Page images



MATTHEW xiv. 12.

At that time Herod the Tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,

and said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist : he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.

Last autumn I delivered in this sanctuary a very instructive discourse on the power of conscience, as illustrated in the history of Herod, when he put John the Baptist to a violent death. I now and then intermingled some remarks of my own, but for the greater part of that discourse you are indebted to a contemporary writer, whose high reputation for science and erudition I have more than once noticed in your hearing. On the present occasion, and in other sermons which will follow this, I shall in my own words lay before you a series of remarks into which I was led by further meditation upon

the same subject. I mean, however, to take a wider range; I shall

* 1821.

endeavour to sound the depth of the human mind in the motives to action, whether the causes be near or remote; and I shall trace out the influence which events, whether slight or important in appearance, may have in generating or blending those motives, and in facilitating or obstructing the proper efficacy of conscience.

The history of Herod will hereafter be directly resumed, and minutely investigated, but the practical inferences to be drawn from it will to-day be supported by other statements, and other observations of a similar tendency.

As all these discourses are intended to display to you fully the power of conscience, it may not be amiss, at the opening, to elucidate the origin and the complex signification of a word so often introduced into the judgments which we form both of ourselves and of other men, as moral agents.

Conscience then means not merely knowledge, but knowledge with. It suggests, as it were, the notion of two parties, the knower, and the known; and accordingly, in the Latin language, but not in the English, it sometimes denotes the person, who perceives what is done by another man, as well as what is done by himself.

But in Latin generally, and in Greek and English uniformly, conscience has a reflex sense, and the operations of it seem, as I told you, to represent two parties, the agent and the observer, while in reality they are the same person. Yesterday I did a certain action, to-day I remember it, and the

remembrance of it is accompanied by a feeling of blame or approbation; and with a consciousness of identity, not according to any metaphysical subtleties, but in the more obvious, and, as it is called, forensic sense of the word-personal responsibility. The term, though familiar to our ears, is even philosophically proper, and it must have been introduced when man had more or less acquired a habit of looking into himself; when differences of right or wrong were more or less accurately observed ; and when language had made some advance from simplicity to refinement, or from vagueness to precision.

The Hebrew language is very inartificial; and instead of supplying for conscience any appropriate or literal word, it furnishes us only with a metaphorical onė; L E B, the heart, considered primarily, as the seat of all mental operations; in Hebrew therefore, we must sometimes understand it in the limited sense of feeling, which, in its figurative sense it always bears in our own tongue, as contrasted with the head, and sometimes for the reasoning faculty, as you may learn from many passages in the Proverbs of Solomon. . In Latin,* as in Hebrew, the same word is occasionally used both for our feelings, and the exercise of our intellect. In

* Egregiè cordatus homo Caius Æliu' sextus.-Ennius.

Non tu corpus eras sine pectore.-HORACE,
Oculis ea pectoris hausit.

Ovid's Metam. on Pythagoras, Last Book.

English we have no such ambiguity. I have only to add, in the way of criticism, that the Syriac language designates conscience by a most significant appellation, tara, the derivative of a word which means to paint, to figure, to describe; so that conscience is thus represented to us as a faculty, which marks and engraves our actions upon the tablets of our minds. The characters in which it records those actions may, for a time, be dim, but seldom are they wholly effaced ; and in proportion as we continue to turn away our eyes from those characters, the form which they one day or other may assume, will appear with increased bulk, and excite increased terror.

From this explanation of the words which denote conscience, let me turn your attention to the thing itself.

Experience, I doubt not, has pointed out to you the awful and salutary power of conscience, felt, as it must sometimes have been, with equal force, by the valiant hero, the contemplative sage, the peasant in his cottage, and the monarch on his throne.

Hence, the philosopher surveys with deep and serious satisfaction that constitution of human nature, which, amidst the changes and chances of this mortal life, is so well calculated to preserve us from immediate guilt, to lead us back to deserted virtue, to secure or recover our proper dignity in this world, and to rescue us from condemnation in the world to come. They, who unwisely slight, or presumptuously disobey the dictates of their faithful monitor, never can find complete exemptiori from its just and secret reproaches ; and of this fact, which I have already noticed, you will hear from me numerous examples. On the contrary, they who attend to its warning voice' must, with gratitude and with reverence, acknowledge the wisdom and benevolence of the Deity, when he implanted in their bosoms such a guide to holiness and happiness amidst the various temptations by which human infirmity is assailed.

Concise, but luminous, is the language employed by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews-“We trust,” says he, "we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly;" that is, praiseworthily. Here you see the ground upon which we are to trust for our attainment of this precious advantage; it is, that we “ live praise-worthily”— that we live so in all things that in all things we are earnestly and unfeignedly desirous so to liveor, in other words, that we thus unitė the will with the affections, and advance from virtuous principles to virtuous habits. ! Even in the heathen world, the power of conscience was discerned and confessed; and it well becomes us to remember, that three distinguished moralists have borne their testimony to the energy and the usefulness of this inward principle, which carries with it the vigilance of a guardian, the impartiality of a witness, the sternness of an accuser, and the authority of a judge. - When Bias was asked what alone is a preservative against fear ;

« PreviousContinue »