by John Angell James, 1848
HINDRANCES TO EARNESTNESS IN PIETY
I.Perhaps we may consider the easy access to church fellowship which is now so generally granted, as one cause of the deterioration of the piety of this day. I am aware that the admission of members to our churches is a subject of perplexing difficulty—it is not at our option to make the door of entrance to the church, and of approach to the table of the Lord either wider or narrower than it is made by him to whom both the spiritual house, and the table for the inhabitants, belong. But the difficulty lies in knowing exactly what is God's will on the subject, in each particular case as it occurs. For my own part, it is to me a heavy burden to determine in each case upon this point—no part of my duty is so perplexing. I am afraid on the one hand—to repel the true convert, and deprive him of the means of nourishment and growth; and on the other hand—of admitting the self-deceived, and being thus the abetter of his delusion and destruction.
Two consequences result from the reception of unsuitable people to church fellowship; they not only are confirmed in their false views of their own case—but by their low state of pious feeling, or total destitution of it, by their worldly-mindedness and laxity, they corrupt others, and exert a deadening influence upon the whole community. Their example is a source of corruption to very many, who are allured by it into all their secularities and fashionable follies. One family of such worldly and lukewarm professors is often a grief to the pastor, a lamentation to the spiritual part of the flock, a snare to many of the less pious, and a reproach to the church at large. Too many of this description find their way, in these days of easy profession, into all our churches.
I have arrived, therefore, at the conclusion that our tendency in this day is to make the standard for admission too low, and the test of spiritual fitness too easy. The consequence of this is that our churches have many in them who are professors only, and who exert an unfavorable influence over those of whom we hope better things. They benumb by their deadening touch, those with whom they come into contact. It is probable that there is no pastor who, upon looking around upon his church, does not see many members, whom, if they had manifested no more concern when they made application for membership than they now do, he would have never thought of receiving into communion, and they indeed would never have applied for it themselves. How much is it to be wished that such people, if they do not improve, would dissolve their connection with the church, since their remaining only corrupts it, without doing anything for themselves—but to harden their hearts, aggravate their guilt, and increase their condemnation!
II.There are few things which exert a more unfavorable influence upon the piety of our churches than the MIXED MARRIAGES between those who are professors of religion, and those who are not; and which it must be acknowledged and regretted, are in the present day lamentably common.
The operation of such unions on the state of religion, so far as regards the parties themselves, needs be no mystery to any one. When two individuals of different tastes, in reference to any matter, are associated, and one of them has an aversion, or even an indifference, to the pursuits of the other—it is next to impossible for the one so opposed to sustain with vigor and perseverance his selected course of action; and then if he cannot assimilate the taste of the other party to his own, he must for the sake of harmony give up his cherished predilections. This applies to no subject with such force as it does to true religion. Every Christian man carries in his own heart, and encounters from surrounding circumstances, sufficient resistance to a life of godliness, without selecting a still more potent foe to piety, in an unconverted wife. Conceive of either party, in such an unsanctified union, continually exposed, if not to the actual opposition, yet to the deadening influence of the other.
Think of a pious WIFE, to put it in the mildest form, not persecuted indeed by an impious husband, (though this is often the case,) but left without the aid of his example, his prayer, and his cooperation—hindered from a regular attendance upon many of the means of grace which she deems necessary for keeping up the life of godliness in her soul; obliged to be much in company for which she has no taste—but positive aversion; and to engage in occupations which she finds it difficult to reconcile to her conscience, or harmonize with her profession; hearing no conversation, and witnessing no pursuits but such as are of the earth, earthly; ridiculed, perhaps, for some of her conscientious scruples, and doomed to hear perpetual sneers cast upon professors for their inconsistency. Or what is still more ensnaring, constantly exposed to the deleterious influence of an unvarying—but at the same time, unsanctified amiability of disposition in her husband, whose lack of piety seems compensated by many other excellences. Is it likely, unless there be a martyr-like piety, not often found in such a situation, that amidst such trials she will continue firm, consistent, and spiritual? Will she not, if possessed only of the average degree of piety, relax by little and little, until her enfeebled and pliable profession easily accommodates itself to the wishes and tastes of her unconverted husband?
But, perhaps, the influence on piety generally is still worse when the HUSBAND is a professor, and the wife is not; worse, because he is more seen and known; has more to do with church affairs; has greater power over others, and therefore may be supposed to be more injurious or beneficial, accordingly as his personal piety is more or less vigorous and consistent. When such a man unites himself with a woman whose tastes and habits are opposed to spiritual religion; who is fond of mirthful company and fashionable amusements, and would prefer a party or a game, to a pious service; who feels restless, uneasy, and discontented in pious society and occupations; who has no love for family devotion, and is often absent from the morning or evening sacrifice—is it likely the husband of such a woman will long retain his consistency, his fervor, his spirituality? Will he not for the sake of marital happiness, concede one thing after another until nearly all the more strict forms of godliness are surrendered, and much of its spirit lost? His house becomes the scene of gaiety, his children grow up under maternal influence, his own piety evaporates, and at last he has little left of religion but the name. And now what is his influence likely to be upon others?
What families usually spring from such marriages; and what churches are, by a still wider spread of mischief, formed by them? This practice is ever going on before our eyes, and we feel unable to arrest it. It was never more common than at this time. Notwithstanding the protests which have been lifted up against it, the evil is continually spreading; and while it too convincingly proves the low state of piety among us, is an evidence of the truth of the last particular, that our present practice in the admission of people to membership is far too lax. Too few of the female members of our churches would refuse an advantageous offer of marriage on the ground of the lack of godliness in the individual who makes the proposal—and how many of the opposite gender would allow their conscience, on the same ground, to control their fancy, and give law to their wishes? Can we wonder that there should be little intense devotion in our churches, in such a state of things as this? How can we look for earnest piety when such hindrances as these are thrown in the way of it?
Honorable and noble exceptions, I admit, there are. Among others, one especially have I known, where a female by consenting to marry an ungodly man, could have been raised with her fatherless children from widowhood, solicitude, suspense, and comparative poverty—to wealth, ease, and grandeur; but where, with martyr-like consistency, she chose rather to struggle on for the support of herself and her children, with the smile of conscience and of God to sustain her noble heart, than to accept the 'golden bait' under the frown of both. But how few are there who would thus account the reproach of Christ greater treasure than all the riches of Egypt.
It is difficult to know what to do with this evil. Some churches make it a matter of discipline, and expel the member who marries an individual that is not a professor. This is the well-known practice of the Quaker body; and also of some churches of the Congregational order. There are objections, however, against this, which I have never yet been able to surmount. A member, whether suspended or excommunicated, can never be restored except upon a profession of penitence. Now, though in this case there can be no reformation, since the married cannot re-marry, there may be repentance. Yet it is a delicate affair, as affecting his wife, to bring a man to say he is sorry he ever married; unless indeed we separate, by a refined abstraction, the act of marrying an ungodly person, from his act of marrying this particular woman. Instances may occur, and have occurred in my own pastorate, of so very flagrant a nature, indicating so total a lack of all sense of religious truth, feeling, and propriety, as to warrant, and indeed require, a church to cut off a person who had thus violated every rule of Scripture and of common decorum. In all cases of this description, the pastor should interfere before the connection is fixed, if he has an opportunity. He should point out the inconsistency to the church member, the peril that must inevitably ensue to the soul, and the great unhappiness that attends such marriages; and in the case of such flagrant impropriety as I have last mentioned, let him candidly state the probability of exclusion from the church.
III.I may mention as the next hindrance to earnest piety, the taste for AMUSEMENT by which the present day is perhaps characterized more than most which have preceded it. Every age has had its sources of pleasure, and its means and methods of diversion, to relieve the mind from the fatigue and oppression of the more serious occupations of life. The human mind cannot be kept always upon the stretch, nor can the heart sustain, without occasional relief, its burden of care. I would not rob the soul of its few brief holidays, nor condemn as irrational or unchristian, its occasional oblivion of worldly vexations amidst the beauties of nature, or the pleasures of the social circle.* There is a time to laugh—as well as to weep. It is highly probable that with the advance of civilization, and of the arts and sciences, man, instead of rendering himself independent of the lighter amusements, will actually multiply them. And it must be admitted that modern taste has by its elegance supplanted some of the gross carnality and vulgar joviality of former days. There is an obvious reformation and elevation of popular amusements. The low taste for brutal sports, is I hope, supplanted by a higher kind of enjoyment, which, if not more Christian, is at any rate more humane and rational, and this is something gained to morals, even where the improvement does not go on to true piety.
Still, it may be seriously questioned, whether among professing Christians, the propensity for amusements and entertainments has not been growing too fast, and ripened into something like a passion for worldly pleasures. Dinner parties, among the wealthier classes of professors, have become frequent and expensive—wines the most costly, and the most varied and opulent foods are set forth with a profusion which proves at what an expenditure the entertainment has been served up to gratify the vanity of the host, and the palate of his guests.
There is an interesting incident in point, mentioned in the life of Mr. Scott, the commentator, which I shall here introduce, as showing the light in which that eminent man viewed this subject. I am not quite sure I have not introduced it in one of my other works; if I have, it will bear repetition. "For some time I had frequent invitations to meet dinner parties formed of people professing religion, and I generally accepted them—yet I seldom returned home without dissatisfaction, and even remorse of conscience. One day, (the Queen's birthday;) I met at the house of a rather opulent tradesman, a large party, among whom were some other ministers. The dinner was exceedingly splendid and luxurious, consisting of two courses, including every delicacy in season. Some jokes passed upon the subject; and one person in particular, a minister of much celebrity, said, 'If we proceed thus, we shall soon have the gout numbered among the privileges of the gospel.' This passed off very well—but in the evening, a question being proposed on the principal dangers to which evangelical religion is exposed in the present day, when it came to my turn to speak, I ventured to say that conformity to the world among people professing godliness, was the greatet danger of all. One thing led to another, and the luxurious dinner did not pass unnoticed by me. I expressed myself as cautiously as I could consistently with my conscience—but I observed that however needful it might be for Christians in superior stations to give splendid and expensive dinners to their worldly relations and connections, yet when ministers and Christians met together, such luxury was not consistent with piety—but should be exchanged for more frugal entertainments of each other, and more abundant feeding of the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. Probably I was too pointed; and many strong expressions of disapprobation were used at the time; but I went home as one who had thrown off a great burden from his back, rejoicing in the testimony of my conscience. The consequence was, a sort of tacit excommunication from the circle. The gentleman at whose house this passed, never invited me again but once, and then our dinner was literally a piece of boiled beef. He was however a truly pious man, though misled by bad examples and customs. He always continued to act towards me in a friendly manner, and though I had not seen him for several years, he left me a small legacy at his death."
There are few who will not be of opinion that Mr. Scott's rebuke would have been conveyed with more propriety, had it been administered privately, when it would manifest all the fidelity, without any of the seeming rudeness, with which it was given. Yet how convincingly does it prove the clearness of his perception of what was right, the tenderness of his conscience in shrinking from what was wrong, and the strength of his moral courage in reproving what he deemed to be a fault! What would Scott have said of a professor of religion exhibiting thirty-two different kinds of wine upon his table and side-board at the same time!*
* When will the ministers and members of our churches begin generally to inquire, whether it is not expedient for them, if not for their own sakes, yet for the sake of the community—to discontinue altogether the use of intoxicating liquors? When it is considered that one-half of the insanity, two-thirds of the abject poverty, and three-fourths of the crime of our country, are to be traced up to drunkenness; that more than sixty million dollars are annually spent in these destructive beverages; that myriads annually die the drunkard's death, and descend still lower than the drunkard's grave; that thousands of church members are every year cut off from Christian fellowship for inebriety; that every minister of the gospel has to complain of the hindrance to his usefulness from this cause; and that more ministers are disgraced by this than by any other habit; that, in short, more misery and more crime flow over society from this source, than from any other, war and slavery not excepted; and that by the highest medical authorities these intoxicating drinks are destructive. It surely does become every professor of religion to ask whether it is not incumbent upon him, both for his own safety and for the good of his fellow-creatures, to abstain from this pernicious indulgence. On the authority of Mr. Sheriff Alison it is stated, that in the year 1840, there were in Glasgow, among 30,000 inhabited houses, no fewer than 3010 appropriated to the sale of intoxicating drinks. The same gentleman declared that the consumption of liquors in that city amounted to 1,800,000 gallons yearly, the value of which is £1,350,000. No fewer than 30,000 people go to bed drunk every Saturday night—25,000 imprisonments are annually made on account of drunkenness, of which 10,000 are of females. Is Glasgow worse than many other places?
Professors of religion, ponder this—and will you not by abstaining from a luxury, lend the aid of your example to discountenance this monster crime, and monster misery? It is in the power, and is it not therefore the duty, of the Christian church to do much to stop this evil, which sends more people to the mad-house, the jail, the prisons, and the gallows; more bodies to the grave; and more souls to perdition, than any other that can be mentioned? Can the church be in earnest until it is prepared to make this sacrifice?
But it is not the dinner party, so much as the evening fashionable gathering, that is becoming the prevailing custom and the snare of modern Christians, when large assemblages are convened, comprising pious and worldly, grave and mirthful, young and old; not to enjoy "the feast of reason, and the flow of soul;" not perhaps even to be regaled by the pleasures of music—but by the amusement of the song and the dance—when large expense is incurred, late hours are kept, and everything but a pious spirit is promoted. It is this kind of social amusement, the fashionable full-dress evening party, carried to the extent of entire conformity to the world, and frequently resorted to, that is injurious to the interests of vital godliness in our Christian churches.
But even where there is not this extreme of gaiety, and a somewhat more sober aspect is thrown over the circle, yet when the winter passes off in a round of evening assemblages for no higher occupations than music and singing, it is an occupation scarcely congenial with the pious taste, or friendly to the promotion of pious improvement. I have known young people, professors of religion too, who have related with gleeful boasting, as if this were the element in which they delighted to live, the number of evenings during one winter they have passed in company, and in such occupations as have been just alluded to.
Now it may be, and it is, extremely difficult, and no one would attempt to solve the problem—to determine what kind of parties, and what number of them, are compatible with true godliness, so that when the rule for this kind and this number of entertainments is transgressed, the religion of the individual is questionable, or must be injured. I can only lay down general principles, leaving the application of them to individual judgment. There are no doubt people of such strength of real inrooted piety, of such strong devotional taste, and such fixed habits of godliness, that they could pass unhurt through a constant round of seemingly dissipating amusements; just as there are people of such strong constitutions and such robust health, that they can breathe a tainted atmosphere, or even take some kinds of poison, without injury. There is a most striking instance of this lately published by the Bishop of Oxford, in the Life of Mrs. Godolphin, who preserved not only her personal purity—but an unusual degree of spirituality and heavenly-mindedness, amidst the endless gaieties and the revolting licentiousness of the court of Charles the Second. In reference to which we can only say, "To the pure, all things are pure."
But most certainly the average piety of our day is not of such robustness as to be able to resist strong contagion. The very craving after diversion and amusement, which there is in some people, shows a morbid state of the soul. It might be supposed, judging from the representations of true religion which we find in the word of God, and from the general principles contained in it, as well as from the recorded experience of the saints, which is to be found in pious biography, that a Christian, one who is really such, has been rendered independent of all such sources of enjoyment as those to which the people of the world resort. It might have been concluded, that in the peace that passes understanding, the joy unspeakable and full of glory, and the rejoicing in hope of the glory of God—he had found not only a substitute—but an infinite compensation, for the worldly gratifications, which by becoming a Christian he had surrendered and that he would deem it a disparagement of his pious privileges to suppose that anything more than these were necessary for his felicity; or that if an addition were needed, an adequate one could not be found in healthful recreation amidst the scenery of nature, in the pleasures of knowledge, or the activities of benevolence.
To hear all this talk, then, about the necessity of entertainment; and the impossibility of relieving the exhaustion of labor, and the monotony of life, without parties, games, and diversions—sounds very like a growing weariness of the yoke of Christ; or a complaining, as if the church's paradise were no better than a waste howling wilderness, which needed the embellishments of worldly taste, and all the resources of human art, to render it tolerable; or which in fact must become little better than a fool's paradise to please the degenerate Christian. The growing desire after amusement marks a low state of piety, and is likely to depress it still lower.
It is the profession of a Christian, that he is not so much intent upon being happy in this world—as upon securing happiness in the eternal world; that he is rather preparing for bliss, than possessing and enjoying it now; and that he can, therefore, be very well content to forego many things in which the people of the world see no harm, and the harm of which it might be difficult for him, if called upon for proof, to demonstrate; but which he is willing to abstain from, just because they appear to him to take him off from those pleasures which await him, and for which he is to prepare, in the eternal world.
IV. The spirit of TRADEas it is now carried on, is no less adverse to a high state of piety, than the desire of amusement; and like that, is all the more dangerous because of the impossibility of assigning limits within which the indulgence of it is lawful, and beyond which it becomes an infringement of the law of God. Our chief danger lies in those things, which become sins only by the degree to which an affection or pursuit not wrong in itself, is carried; such as covetousness, pleasure-taking, and attention to the business of life—these all originate in things which are lawful in themselves, and are sinful only in excess. Fornication, adultery, falsehood, robbery, and other vices—are all so marked out, and so marked off from the region of what is lawful, that the line of division is distinctly perceptible, and we can see at once when we are approaching the point of prohibition, and when we have stepped over it.
But we cannot say this of worldly-mindedness. The love of acquisition and appropriation is one of the instinctive principles of human nature, planted in it by the hand of God, and intended to subserve the wisest and most beneficent purposes. The whole fabric of society is founded upon it, and all social organization is regulated by it. Trade may be said to be of God's appointment, if not directly, yet by the law of labor under which we are placed; and we cannot do without it. But then, like every other good—it may be abused, and become an evil. It may exert so engrossing an influence over the mind as to absorb it, and to exclude from it the consideration of every other subject. It must never be forgotten that the rule is binding upon us all, to "seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness," to overcome the world by faith—to set our affections on things above, and not on things on the earth. All this is as truly law now, as it ever was; and no attention to seen and temporal things, no labor even to provide things honest in the sight of all men, much more to provide abundant and luxurious things for ourselves—can release us from the obligation of a supreme regard to things "unseen and eternal."
Now there never was in the history of the world, an age or a country, in which the spirit of trade was more urgent, than it is in this land, and in our day. We are the greatest trading, manufacturing, and commercial country not only that now is—but that ever was. Tyre, Carthage, Phoenicia, and Venice, were mere pedlars compared with Britain. Our country is "the mart of nations," the emporium of the world. Such a state of things affects us all. Scarcely any stand so remote from the scene of busy activity as not to feel its impulse, and to catch its spirit. All rush into the contest for wealth—all hope to gain a prize of greater or less value. Education has raised up many from the lower classes, and wealth has attracted down many from the higher walks of life, to the level of the trading portion of the community—while population, as is natural in such a state of things, has gone on increasing. What is the result? Just what might have been expected, a keen and eager competition for business, beyond any former precedent.
Every trade, every profession, every branch of manufacturing, or of commerce, seems over-stocked, and every department of action over-crowded. See what must follow, time is so occupied that men have scarcely an hour in a week for thoughtfulness, reading the Scriptures, and prayer. The head, and heart, and hands, are so full of secular matters, that there is no room for God, Christ, salvation, and eternity! Competition is so keen and eager, that to get business—that the whatever things are true, and just, and honest, and lovely, and of good report—are trampled under foot, and conscientiousness is forgotten, or destroyed. If these efforts are successful, and wealth flows in, and the tradesman rapidly rises in society—then he is, perhaps, destroyed by prosperity.
In addition to all this, what an inconceivable amount of mischief has been inflicted by the gambling system of speculation. What multitudes have plunged into the gulf of perdition which yawns beneath those who have taken up the resolution of the men that will be rich, and who are determined to encounter the many foolish and hurtful lusts which beset their path. Piety becomes a flat, insipid, and abstract thing—amidst all the excitement produced by such pursuits. Even the Sabbath day hardly serves its purpose as a season of respite and remorse, given to arrest the eagerness of pursuit after wealth, and to loosen, for a while, the chain that binds man to earth; and is passed with an impatience that says, "When will it be over, that we may buy and sell and get again."
Of what use are sermons to those whose minds and hearts are intent upon their speculations or their business? And even the voice of prayer, which calls them into the presence of God, calls them not away from their secularities. Their Father's house is made a house of merchandise, and the Holy of Holies a place of business. As soon might you expect a company of gamblers to lay down their cards, and with the stakes yet undecided before their eyes listen with attention to a homily or a prayer—as some professing Christians to join with reverence in the devotions of the Sabbath, or to hear with interest the voice of the preacher. The spirit of trade thus carried on, is deadening the piety that is left, and is preventing more from being produced.
The great object of life to those professing Christians who have the opportunity, seems to be to become rich. Their chief end does not appear to be so much to glorify God, and enjoy him forever, as to obtain and enjoy the present world. Wealth is the center of their wishes—the invariable tendency of their desires. How many who have named the name of Christ, and avouched him to be all their salvation, and all their desire, still make "gold their hope, and say unto fine gold, You are my confidence." Jehovah is the God of their creed—but Mammon is the God of their hearts. Part of one day only they profess to worship in the sanctuary of religion, and all the other six days of the week they are devout adorers of the God of wealth.
Professing Christians! it is this worldly spirit which blights your hopes, which chills piety to the very heart, which withers your graces, which poisons your comforts, and blasts the fair fame of your Redeemer's kingdom! While this spirit pervades the professing people of God, vital godliness will not only be low—but will remain so. How can it be otherwise than that the church will appear covered with the dust of the earth, and robbed of her heavenly glory—while there are few who weep over the woes of Jerusalem, who struggle for her prosperity, who are affected by her reproach, or who are jealous for her honor. Let us then be duly impressed with the fact that in this country and in this age, trade is contending with piety for the universal dominion over men's minds, hearts, and consciences—and that according to present appearances there is no small danger of the victory being gained by the former. Christians, take the alarm!
V.Among the hindrances to a spirit of earnest piety, must be mentioned the political excitement which has so extensively prevailed in this country. Great political changes are bringing professing Christians into new perils, exposing their piety to fresh dangers, and rendering it necessary to give a greater vigor to that faith which overcomes the world. It is freely admitted, as has been a thousand times repeated, that in putting on the Christian, we do not put off the citizen—and do not, upon entering the church, retire altogether from the world. Religious liberty has an intimate connection with the interests of religion, for the freedom of the Christian cannot exist without the liberty of the man, and the stability and progress of the Redeemer's kingdom are considerably affected by the course of legislation. Hence it seems neither possible if it were right, nor right if it were possible, for professing Christians altogether to quit the arena of politics. Still, however, it must be confessed that it requires a far larger measure of the life of faith than they appear to have possessed, to resist the paralysing influence which comes from such a quarter over the spirit of piety; and the consequence has been, that she has come out of the scene of strife, covered with its dust, and enfeebled by its struggles.
In such times as those of the great conflict against tyranny and popery, in the reign of the Stuarts, when everything dear to liberty and religion was at stake, the politicians and heroes of those days prepared themselves for the senate and the camp, by the devout exercises of the closet, fed the flame of their courage at the fount of their piety, felt that they must be saints in order to be patriots, and expected to have power to conquer man, only as they had power to prevail with God. It might be truly said of them, it was not that their religion was political—but their politics were pious. Everything they did was consecrated by the Word of God and prayer. They were wrong in some things they did, and unwise in some things they said—but even this was at the dictate of conscience, though a misguided one. There were hypocrites among them no doubt, for it was hardly possible that such splendid virtues as many of them possessed, should not be admired and imitated by some who had not the grace to be their genuine followers; and an uncouth cast of phraseology and some modes of action no doubt marred their piety; but even these disfigurements could not conceal their manly spirits.
Is it so now in our struggles for objects which, though of some consequence, are of less importance than theirs? Have we not all the ardor of political excitement, without feeling the necessity of personal piety? Do we realize the need of a new baptism of the Spirit, to prepare us for political contests? Are we acting as if we were convinced that we must put on afresh the whole armor of God before we go into the battle-field of contending parties? Have we made our politics pious, instead of making our religion political? Have our pastors, when they have engaged in these matters, prepared themselves for it by communion with God; and have our senators before they have gone to the place of legislation, and our councillors and aldermen, before they have entered the civic hall, fortified themselves by fasting and prayer, with the spirit of piety? Have we not on the contrary, lost in piety what we have gained in liberty, and felt "the powers of the world to come" weakened in their influence over us, in proportion as we have had a share in wielding the power of the present world?
As dissenters, have we not been too anxious about our political influence? Or at any rate, have we not in seeking to increase this, lost something of a better influence—which we should have labored to preserve? Perhaps it may be thought that this is the day of struggle for great principles, the reform of great abuses, the contest for lost rights, and the settlement of a wise, equitable, and permanent constitution of things; and that though the spirit of saintly and seraphic piety may suffer somewhat during the conflict, yet the time will come by and bye, when having conquered an honorable peace, she will sit down amidst the trophies that have been won, to heal her wounds, and recover her strength. I wish it may be so—but what if by venturing unnecessarily so far into the thick of the political affray, she should receive wounds that are incurable, and sink into a state of exhaustion, from which she cannot be easily or speedily recovered!
What I say, then, is this, that if we must be political, and to a certain extent we must be, do not let us smile with contempt at the craven fears, or the superstitious apprehensions, or the ignoble whinings, as they will be called, of those who would remind us that a time of political excitement brings on a state of things—which endangers all that is vital in godliness, damps the flame of devotion in the soul, and tends to depress piety in our churches.
But there are other excitements against which we have need to be on our guard, excitements which come still more within the unquestioned circle of pious activity. It is well for us to remember that true religion, even in its most vigorous and energetic course of action, is of a calm, gentle, and peaceful temperament. It resembles its Divine Author, of whom it is said, "He shall not strive nor cry, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets;" it loves the quiet retreat of the closet, and flourishes amidst the stillness of meditation—and adds to these the tranquil pleasures of the sanctuary, and the soft and soothing delights of the communion of saints. It cannot live, and grow, and flourish, amidst perpetual agitation; and it is ever placed in a dangerous position, in an atmosphere too troubled, and in an element uncongenial with its nature—when its active duties are pushed so far as to exclude the devotional ones. There are times when piety must come out of its retreat, and mingle in the scenes of agitation and excitement. There are occasions when it must join the crowd, and let its voice be heard, not only borne upon the gale of popular sentiment and feeling—but swelling it. Yet this must be but occasional, and not habitual.
If we look back upon the great questions which have called out professing Christians into the scene of agitation during the last half, or last quarter, of a century, how many subjects of a public nature shall we find that have called up our consideration, feeling, and activity? What a struggle we maintained, in what crowds we gathered, and to what a pitch of enthusiasm we were wrought up, for the removal of that foul blot upon our country's history, that heavy curse upon humanity, and that deep disgrace on our Christian profession—the slave trade and slavery! In what a troubled element have we lived of late, through contending against the various schemes of popular education, because we viewed them as unfriendly to our liberties as dissenters, and hostile to the manly independence of the people. There are other topics which need not be specified, tending greatly to agitate the church of Christ. The wonder perhaps is, and it is a cause for gratitude, that considering these things, so much personal piety still remains. Yet it behooves us to remember that as this is an atmosphere uncongenial with its nature, there is the need of constant watchfulness, intense solicitude, and earnest prayer, that the churches, while contending for important objects, do not let down the tone of their spirituality.
VI.Even that which is the glory of the church in this age, and the hope of the world, which is one of the brightest signs of the times, and the loss of which would be an occasion to clothe the heavens with sackcloth, and the earth with mourning—I mean the spirit of holy zeal which is now so active; yes, even this, for lack of watchfulness, care, and earnest prayer, may become a snare and a mischief to personal godliness. We have need to take care that the reproach be not brought against us, that while we have kept the vineyards of others, our own we have not kept; that our zeal has been maintained, not by our piety—but at the expense of it; that our ardor is not the natural putting forth of the vital energies of the tree, in branches, leaves, and fruit—but a protrusion upon it, which draws to itself the sap and impoverishes the genuine produce. Ours is the age of societies, the era of organization, the day of the platform, the public meeting, the orator, the speech, and the placard. Everything is trumpeted, blazoned, shall I say puffed; not only our missionary and Bible society meetings—but our ordination services, formerly so quiet and so solemn. Even the subjects of our very sermons, the most solemn verities of our religion, must now obtrude themselves in glaring placards, and stare out in imposing capitals, side by side with advertisements of plays by celebrated actors, concerts by renowned singers, lectures by itinerant philosophers, and feats of agility by equestrian performers. All is agitation, excitement, and publicity; and religion is one subject for this among many others. Something of all this, no doubt, is proper, and cannot be otherwise managed at present, and ought not to be discontinued. But then, on the other hand, much of it is contrary to the dignity, the peacefulness, and the sanctity of true piety. There is in some of our pious concerns too near an approach by far to showmanship, to the newspaper puffing of noisy and obtrusive tradesmen, to the catch-penny trickery of quacks and impostors. Let us consider how the truly pious spirit, the lofty, heavenly, devout aspirations of the renewed mind must suffer for all this—how true godliness must be corrupted and changed into a novelty-seeking, wonder-loving thing—how the flame of devotion must expire, or be changed into the fantastic fires around which little children dance in sport.
And where matters are not in this fashion, and there is nothing but the mere reiteration of public meetings, yet may they not by their frequency draw off the attention from personal piety, and in many cases become a substitute for it? There are public meetings, and resolutions, and speeches, and anecdotes—for everything! And we must have them, and even be thankful for them, as long as the present mode of carrying on our schemes of evangelization are pursued. But then let us take care—anxious, prayerful, vigilant care—that these things do not exert an unfavorable influence upon us, by producing a taste for excitement which shall make the ordinary means of grace, and Lord's-day opportunities—tame, flat, and insipid; by throwing an 'air of frivolity' over our whole religion; by drawing us out of our closets, and making us in religion resemble our Gallic neighbors, who are said to know little of home enjoyment, and who live almost entirely abroad; by making us ostentatious and vain-glorious, instead of humble and retiring; by impairing the modesty of our youth, who are so early brought into action and notice; by corrupting the purity of our motives through the publicity given to names and donations; by engrossing that time which should be spent in private prayer, reading the Scriptures, and meditation; in short, by converting our whole religion into a bustling activity about religion.
VII.The danger here set forth is not a little increased, in our day, by the modern invention and extensive prevalence of certain social convocations, such for instance as tea meetings. Of this species of fraternal fellowship our fathers were ignorant, and so were we ourselves until within the last few years; but now they are the prevailing fashion of the day, and are become so common, and in such frequent demand, as to have led in many congregations to the fitting-up an apparatus for their celebration. The incorporation of these social festivities with pious matters, though it prevails more among the Methodists and Dissenters, is not exclusively confined to these bodies, as some of the clergy of the Church of England have adopted the practice.
There are few things among modern customs which more need the vigilance, caution, and supervision of Christian pastors and the churches, than these religio-convivial entertainments. There can be no harm in the abstract idea of Christians eating and drinking together, especially when the elements of the feast are nothing more expensive, inebriating, or epicurean—than tea, and bread and butter, or cakes. There can be little doubt that the primitive Christians had their social meals, and that to these agape, or love feasts, as they were called, Jude refers, where he speaks of some who were "spots upon your feasts of charity." Out of this custom of having meals together, which were made appendages of the Lord's Supper, grew the corruptions mentioned in the first epistle to the Corinthians. The practice of eating and drinking together for purposes of unity and charity, still continued in the early churches, until it was so abused to carnal purposes as to call for ecclesiastical interference; and by the council of Laodicea, in the fourth century, it was forbidden to eat and drink, or spread tables in the house of God.
There is little fear, it may be presumed, of the modern practice of tea meetings ever being abused in such a manner as this—yet it behooves us to recollect that all corruptions were at one time only as a grain of mustard seed, which sown in a congenial soil, advanced after the first insidious germination with rapid growth to unsuspected strength and stature. It is not, however, to what these entertainments may become, that I now allude—but to what they are already. I have been present at some, in which not only my taste as a man—but my sensibilities as a Christian, have been somewhat offended. I have seen the house of God turned into what had all the air of a place of public amusement—I have beheld grave ministers, and deacons, and members of Christian churches, mingled up with professors and non-professors of religion, young men and women, boys and girls, in all the noisy buzz, and perhaps sometimes approaching to boisterous mirth. In one of these meetings I have witnessed young women of the working classes, dressed up as ladies for the occasion, flirting about with their beaux of the other gender—in short all was glee, and merriment, and hilarity, and this perhaps in connection with some pious object; the anniversary of opening a chapel for God's worship, or the celebration of a minister's settlement with his flock. Probably it will be said by some, this is a caricature. I am conscious it does not exceed the truth, and I might appeal to many of my brethren who have witnessed and lamented the same things.
To come to what is no less fashionable—but perhaps somewhat less injurious to the spirit of piety, than these things, I mean the church-parties of the present day; these also require some caution in their management, when held in connection with piety, lest they degenerate into a species of worldly amusement, the tendency of which will be to depress the tone of piety, and to destroy the seriousness of mind with which it ought ever to be regarded. Now I know that it is difficult to prove logically that these things are wrong, and I do not mean to assert that they are; by no means. But as they are the increasing custom of the day, and are liable to be abused, either by being too frequent, or by being held in a spirit of worldliness, I think the church of Christ should be put upon their guard, and called to a spirit of holy vigilance.
I know that sociality, cheerfulness, and even tastefulness, are sanctioned by piety. Nothing is more social, cheerful, and tasteful than true piety—and heaven is full of all these attributes. But then, piety is at the same time no less characterized by solemnity, sanctity, and deep seriousness, than it is by joy. Piety is that which connects the soul with God, with salvation, with heaven, and with eternity; it is the conflict of a soul fighting the great fight of faith, and laying hold of eternal life; the agony of a heaven-born spirit, reaching after celestial bliss; the training of an immortal mind for the beatific vision of God and the Lamb! Therefore, all our pursuits and our pleasures too, should be in strict and constant harmony with it. When we affirm, as we most truly may, that "piety never was designed to make our pleasures less," we should at the same time recollect that it puts aside many of the pleasures of the world, as beneath our notice, if not injurious to our character. We have other pleasures, so incomparably superior, as to dispose us, by a natural process, to reject the 'drop' for the sake of the 'fountain', and to lay aside the 'candle' when we see the 'sun'. We have only to consider what piety is, what it calls us to, requires of us, leads us to, and is intended to prepare us for, to see at once, and to feel as by a holy instinct—what kind of pleasures it should lead us to seek, and what pleasures to refuse.
It will probably be asked, whether I would suppress all these modern usages of tea meetings, church parties, and social entertainments. I reply—certainly not. They may unite much instruction, and much spiritual improvement, with as much innocent social enjoyment. But then I would watch them, with an entire conviction that they may possibly come to what is harmful. I would limit their growth, that they may not become too frequent and too trivial; and I would, where piety is in any form their object, take care that they be conducted in a pious spirit. I would let piety with all her cheerfulness—but yet with all her seriousness and sanctity, preside over the scene, and diffuse her blessed influence through every soul.
If, as is usually the case, there are non-professors and unconverted people present, I would let them see how happy Christians are, not indeed by transferring the pleasures of the world into the social circle of the redeemed—but by drawing down the pleasures of heaven into the church on earth. The way to win the ungodly to piety, is not by showing them that their pleasures are ours—but that ours are infinitely superior to any which they know! A Christian ought to be, and would be, if he understood his privileges, the very epitome of bliss in himself, and a signpost pointing out the way of happiness to others.
It would be well for the minister to be always present at every tea meeting held among any section of his flock, and to endeavor to repress all undue levity as soon as it appeared, and to maintain a tone of rational, pious, and agreeable fellowship. The meetings of Sunday school teachers especially require his presence and his influence, not only to make them feel that he is in fact their supreme superintendent, and the teacher of teachers—but to prevent that excessive hilarity which would perhaps in some cases be likely to spring up. And the pastor might also, with great propriety and utility, hold occasionally such meetings with the members of the church, and thus promote the unity and love of his flock among themselves, and their attachment to him. I adopt this plan myself. The church under my care is large, amounting to upwards of nine hundred members, and scattered over the whole expanse of this great town; and the public business and correspondence devolving upon me, in common with my brethren, are so oppressive, that I cannot pretend to fill up the measure of pastoral duty. And therefore to remedy, as far as possible, this defect, I invite the members by sections to take tea with me in the vestry, when I converse a little with each individual separately, and then hold devotional exercises with them all collectively. At such meetings nothing of course but what is serious and devout occurs; all is solemn, joyful, and to edification; all sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.
The object, then, of all these remarks will be seen; that their design is to resist the tendency which some of our modern customs have, to diminish the seriousness, repress the earnestness, and altogether change the nature of true piety; to impair the dignity, to lower the spirituality, and impede the usefulness of its professors; and thus, instead of making the people of the world pious, to make the members of the church worldly.
VIII. But, perhaps, there are few things which tend more effectually to repress the spirit of earnest piety, and to keep it down at a low point, than those fallacies about its nature, and that perversion of acknowledged principles and facts in connection with it, in which so many professors indulge. I will mention some of these.
Is it not clear that many people satisfy themselves with admitting the necessity of earnestness, without ever once endeavoring to obtain it; and thus put their conviction and admission of the necessity of the thing, in the place of seeking after the thing itself? We talk to a cold or lukewarm individual, and represent to him the inconsistency of such a heartless religion as his, and the indispensable necessity of more devotedness. It is all, and at once, admitted; and he stops the conversation, gets rid of the subject, and evades impression and conviction, by this ready assent. And thus by such a facile, assenting, unresisting admission, the power of the solemn truth that he is in a dangerous state, seems to be destroyed. It were better, far better, that these lukewarm professors should deny the necessity of more intensity of thinking, feeling, and acting, that they may be reasoned and expostulated with, and made to think by force of argument, and to feel by the power of representation. But in this easy admission, without opposition, question, or doubt, the strongest representation only goes in to be cushioned, and fall asleep.
And then the applicability of the subject to so many, if not to all, is another cause of the evasion of the subject. "It concerns me," is the inward thought, "not more than all these myriads of professors." Its absolute importance as applicable to any one, seems dissipated in the idea of how many it is applicable to. As if the authority and importance of the one great admonition to earnestness were divided into innumerable diminutive shares, with but inconsiderable force in each. How kindly and humbly each is willing not to account his soul more important than that of any of his fellow mortals! Yet not so benevolent either, in another view of the matter; for in a certain indistinct way, he is laying the blame on the rest of mankind, if he is indifferent about his own highest interest.
"They are under the same great obligation; in their manner of practically acknowledging it, they are my pattern; they keep me down to their level. If their shares of the great concern were more worthily attended to, perhaps mine would be also. One has fancied sometimes what might have been the effect, in the selected instances, if the case had been that the Sovereign Creator had appointed but a few men, here and there one, to an immortal existence, or at least declared it only with respect to them. One cannot help imagining them to feel every hour the impression of their sublime and solemn predicament! But why, why is it less felt a sublime and solemn one because the rest of our race are in it too? Does not each as a perfectly distinct one stand in the whole magnitude of the concern, and in the responsibility and the danger, as absolutely as if there were no other one? How is it less to him—than if he stood alone? Their losing the happy interest of eternity—will not be that he shall not have lost it for himself. If he shall have lost it, he will feel that they have not lost it for him. He should, therefore, now feel that upon him is concentrated, even individually upon him—the entire importance of this chief concern."
Foster, in his lecture on "Earnestness in Religion," from which this extract is taken, enumerates other fallacies by which men impose upon themselves in excuse for lukewarmness in piety, such as taking a perverse advantage of 'the obscurity of the objects of our faith', and of 'the incompetence of our faculties to apprehend them'; the recognition of the obligations of piety upon our life, as a whole, without making them bear upon all the particular parts of it as they pass; and a soothing self-assurance, founded, the man can hardly say on what, that some how or other, and at some time or other, he shall be better—a kind of superstitious hope, excited by some particular circumstance, that he shall yet be improved, although at the time he makes no effort, and forms no intention, to amend.
There is no cause more fatal in depressing true piety among its professors, than the notion that piety is to be regarded rather as a fixed state—than a progression; a point to be reached—rather than a course to be continually pursued. It is both; but it is only one of these notions that is taken up by many people. Justification does introduce us to a state of favor with God. Regeneration brings us into a state of holy living. Membership brings us into a state of communion with the church. But in addition to this, there is the progress of sanctification, the going on unto perfection. It is extremely probable to me that many of the ministers of the Evangelical school, have almost unconsciously, or inconsiderately, given countenance to this mistaken, because partial view, by dwelling too exclusively on the mere transition from a state of death to a state of life. They have shown that in the act of receiving the gospel, a man is at once changed both in his moral relation and moral condition. From that time he becomes another man, his state is altered, he passes from death unto life. But then this state is to manifest itself, by a progressive development of the new principle. He is not only to be born—but he is to grow. It is fallacious to infer the growth, when we cannot infallibly determine the birth—it is much safer to infer the spiritual birth from the spiritual growth. The New Testament everywhere represents the Christian life by things denoting growth and progress—"The path of the just is as the shining light, which shines more and more unto the perfect day." There is first the babe, then the young man, then the father in Christ. There is first the springing of the corn, then the blade, then the full ear. We are to abound more and more in knowledge, faith, and all holiness. The Scriptures never fail to keep before us the idea of advancement.
But this is almost entirely overlooked by many professing Christians; their idea is to get into a state of justification and regeneration, and having attained that, they are content. They repose in it. They have, as they imagine, escaped the tempest, and reached the shore in safety—and there they stand, exulting at best in their deliverance, without attempting to penetrate and possess the country they have reached. Their feeling is, "I am converted, and am in the church," and there they stop. From the time they are received into fellowship, their solicitude begins to abate—from that point they sink down into the repose of those who are at ease in Zion, they have received their certificate of personal piety and are satisfied. They have no great concern to grow in grace, to be ever advancing in the divine life, and to be ever making fresh attainments in holiness. If you see them ten or twenty years after their profession was first made—you find them where you left them, or even gone back from their first love; their religion has had some kind of motion—but it has been stationary, not locomotive; it has gone upon hinges, not upon wheels, or if upon wheels—they have moved in a circle, not on a line.
Yet what invaluable means of growth they have had; what favorable Sabbaths they have spent, what sermons they have heard, what books they have read! But still their tempers are as unsubdued, their corruptions as unmortified, and their graces as stunted—as they were at first! No pupils make so little proficiency as those who are educated in the school of Christ! In no case is so much instruction, so much discipline, bestowed in vain! Nowhere is improvement so little perceptible as here! How is this? Just because these people are laboring under the fatal mistake of their having reached a standing point, not a starting point, of their having come into a state, and gained an advantage, which render solicitude and progress unnecessary. They do not actually admit this in words, nor even in thought—but unconsciously to themselves, this is the secret working of their minds.
Akin to this, is the sad abuse which is made of the humiliating fact that "there is no perfection upon earth"—as if this should satisfy us with all kinds and to all degrees of imperfection. It is astonishing, and somewhat painful, to observe with what indifference, and almost satisfaction, this reflection upon our fallen humanity is made by some people—as if they were glad to find an excuse for all their faults! Under the pretext that there is no perfection, they do things at which a tender-hearted Christian, a professor with a delicate sensibility of conscience, would be shocked. They forget that the command of God is to "perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord," "to go on unto perfection," to "be perfect," and that he who does not desire to be perfect, does not seek to be so, and does not lament his imperfections, and labor to remove as many of them as possible, reveals a heart not yet brought into subjection to the authority of Christ!
The true earnestness of piety is an intense desire and labor after a perfect conformity to the revealed will of God. The individual who has this mind in him, can tolerate no imperfections—but sincerely wishes to discover all his faults. He searches his heart, and implores God to search it, in order that he may find them out, and put them away. He knows that the bliss of heaven arises in great part from the perfection of holiness, and he wishes to approach as near to heaven upon earth as he can, by coming as near as possible to perfect holiness.
What a different aspect would the church of God present to the world, and in what power and glory would its professors of piety appear, if it consisted of a multitude of men and women all striving and struggling after a perfect conformity to that law which makes it our duty to love God with all our heart, and our neighbors as ourselves—all anxious to come as near to a resemblance of God, and to have as much of the mind of Christ, as could be attained by anyone out of heaven—all seeking after their own shortcomings and offences, and glad of any help to discover them, in order that they may be put away—all stimulating and helping each other on in the career of moral improvement—all watching and praying for the aid of the Divine Spirit to help their infirmities. What a scene, I say, would then be exhibited to an astonished world! The angels of God would delight to gaze on it! What less than this is the law of Christ's church? In what less interesting and important aspect than this, ought the church of Christ to be seen?
It is probable that a dread of singularity, a fear of breaking through the barriers of conventionality, a dislike of being thought to be setting up as a reformer—have kept many back from seeking a higher degree of piety than has been exhibited around them. They have been conscious of the prevalent faults of the day, which were their own also; and under the stern rebuke of an enlightened conscience, they determined to advance to more marked separation from the world, and a higher tone of spiritual feeling. From this resolution, however, they were immediately and effectually deterred, by an apprehension of the remarks, perhaps the sneers, which they would bring upon themselves from the lukewarm and the worldly, who would taunt them for setting up as reformers of their brethren, and as pretending superior sanctity.
This apprehension is strengthened in many people by too low an estimate of their own influence. "What can I do?" they say. "I, who am so obscure and uninfluential, to stay the torrent of worldly-mindedness which is flowing through the church? My example can do nothing for the good of others, and can only bring opposition, reproach, and reproof upon myself. I see the miserably low condition of professors around me, and I feel and lament my own—I would be happy to see a healthier state of piety in our church, and gladly would I follow in the wake of those who would attempt to improve it—but I cannot attempt this myself. I would only be laughed at as a person pretending what I did not possess, inflated by vanity, or cherishing the pride of singularity."
Let such people remember that they are not to take into account what may be thought of their conduct by others—what influence it may have upon them—or what opposition it may provoke. Convinced of their shortcomings, they are intensely and laboriously to seek to have them made up. Whether others will applaud or censure; follow or resist; approve or condemn; they are to go on. No dread of ridicule or reproach should deter them from growing in grace. They must dare to be singular—venture to go alone—determine, whether men will bear or forbear—to go forward. The church can never be improved if this spirit of timidity prevails. There could have been neither martyr nor reformer upon these craven principles. I tell the man who will be in advance of his generation—that he will be the object of their envy, their suspicion, and their ill will. There will be no exemption from such treatment for the Christian who aims at a higher standard of piety than he sees in the church of which he is a member.
The people of the world will be less envious, jealous and spiteful towards a neighbor who excels them in honesty and integrity—than inconsistent and worldly-minded professors will be towards a fellow-member who has more piety than they have—because their conscience having a little more light reflected from the example and expostulation of their more consistent neighbor, is thus rendered more sensitive, and is more easily wounded. Such people are more censorious of superior holiness, and more tolerant of great imperfections, than any others. He who would rebuke their sins by avoiding them, whatever his love for them—is sure to be the object of their dislike.
But we must not thus be stopped in our endeavors after higher attainments in piety. We must follow out our convictions, and endeavor to live up to the standard set before us in God's Word, and not allow ourselves to be deterred from our duty by the opinion of our fellow-creatures or fellow-professors. Our condemnation will be the greater, if after our attention has been drawn to the subject, and our conscience awakened, we allow ourselves to be turned aside by the fear of the frowns or the sneers of others. God will help us if we are willing to be helped, and raise us all above that fear of man which brings a snare. No one who is really in earnest to grow in grace, and to attain to more eminent piety, will be left to struggle on, unassisted in his endeavors. Divine grace will be made sufficient for him, and he will be successful in his efforts.
At the same time he must remember that his humility, meekness, and gentleness must be no less apparent than his other excellences. It must be earnestness itself, and not the appearance of it merely, that he seeks and manifests. And it must be for its own sake, and not for the sake of gaining a reputation for it. There must be nothing even remotely approaching to the contemptuous disposition which says, "Stand aside—I am holier than you." No affected airs of superior piety, no offensive obtrusion of our example, no prideful rebukes, no bitter censoriousness, no angry reproaches—but a piety, which like the sun, shall be seen rather than heard—and shall diffuse its influence in a noiseless manner, and almost without drawing attention to its source. Such a profession must do good, however humble the station in life of him who makes it; and if all who are convinced by these pages of their own deficiencies, as well as of those of the church at large, will attempt to make up the latter by beginning with the former, this volume will not have been written in vain.
IX. This enumeration of the causes that tend to depress and injure the spirit of vital godliness would be incomplete if I did not mention the modern taste forfrequenting vacation resorts and traveling abroad. Having dwelt on this at length in "The Christian Professor," under the chapter, "The Professor away from home," I shall only briefly advert to the subject here. There are few things which have had a more unhappy influence upon the middle and upper classes of professing Christians than this. Even the annual visits to the coast, or the inland places of fashionable resort, now so prevalent, are sufficiently pernicious in their influence, to put all who have any regard to their eternal welfare most seriously upon their guard against the temptations which are thus presented—by the sudden and complete transition from employment to idleness—by the removal of those salutary restraints with which they are surrounded in the habitations where they statedly reside—by the mixed characters of the society into which they are almost necessarily thrown—by the amusements which are there most prevalent and fashionable—by the general air of wastefulness which is thrown over the whole scene—by the interruption of their usual habits of devotion, private, domestic, and social—and by the indisposedness for the seasons and exercises of piety, which is the consequence of all these circumstances. These are no imaginary dangers, as the experience of all who have adopted this practice must attest, and as the total apostacy of some, and the backsliding of many, will corroborate.
This danger is of course increased by foreign travel in numerous ways; by a removal from the usual means of grace; by the frequent desecration of the Sabbath; by associations oftentimes with worldly-minded companions; by straining and tampering with conscience, in reference to many matters of very questionable propriety. And by the familiar gaze of mere curiosity upon scenes and customs known to be sinful. In all these ways may the spirituality of our minds, the tenderness of our conscience, and the delicacy of our moral sensibilities be impaired by those continental tours which are so fashionable and so fascinating. Their influence, no doubt, has been mischievous to an extent of which we are not aware, among many whose piety was already of a feeble and a doubtful kind.
But as the thing is lawful in itself, and only sinful when abused, let us, if disposed thus to recreate our minds, and gratify our curiosity, which we innocently may, recollect that we are about to expose ourselves to peril, earnestly pray for grace to preserve us, and watch as well as pray that we enter not into temptation. As our best preservative from home, and at home, as one of the most effectual means of resisting temptation and promoting holiness, "let us consider ourselves under the all-seeing eye of the Divine Majesty, as in the midst of an infinite globe of light, which compasses us about both behind and before, and pierces to the inner most recesses of the soul. The sense and the remembrance of the Divine presence is the most ready and effectual means, both to discovering what is unlawful, and to restrain us from it. There are some things which a person could make a shift to palliate or defend, and yet he dares not look Almighty God in the face, and adventure upon them. If we look unto him we shall be lightened; if we 'set him always before us, he will guide us with his eye, and instruct us in the way wherein we should walk.'"(Scougal's "Life of God in the Soul of Man." Would God the whole generation of the professors of true religion of this day, and of every age, would read this most beautiful and incomparable treatise on practical piety. This is the piety we want, and of which we have too little.)
X.The last thing I shall mention as tending to depress the spirit of true religion, is the spirit of sectarianism, which so extensively prevails among the various sections of the Christian church.
By the spirit of sectarianism I mean that excessive attachment to our distinctive opinions on doctrine, government, and the sacraments, which leads to a disproportionate and often a distempered zeal for upholding and promulgating them; and to a state of alienation, if not of hostility, towards those who differ from us on those points, notwithstanding their agreement with us on still more fundamental and important matters. This spirit of exclusiveness which shuts out from our affection, sympathy, and communion—all those who are not within the pale of our church—however evangelical in sentiment and holy in conduct, and which would seem to restrict all excellence to our own body, is, whatever its abettors may imagine, not only anti-social—but positively anti-Christian. It is the essence of bigotry; the germ of intolerance; and in its last developement, the spirit of persecution.
That such a spirit of sectarianism as this does prevail, is the confession and the lamentation of all pious Christians. It might seem as if this spirit were itself an indication and an operation of earnestness. So it is of the earnestness of party—but not of piety. Saul of Tarsus had no lack of this when he was hastening to Damascus, and breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of Jesus; nor the popish inquisitors in exterminating heretics by fire and sword. But who will call this persecution, the earnestness of true religion? It is zeal—but kindled by a spark from the flaming pit below.
Zeal is antagonistic to true piety—when it is felt for lesser matters, to the neglect of greater ones, and when it produces more indifference or even dislike, to those who differ from us in minor points, than friendship, sympathy, and love to them, on the ground of the more important ones on which we are united. This is easily demonstrated. It is an injury and opposition to that truth which is the basis of all piety, inasmuch as it depresses its more momentous doctrines, and gives an undue elevation to its lesser ones. It is at open war with that love which is the greatest of the Christian graces, the very essence of piety, and without which all else is but as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. It introduces a foreign and corrupting element into true godliness, and envenoms it with the poison of malice and wrath. It diverts attention from primary to secondary matters; and exhausts the energies of the soul in bringing forth the fruits of contention, instead of the peaceable fruits of righteousness. It cuts off the channels of sympathy between the different sections of the universal church, and thus deprives each part of the benefit of what may be found in the way of example, spiritual literature, and cooperation—in the other sections of the great fellowship of believers. It tends to perpetuate our strifes and divisions, by extinguishing the spirit by which alone we are likely to come to ultimate agreement. It fosters in many a disposition to infidelity, by disparaging the excellence and weakening the power of true religion. It represses the true spirit of prayer, and thus is a barrier to the spread of the gospel in the world, and it grieves the Holy Spirit of God, whereby he is induced to withhold his gracious influence.
Such are the consequences of sectarianism, and can anyone doubt whether it is inimical to piety? It may substitute for the fervor of a pure zeal a fiery turbulence—but it is not genuine piety. It is not the true vital warmth of a soul in full health—but the fever of a diseased and morbidly restless spirit. It is high time to stop the progress, and destroy the power, of this hateful temper! If we have not piety enough to vanquish sectarianism, sectarianism will acquire more and more power to vanquish piety. Let charity rise into the ascendant. We cannot do a better thing either for the church or for the world, than seek for a greater degree of love among the friends of Christ. How has piety been tarnished in her beauty, weakened in her influence, and limited in her reign, by these contentions among her friends! Success therefore be to those efforts which are now being made by the sons of peace, to bring the scattered and alienated followers of the Lamb into a closer union with each other. And whether the Evangelical Alliance shall or shall not continue to exist in its present form and constitution, all good men must join in the longings and the prayers of our Divine Lord, when he thus breathed out his heart for his disciples, "That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me and I in you—that they all may be one in us; that the world may believe that you have sent me."