Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798) was born in Boston but spent many years in New Hampshire. He graduated from Harvard in 1762 and became a teacher. Belknap was ordained in 1767; in 1775 he was chosen to be chaplain to New Hampshire troops at Cambridge but was unable to take that position. He supported abolishing slavery and the slave trade. Belknap is best known for his History of New Hampshire, a series that was published in three volumes in 1784, 1791 and 1792.
The sermon below was preached shortly before his June 20, 1798 death. This fast sermon was preached in Boston and was given on the “”Day of the National Fast” declared by President John Adams. (The text of Adams’ 1798 fast proclamation is available here.) The text of the sermon was been updated to reflect modern spelling and grammar.
Delivered on the 9th of May, 1798,
By The President
By Jeremy Belknap, D. D.
Minister of the Church in Federal-Street, Boston.
A proclamation of the President of the United States, appointing a day of prayer or thanksgiving, is not to be considered as an act of legislative or executive authority; because no power is delegated, by the Constitution, to any person to direct us in matters of religion; neither is it an assumption of power or an act of imperfect authority, which needs the interposition of another power to give it effect. But it is a letter of advice, or a friendly call, form a man, whom the people have placed at their head, inviting us to join with him and with one another, in an act of national piety and devotion.
The propriety of such a call, from such a person is so evident, that nothing can be said to make it more evident. Every man who has a sense of his duty to God as our preserver, benefactor and Supreme Governor, must, at once, approve it, and be pleased with it. Had this friendly notice been given in any other way; had it been communicated by a private letter to each religious society or minister, it would have had the same effect as when it comes in the form of a public proclamation.
In the same light, I have always viewed the public calls of the Chief Magistrate of any particular state, to keep days of fasting and thanksgiving. The proclamation is not an act of authority; but of friendship, of piety and gratitude; and derives all its efficacy from the reasonableness of the duty recommended, and from our own consent. Our Chief Magistrates are so convinced of this, that, though in some instances, formerly, the words enjoin, require and forbid, may have been used; yet now we hear nothing but the language of recommendation and advice. The voice of authority in matters of religion is not assumed by American rulers; and if assumed, would not be approved, by American people.
If there be any instances of opposition to a compliance with so rational a duty, as is thus recommended, it is not a subject to wonder. We are assured, that in the most happy times, there will be a disappointed party who, though silenced and incapable of doing mischief, will secretly blaspheme. The old serpent when bound and cast into the bottomless well, will retain his serpentine disposition and take the first opportunity, when permitted, again to deceive the nations. So it must be expected that his emissaries will rebel in their hearts, and gnaw their tongues for pain; for evil men and seducers will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.
The words now read are part of one of these revelations Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a dream which made an uneasy impression on his mind, but he had forgotten the particulars, and could by no means recollect it, nor could any of the wise men of Babylon assist him in recovering it. They could indeed, by certain rules, interpret a dream when it was related o them; but it was beyond their art and skill to tell a person what he had dreamed when he himself had forgotten it. None could do this but the God “whose dwelling was not with flesh.” [Daniel 2:11] For this incapacity, the monarch, in a fit of tyrannic passion, commanded all the wise men in Babylon to be slain; and among them, Daniel and his companions were to be put to death; but upon his promise to show the king him dream, a suspension of the decree was obtained; and after solemn prayer to God, the secret was revealed to Daniel who declared it to the king in these words.
“Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.
Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.
Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.
This is the dream; and we will tell the interpretation thereof before the king.
Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory.
And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold.
And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth.
And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.
And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay.
And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.
And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.
And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure.” [Daniel 2: 31-45]
The same series of events was afterward represented to Daniel himself, in a vision of four beasts, answering to the four parts of the image, and signifying the same four kingdoms, with some farther particulars relating to the church of God. This vision is recorded in the 7th chapter; and there is another vision representing the same events, by the figures of a ram and a goat, in the 8th chapter. These visions were intended to conduct the mind of devout inquirers, through all the grand events, to the establishment of the universal kingdom of the Son of God, which will break in pieces and destroy all these kingdoms and stand forever.
If it be asked, in what part of the times, signified by this vision, do we live? Or, what events here set down, are to us past, present, and future? To give an answer to this question, we must consider how far divine Providence has explained the vision in its several parts. The golden heard of the image, as Daniel himself said, was the Babylonian empire, of which Nebuchadnezzar was the reigning prince; “thou art this head of gold.” It was then in the height of its splendor and glory; and the imperial city was emphatically called the “golden city.” The same empire was signified by the lion with eagle’s wings, in the 7th chapter. It was overthrown before Daniel’s death, by Cyrus, then general and afterward king of the Medes and Persians.
The silver breast and arms of the image represented the kingdom of the Medes and Persians; which succeeded by the Babylonian monarchy. This was signified by Daniel under the figure of a bear with three ribs in his mouth, in the 7th chapter, and afterwards of a ram with two horns, in the 8th chapter.
The brazen belly and thighs signified the Macedonian empire, conducted by Alexander, and continued by his four successors. This answered to the leopard with four heads and four wings, in the 7th chapter, and to the goat, first with one horn and afterward with four horns, in the 8th chapter.
These three empires, the Babylonian, the Medo-Persian, and the Macedonian, have long since given place to the fourth, the Roman empire; which is meant by the iron legs and feet of the image, and by its ten toes, which were partly of iron and partly of clay. The same power is figured by the beast with great iron teeth, in the 7th chapter, and the little horn of the goat, which waxed great, in the 8th chapter. It is also represented in the Revelation of John by a beast with seven heads and ten horns. It is observable, that this empire is described in the victim of a Nebuchadnezzar in a three-fold state, 1. by the thighs and legs, which were entirely of iron; 2. by the feet, which were of iron and clay; and 3. by the toes, which were of the same materials; and this three-fold view corresponds exactly with the events which have taken place. For the Roman empire was at first strong and terrible. Whilst the spirit of true liberty animated their constitution: Whilst public virtue and genuine patriotism were the ruling principles, their councils were firm, and their arms were victorious. They conquered the neighboring countries and diffused the spirit of their constitution wherever they made a conquest. This was the first and best state of the Romans. But after a while, they grew intoxicated with success, and degenerated from their manly fortitude into luxury and pleasure. Then the spirit of corruption crept into the body politic, and it became, as the prophet represents it in its second stage, like a mixture of iron and clay. It was divided into two parts, viz. the Eastern and Western empire; the seat of the former was Constantinople, and of the later, Rome. There was, however, something of the strength of iron. They were still a powerful and formidable people. The northern nations who invaded and incorporated themselves with the Romans, in the second stage of the empire, brought with them a spirit of liberty, which the Romans had lost; but so distracted where they with intestine quarrels and religious controversies, that, like iron and clay, they never could be thoroughly blended; and these causes operate dot produce the third stage of the empire, its division into ten kingdoms; answering to the ten toes of the image and the ten horns of John’s beast.
This separation of the empire took place between eight and nine hundred years ago; and though some of the kingdoms have in some degree been changed, and mixed, ye there has been ever since such a distinction kept up, that there has generally been about the number of ten.
In the days of these kings (as Daniel foretold), i.e., the Roman empire, the God of Heaven did set up a fifth kingdom, prefigured by a stone, cut out of a mountain without hands. This was the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and as long as the divided remains of the Roman empire shall subsist, this kingdom will be, as it has hitherto been, in the state represented by the prophets, as “a stone of stumbling and rock of offense” ; but in due time it will smite the image on its feet and break it to pieces; and will itself become a great mountain and fill the whole earth. This grand event was signified to Daniel in other visions, recorded in the 7th and 12th chapters; and it is more particularly described in the three last chapters of the book of John’s revelation.
If it be enquired, why were these four empires made the subject of divine prophecy in preference to all the other kingdoms of this world? The answer is, that all of them were instruments, in the hands of God, to carry on the designs of His providence toward the Jewish people first, and ultimately the kingdom of His Son. The vision is a kind of prophetic chronology, to point out the time when the kingdom of God should come, or be visibly and permanently established. The reason why these four empires only are distinguished by the spirit of prophecy, was not because they were greater or more remarkable than some others; but, because the course of their history is connected with that of the Jewish church, and led in a regular and direct succession to the time and reign of Jesus Christ.1 An answer of the same kind may be given, if it be asked why was this revelation made to a Gentile king? This Gentile king was connected with the Jews, and was obliged to a Jewish prophet for recovering and interpreting his dream; and the only record of it is preserved in the library of the Jewish church, to whom were committed the oracles of god. It is therefore a prophecy which comes to us in the same channel with all the other inspired prophecies, and has the same end in view, to testify of Jesus Christ; for the testimony of or concerning him is the spirit of prophecy and to Him give all the prophets witness. If the facts records correspond with the things foretold; if the prophecy coincide with the whole series of prophecy, having the same object in view, and this object be, what none but God could know, before the event; then it will follow, that eh inspiration is real, and there is a further evidence of the divinity of the revelations contained in the Old and New Testaments.
From the explication which has now been given of this sacred prophetic vision, we may see, that the present period of time, pointed out by it, is that which was signified by the ten toes of the image. The ten kingdoms, into which the Roman empire was divided, are still substituting, through under different forms of government; and though the division be different from what it was at first; and they are all, more or less, in the state in which the vision represents them, a mixture of iron and clay, of strength and weakness; they are partly strong and partly broken, they do not cleave to one another even as iron is not mixed with clay. None of them ever have been able, though some of them have attempted, to render themselves equally strong and terrible as the ancient Roman empire was in its first stage.
You will please to take notice, that these ten kingdoms comprehend the western part of the continent of Europe, once the western empire of Rome; among these, the countries subject to the dominion of Britain and France hold a distinguished rank; and as these are the principal ones, with which we ever had, or now have any political connection; so I shall confine my observations chiefly to them; though the same prophetic characters are equally applicable to Spain, Italy, Germany, and the other divisions of the western empire. These are the toes of the image; in which may be clearly discerned the materials of which they are composed, iron and clay, strength and weakness, wisdom and folly; sometimes the one prevailed, and sometimes the other; but there has been on union among them; all the attempts to unite them, so as to make a grand, formidable empire, resembling that of ancient Rome, have hitherto failed of success; and from the sure word of prophecy we have the strongest reason to conclude, that they will always remain in the same divided state, till the kingdom of Jesus Christ shall break them all to pieces and shall rise upon their ruins.
The iron part of these toes, or the strength and power of these divisions of the Roman empire, may be considered as consisting in the numbers of their people, the vigor, activity, and discipline of their land and naval forces; their wealth, arising from the husbandry, manufactures, commerce, and the management of their finances; the great fertility and high cultivation of their lands, their progress in arts and sciences, their maritime and insular situations, and the great natural advantages which they enjoy, of which their sagacity and their interest lead them to make the most rapid and successful improvement; to which they are farther urged by the spirit of jealousy and rivalship, always attending commercial nations. When these powers are put into action by fierce passions and by skillful leaders, they make a formidable appearance, and threaten one another, or the neighboring nations, with conquest; and it is not surprising if they are in some measure successful.
But if we view the clay part of their character, we shall find that they are not quite so terrible as some are apt to imagine. The great abilities and resources which they posses are counterbalanced by the prevalence of corruption, venality and profusion; by the luxury and effeminacy which commerce generally produces, and the unbounded appetite for pleasure which pervades all ranks and orders of the people. We shall find in some of them a spirit of faction, a want of firmness and consistency, a thirst for power and wealth, a revolutionary frenzy, operations to produce assassinations, robbery, and plunder. Under a pretense of republican liberty, we have seen some of them exercising the most boundless licentiousness and wanton despotism, in defiance of justice, humanity, policy, morality, and religion. The same crimes have stained their character when professing liberty and equality as when sounding the praises of their kings. The same tyranny, the same proscriptions, imprisonments, banishments, and waste of human life have disgrace the annals of republicanism as of monarchy; and their national character, instead of being meliorated, is, if possible, degenerated by their revolutions; for slaves, when made free, are the worst of tyrants.
Thank not, my brethren, that what I say is dictation by passion or party-spirit. I speak the words of true and soberness. This subject has been familiar to me above twenty years. It was in the beginning of the third year of our revolutionary war,2 when we had no friend nor ally by Heaven to shield us form the vengeance of Britain and when she was making her greatest efforts to subdue us, that my thoughts were directed to this prophecy; and upon an attentive contemplation of it, with the best helps3 that I could obtain, I found in it sufficient encouragement to rest my hope, that the formidable power then at war with us would not prevail. The confidence which I had did not prove to be vain; but as I though there was sufficient ground for consolation in the height of our distress, and when no human help was engaged on our side; so the conclusion of the war justified the expectation.“In things of moment, on thyself depend;
Trust not too far they servant nor thy friend.”
And this very sentiment, though expressed in better language, was the advice of our great and good Washington, when he retired from office.
“The great rule of conduct (said he) for us, in regard to foreign nations, is to have as little political connection with them as possible. Europe has a set of interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation; it must therefore be unwise in us to implicate ourselves in the vicissitudes of her politics, or the combinations of collisions of their friendships or enmities. It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world. As far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with good faith. But it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.” 7
This is the advice of a man who thoroughly understood, and wisely pursued, the true interest of his country. Of his successor we ought to have the same opinion; for from above thirty years experience he has been known and prove dot be one of our most enlightened and steady friends.
From the foregoing observations we clearly see what are the prophetic characters of these European nations, which are represented by the ten toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image and the ten horns of the apocalyptic beast. It is both surprising and edifying to all studious Christians to see how plainly and exactly the picture is drawn by the inspired pen and how rapidly events are coming on, which bear so near a resemblance to the accomplishment of the prophecies. It was foretold that an antichristian power would arise and rule over the nations. This we have been used to interpret of the papal sovereignty; the combination of wealth and power with a corrupt form of Christianity, to enslave the bodies and souls of men; and doubtless the interpretation is just. But as the Scripture assures us “there are many antichrists,” [1 John 2:18] so we should extend our idea of this power to comprehend all that opposeth and exalteth itself against the pure religion of Jesus Christ. It is very evident that the French nation was one of the firmest supporters of the papal usurpation, and that its former government answered to the prophetic character of one of those “kings which gave their power and strength to the beast.” 8 But it was also foretold that these very kings, the same antichristian powers, should “hate the whore and make her desolate and naked, and ear her flesh and burn her with fire;” 9 and do we not see this remarkable prediction in a fair way of being fulfilled? The French power is not the less antichristian for the revolution. It is in another shape, directly opposed to Christianity, as well to the corrupt forms of it as to its purity. The kingdom of Satan, at present, appears to be divided against itself; how then shall his kingdom stand?
When the spirit of God foretells future events, He does not prescribe what ought to be done but related before hand what will be done. His foreseeing and foretelling these events does not justify the means which are to be made use of to bring them into effect. Wicked men may do many bad things, which may serve to bring on what is foretold in the divine inspire wrings; and yet these very men may be proper subjects of punishment for these actions. An instance of this we have in the king of Assyria, to whom the prophet Isaiah makes this memorable address: “O Assyrian, the rod of mind anger and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and will give him a charge to take the spoil and pretty and to trend them down as the mire of the streets. Howbeit, he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few. Wherefore it shall come to pass, when the Lord hath performed his whole work on Mount Zion, and on Jerusalem, I will punish the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks.” 10
We must not then think it strange or unaccountable that those very men, who are instrumental of brining on revolutions, predicted in the word of God, should themselves be guilty of the most atrocious crimes, and influenced by no motives but those of violence, rapine, and destruction; that they should cast o fall fear of God and even deny His existence; for bad as they are, they may be proper instruments in the hand of God to punish other bad men; to pull down thrones of iniquity; to overturn monarchies which have been supported by ambition and bloodshed; to destroy hierarchies which have been founded in pride and priest craft and maintained by superstition and persecution. From what other sort of persons could such revolutions be expected? People of sober and rational principles would not be guilty of a violent attach on the established religions of any nation; they would content themselves with enjoying the liberty of their own consciences in peace. But such convulsions are to be expected only from those who are inflamed by the most malignant passion, and influenced by the zeal of fanaticism, either in religion or politics, who have a rage for conquest and plunder and who set no bounds to their ambition and fury.
When the great designs which God has determined to accomplish, by the instrumentality of such agents, shall be fulfilled; when things shall be prepared in the course of Providence, for the final destruction of all that rule, authority, and power, which, under whatever name or appearance, hath opposed itself against the kingdom of Christ; then shall be brought to pass that great event which is represented in the vision by the stone, smiting the image on its feet and reducing it to dust. Then all these kingdoms, these powers, which have so disturbed and stressed the world, will vanish like chaff before the wind and the gentle, peaceful kingdom of the Son of David will be gradually, but universally established.
This kingdom, my brethren, is set up among us and we profess to be the subjects of it. For its increase and enlargement, it is our duty to pray; and one of the petitions in our Lord’s admirable form of prayer is, “Thy kingdom come.” [Matthew 6:10] If we are sincere in uttering this prayer, we should accompany it with our endeavors to promote it. This will be the best way of expressing our gratitude to God for so distinguishing a favor.
If it be asked, how shall we do anything toward promoting the kingdom of God in the world? I would answer, there are many ways in which we may do it, and some persons may be able to do more than others; but there is one way in which we may all do something, and perhaps this is the best way in which any of us can promote it; I mean by our example. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.” [Matthew 5:16] There is nothing more forcible than example; like the magnet, it draws with a secret and silent, yet powerful influence. It is often more effectual than positive percepts and penal laws. Multitudes are swayed by it who are not to be governed by any other means. It is in every man’s power to do good in this way; and therefore it is every man’s duty to set a good example, to let every person with whom he is conversant, see that he is under the influence of Christian principles and prospects; that he is sincerely serving God and committing the keeping of his soul to Him in well-doing. It is impossible to conceive how much good may be done by our example. It may do good after we are dead. The remembrance of what we have been, and what we have done, may long outlive us, and unborn posterity may be the better for it. Ion this respect, then, every person has a degree of importance annexed to his character and every person ought to use that importance and that influence for the noblest purpose.
And what nobler purpose can we serve than that for which Christ died? This purpose is accomplishing, though by slow degrees; and Christianity, in its whole progress, is marked with peace on earth and good will to men. Wherever it is known and practiced mankind are the better for it; but wherever it is denied and rejected, they are the worse. Christianity, when rightly known and regarded, has made men ashamed of many enormities which they before practiced. It has abated the horrors of war, and introduced a spirit of philanthropy into that destructive science. It has reformed the legal and judicial systems, and taught less severity and milder methods of reclaiming offenders than were before known; it has, in some cases mitigated and in others extinguished, the evil of servitude, and taught men a sense of equal freedom. It has shed its genial influence on government, and taught us, in this highly favored land, how to crush rebellions and establish constitutions without violence or bloodshed.
Happy influence, blessed spirit of true religion! This is the way in which the kingdoms of this world will be so subdued, as to become the kingdoms of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The conquests of the Son of God are effected not by force of the sword, but the secret energy of truth; not my might nor power, but the divine spirit. By such means, and by none else, will true religion prevail, till the kingdom of Christ shall become universal.
May we ever be governed by the mild and peaceful dictates of the Gospel! May it go on from conquering to conquer, till it shall have eradicated war, slavery, oppression, tyranny, superstition, and vice; till antichristian power and influence shall be abolished; till false religion, false philosophy, and despotic government shall be destroyed; till love and peace shall reign, and truth and righteousness shall be established in the earth.
If we believe the Scriptures, we must expect that these blessings will be bestowed on the world, before the plan of Divine Providence shall be completed; and therefore we may pray in faith, grounded on the divine promises, of the accomplished of these predictions. The prospect is in the highest degree pleasant to all the sincere lovers of God and man. Whilst, therefore, we are looking, praying, and waiting for these glorious times, let us learn to anticipate them, as far as we are able, by cultivating in our own minds and conduct, those heavenly graces and virtues which shall prove us the true subjects of Christ and prepare us for the universal reign of the Prince of peace.
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