The Modes of Exerting Religious Influence at the Present Day

Nathaniel Thayer

Berry Street lecture, 1831


read before the Ministerial Conference

Boston, Massachusetts

May 25, 1831




            I ask your attention to a record of "the modes of exerting religions influence at the present day.”


            Reasons may be found in the state and prospects of the Christian community, which give immense weight and interest to this topic. The different sects of religionists show too many marks of being involved in a violent strife for pre-eminence. When this is the predominant motive, the struggle is rather for an ascendancy than for the advancement of practical godliness. It is a ruling propensity of the age, to use carnal weapons in sustaining the conflict instead of the weapons of our warfare, which are spiritual. To what but this propensity can we ascribe the industry, positiveness, dogmatism, of some sects in their attempt to bring railing accusations against or to annihilate other sects; to hold them up to public indignation; to excite suspicion of their religious rectitude; and to make them a by-word and a reproach. The limited knowledge, inveterate prejudice, or corrupt judgment of the passing period likewise appear in a substitution of the form for the power of religion; in advancing principles and theories to the rank of Christian fundamentals, which are the fruits of human device, and owe their origin to incoherent and false reasonings, or to unnatural and forced conclusions. A spirit of unbelief is also stalking through the land with shameless front, setting at defiance moral maxims and doctrines, which have received the unbiased and deliberate sanction of ancient and modern wisdom, and support an equitable claim to a no less venerable and high derivation than the inspired page.


            The men, who live during the reign of these incorrect, unscriptural and licentious views, and who are set for the defense of the gospel, when thus formidably assailed both by its friends and foes, are imperiously called upon for exertion. In their hands, with a divine blessing, is a redeeming power, which shall rescue the present generation from the dominion of these errors, aid in subjecting the individuals who belong to it to religious control, and provide a safe retreat for the generations who shall come after them.


            The modes of exerting religious influence should always be directed by the characteristic dispositions and properties of the age. With this general principle in remembrance, we may with appropriateness search for the prominent traits of the present day, and thence infer the means which are to be applied to give them a religious tendency. I hope to produce the impression that these means are a powerful engine, especially under direction of a prudent, faithful, and zealous ministry.


            1. One characteristic, which has never been so universal, is a thirst for religious knowledge.


            In this solicitude, as it now exists, there are noticeable peculiarities. Earlier generations were satisfied with superficial instruction; received for Christian verities what were published as such lay dignitaries of the Church; and showed no alarm at the extravagances or irrationality of any articles submitted to them. Christian faith and the modes of interpretation were believed to be the exclusive property of highly elevated ecclesiastics, above the comprehension and too sacred for the familiar investigation of the commonalty.            These days of intellectual and spiritual depression and of ecclesiastical prerogative and usurpation are passing away. Christianity is now more generally contemplated as the unalienable and common birthright of all who live in Christendom. The natural result of that liberty of perusal and judgment, wherewith men are now made free, is a more correct and just appreciation of the Bible. Each acquisition of a new truth enkindles the desire for farther attainment. It deserves to be recorded as a distinguishing and honorable symptom of our day, that there is a loud cry after Christian knowledge, and a general search for the treasure of eternal wisdom. We hear from all classes the question, "what is truth?” It is a consoling and joyful presage of the more rapid and general diffusion of primitive Christianity.


            In this season of solicitous and universal inquiry, what is the peculiar office of the spiritual guide? "If the trumpet gives an uncertain or confused sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?” It is matter of too much notoriety, it comes from the liberal provisions for the spread of knowledge and their successful operation, that the time for the extravagant elevation of Christian ministers in the judgment of the laity and their arbitrary and stern command of the common faith is past. This change in the state of the world is not to he deplored. It speaks well of the growing intelligence, spirit of inquiry, and ardent attachment to religious liberty of the people now on the stage. Still, the Christian ministry, through the office they hold, the relation they sustain to the family of Jesus, their appropriate duties and means of improvement in Christian theology do, and if discreet and wise will, maintain a highly important influence on the religious character of the age. This influence cannot be otherwise exerted with the prospect of a most favorable issue, than in open, unreserved, unequivocal, declaration of evangelical faith. The commonly received and undisputed maxim has lost none of its ancient force, that moral and religious worth in individuals and communities will be always in proportion to the knowledge and natural efficacy of truth. How weighty is the argument hence derived in favor of clear and undisguised expositions of scripture? How strongly does this plead the importance, of never suffering an inquirer after Christian truth to retire from a verbal interview, or from the hearing of a paraphrase or sermon, with the mortifying impression that his teacher has no fixed and decided system or character; has designedly withheld simple and uncolored statements and illustrations; or that he has a lingering„ longing desire to be in favor with classes of Christians, who have embraced and are propagating a theory, the moral and religious tendency of which he heartily deprecates? There can be no uncertainty whether rectitude in instruction, an unvarnished demonstration of truth can be practiced with entire inoffensiveness and decorum, in the exercise of perfect charity, and without the slightest suggestion that the patrons and preachers of opposing systems of faith are not influenced in their course by honest and upright intentions.


            Apart from private and public instruction as means of spreading a knowledge of truth, and as modes of exerting a religious influence, there is also a variety of others of which we are to avail ourselves as collateral, and having the same momentous tendency. This is justly denominated a reading age. Let this spirit be kept alive and the prevalent curiosity encouraged and gratified by having at command practical discussions of Christian doctrines and morals in the form of tracts, sermons, moral treatises, theological discussions, or whatever shall tend more fully to develop and enstamp upon the mind the great rule of life. In doing thus we may hope that we are in the use of the most efficient means to purify and sanctify the character of the people to whom we minister. There is never justifiable cause to be alarmed for the consequences of a temperate discussion of any point in theology. We may with correctness and safety defend the principle, that the time in which men shall run to and from, knowledge shall be increased, and an interchange of religious opinions candid and unfettered, may be confidently anticipated as the season for the most correct understanding and just estimation of the truth as it is in Jesus, and for the most general exaltation and triumph of virtue.


            2. A second conspicuous feature of the times is a state of high mental excitement on the subject of religion.


            In a period when this excitement is the greatest, and is accompanied with remarkable violence and the most alarming excesses and extravagancies of fanaticism, it is not expedient, wise, or equitable, to announce it as an unmixed evil, radically, universally pernicious in its tendency and probable consequences. Many of the attending circumstances and leading measures are certainly wrong, disorderly, antichristian. Every step which exhibits the most distant resemblance of a systematic and mechanical operation, conceived and prosecuted for the chief purpose of exciting imagination, enkindling passion, swelling the catalogue of a particular sect, has a generally evil tendency. Little better is to be expected than the forming of artificial Christians, who shall esteem it no violation of the character they have assumed, no stain upon the livery they wear, practically to despise charity; to disturb the peace and prosperity of families, by severing the conjugal and filial tie; to spread disquiet and discord in neighborhoods; to disband churches and to raise, in large sections of the community, an ill-boding fermentation. Notwithstanding these are frequently seen and lamented as the natural effects, the belief is not visionary or intemperately sanguine, that even in such cases the spirit of the prediction on sacred record may be completely verified. "Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee, and the remainder of wrath wilt thou restrain.” Numbers of two great classes in the Christian world have real cause to refer to these seasons of Unnatural and unrestrained fervor as the origin of the best improvement in their religious state. The effect upon many of the one class who had a previously confirmed habit of thoughtlessness, profanity, unbelief, impiety, has been to bring them to consideration and moral renew. The result was an establishment in a settled and persevering course of sober reflection, faith, piety. They have advanced to the stature of those who are perfect in Christ Jesus.


            Individuals of the other class have had equal cause to be thankful, that the termination of their spiritual sloth was coeval with their knowledge of the rise and alarming prevalence of commotions in the Church. These have been led by patient, critical, dispassionate inquiry, to the rational conclusion, that religion is yet a stranger to the mind and heart which have no sensitiveness and animation, and whose dullness, ease, lethargy, have never been disturbed by a consideration of the unlimited capacities of the soul and the awakening realities of eternity. These have wisely judged that excitement, which is under proper restrictions and limitations essential to the Christian character, is not, to receive unqualified condemnation for its abuses and perversions. They have not, however, thought it safe for themselves, or that they should be in the way of duty to administer counsel to others, to take an agency in any of the excesses practiced in a time of agitation. They are not backward to perceive, that in a day of uncommon reflection, inquiry, intellectual light like the present, there may be many examples of a zeal which is not according to knowledge, and who will remain unaffected and uninfluenced by the means of improvement and sanctification authorized by the gospel.


            It is an object of ardent desire that Christian ministers may be aroused to take advantage of the excited state of the public feeling and mind. The belief gathers strength and confirmation from the success of their efforts; in past times, that much may be done by them to restrain this within Christian limits, and to give it the best, even a religious direction. If ministers, who are the avowed advocates of liberal Christianity will make their profession a primary concern; if it shall be their steadfast aim to efface the impression that their system of faith is a cold, inefficient, soul-benumbing collection of indifferent principles; of principles which can neither lift the mind in the contemplation and desire of heaven, or awaken a just and affecting sense of the horrors which await the finally condemned; if there is an uniform and well-timed display of earnestness, pungency, pathos in their private instructions and counsels, and in their, public addresses, they may have a raised hope of encouraging and respectable co-operation and support. A confidence in the correctness of this course, the goodness of the cause, the wisdom, moderation, stability, love of order, sound judgment of a goodly portion of our hearers, forbid the apprehension, that labor thus exercised and applied will we suffered by heaven to be in vain.


            3. A leading and highly honorable characteristic of the present day is to devise and employ suitable means for the religious improvement of the rising generation.


            The incorrect idea, that religion is the appropriate and exclusive concern of mature life, is well nigh exploded. In proof of the general sentiment, that religious influence can in no case be exerted with equal prospect of success as upon the young, I need only refer to the universal expressions of parental solicitude; the multitude of books for their instruction; the institutions which are in a state of prosperous and successful operation; and especially the facts, that for no single object is public munificence so liberally dispensed, and the wishes of all true patriots and enlightened Christians so openly and ardently declared. I may advert, likewise, to the circumstance, that each discriminating and faithful minister of Jesus points to the rising generation as the part of his flock, for which he expects to labour with the surest prospect of reward.


            In no case does success so entirely depend on the judicious selection of means. How many things in the disposition, capacity, opportunity, outward state, of children and youths are to be revolved as directories and aids in the choice and adaptation of our measures? Regard is to be had to constitutional temperament, early prejudices, defects of education; youthful associations. We are in imminent danger lest by unguarded instruction or the enforcement of undue and rigorous restraints we extinguish the ardor, cramp the ambition, and misdirect the talents, which, by a more seasonable and wise address, guidance, and application, have been instruments of the highest moral and religious benefit. Nor is less hazard likely to arise from licentious counsels, a toleration of youthful excesses, follies, and vices, and from expressing ourselves at any time in language which shall leave the ruinous impression, that religion is not the one thing needful to character, usefulness, and happiness.


            With a view to the influence we desire to gain and exert over the rising generation, general principles only can be stated, leaving the application to each Christian minister in the exercise of his own discretion and judgment. Let the religious instruction you shall give to the young be simple, reasonable, faithful, heart-searching. To the extent of your capacity let it resemble the divine model left you by him, who spake as never man spake. In your preaching, designed for their improvement and benefit, guard against all which is technical, polemical, or which shall show a spirit of uncharitableness and denunciation. Let it also be a natural inference drawn by them from the lessons you shall communicate, that all which relates to Christian rules and ordinances is intelligible, free from mystery, directly tending to the best practical results, and that in their punctual observance alone can be found present and future safety, peace, and joy.


            At a time of high religious excitement, the exposed state of this class in our community, arising from their immature experience and judgment, will make a tenfold addition to ministerial duty. Who in such a state of things is the faithful watchman, but he who is on the alert to espy and provide against methods used to decoy and ensnare them  I know of no so probable means as, by an ingenuous and Christian spirit of condescension and adaptation of our treatment and course to their capacities and age, to conciliate their affections; to give them line upon line, and precept upon precept; to impress them by earnest and reiterated lessons, that passion and fanaticism, although they do not prove moral turpitude, are in no cases natural symptoms and legitimate fruits of Christian goodness and piety. I would strongly, and with emphasis urge you to lay open before the young in all their number, variety, magnitude, threatening aspect, the means which, in a tumultuous state of the Church, are used to beguile them. Announce to them with explicitness the dangers lest they be led astray from the good way and the old paths in which their fathers soberly and quietly walked, and to which they were indebted for their highest edification. Tell them, that in following their example they may hope to make the best religious progress, and to secure the common tranquility. Familiarize them also to the spirit and course of practical wisdom inculcated by the Saviour in his Sermon on the Mount. Endeavor to charm them by exhibitions of the decorum, quietness, freedom from the effervescence of unrestrained imagination and passion, moral dignity, which marked his whole public life. In thus doing you may hope, through divine grace, for a successful agency in preserving the young of your flock from being pillaged or scattered, and in training them up to be intelligent, trusty, engaged, stable, practical Christians.


            I acknowledge myself to have been late in the encouragement and support of Sabbath schools, and in giving full credit to the highly colored representations of their utility. These, being in our day relied on as some of the best means of exerting a religious influence, I may be permitted to state the objections which were suggested to my own mind against the character, tendency, and course of this modern improvement on former methods of giving Christian instruction. If the causes still exist which gave rise to these objections, it is hoped the few remarks of the present moment will not be unseasonable. I perceived that they were too often no other than hotbeds of sectarianism. Manuals were in use, containing terms and scriptural allusions, which had no higher or better purpose than to create in those who attended an exclusive attachment to a particular sect, and to imbue them with a narrow, bigoted, and intolerant spirit. Children, who had scarcely a capacity to articulate, were occupied in the rehearsal of terms and phrases which were widely agitating the Christian community, and had well nigh shaken the Christian cause to its foundation. Nor is this all. The exercises performed, when the manuals were unexceptionable, were chiefly recitations from memory, unaccompanied by any familiar

illustrations or lessons, or any use on the part of teachers of their colloquial powers. What I considered the greatest defect in the organization of Sabbath Schools was, that the class capable of the most immediate and solid improvement were not amongst the pupils. I refer to those who are from fifteen to twenty years of age. It is conceded on all hands that it is the appropriate duty of the Christian minister attentively to watch the origin and direction of these establishments. In the belief that it will vastly add to their utility, importance, and respectability, let him offer suitable persuasives to those whom I have named, to become members of the school. Let him discreetly use his influence, that the instruction given shall bring to view in a familiar and attractive style all the duties resulting from the relation of human beings to their Creator, or which shall excite in the mind of the young a reverence for his character, works, providence and word. This instruction will naturally embrace the history and preaching of the Saviour and whatever shall aid the intellectual and spiritual progress of the rising generation. If this counsel be adopted, we may hail Sabbath Schools as the most effectual means of ameliorating the moral and religious condition of the world.


            4. The present day is signalized for a desire, and for the indefatigable use of all means for proselytism.


            Indifference to the progress and universal, prevalence of Christian truth, and slowness to use the means for its advancement cannot be reconciled with sincerity. Equally is a regardlessness of the triumphs of error, to be looked at with amazement and horror as the fruit of a radically defective principle. Christians are in great danger, from the imperfections of their character and state, of choosing fallacious methods of demonstrating their aversion to error and their regard for truth. This danger may be considered, in most instances, as arising from their having identified the interpretations, which, as fallible men, they have put upon the gospel, with the gospel, and coming to the absurd conclusion that they must stand or fall together. This is one and a chief source of spiritual pride, and a lust of domination. It is this which has prompted many mistaken friends of the Redeemer to compass sea and land that they might make proselytes. It is this which has been pleaded in justification of intrusions into families, leading captive the unreflecting and silly, and lastingly separating chief friends. It is this which has multiplied religious meetings without regard to Christian rule or order. This has been the origin of what are technically called revivals of religion, and of what are apparently mechanical means of multiplying the partisans of particular sects. To this source are we to ascribe the frittered state of our Corporations and the burden of supporting religious institutions.


            What is the remedy? Now that this state of things exists, and these measures are in a train of successful use, are we to show our valor for the truth, by making an effort for its propagation at any risk, at any sacrifice, and in the employment of any means, right or wrong, conformable to Christian rule and order or in violation of them? We are in no case to do evil, that good may come. We are not to adventure in the cause of human salvation by the adoption of what are at best doubtful means. We are never to give the device, machinations, contrivances of man, precedence to the laws and ordinances of God. We are to know and to patronize no method of extending the kingdom of the Redeemer, inconsistent with the simplicity of purpose, openness and ingenuousness of execution, high adaptation to the character and responsibleness of intelligent, moral, and accountable beings, of which he and his disciples have left us an ever memorable and worthy example. To his laws and institutions let us bow as a paramount and the only infallible standard. We need not fear that any weapon raised against our religion will eventually prosper. We may commit ourselves and the cause of Christian truth to the providence of God in the belief that he will keep us, and that from falling, and present us faultless before the presence of his glory and exceeding joy.


            5. Another prominent trait of the present day is a disposition to raise high the standard of moral excellence, and theological attainments in the Christian ministry.


            It is an opinion which has never beep controverted,       that on men of no rank, condition, or employment, do we so much depend for the moral state and complection of the world as do teachers. In every age, this elevation and influence have been involuntarily assigned to preachers of the gospel. When revolving this subject, and deciding their comparative rank, reference is often made to the earlier periods of our country, and to the extraordinary power of the clergy in directing the affairs of civil government, in the enactment and suspension of laws, in the election of rulers, and in the control of the popular judgment of their measures. If from this review we fix our eye on present times, there is a prevalent impression, that we are witnesses of a vast diminution of clerical dignity. The ground of all this distinction is overlooked. The rule of judgment, the test of ministerial excellence, are entirely changed. In the times which have long since past, it was the person and the office which were held in admiration, and comparative indifference was manifested for the literary and professional character of him who filled the office, and who was recognized as a Christian minister.


            On what do the influence and power of the then of this profession now depend? On their fidelity in pastoral duty, on the solicitude they express and display for the rising generation, on their aptness to teach; on their might in the scriptures, on the character of their public performances. We now search for the qualifications, which we learn from the preaching of Christ and his apostles, are essential, as the only criterion by which we can safely and correctly decide the measure of respect, confidence, gratitude, veneration which are the due of ministers. I trust we are all prepared to rejoice in this change of the ground, by which, in the judgment of Mankind; the ministerial character is to be estimated. And it is not an ill-founded assertion, that there has been no time in which high moral and professional worth has been more known or regarded than at the present day. If yon need evidence, look into our Christian assemblies, where the truth is preached with simplicity, discrimination, and power. Look to the young, the middle aged, and the adults who appeal with earnestness to their ministers for instruction in the things relating to duty and to eternal life.


            What then, brethren, have we to do to gain our full share of respect and religious influence? Our aim should be to perceive and to conform to the signs and exigencies of the times. If we do thus, living in an intellectual and reflecting age, we shall at once come to the conclusion that eminence can only be attained by those in our profession who are distinguished for a knowledge of books and the world; who have familiar impressions of ecclesiastical history, and a critical acquaintance with the scriptures. We shall cautiously avoid an immethodical and irrational style of preaching, and resolve not to imitate the eccentricities, and interlopements of heated and itinerating enthusiasts. At the same time it cannot be denied that the excited state of Christendom loudly demands of Christian ministers animation, engagedness, self-devotion, in all the appropriate duties of their office. Nor is this to be considered an entire fulfillment of obligation. We must be examples of personal propriety, prudence, and dignity. Our moral character must be irreproachable, seen and approved of all men. This our morality must be sanctified and carried to perfection by the reasonable faith which we preach and defend, and by an habitual and fervent glow of piety. From the divisions of Christian sects, and their contrariety to the spirit and laws of the gospel, we infer another instance of high responsibility. Let it be our deliberate purpose and untiring effort to introduce and spread far and wide the principle, that sameness of opinion is not essential to the exercise of charity, nor a revealed term of Christian communion. Let it be equally our aim, to remove the bars, by which, in pursuance of the creeds and dogmas of uninspired men, the table of the Lord is hedged, and to demolish the partition wall which separates his followers that they may cordially unite in all Christian offices. We must, in fine, be true to ourselves and our Master. If no stain rests upon our moral, Christian, or ministerial character, we need not fear neglect, reproach, or ill-success. We may hope, in the providence and through the grace of God, to have a good degree of influence in guiding the course, forming the character, and fixing the immortal destiny of our fellow beings. We shall have all good and religious men to aid and support us in building up the kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace, and joy.