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THE MERCY OF THE CURSR.
REV. H. MELVILL, A.M.
CAMDEN CHAPEL, CAMBERWELL, DECEMBER 27, 1835
" In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for
out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."Genesis, iii. 19
You have here a portion of the sentence pronounced upon Adam, because he had hearkened to his wife, and eaten the forbidden fruit. Sentence had been passed already on the serpent and on Eve : on the serpent who had beguiled our common mother, and that mother herself, through whose disobedience we became mortal and miserable. Unto the serpent it was said, that “ on his belly he should go, and dust should he eat all the days of his life :" a doom which must have referred rather to Satan, who had assumed the serpent's shape, than to the serpent itself, and might have been accomplished in the abject condition of that fallen, though yet mighty, spirit. Unto the woman it was announced, that it should be in much pain and much anguish she should give birth to her children: an intimation in which there was promise as well as threatening; for Eve had already heard of “ the seed of the woman" that was to “ bruise the serpent's head;" and she might now gather, that through much suffering there would arise at last a deliverer.
And now must man stand forward, and take his doom from the lips of his Maker. Among all the sentences there is none which so marks the hateful character of sin, and its devastating character: “ Cursed is the ground for thy sake." “ So deadly a thing is the evil which thou hast been instrumental in producing, that the very soil on which thou treadest is thereby made barren. No longer shall the earth yield spontaneously her fruits; for thorns and thistles shall henceforward be its natural produce. In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thou must wring a hard subsistence from the reluctant field, in place of gathering in an abundance which solicits thy acceptance : and there will be no termination of this toil, until the earth, which has almost refused thee sustenance, shall give thee a grave. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. Thou hast been formed from that ground; its dust has been compounded into thy limbs : the curse is upon thy body, and upon all the materials of which its members have been composed. The dust, therefore, must mingle with the dust : dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.'
Such was the sentence on our offending father, and on ourselves as having offended and fallen in him. We need not tell you how faithfully the sentence bas been executed. You know that, with few exceptions (and those, perhaps
more apparent than real), labour, painful and oppressive labour, is the lot o? human kind; and that it is by some species or another of toil that every man gains his sufficiency of food. If you traverse the globe, you find every where, though not always in the same degree, the human race fighting against want, and the great majority ot the population struggling with the earth for a miserable pittance. In some places there is greater luxuriance of the soil; in others greater sterility : but no where do you find that man eats bread except in the sweat of his face. From pole to pole, amidst the snows of perpetual winter, and beneath the blazings of the tropical sun, there is but one cry, and one strife-the cry of millions for the means of subsistence, and the strife of the ground on which rests God's curse, and which, therefore, yields nothing until extorted from it by labour. Thus the history of our race is little more than one vast evidence, that we are the posterity of one whose disobedience spoiled the earth of its fruitfulness; who, receiving in himself the sentence of labour, transmitted it, unexhausted and inexhaustible, to all after generations.
Yet if mercy rejoiced against judgment in the words uttered to the serpent and the woman, let us not too hastily conclude that there was nothing of love in the sentence of which the man was the subject. We are inclined to believe that it was not wholly in anger and in righteous severity, that God made the cursing of the ground the punishment of Adam. We think it will not be difficult to shew, that the Almighty was consulting for the good of his creatures, when he thus made labour their inevitable lot. It was, indeed, in just indignation that he passed the stern sentence which still rests as a heavy burden on ourselves : but it may have happened, that he so shaped the sentence as to make it beneficent as well as punitive, and thus gave cause in reference to this, as in every other instance of his chastisements, to exclaim with David, “ I will sing of mercy and of judgment: unto thee, O Lord, will I sing."
It will be our endeavour on the present occasion, to prove that this is the matter of fact. You are aware that we have to appeal to your bounty in support of a grand national cause. The king's letter, which I read to you last Sunday, enjoins that a subscription is to be solicited in all churches of the empire, towards providing the means of religious instruction, for the emancipated Negroes in our West Indian Colonies. In behalf of such an object a collection is to be made this day; and it is my duty so to shape my address, as that it may present you with motives which may excite you to liberality. Thus circumstanced, I have thought that no topic could better introduce the appeal I have to make, than one which should relate to toil as the inheritance of man, an inheritance of which, to say the least, the Negroes have had more than their full share. At present we shall make no statement of the claims of those whose cause we have to plead, but rather reserve them for the conclusion of our discourse : it is sufficient to remind you of the turn, so to speak, which the address must take; and we now return to the subject presented by our text.
We have then to examine into the mercy (for the judgment is sufficiently apparent) of that sentence of God, which took much of its fruitfulness from the earth, and made toil the common heritage of man. We need not limit our remarks to the single case of agriculture ; for we may safely affirm, that there is nothing which is worth man's attainment, which he can attain without labour. It is not merely his bread which he ivrings with hardship from the ground, but
whatsoever the earth contains of precious and of useful, can only be obtained through being wrenched from its resources, and is procured for us by the bone and sinew of suffering humanity. And where man has not, in strict truth to live by the sweat of his brow, he may have to live, which is far harder, by the sweat of his brain; and intellectual food, even more than bodily, is only to be gathered by dint of unremitting toil. It is the character of the dispensation under which we are placed, that all must be labourers; so that however painful at times the pressure of the ordinance, still we should call to mind that it is what God himself hath appointed us to bear, and it becomes us to submit without murmuring to what cannot be changed, and meekly to believe that we should not be advantaged if it could.
There is, in all probability, an exact adaptation of the scene in which we îive to the present state of human nature; for the whole course of the Creator's dealings leads us to expect the adaptation. A soil which it would have been no task to till, but which should have poured forth unsolicited an exuberant plenty, might have been adapted for a race which never transgressed, and which required no painful and corrective discipline. Accordingly, such we believe to have been the soil of this globe as originally created, and fitted for the habitation of the unfallen Adam. But when there had passed a great moral change on man, was it not to be expected, from the character of the divine dealings, that there would pass a great physical change in the soil, and that too irrespective of chastisement, and simply for the preservation of the fitness of the dwelling-place to the circumstances of the inhabitant? It tends very much to aid the belief of this adaptation in the present state of the globe to our nature, that when prophecy delineates times when righteousness shall be universal, it delineates them as also times when its lost fruitfulness shall be restored to the earth. “ Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree :" such is the imagery which enters into the description of the millennium; as though to tell us, that the thorn and the thistle will disappear with the wickedness which first sowed their seeds. With the amelioration of the moral condition of its inhabitants, there is to be the amelioration of the physical condition of the globe; a plain intimation, as we think, that the curse which now rests upon the earth, rests upon it as much in order to adapt it to man, as it is a punishment to man for his apostacy. This we shall now explain at greater length; desiring, in the first place, to prove from the testimony of experience, and in the second place, from the testimony of Scripture, that there was as much of mercy as of judgment, in the sentence pronounced upon Adam.
Now there is, perhaps, an universal consent upon one proposition that idleness is the fruitful source of every kind of vice: and it follows from this, that the placing it in a man's power to be idle-supplying him, that is, with the means of subsistence, without extracting from him any labour—is simply to expose him to the greatest possible peril, and almost ensuring his moral degeneracy. We know that there are fine and frequent exceptions to this statement; and that many whose circumstances preclude all necessity of toiling for a livelihood, carve out for themselves paths of honourable industry, and are as assiduous in labour as if compelled by their wants. But such exceptions, after all, prove nothing against our statement; for these are not cases of idleness
but cases in which men, having the power to be idle, have felt the evil of such a state, and voluntarily submitted themselves to the ordinance of labour. The assertion as to the peril of idleness remains untouched; neither is any proof given that it would be safe to intrust the great mass of men with the power of being idle.
This is a point on which we most wish to insist. We care not that you can here and there produce a noble example of industry which is altogether voluntary; we only ask you, whether you believe that such examples would be generally followed, if there were generally a power of choosing between idleness and industry? This is the alone question to be decided when the matter in debate is, the mercy of that arrangement which took away from the soil its first unbounded fruitfulness, and made the mass of men give themselves to honourable and praiseworthy occupations, if no necessity were laid upon them by the wants of their nature. The question may, in a great degree, be answered by a reference to cases in which the approach is the nearest to the supposed exception from want. We look at countries in which the soil possesses the greatest fertility; and are their inhabitants most distinguished by what is laudable or excellent? We look at the classes of society who are born to independence; and is there a preponderance among them of virtue over vice? On the contrary, it may safely be affirmed, that where nature is most prodigal of her bounties, men make least advances in what ennobles a kingdom; and that where affluence is hereditary, the instances are most frequent of profligacy and moral worthlessness. There are districts of this globe, on which the curse of barrenness has fallen so lightly, that they might be thought to have returned to their original fruitfulness, so that there was little or no demand on the labours of the husbandman. The mountain and the valley stand thick with rich produce, and scarcely ask the mattock or the ploughshare. But the inhabitants of these districts are for the most part sunk in the lowest degradation, and are far behind other nations in what is dignified or civilized: no where do you find more of hopeless suffering, or of abject penury; as though misery increased at the same rate as the means of its amelioration.
If you would fix on a people which presents the finest spectacle of greatness, order, and intelligence, you must go to lands where there is a constant struggle for the materials of subsistence; and where any approach to universal idleness would be an approach towards universal destitution. It is there that civilization makes its most rapid advances, and that you find the most of a well-ordered and well-conditioned population. And in like manner-though, as we before contended, there are in this cases of fine and frequent exception—if you would select an individual instance of what is elevated and admirable in character, you must search amongst those who have to labour for a livelihood, rather than amongst those whose wants are all supplied by the hoarded wealth of their ancestors. There is evidently a repressing power in abundance, and a stimulating power in penury; the one tending to produce dwarfishness of intellect and mental power—the other to elicit every energy and intellectual greatness. We will not say, that the battle for subsistence has not borne hard on genius, and kept down the loftiness of its aspirings; but we are assured that the cases are of immeasurably more frequent occurrence, in which the man has been indebted to the straitness of his circumstances for the expansion of his mental powers. We could adduce instances without number, in which there is the
greatest reason to believe, that the necessity for exertion has brought out all the strength of the intellect, and in which it would have been to consign the man to mediocrity, if to nothing worse, had you poured on him, at the outset of life, what is called, without reference to the actual chances, a fortune.
We may in passing express our surprise, that many who are themselves instances of the improving power of industry, and who owe all that they have and are to their having been compelled to labour for subsistence, should manifest such an anxiety to bequeath to their children an ample inheritance. They seem blind to the advantages which the want of a large patrimony has proved to themselves; and, therefore, blind also to the fact, which long experience attests, that what has been gathered with great industry by the father, is commonly squandered with great prodigality by the son. We know of no vainer delusion than what is called making a provision for a family, if you mean by it the securing the family against all necessity of providing for themselves. We are no advocates for leaving a family in destitution; as though it were an act of proper faith in the earthly father to commit unreservedly his little ones to his heavenly: but we should never wish to see more bequeathed than might serve to uphold a family while yet too weak to uphold itself, and to assist its members in entering on honourable callings. As to the endeavour to transmit a complete independence, it is just the endeavour to rescind the sentence of our text: and if the endeavour be allowed to succeed, it is commonly a fatal success, full of disasters to those upon whom it may alight. I wish no son of mine to be exempt from the sentence—“ In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” I have been subject to the sentence myself all my life long, and know it to be good for man that he gains his living by his labour. And the family which we regard as left in the best condition when death removes its head is, not the family for whom there is a fine landed estate, or an ample funded property, but the family which has been thoroughly educated in the principles of religion, and trained to habits of piety and industry; and in which there is just as much wealth as may preserve from want those members who cannot labour for themselves, and start the others in professions which open a broad field for unwearied diligence. It is on families such as this that we see the blessing of the Almighty most evidently resting, and from its ranks are commonly drafted the best ornaments of our community. We believe unreservedly of many a household which has been left to struggle with difficulties, that there has been a worth to it in its contracted means, which would have been poorly compensated by ancestral coffers; and simply because its circumstances have made it incumbent on every member to the putting forth all its. energies, has it contributed to the state some of its most exemplary of subjects. -men, who, with a large patrimony, might have been perverted into nuisances, or at all events into the mere drones of society.
It is the upshot, as you must all perceive, of these remarks, that it was in mercy, full as much as it was in judgment-in order to adapt the earth to its inhabitants, as much as to visit on its inhabitants the sin they had committed, that the Creator withdrew from the soil its abundant fertility, and imposed on our race the necessity for labour. We wish we could sketch to you what a change would be produced in such a country as our own, by the repeal of the sentence pronounced upon Adam. Let it be imagined that there was suddenly an end for all demand for toil, and that our land yielded almost spontaneously