The Church in Earnest

By John Angell James, 1848


Last year I ventured to publish a little work, entitled, "An Earnest Ministry the Need of the Times." Most of the Reviews which did me the honor of critiquing it, characterized and recommended it as a practical work. Whether this was intended in the way of depreciation or information, it most aptly describes a production, which contains no profound disquisition, no new views, and no development of abstract principles, and pretends to be nothing more than an humble effort, made in love, to stir up the pure minds of my brethren by way of remembrance, and to furnish a few practical directions for beginners in the ministry.

Everyone who writes to do good, and who yields to the impulse which says to him, "Do something! Do it!" should well consider not only what he would like to do—but what he actually can do. He should study, not only his obligations—but his talents, his opportunities, and his means. It was a wise plan of action which the Psalmist laid down for himself, when he said, "Neither do I exercise myself in things too high for me." On this rule I have uniformly endeavored to act, in all my attempts at authorship. If I have any talent for usefulness it is essentially a practical one. I will not conceal that I have been sometimes almost tempted to envy those who possess greater power of abstract thinking. That is a noble faculty, and the men to whom it is given perform services for truth which are invaluable, and indeed, indispensable; they explain the nature of Biblical truth, unfold its beauty, defend it against the attacks of error, and establish principles to be applied by those who could neither so clearly discover, nor so ably sustain, them. Practical men, however, are as useful in their place, as contemplative ones: and if their department be a more humble one, yet it is not a less necessary one, than that of theorists, philosophers, and logicians. There must be the 'hands' to work the engine, as well as the mind to invent it.

In the exercise of this my vocation, I now send forth another work, not less practical than the one which immediately preceded it, or than several others which have been the product of my pen. The publication of the volume on "An Earnest Ministry," brought to me many and urgent applications for a similar one, addressed to the Churches. When I considered those appeals, I foresaw what I have since experienced, the difficulty of keeping clear, in this work, of some of the topics involved in the subject of its predecessor. That difficulty I have not been able altogether to avoid. The earnestness of the ministry, and the earnestness of the people, in reference to the same great object, are, on so many points, identical—that it was neither possible, if it had been desirable' nor desirable, had it been possible—to avoid the repetition of some views and counsels common to both.

Yet, even after this explanation, I anticipate a complaint that several portions of this work are but a republication of portions of the other. I cannot altogether deny the charge, and can only observe, in addition to what has been just stated, that as the volumes are intended for two different classes of people, comparatively few will read both; and that, though in some places the same topics are taken up, the discussion and the illustrations are considerably varied.

To the publication of this work I have been stimulated by an able critique in the "British Quarterly Review," for February last, entitled, "The Christian Ministry, and how to mend it." In that essay occurs the following remark, "We confess, however, that we have been prompted in great part to the writing of this paper, by a fear, lest, while the responsibilities of the pulpit are discussed, those of the pew should be forgotten; for assuredly while an earnest ministry may conduce to an earnest church—it is only as we possess both, we shall possess an earnest and powerful Christianity."

To the wisdom, truth, and importance of this paragraph, I most heartily subscribe, and in the hope of promoting the union and harmony which it recommends, have addressed this volume to the occupant of the pew—as I did the former to the occupant of the pulpit. Earnestness is equally the duty of both, and so close is the sympathy between them, that it is almost impossible for the one to be, or to continue long, in a state of full devotedness, if the other be not in a similar condition. Even the seraphic ardor of a minister who is as a flame of fire will soon be in danger of cooling down to the lukewarmness of the flock—if his efforts are unsuccessful in raising their spiritual temperature to his own.

It is more than probable that some people will be of opinion that I underestimate the piety of the present generation of professors, and the spiritual condition of the church, that I have written in too desponding a tone, and that in adverting to defects and imperfections, I have not done justice to acknowledged excellences. In reply, I observe, that my object is not so much to compare the piety of this age with that of any antecedent one—but with the standard set up in the Word of God, for all times, and for all states of society. I have followed what appears to me to be the precedent of our Lord's addresses to the seven churches in Asia, and the apostolical epistles to the primitive churches; in which, while good is acknowledged and commended, evil also is disclosed and condemned. How much of complaint, expostulation, and reproof, do we find in these solemn and faithful appeals to the churches of those days! A weak and foolish love, which sees no fault in the object of its blind affection, deals only in flattery and caresses; while a judicious regard, which is jealous for the honor of its object, and wishes to advance it to perfection, is in danger of being too impatient under a sense of its defects.

Some of my readers will also accuse me of magnifying the dangers to which the evangelical system is likely to be exposed in this and the coming age—from popery, infidelity, and false philosophy. In this I have acted upon the truth of the adage, that "to be forewarned is to be fore-armed." The man who in such an age as this, folds his arms, closes his eyes, falls back in his chair, and lulls himself to sleep with the unthinking belief that there is no need of alarm, vigilance, and caution, must have powers of observation, or methods of calculation, very different from mine.

Recent events I know, it is said, are most inauspicious for Popery. Be it so; but do we imagine that it is dead? Have we forgotten how it recovered from a deeper, and seemingly more deadly wound, inflicted upon it by the first revolution in France? Moreover, is it lost sight of, that though Popery should be deserted as a temporal power, and left by all secular governments to take care of itself, its spiritual potency to fascinate and to seduce men would still remain? Considering what has occurred, and is still going on in this land of liberty, science, philosophy, and commerce—shall we smile at the fears of those who dread an increase of this pernicious system?

As regards infidelity and false philosophy, that man must be a recluse and know nothing of the progress of events, who is ignorant of the rapid advance which these foes of the Bible are making in society. Let the statements which will be found in the following pages be attentively considered, and then say if they who keep watch and ward on the towers of Zion, ought not to sound the alarm of an approaching foe.

Danger? Of what? Not indeed of the downfall of either Christianity or Protestantism. What believer in the truth of revelation, or what supporter of the doctrines of the reformation, has a moment's solicitude on that point? I, for one, feel not a single fear for the safety of either of them. I have no doubt of the final, complete, and glorious triumph of truth over error—and good over evil. Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of human affairs, and some of them disastrous ones too, I am a firm believer in the onward course of events. The way of Providence resembles a noble river, which is ever winding in its channel, and which, though amidst its many convolutions it seems sometimes rolling back upon its source—is ever flowing towards the ocean. In such an age as this, when it would look as if a destroying angel were passing over the despotisms of all Europe, and making way for the sudden, unexpected, and universal reign of liberty, to doubt which way the current is flowing, betrays a deplorable ignorance of the tendencies of events, and of the designs of the great Ruler of the nations. But are liberty and Christianity identical? Are the downfall of tyranny and the downfall of infidelity sure to be contemporaneous? Will false and seductive philosophy necessarily and immediately wither in the light and air of freedom?

It is to be recollected that there can be no perfect freedom of conscience, while there is a single fetter left upon the expression of religious opinion. The utterance of a man's thoughts must no more be stopped by the stern interdict of the law, than the utterance of his breath. If the next moment we could destroy, by the power of the sword, all the infidel books in existence—we ought not to do it. Christianity gains no honor by any triumph, nor, in the long run, any power—but what she fairly wins by argument, and the blessing of Almighty God. And will her enemies be slow to avail themselves of the new liberty which they are now to have throughout Europe for assailing her? On the contrary, their troops will be reinforced, and with new courage they will advance to the attack.

What then? Has Christianity anything to fear? Nothing for her stability and final triumph. Founded on a rock, the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. But how does she gain her victories? Not certainly by the ignorance, denial, or contempt, of the strength of her foes—for they are many and mighty. Not by careless security. Not by commanding silence to our guards—or ridiculing and rebuking their alarms, when they see the foe advancing. No! but by sounding the trumpet, calling upon her pious armies to consider the resources of the enemy, bidding them arm for the conflict, and summoning them to her uplifted standard. Besides, who would not wish that the final victory of truth should be won with as little loss as possible to those who are its professed followers? Who would not desire to prevent even the partial and temporary victories of error? And we know that many an army destined to ultimate defeat, has for a while been successful, and inflicted much injury upon the troops by which it was to be in the end subdued and routed.

In this view of matters, I believe the caution of the timid, when it does not amount to panic, may be of some use, in the way of directing the courage of the brave. Such is my defense against those who may accuse me of magnifying the danger to which evangelical religion is in this day exposed from its triple foe. With the calm and assured confidence of Christianity's final, complete, and universal triumph, I combine what I consider a well-founded dread of its present and partial defeats; and in my bright and joyful anticipations of the former, will not forget to guard against the latter.

John Angell James
April 7th, 1848.