The Christian Disciple
New Series – No. 21
May and June, 1822
THE DIFFICULTIES OF
THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY AT THE PRESENT PERIOD.
—AN ADDRESS DELIVERED TO THE MINISTERS ASSEMBLED IN BERRY STREET
May 29, 1822. 
The subject given for our consideration at this time is,the difficulties of the Christian ministry at the present period.
Every age has its distinctive character; and the ministry of every time has had its distinctive facilities and difficulties. It was from the opposing circumstances in the state and character of the time, that arose the peculiar difficulties of the ministry of our Lord and of his apostles. Their ministry was a struggle of light against darkness; of truth, in all the divine simplicity in which it could be taught, against error in almost every Variety of form, entrenched by mystery, and defended by all the skill of the learned, and the authority of the powerful. It was reason opposed to sordid interests, and to triumphant vicious passions. In Judea, it was a contest for the precedence of true love to God, and love to man, of spiritual worship and of moral obedience, over ritual observances, beyond which no one looked for the conditions and means of acceptance. And throughout the Gentile world, the apostles were called to warfare, not alone against idolatry, and vices too gross even to be named among Christians, which were sanctioned by the examples of the gods that were worshiped, but with a proud and,contemptuous philosophy, as ready even as the most arrogant sectarian of Judea to inquire, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? But, as our religion became corrupted, the facilities of its ministry were increased; and for centuries, in proportion to the advance that was made in mystical interpretations of the language of Christ and his apostles; in proportion as men could he persuaded that doctrines were important, in the degree in.which they were mysterious; and that faith was efficacious, to the extent to which it implied the sacrifice of reason; for centuries, while the priesthood was considered as the depository of sacred truth, and men were restrained, not alone from unbelief, but from inquiry, by fear of the anathemas of their spiritual guides; the ministry, if so this horrible perversion of the sacred office must be called, was a service as easy, as it was itself debased. And were not the difficulties of the reformation, emphatically, the difficulties of delivering christendom from the spell of mystery, and the bondage of fear, in which the papal power so long had holden it? Much indeed was done, by the transfer of the scriptures from the cells of monks, to the hands of the people. But in the prevailing ignorance of the age, and in the habit, that was universal, of submission to superiors in all the matters of religion, mystery, if it was not still the very soul of religion, was yet felt to be absolutely essential to its existence; and fear was the right arm with which it wielded its sanctions, and enforced its laws. The light that broke out from God's word, in the first interpretations that were given of it, was thought to be all the light that it was designed to impart to man. The people received the dogmas that were taught in catechisms, or were inculcated from the pulpit, without examination, and without doubt; or if doubt was felt and expressed, the united power of great names, and of the civil arm in enforcing conformity, secured the paramount influence of the clergy. Very different therefore are the circumstances of the ministry at the present period; and to a brief view of them I would respectfully ask your attention.
With the eighteenth century began a new era in protestant christendom. Mills' collations were published in 1707; and since that time, every manuscript and version of the New Testament has been examined and compared with the most scrupulous exactness; and the means of judging for himself, concerning the true text of the evangelists and apostles, have been extended to every one, both of the clergy and laity, who can read the Greek Testament. The spell in which the minds of men were long bound, has thus been broken. All the subjects of christian theology have been freely discussed; rules of scripture criticism and interpretation have been established; the exact import of scripture language, on topics once thought to he too mysterious for the investigation of man, has been brought within the reach of all, who have desired to read the scriptures for themselves. And great, almost beyond example, is the change which has thus been effected in the character of society. The principles which consequently distinguish our own time are, a general spirit of liberty, and a feeling of independence on these subjects, that pervades all classes of the community; the sentiment and feeling of the right of an entire freedom of opinion upon all the subjects of religion. Inquiries concerning doctrines are now pursued, without fear either of the ecclesiastical, or of the civil arm; and these inquiries have become subjects of interest to all classes of the people. This spirit and feeling, nurtured as it is by our systems of education, and associated with as strong a sense of all personal and civil rights, is the most striking—and, in the language of the world, the proudest—characteristic of the time in which we live. It has produced results most glorious to our religion, and most satisfactory to the lovers of uncorrupted truth. It has brought many, very many, to the faith, and love, and obedience of Christ, who were unbelievers, till they had learned to distinguish between genuine and spurious christianity. It has also brought many, very many, who still retain the distinctive names, which were once associated with all that is sound in doctrine, and valuable in hope, to explanations and concessions, which make modern orthodoxy as unlike to that of Luther or Calvin, as it is to what is called, rational christianity. But let us consider it particularly in its bearing upon the objects of our ministry; and on the peculiar character and duties to which it calls us, as ministers of Christ. It has its great and inestimable advantages. But it has also its difficulties. What are they?
I answer, 1st, they arise from the new character that sectarism has obtained from the progress of society; and from the characteristic influence which it is exerting throughout christendom,— and no where more than in our own country.
It is not surprising, that christians, even in the age of the apostles, were separated into distinct fraternities, refusing communion with each other. The spirit of the age, with regard to religion, was universally a spirit of sectarism; and a miraculous energy must have been exerted upon the minds of men, to have precluded this effect, not less than was employed in restoring life to the dead. But the sectarism of the age of our Lord and his apostles, had comparatively little interest in, or regard for,the multitude.The scribes and pharisees would not have compassed sea and land to make one—no, nor to make many proselytes,among the common people.The objects of sectarism in Judea, as of philosophy in Greece and Rome, were the learned, the rich and the powerful. The Sadducees were satisfied with their security, though they were comparatively few in number, because they possessed in talent, and in all the sources of influence, means to cope with their great rivals, against all the resistance that could he opposed by an unlettered populace. And not very dissimilar was the sectarism of the age of Luther and Calvin. It was a struggle of the learned and powerful with the learned and powerful. The people indeed, from being spectators of the combat, became adherents of one or the other of the contending parties. But as far as they were actors, they were little more than physical agents. Whatever arms reason might employ for the conviction of the few, authority was the instrument for the conversion of the many. Under this character of sectarism, the ministry had its characteristic difficulties to encounter. Sect was arrayed against sect, as the standing army of one country was arrayed against the standing army of another country. The people blindly followed their leaders; and every leader, where his interests were not otherwise to be advanced, was a persecutor. But, God be thanked, the times are changed. Sectarism has now no altar for Moloch, As the public mind has become enlightened on the subjects of religion, the spirit of religion has itself been extended; and thus a redeeming power has been formed, which has arrested from sectarism the instruments of its greatest cruelties. And not only so. In proportion as the people have been enlightened, they have become parties to be consulted, as well as occasionally to act, on the great questions that divide Christendom. Sectarism therefore, in all its departments, is thus called to new means and efforts for the accomplishment of its ends. Its spirit now, as from the beginning, is a spirit of exclusiveness. It shuts up all truth, all piety, and all hope, within its own pale; and immolates character with the same temper, with which it offered its bloody sacrifices. It not only arrogates to itself the sole right to any hope to heaven, but it thinks that heaven is secured to itself, in proportion to the number and strength of the bolts and bars, with which it shuts others out of it. But it addresses itself directly to the people.It addresses the strongest passions of human nature, and enlists them in its own service. It fearlessly encroaches wherever it can act; and invites for itself the persecution, which in other circumstances it would exercise. And does our religion less imperatively call those, who would exercise a ministry which disclaims sectarism, to proportionate labour and earnestness, for the advancement among the people of correct religious opinions and sentiments; and for the exercise of that enlarged piety and benevolence, which will at once impose on sectarism the strongest restraints, and most effectually promote the moral objects of the gospel?
The difficulties of the ministry at the present day, where it is exposed to the attacks of sectarism, though distinct from those of the time when the body of the people was comparatively unenlightened, are yet as great, as is the popular ignorance on the subject of religion; as great as the passions and interests are strong, which expose the multitude to the spirit of sectarism. In proportion as the people are unenlightened on the true principles and ends of christianity, sectarism will retain its influence, and will extend its empire; and in proportion as we can extend to the people the means of religious knowledge, and right conceptions and feelings of its designs, sectarism will be curtailed in its power, and circumscribed in its limits. The difficulties of the ministry, in this respect, are not small; for great as has been the progress of religious knowledge, far greater has been the advancement of the feeling of the right of private judgment in religion. But instead of discouraging exertion, let these difficulties excite us to it. While the causes remain, which expose the people to mistake the means of religion for its end, and to rest in faith, and rites and forms, rather than to labour for a religious temper and life; while ambition, pride, and the other selfish and worldly passions and interests, are mingled and combined with the interests and ends of religion, and men are disposed rather to give the spirit of their passions to religion, than to give to religion dominion over their passions; there will neither be wanting leaders of sects, nor materials for sectarism. The difficulties, however, which sectarism now brings upon a ministry that disclaims it, are no other than we should have to encounter in some other shape, in the same individuals, if we would bring them to the simplicity of the christian character. Be it our care then, to be as active and as persevering in the work of extending truth, as sectarians are in the propagation of error; as anxious to warm the hearts, as to enlighten the understandings of our hearers; as zealous for the spirit, as others are for the,forms of religion. And let us be ourselves more serious, more earnest in all our duties as christian ministers, that they to whom we minister may not have ground even for a momentary suspicion, that others are more interested than we are, or are ready to do more, in the cause of their instruction and salvation. Let us learn of sectarians, that to preach effectually, we must address, as they do, the strongest principles of human nature. Not however, as they do, to enlist these principles, in the service of a party; but to bring every interest and hope, every thought and feeling of those who hear us, into obedience to Christ. These are difficulties, which demand our utmost vigilance, our deliberate judgment, and our most earnest zeal, at once for the advancement of aknowledge of genuine christianity, and for the exercise and extension of a christian spirit.
Secondly. It is, I think, a characteristic circumstance of the time, arising from the unlimited freedom with which religious topics have been, and are discussed, that religion has thus been made, to a great extent, a matter rather of dispute and of opinion, than a vial principle of obedience to God.
I consider this as an evil distinct from sectarism, although its influence, without doubt, extends to all the sects into which christendom has been divided. It is an error as well of the most liberal, as of the most bigoted christians. It acts as strongly upon those who would break down all the walls of separation between christian societies, as upon those who would give to them the firmest establishment. It arises, in some, from the disposition to obtain, at the cheapest rate, the character and feeling of being religious; but in most, from the strong tendency of the human mind, to rest in immediate results; to feel that, in the possession of means, it possesses also the ends, for the attainment of which these results were designed, and in which is all their actual value. It is however, at once, one of the most influential of the circumstances, which restrain the progress of right opinions, and which keep back society from the improved condition, to which right opinions, conducing to their proper ends, would advance it. It is an evil which calls for the careful discrimination, and for the united wisdom and exertions to overcome it, of those, whose distinction is not less Unitarianism, and its associated doctrines, than the sentiment, if any man have not the spirit—the principles and temper, the interests and affections—of Christ, he is none of his.
Religion has indeed always, to a great extent, been rather a matter of opinion, even where opinion was scarcely disputed, than a vital principle of obedience to God. But while most other controversies have had for their object the mere externals of religion—the authority of the church, the distinctions of order among ecclesiastics, the forms of ordination and of worship, the mode and subjects of baptism, the kind and character of discipline, the precedence of faith and of good works in the article of salvation, &c.—The Unitarian controversy has called attention to the first principles,, on which alone all true religion can rest, the nature and character of God. The unitarian controversy, in the days of Arius, was confined to a few; and the last appeal was to a council. It is now tried at the bar of the public; and the greatest questions that can engage human attention, are now proposed to all. All the classes of sectarism are also called upon, in this controversy, to defend the doctrines, in which they have been most agreed; and in their defence, they who were otherwise the most opposed to each other, are made friends. The doctrine of the trinity now retains its hold upon the public mind, principally, from the influence which the doctrines associated with it, have tong exerted upon the minds of men. In this contest, Arminianism has become, comparatively, but a name; because, where the doctrine of the trinity was received without those associated doctrines to which it is indispensable, inquiry has resulted in conviction, that it is not a doctrine of the scriptures. Arminians have therefore become Unitarians. And while unitarians are employing all the powers of criticism, and of reasoning, in extending right notions of God, as of the first importance to right views of religion, with not less earnestness and perseverance are trinitarians labouring to support their distinctive dogma, by supporting its associated doctrines. This is perhaps a stage in the progress of mind, through which communities must pass, during the conflict of opinions, with which all the interests and hopes of religion itself are associated, not by the great combatants alone,. but by all their followers. I need not say, that great are the difficulties, and great the labours, to which it calls us, as faithful ministers of Christ. It is a duty growing out of the fundamental principle of unitarianism—that every doctrine of christianity is at once rational and practical—with whatever zeal we defend, and endeavour to propagate our opinions, that we make it a primary object, to secure and to extend their practical influence. As far as our opinions only, as unitarians, are concerned, the greatest difficulties of our ministry are overcome. Our facilities for spreading a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, are great; and enlarged views of our religion are continually spreading wider, and commending themselves more and more to the enlightened judgments of men. But if we would be instruments of God in extending the spirit of our religion, by inspiring men with its feelings, and by giving the strongest impression of its principles as rules of life; if we would bring home to every heart the doctrine, which is first and last in our religion, that right opinions will conduce no further to acceptance with God, than they conduce to a character of heart and life that are according to godliness, the difficulties of our ministry in this view of them, are not less,—they are even greater,—than are those which arise from the new character and spirit, which distinguish the sectarism of the day.
Without the eye of a prophet, it might have been foreseen, amidst the conflicts and agitations of the public mind, while inquiries were pending, the decision of which would overthrow, or establish the prevailing faith of centuries, that in the stronger grasp with which doctrines would be retained, where they are holden against the force of facts and arguments, and the equal zeal and earnestness with which new views of truth could be maintained by those who received them, doctrines, or rather opinions, would be felt to be of paramount importance; and be held, and mistaken for, the end of religion. The importance of right opinions in religion is indeed second only in importance to religion itself. But the opinion which, as far as respects religion, is of all others the most important, is, that all opinions which are called religious, are in truth to ourselves, and to all who receive them, religious opinions, no further than they exert a religious influence on the heart and life. Religion, it is admitted, is not, and cannot be, independent of opinion. But opinion, even on the subjects of most solemn concern to religion, may be, and often is, wholly independent of all influence from religion. Opinions on the subjects of religion may be, and too often are, like our garments, a mere covering. They may distinguish, and in the view of those who approve of them, they may adorn us. But religion itself, like the warm current from the heart, is the principle of moral life to the soul; and like our blood, it can maintain the life that depends on it, only by an incessant circulation through every muscle, nerve and fibre, of the moral system.
Thirdly. The difficulties of our ministry at the present period, arise from the inseparable connexion between ministerial influence and usefulness, and a conformity of our own characters and lives to the distinct and appropriate objects of our office.
The time has been, when the people throughout christendom, not less than do the ignorant multitudes in lands that are covered with the darkness of heathenism, have looked to the lips of the priests alone for all their religious knowledge; and for all the hope, likewise, they might indulge as christians. Very great has been the influence of our office, independent of the literary and moral character and attainments of those who have held it. And great must it necessarily have been, when it was considered as the depository of the most solemn mysteries, into which none but the priest might penetrate; and each of which was of tremendous concern to mankind. But the advance that has been made by the public mind in religious knowledge, in this respect also has greatly changed the character of society. Men are not now respected merely because they assume an office, nor merely because they are raised to an office. They must raise themselves to the elevation of public sentiment concerning their office. Comparatively, at this day—at least in this section of our country—men do not go to church because it is the custom to go. It is not an object to worship where their fathers worshipped. Doctrines are not received, merely because their fathers believed them. Forms are not retained, merely because usage has sanctioned them. There is every day less and less authority in the cassock and bands; and every day narrows the influence of mere bold assertion, and of dogmatical assumption. In proportion as men are acting from, and for themselves, each feeling that he has a personal stake in the community; that he has personal rights to be maintained and exercised; and that the most important of these is, the right of private judgment in religion; this judgment is to be wisely directed, not by any mere right or power of office, but by adding to the stock of public intelligence on the subjects of religion; by opposing error and vice with argument; by enlightened appeals to conscience, to the principles of God’s government, and to the word by which we are all to be judged in the last day. As ministers of Christ, we can obtain a truly christian influence, and extend the genuine objects of our religion, only by keeping in advance of the public mind on the great objects of christian duty, interest and hope; by shewing ourselves to be qualified for the services and ends of the ministerial office. This is a state of society which has its great and inestimable advantages. But it demands of us proportionably great circumspection and exertions, if we would obtain the end of our office, the instruction and salvation of those who hear us.
The unreformed liturgy of the church of England, long as it has outlived the prejudices and the superstitions of the time of its formation, yet stands as a memorial of the power which the reformation retained to its ministers in that establishment; and wherever distinct forms of religion are established by law, a creed of human device, which excludes all but those who receive it from the hope of salvation; the clergy as defenders of this exclusive faith, and guardians of the mysteries it involves, possess much of the authority, and exert much of the influence, which this faith and these mysteries have over the minds of those who receive them. But situated as we are, without an establishment; our churches asserting each its own independence; with no other ecclesiastical tribunal than a mutual council, whose powers are defined by the parties by which it is called together; the nature, rights and duties of our office well understood by those to whom we minister; the right felt by every individual of thinking and judging for himself, on all the subjects on which we preach, and on every part of our conduct as christian ministers; in find, the feeling that prevails, and is daily more and more extending, that it is character which gives sanctity to our office, and not office that gives sanctity to our character; and the constant tendency of our preaching, if we are faithful, to strengthen this sentiment and feeling, and to exalt the conceptions of those who hear us, of the moral standard by which, as well as others, we are ourselves to be judged; these are circumstances, that make personal character, at this day, to be of peculiar and vital importance to the objects of our ministry. As it is more extensively understood, and more strongly felt, that our religion is not necessarily dependent on any of the arbitrary forms which men have instituted; that it is addressed to the reason and conscience of every man, and that it is its great design, to bring every man to the holiness of the christian life; in proportion as it is understood and felt, that we are ministers of Christ, not by any extraordinary divine commission, delegating to us the authority of his ambassadors; that all our power is in our capacity of usefulness in the office we sustain, and our disposition to consecrate this capacity to our Master's service, in the business of instructing and of saving mankind; in the same proportion will our usefulness depend on our characters. The difficulties of our ministry in this respect, are the difficulties of the christian life; with this important distinction in regard to ourselves, that every precept we inculcate, and every motive we enjoin, is a principle by which we are ourselves tried at the bar of public opinion; and by which, if we are found guilty, our ministry to others is worse that'vain, and will be for our own condemnation.
We cannot, christian brethren, be too strongly impressed with a sense of the connexion between our own characters, and the interest and power of the views of christianity which we preach to others. It is said of us, that we preach a worldly morality;that we conform even our morality to the taste and prevailing habits of the time. And how can we so effectually refute the charge, as by a temper, conversation and deportment, which, even our enemies being judges, are those of the gospel? We cannot raise too highly the standard of christian morality. We cannot too earnestly excite men to good works, on the ground that they are good and profitable unto men. But we shall be believed, and the truth that we teach will be felt, in proportion as it is a means of our own sanctification. Instruction received through the eye is more slow, than that which is received through the ear. But it is received more distinctly, and more impressively. It is better understood in all its parts, and of surer influence in all its bearings. Example, but above all, ministerial example, is moral analysis, brought home to the comprehension and judgment even of the most ordinary understanding, And far better will it be for us, to give up our moral preaching, than to counteract its design and tendencies, by a practical commentary, which every one will understand; at which those who oppose us will most successfully cavil; and which will cover us with confusion at the bar of God.
It would be very easy to pass from one to another of the circumstances, which each of us might have alleged, as our own peculiar difficulties; and to fill up the brief time of our meeting with a mere enumeration of individual embarrassments in the discharge of our official duties. But these may, or may not, be attributable to the circumstances and character of the time in which we live. They may belong to the ministry itself, and be subjects of general interest and sympathy, or they may have no necessary connexion with our office, nor with any of its legitimate objects. Instead of dwelling on these peculiarities, I have wished to ascend to the principles, from which the present time derives its character; and to refer you to the circumstances of the time, which demand the most serious regard of christian ministers, in view both of the encouragements, and the difficulties, of our office.
Christian Brethren, by the simplicity and spirituality of our conversation and conduct, by the fidelity and earnestness of our preaching, and by our exclusive devotion to the objects and ends of our office, let men see that our aim is, our own, and the salvation of those to whom we minister. We have difficulties to encounter, in the suspicion with which we are viewed by those who differ from us; and in the high charges brought against us, because we do not preach doctrines, which we do not find in the records of the Evangelists and Apostles. But let our first care be, the attainment and maintenance in ourselves, of a mind and heart, sincerely consecrated to the duties of our office. Let the first difficulties of our ministry, which we endeavour to surmount, be those which arise rather from ourselves, than from circumstances without us. The truth, as it is in Jesus, is great, and it will prevail. It has already done much for the world; very much, even for those who reject it. It has most essentially changed the sentiments, character and habits of society, where it has prevailed. But it has yet great revolutions to effect, and great and glorious objects to accomplish; even in this world. Let us endeavour to understand these objects, as well as those of the eternal life before us; and give ourselves wholly to them. And where truth and right are, there may God give his blessing!"
The Christian Disciple: New Series – No. 21, May and June, 1822 - Joseph Tuckerman
After the first sheet of this address was printed, it was suggested to the author by a friend, that there might be thought to be want of definiteness in the use of the word Sectarism. The Author has only to observe on this subject, that in the use of this word, he intended to consider those only as Sectarians, who separate into distinct fraternities, and refuse communion with other professors of Christianity. This, he thinks, is the proper use of the word. In other words, its import is,exclusiveness.In England, the members of the establishment consider all as sectarians, who are dissenters. And the exclusives among ourselves, give the same appellation to all, who depart from what they think to be the faith, once delivered to the saints. If the word is used in this address, in a sense which some may think does not necessarily belong to it, it is hoped, at least, that its use here will be found, in every instance, to be consistent with the definition now given of it.