The Religious Aspects of the Community, and the Duty of Unitarian clergymen in regard to them
Edmund Q. Sewell
Berry Street Lecture, 1843
Note: The following is a report on the 1843 Berry Street Lecture, found in the The Monthly Miscellany of Religion and Letters,1843
MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE. -The Conference which has usually met in the Berry Street Vestry, having experienced inconvenience from the crowded state of the room, the last year directed their Committee to provide a larger apartment. The room appropriated to the use of the Supreme Judicial Court, in the court-house in Court Street, was therefore procured, and the meeting on Wednesday morning was held there; but the brethren seemed to miss the associations and seclusion of the old spot, and the subsequent sessions of the Conference were held in Berry Street. At the opening of the Conference prayer was offered by Rev. Mr. Wellington, of Templeton. The Annual Address was then read by Rev. Edmund Q. Sewall of Scituate. The designation of a subject, as well as the appointment of the person by whom the Address shall be delivered, lie with the Standing Committee.—The subject which had been proposed this year was "The Religious Aspects of the Community, and the Duty of Unitarian clergymen in regard to them." Mr. Sewall remarked that he should not attempt to go through so large a field in even the most cursory manner. A few points for consideration would be selected; from the province of Religious Inquiry; from the state of the Church and its Institutions; and front the department of Practical Life. These would be treated chiefly with reference to some cautions which they suggested, and to the encouragements they afforded to an earnest ministry. I. If we look at the state of opinion and inquiry, we find that liberal principles and a free spirit have worked their way into the very heart of the community. They have greatly modified the language of creeds and the style of argumentation, even where they yet fail to obtain their full sway. Inquirers on every side have urged onward their fearless discussions. No subject, however sacred, has been withheld from them, nor escaped without a searching criticism. The body of truth has been subjected to a rude dissection under their hands, in which each bone, muscle, nerve, all which enters into its structure, has been laid bare to the investigator. Nor has society shrunk from the effects of this large liberty with any disposition to curtail it by illiberal restrictions. But these effects have not always been such as to commend liberal principles to the pious mind. After adducing some particulars which went to show this, Mr. Sewall proceeded to remark upon the moral qualifications which ought to be combined with intellectual acuteness, in order to disarm inquiries, which relate to what is fundamentally important to the virtue and happiness of the community, of their dangerous tendencies. While we deprecate the idea of hampering free inquiry by attaching to belief, in itself considered, moral blame or praise, as if to doubt in the premises were of course wrong, we must still keep in mind the fact, that inducements may exist other than the mere force of evidence impressing the understanding, to incline one to adopt novel opinions and to seek radical changes in views generally received. On this point he spoke at some length, explaining the consistency of an attachment to liberal principles on the one side, with a serious and trembling solicitude, on the other, to protect the interests of morals and religion from those attempts at reforms of opinion which partake of a revolutionary or destructive spirit. He showed how a conscientious man must needs be slow in communicating doubts to the world, which, if he innocently entertained them, might lend countenance and aid to others whose purposes were evil and whose unbelief sprang from a bad heart. In this connexion the Address adverted to a most exceptionable tone and spirit which have obtained some prevalence among professed inquirers. These are however less properly denoted inquirers, than sacrilegious triflers, querulous, captious faultfinders. Dr. Johnson, in his "Life of Milton," tells us that an opinion had currency in the poet's day, that men were living then "under the misfortune of having been produced in the decrepitude of Nature." Some future censor may possibly charge upon a portion of our generation the folly of supposing it their hard fate to have been born into a decayed moral world, in the decrepitude of Christianity. They are continually venting their dissatisfaction with theactual in our spiritual affairs. Their discontent complains of the meagreness of truths on which souls born of God have for ages been nourished, and that almost into the stature of perfect men in Christ Jesus. They scruple not to speak in a disparaging, half-contemptuous way of the faith and worship which are found in the Church every where, under every varied form. It is time they were rebuked by a sound public sentiment. Religions progress derives no aid from such as these.—Among the more agreeable circumstances in the state of inquiry in our own body, the disposition to reassume the Scriptural phraseology, which had been almost abandoned to the Orthodox sects, was mentioned. Unitarians, while controverting Calvinistic tenets, had been led, almost necessarily, to avoid in their doctrinal statements such expressions as had been forestalled by their opponents. This seemed to be required by their position, and to be needful to prevent a frequent misapprehension of their views. Yet it was to be remarked that they thus laid aside much which they were fully warranted to retain, and especially that the peculiar language of the Bible was surrendered to those who had possessed themselves of it by no better claim than priority of sectarian origin. To every pious mind there is a charm in Scriptural language which no other can acquire. It adds persuasiveness to all appeals and lends force to all arguments. It should be the monopoly of no sect. It can be spared by none. Nor is it to be overlooked that a title to the name Evangelical, a name than which none higher or more honorable can be given, is sought by us through the means of an earnest endeavour to make our views themselves more strictly conform to the Biblical standard. It were strange if we had not, in calmly reviewing the ground so long the seat of polemical warfare, discovered some things which might and ought to have remained in our possession, but which had slipped from us in the ardour of disputation. We were now returning to gather up the jewels which we had dropped in our flight out of Egypt. "Evangelical" are most fitly denominated the sentiments which pervade our body. 2. The Church has not been made all that it might and ought to have been. Mr. Sewall contrasted the Church as we hear of it in the New Testament, and the organizations technically called by that name in our lime. To the Church belong communion and fellowship. Can our communicants be said to have these? How very limited their acquaintance with each other! So much so, that even the Christian names of those who partake at the same table are mutually unknown. This want of true fellowship is one cause why the Church has little of the power it ought to exercise as an organ of spiritual influences and moral life. Then, its ordinances—how small a minority in our communities avail themselves of these! The baptismal font, hallowed by such sweet and holy associations, how is it almost abandoned to disuse ! And while all men are alike indebted to Jesus, how few among them signify their sense of what is due to his memory in the rite which ho instituted to that end! On these points Mr. Sewall dwelt with earnestness, commending them to the serious consideration of those with whom must commence a change for the better. 3. It is in the practical life that we meet now with most encouragement. A voice from the temple is echoed in legislative hulls, and resounds through the dwellings of the people, awakening us to a new and holier manifestation of the power of Christianity over the heart and conduct. Fervent aspirations are not all; new and more earnest efforts are put forth to produce what is desired. It may be that the social evils which have been so widely prevalent have convinced men that some vigorous moral means must be applied for the restoration of the community even to its prosperity. Under this head occasion was taken to remark upon the growth of a pure virtue and habits of practical piety as the only sure indications of a really Christian progress. Our views are eminently practical. The religious experience testifies their power and value. And while other sects may labour zealously for a visible extension of their own peculiarities and multiplication of their numbers, it should be our ambition to leaven the whole social body with a spirit of moral and religious improvement. Visible extension is no criterion of the progress of a faith. Wherever and in whomsoever our principles overcome the antagonist principles, we win the best victory. No other should we ask. Sectarianism is an abomination—our own no less than others. The blessed privilege is ours, if we will use it, of accounting all that is gained to virtue and a holy life, as gained for us. If inquired of about the progress of Unitarianism, we need not confine ourselves to matters of opinion. As many as our principles have helped to convert to God, to make good men and good Christians, are pledges of their progress. These tokens of success we may gather from places where as a sect we have yet no abode.—Among the encouraging signs of our times in relation to the practical life are the general interest in religion arising among the people, and the disposition evinced by the laity to cooperate with the clergy. This was an important step in our progress, which the clergy should not be slow to welcome. Mr. Sewall here brought into view the benefits that must flow from a more cordial understanding, and a more intimate cooperation in counsels and in labours, between the clergy and the laity. He rejected the idea that it could produce a depreciation of the clerical profession. Their dignity did not depend upon their occupying an elevated position, above and apart from the rest of the community. Nor would there arise any collision, while the duties which from their nature could only be fitly discharged by an educated ministry were left in their hands. The increased sympathy and aid which the laity proffer are what we greatly need for the furtherance of those improvements which have become so dear to all faithful clergymen. Let this advance be met more than half way by the ministry. There is a blessed omen in it, which ought to inspire only hope in those whose desire it is to renovate the spiritual life in our community.