by John Angell James, 1859
THE SPIRITUAL STATE OF OUR CHURCHES
I invite, therefore, the most solemn attention to the ensuing pages, in which will be found, perhaps, some things unpalatable to many—but are they true? If so, let us put away what is wrong and supply what is deficient.
I propose, in the following papers, to take up this question with reference to our body as Congregationalists, and to point out what appear to me to be our excellences, our faults, and our defects. What I say of ourselves will apply also to other bodies—and, therefore, what I shall advance may be considered as my opinion of the condition of the Christian world at large—and, as my individual opinion, it must, of course, be taken only for what it is worth.
It is not my intention to dwell at any length on what may be called the historical details of our denomination. Public confidence in statistics does not strengthen, and I shall not attempt anything in reference to numbers, beyond the assertion of the fact, that, we like other bodies of Christians, are sadly behind the increase of population. It is a deplorable consideration for us all, that the domain of Satan is filling up far more rapidly than that of Christ. As regards the general features of our churches, it is but too apparent that while they are multiplying and strengthening in the metropolis and large towns; they are, at least in many places, getting smaller and poorer in the lesser towns, and require the serious consideration of our body. It is equally evident, that the churches are characterized too much by fastidiousness and fickleness, in regard to the choice and retention of their pastors; while the pastors are no less characterized by restlessness and movability in regard to the churches. I am aware that fixedness may, and does, too strongly prevail in some cases; but in the present day, it seems as if all ministers might be regarded as moveable, and as if movability were a virtue and a means of usefulness. Much mischief will result to us if the bond which unites the pastor and the church be considered so slight a thing as to be soon and easily broken.
Our colleges, on which so much depends, are, I hope, as
regards their theological teaching, in a sound and healthful state; but some
of them are only half full of students, and, perhaps, need to be reminded
that, with all their concern to train up learned men, they should unite the
greatest solicitude and care to send forth earnest preachers and judicious
pastors. How few men of great promise come from any of them! How is this?
I. It is not, however, on these matters, or any cognate subjects, that I mean now to dwell—but upon the internal and spiritual condition of our churches. Like the Lord Jesus in the survey which he took of the seven Asiatic churches, I would mention, first of allthe EXCELLENCIES of our churches, as manifested by their zeal, activity, and liberality.
And some very distinguished ones present themselves. The most superficial observers cannot fail to be impressed with the Christian activity and liberality which everywhere prevail, and which thus conform them to our Lord's metaphorical description, that they are "the salt of the earth, and the light of the world." This is a high commendation—and it is, happily, a true one. This has come on by such gradual advances, that those who have grown up within the last thirty years can have no conception of the different state of things in this age to what it was half a century ago. Those of us who were on the public stage at the commencement of 1809, and can remember what the aspect of things was then, can scarcely believe we are in the same church in the beginning of 1859, any more than we can realize the fact that we are inhabitants of the same planet, when we see night turned into day in our streets by gaslight, distance annihilated by railways, and information conveyed by telegraph. When I became pastor of my church more than fifty-three years ago, the only object of Congregational benevolence and action was the Sunday School, which was then conducted in a private house, hired for the purpose. There was nothing else; literally, nothing else we set our hands to. We had not then taken up even the Missionary Society. And our state was but a specimen of the inactivity of the great bulk of our churches, at least in the provinces, throughout the whole country. We may well wonder what the Christians of those days could have been thinking of.
Now, look at the state of things at the opening of the year 1859. If I allude to my own church, it is not for the sake of ostentation or self-commendation; for we are not one whit better than some others. Ours is but a specimen and average of the rest. We have now an organization for the London Missionary Society, which raises, as its regular contribution, nearly £500 per annum, besides occasional donations to meet special appeals, which, upon an average, may make up another £100 a year. For the Colonial Missionary Society we raise, annually, £70. For our Sunday and Day schools, which comprehend nearly two thousand children, we raise £200. We support two Town Missionaries, at a cost of £200. Our ladies conduct a working society for Orphan Mission Schools in the East Indies, the proceeds of which reach, on an average, £50 a year; they sustain also a Dorcas Society for the poor of our town; a Maternal Society, of many branches, in various localities—and a Female Benevolent Society, for visiting the sick poor. We have a Religious Tract Society, which employs ninety distributors, and spends nearly £50 a year in the purchase of tracts. Our Village Preachers' Society, which employs twelve or fourteen lay agents, costs us scarcely anything. We raise £40 annually for the County Association. We have a Young Men's Brotherly Society, for general and pious improvement, with a library of 2000 volumes. We have also, Night-schools for young men and women, at small costs, and Bible classes for other young men and women. In addition to all this, we raise £100 per annum for Spring Hill College.
I again say that this is but an average of Congregational exertion and liberality in this day of general activity. Yes, many churches of our own and other denominations perhaps, greatly excel us. And after all we none of us come up to our resources, our opportunities, or our obligations. We all could do more, ought to do more, must do more. Still, compare this with what my congregation did with its single object, the Sunday-school, fifty-three years ago. We have since then laid out £23,000 in improving the old chapel, and building a new one; in the erection of schoolrooms, the college, and seven small chapels in the town and neighborhood. We have also formed two separate, Independent churches, and have, jointly with another congregation, formed a third, and all but set up a fourth, and are at this time in treaty for two pieces of freehold land, which will cost £700, to build two more chapels in the suburbs of the town. I am afraid that this will savor of boasting and self-glorification. I can only say, this is not its design—but simply to exhibit the features of the age and the spirit of our churches, in the way of activity and liberality—and also to show what a concentration of power is contained in one church, and what an amount of good it might do. Oh, that the churches of Christ did but consider what a power, both for kind and degree, they possess! What ought to be the influence upon the population of the place in which it is situated, and upon the world at large, of a church consisting of 500, 700, or 1000 members—and what would it be if each member did what he or she could do! The churches of Christ have even yet to learn the full extent of both their power—and their obligations.
In addition to this, there are, in all our congregations, many and liberal subscribers to our public societies, such as the Bible Society, the Society for the Conversion of the Jews, and all other objects of Christian zeal and benevolence. What, I ask, does this manifest and prove? Why, that activity and liberality have been at length pretty generally recognized as no less obligatory upon the individual conscience, than the sanctity of the Sabbath, the duty of private worship, and the observance of the Lord's Supper. The man who now stands back from these things, who lends no helping hand to the evangelization of his country and the world, is looked at with much the same suspicion as he who is never at the house of God. Zeal, activity, liberality are now no longer considered matters of preference—but of solemn duty, as essentials of true piety, evidences of genuine faith, and concomitants of the Christian profession. It was not so, at least generally and conspicuously, when I commenced my ministry. The thing was not understood and felt as it is now. The founders of the Missionary societies had to preach and print apologies for attempting the conversion of the heathen. Witness Dr. Bogue's elaborate sermon at the first Missionary meeting, entitled, "Objections against Missions to the heathen answered."(Those recent volumes on the life and labors of those incomparable missionaries, Carey, Marshman, and Ward, give us an account of not only the apathy but the incredulity of the Christian church at that time as to the work of missions to the heathen, and prove the wonderful progress of the faith and activity of the churches.)
Christians went to the house of God, sat still in their pews, heard sermons, attended sacraments, and doled out an occasional guinea to a charity sermon or the building of a chapel—and there their liberality ended. It is not so now. People have begun to ask, in serious earnestness, "Lord, what will you have me to do?" and are laying money, time, labor, influence, upon the altar of God. It is really surprising and delightful to see what sacrifices, not only of their leisure, which they would gladly devote to the soft enjoyments of their own hearths, firesides, and family circles—but also of the time they would give to their business, many noble-minded men are constantly making to promote the cause of God and the good of their fellow-creatures.
Now, what do we see in all this? What? Why the very dawn of millennial glory. It is not merely in the various organizations of Christian zeal that I delight—but in the principle that raised and that supports them. Were they all to be dissolved tomorrow, that principle, if it survived them, would raise for itself other and nobler institutions. The church of God, being wakened up to this knowledge of its mission, and this sense of its duty, will, I believe, never let the work of God stand still. It has started in a career of zeal for Christ, in which it will never stop until it has brought the world to Him. As a ground of this hope, I ask, how has the year 1859 opened, as regards this matter? Do we see any symptoms of decline in the zeal, activity, and liberality of our churches? Do we see a spirit of lukewarmness creeping over them? Do we see the men of wealth closing their hands, locking their coffers, and saying, "I am done giving!" Do we see our middle class men retiring from committees, and saying, "I am weary of this work!" Do we see our tract distributors and Sunday-school teachers throwing up their offices, and saying, "We will labor no more!" If so, it would be a dark omen for the future. But the most timid and suspicious eye can detect nothing of the kind. Never was there more activity or liberality, or a stronger disposition for both, than now. Let any new object be presented to the Christian public, it is sure to find supporters, even in cases of a doubtful nature. The spirit is up, and no signs of decadence are yet visible—but many signs of increasing vigor.
Here then I say, is a glorious feature of our times. Nothing like it has been known in the Christian church since the days of the apostles. Still, I do not mean to assert that, as a whole, it proceeds from pure Christian principle, or has reached the point to which it ought to extend. Vanity, regard to reputation, the compulsion of entreaty, motiveless liberality, the fashion of the times, mere love of activity, and the dread of being behind others—have all much to do in swelling the stream of public benevolence, and prevent me from regarding it as a true and exact estimate of the amount of spiritual piety in existence. It is a good thing, as regards the world, for liberality to be in fashion, even where it is in great part only fashion. I believe, however, that a large portion of what is now devoted to the cause of Christ and humanity is given from conscientious motives, and as matter both of duty and privilege.
We must also guard against the mistake of supposing that the wealth now devoted to the cause of Christ and humanity comes up to the full measure of our obligation, or the necessities of the case. It is our felicity, could we but think so, to live in an age, and country in which Christianity is beginning (but only beginning,) to manifest its expansive powers both in the hearts of its professors and in the world. Instead of thinking that all the ways of spreading it, either in this country or abroad, are yet found out, we may be perfectly sure that the ingenuity which has opened so many channels of spiritual influence has not exhausted its inventive skill—but will find out many more.
We are ready to suppose that by our organizations for converting and instructing Jews and Gentiles, the heathen abroad and the heathen at home, males and females, adults and children, and soldiers and sailors; for circulating Bibles and tracts; for supporting schools and colleges; for carrying into effect schemes preventive and reformatory of vice and misery in cities and villages, and for other objects of benevolence and philanthropy too numerous to mention, we have found out every dark corner of our world into which the light of Christianity can be introduced, every part of Satan's domain where immortal souls may be rescued from his grasp, and every method of diffusing the knowledge of Christ. Let us not deceive ourselves in this matter, and imagine that we have reached all the objects to which our assistance can be given; or that we have embraced all the opportunities afforded us; or that we have arrived at the uttermost of liberality. No such thing.
The circle of Christian activity will certainly go on continually widening, and the obligations of Christian liberality will go on continually increasing. There are yet many more ways we can spread abroad the principles of our holy piety. Be it so, that some of the organizations of sacred labor may be, and perhaps should be, amalgamated; yet others will become necessary. If, therefore, that excellence of the churches to which this paper alludes be maintained, their resources must be called out still more profusely than they have ever yet been. If God's providence presents to us new fields of labor, new channels of influence, as it undoubtedly will, both abroad and at home, we must be prepared to embrace them. At the present moment, God is throwing open to our evangelizing operations the whole Eastern world, India, China, Japan—and also Africa. His dispensations at this juncture are wonderful. Nothing like it has occurred in the history of our planet. At such a time, it will not do for us to content ourselves with ordinary contributions, and that measure of liberality we had twenty, nay, even ten years ago. It will not do for us to be ever advancing in our luxurious habits of life, which is really the case, and yet be satisfied with the same amount of Christian beneficence. The parsimonious cry, when a new object is presented to us, or a new demand for an old one is made upon us, "What! something new! Really, there is no end of it. I am tired out with appeals. It will not do." A new object! Yes, and another and another yet—and as long as a new one can be found, and we have the means of supporting it, we must not be weary in well doing. We must abridge our luxuries, if need be, to raise the means of supporting it. Have any of us done this yet? Yes, we must curtail what we have been accustomed to consider our comforts, and even our very necessaries, until we are reduced to the widow's two mites, if we cannot by any other means embrace the opportunities which God is opening before us for carrying on His cause in the earth. For my own part, it seems to me as if our wealthy men must take a few more steps yet, towards the beneficence recorded in the book of Acts. They have yet given of their abundance; the abundance itself must be given next.
How much depends upon us as to what both the church and
the world are to be in future ages! Our individual existence has derived
additional importance from the circumstances in which we are placed. We each
of us help to mold the age, and are molded by it. We never could have lived
in a more momentous era, and should, everyone of us, be aware of this. Never
before had men such work to do. We have solemn responsibilities lying upon
us, in consequence of this; may we have grace to know our position and the
day of our merciful visitation!
II.Having given an encouraging and, I believe, a true representation of the excellences of our churches, as manifested by their zeal, activity, and liberality; I now proceed to give a less favorable view of the case, and present for consideration the FAULTS of our churches.
It is somewhat difficult to form, at any time, a correct estimate of the existing state of piety as compared with some previous periods. And it is well for us all, and always, to remember Solomon's exhortation—"Say not, Why were the former days were better than these? for it it is not wise to inquire concerning this." The more eminently pious people of every age, have been prone to complain of the faults of their own times, and to think them greater than those of bygone periods of the Church's history. We see the evils of our own times; we only read of those of the men who have gone before us. Dropping, then, for the most part, a comparison of our present state with past times, I shall appeal to the true standard of all spiritual religion, and endeavor by that to ascertain our real state.
1. As the first, most prominent, and most prevailing fault of our churches now, I mentionWORLDLINESS, or, as it is frequently designated, earthly-mindedness. The least acquaintance with the Christian records and the Christian system must convince us, one would think, that these are intended to form a character which, in reference to things both temporal and eternal, shall, in its spirit and manifestation, be different from, and contrary to, that of an unconverted man. In this, Christianity has a vast advantage over Judaism. The latter was, to a considerable extent, a worldly system; its revelation of a future state was dim; its promises were of earthly things; its ecclesiastical polity, though administered by God himself, was in part worldly. There seems to have been little to foster an unearthly, spiritual, and heavenly mind, even in the more pious Israelites. It is altogether different with us. We are under a covenant "established upon better promises." All in the way of motive is spiritual and heavenly. Life and immortality are brought to light by the Gospel. Eternal life in heaven, is the grand theme of the New Testament. Fruitful seasons, temporal comforts, augmented wealth, worldly prosperity—are no longer the incentives to obedience, or the promised rewards of good conduct. God, by his almost entire silence about these things, and his constant exhibition of "all spiritual blessings in heavenly places," has somewhat disparaged the objects of human ambition, and taught us to disparage them too, at least in comparison with heavenly things. By the very revelation to our faith and hope of the glories of the celestial world, He intends, not indeed to annihilate nor entirely to hide earthly things—but certainly to throw them in some measure into the shade, to lessen their importance, and to draw off, in some degree, our attention from them.
Just see what is said about these two classes of objects in the New Testament—"If you then have risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." "We look not at the things which are seen—but at the things which are not seen—for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." "Let those who buy be as though they possessed not, and they that use the world as not abusing it." "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father—but is of the world." "Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul." "Having food and clothing, let us be therewith content." "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth—but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven."
Now, in the view of these passages, and very many others, how forcibly does the question of the Apostle come to us—"Seeing all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of people ought you to be, in all holy living and godliness!" What an unearthly spirit, what an impress of eternity, what a temper of heaven should there be in us! Professing to believe all this, to hope for all this, to love all this, to yield up ourselves to all this—ought we not to be a people really, practically differing from the people of the world—seen to be different, known and acknowledged to be different—different in our prevailing spirit, in our pleasures, in our tastes, in our mode of doing business, in our feelings and conduct in regard to wealth, in our behavior under losses, and in the maxims which govern us? Ought we not to appear to be the conquerors and not the captives of the world? But is it so? Is not the very opposite to all this the present characteristic of many professors? Has not an inundation of worldliness flowed in upon the church? Do we not see a heap of debris, and accumulations of mud, around the walls and in the streets of Zion?
It is, of course, admitted that a Christian may and must engage in secular business, if he has not a competent fortune to do without it; that he may become a skillful, clever man of business; that he ought to be diligent, and may, by honest industry, acquire wealth. An incompetent or idle tradesman does no honor to piety. And it is also admitted that it was never more difficult than in this age to get on in business and maintain a conscience void of offence. The temptations to depart from the strict line of integrity were never so many and so powerful as they are now. It is hard work to live and follow whatever things are true and honest. But then, if we are Christians, it must be done. Now, then, look at the conduct of many professors of religion. Are they not almost as completely swallowed up in the eagerness to be rich, in the ever widening circle of their trading speculations, in their hard, grinding, grubbing way of doing business, in their adopting the same tricks, artifices, half-falsehoods, half-dishonor, and half-dishonesty, of unprofessing worldlings? Read the advertisements in our journals and magazines, and the bills in our windows—what puffings and praises, what assertions of transcendent excellence, and declarations of superiority above all others, what mendacious attractions, what little, base, ridiculous arts to catch attention, do we meet with in some who ought to know better! I do not, as may be supposed, object to advertising, as trade cannot be carried on without it—nor do I condemn such modest ingenuity in attracting notice as is consistent with truth and with things of good report—but when this degenerates, as it often does, into half-falsehoods, it is what no professing Christian ought to resort to.
Do we not see many practically rejecting the apostolic rules of trade and commerce, disregarding whatever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report—and smiling at the simplicity of the man who would tie them down to such rules? I am aware of the rage of competition, of the rivalry of trade, of the absolute necessity of skill, diligence, and even shrewdness—to cope with jealousy, envy, and trickery. But still, I say, the apostolic rule holds good, and the man who cannot get on without trampling it under foot must not get on at all. If a Christian cannot get rich without losing his piety, he must be content to be poor. In a commercial country like this, and in times so intensely commercial as ours, the greatest snare to Christians is to act like worldly men in many of the looser maxims and questionable practices of the age.
Is not this worldly spirit manifested in many instances by the temptation to rash and reckless speculation? Surely there must be meaning in the Apostle's words, and meaning applicable to all ages and states of society—"Having food and clothing, let us be therewith content." Not that this is to be interpreted rigidly and literally. Yet certainly its spirit must be supposed to condemn an excessive eagerness after wealth. This is plain from what follows—"those who will be rich, fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil; which, while some have coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." What is it but this determination, at almost all hazards, and almost by any means to be rich, that makes so many go on ever enlarging their already wide circle of trade, launching out beyond their capital, speculating largely and imprudently, following the bubbles which others have blown, and then resorting, by a kind of compulsion, as they suppose and feel, to means for meeting an exigency which commercial honor, to say nothing of Christian principle, forbids? What is it, I say—but a worldly spirit that leads to all this?
Not content with plodding on at a slow pace in the humbler and more obscure path of patient and honest industry, many must gallop towards wealth on the high road of speculation. They have seen some fortunate adventurers in this way leap to affluence, and they too must try their luck. Ah! but how few are the great prizes in this lottery, how numerous the small ones, and how multiplied the bankrupts! How many scandals occur in this way to the ruin of the individuals themselves, and to the discredit of piety! Have we not all known instances of this kind, of men who were not dishonest, who would have shuddered at the very idea of a deliberate and intentional fraud, and never perpetrated one; but who, in consequence of the unexpected failure of some rash unwise and unwarranted speculation, have resorted to means for averting a crash, which, in other circumstances, they would have avoided with detestation? They never designed to rob any one—but fully purposed to pay everyone their due, when the speculation brought them the fortune they confidently expected. The cloud, which they hoped would pour down a shower of gold upon their cherished object, sent forth a thunderbolt which shattered it to pieces. Promises made with other anticipations all failed; injured and exasperated creditors heaped reproaches upon the author of their loss—and the people, who wait for the halting of professors, tauntingly exclaimed, "This is your pious man!"
Such cases, I regret to say, are not uncommon. Not that they are more frequent with professors than with people who make no profession. I will venture to affirm that for one such among the former, there are ten among the latter; but then, as one execution of a criminal makes more noise than the lives of ten exemplary honest men, so one disgraceful failure of a professing Christian occasions more reproachful talk than the still more disgraceful failure of ten men of the world. Some malignantly pretend, they would sooner do business with a man who does not profess piety, than with one who does. This, I believe is a falsehood, mere calumnious hatred of piety, and enmity against God. Still, what a lesson and a warning does this hold out to professing Christians, to be most circumspect and cautious in all their secular transactions, and most resolute in their determination to be willing to suffer the loss of all things, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord.
I am sure I do but express the feelings of all my brethren in the ministry, when I say I am sick and weary of the reports which are floating about the world, though not, perhaps, affecting our own members, of the misconduct of professing Christians in reference to money matters. Of the three prevailing sins to which Christians in every age are exposed and tempted—intemperance, licentiousness, and worldliness, the most prevailing is the last—and it is the most difficult to bring under the discipline of the church, and to bring home to a man's own conscience. How many are there who would feel exquisite pangs of remorse for one act of intoxication or licentiousness, who would go on through a whole series of inconsistencies in money matters, and yet their conscience scarcely ever trouble them—and who, while the church would take cognizance of the former, would, with regard to the latter, be suffered to go on uncited and unreproved.
Utterly inconceivable is the mischief which is done to the credit of piety, and the souls of men, by the lack of honorable principle, and, in some cases, of honest principle, among the professors of religion. Infidels are confirmed in their infidelity, the profane in their profanity, and the worldly in their worldliness, by these occurrences. A single inconsistency of this kind in the conduct even of a professor who never did such a thing before, and will never do it again, may produce, on more minds than one, an ineffaceable impression and an inextinguishable prejudice against piety. Therefore, let us watch and be circumspect always, in everything, and before everybody. The words of our Lord ought to be ever sounding in our ears, "Woe to the world because of offences—it must needs be that offences will come—but woe to that man by whom they come." Let it only be imagined, what an impression would be produced on the unconverted part of mankind, if all who profess to be converted carried out the apostolic rule of trade—if in all cases it were an established and well-known fact, that every professor of piety were an honest and honorable man; one whose word was his bond, who would rather suffer wrong than do it, and was neither a rogue nor a screw. I am aware that the advantage which would redound to pious people, to whom honesty would be found the best policy, would, in that case, be so great, that many would hypocritically simulate piety for the sake of its benefit; for, as all would be led to deal with people they could thoroughly trust, it would be palpable to everyone that "godliness is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come." But even by them an undesigned compliment would be paid to piety, when it was intentionally counterfeited for the sake of its temporal advantages.
And is it not, then, the solemn duty of every professing Christian to be thus known as an honest, generous, and honorable man? Ought not his piety to be carried from the sanctuary, and the church, and the family altar, into the shop, into the exchange, into the market? Ought it not to preside over buying and selling, and enter into bargains and agreements? Why, half the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, and no small part of those of the New, are about these very matters. "Holiness to the Lord" should be written on all our merchandise. Are we not commanded by Christ to let our light shine before men? Now this intimates not only that our religion must be visible—but resplendent. A candle is visible—but is it resplendent? And to shine before men, it must be conspicuous in those matters that fall more immediately under their notice. They do not see us in our closets, or at our family altars themselves; but they do see us in matters of trade and in all money transactions. It is there we are a city set on a hill, which cannot be hidden. Nothing can shine which is not radiant as compared with what is around it—and we cannot shine unless we are remarkably honest, honorable, and true.
A Christian is not only to be as moral as a moral worldling—but more so, or else he cannot shine before that man. And yet, are there not some men, making no profession of piety, and possessing none, who outshine many who are church members, in the sterling integrity, the truthfulness, and the honor of their money transactions? Just before I penned this sentence, I was conversing with one of the richest and most fortunate men in this town, who told me he was started in life by a most upright, generous, and noble-minded man, who was an infidel, and endeavored to make him one, and had almost succeeded, by the force of his beautiful moral conduct, especially as contrasted with the gross inconsistencies of many who called themselves Christians. O, what is a profession of piety worth, which in the moralities of trade is outshone by the conduct of an infidel?
What an opportunity, were they but eager to embrace it, have professing Christians to shine, in this age of corrupt trading principles! How infected, to its very core, with unsound principles, is the great commercial body! Some have gone so far as to say all trade is a lie. And indeed truth, justice, honesty, and honor, seem becoming almost unknown in trade. In such circumstances, the Christian of the present day carries on his business. Trying, severely trying, I know it is, and much do I pity him. Just so, I would have pitied the believer in primitive times, when, under the Roman Empire, he was required to burn incense to the statues of the emperor—or suffer martyrdom. What is a believer called to do now, compared with what a believer was called to do then? If religion would not bend to the feelings of humanity when life itself depended upon such a seemingly slight circumstance as burning a few grains of incense before a statue, rest assured it will not be more flexible when it is only property and worldly comfort that are at stake. The test of piety then was the temptation to idolatry; now it is the temptation to dishonesty. Ours is far the less severe of the two. "Skin for skin, all that a man has will he give for his life."
If we cannot now refrain from getting money by untruthfulness, dishonesty, dishonor, trickery; how could we have refrained, in times of persecution, from forbidden means of saving life? What, at most, is it that men fear now, by following the things that are true, honest, just, and by sacrificing gains dishonorably obtained? Absolute poverty? No. There is small danger of that, at least in most cases. It is only a little lower grade in society. If they do not get so much profit, they cannot live quite so genteelly, so luxuriously. They cannot inhabit so large a house, cannot have such elegant furniture, cannot give such entertainments, cannot keep a carriage. It is to support these things that the laws of honesty and honor in trade are sacrificed by so many. They are not satisfied with a mere living—but must have abundance.
And even professors of religion are carried away by this ambitious and aspiring disposition. And it has become a prevailing fault of the churches in this day. And how is it to be amended? The Apostle has told us—"But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." How dim, how worthless, does everything earthly appear when seen in the sunlight of the cross! It is by losing sight of Jesus, by living so far from him, by forgetting him, we let the world get so much the upper hand of us. You must meditate more upon the cross, you must dwell more upon Calvary, you must be more familiar with the crucified One.
So again, in another place, it is said—"Whatsover is born of God overcomes the world—this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith." What is needed is a stronger belief of the reality of an eternal existence beyond the grave; a firmer grasp by the hand of faith upon the glory, honor, and immortality, which are promised to those who continue patient in well-doing; a more frequent and serious consideration of the shortness of time, and the brevity and uncertainty of life. O Christians, what is time to eternity; what is earth to heaven? Do think more about laying up treasures in heaven, and less about laying up treasures on earth. Even supposing you get safe to heaven at last, notwithstanding a too prevailing worldliness of disposition, and some inconsistencies; what a diminution of the heavenly inheritance will these occasion! The Christian, who increases his worldly portion by means unworthy of his profession, is perpetually lessening his portion in paradise. There are degrees of glory in heaven—and the greatest will be obtained by those who by divine grace obtain the most signal victory over the world—and take it as a most certain truth, that, even upon earth, there is more real and sublime felicity to be obtained from a crucified world than from an idolized one.
I next mention the domestic and social habits of some professors. There seems to me to be a somewhat too prevailing taste for an expensive, showy style of living, an undue ambition to be in style, an excessive sensitiveness about fashion, refinement, and appearance. This is seen in their feverish concern to live in large houses, and possess elegant furniture. It is equally displayed in mirthful, costly, and fashionable attire, about which the Apostles have given special exhortations, warnings, and directions. 1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3. The same spirit is seen in the education of their children, especially their girls, who hear at home, from their mothers, in some cases, a great deal more about fashion than about piety; about elegant accomplishments than about womanly excellences, mental acquirements, self-government, and relative virtues.
In short, the families of many professors are 'the world' in a small circle; with only the exclusion of some of its grosser forms. This has not infrequently been carried on where there was no warrant for it on the ground of ample or even sufficient means. The consequences of this, far too often, have been disgraceful failures—and as it was the downfall of a professor, piety has suffered in its credit and character. What ideas of religion must worldly people bring away from the families of some professors in which they have been for awhile residing as visitors? They ought to be able to say, "In that house I have breathed the very atmosphere of piety. From all I have seen and heard, I am persuaded God dwells there."
Never was needless show, extravagance, and luxury, so sinful in a wealthy professor as in this age, when the demands for money to carry on the cause of God are multiplying so fast every year. The disposition to unnecessary expensiveness in domestic and social habits is infecting the middle and lower classes of professors, as well as the higher. Fashion is the goddess to whose shrine too many even of these repair with a devotion as ardent as it is sincere. True, it is an age of refinement—and taste and elegance are continually spreading their beauties over the surface of society. This makes it all the more necessary for professing Christians to be upon their guard lest they become too eager for the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.
Akin to this, is the worldliness exhibited by some professors in their social parties and entertainments. I am duly aware of the impossibility of laying down any definite line beyond which, in these matters, professors may not go. To such things, the customs of the age in which we live, and the circles in which we move, prescribe laws to which, in some measure, we all submit. But then, piety comes in here to fix the proper limits of our obedience. Be it that we are all members of civil society, we are to recollect that we are also members of a Christian church. We, as professors of piety, have adopted the New Testament as our statute-book. It is everywhere supposed, expressed, insisted upon, in our Book, that there is really a difference between Christians and other men, a distinction that lies deeper than a mode of dress or language; that we are of another spirit. 1 Cor. 4:7; 2 Cor. 6:14, 17; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9. The Christian community rises in the midst of all others whatever, as in spirit and temper diverse from all others. In personal, domestic, and social habits, we are to be guided by Christ's laws, which are not to be governed by other laws. If the habits of society coincide with those of Christianity, we are to adopt them; for we are not to oppose them for the sake of singularity. As in pious matters, so in those of common life, we are to conform as far as God's Word will allow, and dissent when that commands us to do so. The ancient Spartan was governed by the laws of Lycurgus, and did not permit those of Athens or of Corinth to interfere with his standards. A taste for what was refined, elegant, luxurious, might do very well for the latter—but not for him. Thus is it with the Christian. He has to ask, not what will suit the men of the world—but what will agree with the letter and spirit of the New Testament.
Acting upon this principle, he rejects as a source of pleasure and amusement the theater, the opera, the ball-room, the card-table, the race-course, the betting-room. These are so manifestly hostile, some of them to the morality, and all of them to the spirituality, of evangelical piety, that professors do, at least most of them, abstain from these things. I say most of them, for I do know that a stealthy visit to some of these sources of worldly pleasure is occasionally paid, to see, as they affirm, the vanity and sinfulness of the world, that they may learn to hate it by observation, and not merely by report. That is, they will go in the way of temptation in order to conquer it. They will pluck off one blushing, tempting, fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, that they may become wise by experience in their acquaintance with evil. Still, it is admitted that few professors are ever found at these places of resort.
But will some of their own entertainments and amusements harmonize with the spirit of the New Testament? To refer to their dinner parties, are there not an ambition, an extravagance, and expensiveness, manifested in them—which are inconsistent with Christian simplicity? It is, I repeat, impossible to fix the exact limit of propriety. It would be ridiculous in the extreme to attempt to draw up a Christian bill of fare, or to prescribe the nature and number of dishes, or of wines, a professor may set upon his table, or what articles of luxury his dessert may consist of. I can only speak of general principles and tendencies. Of how many festive occasions may it not, with singular propriety, be said, "Might not this have been sold for so much, and have been given to the poor?" When money is so much needed, I repeat, for God's cause, not a shilling should be wasted in unnecessary luxury.
And while on the subject of entertainments, should I not refer to the large and mirthful evening parties which are becoming more and more common even among professors of religion? Private balls, or at any rate, dancing, is, I believe, resorted to in some circles. It may, perhaps, be difficult logically to prove that these things, in themselves, are absolutely sinful; it should be enough to prove that they are unwise. And, at the same time, it would be lowering piety itself, to set up any such line of distinction as this as constituting the main difference between a converted and unconverted person. Still, there are some things, certainly, not immoral, which are by pretty general consent considered inconsistent for a Christian, and should be abstained from.
Worldliness, I think, is creeping into our very piety itself, as manifested in some of those practices which are resorted to for raising funds for the various objects of pious zeal. Who that has witnessed one of our modern bazaars, and seen the flutter, the gaiety, the military band, the gambling of this Vanity Fair—would venture to say, that all this harmonizes with the dignity and sanctity, the spirituality and heavenliness of our holy religion? Some of our social-meetings, got up for pious purposes, are, I fear, degenerating into mere worldly amusements. I do not want to see piety moving among the abodes of man, a spectral form, with the surliness of a stoic, the austerity of a monk, or the isolation of a hermit, looking rather like a spirit of darkness than an angel of light. What I covet is to see it the semblance of a being come down from heaven, and exhibiting something of the holiness and happiness of the world from which it came, intent upon maintaining its true character in these abodes of sin and Satan, and upon getting back safely to its native skies, and taking as many as it can with it to the world of life and glory. What I wish to see in the professors of piety is the deep and visible impress of the cross of Christ in a spirit of crucifixion to the world, and the manifestation of a character in some measure resplendent with the radiance of Paradise. In short, what I desire is the full development, in the character and conduct of professing Christians, of that expression of the Apostle, "Your citizenship is in heaven!"
The idea is, that there are two great communities in the universe, that of the world, and that of heaven, each governed by its own laws, seeking its own objects, and animated by its own spirit; one governed by worldly laws, the other by heavenly ones. You, professing Christians, belong to the heavenly community, and should be, in spirit and conduct, in conformity with it. Does not this, then, in the most impressive manner, show how unworldly, how holy, spiritual, and heavenly, you should be? Between true Christians and others, there should be more difference than between the inhabitants of two different countries, just as there is more difference between the heavenly and earthly countries, than between any two earthly ones.
2. I now mention, as a second fault, in some measure connected with the foregoing—a self-indulgent, ease-loving spirit; an cowardly, weak disposition which shrinks from those duties, occupations, and engagements which require a sacrifice of bodily repose and comfort. The words of our Lord are still the standing-rule of discipleship, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." If there be meaning in words, these must imply that the true Christian spirit is self-denial. This was not intended to apply exclusively to that time, or to any age of persecution, or to any peculiar external condition of the Church. It is the perpetual law of Christ's kingdom for all ages, all countries, all people. We can no more be Christians without a spirit of self-denial, than we can be without repentance and faith, or truthfulness, justice, or chastity. It is a state of mind and a course of conduct essential to personal godliness. We must all, in one sense or other, be cross-bearers.
But in what does self-denial consist? Not in the self-imposed austerities of Catholicism or hermitism; nor in the self-inflicted penances of superstition—nor in the privation of the sober and moderate enjoyment of the lawful gratifications of our compound nature. Grace is not at war, any more than Reason, with the instincts of humanity; the Creator has not implanted these in our nature to be violently torn up by the Redeemer and Sanctifier. All that piety does with them, is to keep them in due subjection to itself; not to eradicate them—but so far to crop their excessive growth as to prevent their overshading and chilling our virtues. To the wearer of sackcloth, the wallower in filth, the half-starved abstinent, the recluse of the cell, God says, "Who has required this at your hand?" This is not self-denial—but self-degradation, a disgusting caricature of the virtue recommended by our Lord. It is self-gratification under a hideous form; self-pleasing in a way of self-torture; the worship of self in a Moloch shape.
Self-denial means the subjection of all the promptings of self-love to the will of God. It is the surrender of ourselves to God, to do his will and please him in the way of his commandments, rather than ourselves. In other words, it is to prefer known and prescribed duty, to selfish gratification. This state of mind will develop itself in various ways. If any one has injured us, Christian duty says, "Freely forgive him." Sinful self says, "Retaliate." The maxim of the devil says, "Revenge is sweet;" and sinful self affirms the same. Revenge is self-indulgence—forgiveness, with our corrupt hearts, is self-denial. So also, in a different case, if we have injured another, reason, piety, conscience, all say, "Confess your fault." The evil heart says, "No, I cannot thus humble myself." Self-denial requires confession—self-indulgence resists it.
So again, the whole business of internal sanctification, in our present imperfect state, is a course of self-denial. We are to "mortify our members," to "crucify the flesh," to "keep under our body." All this implies and requires self-denial—for it is a resistance rather than a gratification of our sinful nature. Indeed, the whole course of the Christian life is one continued habit of self-denial, or the subjection of our sinful self to our renewed and holy self.
In the course of his business, a man may by a little sacrifice of Christian principle acquire considerable gain. Self pleads for it—piety forbids it. To give up the gain for the sake of Christian principle is self-denial. This duty will often require us, in our dealings in the world, and our conduct in the church, to give up our will and way to the will and way of others. The man who pays no respect to their opinion, wishes, and will—but who says within himself, "I will have my way," and who cares not how many he opposes or distresses or tramples upon, or what mischief he occasions by his obstinacy, has not a particle of self-denial, though he wears a hair-cloth and feeds on black bread. Self-gratification is his object and his purpose. To yield gracefully and quietly in disputed matters, where only feeling and not principle is involved, is a difficult but a necessary act of self-denial.
I am sorry to see how little of this is sometimes manifested in the government of our churches, more particularly in the choice of a pastor. How little disposed are our members to give up their personal gratification for the good of the church! Everyone has a right to make and to express a preference and a choice; but if the exercise of this right involve a total disregard of the opinions, wishes, and feelings of others; if it settle into a resolute and turbulent disposition to carry a man's point at all risks; if he says or feels, "I care not what others think, I am determined to succeed in my object," what self-denial, I ask, is there here? It is the very essence of self-interest and self-gratification. Self-denial means the giving up of our individual will and purpose for the peace and well-being of the whole. Minorities should often give up their opposition for the good of the whole, and majorities should sometimes yield to minorities, when the latter are numerous and powerful. Rights are not always duties. Men who come within the bonds of any association, whether civil or sacred, should be prepared in this way to exercise self-denial. Our churches in this day are not as much disposed as they should be, for a display of this Christian virtue. The deceitfulness of the human heart often imposes upon them, and leads them to suppose that they are acting for the glory of God, when they are only gratifying their selfishness and striving to have their own way.
But self-denial requires often the sacrifice of personal and relative gratification for the benefit of others and the good of Christ's cause. I have admitted that liberality is the excellence of the age in which we live. And so it is—and I doubt not that in very many cases the most generous and heroic self-denial is practiced in order to display it. I can suppose that this is especially the case among the poor, whose every penny given to the public fund is an abstraction from their very necessaries. It was self-denial on the part of the poor widow to give her two mites. So also, in the middle classes, self-denial is practiced in what they give. It was self-denial on the part of the Macedonians, out of the abundance of their deep poverty, to abound in liberality; but I do not think that self-denial has yet been practiced by the rich. If they give of their abundance, they have abundance left—even their very luxuries are unabridged. Their gifts have not diminished a particle of their gratification. Their cup of prosperity is full to its brim, and their donations are only its overflowings, which they cannot drink. What is needed in order to the world's conversion, is real self-denial in the upper circles of society. We need it, and must have it, if China, Japan, and India are to be converted to Christ. It is a spirit of self-denial, abridging the luxuries of wealth, that will bring on the Millennium. When I see rich men contracting their expenditure, instead of enlarging it, I shall believe they are in earnest for the conversion of the world, and recognize in such a spirit the increasing splendor of the dawn of the latter day.
But there is another way still in which this virtue must be displayed, and that is, in sacrifices of bodily ease for the performance of duty and the promotion of personal godliness. We need a working spirit, as well as a giving and a praying one. A spirit to encounter opposition and ingratitude, to endure sights and smells offensive to the senses, to bear fatigue, to suffer heat and cold, sunshine and storm, rain and snow, either for our own benefit, or the good of others. I verily believe that many professors, I am reluctant to say the bulk, are becoming too self-indulgent to endure much trouble for enjoying even the means of grace. How many of them, a cold morning, or a little rain, or a dark evening, will keep from the house of God! Is it not a general complaint in the metropolis and large towns, that the Sunday evening congregations are falling off, and the week-day services are becoming smaller and smaller? How is this? Are not many satisfying themselves with a single sermon a week, nestling at home on the Sunday evening by their-firesides, and excusing themselves by reading a sermon or some other book? Where are they on prayer-meeting evenings, and other week-day services? The females at home, and the men, perhaps, unnecessarily late in business. Piety, with many, is becoming a tender plant, that can bear no exposure outside of a hothouse. Oh, where is the hardihood which in days of persecution led the disciple to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ to the hillside, amidst wind and rain, for a sermon; or to grope his way amidst the darkness of night to some barn or hovel for a prayer-meeting; or to walk ten miles over the countryside for a sacramental feast?
We have fallen on quiet and easy times and circumstances, and they have made our religion soft and self-indulgent. What I want to see, is a robust and hardy piety, which shows its earnestness in the soldier-like quality of "enduring hardness;" which for the enjoyment of the means of grace can turn out amidst unpropitious weather, and be regardless of distance. Men of business will, generally, on a week day, walk twice the distance which they are willing to do on a Sabbath to the sanctuary. "The morning is forbidding, stay at home;" or, "The night is dark and cold, stay at home by the fire," pleads self-indulgence. "Give me my great coat and umbrella," says self-denial; "my Shepherd calls me to the pasture, and I must go." A concert is to be given, or a party is to be assembled on such an evening—"Will you not have more entertainment there, than in hearing a sermon, or going to a prayer meeting?" says self-indulgence. "Perhaps," replies self-denial, "there may be much that is more pleasing to the flesh elsewhere—but my duty leads me to the sanctuary; I cannot allow my pious habits to be broken in upon by any secular matters." Would God we could see more of this self-denial in the churches of our own times!
3. I go on now to mention another of the faults of our churches in the present day, and that is an excessive regard to talent, genius, and eloquence in the ministry of the word. Ours is an age of man-worship, and idolatry of genius. The human intellect never made such advances as it has done in our times. The discoveries of science, and the inventions of art, surpass all that has ever been done in the history of the world—and these wonders are recorded even in our daily journals, with an elegance and eloquence which equal, if they do not surpass, the finest models of Greek and Roman style of composition. Hero-worship is therefore a besetting sin of the age. With the great mass, man is everything, God is nothing. Even vice can be tolerated by many, if it be only associated with genius; and profligate libertinism borne with, if it be promoted by the arts. The prevalence and progress of such a disposition, would, by the destruction of morals, eat like a worm into the root of our national prosperity and stability. It is impossible not to know that even Christians are in peril of being corrupted in this way, and not to see that they have, in some measure, fallen into the danger.
Even our evangelical reviewers are not sufficiently cautious in their critiques on works of infidel genius, or of heretical error. In their admiration of talent, they are sometimes too regardless of the interests of truth. In some cases, volumes containing insidious error, and volumes of sermons too, have been lauded for their genius, with scarcely an allusion to their errors. While in others, the genius has been extolled to the skies, and the heresy has been condemned with only faint censure. The worship of talent, without vigilance, and a most sacred regard to the value and importance of truth, is likely, in this day, to injure our theology.
Genius without virtue will only corrupt the world; and genius without truth will only corrupt the church. What a cry is there in our churches, in this day, about talent! And I admit, that man being an intellectual being, must appreciate it. He is made to admire it and enjoy it. The effervescence of sparkling ideas; the bright beams of genius that enlighten and elevate the understanding; the sound, deep logic that convinces the reason, together with the simple yet powerful eloquence that stirs up the soul from its very depths—must ever be delightful to the human understanding, and nothing that can be said, however eloquently, to put them down, will ever succeed.
But what is to be guarded against is, exalting talent in religion, and especially in sermons, above truth, or to the neglect of truth! I say, as I have often said elsewhere and before, the Gospel is a theme above all themes, which it is profanity for a preacher to touch with ignorance, carelessness, or feebleness; or, for a Christian, on the other hand, to hear merely for the eloquence with which it is set forth. The preacher who does not rouse all his powers to make the gospel understood, felt, and believed, is out of his place in the pulpit. And provided it be his sole aim to make his sermon "the power of God unto the salvation of his hearers," or, in other words, the means of converting sinners from the error of their ways—and provided also, there be an adaptation of his eloquence to accomplish these ends, he cannot be too eloquent. Let his genius be such as shall compel his hearers to forget him, and think only of themselves, and his powers of illustration cause them to think only the more of his subject—he cannot, I repeat, be too eloquent. This is the highest triumph of genius. This was the case with the great Athenian, whose orations left his audience no power at the time to speak or even think of Demosthenes—but compelled them to cry, "Down with Philip of Macedon."
Now, let me ask, With what views are ministers often chosen to the pastorate, and heard in the pulpit? Nay, I may go a step further back, and ask, With what views are they trained by their teachers in the college? Is not 'talent' enshrined in the schools of the prophets, as the object of idolatry—and does not modern training tend to nourish this feeling in the minds of our students? Would I then have men of feeble intellect admitted, and dolts and ignoramuses left untrained to vegetate in indolence? No! I would have the noblest intellects for the ministry, if we could get them, and I would train them with the most assiduous cultivation. But I would have them imbued with the idea that all the genius and acquirements in the world are only means to an end, and that end, the preaching of the gospel for the salvation of souls. When a pastor is to be chosen, how loud and how general the cry, even in small congregations, and by rustic hearers, "We must have a man of talent."
Well, and let them, if talent be not considered the first thing, and something greater and better than piety and sound doctrine. Even the very demand shows the advance of the age, and of the church, in improvement. It evinces a mental culture, that is itself a matter of congratulation; yes—but then there is another side of the question, and that is, a too great regard, in the spirit of the demand, for talent alone; it is the man of giftedness rather than of graces; of talent rather than of eminent piety, sound orthodoxy, and earnest zeal, which is meant. "So My people come to you in crowds, sit in front of you, and hear your words, but they don't obey them. Although they express love with their mouths, their hearts pursue unjust gain. Yes, to them you are like a singer of love songs who has a beautiful voice and plays skillfully on an instrument. They hear your words, but they don't obey them." (Ezekiel 33:31-32)
We must have men of talent; they were always needed, and are needed now more than ever. But we need still more—men of earnest piety and burning zeal. We need men, whose talent shall be exerted in converting souls and edifying believers—not cold intellectuality and heartless eloquence. I do not decry the demand for talent—but I want to hear a more loud and solemn demand for piety, orthodoxy, and earnestness.
And for what purpose, I ask, do Christians ordinarily go to hear sermons, and who are the preachers held in highest esteem? Is the best preacher (according to their estimate)—the man who can best explain the Scriptures, and make his hearers most acquainted with the Word of God; one who is most powerful in converting sinners; one who most deeply plunges into the depths of their hearts, brings to light their corruptions, and promotes their sanctification; one who assists them to resist temptation, to be earnest in piety, to advance in spirituality and heavenly-mindedness; one who aids them in their solemn probation for eternity, and enables them by faith to overcome the world? Is this the kind of preaching they call good, and love to hear? Or is it the man of brilliant imagination, vivid fancy, sparkling thought, and elaborate eloquence, though at the same time little qualified to promote, and little seeking, the great ends of gospel preaching? How, I say, do they estimate preachers? By usefulness, or by genius?
Now, I will admit, that cultivated minds cannot be satisfied, (nor can any minds indeed,) with meager, commonplace thoughts, and pious platitudes repeated a hundred times over. The most devout Christian must feel a lack there. But it is not with sound, substantial, vigorous thinking that many are satisfied, thinking that might edify the profoundest intellects—but what they want is poetic sentimentalism, or beautiful imagery, or the pretty conceits of rhetoric, or curious speculations, or peculiarities mistaken for originality—all of which people of large understandings can dispense with.
I might here ask, with what motives, ordinarily, even the great bulk of professors go to hear sermons. Is it to have God's blessed truth laid open to them for their sanctification and consolation? Is it to have the great business of working out their salvation with fear and trembling promoted? Is it, that they may grow in grace and the knowledge of God their Savior? Is it to know more clearly, and do more perfectly, the will of God? Or, is it to have their taste gratified, and their understanding regaled? Are not sermons, with too many, mere literary entertainments, things rather to be heard than practiced—and however serious they are, and calculated to do them good, yet if they have no "fine rhetoric," no "bursts of eloquence," no "displays of genius," do they not come away disappointed?
Hear their conversation on returning from the house of
God. "What a splendid sermon!" "What an intellectual treat!" Or, "We have
had nothing very new today." "Our minister had no lofty flights in his
sermon." "The sermon was good—but not very eloquent." Oh, is it thus we
should hear the messages of God? But what does all this say—but that our
hearers are corrupted by the spirit of the age, and are more anxious in many
cases for talent than for truth. And yet the soul must be fed and nourished
more by truth than by talent. We might learn on this subject something from
our Quaker friends, who, on returning from worship, never criticize the
addresses they have heard—but consider that what they have listened to has
been given to them by the Spirit of God to practice, and not to admire or
condemn. Our hearers need to be reminded that sermons are not mere essays to
be heard, mere mental entertainments, or if we could make them such, mere
literary feasts—but exercises which will be a "savor of life unto life, or
of death unto death."
III. I come now to a consideration of the defects in the CHARACTER and CONDUCT of modern professors of religion.
The same faults, no doubt, to a certain extent, have prevailed in all periods of the Church's history—but not all of them in the same degree.
1. I first mention spirituality and heavenly-mindedness; in other words, a meditative contemplative and devout habit of soul.The apostle tells us that, "To be spiritually-minded," or "the minding of the Spirit (that is, the things of the Spirit), is life and peace." The things of the Spirit, are the things which the Spirit reveals in the word; the influence which he exerts, the fruits and graces which he produces, and the impulses which he communicates. By minding these things we are to understand having our thoughts and affections spontaneously moved by them. There are people who never have pious thought engaged, or devout affection moved at all. What religion they have is mere form and ceremony. There are others whose thoughts and affections are easily excited, under some external means, such as a powerful sermon, an impressive book, or heart affecting prayers, or touching psalmody. Divine truth and spiritual realities do then, in some degree, move them, and their affections are for a season engaged. They do feel a little, sometimes, on the Sabbath, in the house of God, and under the means of grace.
But when these outward appeals to their consciences cease, all their pious emotion vanishes, and on Monday they relapse into utter worldliness; eternal realities are lost sight of by them, and with the exception, perhaps, of a short and formal prayer, night and morning, they have no more pious affection than the greatest worldling. They have no spontaneous spiritual reflections rising up in their minds, no sense of the Divine presence, no aspirations of the soul after God, no spontaneous prayer, no musings on a text of scripture, no yearnings of the heart after closer communion with Christ, no readiness or relish for pious conversation, no spiritual reflections suggested by passing events, no watchfulness over their thoughts and feelings, words and actions—to not commit "secret faults," no propensity to read the Scriptures, no longing for the sanctuary, no delightful ascensions of the soul from earth to heaven, no anticipations of the full and final presence of the glory to be revealed—all of which are included in spirituality of mind.
No! These things are all foreign to them. They are professors; go to church or chapel twice, perhaps, on a Sabbath; observe the Lord's supper, abstain from the theater, and some other forbidden amusements; hold an orthodox creed; attend an evangelical ministry; subscribe to pious institutions—and are moral in their conduct, respectable in the world, and not suspected by the church. All this is good and necessary; but, with all this, where is their spiritual-mindedness, their unearthly disposition, their heavenly disposition? Where is the impress of the Bible, of the Cross of Christ, of heaven, of eternity?
Spirituality means a state of mind, heart, conscience, and conduct, corresponding with those divine and eternal truths, which we have in God's book, and profess to have in our minds. It means that spontaneous, habitual, unconstrained, and fond turning of the soul towards God, Christ, salvation, heaven, and eternity. This is spirituality, the soul longing habitually after God and Christ, by a kind of holy instinct; looking up to heaven and on to eternity by an impulse of holy love.
Ought not this to be the case with everyone who professes to be a real Christian? Is not this our profession? Is not this what is meant by the word 'life'—when employed as descriptive of true godliness? Are not the doctrines of the gospel calculated by their nature, and intended by their design, to produce this spiritual frame of mind? Ah! but how much of dull, dormant, dead orthodoxy, is there in the bulk of modern professors! What a discordance between their creed and their practice! Why, there seems more life even among many who have departed in some measure from the standard of orthodoxy, than in multitudes of those who in theory hold fast the form of sound words. Mrs Schimmelpennick, in her beautiful autobiography, employs the following illustration—"Some are defective in their creed, yet appear to have vitality in their practice. They resemble a person who has lost a limb—but who still is alive. While many, who are truly orthodox in their opinions—but unspiritual in their hearts, are like Egyptian mummies, retaining all their limbs and external symmetrical forms—but without life."
Ah, what are some churches—but mere catacombs filled with these lifeless forms of Christian professors! Tell me not of the numerous and varied organizations of Christian zeal and liberality. I know them and rejoice in them, and wish them a more abundant support. I exult in the thought, that a spirit is up that will never rest until it has brought the world back to God. And I believe that among their supporters are found very many of eminent spirituality; but I am speaking of the bulk of professors, and of them I do not hesitate for a moment to declare that there is an obvious and lamentable deficiency of spirituality of mind. Their pious affections are in a languid and lukewarm condition. I know that piety does not consist entirely of feeling. A religion that is all emotion is no religion at all. But so, also, a religion without emotion is no religion at all. It may be, to change the metaphor, a picture correctly drawn and well colored—but without life; or a statue of good marble and well executed—but dead. Thus, also, sound doctrine united with correct morals, and even liberality, if it be destitute of spirituality and heavenly-mindedness, is but the picture or statue of godliness. And as, in adopting Mrs Schimmelpenninck's metaphor of the mummy, I compared some churches to catacombs; having changed the mummy for the picture and the statue, I must also express my apprehension that many churches may be compared to places, where there are effigies or likenesses of the departed as if in worship; their faces are life-like, and their attitudes of devotion are correct—but they do not pray.
Oh, professing Christians, without holy and heavenly affections what is your religion but a name? Attend then to the exhortations of the apostle, and "Set your affections on things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God." Cultivate a spiritual frame; acquire habits of pious thinking and feeling. Like the secret source of a spring of water, deep in the earth, yet continually welling up to the surface, and gushing out in sparkling ebullitions; let religion be in your soul, an inward source and spring of living piety, which, by its own force, is perpetually sending forth spiritual thoughts and heavenly aspirations; so that a stream of devout thought and feeling, deep and full, is more or less continually flowing through your life.
Be, moreover, assiduously fed by the act of devotional reading and regular attendance upon the means of grace, which, by secret channels, replenish the source of holy thought and feeling. This is the very figure which our Lord himself employs, when he says, "The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." That is, the gift of the Holy Spirit to renew and sanctify the soul, and all the other blessings of the gospel, shall produce a holy, heavenly disposition which shall be ever rising up in devout thought and feeling. It shall bubble and spring up like water in a fountain. Not like a deep well, or a stagnant pool—but like an ever-living active fountain that flows in all seasons of the year, and in all states of the atmosphere. Such is spirituality of mind; not only outward religious decorum and works of righteousness; not only correct pious opinions; not only liberality and activity in the cause of Christ; not only regular attendance upon the means of grace—but in addition to all this, a mind prone to devout reflection, a heart warm with love to God and Christ, a soul filled with pious affections; in short, a habit of thought and feeling which interweaves piety towards God with the general texture of life.
Such a man walks with God. What a force and pregnancy of meaning there are in these few words, walking with God! What can be added to heighten our conception of the devotion, the dignity, the felicity, of the Christian? It means not only harmony of thought and feeling (for "how can two walk together except they be agreed?") but it means fellowship, intimate converse with God. This converse is mutual. God speaks to the Christian by the precious words of Scripture, and the gentle whispers of his Spirit—and he speaks to God. He is marked as a man of prayer, one who prays, in a sense, always and everywhere, who prays as he breathes.
Then there is the idea of habitualness—this is the habit and tenor of his mind. We know where to find him; he is always the same; a serene steadfastness of mind in holy thought and feeling is his characteristic. Great tenderness of conscience also is his, a fear to offend God, to wound man; a desire to please God in all things, ever striving for and obtaining the testimony—that he pleases God. A peculiar intimacy obtains between God and his soul. How condescending on the part of God, that He so mingles with his creature, shows him such favors, gives him such tokens, admits him to such familiarity! All this is implied; yes, it is the very essence of the idea, they walk together, come near to one another; the most confidential communications pass, the most intimate interchange of sentiment and affection takes place.
This is spirituality of mind. And this, says the apostle, is "life and peace." It is the evidence, the activity, the development of Christian life—and produces a serene and placid state of soul. It calms the perturbations of the heart; like oil on the troubled surface of the waters, it tranquilizes the tempestuous passions, and hushes the stormy billows of agitated thought to peace and quietness. It is a perpetual feast to the soul which is happy enough to possess it. Rising into heavenly-mindedness, it is a pledge and a foretaste of the bliss of Paradise. It is a draught of the river of water of life, brought by faith and hope from the crystal stream; a fruit plucked by devotion from the Tree of Life, on which the soul delights to feast, and by which it is enabled to wait and long for the glory to be revealed. This, this, I say, is what is lacking in professing Christians, for their own comfort, the credit of piety, and the glory of God.
2. Akin to this, and indeed, as a part of it, isthe low state of family prayer and domestic pious instruction. Indeed, until very lately, and I fear, even now, the spirit of prayer in general, both private and social, has sunk to a very low ebb. An almost universal complaint is made, that the social meetings for this sacred exercise are so reduced in number and in spirit, as in some places to be given up. I doubt if, taking into account the number of professors, the spirit of prayer was, in modern times, ever lower. Attendance at prayer meetings may, to a considerable extent, be considered a tolerably correct gauge of the measure of private prayer. If Christians, who are in health, and who have their time pretty much at their own command, and are also within a reasonable distance from the house of God, cannot find leisure and inclination to meet their fellow-Christians once a week for prayer, I am naturally led to conclude that they are sadly negligent of their daily duty morning and evening. The man who loves to pray alone—has an instinctive yearning to pray with others. To a spiritual mind, the prayers of the brethren are most reviving and refreshing. There is a great power of Christian sympathy in a prayer-meeting.
I am, however, somewhat hopeful that the tide of prayer has sunk to its lowest ebb, and is beginning to turn. I hear, and am delighted to hear, of prayer-meetings being held and multiplied in various parts of the kingdom. This is good, so far as it goes—but it is not so certain that private prayer is so much increasing. Curiosity, the exhortation of ministers, the spirit of excitement, or love of novelty, may produce a crowded prayer-meeting—while there may be no proportionate attendance on the duties of the closet. Those who pray much in secret, will, if opportunity allow, be as fond of social prayer; but it is not so certain that those who are fond of attending special prayer-meetings will be as fond of the prayer of the closet. It is possible that many may make increased attendance upon prayer-meetings an excuse for a decreased attention to their own private devotions. But nothing, neither activity, nor liberality, nor regular attendance at meetings for social prayer—can be any substitute for private prayer, or any compensation for the lack of it. It is greatly to be feared that the urgency of business is shortening the time, and lessening the love, of private devotion. It may be well for every reader of this pamphlet to ask, how it is with him in this respect, and to take alarm, if conscious of the neglect of this sacred exercise. It has been observed, that apostacy from God begins at the closet door.
But I will now more particularly allude to the low state of family piety. I much doubt if this was ever lower or more neglected among the professors of spiritual piety, and the members of our churches. I am painfully convinced that domestic piety, maintained with systematic regularity, deep seriousness, and unvarying uniformity, is a comparatively rare thing among professing Christians of this age. Such is the absorbing power of business, the eager haste in some to be rich, and in others, the life and death struggle even to survive at all—that there is no time for family prayer. Some neglect it altogether. They never gather their children and servants round the domestic altar—atheism governs their household. Others give it up one part of the day; others confine it to a Sabbath evening—and even of those who carry it on ordinarily both morning and evening, many reduce it to a cold, hasty and formal service, and even that often interrupted. Yes, and there are cases in which it had better be omitted altogether, unless those who conduct it would do so with more seriousness and earnestness, and make their conduct and temper throughout the day harmonize with their morning and evening prayers.
If there were no injunctions, or positive examples of, this duty in the word of God, reason and holy instinct would prompt to it. How can the father of a household expect family blessings if there be no family prayer; or in what way but this can he acknowledge family blessings? Is not this the best means, combined with instruction, to propagate piety through children to later posterity? Can anyone expect his children to be pious, who does not afford them an example in this respect? Yes, is not this exercise necessary to keep alive a spirit of devotion in the parent's own soul? How blessed an effect has the morning and evening sacrifice to promote domestic peace, union, and happiness.
"Even where wisdom and regularity have done their utmost, there are often little and untoward events between parents and children, masters and servants, that may mar the happiness of all, if they are not wisely controlled by a spirit of mutual good-will and forbearance. By no other means, or by no such likely means, can this spirit of union and kindness be so effectually secured as by a due attendance at the domestic altar. Under the influence of the holy flame which burns upon it, the heart has often been softened into a forgetfulness of those little irritations, that if allowed to remain, would ripen into explosion, so far as not only to separate servant from master—but perhaps brother from brother and parent from child."
Do you object, that you cannot perform extemporary prayer. Have you ever tried? If not, begin, and look up to God for help—and if, after making the experiment, you fail, adopt a form, of which there are many excellent ones to be obtained. You say, perhaps, "You have no time." What! not to ask God's blessing upon your household? Do not you find time daily to read the newspaper, to talk with your neighbors, to sleep later than you need in bed? "You have apprentices and shopmen in the house, and are afraid of being ridiculed." No, they will, if the duty be well performed, respect you the more. "You expect opposition from some of your family." Are you not the head, the master, the governor? Ah, is not the neglect to be traced to another cause? Is not the secret reasoning of your soul this, "Family prayer ought to be followed with Christian consistency in all things, and I do not think my conduct through the day, in the shop and in the house, is such as will enable me, with any propriety, to assemble my family in the evening for prayer. I am afraid the practice of family prayer will lay too great a restraint upon myself. And a morning prayer with my family would not suit well with what I am going to do in the day." Is this not the case, O, professors! and can you go on in this way? Put away all excuses—begin, from the time you read this, to pray in, with, and for your families—daily, regularly, seriously—and let your whole conduct harmonize with the practice.
But family prayer, with whatever regularity, punctuality, and seriousness it may be performed—is only a part of family piety. There is the pious training of children. This, I am aware, is mainly the work and duty of mothers. Still, the general conduct of the family belongs to the husband, father, and master. A professing Christian's house should be the abode of visible, practical piety—it should be filled with an atmosphere of piety. The children should all be trained with the idea they are immortal as well as mortal beings—and, while nothing is left undone to fit them for comfort, respectability, and usefulness on earth, the chief solicitude should be to prepare them for glory, honor, and immortality, in heaven. The order of a professing Christian family should be such, in common and sacred matters, as to compel all who witness it to exclaim, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel!" We should look for the replenishing of our churches from the families of our congregations—and such would be the case if family piety were kept up as it should be. There are households from which scarcely one single person ever comes into the fellowship of the church—and, indeed, it would be a wonder if it were not so. Baxter is right when he says, "If family piety were kept up and conducted as it should be, the public preaching of the Gospel would cease to be the means of conversion to the members of such households; among them it would be effected by domestic instruction."
Many things in this age are against the pious order and state of our families, the lack of spirituality in the members of our churches; the severe competition and absorbing power of trade, commencing so early in the morning and continuing so late in the evening; the great pious activity of the age taking off the attention of heads of families from their households to the various objects of Christian zeal, together with the frequency and late hours of committee-meetings, the institution of ministerial Bible-classes, whereby parents too much shift the work of the instruction of their children to their pastors; the false idea that conversion is to be more expected from public preaching, than from the judicious, affectionate, and persevering teaching of domestic piety; all these causes operate to produce a lamentable neglect of true, consistent, family piety. It is high time that strenuous efforts were made to call back the heads of households to this momentous subject.
3. A third deficiency of the age among professors is theneglect of private reading and study of the Scriptures. A sound, healthy, and robust piety cannot be produced or maintained without an habitual and devout perusal of the Word of God. Sermons alone will not do it—they are too generally heard for intellectual gratification, rather than for their instructive, sanctifying, and general practical effect. The private conference with the Bible has none of the seductive allurements of oratory and human eloquence to divert the attention from piety as a personal and practical matter. With the Bible open before us, we seem brought face to face with God; we hear his voice speaking to us, and hear no voice but his. A single verse read, pondered, meditated upon, and applied—will sometimes do more for the soul than a whole sermon. Scripture truth is the sustenance of the soul, and, according to its varied contents, is milk for babes and strong meat for those of full age, and is everywhere enjoined as our spiritual food, whereby we are to grow in grace and in knowledge.
Now I am seriously afraid that, except by a few people of great leisure, and people of constant godliness, the devout study of the Scriptures is sadly neglected. Many things tend to this—there is, what has been so often mentioned, the hurry and urgency of business. Tradesmen tell us they can scarcely find time to read a chapter and conduct family prayer, much less for the private reading of God's word. But ought they to allow themselves to be so engrossed by business? Or, if this cannot be altered, could they not rise a little earlier in the morning, to gain time for a chapter or a few verses? A Christian man, much engaged in secular affairs, lately told me that it was his custom to read every morning before he left his chamber, and at that time, he was going through Bishop Horne's Commentary on the Psalms. And there are men who, though deeply immersed in trade, never go forth to its engagements until they have heard God speak to them from the living oracles, and who carry forth with them the recollection of what they have read to soften their toil and mitigate their anxiety. Such instances, however, are rare.
I am afraid many, who keep up domestic devotion, read no more than the short Psalm which they peruse at family prayer; while others, by whom family prayer is neglected, scarcely ever read at all. What are called "Daily Portions" are, I know, with many a substitute for Bible reading—a crumb of the bread of life, thus manipulated into a small piece of spiritual confectionery, satisfies them instead of a substantial portion of the heavenly food. Magazines and books are quite enough of pious reading for many others, who have scarcely leisure or inclination for even them, much less for the perusal of the Scriptures. How much time is consumed over the newspaper! The busiest men find leisure enough for this. Let no man say he has not time to read his Bible, who can find enough for the daily newspaper.
Many people seem to think, or at any rate to feel, that they can find nothing new in the Scriptures. They know, generally, all their contents—there is no charm of novelty. Ah, what a mistake! A devout mind, studying the Scriptures through a life lengthened to the age of Methuselah, would find, by close attention, some new meaning or new beauty, even to the last hour of existence. Others, again, think the Bible an obscure book, full of dark passages, hard to be understood, and quote Peter's assertion in support of their opinion, 2 Peter 3:16. This passage does not refer to the style of Paul's writing, as if that were obscure—but to the doctrines he taught, some of which are too sublime and vast for human comprehension, and unteachable men, whose passions blind their minds, and who have no fixed opinions or love for truth, pervert them by crude, false criticism and sophistical reasonings to their own destruction. It is not intended to discourage the private reading of the Scriptures, even by plain, unlettered people; for while there is much in them which the loftiest intellect will never fully comprehend in this world, there is also much which the plainest understanding may apprehend and apply. To borrow a well-known saying, "There are depths in which an elephant may swim—and shallows which a lamb may ford."
The Church of Christ must be feeble, and its members must be unspiritual and earthly-minded, as long as this neglect of the Scriptures prevails. In the days when she put forth her power in enduring persecution and exhibiting the glories of spiritual heroism, her members lived in perpetual study of the Bible. At the present day, the persecuted Christians of Madagascar take their Bibles with them into their retreats, and thus become strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. So it has been in every age of fierce trial. Confessors then grasp the sword of the spirit, which, by study and practice, they know how to wield, and become more than conquerors. It was with this weapon that our Lord himself, in his temptations in the wilderness, overcame his daring assailant. Never until the Church of Christ considers it as its own duty to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures, as well as the duty of its ministers to expound and enforce them—will it prove, know, and employ its own power. It has too much considered the Bible as the preacher's text-book, and not its own. Papist-like, it hands the Bible to the minister, and leaves him to think for it. There is a sect called "The Bible Christians." There is somewhat of falsehood and arrogance in the designation, as if no other sect but theirs had the Bible, believed, or practiced it. All professors of piety ought to be in reality "Bible Christians." Preaching was never intended to set aside personal perusal of the Scriptures. The Bible is not to be tested by the minister—but the minister by the Bible.
Perhaps there is some blame due to ministers in this matter. Sermons ought to be a great deal more biblical than they are; more full of Scripture; more replete with support and illustration from texts. The preacher's aim should be to make the hearer love the sermon for the sake of the Bible, and not the Bible for the sake of the sermon. The sermon should be a sign-post, pointing to the Bible, and sending the people on to it. And, still to employ the aid of illustration, the sermon should be as a morsel of great relish which, instead of satisfying the appetite, should make it crave for a full meal. Essays, however theological and even orthodox, if they have little of God's own words in them, may be eloquent, and please the audience—but will not do much to increase their love to the Bible. Those are the most effectual discourses which send the hearers away as Paul's did the Bereans, to search the Scriptures, in order to see whether these things are so.
John Howe, in one part of his writings, gives the following incident: "We may be sure," he says, "if our esteem grow less of this book, God's does not; he does not measure by us—and if he have the same estimate and value for it he ever had, we may fear that he will, some time or other, very terribly vindicate the neglect, contempt, and disregard of these sacred records. A little to enforce this consideration, let me relate an incident which was told me by Dr. Thomas Goodwin, when he was President of Magdalen College, Oxford. Being himself, at the time of his youth, a student at Cambridge, and having heard much of Mr. Rogers, of Dedham, in Essex, he purposely took a journey from Cambridge to Dedham, to hear him preach on his lecture day; a lecture then so strangely thronged that to those who came not very early there was no possibility of getting room in that very large church. Mr. Rogers was, at that time, on the subject of the Scriptures—and, in the course of the sermon, he fell into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Holy Book, personating God to them, and saying, 'Well, I have trusted you so long with the Bible; you have slighted it; it lies in such and such a house all covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to look into it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.' And Mr. Rogers then takes up his Bible from his cushion, and seems as if he were going away with it, and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again, and personating the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly 'Lord, whatever You do to us, take not your Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us your Bible, only take not away your Bible.' And then he personates God again to the people, 'Say you so? Well, I will test you a little longer, and here is my Bible for you; I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practice it more, and live more according to it.' By those actions he put all the congregation into such a posture as he never witnessed in any congregation before; the place was a mere Bochim, the people generally deluged, as it were, with tears—and he added, that he himself, when he got out, and was to take horse home again, was disposed to hang for a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse weeping before he had power to mount, so strange an impression was there upon him, and generally upon the people, on having been expostulated with for the neglect of the Bible."(Mr. Rogers seems to have been a prototype of Whitfield, and in a less degree, of Mr. Spurgeon. His preaching was to a certain extent, truly histrionic, a mixture of speaking and acting. This is an enviable talent where it is natural, and not affected or mimicked. Much of the popularity of both Whitfield and Spurgeon is to be traced up to it. When it gushes out spontaneously, and is, as in the instance before us, solemn, pathetic, and impressive, it is legitimate power of a most effective kind. Would we had more of it to move the masses to pious feeling and concern! Would that our preachers generally could let Nature flow out in her own sparkling ebullitions of chastened fancy and emotion! God forbid every pulpit should become a stage for buffoonery, charlatanship, or broad humor and farce; but a little more of such preaching as Rogers's, Whitfield's, and Spurgeon's is needed to rouse and interest our slumbering congregations, especially those of the laboring classes.)
4. Another thing in which our modern churches are very deficient is the exercise of brotherly LOVE. It need scarcely be remarked that it is God's design that his church should exhibit to a selfish, alienated, and envious world, characterized in Scripture as hateful and hating one another—the perfect contrast to itself, in a holy loving brotherhood, the home of charity, the very dwelling-place of all the kindly feelings of our nature, a true fellowship of love. It was his purpose that the hearts of his people should be so knit together, that wherever, and among whoever, a company of believers should be found, observing and admiring spectators should involuntarily bear this testimony, "See how these Christians love one another!" The world never since the fall had seen such a sight as this, and it has been told, it is now to be seen in the Church of Christ; but, alas! how dimly and diminutively in our day. It ought ever to be seen, as the unmistakeable characteristic of everybody of professors, their identifying badge, their distinctive mark. How much there is in our piety to produce it! God is love. Christ is incarnate love. The law is love. The Gospel is love. Heaven is love. If Christ loved us with such intense wonderful love—how great ought to be our love to one another! How those ought to love one another, all of whom Christ loves with such marvelous affection!
How intent was he to make us understand and feel this! "This is my commandment," said he, "that you love one another." He has singled out this from other precepts, and emphatically marked it as his special law. He has made it the mark of discipleship, "Hereby shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." In prospect of the cross, this was upon his mind, and in his wondrous prayer he supplicated that his people might be one, that is one in affection, as he was in the Father and the Father in him—that the world might know that the Father had sent him. Oh, this ought to convince the mind, and touch the heart of every Christian—that brotherly love was designed to be the evidence of Christ's divine mission.
Yes, and if this grace shone out from the church in all its beauty and glory, it would be an incontrovertible evidence of the truth of Christianity. It would appear to be so different from all the work of man and all his ability, to produce such a loving, meek, and harmonious association of human beings, that it could be ascribed only to a divine power. Is it sufficiently considered by professing Christians that on their loving-kindness to each other, depends one of the evidences of Christianity?
Nor can it escape the attention of the most superficial reader of the New Testament how much this is insisted upon by all its inspired writers. It is their constant theme. In Paul's Epistles it is interwoven with all his other topics, and the beloved apostle wrote a whole Epistle nearly, to enforce it. Love, love, love—is the reiterated theme of these heaven-directed men. For an exhibition of this love, read the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Alas, alas! that this scene should have been as transient as it was beautiful. Had it, or even a resemblance of it, been perpetuated, how different a thing would Christianity have appeared in the estimation of the world! The ecclesiastical historian, Eusebius, relates of the early Christians, that when a plague prevailed in Egypt, "many of our brethren, neglecting their own health, through an excess of love, have brought upon themselves the misfortunes and maladies of others. After they had held in their arms the dying saints, after they had closed their mouths and their eyes; after they had embraced, kissed, and washed, and adorned them with their best habits, and carried them on their shoulders to the grave, they have been glad themselves to receive the same kind offices from others who have imitated their zeal and love." This might have been the imprudence of love; but, oh was it not its manifestation?
Now let us look into our churches. How little that bears any resemblance to this do we find there! There may be affection, and kind fellowship, and friendly visiting between certain classes and circles of the members, and this is well as far as it goes; but it is too often little else than general friendship felt, not so much on the ground of a common relationship to Christ, as on the mere fact of worshiping in the same pew and place, and being members of the same church. And then there is also the sacramental shilling for the relief of poor and sick members, which is, if not a mockery of charity, is a substitute for it. There may be peace in the church, where there is very little love. All may be quiescent. No roots of bitterness may be springing up to trouble the church, and yet there may be little of the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace. There may be distance, coldness, estrangements, where there is no hostility.
What I want to see more of, is a ministry, loving in its spirit, attaching by its instructions, its influence, and its example, all closer to each other, often inculcating and always manifesting brotherly love. And deacons, performing their duties, not perfunctorily, carelessly, grudging their time, stinting their labor, doling out the bounty of the church with slack hands and heartless speech—but entering the habitations of their sick and poor brethren, as ministering angels, with tender sympathy and melting compassion; who by their fervent supplication and gentle words shall comfort the soul at the very time they are relieving the needs of the body; who shall be the counselors of the perplexed, and shall, in cases of distress, not to be met by the ordinary distribution of the communion money, endeavor to raise a supplemental fund; men, in short, who shall know and feel that their vocation is compassion and active mercy. To these must be added the richer members of the church, who shall practically, promptly, and generously seek out the cases of their poorer brethren, visit them in their abodes of sorrow, and feel it a privilege to sympathize with them in their afflictions and relieve their needs. Nor is it only in this way of visiting the sick and relieving the necessitous, that love should manifest itself—but in the way of kind recognition and gentle words, of respect and affability, of remembrance that under that garb of poverty there is one whom Christ loves and whom they ought to love for Christ's sake. And the love which makes the rich kind and condescending to the poor, will make the poor respectful to the rich, will repress all undue familiarity, all obtrusive consciousness of spiritual equality, all inordinate expectation of notice and attention, all morbid susceptibility of offence by real or supposed lack of attention.
In short, what is lacking in our churches is a fuller, richer, deeper sense of Christ's love to us all, producing in all a fuller, richer, deeper love to each other on that account, and the thought and feeling as we look round at a church-meeting, or at the Lord's table, upon our fellow-communicants, "all these are professedly the children of God, the redeemed of the Lamb, the subjects of the Spirit's influence. God loves them; Christ loves them; they are my brothers and sisters in the family of God, with them I am to spend my eternity; they are partakers with me of like precious faith and of the common salvation; they are all one with me in Christ." Brotherly love means a union of spirit with, and a going forth of the heart to all who are in this relationship to us; a soul full of such thoughts, views, and recognitions, and prompting to all the conduct which they may be supposed to dictate and ensure. Is not this what is prescribed in the New Testament?
Again, I ask, is there not a lamentable deficiency of this in our churches? I am aware that in those which include a large number of members, scattered over the expanse of a large town, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have that knowledge, to manifest that recognition, and to display that affection which could be desired; but even in such cases, much more might be done for this object than is at present realized.
5. Perhaps among the deficiencies of our church members may be mentioned a considerable degree of ignorance on several important pious subjects. I mention first,DOCTRINAL TRUTH. This, if Bible reading be neglected, is easily accounted for. Even sermons, when unaccompanied by private searching the Scriptures, will not lead the hearers of them into an extensive and accurate acquaintance with the deep things of God and the Bible. I believe the great mass of our members are, as they suppose, orthodox on the divinity of Christ, the atonement, justification by faith, and regeneration. That is to say, they hold fast these articles of faith, though very many are quite unable to state or defend them. It is surprising how little Biblical knowledge and ideas many have, who nevertheless contend for the form of sound words. If asked for Scriptural proofs of the Divine authority of the New Testament, or the Divinity of the Savior; or, if questioned on the nature and need of the Atonement; on the nature of justification, and its distinction from sanctification; on the relation of Judaism to Christianity; on the places and uses in the Christian system of good works; or on many other important pious subjects, they would not be able to give an intelligent answer. They may be good people; they know they are sinners and Christ a Savior; may be relying on his blood and righteousness for acceptance with God; but they are contented with the mere elements of truth, its most rudimental principles. Hence their comforts and usefulness are limited, and even their stability endangered. They are easily led away by the plausible objections of the abettors of error, and are likely to be carried about with every wind of doctrine, and the sleight of men and the cunning of those who lie in wait to deceive. The Apostle administers severe rebuke to all such in Hebrews 5, 6, and also in Colossians 2. Nor can it escape notice how much in all his Epistles he insists on growth in knowledge.
May not this deficiency be accounted for in part by the lack of more doctrinal preaching? Is it not possible to treat the great verities of piety in so attractive a manner as that our hearers shall be led to study them with greater attention and delight, and to understand them more clearly and comprehensively? I ask not for a body of divinity in every sermon, nor for dry controversy in any; I do not desire sermons that shall be a confession or articles of faith—but such as shall nourish up the hearers in sound doctrine. Perhaps sufficient pains are not taken with candidates for communion to indoctrinate them in divine truth. I do not of course mean that in their beginning, or even in their after growth, they should be so many profound theologians—but surely they ought to be instructed on all fundamental points. I am inclined to think we have lost something in reference to this matter by the discontinuance of the catechetical method of instructing children. The tendency of much of modern teaching, both in Bible classes, in Sunday schools, and, perhaps, in some measure in preaching, is to give knowledge about the Bible, rather than the knowledge of the Bible itself. I admit that even the minor facts of sacred history are all worth knowing. But the geography, the natural history, the chronology, and the narratives of revelation, however important, and important they are, cannot be put in comparison with a knowledge of the person and work of the Redeemer and the doctrines that cluster round his cross.
It will perhaps be thought by many, that I have now said enough of the deficiencies of our churches, and they will perhaps be almost ready to look upon the exposure with feelings of regret, if not to censure it with the language of complaint. God, who sees the heart, knows that with much sorrow and solicitude I have written as I have done. It is in faithful love I have penned these pages. I have set down nothing in uncharitableness, nor in a fault-seeking spirit. I believe I have neither exaggerated nor caricatured the failings of professors—but given an honest and trustworthy account of matters as they really are. It is very probable, that many will think the picture I have drawn of the state of our churches is too darkly shaded. I wish I could think so; but with the New Testament in my hand, with our Lord's sermon on the Mount, and Paul's Epistles, open before me, as the only true standard of Christian piety, I am convinced that, if I have said too little of our excellences, I have not said too much of our faults and our deficiencies. I am not, never was, and hope I never shall be, the man to flatter professing Christians into a high opinion of themselves. I point out spots, not for the sake of exposing—but of removing them. I want to see our churches, which, it is known, speak highly of the purity of their communion, standing out before all others, invested in no ordinary degree with the beauties of holiness. I want to bring them nearer to the standard of the New Testament. At my time of life, and with my infirmities, I shall not speak long, and I feel compelled to speak boldly and plainly.
I would again remark, in order to prevent misconception and misrepresentation, that I do not intend this description of the state of the churches, as applicable only, or specially, to those of the Congregational body—but as a representation of what is called the Christian world at large.
Gladly, before I close, do I turn back again to the first part of this pamphlet, and glance once more at the excellences of the churches. And in reference to this, I adopt the beautiful language, and happily it is as true as it is beautiful, of a writer in the "North British Review,"
"A new life has breathed upon the Churches—they feel their great mission, and they are seeking, in God's strength, to fulfill it. Activity, earnestness, self-denying, self-sacrificing love, in many hearts, are taking the place of the old languor and apathy. Christians now feel that they have a great work to do, and they are beginning to be straitened until it is accomplished. The spirit of the good Samaritan has become incarnate in thousands of souls whose hearts bleed for the miseries of their fallen brethren, and dare not pass by on the other side. We are in the right track, and are advancing on it steadily. Much has already been done, and the train is laid for much more. May we not humbly cherish the hope, that the same Anglo-Saxon energy of our race which has proved itself victorious in every other field of battle, thus baptized with holy fire from above, may yet achieve a still nobler triumph in the far more terrible and arduous struggle against the sins and sorrows of her own people, of her own land."
The hope which this able writer cherishes for Scotland, I cherish for the world. A spirit is up, awake, and active, which if now nourished, I repeat, by the faith, the prayer, and the holiness of the churches, will never rest until it has brought back a revolted world to Christ. But let it never be forgotten that the conversion of the world, even as to the instrumentality to be employed, is so vast as to be accomplished by the church, not in the feebleness—but in the maturity of its strength, Zion is not yet prepared for this glorious achievement. She is not holy enough for such a deed. Her present success is only proportionate to her present fitness for her work. Compared with what she did less than a century ago, her triumphs are marvels. But compared with what they will be when she has put on her strength, and is filled with the glory of the Lord, they are but the day of small things. What the churches have now to do, is not to slacken the hand of liberality, or the foot of activity—but to give fresh energy to both, by increasing the healthy action of the heart. What I now want, is to see evangelical holiness in as full development as evangelical zeal. What I call for in this pamphlet, is, the amendment of the faults, and the supply of the deficiencies, which I have mentioned in it.
Let our earthly-mindedness, in all its forms, give way to the spirituality and heavenly mindedness so constantly inculcated in the New Testament, and so identified with Christian piety. Let self-denial supplant self-indulgence. Let homage to genius be more subordinated to love of the truth. Let the Bible be regarded as the sun that rules the day of our knowledge, and general and even sacred literature be but as the secondary light. Let brotherly love take place of the coldness and supineness which too generally prevail in our churches. Let knowledge of all that concerns us as Christians, as Nonconformists and Protestants, illuminate the ignorance in which too many are Enrapt.
In short, instead of being too much satisfied with that social piety which consists in acting with others in works of zeal, let us each seek for more of that personal godliness, which consists in adding to our faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly-kindness, and charity. Let the flame of our zeal be fed by the oil of our piety. Let our conscientiousness, spirituality, devoutness, and love, be as conspicuous as our liberality and activity. Then will the churches be fitted for their evangelical work at home, and their missionary enterprise abroad; then will they answer not only in their character—but in their influence, to the "salt of the earth and the light of the world." And whatever partial victories they now obtain in this conflict with the powers of darkness, then, and not until then, will their conquest be final and complete, and that kingdom be established in the whole earth—which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.