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

Francis Wayland


Benevolence to the Wicked

WE now come to treat of a form of benevolence, in which other elements are combined. What is our duty to our fellow-men who are wicked?

A wicked man is, from the nature of the case, unhappy. lie is depriving himself of all the pleasures of virtue; he is giving strength to those passions, which, by their ungovernable power, are already tormenting him with insatiable and ungratified desire; he is incurring the pains of a guilty conscience here, and he is, in the expressive language of the Scriptures, “treasuring up wrath, against the day of wrath and of righteous indignation.” It is manifest, then, that no one has stronger claims upon our pity, than such a fellow-creature as this.

So far, then, as a wicked man is miserable or unhappy, he is entitled to our pity, and, of course, to our love and benevolence. But this is not all. He is also wicked; and the proper feeling with which we should contemplate wickedness, is that of disgust, or moral indignation. Hence, a complex feeling in such a case naturally arises that of benevolence, because he is unhappy; and, that of moral indignation, because he is sinful. These two sentiments, however, in no manner conflict with, but on the contrary, if properly understood, strengthen each other.

The fact of a fellow-creature’s wickedness, affects not our obligation to treat him with the same benevolence as would be demanded in any other case. If he is necessitous, or sick, or afflicted, or ignorant, our duty to relieve, and sympathize with, and assist, and teach him, are the same as though he were virtuous. God sends his rain on the evil and on the good.

But especially, as the most alarming source of his misery is his moral character, the more we detest this wickedness, the more strongly would benevolence urge us to make every effort in our power to reclaim him. This, surely, is the highest exercise of charity; for virtue is the true solace against all the evils incident to the present life, and it is only by being virtuous that we can hope for eternal felicity.

We are bound, then, by the law of benevolence, to labor to reclaim the wicked:

1. By example, by personal kindness, by conversation, and by instructing them in the path of duty, and persuading them to follow it.

2. As the most efficacious mode of promoting moral reformation, yet discovered, is found to be the inculcation of the truths of the Holy Scriptures; it is our imperative duty to bring these truths into contact with the consciences of men. This duty is, by our Savior, imposed upon all his disciples: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”

3. As all men are our brethren, and as all men equally need moral light, and as experience has abundantly shown, that all men will be both wicked and unhappy without it, this duty is binding upon every man towards the whole human race. The sentiments of Dr. Johnson on this subject, in his letter on the translation of the Scriptures into the Gaelic language, are so apposite to my purpose, that I beg leave to introduce them here, though they have been so frequently published. “If obedience to the will of God be necessary to happiness, and knowledge of his will necessary to obedience, I know not how he that withholds this knowledge, or delays it, can be said to love his neighbor as himself. He that voluntarily continues in ignorance is guilty of all the crimes which that ignorance produces; as, to him that should extinguish the tapers of a light-house, might be justly imputed the calamities of shipwrecks. Christianity is the highest perfection of humanity; and as no man is good but as he wishes the good of others, no man can be good in the highest degree who wishes not to others the largest measures of the greatest good.” — Life, Anno 1766.

We see, then, that, in so far as wicked men are by their wickedness miserable, benevolence renders it our duty to reclaim them. And to such benevolence the highest rewards are promised. “They that turn many to righteousness shall shine as the stars for ever and ever.” But this is not all. If we love our Father in heaven, it must pain us to see his children violating his just and holy laws, abusing his goodness, rendering not only themselves but also his other children miserable, and exposing themselves and others to his eternal displeasure. The love of God would prompt us to check these evils, and to teach our brethren to serve, and love, and reverence our common Father, and to become his obedient children, both now and for ever.

Nor is either of these sentiments inconsistent with the greatest moral aversion to the crime. The more hateful to us is the conduct of those whom we love, the more zealous will be our endeavors to bring them back to virtue And surely the more we are sensible of the evil of sin against God, the more desirous must we be to teach his creatures to love and obey him.

The perfect exemplification of both of these sentiments is found in the character of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. While, in all his conduct and teachings, we observe the most intense abhorrence of every form of moral evil, yet we always find t combined with a love for the happiness, both temporal and spiritual, of man; which, in all its bearings, transcends the limits of finite comprehension. This is the example which God has held forth for our imitation. It would be easy to show that the improvement of the moral character of our fellow-men is also the surest method of promoting their physical, intellectual, and social happiness.