The Collected Works of Theodore Parker/Volume 03/Discourse 03
THE TRUE IDEA OF A CHRISTIAN CHURCH.
For nearly a year we have assembled within these walls from week to week,—I think not idly; I know you have not come for any trivial end. You have recently made a formal organization of yourselves or religous action. Today, at your request, I enter regularly on a ministry in the midst of you. What are we doing; what do we design to do? We are here to establish a Christian church; and a Christian church, as I understand it, is a body of men and women united together in a common desire of religious excellence and with a common regard for Jesus of Nazareth, regarding him as the noblest example of morality and religion,—as the model, therefore, in this respect for us; Such a church may have many rites, as our Catholic brothers, or but few rites, as our Protestant brothers, or no rites at all, as our brothers the Friends. It may be, nevertheless, a Christian church; for the essential of substance, which makes it a religious body, is the union for the purpose of cultivating love to God and man; and the essential of form, which makes it a Christian body, is the common regard for Jesus, considered as the highest representative of God that we know. It is not the form, either of ritual or of doctrine, but the spirit which constitutes a Christian church. A. staff may sustain an old man, or a young man may bear it in his hands as a toy, but walking is walking, though the man have no staff for ornament or support. A Christian spirit may exist under rituals and doctrines the most diverse. It were hard to say a man is not a Christian, because he believes in the doctrine of the Trinity, or the Pope, while Jesus taught no such doctrine; foolish to say one is no Christian because he denies the existence of a Devil, though Jesus believed it. To make a man's Christian name depend on a belief of all that is related by the numerous writers in the Bible, is as absurd as to make that depend on a belief in all the words of Luther, or Calvin, or St Augustine. It is not for me to say a man is not theoretically a Christian because he believes that Slavery is a Divine and Christian institution; that War is grateful to God—saying, with the Old Testament, that God himself "is a man of war," who teaches men to fight, and curses such as refuse;—or because he believes that all men are born totally depraved, and the greater part of them are to be damned everlastingly by "a jealous God," who is "angry with the wicked every day," and that the few are to be "saved" only because God unjustly punished an innocent man for their sake. I will not say a man is not a Christian though he believe all the melancholy things related of God in some parts of the Old Testament, yet I know few doctrines so hostile to real religion as these have proved themselves. In our day it has strangely come to pass that a little sect, themselves hooted at and called "Infidels" by the rest of Christendom, deny the name of Christian to such as publicly reject the miracles of the Bible. Time will doubtless correct this error. Fire is fire, and ashes ashes, say what we may; each will work after its kind. Now if Christianity be the absolute religion, it must allow all beliefs that are true, and it may exist and be developed in connection with all forms consistent with the absolute religion, and the degree thereof represented by Jesus.
The action of a Christian church seems to be twofold : first on its own members, and then, through their means, on others out of its pale. Let a word be said of each in its order. If I were to ask you why you came here today; why you have often come to this house hitherto?—the serious amongst you would say: That we might become better; more manly; upright before God and downright before men; that we might be Christians, men good and pious after the fashion Jesus spoke of. The first design of such a church then is to help ourselves become Christians. Now the substance of Christianity is Piety—Love to God, and Goodness—Love to men. It is a religion, the germs whereof are born in your heart, appearing in your earliest childhood; which are developed just in proportion as you become a man, and are indeed the standard measure of your life. As the primeval rock lies at the bottom of the sea and appears at the top of the loftiest mountains, so in a finished character religion underlies all and crowns all. Christianity, to be perfect and entire, demands a complete manliness; the development of the whole man, mind, conscience, heart, and soul. It aims not to destroy the sacred peculiarities of individual character. It cherishes and developes them in their perfection, leaving Paul to be Paul, not Peter, and John to be John, not Jude nor James. We are born different, into a world where unlike things are gathered together, that there may be a special work for each. Christianity respects this diversity in men, aiming not to undo but further God's will; not fashioning all men after one pattern, to think alike, act alike, be alike, even look alike. It is something far other than Christianity which demands that. A Christian church then should put no fetters on the man; it should have unity of purpose, ^but with the most entire freedom for the individual. When you sacrifice the man to the mass in church or state, church or state becomes an offence, a stumbling-block in the way of progress, and must end or mend. The greater the variety of individualities in church or state, the better is it, so long as all are really manly, humane, and accordant. A church must needs be partial, not catholic, where all men think alike, narrow and little. Your church-organ, to have compass and volume, must have pipes of various sound, and the skilful artist destroys none, but tunes them all to harmony; if otherwise, he does not understand his work. In becoming Christians let us not cease to be men; nay, we cannot be Christians unless we are men first. It were unchristian to love Christianity better than the truth, or Christ better than man.
But Christianity is not only the absolute religion; it has also the ideal-man. In Jesus of Nazareth it gives us, in a certain sense, the model of religious excellence. It is a great thing to have the perfect idea of religion; to have also that idea made real, satisfactory to the wants of any age, were a yet further greatness. A Christian church should aim to have its members Christians as Jesus was the Christ; sons of man as he was; sons of God as much as he. To be that it is not needful to observe all the forms he complied with, only such forms as help you; not needful to have all the thoughts that he had, only such thoughts as are true. If Jesus were ever mistaken, as the Evangelists make it appear, then it is a part of Christianity to avoid his mistakes as well as to accept his truths. It is the part of a Christian church to teach men so ; to stop at no man's limitations; to prize no word so high as truth; no man so dear as God. Jesus came not to fetter men, but free them.
Jesus is a model-man in this respect: that he stands in a true relation to men, that of forgiveness for their ill-treatment, service for their needs, trust in their nature, and constant love towards them,—towards even the wicked and hypocritical; in a true relation to God, that of entire obedience to Him, of perfect trust in Him, of love towards Him with the whole mind, heart, and soul; and love of God is also love of truth, goodness, usefulness, love of Love itself. Obedience to God and trust in God is obedience to these things and trust in them. If Jesus had loved any opinion better than truth, then had he lost that relation to God, and so far ceased to be inspired by Him; had he allowed any partial feeling to overcome the spirit of universal love, then also he had sundered himself from God, and been at discord, not in harmony with the Infinite.
If Jesus be the model-man, then should a Christian church teach its members to hold the same relation to God that Christ held; to be one with Him; incarnations of God, as much and as far as Jesus was one with God, and an incarnation thereof, a manifestation of God in the flesh. It is Christian to receive all the truths of the Bible; all the truths that are not in the Bible just as much. It is Christian also to reject all the errors that come to us from without the Bible or from within the Bible. The Christian man, or the Christian church, is to stop at no man's limitation; at the limit of no book. God is not dead, nor even asleep, but awake and alive as ever of old; He inspires men now no less than beforetime; is ready to fill your mind, heart, and soul with truth, love, life, as to fill Moses and Jesus, and that on the same terms; for inspiration comes by universal laws, and not by partial exceptions. Each point of spirit, as each atom of space, is still bathed in the tides of Deity. But all good men, all Christian men, all inspired men, will be no more alike than all wicked men. It is the same light which is blue in the sky and golden in the sun. "All nature's difference makes all nature's peace."
We can attain this relation to man and God only on condition that we are free. If a church cannot allow freedom it were better not to allow itself, but cease to be. Unity of purpose, with entire freedom for the individual, should be the motto. It is only free men that can find the truth, love the truth, live the truth. As much freedom ts you shut out, so much falsehood do you shut in. It is poor thing to purchase unity of church-action at the cost of individual freedom. The Catholic church tried it, and on see what came thereof : science forsook it, calling it a en of lies. Morality forsook it, as the mystery of iniquity; and religion herself protested against it, as the mother of abominations. The Protestant churches are trying the same thing, and see whither they tend and what foes rise up against them,—Philosophy with its Bible of nature, and Religion with its Bible of man, both the hand-writing of God. The great problem of church and state is this: To produce unity of action and yet leave individual freedom not disturbed ; to balance into harmonious proportions the mass and the man, the centripetal and centrifugal powers, as, by God's wondrous, living mechanism, they are balanced in the worlds above. In the state we have done this more wisely than any nation heretofore. In the churches it remains yet to do. But man is equal to all which God appoints for him. His desires are ever proportionate to his duty and his destinies. The strong cry of the nations for liberty, a craving as of hungry men for bread and water, shows what liberty is worth, and what it is destined to do. Allow freedom to think, and there will be truth; freedom to act, and we shall have heroic works; freedom to live and be, and we shall have love to men and love to God. The world's history proves that, and our own history. Jesus, our model-man, was the freest the world ever saw!
Let it be remembered that every truth is of God, and will lead to good and good only. Truth is the seed whereof welfare is the fruit ; for every grain thereof we plant some one shall reap a whole harvest of welfare. A lie is " of the Devil," and must lead to want, and woe, and death, ending at last in a storm where it rains tears and perhaps blood. Have freedom, and you will sow new truth to reap its satisfaction ; submit to thraldom, and you sow lies to reap the death they bear. A Christian church should be the home of the soul, where it enjoys the largest liberty of the sons of God. If fettered elsewhere, here let us be free. Christ is the liberator*; he came not to drive slaves, but to set men free. The churches of old did their greatest work, when there was most freedom in those churches.
Here too should the spirit of devotion be encouraged; the soul of man communing with his God in aspirations after purity and truth, in resolutions for goodness, and piety, and a manly life. These are a prayer. The fact that men freely hold truths in common, great truths and universal; that unitedly they lift up their souls to God seeking instruction of Him; this will prove the strongest bond between man and man. It seems to me that the Protestant churches have not fully done justice to the sentiment of worship; that in taking care of the head we have forgotten the heart. To think truth is the worship of the head; to do noble works of usefulness and charity the worship of the will; to feel love and trust in man and God is the glad worship of the heart. A Christian church should be broad enough for all; should seek truth and promote piety, that both together might toil in good works.
Here should be had the best instruction which can be commanded; the freest, truest, and most manly voice; the mind most conversant with truth ; the eloquence of a heart that runs over with goodness, whose faith is unfaltering in truth, justice, purity, and love; a faith in God, whose charity is living love to men, even the sinful and the base. Teaching is the breathing of one man's inspiration into another, a most real thing amongst real men. In a church there should be instruction for the young. God appoints the father and mother the natural teachers of children; above all is it so in their religious culture. But there are some who cannot, many who will not, fulfil this trust. Hence it has been found necessary for wise and good men to offer their instruction to such. In this matter it is religion we need more than theology, and of this it is not mere traditions and mythologies we are to teach, the anile tales of a rude people in a dark age, things our pupils will do well to forget soon as they are men, and which they will have small reason to thank us for obscuring their minds withal; but it is the great, everlasting truths of religion which should be taught, enforced by examples of noble men, which tradition tells of, or the present age affords, all this to be suited to the tender years of the child. Christianity should be represented as human, as man's nature in its true greatness; religion shown to be beautiful, a real duty corresponding to man's deepest desire, that as religion affords the deepest satisfaction to man, so it is man's most universal want. Christ should be shown to men as he was, the manliest of men, the most divine because the most human. Children should be taught to respect their nature; to consider it as the noblest of all God's works; to know that perfect truth and goodness are demanded of them, and by that only can they be worthy men; taught to feel that God is present in Boston, and to-day, as much as ever in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. They should be taught to abhor the public sins of our times, but to love and imitate its great examples of nobleness and practical religion, which stand out amid the mob of worldly pretenders in this day.
Then, too, if one of our members falls into unworthy ways, is it not the duty of some one to speak with him, not as with authority to command, but with affection to persuade? Did any one of you ever address an erring brother on the folly of his ways with manly tenderness, and try to charm him back, and find a cold repulse? If a man is in error he will be grateful to one that tells him so; will learn most from men who make him ashamed of his littleness of life. In this matter it seems many a good man comes short of his duty.
There is yet another way in which a church should act on its own household, and that is by direct material help in time of need. There is the eternal distinction of the strong and the weak, which cannot be changed. But as things now go there is another inequality, not of God's appointment, but of man's perversity, the distinction of rich and poor—of men bloated by superfluous wealth and men starving and freezing from want. You know and I know how often the strong abuse their strength, exerting it solely for themselves and to the ruin of the weak ; we all know that such are reckoned great in the world, though they may have grown rich solely by clutching at what others earned. In Christianity, and before the God of justice, all men are brothers ; the strong are so that they may help the weak. As a nation chooses its wisest men to manage its affairs for the nation's good, and not barely their own, so God endows Charles or Samuel with great gifts that they may also bless all men thereby. If they use those powers solely for their pleasure, then are they false before men; false before God. It is said of the church of the Friends that no one of their number has ever received the charity of an almshouse, or for a civil offence been shut up in a jail. If the poor forsake church, be sure that the church forsook God long before.
But the church must have an action on others out of its pale. If a man or a society of men have a truth, they hold it not for themselves alone, but for all men. The solitary thinker, who in a moment of ecstatic action in his closet at midnight discovers a truth, discovers it for all the world and for eternity. A Christian church ought to love to see its truths extend; so it should put them in contact with the opinions of the world, not with excess of zeal or lack of charity.
A Christian church should be a means of reforming the world, of forming it after the pattern of Christian ideas. It should therefore bring up the sentiments of the times, the ideas of the times, and the actions of the times, to judge them by the universal standard. In this way it will learn much and be a living church, that grows with the advance of men's sentiments, ideas, and actions, and while it keeps the good of the past will lose no brave spirit of the present day. It can teach much; now moderating the fury of men, then quickening their sluggish steps. We expect the sins of commerce to be winked at in the street; the sins of the state to be applauded on election days and in a Congress, or on the fourth of July ; we are used to hear them called the righteousness of the nation. There they are often measured by the avarice or the ambition of greedy men. You expect them to be tried by passion, which looks only to immediate results and partial ends. Here they are to be measured by Conscience and Reason, which look to permanent results and universal ends; to be looked at with reference to the Laws of God, the everlasting ideas on which alone is based the welfare of the world. Here they are to be examined in the light of Christianity itself. If the church be true, many things which seem gainful in the street and expedient in the senate-house, will here be set down as wrong, and all gain which comes therefrom seen to be but a loss. If there be a public sin in the land, if a lie invade the state, it is for the church to give the alarm; it is here that it may war on lies and sins; the more widely they are believed in and practised, the more are they deadly, the more to be opposed. Here let no false idea or false action of the public go without exposure or rebuke. But let no noble heroism cf the times, no noble man, pass by without due honour. If it is a good thing to honour dead saints and the heroism of our fathers; it is a better thing to honour the saints of to-day, the live heroism of men who do the battle, when that battle is all around us. I know a few such saints, here and there a hero of that stamp, and I will not wait till they are dead and classic before I call them so and honour them as such, for
"To side with truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they once denied;
For Humanity sweeps onward ; where to-day the martyr stands,
On the morrow crouches Judas, with the silver in his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready, and the crackling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return
To glean up the scattered ashes into History's golden urn."
Do you not see that if a man have a new truth, it must be reformatory and so create an outcry ? It will seem destructive as the farmer's plough ; like that, it is so to tares and thistles, but the herald of the harvest none the less. In this way a Christian church should be a society for promoting true sentiments and ideas. If it would lead, it must go before men; if it would be looked up to, it must stand high.
That is not all: it should be a society for the promotion of good works. We are all beneath our idea, and therefore transgressors before God. Yet He gives us the rain, the snow, and the sun. It falls on me as well as on the field of my neighbour, who is a far juster man. How can we repent, cast our own sins behind us, outgrow and forget them, better than by helping others to work out their salvation? We are all brothers before God. Mutually needful we must be; mutually helpful we should be. Here are the ignorant that ask our instruction, not with words only, but with the prayer of their darkness, far more suppliant than speech. I never see an ignorant man younger than myself, without a feeling of self-reproach, for I ask, "What have I been doing to suffer him to grow up in nakedness of mind ? » Every man, born in New England, who does not share the culture of this age, is a reproach to more than himself, and will at last actively curse those who began by deserting him. The Christian church should lead the movement for the public education of the people.
Here are the needy who ask not so much your gold, your bread, or your cloth, as they ask also your sympathy, respect, and counsel; that you assist them to help themselves, that they may have gold won by their industry, not begged out of your benevolence. It is justice more than charity they ask. Every beggar, every pauper, born and bred amongst us, is a reproach to us, and condemns our civilization. For how has it come to pass that in a land of abundance here are men, for no fault of their own, born into want, living in want, and dying of want? and that, while we pretend to a religion which says all men are brothers! There is a horrid wrong somewhere.
Here too are the drunkard, the criminal, the abandoned person, sometimes the foe of society, but far oftener the victim of society. Whence come the tenants of our alms-houses, jails, the victims of vice in all our towns? Why, from the lowest rank of the people; from the poorest and most ignorant! Say rather from the most neglected, and the public sin is confessed, and the remedy hinted at. What have the strong been doing all this while, that the weak have come to such a state? Let them answer for themselves.
Now for all these ought a Christian church to toil. It should be a church of good works; if it is a church of good faith it will be so. Does not Christianity say the strong should help the weak? Does not that mean something? It once did. Has the Christian fire faded out from those words, once so marvellously bright? Look round you, in the streets of your own Boston! See the ignorant; men and women with scarce more than the stature of men and women; boys and girls growing up in ignorance and the low civilization which comes thereof, the barbarians of Boston. Their character will one day be a blot and a curse to the nation, and who is to blame. Why, the ablest and best men, who might have had it otherwise if they would. Look at the poor, men of small ability, weak by nature, born into a weak position, therefore doubly weak; men whom, the strong use for their purpose, and then cast them off as we throw away the rind of an orange after we have drunk its generous juice. Behold the wicked, so we call the weak men that are publicly caught in the cobweb of the law; ask why they became wicked; how we have aimed to reform them; what we have done to make them respect themselves, to believe in goodness, in man and God? and then say if there is not something for Christian men to do, something for a Christian church to do! Every almshouse in Massachusetts shows that the churches have not done their duty, that the Christians lie lies when they call Jesus "master" and men "brothers!" Every jail is a monument, on which it is writ in letters of iron that we are still heathens, and the gallows, black and hideous, the embodiment of death, the last argument a "Christian" state offers to the poor wretches it trained up to be criminals, stands there, a sign of our infamy; and while it lifts its horrid arm to crush the life out of some miserable man, whose blood cries to God against Cain in the^ nineteenth century, it lifts that same arm as an index of our shame.
Is that all? Oh, no! Did not Jesus say, resist not evil —with evil? Is not war the worst form of that evil; and is there on earth a nation so greedy of war; a nation more reckless of provoking it; one where the war-horse so soon conducts his foolish rider into fame and power? The "Heathen" Chinese might send their missionaries to America, and teach us to love men! Is that all? Far from it. Did not Christ say, whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do you even so unto them; and are there not three million brothers of yours and mine in bondage here, the hopeless sufferers of a savage doom; debarred from the civilization of our age, the barbarians of the nineteenth century; shut out from the pretended religion of Christendom, the heathens of a Christian land; chained down from the liberty unalienable in man, the slaves of a Christian republic? Does not a cry of indignation ring out from every legislature in the North; does not the press war with its million throats, and a voice of indignation go up from East and West, out from the hearts of freemen? Oh, no. There is none of that cry against the mightiest sin of this age. The rock of Plymouth, sanctified by the feet which led a nation's way to freedom's large estate, provokes no more voice than the rottenest stone in all the mountains of the West. The few that speak a manly word for truth and everlasting right, are called fanatics; bid be still, lest they spoil the market! Great God! and has it come to this, that men are silent over such a sin? ’Tis even so. Then it must be that every church which dares assume the name of Christ, that dearest name to men, thunders and lightens on this hideous wrong! That is not so. The church is dumb, while the state is only silent; while the servants of the people are only asleep, "God's ministers" are dead!
In the midst of all these wrongs and sins, the crimes of men, society, and the state, amid popular ignorance, pauperism, crime, and war, and slavery too—is the church to say nothing, do nothing; nothing for the good of such as feel the wrong, nothing to save them who do the wrong? Men tell us so, in word and deed; that way alone is "safe!" If I thought so, I would never enter the church but once again, and then to bow my shoulders to their manliest work, to heave down its strong pillars, arch and dome, and roof and wall, steeple and tower, though like Samson I buried myself under the ruins of that temple which profaned the worship of God most high, of God most loved. I would do this in the name of man; in the name of Christ I would do it; yea, in the dear and blessed name of God.
It seems to me that a church which dares name itself Christian, the Church of the Redeemer, which aspires to be a true church, must set itself about all this business, and be not merely a church of theology, but of religion; not of faith only, but of works; a just church by its faith bringing works into life. It should not be a church termagant, which only peevishly scolds at sin, in its anile way; but a church militant against every form of evil, which not only censures, but writes out on the walls of the world the brave example of a Christian life, that all may take pattern therefrom. Thus only can it become the church triumphant. If a church were to waste less time in building its palaces of theological speculation, palaces mainly of straw, and based upon the chaff, erecting air-castles and fighting battles to defend those palaced of straw, it would surely have more time to use in the practical good works of the day. If it thus made a city free from want and ignorance and crime, I know I vent a heresy, I think it would be quite as Christian an enterprise, as though it restored all the theology of the dark pages; quite as pleasing to God. A good sermon is a good thing, no doubt, but its end is not answered by its being preached; even by its being listened to and applauded; only by its awakening a deeper life in the hearers. But in the multitude of sermons there is danger lest the bare hearing thereof be thought a religious duty, not a means, but an end, and so our Christianity vanish in words. What if every Sunday afternoon the most pious and manly of our number, who saw fit, resolved themselves into a committee of the whole for practical religion, and held not a formal meeting, but one more free, sometimes for the purpose of devotion, the practical work of making ourselves better Christians, nearer to one another, and sometimes that we might find means to help such as needed help, the poor, the ignorant, the intemperate, and the wicked? Would it not be a work profitable to ourselves, and useful to others weaker than we? For my own part I think there are no ordinances of religion like good works; no day too sacred to help my brother in; no Christianity like a practical love of God shown by a practical love of men. Christ told us that if we had brought our gift to the very altar, and there remembered our brother had cause of complaint against us, we must leave the divine service, and pay the human service first! If my brother be in slavery, in want, in ignorance, in sin, and I can aid him and do not, he has much against me, and God can better wait for my prayer than my brother for my help!
The saints of olden time perished at the stake; they hung on gibbets; they agonized upon the rack; they died under the steel of the tormentor; It was the heroism of our fathers' day that swam the unknown seas; froze in the woods; starved with want and cold; fought battles with the red right hand. It is the sainthood and heroism of our day that toils for the ignorant, the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the wicked. Yes, it is our saints and heroes who fight fighting ; who contend for the slave, and his master too, for the drunkard, the criminal; yes, for the wicked or the weak in all their forms. It is they that with weapons of heavenly proof fight the great battle for the souls of men. Though I detest war in each particular fibre of my heart, yet I honour the heroes among our fathers who fought with bloody hand; peace-makers in a savage way, they were faithful to the light; the most inspired can be no more, and we, with greater light, do, it may be, far less. I love and venerate the saints of old; men who dared step in front of their age; accepted Christianity when it cost something to be a Christian, because it meant something they applied Christianity, so far as they knew it, to the lies and sins of their times, and won a sudden and a fiery death. But the saints and heroes of this day, who draw no sword, whose right hand is never bloody, who burn in no fires of wood or sulphur, nor languish briefly on the hasty cross; the saints and heroes who, in a worldly world, dare to be men; in an age of conformity and selfishness, speak for Truth and Man, living for noble aims; men who will swear to no lies howsoever popular; who will honour no sins, though never so profitable, respected, and ancient; men who count Christ not their master, but teacher, friend, brother, and strive like him to practise all they pray; to incarnate and make real the Word of God,—these men I honour far more than the saints of old. I know their trials, I see their dangers, I appreciate their sufferings, and since the day when the man on Calvary bowed his head, bidding persecution farewell with his "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," find no such saints and heroes as live now! They win hard fare, and hard toil. They lay up shame and obloquy. Theirs is the most painful of martyrdoms. Backs and fagots soon waft the soul to God, stern messengers but swift. A boy could bear that passage, the martyrdom of death. But the temptation of a long life of neglect, and scorn, and obloquy, and shame, and want, and desertion by false friends; to live blameless though blamed, cut off from human sympathy, that is the martyrdom of to-day. I shed no tears for such martyrs. I shout when I see one; I take courage and thank God for the real saints, prophets, and heroes of to-day. In another age, men shall be proud of these puritans and pilgrims of this day. Churches shall glory in their names and celebrate their praise in; sermon and in song. Yea, though now men would steal; the rusty sword from underneath the bones of a saint or hero long deceased, to smite off therewith the head of a new prophet, that ancient hero's son ; though they would gladly crush the heart out of him with the tomb-stones they pled up for great men, dead and honoured now; yet in some future day, that mob, penitent, baptized with a new spirit, like drunken men returned to sanity once more, shall search through all this land for marble white enough to build a monument to that prophet whom their fathers slew; they shall seek through all the world for gold of fineness fit to chronicle such names! I cannot wait ; but I will honour such men now, not adjourn the warning of their voice, and the glory of their example, till another age! The church may cast out such men; burn them with the torments of an age too refined in its cruelty to use coarse fagots and the vulgar axe! It is no less to these men; but the ruin of the church. I say the Christian church of the nineteenth century must honour such men, if it would do a church's, work; must take pains to make such men as these, or it is a dead church, with no claim on us, except that we bury it. A true church will always be the church of martyrs. The ancients commenced every great work with a victim! We do not call it so; but the sacrifice is demanded, got ready, and offered by unconscious priests long ere the enterprise succeeds. Did not Christianity begin with a martyrdom?
In this way, by gaining all the truth of the age in thought or action, by trying public opinions with its own brave ideas, by promoting good works, applying a new truth to an old error, and with unpopular righteousness overcoming each popular sin, the Christian church should lead the civilization of the age. The leader looks before, goes before, and knows where he is going; knows the way thither. It is only on this condition that he leads at all. If the church by looking after truth, and receiving it when it comes, be in unison with God, it will be in unison with all science, which is only the thought of God translated from the facts of nature into the words of men. In such a case, the church will not fear philosophy, nor in the face of modern science aim to reestablish the dreams and fables of a ruder day. It will not lack new truth, daring only to quote, nor be obliged to sneak behind the inspired words of old saints as its only fortress, for it Will have words just as truly inspired, dropping from the golden mouths of saints and prophets now. For leaders it will look not back, but forth; will fan the first faint sparkles of that noble fire just newly kindled from the skies; not smother them in the ashes of fires long spent; not quench them with holy water from Jordan or the Nile. A church truly Christian, professing Christ as its model-man, and aiming to stand in the relation he stood, must lead the way in moral enterprises, in every work which aims directly at the welfare of man. There was a time when the Christian churches, as a whole, held that rank. Do they now? Not even the Quakers—perhaps the last sect that abandoned it. A prophet, filled with love of man and love of God, is not therein at home. I speak a sad truth, and I say it in sorrow. But look at the churches of this city: do they lead the Christian movements of this city —the temperance movement, the peace movement, the movement for the freedom of men, for education, the movement to make society more just, more wise and good, the great religious movement of these times—for, hold down our eyelids as we will, there is a religious movement at this day on foot, such as even New England never saw before;—do they lead in these things? Oh, no, not at all. That great Christian orator, one of the noblest men New England has seen in this century, whose word has even now gone forth to the nations beyond the sea, while his spirit has gone home to his Father, when he turned his attention to the practical evils of our time, and our land, and our civilization, vigorously applying Christianity to life, why he lost favour in his own little sect! They feared him, soon as his spirit looked over their narrow walls, aspiring to lead men to a better work. I know men can now make sectarian capital out of the great name of Charming, so he is praised; perhaps praised loudest by the very men who then cursed him by their gods. Ay, by their gods he was accursed! The churches lead the Christian movements of these times? — why, has there not just been driven out of this city, and out of this State, a man conspicuous in all these movements, after five and twenty years of noble toil; driven out because he was conspicuous in them! You know it is so, and you know how and by whom he is thus driven out!
Christianity is humanity; Christ is the Son of man; the manliest of men; humane as a woman; pious and hopeful as a prayer; but brave as man's most daring thought. He has led the world in morals and religion for eighteen hundred years, only because he was the manliest man in it ; the human est and bravest in tit, and hence the divinest. He may lead it eighteen hundred years more, for we are bid believe that God can never make again a greater man ; no, none so great. But the churches do not lead men therein, for they have not his spirit; neither that womanliness which wept over Jerusalem, nor that manliness which drew down fire enough from heaven to light the world's altars for well nigh two thousand years.
There are many ways in which Christ may be denied:—one is that of the bold blasphemer, who, out of a base and haughty heart mocks, scoffing at that manly man, and spits upon the nobleness of Christ! There are few such deniers; my heart mourns for them. But they do little harm. Religion is so dear to men, no scoffing word can silence that, and the brave soul of this young Nazarene has made itself so deeply felt that scorn and mockery of him are but an icicle held up against the summer's sun. There is another way to deny him, and that is:—to call him Lord, and never do his bidding; to stifle free minds with his words; and with the authority of his name to cloak, to mantle, screen, and consecrate the follies, errors, sins of men! From this we have much to fear.
The church that is to lead this century will not be a church creeping on all fours; mewling and whining, its face turned down, its eyes turned back. It must be full of the brave, manly spirit of the day, keeping also the good of times past. There is a terrific energy in this age, for man was never so much developed, so much the master of himself before. Great truths, moral and political, have come to light. They fly quickly. The iron prophet of types publishes his visions, of weal or woe, to the near and far. This marvellous age has invented steam, and the magnetic telegraph, apt symbols of itself, before which the miracles of fable are but an idle tale. It demands, as never before, freedom for itself, usefulness in its institutions; truth in its teachings, and beauty in its deeds. Let a church have that freedom, that usefulness, truth, and beauty, and the energy of this age will soon be on its side. But the church which did for the fifth century, or the fifteenth, will not do for this. What is well enough at Rome, Oxford, or Berlin, is not well enough for Boston. It must have our ideas, the smell of our ground, and have grown out of the religion in our soul. The freedom of America must be there before this energy will come; the wisdom of the nineteenth century before its science will be on the churches' side, else that science will go over to the "infidels."
Our churches are not in harmony with what is best in the present age. Men call their temples after their old heroes and saints—John, Paul, Peter, and the like. But we call nothing else after the old names; a school of philosophy would be condemned if called Aristotelian, Platonic, or even Baconian. We out-travel the past in all but this. In the church it seems taught there is no progress unless we have all the past on our back; so we despair of having men fit to call churches by. We look back and not forward. We think the next saint must talk Hebrew like the old ones, and repeat the same mythology. So when a new prophet comes we only. stone him.
A church that believes only in past inspiration will appeal to old books as the standard of truth and source of light; will be antiquarian in its habits; will call its children by the old names; and war on the new age, not understanding the man-child born to rule the world. A church that believes in inspiration now will appeal to God; try things by reason and conscience; aim to surpass the old heroes; baptize its children with a new spirit, and using the present age will lead public opinion, and not follow it. Had Christ looked back for counsel, he might have founded a church fit for Abraham or Isaac to worship in, not for ages to come, or the age then. He that feels he is near to God, does not fear to be far from men; if before, he helps lead them on ; if above, to lift them up. Let us get all we can from the Hebrews and others of old time, and that is much ; but still let us be God's free men, not the Gibeonites of the past.
Let us have a church that dares imitate the heroism of Jesus; seek inspiration as he sought it; judge the past as I he; act on the present like him ; pray as he prayed; work as he wrought; live as he lived. Let our doctrines and our forms fit the soul, as the limbs fit the body, growing out of it, growing with it. Let us have a church for the whole man: truth for the mind; good works for the hands; love for the heart ; and for the soul, that aspiring after perfection, that unfaltering faith in God which, like lightning in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark. Let our church fit man, as the heavens fit the earth!
In our day men have made great advances in science, commerce, manufactures, in all the arts of life. We need, therefore, a development of religion corresponding thereto. The leading minds of the age ask freedom to inquire; not merely to believe, but to know; to rest on facts. A great spiritual movement goes swiftly forward. The best men see that religion is religion; theology is theology, and not religion; that true religion is a very simple affair, and the popular theology a very foolish one; that the Christianity of Christ is not the Christianity of the street, or the state, or the churches; that Christ is not the model-man, only "imputed" as such. These men wish to apply good sense to matters connected with religion; to apply Christianity to life, and make the world a better place, men and women fitter to live in it. In this way they wish to get a theology that is true; a mode of religion that works, and works well. If a church can answer these demands, it will be a live church; leading the civilization of the times, living with all the mighty life of this age, and nation. Its prayers wilt be a lifting up of the hearts in noble men towards God, in search of truth, goodness, piety. Its sacraments will be great works of reform, institutions for the comfort and the culture of men. Let us have a church in which religion, goodness towards men and piety towards God, shall be the main thing; let us have a degree of that suited to the growth and demands of this age. In the middle ages, men had erroneous conceptions of religion, no doubt; yet the church led the world. When she wrestled with the state, the state came undermost to the ground. See the results of that supremacy—all over Europe there arose the cloister, halls of learning for the chosen few, minster, dome, cathedral, miracles of art, each costing the wealth of a province. Such was the embodiment of their ideas of religion, the prayers of a pious age done in stone, a psalm petrified as it rose from the world's mouth ; a poor sacrifice, no doubt, but the best they knew how to offer. Now if men were to engage in religion as in politics, commerce, arts; if the absolute religion, the Christianity of Christ, were applied to life with all the might of this age, as the Christianity of the church was then applied, what a result should we not behold ! We should build up a great state with unity in the nation, and freedom in the people; a state where there was honourable work for every hand, bread for all mouths, clothing for all backs, culture for every mind, and love and faith in every heart. Truth would be our sermon, drawn from the oldest of Scriptures, God's writing there in nature, here in man; works of daily duty would be our sacrament; prophets inspired of God would minister the word, and piety send up her psalm of prayer, sweet in its notes, and joyfully prolonged. The noblest monument to Christ, the fairest trophy of religion, is a noble people, where all are well fed and clad, industrious, free, educated, manly, pious, wise, and good.
Some of you may now remember, how ten months and more ago, I first came to this house to speak. I shall remember it for ever. In those Fainy Sundays the very skies looked dark. Some came doubtingly, uncertain, looking around, and hoping to find courage in another's hope. Others came with clear glad face; openly, joyfully, certain they were right; not fearing to meet the issue; not afraid to be seen meeting it. Some came, perhaps, not used to worship in a church, but not the less welcome here; some mistaking me for a destroyer, a doubter, a denier of all truth, a scoffer, an enemy to man and God! I wonder not at that. Misguided men had told you so, in sermon and in song; in words publicly printed and published without shame; in the covert calumny, slyly whispered in the dark! Need I tell you my feelings; how I felt at coming to the town made famous by great men, Mayhew, Clmuncy, Buckminster, Kirkland, Holley, Pierpont, Channing, Ware—names dear and honoured in my boyish heart! Need I tell you how I felt at sight of the work which stretched out before me? Do you wonder that I asked, Who is sufficient for these things? and said, Alas, not I, Thou knowest, Lord! But some of you told me you asked not the wisdom of a wiser man, the ability of one stronger, but only that I should do what I could. I came, not doubting that I had some truths to say; not distrusting God, nor man, nor you; distrustful only of myself. I feared I had not the power, amid the dust and noises of the day, to help you see and hear the great realities of religion as they appeared to me; to help you feel the life of real religion, as in my better moments I have felt its truth ! But let that pass. As I came here from Sunday to Sunday, when I began to feel your spirits prayed with mine a prayer for truth and life; as I looked down into your faces, thoughtful and almost breathless, I forgot my self-distrust; I saw the time was come; that, feebly as I know I speak, my best thoughts were ever the most welcome! I saw the harvest was plenteous indeed: but the preacher, I feel it still, was all unworthy of his work!
Brothers and Sisters, let us be true to our sentiments and ideas. Let us not imitate another's form unless it symbolize a truth to us. We must not affect to be singular, but not fear to be alone. Let us not foolishly separate from our brothers elsewhere. Truth is yet before us, not only springing up out of the manly words of this Bible, but out of the ground ; out of the heavens; out of man and God. 'Whole firmaments of truth hang ever o'er our heads, waiting the telescopic eye of the true-hearted see-er. Let us follow truth, in form, thought, or sentiment, wherever she may call. God's daughter cannot lead us from the path. The further on we go, the more we find. Had Columbus turned back only the day before he saw the land, the adventure had been worse than lost.
We must practise a manly self-denial. Religion always demands that, but never more than when our brothers separate from us, and we stand alone. By our mutual love and mutual forbearance, we shall stand strong. With zeal for our common work, let us have charity for such as dislike us, such as oppose and would oppress us. Let us love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for such as despitefully use us. Let us overcome their evil speech with our own goodness. If others have treated us ill, called us unholy names, and mocked at us, let us forgive it all, here and now, and help them also to forget and outgrow that temper which bade them treat us so. A kind answer is fittest rebuke to an unkind word.
If we have any truth it will not be kept hid. It will run over the brim of our urn and water our brother's field. Were any truth to come down to us in advance from God, it were not that we might forestall the light, but shed it forth for all His children to walk by and rejoice in. "One candle will light a thousand" if it be itself lighted. Let our light shine before men so that they may see our good deeds, and themselves praise God by a manly life. This we owe to them as to ourselves. A noble thought and a mean man make a sorry union. Let our idea show itself in our life—that is preaching, right eloquent. Do this, we begin to do good to men, and though they should oppose us, and our work should fail, we shall have yet the approval of our own heart, the approval of God, be whole within ourselves, and one with Him.
Some of you are venerable men. I have wondered that a youthful ardour should have brought you here. Your silvery heads have seemed a benediction to my work. But most of you are young. I know it is no aping of a fashion that has brought you here. I have no eloquence to charm or please you with; I only speak right on. I have no reputation but a bad name in the churches. I know you came not idly, but seeking after truth. Give a great idea to an old man, and he carries it to his grave; give it to a young man, and he carries it to his life. It will bear both young and old through the grave and into eternal heaven beyond.
Young men and women, the duties of the world fall eminently on you. God confides to your hands the ark which holds the treasures of the age. On young shoulders He lays the burden of life. Yours is the period of passion; the period of enterprise and of work. It is by successive generations that mankind goes forward. The old, stepping into honourable graves, leave their places and the results they won to you. But departing they seem to say, as they linger and look back, Do ye greater than we have done! The young just coming into your homes seem to say, Instruct us to be nobler than yourselves I Your life is the answer to your children and your sires. The next generation will be as you make it. It is not the schools but the people's character that educates the child. Amid the trials, duties, dangers of your life, religion alone can guide you. It is not the world's eye that is on you, but God's; it is not the world's religion that will suffice you, but the religion of a Man, which unites you with truth, justice, piety, goodness ; yes, which makes you one with God!
Young men and women — you can make this church a fountain of life to thousands of fainting souls. Yes, you can make this city nobler than city ever was before. A manly life is the best gift yon can leave mankind; that can be copied for ever. Architects of your own weal or woe, your destiny is mainly in your own hands. It is no great thing to reject the popular falsehoods; little and perhaps not hard. But to receive the great sentiments and lofty truths of real religion, the Christianity of Christ; to love them, to live them in your business and your home, that is the greatest work of man. Thereby, you partake of the spirit and nature of God; you achieve the true destiny for yourself; you help your brothers do the same.
When my own life is measured by the ideal of that young Nazarene, I know how little I deserve the name of Christian; none knows that fact so well as I. But you have been denied the name of Christian because you came here, asking me to come. Let men see that you have the reality, though they withhold the. name. Tour words are the least part of what you say to men. The foolish only will judge you by your talk; wise men by the general tenour of your life. Let your religion appear in your work and your play. Pray in your strongest hours. Practise your prayers. By fair-dealing, justice, kindness, self-control, and the great work of helping others while you help yourself, let your life prove a worship. These are the real sacraments and Christian communion with God, to which water and wines are only helps. Criticize the world not by censure only, but by the example of a great life. Shame men out of their littleness, not by making mouths, but by walking great and beautiful amongst them. You love God best when you love men most. Let your prayers be an uplifting of the soul in thought, resolution, love, and the light thereof shall shine through the darkest hour of trouble. Have not the Christianity of the street; but cany Christ's Christianity there. Be noble men, then your works must needs be great and manly.
This is the first Sunday of a new year. What an hour for resolutions ; what a moment for prayer! If you have sins in your bosom, cast them behind you now. In the last year, God has blessed us ; blessed us all. On some his angels waited, robed in white, and brought new joys; here a wife, to bind men closer yet to Providence; and there a child, a new Messiah, sent to tell of innocence and heaven. To some his angels came clad in dark livery, veiling a joyful countenance with unpropitious wings, and bore away child, father, sister, wife, or friend. Still were they angels of good Providence, all God's own; and he who looks aright finds that they also brought a blessing, but concealed, and left it, though they spoke no word of joy. One (day our weeping brother shall find that gift and wear it as a diamond on his breast.The hours are passing over us, and with them the day. What shall the future Sundays be, and what the year? What we make them both. God gives us time. We weave it into life, such figures as we may, and wear it as we will. Age slowly rots away the gold we are set in, but the adamantine soul lives on, radiant every way in the light streaming down from God. The genius of eternity, star-crowned, beautiful, and with prophetic eyes, leads us again to the gates of time, and gives us one more year, bidding us fill that golden cup with water as we can or will. There stand the dirty, fetid pools of worldliness and sin; curdled and mantled, film-covered, streaked, and striped with many a hue, they shine there, in the slanting light of new-born day. Around them stand the sons of earth and cry, Come hither; drink thou and be saved! Here fill thy golden cup I There you may seek to fill your urn ; to stay your thirst. The deceitful element, roping in your hands, shall mock your lip. It is water only to the eye. Nay, show-water only unto men half-blind. But there, hard by, runs down the stream of life, its waters never frozen, never dry; fed by perennial dews falling unseen from God. Fill there thine urn, oh, brother-man, and thou shalt thirst no more for selfishness and crime, and faint no more amid the toil and heat of day; wash there, and the leprosy of sin, its scales of blindness, shall fall off, and thou be clean for ever. Kneel there and pray; God shall inspire thy heart with truth and love, and fill thy cup with never-ending joy!
- Rev. John Pierpont.