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The establishment of the Christian church introduces a new moral standard among men-superceding the standard of the world. It gives us, as rules of action, divine principles in place of human expediency, and offers us the guidance of the Holy Spirit instead of the blind despotism of public opinion. Those who ally themselves to the church, knowing what they are about, and espousing the kingdom of Christ in the spirit of his righteousness, are those who are persuaded that the heavenly wisdom is best; that the maxims of men are fallacious, and the impulses of self-interest deceitful ; that we live well just in proportion as we live right; that we are truly great, to the extent that we are just, magnanimous, and enlightened ; that as many elements of heaven as we assimilate to our present life, contribute to render our being just as immutable and glorious as the lives of the angels.
These ideas and convictions, shared by an association of men and women, are what form a church. Without them, there is no such thing. There may be an organization calling itself a church ; but, not all the bishops that have held jurisdiction, not all the orthodoxy that can be distilled from the historical creeds, not all the sacraments that were ever tasted, can convert a body of men and women into a church, unless they are imbued with the spirit of Christ, and actuated by the wisdom of Heaven. These things distinguish a real church from other associations. The people who exhibit these traits,—the people in whose organization the spirit of Christ is the breath, and the wisdom of heaven the law,--are the first fruits of the new commonwealth which is destined to supplant, according to the purpose of God, all the crude and partial organizations of this world. If there be a true church any where in Christendom, it is fashioned upon this divine type ; to it pertain the promises and the dominion of the future. However limited its company, and however feeble its human aspect, it has the germ of boundless expansion, and “the immortal years of God” to achieve its conquests.
Such is the true idea of the church. Now, there are always tendencies in human nature, and in the shifting circumstances of society, that threaten to demoralize this divine institution. A church is no sooner founded, than the world strives to debase it to its own level ; because the world feels, instinctively, that this is the only way to resist it. An issue rises in the church, and it becomes necessary to take some practical action. It may be a case of discipline, or a case in which choice must be made between two interests that are agitating society. The church must take a position. Now, let us bear in mind that all the members of the church have probably been educated in the world, bred under its favorite maxims, and accustomed to respect its policy. The influence of the old training remains. The new morality proves weak when matched against former habits and ideas. How natural it is, that when these people come to act as a church, they should act according to the maxims of the world, preferring expediency to principle, and accepting public opinion in place of the Holy Spirit. In other words, how natural that they should act just like a purely social organization—like a political party, for instance-looking only to immediate consequences, and ignoring, for the time being, the spiritual claims and resources peculiar to them as a church.
And yet, how plain it is, that, by acting on the maxims of the world, they have ceased to be a church! Their divine charter is gone; the Holy Spirit is withdrawn; Christ strikes them from the roll of the army of regeneration. They may exist still like other social organizations ; and they may exert a certain influence common to all corporations; but their assumption of being a church any longer, is sophistical and impudent. They have proclaimed before God and man, that, in their deliberate judgment, they may prosper without the blessing of Heaven, but can not venture to offend the world which they were enlisted to subjugate. As a church, they have committed spiritual suicide-rejecting the element that made them a divine agency, and betraying the moral infidelity that is not merely a misfortune but a crime.
We shrink from contemplating the guilt of modern ecclesiasticism, as it looms forth in the light of such reflections. We avert our vision from the spectacle of the venerable Mother of churches,—so fallen from spiritual dignity, so oblivious to the sanctity of the divine commission she belies, so deaf to the admonitions of heavenly wisdom and justice, -whose idea of subduing the world allows her to fraternize with its political ainbition, to pander to its salient passions,
to emulate the craft of its diplomacy, to rival military despotism, and to gloss its most damning depravity. The ancient ecclesiasticism, whose authority penetrates the strata of European development, rises above the average level of social morality in no particular, and is heartily espoused to the tyrannies that protect it from the righteous hatred of the foremost minds. Once it had some claim to being known as a church, for it sheltered justice, truth, and love from the ravaging sway of barbarism and anarchy. But now there is nothing to distinguish it from the world, but assumptions that are known to rest upon imposture, and a ceremonial that assumes perpetual childhood in humanity. It is not a church, we repeat, governed by the august principles that dignify the divine economy; but a huge corporation, the ductile worshipper of expediency, skilled in the use of compromises, with the subtlest scent for what men of the world call “ the main chance."
How is it possible that live men in Europe,-men who are moulded in the highest type of honor, who love their country's weal and fame, who are fired by the better genius of the age, who aspire to realize a social system that shall render justice to all men,-should love or respect the Romish religion? Those men hear the Bible quoted, not to animate and cheer the heavy-laden, but to ratify the oppression of rulers and badger the people into submission. They everywhere find the priests ready to back the soldiers; and they remember that when, only a few years since, freedom rose amid the sepulchres of Rome, the jealous pontiff locked hands with the nearest civil despot, and suppressed it at the point of the bayonet. They have learned to identify religion with despotism, and they hate the church as the bulwark of the throne; they have learned to associate infidelity with freedom, and they glory in what seem to favor the best aspirations of the time. Thus the moral infidelity of the Romish church necessitates a speculative infidelity in Europe, apart from any doubts that may be suggested concerning its dogmatic theology.
What relation do the American churches bear to the corresponding phenomenon in this country? Has our ecclesiasticism been uniformly actuated by principle, as distinguished from expediency; and ruled by the Holy Spirit, as opposed to public opinion ? Has there been a distinction preserved, obvious to all observers, between the motives and methods and aims of church organizations, and those characterizing secular associations? Has the wisdom from above been manifest in the administration of that which claims to have descended from above; and have the Christian sects, in the lusty vigor of faith and love, made themselves the terror of wrong-doers, the champions of the weak, and the heralds of the glory of the Lord ?
Alas! for the confession we must make. Too often has the policy of the world undermined the walls of rectitude and faith that fortify the divinity of the churches, and the abomination of desolation ravaged the holy place. Too often have the agencies consecrated to the regeneration of society, been subservient to the opinions and interests that chanced to be popular and powerful. The history of the ebb and flow of the anti-slavery sentiment in this country, illustrates the general subserviency of the sects. Fifty years ago, when the speedy extension of slavery was contemplated, and when the tone of the national conscience and the judgment of the national mind were equally hostile to its perpetuity, the pulpit, as far south at least as Virginia, was accustomed to speak out in emphatic condemnation of slave-holding. When the rise of the cotton interest and the acquisition of new territory created a re-action in favor of slavery, the churches commenced to apologize for it, and the preachers grew discreet in their allusions to it. As the retrogression of opinion extended, it was found to be a
disturbing” subject to discuss, even on moral grounds; · and the preachers, forbidden to condemn it under penalty of losing the support of their parishes, began to examine the Bible anew to learn whether second sight, quickened by self-interest, might not detect some divine sanction for the victorious iniquity! For the last ten years, the tíde has been rolling back, and the churches have been gradually recovering their moral equilibrium. While the anti-slavery sentiment has been reviving in society, ecclesiastical bodies have been taking stronger positions, and preachers have been growing bolder—although even now, when the natural spirit of slavery has borne its appropriate fruit in treason and insurrection against the Republic, we suspect there are but few preachers who can bear emphatic testimony against the colossal iniquity, without creating an unpleasant sensation in their congregations. These reminiscences show that our churches, with respect to the greatest interest involved in our national development, have been passive reflectors of public opinion, rather than vigorous creators thereof.
Occupying so discreditable a position—evincing so little faith in truth and justice, or in God's providence as the bulwark of righteousness—how was it possible for them to secure that respect which is the basis of influence, or to inspire society with due confidence in spiritual realities? Churches can never impart more than they possess; and if they themselves distrust the Christian religion so far as to fear to confide in its principles and promises, in the face of a hostile public sentiment, ought we to marvel that the weeds of scepticism grow rank in the garden of our social life, sheltering the snaky appetites that infest infamous opportunities, and casting an ominous shadow across the path that winds to prayer ?
So much of the existing doubt and irreligion as may have been provoked by the moral infidelity of the churches, may be removed by a resurrection of spiritual life—of faith, charity, and courage—in the Christian denominations. This presents itself to our mind as the nearest, most urgent, most practicable work. There may be intellectual problems which we are not yet competent to grapple with. There may be speculative doubts that can not be dislodged by any argument wielded by reason. There may be principles in dogmatic theology that veil their true relations in the shadows of the infinite. But truth incarnated in noble men and women, is crossed by no ambiguities, but has a clear utterance, and carries universal conviction. The Scripture of God, read in a life broadly based in rectitude, furnished with wisdom and love, and mellowing with years into a heavenly tint, needs no commentary; it appeals to the common moral sense of men, as a divine revelation of their possibilities and duties. The Romish church was rescued in the sixteenth century, by a spiritual renovation within-a renovation that was felt and seen, as Macaulay testifies, from the Vatican to the most secluded hermitage of the Apennines. May the Protestant churches be rescued, in this age, from the dark hosts of doubt and irreligion that beleaguer them, by a resurrection of buried principles, by a brave assertion of the claims of liberty, and by aspirations for the Holy Spirit that shall invest them with the power of God unto salvation !