Home | Site Info | Commentary | Links | Feedback

the Sermon

    A Sermon, Preached at Windham, November 29th, 1803,
being the day of the Execution of Caleb Adams for the Murder of Oliver Woodworth.
By Elijah Waterman, pastor of the First Church in Windham.

    The object of the Divine Saviour in his preaching, was to convey truth, in a manner too plain to be mistaken, and too impressive to be treated with indifference. So pointed were his doctrines, and the images by which he illustrated them, that he either excited the admiration and love of his hearers, or inkindled their malicious envy or affected contempt. Invited by the Executive of the county, by the criminal, and his afflicted relatives, to address this vast multitude of fellow-sinners, I would, fixing my eyes on the example of Jesus, perform this solemn labor of love, indifferent to human praise or censure, commending myself to every man's conscience, in the sight of God.
    All scripture is profitable; but the passage which I shall endeavor to open and make useful for your warning and edification, is the 35th verse of the xith chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke.

    "Take heed, therefore, that the light that is in thee be not darkness."

    These words are an admonition drawn from truths taught in the preceding verses. The multitude had gathered thick about Jesus, when he began to say, This is an evil generation. Their dispositions and designs were not good; overlooking his gracious miracles, they would tempt the Lord to shew them a sign after their own traditions, that he should appear in the clouds of heaven, as the only proof that should convince them that he was the Messiah. But, Jesus declares, that as, the deliverance of Jonas was a sign of divine mission to the Ninevites; so no sign should be given, as the ultimate proof of his being the Messiah. He then proceeds, to mark their pride, and the guilt of their presumptuous demands, in setting themselves up, to decide, what should only be the convincing testimony of his mission from God. He tells them that the queen of the south, who traveled far to hear the wisdom of Solomon, who wrought no miracles, and the men of Nineveh, who repented at the preaching of an austere and lonely prophet, would rise in judgment, and condemn them, because he was more in nature than Solomon, and greater in preaching and miracles than Jonas. For as the candle, when lighted, is placed on a candlestick, to give light to all; so he had come a light into the world, and being placed among the Jews as on a candlestick, he had caused his light to shine to all in the city, in the temple, and in the villages. As the light, thro the eye of the body, when in health, enables man to walk, amidst surrounding objects, without injury, to estimate their true value, and choose with success; so, his instructions and miracles would enable those, whose consciences were pure and enlightened, to discern his true character, and to receive him as their Saviour and Lord. But as to the diseased eye, all is darkness; the light shines, but is not comprehended. Man, discerning not his way, stumbles, because there is no light in him. So, a defiled conscience, discerns not the nature and testimony of the miracles and doctrines of Jesus, which open upon it like the beams of the morning; yet they find no passage to the heart, thro the darkened conscience, and though his spiritual light shines ever so fair and full, the darkness comprehends it not. When the depraved will and wayward passions become masters of the soul, the blind lead the blind, and both fall into the ditch. Take heed, therefore, that the light that is in thee be not darkness.
    Having opened the subject, and given a plain view of the design of the Saviour's discourse, of which the text is the conclusion, I shall proceed to prove:

         Firstly, That man has a Conscience, and that this is a distinct faculty of the soul.

         Secondly, That the Conscience may be defiled and darkened.

         Thirdly, The means by which the conscience is defiled.

         Fourthly, The degree to which it may be darkened.

         Lastly, To take heed lest your light be darkness.

     Firstly, Man has a Conscience, a distinct faculty of the soul. A truth so plain, it may be thought not worth the time to prove. But to things, which are common, we grow insensible, and those, which are near us, we overlook. Besides, it is not the most easy talk, to apprehend and examine minutely, any one faculty of the soul, to mark its individual force and mutual relation. The Conscience is known by its exercises, as the moral judge, which accuses, or else excuses man, for his opinions and actions.
    The scriptures, which always excel in making important things plain, inform us that St. Paul was cast away on the island of Malta - and as he was gathering sticks and placing them on the fire, a viper came out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. The barbarians said, no doubt this man is a murderer, though escaping the sea; yet vengeance suffereth not to live. In this case the Conscience of this uncultivated people, at once acknowledged a Superior Power, who marks the good and evil of human actions. Jesus, who knows the hearts of men, in order to confound his enemies, once said, he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And they which heard, being convicted by their own Conscience, went out one by one and left Jesus alone. Here we see the force of Conscience in the learned Scribes and Pharisees. When Joseph’s brethren were accused in Egypt as spies, were put in prison three days, and when one of them was to be bound and kept there, till Benjamin should come; at such a moment, they said one to another: We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us, and behold his blood is required. These facts prove that man has a Conscience that passes sentence on him for his conduct, accusing or excusing him, as it is good or evil.
    That this is a distinct faculty of the soul, is evident. First, from the fact, that Conscience is as strong and decided in its exercises in minds uncultivated, where reason and other intellectual powers are unimproved, as in those who by instruction, study and exercise have made the greatest improvement. Second, it is evident from the fact, that in instances where persons have made great advances in natural knowledge, so as to be capable of pursuing the most difficult enquiries in a profound and critical manner, yet they so darken their Conscience, as to live not only in the neglect of moral and religious duties, but openly to avow the vilest opinions, and to practice the most abominable vices. These two cases shew that the Conscience may be exercised in full strength by the barbarians, and may be defiled by learned Pharisees, while the other powers of the mind on natural subjects, remain in their full strength, and prove that the Conscience is a distinct faculty of the soul.

     Secondly, I shall shew that the Conscience may be darkened.
    The Scriptures speak of an evil Conscience - of some, that even their Conscience is defiled. And of others, having their Conscience seared as with a hot iron. And Jesus says, take heed, lest the light that is in thee be darkness. In the season of youth, we observe the Conscience alive and tender to that which is right, and first steps in sin are taken with anxiety, and reflected on with remorse. Practices which were entered upon with trembling perspiration, in private, are eventually pursued in open day; and those whom the world once esteemed amiable for virtue, by degrees become corrupted and corrupting.
    Saul the son of Kish, in his first intercourse with Samuel, appears in all the amiable meekness of youth and innocence. The story raises him in our esteem, as much as he rises in stature above the assembled tribes; but the progress of his life in marked with instability, envy, falshood, disobedience to God, and the sin of witchcraft. He goes on worse and worse; advancing in darkness; he excites our disgust; till with a conscience heedless of the precipice of death, he falls on his own sword, and we turn away with mingled detestation, grief, and horror. Examples are daily passing under our eyes of those, who from a decent state of morals and behaviour, become corrupt in their opinions, profane in their language, and profligate in their conduct, evidencing their growing insensibility to parental counsel and authority, to the admonitions of conscience, and the force of moral obligation.

     Thirdly, I shall point out some of the means by which the conscience is defiled.
The depraved will and corrupt affections of the natural heart, are the source whence the conscience is defiled. In these there is a constant and undeviating propensity to pursue the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Reason may point out the disadvantages, and conscience may mark the turpitude and misery of such a course, but their barrier is uncontrolling, and their remonstrances ineffectual. I will be particular and mention the means which naturally give strength to the evil propensities of the heart, and tend to darken the conscience.
    First. The transient mind and ungoverned passions of the young child, are by the Creator, entrusted to the affection and authority of parents. This is a responsibility, the propriety of which is enhanced by the fact, that the child unborn, may be deeply and injuriously affected by their iniquities, and laid under disadvantages of body and mind; that when placed under their government, common restraints will be less effectual, and instruction less regarded. Instability and looseness in family government, is fraught with injurious effects. The child left to himself, having no will to consult but his own, pursues the downward path of corruption; being unrestrained by others, he knows not how to restrain himself, and thus makes early progress in resisting the checks of conscience, and by repeating bad actions without feeling any immediate punishment, he ventures more boldly, till the conscience, fatigued with fruitless accusations and warnings, retires, and leaves the sinner to himself. From the robbing of a plumb-tree (this was the first theft the criminal recalled committing, which was at Leyden), to the murder of a child, the distance may look long; but by such an one, it may be soon traveled over. Few ever commit capital crimes, but those who from the want of family instruction and proper restraint, have their conscience early defiled, by lesser sins, till by degrees being hardened, they give loose to all the corruptions of the heart. In families where the fear of God is not taught - where the strong motives of religion - of a future state - of heaven and hell are not impressed - where evil examples in the neglect of the Sabbath, of the scriptures and prayer - where foolish jesting at the expence of religion, its ministers and professors - where profanity and idle conversation passes the summer noon-time or the winter evening - where are endeavors to break down "steady habits" and to destroy the difference between good and evil, serving God or serving him not - where opinions are cultivated, which do not oppose the depraved disposition of man, to do what is right in his own eyes, without responsibility to society or to God: There, there in such families you will find the source of corruption and disease, which is drawn insensibly in by the unwary youth, takes possession of his conscience, and like the consumption in the body, continues its flattering ravages, till it gives life and food to that worm, and never dies.
    A second means connected with the preceding, is evil examples. One person seldom goes alone in the outward practice of notorious sins. The vicious person has no confidence in himself; he leans upon the examples, fortifies himself by the vicious practices and immoral opinions of others, and like coals to burning coals, they inkindle each other: growing in warmth, they communicate heat, mutually preparing for the fire, that is never quenched. Evil communications always have, and experience teaches, that they will always corrupt good manners. Vice is contagious and strengthens by communication, and there is a predisposition in the young mind to receive the infection. Testimony need not be called to prove, that the modest youth, who is much in company with those, who defend base opinions to justify loose conduct, and whose manner of thinking, speaking and acting, is without the fear of God, will soon be corrupted, will avow principles, and practise things which at first he would have opposed as injurious, and avoided as disgraceful. Therefore the proverb says to the young man: Go not in the way of the wicked; enter not into the path of evil men; avoid it; pass not near it; keep at a distance and pass away. In proportion as men, of corrupt principles and a defiled conscience, are noticed for learning and abilities, and as they are promoted to office, or in affluence fare sumptuously every day, their influence will be more extensive and effectual, in rendering useless the labors of the pious parent - in breaking down the hedge, he has placed about the depraved affections of his offspring; in destroying mutual confidence, and stopping the outgoings of social happiness: And though we are unable to calculate how far the poison of one such pestilential sinner may extend, to how many generations it may reach, yet one correcting truth is easily ascertained, that having received their good things in this world, they must meet all the effects of destroying much good, at the bar of God, and sink without remedy, under an accumulating weight of divine vengeance.
    A third means, is repeating acts of wickedness. From trifling levity and thoughtless sins, the progress is descending to confirmed habits of more gross iniquity; and when we have traveled long in an evil way, the trouble of going back, becomes an additional argument for still proceeding in the hazardous path. No labor is spared to justify our pursuing that which is agreeable to our corrupt inclinations, to silence the remonstrances of conscience, and oftentimes acts of sin are repeated for no immediate purpose but to bear down with a bold step this uncomfortable accuser. When one habit of sin is contracted, it may be even a small one, other vices must also be pursued in order to go on more quietly in the first, for one habitual sin dwells not alone in any human heart. The vices are a connected family, and when those shall do good who are accustomed to evil, then the Ethiopean may change his skin, and the leopard his spots. By repeating acts of sin, we darken the conscience and loose sight of its deformity: We magnify and extol its pleasures: Putting bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, we swallow the draught without sensibly tasting the poison of death which it carries down.
    Again. The pride of the heart, in conforming to the vain fashions and unstable opinions of the world, operates directly or indirectly to stupify the conscience. Whatever means tend to awaken and keep alive the moral sense, are shunned, because the sting of remorse, and expectation of future punishment, over-balance the fleeting enjoyment of sin. With a determination to please themselves, some inconsiderately reject those truths commonly believed, and affect to despise those duties which the humble and devout practice. They would be thought to be much more sagacious in chusing their pleasures, than patriarchs and prophets; to see farther into the relation, subsistence and consequence of things, than the Saviour himself. Indulging this proud propensity, they will believe or disbelieve as they wish, and eagerly pursue the hope of applause, by pretending to know every thing, and in order to complete their superiority over God himself, they make one farther advance and pretend to believe nothing. The vanity of science and superior talents, has led some to deny a revelation from God, and others as wickedly to pervert it. It has filled the world with books designed to captivate the passions and strengthen evil propensities; by holding out alluring pictures of vice, and presenting virtue in a misshapen and defaced form; so to occupy the attention as to leave no time, to give no occasion, and even to destroy the disposition to listen to the reflections of conscience, and the amiable admonitions of the word of God: To persuade the young that the one thing needful is to trifle with religion, to overlook their souls, and reject the Saviour, while they eat, drink, and are merry. Here I feel myself obliged to remark, though vain man be wise in his own conceit, and exalt himself against his Maker; while he denies, perverts or explains away revealed truths; laboring to cast a shade over futurity; to withhold the eye of conscience, from looking into eternity. Yet ‘tis but a little season, for his breath is in his nostrils, and these delusive dreams will flit away; substantial things will gather thick about him; the shadow of death will be a darkness felt; and too late he will discover that though he has deceived himself, and defiled others, the conscience he had blinded, was not destroyed, and the hell which he fondly imagined might not exist, to be an awful and eternal reality to his soul.

     Man may shut his eyes, stop his ears, and harden his heart: But I enquire,

     Fourthly. To how great a degree can he darken his conscience?
The labor of the wicked man, is to destroy that power of the soul, which makes past sins painful, and future consequences awful. He would put out this light that points him, "without his leave," to the darkness that follows. If he can do this, he will at least boast that he has nothing to fear, though he persists and dies in his sins. But can he extinguish this faculty? Can he destroy that which he did not create? Can he annihilate the soul? These questions give their own answers. For if he can destroy one faculty, he may destroy them all. Both scripture and experience shew us, that the most hardened sinners have, after all their efforts, felt the stings of remorse. The brethren of Joseph, who had passed more than twenty years after the monstrous deed of selling their brother, were awakened with reflections of bitterness; saying one to another, We are verily guilty; his soul was in anguish; he besought us; we would not hear, therefore is this distress come upon us; his blood is required. The haughty Herod, inured to acts of cruelty, who caused the son of Zacharias to be beheaded for reproving him for his sin, was sore perplexed when he heard of the same of Jesus; for some said John was risen from the dead. Though immured in the crime of adultery, this man had a conscience to reprove and perplex him. The intemperate and unrighteous Felix, trembled in the view of a judgment to come, before a humble apostle of Jesus. But to give a finishing example, Judas, who seems to have concentrated the envy of Cain, the profaneness of Esau, the blindness of Saul, and that perfection of malice which made his heart a fit residence for Satan, after he saw that Jesus was condemned, says, I have sinned in betraying innocent blood, and he went and hanged himself - plunging off the precipice to his own place. Such may be darkness of the soul, that to escape its present anguish, it will hurry itself into ultimate misery.
    To close this argument, the Scriptures inform us that the devils believe and tremble; that this trembling is under the influence of conscience, and the prospect of final misery is evident from this, that when the evil spirits saw Christ here on earth, they cried out, Art thou come hither to torment us before the time? The soul of man which is a spirit, is capable of suffering. The conscience is an essential part of the soul, and will do its office in that future condition, where the man who believed not Moses and the prophets, lifted up his eyes in torments, on that side of the impassable gulf, from which there is no return. The conscience may be seared, and the heart impenitent; thus treasuring up wrath against that day of wrath, when all the powers of the soul will awake from darkness to the light of that fire which is unquenchable.

    I now call your attention,
     Lastly. To take heed lest your light be darkness. If you have attended to the truths already stated, I am persuaded, that you feel the importance of this, for some of following reasons:
    1st. Because the natural heart is corrupt and likes not to retain God in its knowledge - but pursues with eagerness the indulgence of the passions in the pleasures of sin, to the neglect of Him who has come a light into the world, and without receiving whom, in faith and love, we must perish.
    2nd. From the too general neglect of parents, to train up their children in the way should go; to warn, charge and reprove them in the fear of God, under a sense of their personal accountableness to him as their Judge. We easily discern that the powers of the understanding are affected by instruction and examples. If that instruction, and those examples are not according to truth, the young mind who forms his rules of conduct by them, is led into error, and his standard of right and wrong becomes the occasion of his justifying evil courses, and rejecting the laws of God. For the conscience is no more itself the rule, than a civil judge is himself the law. A corrupt government, making corrupt laws, which control the decision of judges, and oblige them to do injustice, is the force from which this injustice springs. The united powers of the understanding, for they act in their social relation, as well as in their distinct capacities, form, or receive the rules of right; when these are formed, the conscience stands as a monitor, in all moral actions or opinions, to determine whether they are according to the principles laid down, by their common consent, as good. This being the case, it is important to take heed, lest we imbibe false sentiments as to right and wrong; and our conscience, looking at those rules, and comparing our conduct by them, justify, where it ought to condemn. Family prayer and instruction being omitted, there is opened a source, for the defilement of the conscience of the rising generation, which gathers strength in its progress, and mocks all calculations in its pernicious effects.
    3d. From the increasing prevalence and boldness of the evil examples of those, who openly trifle with the word of God - his Name, and his Sabbath - using their liberty of thinking and acting as a cloak for licentious opinions and practices. The labor of infidels has been exerted to lay down false principles adapted to corrupt inclinations, and profligate habits; by falshood, boldness, ridicule, and blasphemy, to sweep away the bounds set to the passions and lusts of man, by Him, who hath said, hitherto thou shalt come and no farther; and to let in, like the violence of the troubled ocean, corruption, disorder and destruction upon the walled fields, and fixed habitations of civil and social happiness. No object has been so labored after, as to scatter the thoughts, and corrupt the understandings of the young, to give licence to the passions, and raise high expectations, from the superior knowledge and wisdom, which they are made to believe that they possess, over all past experience, and departed generations. The scriptures are studied but by few with attention and perseverance; while conviction of sin, regeneration of the heart, and all the important truths which accompany salvation, are studiously attempted to be brought into disbelief and contempt. Books also are multiplied, which lead the heart away from all sober consideration of sin, death, judgment, heaven and hell. The increase of wealth leads to voluptuousness and forgetfulness of God. The time which should be spent in devotion, in furnishing the soul with knowledge and fixed principles, in arming against temptations, in preparing to endure trials, and in considering their ways in order to please God, is wickedly passed away by some in vain parade, in fashionable dressing, in diversions and sensual pleasures.
    4th. The difficulty of turning from a vicious course after we have become habituated therein. The danger we are in of pursuing such a course is great, from the circumstance, that God does not bring upon us immediately the effect of our sins. That goodness and forbearance which ought to lead us to repentance, is abused by the thoughtless to venture still farther in iniquity. The conscience is darkened, while the sinner is pleased with the hope of escaping the punishment, he fears. Without naming the contagious vices of gambling, drinking and other diversions, which are of an immoral tendency.
    The last reason I shall mention for taking heed, is the certainty that God will judge you for opinions, words and actions. You may go on deliberately in sinning against God, and crying peace to yourselves. You may set at naught the plainest warnings of ministers or parents. You may silence your conscience for a season, and say to your soul; To morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundantly: But know thou for all these things, God will bring thee into judgment. Be sure your sin will find you out. Your conscience and memory to aid its force, will go with your soul into the world of spirits; and in proportion as you have laboured to destroy its influence, will it return upon you with redoubled remorse, and tormenting anguish.
    Looking round on this vast multitude, I feel anxieties inexpressible, to raise in your ears a warning voice, to call some share of that attention, which is so liberally bestowed upon another, to your own souls. In the presence of your God and mine, I would call on you who have the care of children, to take heed what examples ye give, what principles ye inculcate. Put not darkness for light - destroy not the strongest motives God has given, to awaken their early fear of him, and excite their hope of his mercy. Beware, Oh, for your soul's sake, beware, you do not encourage them in an evil way, by living yourselves as if there was no God to judge, no hell to receive, and no conscience to torment the wicked. Pause here, and looking unto Jesus, who endured the cross, despising the shame: Oh, ponder on your ways. The feet of the ungodly shall slide in due time. They will draw after them those whom they have corrupted, who will increase their sorrows, and as a mighty weight, will still press them deeper in misery. Come then, come then, ye fathers and mothers, ye who have bowels of compassion for your offspring: God in his providence, to day, is reading to you an awful lesson; he is making it plain, that it may carry conviction to the light that is within you; thereby leading you to take heed, to command your children and your household after you, to keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment.
    Leaving a sketch of the circumstances of the birth, education, and manner of life of the unhappy youth before me, to an abler hand, to be given at the place of execution. To you, Caleb, I say, there is mercy with God - that he may be feared. Take heed that you exercise a heart-felt repentance toward God, against whom, and whom only you have sinned, and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ, whose sprinkling blood purifies the conscience, and prepares the soul for his service in heaven. Look, Oh look unto Jesus, that thro his righteousness you may be accounted worthy to overcome, to escape the second death, to eat of the tree of life, this day, in the Paradise of God. Pray, to the last moment, Lord remember me in thy kingdom: God be merciful, for Christ's sake, to me a sinner.
    Go to, now, ye who are young, whose consciences are tender, while you drop this day the tear of sympathy over a fellow sinner, take heed to the consequences of sin, of trifling sins, that open into the way the end whereof is death. Influenced by corruption within, and temptation without, your danger of pursuing the pleasures of sin, the ways of levity and forgetfulness of God, calls upon you to take heed, lest you be defiled, and die in your sins. Take heed to your souls, to the word and worship of God. Call back, O young men, your misspent hours, your unhallowed sabbaths, your neglect of warnings, your idle or profane words, your endeavors to silence conscience - call into view, death and judgment, and that holy God, before whose bar you must appear. Cast your thoughts into eternity. O eternity, what art thou, to the soul, that trifles with time, that tramples upon the blood of Jesus, does despite to the spirit of grace, that sins and dies! but, O eternity, eternity, how glorious art thou, to the humble soul, that receives Jesus, is washed in his blood, conducted by ministering spirits to the mansions of life, and confessed, before his father and his holy angels!
    God grant that this eternity may be ours, for Jesus' sake, to whom, with the Father, and Eternal Spirit, be endless glory. Amen.

Home | Site Info | Commentary | Links | Feedback