present, to the very borders of death, an hour or
an instant hence; and he can, by a like means, suddenly restore the same
or another individual to health, after he has been on the very verge of
the grave. By the confluence of two or more streams, he can bring agencies
of tremendous potency to bear upon the production of a given effect, such
as a war, a pestilence, or a revolution; and, on the other hand, by
drawing aside the stream into another channel, he can arrest, at any given
instant, the awful effects that would otherwise follow from these
agencies, and save an individual, a family, or a nation, from the evils
which seem ready to burst upon them.

"Guided by these principles and guarded by sound sense, the inquiring mind
will discover many and wonderful designed connections between the various
events of divine providence. Read in the spirit of faith, striking
coincidences will every where manifest themselves. What singular unions of
two streams at the proper place to help on the exertions of the great and
good! What curious intersections of cords to catch the wicked as in a
net, when they are prowling as wild beasts! By strange but most apposite
correspondences, human strength, when set against the will of God, is made
to waste away under God's indignation burning against it, as, in heathen
story, Meleager wasted away as the stick burned which his mother held in
the fire." - _Method of the Divine Government_, pp. 176, 203.

In many cases, the lateral streams of influence that flow in and bring
unexpected relief to the pious man, and unexpected punishment to the
wicked, or a marked answer to prayer, seem to the individuals little short
of miraculous. Yet, after all, they can see no violation of the natural
order of cause and effect. But the wonder is, how the modifying influence
should come in just at the right moment. It may, indeed, have received a
commission to do this very thing from the immediate impulse of Jehovah;
yet, being unperceived by us, it is no miracle. Or the whole plan may have
been so arranged at the beginning that its development will meet every

Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 27 of 39)