The Best Means of Bringing our Lay Brethren to be More Useful in the Maintenance of Religious Institutions

Henry Ware, Jr.

Berry Street Essay, 1835

 

Delivered before the Ministerial Conference in Berry Street,

May 27, 1835

Boston, Massachusetts

 

The subject assigned to present Address is, "The best means of bringing our Lay brethren to be more useful in the maintenance of Religious Institutions.”  The subject, thus stated, implies, that grater action on the part of the laity, than now exists, is desirable.  This may possibly be questioned by some, as there are those who appear to think religious institutions the exclusive charge of the clergy, and any interference on the part of other men, to be deprecated.  It may not be amiss, therefore, to begin with one word in defence of the position here assumed; and only a word can be necessary; for the truth, I suppose, is simply this; -- Religious institutions must be sustained by laymen, or they cannot exist.  The clergy have no power to uphold them, except so far as the people cooperate.  In other places, in other days, the clergy had authority, property, power, could support themselves, and could compel the aid of others.  It is not so now and amongst us.  Christian institutions are now altogether at the mercy of the laity.  If the people choose to sustain them, they live; and with just that degree of prosperity, which the people may allow to them.  Otherwise, they perish; and the clergy, so far from being able to rescue them from destruction, are exposed with them to starvation and ruin.

 

There can therefore be no doubt, that it is not barely desirable, but absolutely essential, that our lay brethren take an active and prominent part in the concerns of our religious institutions.  We may be jealous of an undue interference; but better to run the risk of this, from their too great interest, than expose ourselves to the deadly calamity, which would follow upon their indifference and neglect.  We must seek for our institutions their fostering and patronizing care; not, like that of the powers and principalities of the old world, to overload and enslave them but to nourish them to a healthful growth, and enable them to meet the emergencies of the times.  The question before us is, by what means they may be excited to this more effectually, than it is now done.

 

             I do not know that this implies a complaint of any unusual remissness at the present time.  Such a complaint would not be just.  For no one can cast back a thought over the last fifteen years, and not perceive a decided augmentation of active interest on the part of private Christians.  But this very increase of action, and the beneficial effects which have flowed from it, serve to instruct us concerning the value of that action, and to hint to us, what we should not otherwise have perceived, how much more yet it must be in their power to accomplish.  We have learned how the power of the ministry is augmented, when there is enlisted, in cooperation with it, the power of ardent and devoted minds in other walks of life; and we thence learn to anticipate the most beneficial results from their more general and extensive action.  The question is, how shall they be excited to this action? How shall they be brought to do all which they may do, for the prosperity and advancement of our institutions?

 

            Before offering the direct reply to this question, there is the previous inquiry, What is it, specifically, which they are able to do, and in which it is desirable that they should be engaged?

 

            Here I remark, first, that their office is distinct from that of the ministry; -- any attempt to introduce them to the peculiar functions of the ministry, would tend to the overthrow rather than the strengthening of the institutions, which by the constitution of Christianity and the usages of the Church, are committed to a separate order of men.

 

            I remark, again, that there are yet some offices of teaching and spiritual counsel, in which they may appropriately occupy themselves, without at all encroaching on the exclusive province of the Pastor.  Such, for example, are the direction and instruction of the Sunday School, -- which may be thus made a nursery of incalculable strength for the cause of religion; such, also, are occasional meetings for mutual conference and united devotion, -- where private Christians may speak to each other of things that pertain to their peace, and successfully provoke one another to love and good works.  These and similar operations are to be earnestly encouraged, as among the promising means of creating and cherishing that state of mind which will find its gratification in supporting the institutions of the Gospel.

 

            Again, what further falls to their part is a generous readiness to contribute the requisite funds for the support of the Gospel in their own society, -- for its support in less favored parts of the land, -- and for all and any well considered and feasible projects of philanthropic effort.  None of these projects can be executed excepting through their means; and the degree of success attending them will be wholly in proportion to their religious charitableness of mind.

 

            In these particulars their cooperation is not only desirable; it is imperatively necessary; we see ruin and decay impending over our churches, and the shadow of infidelity and heathenism stealing over our land, unless the people rise up to these works with spirit and power.  In some points rise up to these works with spirit and power.  In some points of view, the situation and prospects of religion in this land, are appalling. The broken condition of our towns and parishes in New England, and the tremendous growth of the Western world, threatening to outstrip the tardy pace of all efforts to supply it with instruction, are circumstances of fearful interest, which give an overwhelming importance to the present discussion.  What are our friends doing, what can they, ought they, do, to keep up the weakened altars of our neighborhood, and to help in furnishing teachers to the unsupplied distance? There are no inquiries of more pressing interest than these.  Several societies have been so broken by the calamitous divisions of times, as to have arrived already at the deplorable necessity of suspending the worship of God and the ordinances of the Gospel during some part of the year.  This is no better, in its consequences, and a final heathenism.  Ought this to be suffered?  Are the churches to look calmly on and see this ruin begin, and not make an effort to stay it?  Is nobody to raise a voice and tell of the evil?  Is nobody to lift a finger and point to it?  Will none rise up to apply a remedy?  And are all coming generations, in numerous villages, to be left to infidelity and paganism, merely because the infelicity of the times has made them too poor to obtain a minister?  How can they believe if they do not hear?  How can they hear without a preacher?  and, situated as they are, how can one preach to them except he be dent?  We must SEND preachers to those places.  Our prosperous churches, our wealthy societies, our abounding and generous laymen, must feel, more than they ever have done, that the preaching the Gospel and the institutions of Religion are to be regarded, not only as they concern themselves, -- but as great and general interests, in which they are concerned wherever they exist; that the question is no longer, Whether they support the Gospel in their own village; -- it is, Whether they support it in their country.  For we may depend upon it, it can be supported in this country only by overlooking the limits of parishes and societies, and contributing freely to the religious want wherever it exists.  Some have long ago seen this partially, and have exhibited practical illustrations of the good which may be done by this mode of viewing the subject.  It is well known that there are several congregations, happily rejoicing in the light of life, which would years ago have been living without Christian instruction, had it not been that Evangelical Missionary Society ministered to their aid.  And what are the means of this Missionary Society?  Its funds allow them to distribute nearly a thousand dollars a year.  This is the fountain from which nurture is to be spread over the waste places of this wide land; -- even this, scanty pittance as it is, has been the cause that we do not mourn over many altars overthrown and flocks scattered.  That Society could well expend five thousand dollars year in this way.  It ought to have them to spend.  It ought not to be permitted to spend less.

 

            Here then is a field of duty, to which our lay brethren must be earnestly called.  If our portion of the great Christian Community, is to do its share toward sustaining and extending Christianity I this exposed and growing land, our lay brethren must furnish to those who are struggling for existence, that, without which their continued existence is impossible.  I am aware that this will be objected to as a new and heavy demand, which cannot be borne amongst the multiplying charges of the times.  But in the view of those, who perceive the serious responsibility under which the times place them it will not be accounted grievous.  I have faith to believe, that if the earnest call of the united ministry were heard, -- that if we, brethren, would assume the responsibility of ardently, urgently, solemnly, using our rightful influence, to press this matter upon their conscience, there is a spirit in our congregations to second it with acclamation.  When I call to mind what they have done for our Theological School, what they have done for the American Unitarian Association, what for Seamen’s Chapel, -- objects purely religious, besides their large and frequent secular charities; when I recollect the sacrifices which have been made in Baltimore and many other places; the institution of the "ministry at large” in Boston, and the entire support of a similar ministry by one congregation in New York; when I remember these and other similar facts, I feel assured that our brethren only need to have the real necessity of the case truly laid before them to induce them to do whatever may be necessary on their part to prevent the inroads of irreligion, through the inability of our feebler congregations to support the worship of God.  New England never can be without gospel institutions in her poorest villages, if the more favored portions of her children are kept acquainted with their wants.  

 

            I have alluded also to the vast regions beyond New England.  A great work is to be done there.  It will demand the zeal and fidelity of all the denominations of Christians in the older portions of the country to make it certain that that important world in the Western valleys shall be furnished with adequate means of Christian instruction.  Out denomination has its share of that work to perform.  We may not dare to withhold ourselves from it.  A portion of our means, as many as can be spared of our ministers, must be sent out to help in blessing and training that glorious young giant.  Now is the time.  Something has already been done.  May God bless the beginning, and carry it to its completion! -- till, in all the advancing villages of that prosperous domain, the seed of life shall be planted, to grow as they grow, and expand as they extend, and shelter the future millions beneath its capacious shade.  Now is the time; -- and may the Lord of the harvest send forth laborers unto his harvest.

 

            There can be no doubt, then, as to the magnitude of the interests in which our lay brethren should be engaged; and we return to the inquiry, By what means shall they be brought to greater activity in them?

 

            One of the first things necessary is a more general and hearty union.  I do not mean a formal union; -- perhaps that would be well; -- but the machinery of external organization might be perfect, and yet little approach be make toward the accomplishment of the results proposed; it is not any form, but a spirit of cooperation, which is needful; and so long as we, as a body, shall hold jealously our principle of personal independence, so long as we shall be marked by our infinite dislike of even the semblance of control, -- so long it will be impossible to hope any thing from a universal and efficient combination.  The associations already existing amongst us have always been impeded by this ever-operating check, and so salutary, in the main, is this extreme spirit of liberty thought to be, that no advantage to be derived from the restraints of organized action could be thought to compensate for the apprehension of fettered consciences and compulsory beneficence.

 

            But there may exist, -- there ought to exist, -- a spirit of hearty union, and a wide, willing, cordial cooperation; -- springing from a zealous interest in the same great objects, an ardent desire for the success of the same great designs.  Just in proportion as this mutual interest, this care for each other, this desire to help each other, this willingness to work together, -- shall exist, just in the same proportion will our lay brethren be made efficient agents for the maintenance of religious institutions.

 

            In order to this, the social principle must be made active.  Let various meetings be encouraged within the limits of our religious societies, at which the brethren may speak to each other on these important subjects, may collect information gain warmth to each other’s hearts, and incitement to inquiry and exertion.  Any one who has had the privilege of witnessing the effect of such gatherings on the religious character of a people, -- especially the life which has been kindled by them (not vegetative, but fruit-bearing life,) in the younger portions of a congregation, -- will be satisfied that this is a suggestion of no equivocal importance; that this is a measure on which no small portion of our hopes must rest.  

 

            In connexion with this may be suggested the circulation of books among our people, especially of religious periodical works.  The press is a great instrument of information and excitement. In all departments of knowledge and worldly enterprise, it keeps alive and extends interest and zeal, by keeping the attention fixed on the discussions, which are going forward, and the works, which are being performed.  Our religious periodicals, -- whatever objections may be raised against their tendency to secularize religion and turn theology into politics, -- yet incontestably accomplish great good in the manner just mentioned, -- they spread information on all topics of religious inquiry and action, and keep alive a constant interest in them.  The good which they thus do, would be far greater, if they had a more general circulation, -- if they were more universally read.  The greatest amount of steadfast interest and action may be expected, when our friends shall have the same craving to see regularly some religious journal, that the merchant has to see his commercial journal; -- shall be as discontented without the stated supply of religious intelligence and religious discussion, as the politician would be if left uninformed concerning the movements of the political world and the affairs of state.

 

            To this point it seems desirable that greater attention be given.  Far more may be done and ought to be done, than is now done.  In one hundred and seventy congregations it would not be unreasonable to demand that there should be five thousand subscribers to some one of the more important or popular of our religious journal; yet no one of them has more than nineteen hundred subscribers; and the circulation of the most important of them has been much more limited than this.  Now when it is considered how much valuable matter these works contain, how much time and thought and care their publication calls for, how their usefulness depends on the extent of their circulation, and how easy it would be for the intelligent friends of religion to promote their circulation by each doing a little in his own neighbourhood, we cannot help deploring the negligence which sets so narrow bounds to this most efficient instrument of good.

 

            I confine myself to these brief hints on general cooperation social and religious meetings, and the press.  It is obvious that they do not cover the whole ground of our subject; -- for the question still occurs, -- Grant that by these methods the laity may be incited, who is to put in operation these methods?  I have all along taken for granted, that Christians will act up to their obligations, when they fully perceive them, and are truly under the influence of their religion.  To whom does it belong to make them sensible of their obligations and truly subject to their faith? to whom, but to those, who are placed ‘over them in the Lord to admonish them?’ the men who are expressly ‘set for the defence of the Gospel?’

 

            Hence, my brethren, the unspeakable interest of this inquiry to us.  It is the quest of our duty and responsibility even more than of that of our private brethren; -- since undoubtedly it mainly depends on us, whether the impulse shall be given or not.  Such is the relation of the people to the minister, and such the inevitable influence of that relation, that as a general rule, the fidelity of the one party is a measure of the fidelity of the other.  The tone of the church corresponds to tone of the pulpit.  The standard of duty and effort in society will be what the public preaching makes it.  If we have reason, then to be dissatisfied in any particular with the religious condition of the community, we have so far a presumptive ground for being dissatisfied with the condition of the pulpit.  Not that this remark will hold true in its fullest extent, or that the whole deficiency of religion is to be attributed to deficiencies in its preaching; -- but thus much I mean, -- it becomes the ministers of religion, as humble, self-distrusting, responsible men, to suspect themselves and reexamine their principles and methods of operation, whenever they observe a falling short in the public of that character which a religious public ought to sustain.  Christian truth is adequate to its ends.  The chief action of Christian truth is through the ministry.  If those ends, then, be not brought about, since it cannot be owing to the inefficiency of the truth, it may be to that of its agents.  This inefficiency on their part, may arise from want of talent, want of industry, want of zeal, or want of courage.  When it is asked, therefore, how the public shall be excited to its full duty in regard to Christian truths, (the question now before us,) however others may answer it, the clergy must begin their answer by inquiring whether it be not in part from their own imbecility, indolence, luke-warmness or cowardice, -- whether they have not yielded to the love of ease, or of the world, -- whether the pulpit is not incapable, or asleep, or afraid?

 

            As regards ourselves, brethren, when I take that view of our situation and relations which I have been presenting to you, it seems to me that the main thing requisite in us in order to the desired result, is, -- that we be willing to use our influence.  A vast influence resides with the clergy.  So it has always been in all ages and countries.  So, from the nature of the case, it always must be. So it is now, in the most intelligent and cultivated communities.  We are slow to realize it in our own case, as individuals; -- and I suppose that there never was body of ministers more unpresumptuous in the use of it, more scrupulous lest they abuse it, more reluctant to appear to assume any thing because of their office; or of whom it could be more truly said, that, while their indirect influence is so great, their direct exertion of it is so insignificant.  Doubtless discretion should be exercised, that so delicate a power be not thrown into jeopardy.  But our danger lies on the side of too great discretion; and, if we design to bring up our congregations to the mark of which we have been speaking we must be willing to use our influence, -- nay, to venture something in regard to it.  We must not fear to commit ourselves.  We must be willing to take the responsibility of opinions and of measures, of directly advising, of earnestly recommending, of importunately urging. While we do not this, there remains dead in our hands a certain amount of power, we know not how great, for the advancement of the world which we decline using, -- a talent which we bury, a light which we hide, -- for lack of which the churches may suffer darkness and decay, and we be found unprofitable servants.

 

            Our situation is too prominent, the charge of the times to us too momentous, the power in our hands for good or ill, promote or hinder the progress of light, too great, the crisis of the world at which we stand too tremendous, -- to admit of our hesitating or holding back, from any considerations of diffidence or self-distrust, or personal inconvenience. He best comes up to the summons of this hour of the Church, who takes a bold place and wields manfully his arm, though it be but a child’s. In the onwards press of the host, even men of the small stature have their place, from which they must not shrink, and the victory may after all be won by the stone from a stripling’s hand. A consciousness of our position, brethren, should quell the consciousness of our personal insignificance. It is not the many wise, many noble, many mighty, that are sent to call the world to Christ; the trumpet is trusted to the hands of the weak and the foolish; and if they will but put it boldly to their mouths, even they can call out notes that may awake the slumbers of the dead. The consciousness of our position! – Alas, how little do we habitually regard it! If we go across the water, and stand on the shore of our father-land, we find our brethren there stretching their eyes towards us with anxiety and high expectation; -- they think that they perceive in our position a bright hope for the world, -- an opportunity to reform the reformation, to emancipate a continent from spiritual bondage; -- standing, as we seem to be, at the birth-place of a new stream of time, with power to turn its course whither we will, ere its waters have swollen in their onward passage to an unmanageable river. Those who thus see us from a distance may undoubtedly exaggerate our powers and responsibility; but we that look on ourselves where we are, are as certainly liable to underrate them. Who will assure us that their estimate is not more nearly the truth than our own? We do stand at a new era, with an unparalleled opportunity. Who can say that on the right ordering of it as much does not depend, in this country, as depended in Europe on the efforts of the Apostles and Reformers? And yet, what are we comparatively doing? Where are our Paul and our Luther? And what would Paul and Luther have effected, had they been as chary about their influence, and as backward to volunteer for the truth, as we are?

 

            A single word more in conclusion, -- for I cannot dwell on these hints.

 

            If we would be true to our place, and bring up the great community of laymen to be also true, -- we must not forget that the grand secret, the single and sufficient thing, is, to make them individuallyCHRISTIANS.  It is because men know religion only as a speculation, an abstraction, a form, a habit of education, and not as the main interest of the heart, the first and favorite concern, that they are so backward in the support of its institutions, and so dead to the demands of the age. It is the want of personal religion, which more than all other things, creates the want of personal action. We talk but to the deaf, when we discourse of efforts and sacrifice for glorious truth, to those who have not yet perceived its glory; we expostulate with the blind, when we urge them to look abroad on the beauty of a Christianized world, and they have never yet opened their eyes so as to perceive that beauty. We must begin with their own souls; we must persuade them to study themselves, to sound the depths of their own spiritual nature, to fathom their own infinite wants, -- to acquaint themselves with God, and test the peace and joy of believing, and KNOW from experience, that Christianity is the chief blessing, the only satisfaction, the immortal treasure of man.

 

            When we have done this, our work is done. They who feel and believe thus, will be ready for every good work, and will sacrifice any other blessing before they will allow the means of religious advancement to fail.

 

            The object of the ministry is the promotion of personal religion. Strive as we may, we do nothing soundly or permanently, unless we begin here. When we begin here, and effect this, we have effected every thing; and that man does most toward the spread of Christianity and the perpetuity of its institutions, who most effectively operates on individual hearts, and binds them to the love of the truth. This is the only thorough power of the ministry. Let us earnestly wield it. Let us be ambitious to excel in it. May God give us wisdom in its exercise; to Him be the glory!