“If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?” — Amos 3:6
In his sermon responding to the Great Fire of 1835 in New York City Reformed Presbyterian minister James R. Willson speaks at great length as to the reasons why there was such a wanton destruction of both material and buildings, even noting the way that the freezing of the water lines inhibited the fighting of the fire, and how Christians should respond to this tragedy. There is much to take from this work including his jeremiads against the violence done to abolitionists, the danger of preaching false gospels, and the sins of the United States government, all of which Willson speaks about at length in other sermons and letters. However what I would like to focus on in this post is something dealing not with the content of the sermon (which I highly recommend you read), but one of the theological underpinnings of Willson’s writings, that being the role of our sovereign and holy God in the calamity of the fire. Throughout the sermon he makes some statements that would cause most 21st Century Christians to image Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and I want to examine for the believer why, despite the inelegant and wrongheaded manner in which men like Robertson and Falwell often went about their condemnations, the spirit of their motions were correct, and in keeping with a long-held understanding of God’s continued hand in the world and its conflagrations.
There has always been an impulse to speak to ones congregation about major events happening in and around the church (see the myriads of sermons preached after the Great Fire of London in 1666), which we have seen in recent years after events like 9/11 and more recently the Supreme Court decisions. My personal practice is not to deviate from already organized services as I find the breadth of Holy Scripture to be sufficient to work in applications to happenings in wider society regardless of the passage. That being said a topical sermon devoted to extraordinary thanksgivings and other more negative events are certainly in keeping with the strictures of WCF 21 and our Reformed heritage. So there is no trouble, historically or confessionally, with this practice. Going back to the larger question at hand what right does a Reformed minister have in speaking to God’s specific destruction for national sin, whether before or after, and His hand in these things? There is certainly a more recent school of thought in Reformed circles that to speak at all about God’s role in anything but a generic sense is to be not just presumptuous, but confusing the theology of the cross with a theology of glory. Part of the reason for this is the absence in our systematic theology of an understanding of nations as nations being moral persons. In other words we all confess the truth that people, as individuals, owe obedience to God and will be held accountable for their decisions in accordance with revealed truth. However, what is absent from our day is the long held awareness in Reformed theology of a corporate aspect to this obedience in not just the Church, but in society as well. Here is a link to some quotes that illustrate the way in which this thought permeated Reformed thinkers across the centuries.
It is worth quoting Willson at length to whet the appetite:
“We may therefore enforce the maxim that national calamities are sent to punish national sins, from the [example of the] sufferings of Israel for their sins. If the hand of God is in these late calamities, and who but an atheist will deny it, then he either inflicts for sin, or for no cause. The latter will hardly be asserted by any one who professes to believe in the being and attributes of God. It is the award of the common conscience of all nations, that God punishes with visible judgments, flagrant sins (Acts 28:4)…Hardened sinners in Christian nations appear to be nearly alone in denying our maxim”, pg. 39
Now of course we could add the majority of the West to this last sentence as even belief in a watchmaker god has passed by the wayside. Willson will go on to give several examples from Holy Scripture where pagan nations (especially from Amos and the examples of Egypt, Assyria, 1st Century AD Israel, and Babylon) face the wrath of God for their unbelief and multitude of sins. This is how Willson can then speak in the way he does in this work outlining the wickedness of slavery and the way in which the people of New York (especially the politicians, merchants, and high society folks) benefit from the continuance of southern slavery and this being the reason for God’s hot displeasure in the fire and the cold. Biblically 1 Timothy 2:1-2 is another place where you can see God’s call upon His people to be actively involved in the prophetic denunciations of wickedness and therefore also to be in prayer for the elimination of such things by the hand of the Magistrate. Notice the reason Paul gives for this work is so that the people of God would live peaceably in Godliness and reverence. How can the sheep of Christ hope to have this work out in real life if the President, Congress, Supreme Court, etc… invite the wrath of God through their support of evil? It should be of no surprise that you see the speedy acceptance of the gross immorality of sodomy as part of God’s judgment upon the nations for their already unrighteous support of Sabbath-breaking, usury, and other violations of God’s holy and perfect commandments.
We are, as a nation, being held accountable for our corporate sin, regardless of whether our churches theology allows for this to be the case or not. We should respond in the way Willson describes in this work and heed the testimony of our forefathers. Their failure to listen to Willson in 1836 led to the deaths of 800,000 Americans in God’s judgment for man-stealing.
Despite the plethora of “Persecution? You’ll Love It and the Church Will Be Better For It!” articles from some circles in the past several days God’s destruction upon a wicked nation is neither “fun” nor “good”. It is be lamented and mourned. Great apostasy is a time for sackcloth and ashes not Kevin Bacon in Animal House shouting “all is well”; when the winnowing scythe is cutting through the wheat the plant is killed in the process and requires replanting in the Spring. These days are to met with tears, not attempts to assuage conscience. This is why the words of Willson are more necessary than ever. God’s condemnation is being poured out upon this land, and as Jeremiah wept at the end of his home so to should believers be on their knees seeking repentance, for not just personal sin, but our corporate responsibility in the continuance of our national sins.
As Willson notes:
“If there is any principle of God’s moral government clearly revealed and irrefragably proved, by the light of nature, by the Holy Scriptures, and by the dispensations of God’s providence, it is that when judgments fall on cities and nations, they are the rod of Heaven punishing them for their sins.” — pg.44
In closing, while it is not fashionable to speak in the way Willson does in his sermon, partly out of the aforementioned theological and social reasons, we would be wise to heed the example that we read and examine why exactly these things are upon us and to call all men to repentance and faith in the only answer for the troubles we face, the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the lamb slain from the foundation of the World. Seek Him, Rest in His Righteousness, and find peace in his Blood and Mercy. For as Willson carefully and winsomely reminds us, there is no hope for individuals, churches, or nations outside of bowing the knee in humility to the Son of God who is currently breaking this Nation with his rod of iron.