Tokens of the Divine Displeasure

I recently read a fascinating book entitled “Tokens of the Divine Displeasure: In the Late Conflagrations of New York and Other Judgments” by James R. Willson, D.D. (available on Google books here). In this book, the author sets out to prove a thesis I was taught to mock in public school: namely, the idea that the calamities that happen in cities and nations are not the product of mere chance but rather evidences of divine displeasure on God’s part toward regional and national sins. This does not mean that every individual in a region is necessarily guilty of provoking God, however, for often the innocent have to suffer along with the guilty when divine displeasure is manifested. As evidence in support of his thesis, the author argues that the calamities befalling New York in his time relate directly to that state’s particular provocations against God. Below is a summary of the cause-effect relationship drawn.

The Initial Provocations – Refusal to Acknowledge the God of Heaven and Mocking His Religion

In January 1832, a motion was made to abolish prayer in the New York State Legislature, for which clergy were paid a combined total of $750 annually. Arguments in favor of the motion were that many legislators did not believe in prayer, the legislators did not comport themselves in a respectful manner while prayer was being offered, the constitution excluded religion from politics, legislative prayer violated the separation of church and state, the constitution forbade favoring Christianity over other religions, etc. Willson writes,

All these reasonings, if they may be honored with that name, were mingled with malevolent insinuations and attacks on the religion of Jesus, as fanaticism, and unworthy of the countenance of liberal and enlightened men (p 4).

The motion failed. However, efforts to abolish legislative prayer continued, coupled with efforts to abolish all laws “respecting the sanctification of the Lord’s day.” A committee formed to study the issue recommended abolishing legislative prayer but did not touch on the question of the Lord’s day. Willson writes,

This had been expected from the complexion of the committee, and was probably intended, when they were appointed. The christian religion was treated with scorn and derision in the report, and its votaries represented as misguided fanatics (p 5).

In January 1833, the motion to abolish legislative prayer was put forward again and once more failed, although the number of declared non-Christians voting for the motion had increased. Even so, after all but one of the ministers called to the chaplaincy refused the office for various reasons, the law authorizing the clergy pay was then rescinded. From that time forward, the practice of prayer ceased in the New York legislature. Willson describes the situation this way:

Thus is exhibited the painful spectacle, of a people greatly prospered in the bounty of Heaven – a people who have the oracles of the living God in nearly every family – a people among whom there are thousands of christian churches ; such a people proclaiming by their representatives, in the face of the nations, that they do not and will not look to the God of Heaven for his favour or protection as a commonwealth. What christian, nay, what pagan nation has ever done a deed like this? (p 6)

In addition to the above, in 1832, the Dutch Reformed Church had petitioned both the President of the United States of America and the Governor of New York to proclaim a fast day since “the land was threatened with an alarming visitation of God” (p 6). Both politicians refused for the same reasons given in the original motion to the New York Legislature, although New York later did proclaim a day of fasting after being visited with the following calamities.

The First Calamity – The Long Winter

1. The winter of 1831-1832 was exceptionally long and harsh. The devastation to New York’s farming industry alone was about $25,000,000.

Further Provocation – Lack of Discernment and Repentance

The people generally did not view the devastating winter as a judgment from God. In short, their hearts were hardened. Further calamities followed.

Further Calamities – Weather, War, and Pestilence

2. Massive spring flooding in 1832 destroyed farms, bridges, and villages, grinding travel, trade, etc. to a halt.

3. Native Americans attacked several western settlements, killing many and destroying property. Survivors had to flee for their lives.

4. Rumblings from the South hinted at a coming civil war.

5. Cholera broke out mainly in New York State.

A Further Provocation – Continuing Lack of Repentance

When the cholera subsided, the people still refused to acknowledge the God of heaven.

A Further Calamity – Pestilence Again

6. In late June 1832, cholera broke out in New York City.

Even Further Provocation – Deliberate Refusal to Acknowledge God

At this point, on July 2-3, 1832, a motion was put before the City of Albany, New York, to proclaim a day of fasting to God. It was never voted on. Willson writes:

The corporation sat to a late hour engaged in the discussion, until the mover perceiving that there was a majority opposed to the measure, many even making it the subject of profane banter, did not press it on a vote (p 9).

Even Further Calamities – Pestilence and Economic Devastation

7. On July 3, 1832, cholera broke out again. Two people died.

8. On July 4, 1832, Independence Day festivities were all but cancelled. Instead, the largest church in the city was overflowing with people. No new case of cholera broke out.

9. On July 5, 1832, cholera broke out again and spread beyond New York state. Thousands of people began dying each week. Of all the States, New York was the hardest hit. Thousands of its citizens died and its economy took a loss of at least $15,000,000.

Yet More Provocation – Continual Refusal to Repent and Turn to God

Still the people hardened their hearts. They responded just as Americans did after September 11, 2001: “the bricks have fallen down; we will rebuild with hewn stone.” In addition, there was a presidential election and “Faction raged with unprecedented violence.”

Yet More Calamity – Pestilence Spreads

10. In the summer of 1833, cholera spread to the southern and western states.

Continued Provocations – Spreading Unrepentance and Continued Support for Slavery

The southern and western states did not engage in any widespread repentance for their sins, the chief of which in the south was slavery. Since slavery had continued on for years without being abolished, and since northerners were tired of waiting for that abolishment to come, a number of Anti-Slavery Societies were started in the north in the summer of 1833.

In May 1834, when attempts were made to celebrate an anti-slavery society’s anniversary, pro-slavery riots broke out in New York City. The anti-slavery societies doubled down and increased their efforts at having slavery abolished.

In May 1835, the Anti-Slavery society held its annual meeting with no open opposition. However, supporters of slavery were increasingly alarmed at the growing opposition to their practice.

Not long after the meeting, a mob of pro-slavery supporters attacked the mail and destroyed numerous anti-slavery documents being send to the south. The Postmaster General of the United States refused to intervene and essentially gave carte-blache to the pro-slavery protesters. The Postmaster of Charleston, South Carolina, then asked the Postmaster of New York not to convey any more anti-slavery documents through the postal service. The New York Postmaster complied.

Continued Calamity – Devastating Fire

11. On August 12, 1835, just after the New York Postmaster’s decision, a severe fire broke out in New York City, decimating an entire city block that mainly consisted of bookstores and printing presses. Willson notes the great irony of this judgment:

“Such a destruction of literature by fire, never before occurred in the city. The newspaper press had generally been active in the incitement of the mobs – it had apologized for oppression, it was a great source of revenue to the post office department ; and it suffered very severely in this conflagration. About forty buildings, in the heart of the city, the greater part of them sumptuous edifices, were laid to ruins, and the destruction of property amounted to about one million of dollars. The arguments and remonstrances of the friends of human liberty had been met, not with sober reasoning, but with the outcry of “ incendiary !” “incendiary !” and divine Providence sent on the city a real burning, which destroyed in a few hours the fruits of many years of painful industry (p 14).

Even More Provocations – Lack of Discernment and Obstinate Support for Slavery

The people did not realize they were under the heavy hand of God’s judgment.

The south began to threaten the union. The wealthy of the north united behind the south and expressed sympathy and support for its circumstances. In a situation reminiscent of today’s college campuses, Willson notes that “these slavery, sympathetic meetings were followed up by mobs and riots to put down by open violence all discussion” (p 15). At least 30 people were killed in the riots, which were neither restrained nor contained by law enforcement.

In November 1835, a pro-slavery mob twice shut down an anti-slavery meeting in Utica under threats of violence. The meeting had to be moved 20 miles away for its completion. Here Willson makes a chilling observation: “Mobs in all countries have preceded persecution… It has been and doubtless is the intention of many that persecution by the civil arm, shall become the sequel of the doings of the mobs in this land” (page 16). Both northerners and southerners called on government officials to oppress those opposed to their respective positions.

Then the President of the United States spoke out in favor of slavery and denounced the abolition movement. He went so far as to call on legislators to make it illegal to send anti-slavery documents through the mail in the south. His comments essentially promoted the outlawing of any anti-slavery sentiment altogether.

Willson comments on this situation with a lengthy discourse on the sinfulness of slavery, which is summarized here. Concerning how this situation was a provocation to God, clinging to the practice of slavery in the south was especially egregious before God because slavery is a sin, slavery was being practised in a supposedly free nation, the nation had been abundantly blessed by God, the nation had ample access to God’s teachings on slavery, the nation claimed that all men were born free and equal, the slaves had never wronged their owners or deserved to be made slaves, and the practice had gone on for many generations.

Even More Calamity – Massive Fire in New York

12. On December 16-17, 1835, New York City suffered a massive fire. The fire devastated the financial and business districts of the city and destroyed a post office. It also consumed a Dutch Reformed Church and many mansions. At least $20,000,000 damage was caused.

The Reason for the Severer Judgment: The People’s Sins and National Transgressions

Ministers of the time identified the people’s sins as being greed, misimprovement of Gospel ordinances, inordinate sensual indulgence, pursuit of the lusts of the flesh and eye and the pride of life. To this list, Willson adds countenancing continued oppression in the land. New York City was the centre of slavery promotion, mob violence, national commerce, literature, and intelligence.

Of the calamity, Willson writes

A great calamity, crippling for a time her energies, ought not to be viewed merely as a visitation of Heaven for the personal sins of her citizens, but as a judgment of God upon the land for flagrant national transgression. As the judgment has been inflicted before the world, the sin which it chastises, is likely to have been committed in sight of the universe (p 34)…

The dispensation is known and felt by all to be awfully severe ; and the judgment has fallen on those chiefly who had the most intimate connections with southern merchants and planters, and who on that account had been most forward in their apologies for the oppression of their coloured population (p 37-38).

Further judgments were already on the horizon if the American people did not repent and change their ways. In 1836, these included the Indian War and the possibility of war with Mexico. It should be noted that 25 years after this book was published, the American Civil War broke out in 1861.

The lesson to be learned:

“[N]ational calamities are sent to punish national sins…. It is the award of the common conscience of all nations that God punishes with visible judgments, flagrant sins” (p 39).

“It is great transgressions, publicly committed and persevered in after remonstrance, that bring on a land judgments, which arrest the attention of all, whether they ascribe them to the finger of God or not (p 40).


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