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A SERMON, PREACHED IN LENOX, IN THE COUNTY OF BERKSHIRE, AND COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS, December 6, 1787; AT THE EXECUTION OF JOHN BLY AND CHARLES ROSE, FOR CRIMES OF BURGLARY.

By STEPHEN WEST, A. M. Pastor of the Church in Stockbridge.

Published at the desire of a great number of the hearers.

HUDSON: Printed by ASHBEL STODDARD, M,DCC,LXXXVIII.

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A SERMON, &c.

ROMANS xiii. 3, 4.For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

THERE are particular occurrences, in providence, which are peculiarly fit­ted to turn our attention to the nature and im­portance of civil government, and lead us to prize and revere it as a divine institution. The present affecting and melancholy occa­sion is one of those, and we are now called upon humbly to adore and bless God, that there is a way, of his own appointment, in [Page 4] which the world may rid itself of those who, by their crimes and violence, have made themselves intolerable to society. That there is a way in which this may be done, with the divine approbation, is evident from the words of our text. For God has appointed civil rulers to bear his sword, to avenge the wrongs of society, and to execute wrath upon evil doers.

But it has been a question, with some, what those crimes are for which capital punishments may be inflicted. Many have imagined that nothing but murder or shedding of man's blood might be punished with death by the civil ruler.

A little attention to the sacred writings may convince us of the contrary. Happy for the world that, even in matters of civil gov­ernment, we are favoured with so excellent a guide.

We find that, under the Mosaic law, ma­ny crimes, besides that of murder, were made capital. And, as the civil government of the Hebrews was far more excellent than that of any other nation, being framed and instituted by infinite wisdom; it may well be patterned after by civil legislators: And such of its laws and institutions as difference of circum­stances will admir, be adopted by other na­tions.

[Page 5] By the Jewish law, a variety of crimes were punishable with death: Such as—Cursing, or smiting father or mother, Exod, xxi. 15, 17. that disobedience to authority might be nip­ped in the bad.—Causing their children to pass through the fire, and offering them to Moloch. Adultery, Incest, Lying with a beast, see Levit. xx. Blasphemy, Levit. xxiv. 16. Idolatry, Deut. xvii. 5. Ravishing, or Rapes, Deut. xxii. 25. If a Thief, found breaking up in the night, was put to immediate death, he that killed him was not esteemed a criminal, Exod. xxii. 2. Witchcraft, which some learned men have supposed nothing materially different from those base arts of fortune telling which have been imposed on the credulity of mankind, and affronted common sense, in almost every age and nation, was to be pun­ished with death, Exod. xxii. 18.

If such a variety of crimes were to be pun­ished with death, according to the Mosaic law, it would be strange that nothing but murder might be made capital by the laws of other nations. For there is great reason to suppose that none of these crimes, not even murder itself, were made capital, by the Jew­ish law, because they were sins against God; but because they were sins against society. Sins as against God, he himself will punish. He on­ly knows their malignity, and their desert; [Page 6] and he only can inflict an adequate punish­ment. Accordingly, the apostle says, Rom. xii. 19. ‘Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord. But, that the peace of the community may be secured and preserved, God has put his sword of jus­tice into the hands of the civil magistrate, to avenge the wrongs done to society.

Even Idolatry and Blasphemy, there is rea­son to believe, were not made capital because they were sins against God, but because they were treason against the state. As God was their civil king and head, these sins struck at the fundamental laws of their society; and were a direct attempt to subvert their govern­ment. The Hebrews had chosen Jehovah for their sole and supreme ruler and king, and had sworn allegiance to him. They had no other form of civil government than what had been framed and given them by Jehovah, and voluntarily chosen and adopted by them­selves. It is hence evident, that idolatry and blasphemy were a renunciation of their allegiance to their sovereign, and treason against their king.

And, that even these crimes were punished with death, not so much because they were sins against God, as against the civil commu­nity, [Page 7] may reasonably be inferred from the following considerations, viz.

1. There was no sacrifice of atonement instituted for these crimes. For sins as against God, there then was, and now is an atonement. And the great atonement typifi­ed by the bloody sacrifices instituted by the Mosaic law, is unquestionably of sufficient worth to procure pardon even for these sins as be­ing against God. But sins as against God are infinitely more heinous and criminal, than as against men: yet, as against men, they were unpardonable, no atonement being appoint­ed for them. Consequently they were punish­able with death, not so much because they were sins against God, as against men. Yea, they were made capital only because they di­rectly tended to subvert the fundamental laws of their community.

The good of society, here in this world, forbids that any atonement should be made for certain crimes, even be the criminal ever so humble and penitent; but, absolutely re­quires, if on no other account, yet for a ter­ror and warning to others, the utter excision—the death of the perpetrator. Even though the criminal may be forgiven at the bar of God, still he may not be pardoned by the civil magistrate.

[Page 8] 2. That the crimes, even of Idolatry and Blasphemy, were punishable with death only because they were against the peace and good of society, is evident from this consideration, viz. that as against God, they might be for­given. Thus our Saviour expresly asserts, Mark iii. 28. ‘That all sins shall be for­given unto the sons of men, and blasphe­mies wherewith they shall blaspheme; ex­cepting only the sin against the Holy Ghost.’ But, as against the laws of the Jew­ish community, these sins were utterly unpar­donable. But, where the penalty of the law, as the crime respects the Deity, as moral gov­ernor of the universe, is remitted by him, it is unreasonable to suppose that he should require man to execute it. Where God forgives sins as against himself, as moral governor and king, surely he would not put his sword into the hand of the civil magistrate to execute his wrath.

3. From the extent of the last and general judgement it may be concluded that no crimes ever are, or were, punishable by the civil magistrate, in any other view, or on any other account, than as against the peace and good of human society. All judgement is com­mitted to Christ; and every crime of what­ever nature, whether it has been before any human tribunal, or not, will, at the last day, [Page 9] be brought into public view, and receive a just recompence of reward. But, had the Deity authorised the civil magistrate, either to punish, or to pardon, sins as against him­self, this would so far supersede the necessity of a general judgement, and deprive the Son of God of the honour of being universal judge.

Indeed, nothing can be more absurd than to suppose that men should be judges and avengers in the cause of God. Men are, themselves, all infinitely guilty in God's sight; and must, all, be arraigned as crimi­nals at his bar. Though civil magistrates are stiled gods, they are nevertheless to die like men. But for the protection and good of society civil rulers may be clothed with an authority which is, in some respects, an im­age of the divine. This authority they are to use for the ends which they are invested with it; which are, that they may be a terror, not to good works, but to the evil.

But whenever the civil ruler attempts, in character of judge and avenger, to animad­vert upon crimes as against God, he assumes that to which he has not the least imaginable right, steps into the seat of God, and wrests the sword out of his hand.

From these considerations we may safely conclude that civil rulers may be justified in [Page 10] making other crimes capital besides that of murder, and the civil magistrate may lawful­ly inflict death upon the perpetrators of them. Men have a right to inflict capital punish­ments in every case wherein the good of soci­ety requires it:—and, of this men must be the judges; not forgetting, however, their obli­gations to judge with discretion, impartiality and candour; and that they are accountable to God for the laws which they frame, and the sanctions by which they establish them. God has put his sword into the hands of the civil magistrate to avenge the wrongs done to society: and, therefore, men are required to be subject to civil authority, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake, Rom. xiii. 5.

From these considerations it appears that it is agreeable to the will of God, yea, that it is his own appointment, that there should be lodged, some where in society, a supreme power:—a power to be controuled by nothing but by the law:—a power not to be resisted:—a power to execute vengeance and punish­ments. Without this power, the ends of the institution of civil government never can be answered, nor the good and safety of society insured. Without this, rulers can never be a terror to evil doers; nor encouragers of them that do well. Without this, govern­ment [Page 11] cannot subsist; but society must be dis­solved.

It appears, further, from what has been said, that laws framed for the good of civil society, are indeed binding upon the con­sciences of men. Were it otherwise we could not be required, by the divine law, to be subject to them, not only for wrath but for conscience sake. Crimes committed against civil society are not expiated by enduring the wrath of the civil magistrate: but, as against society must have another hearing, and under­go another trial, at the bar of God. Though men may punish crimes only as being against society: yet God will punish them as being not only against himself, but against our fel­low-creatures. Laws, framed for the good of society, have, therefore, the double sanc­tion of human authority, and of the divine.

By the institution of civil government, and the authority with which rulers are invested from on high to be avengers, and to execute wrath upon evil doers: it appears that human governments are an image of the divine. One way, therefore, in which we are to ex­press our submission to God, and to his au­thority, is by yielding a willing and due sub­jection to civil authority and government. A member of the kingdom of Christ, will certainly be a good and peaceable member [Page 12] of civil society: and where the divine law is written in the heart, it will and must produce a regular and cheerful subjection to human laws framed for the good of society. An un­easy, restless member of civil society, impa­tient of every human restraint, is not qualifi­ed for that state of perfect peace, subjection and harmony, which will reign in the world above,

Further, as in human governments pun­ishments are inflicted only for the general good; so also, in the divine. As it is an in­stance of goodness, and of regard to the peace and welfare of society, in the civil magistrate, to execute the penalties of the civil law; so is it an instance of goodness in God, and of regard to the peace and welfare of his great family, where the sacrifice of atonement is re­jected, to execute the penalties of the divine law. For the good of the universe can no more be secured, unless the spirit and hon­our of the divine law be preserved in admin­istration, than the peace of civil society can be preserved, unless civil law and justice be faithfully administered. And as civil rulers have no pleasure in the pains and misery of those whom they are obliged to cut off from society: so the Great Ruler of the universe, as he declares with an oath, Ezek. xxxiii 11. has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, [Page 13] but that the wicked turn from his way and live.

Though human governments are an image of the divine, yet the difference, in many respects, between them, is exceedingly great: and the resemblance of the former, to the lat­ter, but very faint and imperfect. As the knowledge of God extends to the secret mo­tions and exercises of the heart, so do the laws of this glorious kingdom and government. But human laws extend no further than to the external actions and conduct of men; or rather to the tempers and exercises of the heart, only as they appear and are expressed in overt acts: So that, in those very instances wherein human laws may be obeyed, the pen­alties of the divine may be incurred. The perfection of the divine government, also, far transcends that of men, in this respect, that the great Governor of the world doth not descend from his high dignity as lawgiver and king, in exercising the richest mercy and grace to innumerable multitudes of the vilest of criminals; whereas, pardons may be so frequent, in civil governments, as to dimin­ish the authority of the magistrate, and take off the terror of the law.

We may also conclude, that, if the judge­ment of man, and the vengeance of the civil magistrate, are attended with circumstances [Page 14] so striking and awful as those now before us; the judgement and wrath of the eternal God must be infinitely more awful and dreadful. If it be, as we now see, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the civil magistrate; how fearful a thing indeed must it be to fall into the hand of the living God!

If the circumstances of the criminals now before us, taking only into view the punish­ment, the shameful death about to be inflicted on them by the hands of men, be enough to excite the pity, and move the compassion of even obdurate hearts; how extremely pitia­ble and affecting are the state, and circum­stances of all those who are yet in their sins, under the curse of the divine law, and expo­sed, every moment, to have its most awful penalties inflicted, in full measure upon them?

Again, as the dignity and honor of the di­vine government will be supported and main­tained, by God's adverting to the smallest crimes, and the least offences against his ho­ly laws; is it not incumbent on the civil ma­gistrate carefully to notice even small offen­ces against the laws of the community, and animadvert suitably upon them? And would not this as really tend to the honor of civil government, and the peace and happiness of society, as the similar mode of conduct in the [Page 15] great Governor of the world, doth to the dignity and honor divine government, and the peace & welfare of God's extended kingdom. Where small, but real crimes, are pass'd unnoticed by the civil magistrate, the door is open to the commission of greater; and vile and wick­ed men encouraged, by and by, to bid de­fiance to all authority. And then, punish­ments for the greatest crimes have a less ben­eficial effect, and the execution of them sits more uneasy upon the minds of the public, than when the laws are punctually executed, and every breach receives a just recompence of reward. Does not the stile and title of civil rulers, in the holy scriptures, where they are called gods, imply that in this re­spect they should imitate the conduct and copy the example of HIM whose commission they bear.

Notwithstanding the analogy there is, in a variety of respects, between human govern­ments and the divine, there is a wide and a material difference in the latter from the for­mer, which may suggest very comfortable re­flections amid such melancholy scenes as that now about to be presented before us. The judgement of man is not absolutely final; nor, in many respects, similar to that of God. God may forgive, where the civil magistrate is bound to hold guilty: And the vengeance [Page 16] of Heaven may be averted from the unhappy object on whom that of society must be exe­cuted. It is possible that a criminal may go from the halter, or the stake, to a seat of honor and everlasting glory. The venge­ance of the civil magistrate, and of God, are not the same: nor is the great Governor of the world circumscribed within the same rules and limits respecting executions, as bind the civil magistrate. Human laws leave no room for repentance; but, by the gracious constitution of God, this may be a mean of obtaining pardon for the most heinous of crimes. When, therefore, we see one of our fellow men cut off by the hand of civil justice, we cannot from thence infer, with any certainty, that divine justice requires his final perdition. Yea, the circumstances of the case may be such that we may have rea­son to conclude that even the axe, or the halter, may be a passport to a world of end­less felicity and joy.

But, I must close with one or two ad­dresses suited to the present solemn occa­sion. And,

I. To the prisoners now brought out for ex­ecution.

Poor, unhappy, wretched creatures! As you are now just launching into the eternal world, how shall I frame an address to you, [Page 17] preparatory to that infinitely more solemn ad­dress which will soon be made to you from the seat of eternal judgement!. By your dar­ing crimes and wickedness, you have forfeit­ed the protection of society, and exposed yourselves to the highest expression of the displeasure of the community to which you belong. And, as you have set yourselves against the community, so the community now set themselves against you. You have troubled society, and this day the Lord will trouble you. You have been deaf to warnings and counsels, and to the cries and tears of those whom you have plundered and abused; and now society must be deaf to your cries, and har­den itself against your tears. You have braved danger, and, I fear, have defied death; But now the net is spread over you, and trouble on every side hath taken hold upon you.

I say not these things to insult you: I would insult no man, especially no one in your awful and melancholy situation. But, I say these things, that now, if it may be, in this last, infinitely important hour, you may be brought to a suitable and proper sense of your great wickedness. You have heard that there is an atonement made for sins against God. He is yet on a throne of mer­cy, with the ever-glorious and all-prevalent [Page 18] intercessor at his right hand. Still the scep­tre of mercy is holden out to you; and the infinitely gracious offer of free and full par­don made to you

But oh! with what a voice of thunder, and in what solemn and piercing accents, will you soon be addressed from the throne of everlasting judgement, unless now, with penitent and broken hearts, you lift up your feeble voices in humble cries and supplica­tions for mercy. The Lord is a prayer-hear­ing God. No one ever sought to him in vain. He has seated himself on a throne of grace, purposely to hear the penitent cries of helpless distressed, undone sinners. Not a groan from a broken heart, but what reach­es his ears; not a sigh but what is noticed by him. Even one prayer, now in your last moments, breathed forth from such hearts, will ascend, enter within the veil, meet accept­ance, and through the riches of divine mer­cy secure you a welcome into the blessed abodes of everlasting peace, where fraud and violence never come. Improve, then, these your last moments, in humble, penitent, and fervent cries to God. Remember eternity now hangs upon an hour! Infinitely import­ant events are now gathering and collecting [...], to a single point; and infinite wisdom is to give the decision, and turn the balance! [Page 19] May divine sovereign mercy interpose for you, and pardon and everlasting favour be your happy portion! But how your fate will be, in fact, decided, another more solemn and im­portant day than this will declare. I ill then, I bid you a last, a cordial, a mournful fare­well.

A few words to this great assembly shall con­clude the discourse.

What an awful spectacle is now presented before you. The hand of heaven visibly turned against the disturbers of the common peace; and the messengers of death now just about to seize and devour their devoted prey! In one respect we here behold a melancholy instance of the truth of what the apostle as­serts, James i. 15. ‘That lust, when it hath conceived, bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.’ Let this instance be a warning, a solemn warning to all, how they venture to break the bands of civil society, defy its laws and vengeance, and, in that, bid defi­ance to the laws and vengeance of the Al­mighty! ‘If thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for the ruler beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.’ Be afraid of small crimes, and less encroachments upon the [Page 20] rules of equity and righteousness; and by this melancholy instance, see to what they may lead, and in what they may terminate. Great things often succeed, but small begin­ings, and, the most henious offences, gene­rally take their rise from smaller crimes. Let this consideration make you afraid even to take a step in forbidden paths.

Let parents take warning how they edu­cate their children, and what examples they set before them. Early habits take deep root, and are with great difficulty eradicated or overcome. Inure them to subjection and obedience, and endeavour to instill into their minds a dread, a horror of every degree of injustice and violence. Consider how much the peace of society, and their own ever­lasting good, may depend upon it. Your own bad instructions and examples will have the pernicious influence to encourage to greater crimes; and may finally bring them to the gallows, and terminate to their ever­lasting destruction.

But, however solemn the present scene may be to the devoted criminals now before us, on account of the more awful judgement which awaits them; let us all remember that the same solemn hour awaits each one of us. Our eyes must soon see them, and see each other, at the tribunal of God. And what­ever [Page 21] may be their fate, if we die impenitent, whether we go from the gallows, from a stake, or from a bed of down, we shall with equal certainty hear the awful sentence: De­part, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

O then improve, thankfully and wisely improve, the happy season of grace indulged to you, but denied to them! Remember we are by nature, the same vile creatures, in the sight of God, as they; and perhaps, ma­ny of us much more criminal and vile. We stand in as absolute need of an infinite at­tonement, and infinite mercy. Their con­duct is but a specimen of human nature—of what is naturally in each of our hearts. And not unto ourselves, but to the kind provi­dence, and the restraining goodness of God, is it to be ascribed, that we are not now in their mournful situation.

Let no one, then, glory over them: but, as we ourselves need infinite mercy as well as they, let us put on bowels of mercy, and pour out our hearts in humble cries, that divine grace may descend and arrest them. That God and Saviour whom we profess to worship, is able to wound and to pour grace into their hearts. Once, when himself was making his soul an offering for sin, he display­ed his glory and saving power by converting [Page 22] one who was that moment hanging on a tree. Let us all put up our humble and fervent cries to HIM, that a similar display of his power and grace may now be made! And, if we, and these unhappy victims of civil jus­tice be made the subjects of his converting grace, let death come when it may, or in whatever form, we may unite in singing that triumphant song, ‘O death where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victo­ry!’ May God of his infinite mercy, grant that this may be the happy lot of us all, through JESUS CHRIST.—AMEN.

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