The Law of Heredity
Exodus 34:6-7
And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering…

We are born into a life where we cannot determine the nature of the influences which we exert. We can repress some, modify others, and develop still others; but we cannot determine the effect, nor change it. A certain influence we must exert one upon another.

I. First, we will mention VOLUNTARY INFLUENCE, or the capacity which we have gained of influencing our fellow-men by bringing power, or the causes of power, to bear upon them on purpose. This is the more familiar form of influence. It is the foundation of all instruction. The parent influences the child on purpose. The teacher purposely influences all the minds that are brought under his care. Friends influence friends. We draw men to our way of thinking, and to our way of acting. We persuade; we dissuade; we urge; we enforce our agency; and in a thousand ways we voluntarily draw men to and fro.

II. Then, besides all this, besides what we do on purpose, there is the other ELEMENT OF UNCONSCIOUS influence which men exert — that which our nature throws out without our volition. For I hold that it is with us as it is with the sun. I do not suppose that the sun ever thinks of raising the thermometer; but it does raise it. Wherever the sun shines warmly, the mercury goes up, although the sun and the instrument are both unconscious. And we are incessantly emitting influences good, bad, or negative. We are perpetually, by the force of life, throwing out from ourselves imperceptible influences. And yet the sum of these influences is of the utmost weight and importance in life. A single word spoken, you know not what it falls upon. You know not on what soul it rests. In some moods, words fall off from us, and are of no account. But there are other moods in which a word of hope, a word of cheer, a word of sympathy, is as balm. It changes the sequence of thought, and the whole order and direction of the mind. Single words have often switched men off from bad courses, or off from good ones, as the case may be. A simple example, silent, unspeaking by vocalization, but characterized by purity, by simplicity, crystalline and heavenly, has sweetened whole neighbourhoods. Fidelity, disinterestedness in love, pure peacefulness, love of God, and faith in invisible things, cannot exist in a man without having their effect upon his fellow-men. It is impossible that one should stand up in the midst of a community and simply be good, and not diffuse the influence of that goodness on every side. That which is true of goodness is true also of evil. Men who are under the influence of the malign passions are sowing the seeds of these passions. Sparks fly out from them as from the chimney of a forge. It is the inherent necessity of wickedness to breed wickedness and distribute it. A man is responsible, not only for what he does on purpose, but what he unconsciously does. And the load of responsibility grows as you take in these widening circles. More than this, the greater the nature, and the more ample the endowment, the more influence does a man exert both for good and for evil. The moral tone of our literature in this respect is exceedingly bad. There is almost a maxim that genius has a right to be lawless as to its method of doing right things. Every man is responsible for duty; and duty, and responsibility for it, augment in the proportion of being.

III. Our influence is not merely voluntary, or involuntary and unconscious, BUT IT BECOMES COMPLEX, BECAUSE IT IS COMPOUNDED WITH THE LIVES AND THE ADDED INFLUENCE OF OTHERS. We are are social. We come into relations with men. Our freedom touches theirs. We inspire them. But we do not change their nature. We, as it were, sow germs in their soil. These germs go on and become forces in their hands. So that that which we do to single ones, they propagate. But men's influence is not limited to their voluntary action, nor to the complex social relations which they sustain, and by which their influence is propagated indirectly.

IV. In some respects MEN HOLD IN THEIR HANDS THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE. The very solemn declaration of our text — "Visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation" — this is the mystery of ages. If it were but on the one side; if men, having the power of beneficence, had the power to perpetuate it, we should admire that; but if it is a fact that men have the power of transmitting corruption, and so of influencing after times, who can fail to marvel at that? If that is a law, men may well stand appalled in the presence of such results as must fall out under it. And it is a law, it is a fact. We must learn this great hereditary law, and we must include in our purposes of benevolence the wise selection, the perpetuity and the improvement of the race, by the observance of this great law of hereditary transmission. The malignity of sin is a terrible malignity, as it is revealed by this great law of the transmission of influence to posterity, either directly and voluntarily, or indirectly and unconsciously. There are multitudes of men that are careless of themselves. They are said to be their own worst enemies. They are men that are free and easy; that squander their money; that pervert their disposition. And because they are good-natured and genial, people say of them, "They are clever fellows; they are kind men; they do no harm; at any rate they are their own worst enemies." Now, a man that is spending his whole life to destroy himself, cannot stop with himself. And the better fellow he is, the more likely is he to exert an influence. More than that, it is not himself alone that is destroyed. The babe in the cradle is cursed. The daughter unborn is cursed. The heir and sequent children are cursed.

V. I will add but a single consideration more: AND THAT IS A CAUTION AND A WARNING TO ALL THOSE WHO ABE CONSCIOUSLY BEARING IN THEMSELVES THE SEED OF TRANSMISSIBLE DISEASE. I think there is no crime and no misdemeanour, to those that are instructed, greater than that of forming marriage connections under such circumstances.

(H. W. Beecher.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,

WEB: Yahweh passed by before him, and proclaimed, "Yahweh! Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth,

The Iniquity of the Fathers Visited Upon Their Children
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