Preaching of sermons is speaking to a few of mankind: printing of books is talking to the whole world. The parson prescribes himself, and addresses to the particular auditory with the appelation of My brethren; but he that prints a book, ought to preface it with a Noverint Universi, Know all men by these presents.
The proper inference drawn from this remarkable observation, is, that though he that preaches from the pulpit ought to be careful of his words, that nothing pass from him but with an especial sanction of truth; yet he that prints and publishes to all the world, has a tenfold obligation.
The sermon is a sound of words spoken to the ear, and prepared only for present meditation, and extends no farther than the strength of memory can convey it; a book printed is a record, remaining in every man’s possession, always ready to renew its acquaintance with his memory, and always ready to be produced as an authority or voucher to any reports he makes out of it, and conveys its contents for ages to come, to the eternity of mortal time, when the author is forgotten in his grave.
If a sermon be ill grounded, if the preacher imposes upon us, he trespasses on a few; but if a book printed obtrudes a falsehood, if a man tells a lie in print, he abuses mankind, and imposes upon the whole world, he causes our children to tell lies after us, and their children after them, to the end of the world.
This observation I thought good to make by way of preface, to let the world know, that when I go about a work in which I must tell a great many stories, which may in their own nature seem incredible, and in which I must expect a great part of mankind will question the sincerity of the relator; I did not do it without a particular sense upon me of the proper duty of an historian, and the abundant duty laid on him to be very wary what he conveys to posterity.
I cannot be so ignorant of my own intentions, as not to know, that in many cases I shall act the divine, and draw necessary practical inferences from the extraordinary remarkables of this book, and some digressions which I hope may not be altogether useless in this case.
And while I pretend to a thing so solemn, I cannot but premise I should stand convicted of a double imposture, to forge a story, and then preach repentance to the reader from a crime greater than that I would have him repent of: endeavouring by a lie to correct the reader’s vices, and sin against truth to bring the reader off from sinning against sense.
Upon this score, though the undertaking be very difficult amongst such an infinite variety of circumstances, to keep exactly within the bounds of truth; yet I have this positive assurance with me, that in all the subsequent relation, if the least mistake happen, it shall not be mine.
If I judge right, ’tis the duty of an historian to set every thing in its own light, and to convey matter of fact upon its legitimate authority, and no other: I mean thus (for I would be as explicit as I can), that where a story is vouched to him with sufficient authority, he ought to give the world the special testimonial of its proper voucher, or else be is not just to the story: and where it comes without such sufficient authority, he ought to say so; otherwise he is not just to himself. In the first case he injures the history, by leaving it doubtful where it might be confirmed past all manner of question; in the last he injures his own reputation, by taking upon himself the risk, in case it proves a mistake, of having the world charge him with a forgery.
And indeed, I cannot but own it is just, that if I tell a story in print for a truth which proves otherwise, unless I, at the same time, give proper caution to the reader, by owning the uncertainty of my knowledge in the matter of fact, it is I impose upon the world; my relator is innocent, and the lie is my own.
I make all these preliminary observations, partly to inform the reader, that I have not undertaken this work without the serious consideration of what I owe to truth, and to posterity; nor without a sense of the extraordinary variety and novelty of the relation.
I am sensible, that the want of this caution is the foundation of that great misfortune we have in matters of ancient history; in which the impudence, the ribaldry, the empty flourishes, the little regard to truth, and the fondness of telling a strange story, has dwindled a great many valuable pieces of ancient history into mere romance.
How are the lives of some of our most famous men, nay the actions of whole ages, drowned in fable? Not that there wanted pen-men to write, but that their writings were continually mixed with such rhodomontades of the authors that posterity rejected them as fabulous.
From hence it comes to pass that matters of fact are handed down to posterity with so little certainty, that nothing is to be depended upon; from hence the uncertain account of things and actions in the remoter ages of the world, the confounding the genealogies as well as achievements of Belus, Nimrod, and Nimrus, and their successors, the histories and originals of Saturn, Jupiter, and the rest of the celestial rabble, whom mankind would have been ashamed to have called Gods, had they had the true account of their dissolute, exorbitant, and inhuman lives.
From men we may descend to action: and this prodigious looseness of the pen has confounded history and fable from the beginning of both. Thus the great flood in Deucalion's time is made to pass for the universal deluge: the ingenuity of Daedalus, who by a clue of thread got out of the Egyptian maze, which was thought impossible, is grown into a fable of making himself a pair of wings, and flying through the air:— the great drought and violent heat of summer, thought to be the time when the great famine was in Samaria, fabled by the poets and historians into Phaeton borrowing the chariot of the sun, and giving the horses their heads, they run so near the earth as burnt up all the nearest parts, and scorched the inhabitants, so that they have been black in those parts ever since.
These, and such like ridiculous stuff, have seen the effects of the pageantry of historians in former ages: and I might descend nearer home, to the legends of fabulous history which have swallowed up the actions of our ancient predecessorsPeople who held a job or office before the current incumbent., King Arthur, the Giant Gogmagog, and the Britain, the stories of St. George and the Dragon, Guy Earl of Warwick, Bans of Southampton, and the like.
I’ll account for better conduct in the ensuing history: and though some things here related shall have equal wonder due to them, posterity shall not have equal occasion to distrust the verity of the relation.
I confess here is room for abundance of romance, because the subject may be safer extended than in any other case, no story being capable to be crowded with such circumstances but infinite power, which is all along concerned with us in every relation, is supposed capable of making true.
Yet we shall nowhere so trespass upon fact, as to oblige infinite power to the shewing more miracles than it intended.
It must be allowed, that when nature was put into so much confusion, and the surface of the earth and sea felt such extraordinary a disorder, innumerable accidents would fall out that till the like occasion happen may never more be seen, and unless a like occasion had happened could never before be heard of: wherefore the particular circumstances being so wonderful, serve but to remember posterity of the more wonderful extreme, which was the immediate cause.
The uses and application made from this terrible doctrineThe set of beliefs upheld by a religion or political party., I leave to the men of the pulpit; only take the freedom to observe, that when heaven itself lays down the doctrine, all men are summoned to make applications by themselves.
The main inference I shall pretend to make or at least venture the exposing to public view, in this case, is, the strong evidence God has been pleased to give in this terrible manner to his own being, which mankind began more than ever to affront and despise: and I cannot but have so much charity for the worst of my fellow-creatures, that I believe no man was so hardened against the sense of his maker, but he felt some shocks of his wicked confidence from the convulsions of nature at this time.
I cannot believe any man so rooted in atheistical opinions, as not to find some cause to doubt whether he was not in the wrong, and a little to apprehend the possibility of a supreme being, when he felt the terrible blasts of this tempest I cannot doubt but the atheist’s hardened soul trembled a little as well as his house, and he felt some nature asking him some little questions; as these — Am not I mistaken? Certainly there is some such thing as a God — What can all this be? What is the matter in the world?
Certainly atheismDisbelief or lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods is one of the most irrational principles in the world; there is something incongruous in it with the test of humane policy, because there is a risk in the mistake one way, and none another. If the christian is mistaken, and it should at last appear that there is no future state, God or Devil, reward or punishment, where is the harm of it? All he has lost is, that he has practised a few needless mortifications, and took the pains to live a little more like a man than he would have done. But if the atheist is mistaken, he has brought all the powers, whose being he denied, upon his back, has provoked the infinite in the highest manner, and must at last sink under the anger of him whose nature he has always disowned.
I would recommend this thought to any man to consider of, one way he can lose nothing, the other way be undone. Certainly a wise man would never run such an unequal risk: a man cannot answer it to common arguments, the law of Numbers, and the rules of proportion are against him. No gamester will set at such a main; no man will lay such a wager, where he may lose, but cannot win.
There is another unhappy misfortune in the mistake too, that it can never be discovered till it is too late to remedy. He that resolves to die an atheist, shuts the door against being convinced in time.
If it should so fall out, as who can tell,
But that there is a God, a Heaven, and Hell,
Mankind had best consider well for fear,
‘T should be too late when his mistakes appear.
I should not pretend to set up for an instructor in this case, were not the inference so exceeding just; who can but preach where there is such a text? when God himself speaks his own power, he expects we should draw just inferences from it, both for ourselves and our friends.
If one man, in an hundred years, shall arrive at a conviction of the being of his maker, it is very worth my while to write it, and to bear the character of an impertinent fellow from all the rest.
I thought to make some apology for the meanness of style, and the method, which may be a little unusual, of printing letters from the country in their own style.
For the last I only leave this short reason with the reader, the desire I had to keep close to the truth, and hand my relation with the true authorities from whence I received it, together with some justice to the gentlemen concerned, who, especially in cases of deliverances, are willing to record the testimonial of the mercies they received, and to set their hands to the humble acknowledgment. The plainness and honesty of the story will plead for the meanness of the style in many of the letters, and the reader cannot want eyes to see what sort of people some of them come from.
Others speak for themselves, and being writ by men of letters, as well as men of principles, I have not arrogance enough to attempt a correction either of the sense or style; and if I had gone about it, should have injured both author and reader.
These come dressed in their own words because I ought not, and those because I could not mend them. I am persuaded, they are all dressed in the desirable, though unfashionable garb of truth, and I doubt not but posterity will read them with pleasure.
The gentlemen, who have taken the pains to collect and transmit the particular relations here made public, I hope will have their end answered in this essay, conveying hereby to the ages to come the memory of the dreadest and most universal judgment that ever almighty power thought fit to bring upon this part of the world.
And as this was the true native and original design of the first undertaking, abstracted from any part of the printer’s advantage, the editor and undertakers of this work, having their ends entirely answered, hereby give their humble thanks to all those gentlemen who have so far approved the sincerity of their design as to contribute their trouble, and help forward by their just observations, the otherwise very difficult undertakings
If posterity will but make the desired improvement both of the collector’s pains, as well as the several gentlemen’s care in furnishing the particulars, I dare say they will all acknowledge their end fully answered, and none more readily.
The Age’s Humble Servant.