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The Great Assassination. (1881)

By Rev. R.T. Nabors
(Rev. Robert Taylor Nabors, 1850-1884)

from Sermons and lectures (1888)


"What is this that thou hast done?" (Genesis iii. 13.)

IT is a dark picture which I unveil to your vision to-day — woman shorn of her purity; man bereft of his birthright, cowering in the midst of a blighted and blasted paradise. As Adam stands there, bowed under the weight of his own shame, and Eve at his side, with the rose fading icon her cheek and the lily withering upon her brow, while the fairer flowers of innocence and purity, all stained and robbed of their perfume, lie dying in her heart, Almighty God startles the already awakened conscience of the woman with the question of the text; "What is this that thou hast done?" What had she done? She had plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree truly, but she had done infinitely more: she had prevailed upon her husband to unite with her in the disobedience; and together they had been guilty of an act that ruined a world. That one step opened the flood-gates of evil, and its poisonous streams pouring forth soon inundated the whole earth. And as God himself revealed to her mental vision the long procession of woes, miseries, heart-aches, and sorrows that must through all time march up and down our globe because of her sin, no doubt appalling horror seized upon the woman's entire being, and the question, "What is this that thou hast done?" thundered in her ears long after the gates of paradise had closed upon the guilty pair.

   We, her descendants, are assembled in this house of worship to-day under the shadow of a great bereavement. A nation stands weeping over the lifeless form of her Chief Executive. A few days ago when the electric telegraph flashed across the wires the thrilling words, "The President is dead!" fifty millions of human hearts were touched by the message. And as we try to trace the evils of the sad occurrence — beginning with the heart-broken wife, the fatherless children, the sonless mother, and following it on as it affects every vein of commerce and every artery of industry, every department of Government and every function of civil service, until it reaches the very heart of the Constitution of the United States — fifty million eyes turn toward that prison-house in Washington, and fifty million human tongues cry out to that closely guarded criminal, "What is this that thou hast done?" But the question does not stop there. Almighty God comes into this republic, and while its flags are at half-mast, and its national and state capitols are draped in mourning, and its bells are tolling, he says — not simply to that prisoner in Washington, but to the entire nation — "What is this that thou hast done?"

   My friends, we ought to try to answer honestly to-day this question:

   I. Who is responsible before God for the assassination of President Garfield? I know and you know whom this Government will make answerable. Every eye is fastened upon one man as the guilty party. But God goes deeper than human laws in fixing accountability; and when it has been decided that Guiteau is responsible for the murder of the President, the matter should be pushed farther still, and we should ask, Who is responsible for Guiteau? Already this deeper inquiry is engaging the enlightened thought and conscience of the age. Some men and a few journals, looking only upon the surface, have dismissed the whole question by saying it was simply the act of a crazed and disordered brain seizing upon a current theme; but there was so much "method in the madness" that the thinking mind is not satisfied with that explanation. There must be something behind the desperate recklessness as its producing cause; and it is that "something" which points in the direction of the real power which murdered Garfield. Guiteau himself, in his monomaniacal condition, is the effect of a cause. He is the legitimate product of certain intellectual and moral forces in society; and the same cause that produced him also produced the man who shot at him through the prison-bars. In the great question of the text, then, "What is this that thou hast done?" that word thou refers not simply to Guiteau, but to those who originated and keep in motion the moral forces that gave birth to Guiteau.

   1. And prominent among these forces is the present form of civil service. Ten thousand offices are the spoils of a great presidential battle. These offices in the hands of the successful party are powerful instruments of violence, corruption, and bribery. In the scramble for them truth has perjured herself, principle has sold out to avarice, justice has been sacrificed to lust and greed, and the ballot-box has been stripped of its sacredness, so that it is no longer the expression of the will of the people. Patriotism — one of the grandest principles that ever fired the human breast, and which found a welcome home in the hearts of the immortal framers of our Constitution — has been dragged from its lofty pedestal, and lies besmeared with the mud and slime of political partisanship. "Be right rather than be President" is an aphorism of a past age. The great struggle in politics is not for the welfare of the whole country, but fits the success of a party; and the natural consequence is that when he who fights for a party sees that party victorious, and yet fails to receive his share of the spoils of battle, he becomes reckless in his disappointment, and is ready for the commission of desperate deeds.

   2. But there is another force now at work in society which, added to the one already mentioned, must tend to produce hundreds of such men as Guiteau. I refer to the prevailing and growing unbelief in the future punishment of sin. This heresy is ably and boldly championed in the present age. It is a sweet morsel to the carnal heart — sweeter than honey to the palate of the soul that has been vitiated by sin. The progress that it is making and the power that it wields may be seen in the fact that it is not only quickly seized upon by the worst classes, but some of the strongest and most popular pulpit orators of the day are boldly proclaiming it. The logical result of disbelief in future punishment is a hot-bed for crimes of deepest dye. If death is nothing, then why should I not be rid of the man I hate, by pistol, sword, or poison — particularly if; reckless in my disappointment in securing place and money, I care not whether I live or die?

If death were nothing, and naught after death;
If when men died at once they ceased to be,
Returning to the barren womb of nothing
Whence first they sprung, then might the debauchee
Untrembling mouth the heavens; then might the drunkard
Reel over his full bowl, and when 't is drained
Fill up another to the brim, and laugh
At the poor bugbear, death; then might the wretch
That's weary of the world and tired of life
At once give each inquietude the slip
By stealing out of being when he pleased,
And by what way, whether by hemp or steel.
But if there's a hereafter —
And that there is, conscience, uninfluenced
And suffered to speak out, tells every man —
Then must it be an awful thing to die.

   Yes, if death ends all there is of life, or if it means only glory and "eternal hope," let me wreak my revenge and go; but if after death there is an incorruptible and omniscient Judge, at whose bar I shall be arraigned, O then, if I am a criminal, it is a solemn thing to die!

   Can you not see what a power for evil is this repudiation of future punishment? But a few days since I read this sentence in a leading New York Paper: "A careful survey of the murders and great felonies committed in the chief cities of the United States during the last ten years shows that a heavy fraction of the perpetrators were atheists and freethinkers." Not many months ago one of the most notorious outlaws known in the criminal annals of the West said to the crowd of men and women, preachers and policemen, whom curiosity had drawn together for a look at the human monster, "I am a Bob Ingersoll man;" and nobody doubted that he spoke the truth.

   These two forces — the prostitution of patriotism to the base ends of partyism and the disbelief in future punishment — have wrapped up within them the seeds of anarchy and ruin, and contain the elements of decay for any nation into whose soil they have been dropped. It is true that the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount are the only solid bases for the support of national prosperity. And when I call to mind the fact that thousands in our great cities will pay one dollar to hear a brilliant orator blaspheme and revile the blessed book that contains these grand principles, I am not surprised that the malignant forces of society should give birth to a man who would recklessly dare the atrocious crime of assassinating the President of the greatest country on the globe.

   Let us return then, to the question, Who is responsible for the state of things that produced Guiteau? You will say: "Those men who believe in infidel principles and disseminate them among the people; they are the guilty parties." Yes, they are guilty; but in that word "thou" God points to still another class:

   3. To those men whose voices are not raised in solemn and earnest protest against the damning sin of society. Silence on our part in the presence of crime makes us particeps criminis. To stand by and see a wicked thing done and not do all in our power to prevent it, is to consent to it. This is the doctrine of the Bible: "To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." In tracing the causes of any evil, and in fixing responsibility, we must go to the fountain-head. A man in North Carolina was for many years a distiller. The result was that he not only drank freely himself, but that his sons, as they grew up around him, became habitual drinkers also. At last, in trying to cross a river while in a state of intoxication, one of them was drowned. After several days his body was found. But O in what a horrible condition! the eye-balls gone from their sockets, only a part of the ears left, while fingers and toes had been eaten off by the hungry denizens of the stream. As the father, broken-hearted, gazed upon the mangled corpse of his child, he cried out in irrepressible anguish, "What killed my boy? O what killed my boy?" And for the first time in his life, he said, there came borne to him the startling question, "What is this that thou hast done?" He had never warned his son. His silence and his example had made him an accomplice in the murder of his own child. Fathers, do you feel the force of this great principle?

   Occasionally a community is startled by the commission of a terrible crime. A man in a passion has murdered his friend. When the case is investigated, it is ascertained that the young man took a social glass with his comrade; thence they went to a gambling-room, where he lost heavily; whisky had frenzied his brain, and in an instant his hands were red with his companion's blood. Who is responsible for that murder? "The man who committed it," you say. Yes, that is what the law says; but who gave the license to him who sold the poison that made a homicide of the man? Ah! "What is this that thou hast done?" Ye voters, ye legislators, whose voices are not raised against the evil of licensing crime, ye, in the sight of God, have done this wicked deed as truly as the plan who fired the pistol!

   Whenever a government licenses gambling-houses and the sale of intoxicating liquors, that government must share responsibility with the perpetrators of crimes committed because of these evils; and any community that has the power of exterminating them, and does not do it, that community is accountable for the wickedness wrought because of their existence.

   And now this same principle nay be applied to the murder of the President. If there had not been party strife between the law-makers of the country, simply because both sides could not have their own way at the same time; if zeal for self-aggrandizement and party power had been held in abeyance to the higher principles of patriotism and the good of the whole country, do you believe Garfield would leave been shot? No; you do not believe it. Are not, then, the men who can crush out these evils and will not as morally responsible as the immediate assassin? And are not our people who leave the name of God inserted in the Constitution, who believe in him and swear by him, yet allow his name to be execrated and ridiculed all over the country — are they not accountable for the wickedness so engendered? I cannot but admire the spirit of the reply of the authorities of a Canadian city when applied to for a public building for Bob Ingersoll's use: "There may be no God in the United States, but there is one in Canada; and we leave no halls to rent for the purpose of blaspheming his name." Suppose such a declaration should come from every town and city in our broad land, would we leave there Guiteaus in society only awaiting opportunity for the commission of bloody deeds? No. Is not our own Government, then, at least partially responsible for the assassination of its own President? O if this national calamity will but open the national eye to "the exceeding sinfulness of sin," James A. Garfield will not hove died in vain!

   4. But in considering to-day our great loss, I am impressed with another important lesson: the fearful possibility of evil lodged in each human breast. We do not realize the depth of our capacity for sin in ordinary experiences, but only as we stand face to face with some flagrant, atrocious crime. The President's death has not only thrown a shadow over every part of the United States, but it has touched more or less deeply all the great empires of earth. And yet that shock is but the momentum of one human heart and will. One plan has agitated the moral sensibilities of an entire world. What power of self-revelation in a single act! And that which gives deeper emphasis to this revelation is that the power which executed it and the motives which led to the murder lie within each one of us. As we meditate upon this great crime, there suddenly yawns in each of our hearts an awful chasm. Deeper and deeper we look into the capacity for evil in our own natures. Why has the fratricidal Cain been permitted a record on the pages of inspiration? why did God leave a place in his book for the dark sin of David and the treachery of Judas? why, I ask, except as lenses through which we might look down into the possibilities of evil that lie dormant in each one of us, and which, if the occasion should be powerful enough, would arouse these possibilities into actualities? To take the life of a President or assassinate the Czar is a manifestation of great wickedness; but some men — ay, many men — are murdering every day that which is greater than czars and presidents. They are killing virtue and truth, purity and love; stabbing the Godward elements of their being and draining the life-blood of splendid immortalities. Friends, let us examine ourselves.

   5. Amid the many alarming thoughts suggested by the solemnities of the hour, however, the truth that God is infinitely compassionate in his dealings with the guilty comes to us with the power and sweetness of divine consolation. Adam and Eve deserved to die; and if annihilation had been their fate, then and there every element of justice would have approved the penalty. Yet, the mercy of God seized upon their guilt and used it as the occasion for introducing a new kingdom of forces into the moral universe — the meditorial kingdom of Christ — through which God's glory should be manifested in infinite splendor, and man himself lifted upon a higher plane than that of original creation. This prerogative of Providence — to make evil a minister of good, "to make the wrath of man to praise him" — is our hope in the midst of sorrow. This is the rainbow which faith sees arching above the dark cloud of a nation's grief. To our limited vision it seems a great calamity that Garfield died. We cannot understand why the prayers of fifty million loyal hearts in behalf of their suffering President were not answered. Put if we look at it all in the light of divine providence, we can see how a national misfortune may be turned into a national blessing. I do not believe that any decree of God directed that assassin's bullet; it was, as I have already said, a corrupt human heart that conceived the idea, and a demoniac will that carried it into execution. But I do believe that just as God used the yellow fever epidemic to lift the veil from our eyes and let us see a brother's love in Northern beneficence, so on this occasion will he make our universal and unfeigned sorrow over the death of our President discover to the North the patriotic loyalty beating deep down in the great Southern heart. O let us trust that this shocking assassination will constitute an epoch in our history! Let us hope that in that new-made grave in Lakeview Cemetery, Ohio, which waits to receive its distinguished tenant, there shall also be buried all the sectional strife and bitterness which have hitherto alienated patriots of the North from patriots of the South; and let us pray that ere the green grass covers the new mound of clay the hands of those that wore "the blue and the gray" shall be clasped in a national and unbroken brotherhood. The sacrifices necessary for such a consummation may be great; but if in the providence of God it is thus effected, President Garfield from his home among the angels would ratify the covenant and consent to the sacrifices.

   I have endeavored this morning to enforce some of the lessons which I believe God would impress upon our minds through this bereavement. Others still crowd in upon my thought, but I will not detain you long enough for their discussion.

   And now, while we as a part of the nation draw near, and with uncovered heads stand around the bier of our dead President; while we note the utter emaciation through suffering of his once robust and manly form; and while we realize that he who a few mouths ago took the oath of office amid the shouts and congratulations of a great people now lies before us an embalmed corpse, pale and lifeless, his ears forever closed to the voice of praise, his eyes forever shut against visions of earthly fame, the pomp and pageantry of power, the circumstance of office — we are deeply impressed with the vanity of this world's greatness.

Earth's highest glory ends in "Here he lies,"
And "Dust to dust" concludes her noblest song.

   If, then, this is the end of all men, rich or poor, great or lowly, let the living lay it to heart. We may not die at the hand of a murderer, no accident may hurry our souls into the land of spirits, but sooner or later we must all close our eyes upon the fleeting scenes of time and open them upon the sublime realities of eternity. Let us, my friends, get ready to meet this trying hour by anchoring all our hopes on the "Rock of Ages" to-day. President Garfield had endeavored to do this; for many years, no doubt, he had been a Christian. Judged from a party stand-point, he may have had his faults; but the escutcheon of his religious profession seems to have been as stainless as that of a large majority of Christ's disciples. He not only believed in Jesus, he preached Jesus to the people; and his pastor, who ought to know better than we, says that he was preeminently a good man. Soon after he was shot, and at the time that the keenness of the wrong he was suffering must have cut deepest in his heart; when his boy, standing by his bleeding form, said, "Father, let me go and kill the man," he replied: "No, no, my son; that is not our business." And during his prostration, on one occasion, when the possible result of his wound was brought before him with more force, than usual, he said, "I am not afraid to die." Indeed, throughout those eighty days of incessant suffering — although by the electric telegraph — we stood by his bedside and listened to every word that fell from his lips, yet not a murmur of wrath was heard against the man who shot him, not a complaint that he must be cut down in the zenith of his greatness, but on the contrary there was at all times the exhibition of a meekness, a resignation, a submission to Providence, which could have been born only of the religion of Christ.

   In his death we behold the triumph of Christianity over the last enemy. When, just before he breathed his last, he put his hand upon his heart and said, "What a pain! O Swain, can't you help me?" it was the last throe that ever quivered through his worn frame. It was the signal of an eternal release from suffering; for in a moment more, as sweetly and quietly as a child hushed to rest upon its mother's bosom, he fell asleep. "The majestic brain was tired, and the fluttering heart grew still."

All is over and done;
Render thanks to the Giver,
America, for thy son.
Let the bell be tolled:
Render thanks to the Giver,
And render him to the mold.
Let the bell be tolled,
And a deeper knell in the heart be knolled.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Hush! the dead-march wails in the people's ears;
The dark crowd moves, and there are sobs and tears.
The black earth yawns; the mortal disappears —
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
He is gone, who seemed so great —
Gone, but nothing can bereave him
Of the force he made his own
Being here; and we believe him
Something far advanced in state,
And that he wears a truer crown
Than any wreath that man can weave him.
But speak no more of his renown;
Lay your earthly fancies down,
And in the solemn grave-yard leave him.
God accept him, Christ receive him.


(Prepared with assistance from Richard King)