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Second Sermon on the Cholera

Visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children.--EXODUS xx. 5.


In my sermon last Sunday I said plainly that cholera, fever, and many more diseases were man's own fault, and that they were God's judgments just because they were man's own fault, because they were God's plainspoken opinion of the sin of filth and of habits of living unfit for civilised Christian men.

But there is an objection which may arise in some of your minds, and if it has not risen in YOUR minds, still it has in other people's often enough; and therefore I will state it plainly, and answer it as far as God shall give me wisdom. For it is well to get to the root of all matters, and of this matter of Pestilence among others; for if we do believe this Pestilence to be God's judgment, then it is a spiritual matter most proper to be spoken of in a place like this church, where men come as spiritual beings to hear that which is profitable for their souls. And it IS profitable for their souls to consider this matter; for it has to do, as I see more and more daily, with the very deepest truths of the Gospel; and accordingly as we believe the Gospel, and believe really that Jesus Christ is our Saviour and our King, the New Adam, the firstborn among many brethren, who has come down to proclaim to us that we are all brothers in Him--in proportion as we believe THAT, I say, shall we act upon this very matter of public cleanliness.

The objection which I mean is this: people say it is very hard and unfair to talk of cholera or fever being people's own fault, when you see persons who are not themselves dirty, and innocent little children, who if they are dirty are only so because they are brought up so, catch the infection and die of it. You cannot say it is their fault. Very true. I did not say it was their fault. I did not say that each particular person takes the infection by his own fault, though I do say that nine out of ten do. And as for little children, of course it is not their fault. But, my friends, it must be someone's fault. No one will say that the world is so ill made that these horrible diseases must come in spite of all man's care. If it was so, plagues, pestilences, and infectious fevers would be just as common now in England, and just as deadly as they were in old times; whereas there is not one infectious fever now in England for ten that there used to be five hundred years ago. In ancient times fevers, agues, plague, smallpox, and other diseases, whose very names we cannot now understand, so completely are they passed away, swept England from one end to the other every few years, killing five people where they now kill one. Those diseases, as I said, have many of them now died out entirely; and those which remain are becoming less and less dangerous every year. And why? Simply because people are becoming more cleanly and civilised in their habits of living; because they are tilling and draining the land every year more and more, instead of leaving it to breed disease, as all uncultivated land does. It is not merely that doctors are becoming wiser: we ourselves are becoming more reasonable in our way of living. For instance, in large districts both of Scotland and of the English fens, where fever and ague filled the country and swept off hundreds every spring and fall thirty years ago, fever and ague are now almost unknown, simply because the marshes have all been drained in the meantime. So you see that people can prevent these disorders, and therefore it must be someone's fault if they come. Now, whose fault is it? You dare not lay the blame on God. And yet you do lay the fault on God if you say that it is no MAN'S fault that children die of fever. But I know what the answer to that will be: "We do not accuse God--it is the fault of the fall, Adam's curse which brought death and disease into the world." That is a common answer, and the very one I want to hear. What? is it just to say, as many do, that all the diseases which ever tormented poor little innocent children all over the world, came from Adam's sinning six thousand years ago, and yet that it is unfair to say that one little child's fever came from his parents' keeping a filthy house a month ago? That is swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat--that God should be just in punishing all mankind for Adam's sin, and yet unjust in punishing one little child for its parents' sin. If the one is just the other must be just too, I think. If you believe the one, why not believe the other? Why? Because Adam's curse and "original" sin, as people call it, is a good and pleasant excuse for laying our sins and miseries at Adam's door; but the same rule is not so pleasant in the case of filth and fever, when it lays other people's miseries at our door.

I believe that all the misery in the world sprung from Adam's disobedience and falling from God. "By one man sin entered the world, and death by sin, and so death passed on all men, even on those who had not sinned after the likeness of Adam's transgression." So says the Bible, and I believe it says so truly. For this is the law of the earth, God's law which He proclaimed in the text. He does visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him. It is so. You see it around you daily. No one can deny it. Just as death and misery entered into the world by one man, so we see death and misery entering into many a family. A man or woman is a drunkard, or a rogue, or a swearer: how often their children grow up like them! We have all seen that, God knows, in this very parish. How much more in great cities, where boys and girls by thousands--oh, shame that it should be so in a Christian land!--grow up thieves from the breast, and harlots from the cradle. And why? Why are there, as they say, and I am afraid say too truly, in London alone upwards of 10,000 children under sixteen who live by theft and harlotry? Because the parents of these children are as bad as themselves--drunkards, thieves, and worse--and they bring up their children to follow their crimes. If that is not the fathers' sins being visited on the children, what is?

How often, again, when we see a wild young man, we say, and justly: "Poor fellow! there are great excuses for him, he has been so badly brought up." True, but his wildness will ruin him all the same, whether it be his father's fault or his own that he became wild. If he drinks he will ruin his health; if he squanders his money he will grow poor. God's laws cannot stop for him; he is breaking them, and they will avenge themselves on him. You see the same thing everywhere. A man fools away his money, and his innocent children suffer for it. A man ruins his health by debauchery, or a woman hers by laziness or vanity or self-indulgence, and her children grow up weakly and inherit their parents' unhealthiness. How often again, do we see passionate parents have passionate children, stupid parents stupid children, mean and lying parents mean and lying children; above all, ignorant and dirty parents have ignorant and dirty children. How can they help being so? They cannot keep themselves clean by instinct; they cannot learn without being taught: and so they suffer for their parents' faults. But what is all this except God's visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children? Look again at a whole parish; how far the neglect or the wickedness of one man may make a whole estate miserable. There is one parish in this very union, and the curse of the whole union it is, which will show us that fearfully enough. See, too, how often when a good and generous young man comes into his estate, he finds it so crippled with debts and mortgages by his forefathers' extravagance, that he cannot do the good he would to his tenants, he cannot fulfil his duty as landlord where God has placed him, and so he and the whole estate must suffer for the follies of generations past. If that is not God visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, what is it?

Look again at a whole nation; the rulers of two countries quarrel, or pretend to quarrel, and go to war--and some here know what war is-- just because there is some old grudge of a hundred years standing between two countries, or because rulers of whose names the country people, perhaps, never heard, have chosen to fall out, or because their forefathers by cowardice, or laziness, or division, or some other sin, have made the country too weak to defend itself; and for that poor people's property is destroyed, and little infants butchered, and innocent women suffer unspeakable shame. If that is not God visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, what is it?

It is very awful, but so it is. It is the law of this earth, the law of human kind, that the innocent often suffer for other's faults, just as you see them doing in cholera, fever, ague, smallpox, and other diseases which man can prevent if he chooses to take the trouble. There it is. We cannot alter it. Those who will may call God unjust for it. Let them first see, whether He is not only most just, but most merciful in making the world so, and no other way. I do not merely mean that whatever God does must be right. That is true, but it is a poor way of getting over the difficulty. God has taught us what is right and wrong, and He will be judged by His own rules. As Abraham said to Him when Sodom was to be destroyed: "That be far from Thee, to punish the righteous with the wicked. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Abraham knew what was right, and he expected God not to break that law of right. And we may expect the same of God. And I may be able, I hope, in my sermon next Sunday, to show you that in this matter God does break the law of right. Nevertheless, in the meantime, this is His way of dealing with men. When Sodom was destroyed He brought righteous Lot out of it. But Sodom was destroyed, and in it many a little infant who had never known sin. And just so when Lisbon was swallowed up by an earthquake, ninety years ago, the little children perished as well as the grown people--just as in the Irish famine fever last year, many a doctor and Roman Catholic priest, and Protestant clergyman, caught the fever and died while they were piously attending on the sick. They were acting like righteous men doing their duty at their posts; but God's laws could not turn aside for them. Improvidence, and misrule, which had been working and growing for hundreds of years, had at last brought the famine fever, and even the righteous must perish by it. They had their sins, no doubt, as we all have; but then they were doing God's work bravely and honestly enough, yet the fever could not spare them any more than it could spare the children of the filthy parents, though they had not kept pigsties under their windows, nor cesspools at their doors. It could not spare them any more than it can spare the tenants of the negligent or covetous house-owner, because it is his fault and not theirs that his houses are undrained, overcrowded, destitute--as whole streets in many large towns are--of the commonest decencies of life. It may be the landlord's fault, but the tenants suffer. God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children, and landlords ought to be fathers to their tenants, and must become fathers to them some day, and that soon, unless they intend that the Lord should visit on them all their sins, and their forefathers' also, even unto the third and fourth generation.

For do not fancy that because the innocent suffer with the guilty that therefore the guilty escape. Seldom do they escape in this world, and in the world to come never. The landlord who, as too many do, neglects his cottages till they become man-sties, to breed pauperism and disease--the parents whose carelessness and dirt poison their children and neighbours into typhus and cholera--their brother's blood will cry against them out of the ground. It will be required at their hands sooner or later, by Him who beholds iniquity and wrong, and who will not be satisfied in the day of His vengeance by Cain's old answer, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

We are every one of us our brother's keeper; and if we do not choose to confess that, God will prove it to us in a way that we cannot mistake. A wise man tells a story of a poor Irish widow who came to Liverpool and no one would take her in or have mercy on her, till, from starvation and bad lodging, as the doctor said, she caught typhus fever, and not only died herself, but gave the infection to the whole street, and seventeen persons died of it. "See," says the wise man, "the poor Irish widow was the Liverpool people's sister after all. She was of the same flesh and blood as they. The fever that killed her killed them, but they would not confess that they were her brothers. They shut their doors upon her, and so there was no way left for her to prove her relationship, but by killing seventeen of them with fever." A grim jest that, but a true one, like Elijah's jest to the Baal priests on Carmel. A true one, I say, and one that we have all need to lay to heart.

And I do earnestly trust in you that you will lay it to heart. We have had our fair warning here. We have had God's judgment about our cleanliness; His plain spoken opinion about the sanitary state of this parish. We deserve the fever, I am afraid; not a house in which it has appeared but has had some glaring neglect of common cleanliness about it; and if we do not take the warning God will surely some day repeat it. It will repeat itself by the necessary laws of nature; and we shall have the fever among us again, just as the cholera has reappeared in the very towns, and the very streets, where it was seventeen years ago, wherever they have not repented of and amended their filth and negligence. And I say openly, that those who have escaped this time may not escape next. God has made examples, and by no means always of the worst cottages. God's plan is to take one and leave another by way of warning. "It is expedient that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" is a great and a sound law, and we must profit by it. So let not those who have escaped the fever fancy that they must needs be without fault. "Think ye that those sixteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and slew them, were sinners above all those that dwelt at Jerusalem? I say unto you, Nay, but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish."

And I say again, as I said last Sunday, that this is a spiritual question, a Gospel sermon; for by your conduct in this matter will your faith in the Gospel be proved. If you really believe that Jesus Christ came down from heaven and sacrificed Himself for you, you will be ready to sacrifice yourselves in this matter for those for whom He died; to sacrifice, without stint, your thought, your time, your money, and your labour. If you really believe that He is the sworn enemy of all misery and disease, you will show yourselves too the sworn enemies of everything that causes misery and disease, and work together like men to put all pestilential filth and damp out of this parish. If you really believe that you are all brothers, equal in the sight of God and Christ, you will do all you can to save your brothers from sickness and the miseries which follow it. If you really believe that your children are God's children, that at baptism God declares your little ones to be His, you will be ready to take any care or trouble, however new or strange it may seem, to keep your children safe from all foul smells, foul food, foul water, and foul air, that they may grow up healthy, hearty, and cleanly, fit to serve God as christened, free, and civilised Englishmen should in this great and awful time, the most wonderful time that the earth has ever seen, into which it has pleased God of His great mercy to let us all be born.


Charles Kingsley