Sermons Volume 2
Sermom 75-Duty of the Present to the Coming Generation
"One generation shall praise thy works
to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts."
In bringing into existence angels and men, —the only orders of intelligent creatures with which we are acquainted, —the all-wise Creator saw fit to adopt two very different methods of proceeding. The angels, we have reason to believe, were all created at the same time, and in the full maturity of their intellectual powers. But men are brought into existence successively; and a small part only of the whole race inhabit this world at the same period. One generation gives birth to another; and then passes off the stage of life, to give place to its descendants. From the mode which God has thus adopted of bringing mankind into existence in successive generations, many most important consequences result.
Of these consequences one is, that they all originally possess the same moral nature; for it seems to be an established law, and universal so far as this world is concerned, that every thing which is productive shall produce its own likeness. Again; in the mode of bringing mankind into existence, all the natural relations which subsist among them have their origin. No similar relations, it is evident, can subsist among angelic beings. Among them the titles of parent, child, brother, and other names expressive of relationship, are not known. Once more; from the mode of bringing mankind into existence, which God has adopted, result most of the social and relative duties which he requires them to perform. Of these duties one of the most important is described in our text. One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.
This passage may be understood either as a prediction, or as a command. On the present occasion I shall consider it as a command. Viewed in this light, it prescribes a most important duty to each of the successive generations of mankind; of course, to the present generation, as well as to those which shall follow it. To show in what the duty consists, and to state some reasons why it should be performed, is my design in the present discourse.
With this view I remark, that the duty here enjoined consists of two parts. The first is, to declare, or make known the works of God to succeeding generations, and especially, to that generation which immediately follows us. In other words, it is to inform them what God has done, and what he is now doing. This, it is obvious, embraces a wide field of instruction; for the works of God are both numerous and various.
1. They include his works of creation. These, therefore, we must make known to the generation which follows us. We must declare to them the fact, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, with all which they contain; that, when nothing existed besides himself, —worlds, angels, men and animals came into being at his command. They include,
2. His works of providence. These, therefore, must be made known to the succeeding generation. They must be taught that, in a mysterious, but most powerful and efficacious manner. God preserves and governs everything which he has made; that all events, from the greatest to the most minute, are under his control; and that what men call the laws of nature are only fixed modes of operation which he has adopted. Their attention must be particularly directed to those great dispensations of providence which respect our whole race; to those which are recorded in the Scriptures; to those of which their country has been the scene or the object; and to those which more immediately affect themselves. In short, they must be taught to see God’s hand in everything, to view him as the source of all temporal blessings, and the great agent who worketh all in all.
3. God’s works include the work of redemption, considered as a whole, together with all those gracious dispensations which are parts of it. This is the great work of works, —the work with reference to which all God’s other works are performed. In this work every individual of every generation is deeply interested; and, therefore, this work especially should be made known to all. To make known this work, is to make known all that God has ever done for the salvation of our ruined race, so far as he has revealed it to us. It includes all the preparations which have been made for the coming of Christ; his coming itself, the work which he performed and the sufferings which he endured while on earth, and what he has done since he ascended to heaven. It includes also the revelation which God has given us in the Scriptures; for this is one of his works, though men were employed in effecting it. They wrote, but he dictated. They held the pen, but he moved it. Such are the works of God which one generation should make known to another; and a very little reflection will convince us that, in making known all these works, the whole system of religious truth and duty will be made known; for there is no doctrine, no precept of Christianity, which is not either founded upon some of God’s works, or intimately connected with them.
But how, it may be asked, are these works of God to be communicated by one generation to another? I answer, —they are to be communicated, generally speaking, just as a knowledge of other things is communicated by one generation to another. Observation teaches us, that all the knowledge of temporal things which one generation possesses, is usually imparted to the next. This is done in various ways. Parents teach their children, if they are able; and if not, they employ other persons to teach them those things which are necessary to qualify them for active life. Colleges, academies, and schools are founded, and their support provided for, either by the civil powers, or by the munificence of private individuals, on purpose to impart instruction to the rising generation. A great part of the knowledge which every generation possesses is also recorded in books, and thus transmitted to posterity. And we may add, that much useful knowledge is every day imparted casually in conversation, in carrying on the common business of life. Now in all these ways one generation ought to communicate to another a knowledge of the works of God. Parents who possess this knowledge, —and every parent ought to possess it, —must impart it to their children. All who are employed in the instruction of youth should impart it to their pupils. A competent number of well-qualified religious teachers should be provided. Seminaries, if necessary, should be founded and supported for the education of such teachers. All who are qualified to instruct mankind by their writings, should communicate religious knowledge through the medium of the press; and those who are not thus qualified, should embrace every opportunity of imparting it in conversation. In one or another of these various ways, all the religious knowledge which is possessed by one generation must be transmitted to the generation which follows it. This constitutes the first part of the duty enjoined in the text.
The second part is, for one generation to praise God’s works to another. While they communicate a knowledge of his works they must speak highly of them. While they tell what he has done, they must add, he has done all things well. When they describe his works of creation, they must extol the wisdom, power and goodness which are displayed in them. While they communicate a knowledge of his works of providence, they must applaud them as infinitely wise, holy, just, and good. And while they exhibit the wonders of redemption, and God’s works of grace to the following generation, they must accompany the exhibition with those glowing expressions of admiration, gratitude, love and joy, which this grand display of all God’s perfections ought to call forth from those, for whose benefit it was made, and whose everlasting happiness it is designed to promote. In short, the high praises of God must be sedulously poured into the ears of the rising generation; all the praise which has come down to us from former generations, or which has resounded from heaven to earth, must be echoed back to them; they trust never hear him spoken of, but in just, that is, most exalted terms. They must be convinced that we regard him with the utmost admiration, reverence, gratitude, and love; and be made, if possible, to feel that among the gods there is none like Jehovah, nor any works like his works.
Such is the duty which every generation of mankind is commanded to perform with respect to the generation which immediately follows it.
Should it be thought by any, that the passage under consideration does not enjoin this duty; that it is simply a prediction and not a command—other passages can be easily adduced, in which the duty is explicitly enjoined. The church of God is represented as saying, We will not hide what our fathers have told us, showing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works which he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, and declare them to their children. In this passage the duty of transmitting the knowledge and the praises of God’s works from one generation to another, is surely prescribed and enjoined as clearly as language can do it.
Having shown in what the duty consists, I proceed, as was proposed,
II. To state some reasons which should induce us to perform it.
1. One reason may be found in the natural relations which exist between the present and the next generation. These relations are intimate and endearing. The next generation will owe its existence to the present. They will be our descendants, our children. Even those of us who are related to none of them as parents, will be related to them in some other way. In short, there is probably not one individual present, who will have none that are related to him in the next generation. Now in consequence of the relations which exist between this generation and the next, we are its natural guardians, instructors, and guides. To us the education of their bodies, their minds, and their hearts, are entrusted. They have a natural right to look to us for instruction, and to expect that we should teach them everything which it is necessary for them to know. And is it not necessary that they should know their Creator, their God, the being on whom they depend? Is it not necessary that they should know the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, whom to know is eternal life? Is it not necessary that they should have that knowledge which makes men wise unto salvation?
Again: the rising generation look to us for instruction respecting the real value of objects. In regard to these they are liable to be deceived. They cannot readily distinguish between appearances and reality, between food and poison. They need, and they have a claim to, the benefit of our knowledge and experience. They expect that we will speak to them in high terms of that which is most valuable; that we shall teach them to admire what is most admirable, and to pursue what is most worthy of pursuit. And is there any thing more admirable than the works and perfections of God; any thing more valuable, or more worthy of pursuit, than his favor? We ought then to praise him in their hearing; to speak of him in the highest terms; and to show them by our conduct that our praises are sincere. If we fail to do this, we sin against the relations which we sustain. If he who provides not for his own, especially for those of his own household, is worse than an infidel; what shall be said of him, who communicates to his own children, no knowledge of God, and teaches them neither by precept nor by example to praise him!
2. Another reason for the performance of this duty may be found in the fact, that each of the successive generations of mankind is the natural and rightful heir of the generation which preceded it. This is the appointment of God, the sovereign proprietor of all things. He has granted to each generation of mankind a life-estate only in their temporal possessions; and when the period, for which this grant was made, terminates, their possessions must go to the next generation. The present generation, for instance, can hold their lands, houses, goods, and privileges during life only; and when they pass off the stage, all these things will become the property of the next generation. Since then that generation are, by God’s appointment, our natural and rightful heirs; since they will inherit all our other possessions, —it seems right and proper that they should inherit our knowledge of God and of his works. And since we cannot bequeath this knowledge by a will or testament, as we can our other possessions; since all which we do not communicate, while living, will be buried with us and lost forever; it seems necessary that we should impart it while life continues; and also make suitable provision for its preservation and increase. Everyone who believes the Scriptures, and indeed everyone who believes that men are accountable, will acknowledge that it would be cruel to transmit our temporal possessions to posterity, and yet withhold from them that religious knowledge, which alone can teach them how to use these possessions, and prevent them from becoming a snare and a curse, as they certainly will, if not employed in a right manner. Would not he be thought greatly deficient, either in prudence or in affection, who should bequeath to his children a magazine of gunpowder, or a quantity of virulent poison, and yet leave them in ignorance how to use it in such a manner as would be safe to themselves and others? My hearers, to bequeath a large portion of wealth, or of worldly knowledge, or of any other temporal possession to posterity, without imparting to them a knowledge of God, and of their duty, and their accountability, is worse than to bequeath them poison without cautioning them how they use it. How many have we seen ruined, both for this world and the next, in consequence of inheriting from their parents a large estate, without being taught how to use it, or to know that they must account for it! On the other hand, he who bequeaths posterity the knowledge and the praises of God, bequeaths a rich inheritance, even should he leave them nothing else.
3. The obligation to perform this duty will appear still more evident, if we recollect that for the religious knowledge and the means of acquiring it, which we possess, we are indebted, under God, to preceding generations. From them we received the Bible, that grand, inexhaustible depository of religious truth. From them we have received numberless other volumes, designed to explain and enforce its contents. From them we receive all the oral religious instruction which was imparted to us in our early years. To them we are indebted for our religious institutions, for a large proportion of our religious teachers, and for most of the colleges and other seminaries in which men are educated for the teacher’s office. And all these blessings they imparted to us, on purpose that we might transmit them to posterity. It was their design, as it is the will of God, that we should do this. Our religious knowledge and privileges may, therefore, be considered as a kind of entailed estate; or an estate which we have no right to alienate, and which we are under obligation to transmit, unimpaired, to posterity. And can any of yon wish, or even consent, to disregard these obligations?
Can you consent that the life-giving streams of that knowledge which makes men wise unto salvation, and which have flowed down from former generations to the present, should here stop, and proceed no further? Can you consent that at the last day, these streams should be traced down to us, and there be found to have disappeared, like a river lost among sands? Can you consent that your descendants should perish for thirst, and through eternity curse you as the cause? Shall they have reason to say, religious knowledge was transmitted and increased until it reached our fathers, but with them it was lost? Let those especially, who were blessed with pious parents, and with early religious instruction, think of these questions. Let them recollect, that they have incurred a debt, which they can discharge only by communicating to the next generation the instruction which they have received from the last. And let all my hearers remember, that there is no country on the face of the globe, in which these remarks should have such weight, as in New England. In no country are the present generation so deeply indebted to their ancestors as in this. O, what a birthright, what an inheritance did the fathers of New England bequeath to their posterity! Their knowledge of God, and their disposition to praise him have long since carried them to heaven; but they have left these blessings to us, that we may be taught and persuaded to follow them. And shall we disappoint their hopes and frustrate their endeavors? Most men are unwilling that an estate which has been for ages in their family shall go out of it. Shall we not then be unwilling that the religion of our fathers, and the blessings connected with it, should go out of the family? Shall we not, instead of selling our birthright, like profane Esau, say with Naboth, God forbid that I should part with the inheritance of my fathers! God forbid that I should fail to transmit to posterity the rich legacy which has descended to me.
4. A still more powerful reason why we should perform this duty, may be found in the fact, that we transmit to our posterity a corrupt and depraved nature, which, unless its influence is counteracted by religion, will render them miserable here and hereafter. It is in vain to deny or conceal the fact. The Scriptures assert it in the plainest terms, and universal observation and experience confirm the assertion. Every generation of mankind is an exact counterpart of the generation which preceded it; and exhibits the same moral image, the same sinful propensities, the same disposition to neglect and disobey God. Man was, indeed, first planted a noble vine; but he fell, and in consequence of his fall, men are now the degenerate plants of a strange vine. Nor are the human form and the human countenance more certainly transmitted by them to their posterity, than is a depraved and corrupt nature. Those of you who are parents, and who know anything of your own hearts, see in your children an exact moral resemblance of yourselves. You are at no loss to determine whence they derive those sinful passions and propensities which they exhibit; you see, full blown in your own hearts, all those evils, the seeds of which you discover in them. Thus from one generation to another the poisonous streams flow down, diffusing moral contagion and death, and threatening to engulf the whole race in remediless sinfulness, wretchedness, and despair. It is no part of my present design to prove the justice of that constitution, which establishes a connection between the moral nature of parents and that of their offspring. That constitution is one of God’s works, one of those works which we are required not only to make known, but to praise. Of course, it must be just. But it is more to my present purpose to call your attention to the means which God has graciously appointed for the remedy and prevention of those evils, under which the successive generations of mankind have so long groaned. These means are a faithful performance of the duty enjoined in our text. And we have reason to believe, that if this duty were faithfully and universally attended to, it would be sufficient. Let all the individuals of any one generation acquire the knowledge of God, and exercise those feelings towards his character and his works, which are expressed in praise; and then let them communicate this knowledge and express these feelings to all the individuals of the next generation; and the tide of corruption which now overflows the world would, in a great measure at least, be stopped. I do not mean that any generation, even if every member of it were pious, could convert the next; but I believe, and the Scriptures war rant the belief, that if one generation should faithfully perform its duty, God would bless its exertions and answer its prayers, by rendering the next generation almost universally pious. And then that generation, in its turn, would perform the same duty to the next, with similar success; and thus the knowledge and praises of God would flow down from generation to generation, and fill the earth, even as the waters fill the seas. If any doubt this, let me request them to suppose that all the present inhabitants of this town should become judicious, well-informed, and zealous Christians; that they should all exemplify Christianity in their temper and conduct; that every practice and amusement inconsistent with pure religion should be banished; that they should all take as much pains to educate children for the other world, as they do to educate them for this; that children should never hear God or his works mentioned, but with admiration, gratitude, and love, and be taught from infancy that religion is the one thing needful; I say, suppose this to be the case, and can you doubt that all, or nearly all, the next generation in this town would become Christians; and in their turn act the same part to the generation which should follow them? If so, how much more probable is it, that similar consequences would follow, should all the inhabitants of this country, or of the world do the same? If any still doubt, let them think of such passages as these: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. I know him, says God of Abraham, —that he will command his children and his household after him. And what will be the consequence? They shall keep the way of the Lord. Such language more than intimates, that, if one generation should perform its duty to the next, the next generation would be pious. In the millennium it will be so. Men will then be born, as they are now, with a corrupt nature; but the effects of it will, through the blessing of God, be prevented by the pious education which they will receive, and the pious examples which will be everywhere set before them. They will see that all who are older and wiser than themselves do know, and love and praise God, and value his favor more than life; and the same proneness to imitate others, which now leads them astray, will then lead them to seek the good and right way.
And now, parents, let me beseech you to think seriously of this. You have imparted to your children your own corrupt nature. That unwillingness to retain God in your knowledge, that aversion to his service, that dislike of religion, that strong propensity to pursue this world and neglect the other, which, you cannot but be conscious, exist in yourselves, you have transmitted to them. And in consequence of these evils which they have derived from you, they will perish forever, unless these evils be counteracted. But God has in mercy put into your hands means to counteract them. Make known to them his works and his will. Pour into their ears his praises. Let them see, that you think of nothing, care for nothing, fear nothing, and love nothing, as you do him. Let them see that you care, comparatively, very little what their situation is in this world, provided they receive a Christian’s portion in the world to come. Do this, and add fervent persevering prayer; end the corrupt nature which they have derived from you shall be changed by God’s grace, a new heart and a right spirit shall be given them, and they shall be thus prepared to perform the same good office for their children, which you have performed for them.
Should it be thought by any, that though the remarks which have been made prove the propriety and necessity of communicating to the next generation a knowledge of God’s works, —they do not prove it to be necessary that we should praise him in their hearing; I answer, the former without the latter will be of little, if any, avail. It will answer very little purpose to communicate knowledge of any object to the rising generation, unless they see that we highly prize the object itself, and consider a knowledge of it as exceedingly valuable. It must be evident to every person of observation, that children and youth, in forming their estimate of different objects, are guided almost entirely by the opinions of those who precede them in the journey of life. A child, left to itself, would prefer the smallest coin to a bank note, and a piece of painted glass to the most valuable diamond. And how does he learn to judge more correctly? Simply by observing how objects are valued by those who are older and wiser than himself. In this way, young persons, and even children, soon learn what we think most valuable. And however diligently we may impart to them a knowledge of God and his works, if we do not appear to think highly of him, to love his character, to admire his works, and to prefer him to every other object, —our instructions will have but very little effect. But if they hear us frequently speak of him in the glowing language of gratitude, love, and praised if they see that we consider him as all in all; that we regard it as detestable and base to neglect him; and that the language of our conduct is, Whom have we in heaven but thee, and what is there on earth that we desire besides thee? —they will, in all probability, be insensibly led to adopt, not only our opinions respecting him, but our feelings towards him. The just, but trite remark, that if we would speak to the heart, we must speak from the heart, is especially true with respect to children and youth. Perhaps one reason why many parents, who are careful to give their children religious instruction, see very little good effect result from their labors, is they do not with sufficient frequency and fervency speak to them in praise of God; do not appear to overflow with those emotions which praise expresses; but merely speak of him in a dry, cold, and formal manner. But to say nothing of parental efforts, how great, probably, would be the effect upon the rising generation, were they accustomed from their childhood to hear our rulers, our legislators, our judges, our officers, our wise, our learned and wealthy men, all speak of God and of his works in the highest terms, and utter his praises with emotion! if they never heard his name profaned or religion treated with disrespect! How would such examples tend to subdue their sinful prejudices, and tear down their opposition to the truth! To speak God’s praises to the rising generation is then, if possible, even more important than to impart to them a knowledge of his works. Both, however, are necessary, and should never be separated.
It would be easy to enlarge on this subject, and to multiply reasons in favor of the duty before us, to an indefinite extent; but the undesigned length of the preceding remarks, renders it necessary to close with a brief improvement.
1. Is it the duty of the present generation to communicate a knowledge of God’s works, and to proclaim his praises to the generation which will succeed us? Then it is incumbent on all to qualify themselves for the performance of this duty. It is incumbent on all to acquire a competent portion of religious knowledge, and to exercise those devotional feelings, which are expressed in praise. The man who does not know God, and who cannot cordially praise his character and his works, is totally unqualified to discharge one of the most important duties, which his Maker requires of him and which he is placed in this world to perform. He is qualified neither to live usefully nor to die happily. My hearers, is not this the character of some of you? Are there not some before me, who know too little of God and his works, to impart a knowledge of either to the rising generation? Are there not a still greater number, who cannot cordially praise the works of God—nay, who are dissatisfied with many of his works, who complain of his law, neglect his gospel, and murmur at the dispensations of his providence? And how can such persons declare God’s praises to the next generation? Or what can they teach it, but to neglect him, disobey him, and complain of him? Surely, no such person ought to be a parent, or an instructor of youth. Surely no such person is fit to educate immortal souls.
2. Is it the duty of one generation to declare and praise God’s works to another? Then it becomes us all to inquire how far we have performed this duty to the generation which is to succeed us. Let me then ask every one who has reached the age of manhood, —what have you done to impart religious knowledge to the minds, and call forth the praises of God from the hearts, of the rising generation? There are, I know, many present who can reply, We have done something for the promotion of these objects. There are parents who have, in some measure at least, performed this duty to their children. There are some present who have imparted religious instruction to their apprentices, servants, and dependants: —some who have voluntarily labored in our Sabbath schools, to impart this knowledge to children with whom they are not naturally connected, and to call forth from their lips the high praises of God; and some who have contributed to diffuse this knowledge to the ends of the earth. But is there one present, who can truly say, I have done all that was in my power? I have done everything which I was able to do for the rising generation in my own country, and in other parts of the world; for, be it remembered, the rising generation in other countries, in pagan, Jewish, and Mahomedan lands, have claims upon us, commensurate with our ability. In this, as in other respects, charity begins at home, but it must not end there. And is there one parent present, who can truly say, I have done everything which I could do for the religious education of my own children? And are there not many, who have done comparatively nothing for any part of the rising generation, even for the instruction of their own families in religious truths? Are there not some present who, if they were to die this day, would leave behind them no mind upon which they had made the least salutary impression—the slightest proof, that they knew and praised God themselves, or that they had ever taught others to do it? Nay more—are there not some who, as far as they have taught anything to the rising generation, have taught them to neglect religion, to dishonor God, perhaps to take his name in vain? My hearers, let me beseech you to think seriously of these questions and of the subjects which led to them. If there be any who have performed no part of the duty enjoined in our text, let them immediately begin to perform it. Let those who have already done something, be excited to do more. Let it be remembered, that there is probably not now in New England one half the religion, in proportion to the number of inhabitants, that there was a century and a half since. If our posterity are not to become pagans or infidels, not only something, but much must be done.
3. Is it the duty of this generation to make known God’s works and proclaim his praises to the next? Then it is the duty of the rising generation to receive with eagerness the religious instruction which is afforded them, and to drink in the praises of God. Remember, my young friends, we shall soon pass off the stage, and you will take our places. Then a new generation will spring up, whom it will be your duty to instruct. Now is the time to qualify yourselves for the performance of that duty. Now then acquire a knowledge of God and of his works. Now learn to love, admire, and praise him, that you may teach those who will come after you to do the same. Do this; and after you have, like ancient worthies, served God and your generation, you will rest from your labors, your works will follow yon, and future generations shall rise tip and call you blessed.
Finally. What a happy, glorious world will this be, when our text, considered as a command, shall be universally obeyed; considered as a prediction, shall be universally fulfilled! Whether we obey it or not, this will one day be the case. Then one generation will eagerly transmit the knowledge and praises of God to the next; while that generation will, with alacrity, receive and hand them down to their descendants. Then all shall know God from the eldest to the youngest, from the least to the greatest. Then those things which are an abomination in the sight of God, shall no longer be highly esteemed among men; and the applauses which have been lavished, and the encomiums which have been bestowed upon heroes and conquers, shall be transferred to the faithful soldiers and martyrs of Jesus Christ; while every knee shall bow to him, and every tongue shall confess him Lord to the glory of the Father. Then everyday will be a day of thanksgiving; all nations, tongues, and languages shall join in one universal chorus of praise. Princes and subjects, young men and maidens, old men and children, shall conspire to swell the song. In one immense cloud of incense the grateful offering shall ascend the skies. Heaven shall hear with wonder and delight its own songs sting on earth; and God, the all good and almighty Father of the universe, bending from his eternal throne, shall accept the worship, smile with ineffable benignity and complacency on the worshippers, and shed down upon them, with unsparing hand, his richest blessings. Then death will indeed lose his sting, and cease to be the king of terrors. Easy and pleasant will be the passage from earth to heaven; and those which die will only pass from a world, filled with the glory and the high praises of God, to contemplate brighter glories, and join in louder praises in the world above. This is no poetic fiction, no sick man’s dream, but sober truth. Let us all, then, exert ourselves to hasten this glorious consummation. It may not greet our own, or our children’s eyes; but our children’s children may witness it.