Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/June 1872/Scrutable Providences


WHEN, the other day, a juror in one of the Westfield suits refused to award damages against the steamboat company, on the ground that the disaster could have happened only by the direct will of God, and was simply an inscrutable Providence, the community heard him with a suppressed titter, which, if it implied tolerance for his convictions, implied equal contempt for his understanding. For it was patent to every mind but his own that a worn-out boiler must explode at the very instant when all conditions favored that catastrophe, and that the men who knew thatthat instant was imminent, yet hourly solicited travellers to a possible death, were morally guilty, not only of criminal neglect and deceit, but of murder.

But many candid men, who saw clearly the accountability of the Westfield owners and managers, shake their heads just now over what seems to them a really mysterious visitation of God—the Persian famine. And because all great and inexplicable calamities pain loving hearts, and sadden, if they do not obscure the faith of many souls, it seems worth while to look a moment at this subject of Inscrutable Providences.

Here is this case of the Persian famine. For unknown years the Persians have been cutting off their trees, and diminishing their rainfall thereby. Nay, not only has the removal of the forests decreased the supply, but it has wasted whatever rain fell. For the roots of the trees, and of all the innumerable shrubs and bushes and vines and ferns that thrive in their shadow, kept the ground open and held the water in countless natural wells for the use of the soil in droughts. But all the undergrowth dying when its protecting forests were felled, the scanty showers percolated into the streams at once, causing rare floods and frequent droughts. The droughts yielded no harvests, and no harvests were followed by pestilence, famine, and death. Now, for three years no rain has fallen on the blistered fields, and a nation apparently is dying. The very first drought was the kindly warning of Heaven against the violation of natural laws. Men were too heedless or too ignorant to accept it; and the sins of the fathers are to-day visited on the children, not in the vengeance of an awful Power, but in the discipline of relentless law. Is not this a Providence so scrutable that he who runs may read?

When, in Chicago, a night's fire undid a generation's toil, spreading misery and death broadcast, was that horror in the least degree inexplicable? Every man who, within thirty years, had put up a wooden house in a city whose familiar breezes were gales, and whose gales were hurricanes, solicited that rain of fire. They who, hasting to be rich, fell into the snare of cheap and dangerous building, digged, every man, a pit for his neighbor's feet as well as for his own. The scrutable aspect of the calamity was that it had not come years before. And the providential lesson would seem to be that laws of matter are laws of God, and cannot be violated with impunity.

When the earthquake wellnigh swallowed up Peru, five or six years ago, men stood aghast at the mysterious dispensation. But Heaven has not only always declared that tropical countries are liable to earthquakes, but had taught the Peruvians through hundreds of years to expect two earthquakes in a century, travelling in cycles from forty to sixty years apart. The citizens of Africa have not only this general instruction, but that special warning which Nature always gives. A great light appeared to the southeast. Hollow sounds were heard. The dogs, the goats, even the swine, foresaw the evil, and hid themselves. But the simple men passed on and were punished.

Before the Alpine freshets come, the streams are coffee-colored. Even the tornadoes of the tropics, which are instantaneous in their swoop, so plainly announce themselves to old sailors, that they reef sails and save ship and life, while only the heedless perish. The simoom gives such certain and invariable warnings that the caravan is safe if it be wary.

Herculaneum and Pompeii were built too far up the mountain. And that the builders knew quite as well as the excavators of the splendid ruins know it now. But they chose to take the risk. And to-day their cheerful compatriots gather their heedless vintage and sit beneath their perilous vines still nearer to the deadly crater. St. Petersburg has been three times inundated, and after each most fatal calamity processions filled the streets and masses were said to propitiate the mysterious anger of God. Peter the Great, who built the city, was the successor of Canute. He ordered the Gulf of Kronstadt to retire, and then set down his capital in the swamps of the verge of the Neva. Whenever the river breaks up with the spring-floods, the trembling citizens are at sea in a bowl. Only three times has the bowl broken, so much money and skill have been expended upon it. But when a March gale shall drive the tide back upon the river, swollen and terrible with drifting ice, drowned St. Petersburg will be the pendant for burned Chicago.

Modern science has brought the world a fifth gospel. In it we read that God commands us to give him our whole heads as well as our whole hearts, for that we cannot know him nor obey him till we discern him in every minutest fact, and every immutable law of the physical universe, as in every fact and law of the moral. It is barely two hundred years since the great Cotton Mather preached a famous sermon called "Burnings Bewailed," wherein he attributed a terrible conflagration to the wrath of God kindled against Sabbath-breaking and the accursed fashion of monstrous periwigs! For years after his time the Puritan colonies held fasts for mildew, for small-pox, for caterpillars, for grasshoppers, for loss of cattle by cold and visitation of God. They saw an Inscrutable Providence in all these things. But, when their children had learned a better husbandry and better sanitary conditions, the "visitations" ceased.

In the perfect providence of God there are no surprises. If there seem to be, it is that we have suffered ourselves to be taken unawares. We must work out our own salvation. The book of natural phenomena is opened wide before every man, and he is set to learn it for his own good. If he will not study it through reverence and love, he is taught it through pain. But the pain itself is the beneficence of a perfect law, and it is a constant testimony to the goodness and tenderness of God that calamity—not less than prosperity—is a Scrutable Providence.—Christian Union.