The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Of a Devotional Spirit

FROM what has already been said, it will be seen that the relation which we sustain to God, imposes upon us the obligation of maintaining such an habitual temper towards Him, as shall continually incite us to do whatever will please Him. It is natural to suppose that our Creator would have placed us under such circumstances as would, from their nature, cultivate in us such a temper. Such we find to be the fact. We are surrounded by objects of knowledge, which not merely by their existence, but also by their ceaseless changes, remind us of the attributes of God, and of the obligations under which we are placed to Him. A devotional spirit consists in making the moral use which is intended, of all the objects of intellection that come within our experience or our observation.

1. Our existence is dependent on a succession of changes, which are taking place at every moment in ourselves, over which we have no power whatever, but of which, each one involves the necessity of the existence and the superintending power of the Deity. The existence of the whole material universe is of the same nature. Now, each of these changes is, with infinite skill, adapted to the relative conditions of all the beings whom they affect; and they are subjected to laws which are most evident expressions of almighty power, of unsearchable wisdom, and of exhaustless goodness. Now, were we merely intellectual beings, it would not be possible for us to consider any thing more than these laws themselves; but, inasmuch as we are intellectual, and also moral beings, we are capable not only of considering the laws, but also the attributes of the Creator from whom such laws are the emanations. As every thing which we can know teaches a lesson concerning God, if we connect that lesson with every thing which we learn, every thing will be resplendent with the attributes of Deity. By using in this manner, the knowledge which is every where spread before us, we shall habitually cultivate a devout temper of mind. Thus, “the heavens will declare unto us the glory of God, and the firmament will show his handy-work; thus day unto day will utter speech, and night unto night show forth knowledge of Him.”

2. Nor is this true of physical nature alone. The whole history of the human race teaches us the same lesson. The rewards of virtue, and the punishments of vice, as they are beheld in the events which befall both individuals and nations, all exhibit the attributes of the Deity. It is He that “stilleth the noise of the seas, the noise of their waves, and the tumult of the people.” “The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof. Clouds and darkness are round about him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.” His forbearance and long-suffering, and at the same time His inflexible justice, His love of right, and His hatred of wrong, are legibly written in every page of individual and national history. And hence it is, that every fact which we witness in the government of moral beings, has a twofold chain of connections and relations. To the mere political economist or the statesman, it teaches the law by which cause and effect are connected. To the pious man it also teaches the attributes of that Being, who has so connected cause and effect; and who, amidst all the intricate mazes of human motive and social organization, carries forward His laws with unchanging certainty and unerring righteousness. Now, it is by observing not merely the law, but the moral lesson derived from the law; it is by observing not merely the connections of events with each other, but, also, their connection with the Great First Cause, that a devotional spirit is to be cultivated.

And, hence, we see that knowledge o every kind, if suitably improved, has, in its very nature, a tendency to devotion. If we do not thus use it, we sever it from its most important connections. We act simply as intellectual, and not as moral beings. We act contrary to the highest and most noble principles of our constitution. And, hence, we see how progress in knowledge really places us under progressive obligations to improvement in piety. This should be borne in mind by every man, and specially by every educated man, For this improvement of our knowledge, God holds us accountable. “Because they regard not the works of the Lord, nor consider the operations of his hand, therefore will He destroy them.”

3. But if such are the obligations resting upon us, from our relation to the works of Nature and Providence, how much are these obligations increased by our knowledge of God, as it is presented to us by revelation! I suppose that a person acquainted with the laws of optics, who had always stood with his back to the sun, might acquire much important knowledge of the nature of light, and of the path of the sun through the heavens, by reasoning from the reflection of that light, observed in the surrounding creation. But how uncertain would be this knowledge, compared with that which he would acquire, by looking directly upon the sun, and tracing his path by his own immediate observation! So of revelation. Here, we are taught by language that truth, which we otherwise could learn only by long and careful induction. God has here made known to us His attributes and character; here He has recorded His laws; here He has written a portion of the history of our race, as a specimen of His providential dealings with men; and here He has, more than all, revealed to us a remedial dispensation, by which our sins may be forgiven, and we be raised to higher and more glorious happiness than that which we have lost. It surely becomes us, then, specially to study the Bible, not merely as a book of antiquities, of a choice collection of poetry, or an inexhaustible storehouse of wisdom; but for the more important purpose of ascertaining the character of God, and our relations to Him, and of thus cultivating towards Him those feelings of filial and reverential homage, which are so manifestly our duty, and which such contemplations are in their nature so adapted to foster and improve.

4. A devout temper is also cultivated by the exercise of devotion. The more we exercise the feeling of veneration, of love, of gratitude, and of submission towards God, the more profound, and pervading, and intense, and habitual, will these feelings become. And, unless the feelings themselves be called into exercise, it will be in vain that we are persuaded that we ought to exercise them. It is one thing to be an admirer of devotion, and another thing to be really devout. It becomes us, therefore, to cultivate these feelings, by actually exercising towards God the very tempers of mind indicated by our circumstances, and our progressive knowledge. Thus, submission to His will, thankfulness for His mercies, trust in His providence, reliance on His power, and sorrow for our sins, should be, not the occasional exercise, but the habit of our souls.

5. By the constitution of our nature, a most intimate connection exists between action and motive; between the performance of an action and the principle from which it emanates. The one cannot long exist without the other. True charity cannot long exist in the temper, unless we perform acts of charity. Meditation upon goodness will soon become effete, unless it be strengthened by good works. So the temper of devotion will be useless; nay, the profession of it must, of necessity, be hypocritical, unless it produce obedience to God. By this alone is its existence known; by this alone can it be successfully cultivated. The more perfectly our wills are subjected to the will of God, and our whole course of conduct regulated by His commands, the more ardent will be our devotion, and the more filial the temper from which our actions proceed.

6. It is scarcely necessary to observe, that as penitence is a feeling resulting from a conviction of violated obligation, it is to be cultivated, not merely by considering the character of God, but also our conduct towards Him. The contrast between His goodness and compassion, and our ingratitude and rebellion, is specially adapted to fill us with humility and self-abasement, and also with sorrow for all our past transgressions. Thus said the prophet: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips; and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”

Lastly. It is surely unnecessary to remark, that such a life as this is alone suited to the character of man. If God nave made us capable of deriving our highest happiness from Him, and have so constituted the universe around us as perpetually to lead us to this source of happiness, the most unreasonable, ungrateful, and degrading, not to say the most guilty, course of conduct which we can pursue, must be, to neglect and abuse this, the most noble part of our constitution, and to use the knowledge of the world around us for every other purpose than that for which it was created. Let every frivolous, thoughtless human being reflect what must be his condition, when he, whose whole thoughts are limited by created things, shall stand in the presence of Him, “before whose face the heavens and the earth shall flee away, and there be no place left for them!”