Relation of Liberal Christianity to Our Age and Country
Berry Street lecture, 1847
read before the Ministerial Conference
May 26, 1847
As a class of Christians, we are devoted, in part, to a peculiar work. In our distinctive character and associated capacity, we are pledged, as to other duties, so to the correcting of an erroneous theology. Unlike all other sects, with the exception of two or three, we seek to spread a purified Gospel. Amid the confusion of many conflicting creeds, all of which we regard as the product of human invention, it is our aim and endeavor to bring back the minds of men to the few great principles which, proceeding from the divine fullness of the Master, Jesus, converted the souls of the first disciples; which have sustained the vitality of the Christian system in every age; which our own times especially need, to disarm skepticism and conduct the process of social regeneration; and which alone, we believe, can fulfill to the future the special promise of the Savior respecting his Church, that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and the hope inspired by his teachings in general, that the Gospel will sanctify and save the world. We feel, or think we should feel, that we have a mission, though in character somewhat different from, yet in obligation not less sacred than, that of the apostles themselves; the mission which devolves on all who, in possession of truth, can aid the progress of thought, and, breathing the spirit of charity, are fitted to win men to the love of their Father in heaven and of their brethren on earth.
Not unnatural, therefore, is it, nor altogether useless, I would fain think, will it be for us, to consider the relation of Liberal Christianity to our age and country, the circumstances and events which do or will affect that relation, and particularly such tendencies of the times, if such there be, as are suited to encourage the hopes and quicken the efforts of ministers whose religion and lot and duties are like our own.
I have used the epithet Liberal. The word Unitarian might have been employed. Both of them well enough suit me. But it is a matter of little moment whether or not we care often to designate our faith by any name except that of Christian, compared with the fact that we all agree in professing to hold and to teach the Gospel in its simplest, purest, and most efficacious form. Whatever we call ourselves, or others denominate us, ours, happily, we believe to be the privilege and the duty to maintain and to inculcate the religion taught and exemplified by the Son of God, free from the additions which it received in its passage through the Dark Ages, which still adhere to it, more or less, in nearly all the sects of Christendom, and which, if not counteracted by other influences, but left to work out their legitimate results in the formation of character, would oftener produce monsters than perfect men.
Refraining from further attempt to define our views, —which would be out of place here, — let me try to fix attention, for a while, on the topic already announced; in order that we may notice together some of the elements of a true answer to the question, whether, as not a few affect to think, we are like men born out of season, — a sect for the existence of which, in such an age and country as ours, there is no sufficient apology, — toiling in behalf of interests for which human nature, in its sanctified state, manifests no sympathy, Divine Providence vouchsafes no smile of approval, and neither the present nor the future gives promise of success; or whether, as many besides ourselves believe and assert, we are right in respect both to our time and our place, — charged with the advocacy of a form of religion which humanity at once needs and craves, surrounded by proofs of Heaven's benediction, and privileged to rejoice in the prospect that the principles to the furtherance of which we are consecrated will finally be coextensive with the prevalence of Christianity.
In view of a subject dividing itself into so many topics, each involving a variety of considerations, it seems to me difficult to determine which to select for remark, and which to omit, — where to begin, or where to end. Two general facts, however, under which all others suited to the purpose of this Address arrange themselves, seem to press upon attention at the outset.
One of them is implied in the saying, as true as it is trite, that we live in an age of extraordinary improvement. On every side, and in all spheres of thought and action, we perceive signs of a progress never before witnessed. Annoying to many very worthy, quiet-loving people must of course be the agitations that belong to such a state of things.
Nevertheless, the characteristic of the times under notice is as justly a cause of congratulation as of remark. Now, what class of Christians can most naturally fall in with this onward tendency, and best take advantage of it for God and man? The Roman Catholics? They are moored by an old church establishment. The Orthodox Protestants? They are bound to the fixtures of ancient creeds. The chiefs of these Communions, and all others like them, can have no real sympathy with the great movements of the present day, so long as they remain true to their principles. On the past alone, — the hallowed, venerable, perfect past, — they dwell with satisfaction; and their discourse is querimonious, whenever prompted by any recent change of rite or dogma. One is reminded by some of them of the infatuated personage with the "turned head,” described in the "Diary of a Physician,” who used always to dress himself with his buttons on his back. To Liberal Christians it properly belongs, taking with them whatever former ages have transmitted of truth and goodness, to join — may I not say, to lead? — the ranks whose faces are forward. They are peculiarly fitted to live and act in an advancing age; and for this reason, besides others to be adverted to in the sequel, that, in the noble language of the old Polish Unitarians, they are not ashamed to improve. They, without any compromise of private principle or infringement of social obligation, can reject an error as soon as they see it; can receive a truth when it is disclosed to them; can abandon faulty modes of action and adopt improved methods at will; in short, can keep up with, or even go before, the times, like the word and spirit of Christ himself, embarrassed neither by individual scruples nor by ecclesiastical entanglements. And in this is an advantage.
The other of the two general facts, which readily occur to the mind when entering on a subject of this sort, is the remarkable hopefulness for the future that distinguishes our times. At no former period were mankind so confident of further progress as they are now. The present age not only looks back on those which are past, and asserts that it is wiser than they, but it glances forward on. the periods to come, and proclaims that they will far surpass itself. This voice, feeble and stifled in many regions of the earth, rings out with an earnest distinctness from those districts in which the people are the most intelligent and free, enjoying the largest share of light and the greatest liberty to make use of it. And which of the sects should it affect the most agreeably? Which of them, beyond all others, ought to interpret it as a token of encouragement? Not they who fancy that from Trent or from Westminster came, centuries ago, the best formularies of faith and practice the world is ever to see. It would be but affectation in such religionists to declare themselves pleased with the cry that heralds the coming changes. To them, verily, the words progress and improvement, in the comprehensive sense of modern times, must convey a startling sound. Be they Romanists or Calvinists, their golden age, ecclesiastically and doctrinally, has been, not is to be; and every innovation upon the past flutters their souls with fear, and to their quivering apprehensions something like a fall from a precipice seems before them. Not so with Liberal Christians, who are worthy of their faith. The hopefulness of the age appears reasonable to their minds; and there is that in their hearts which responds to it. It seems to them to agree with the spirit of the old prophets, with the tone of all Christ's predictions, with the daily intimations of Providence. Its voice, as they understand it, is also that of human nature proclaiming its origin, its capabilities, and its destination; of experience holding converse with the future of deep calling unto deep. And their ears are open to it; they welcome it; they join in with it; they take courage from it. Doubt and fear are not for them, but belief and hope; and herein is an element of their strength.
Allied to the facts just noticed, there are others, which, if less general in their character and bearing, seem to me equally significant, within their legitimate scope, of the vantage-ground possessed by the advocates of Liberal Christianity.
The state of religious parties, for example, is not without interest to us in this relation. To the number and mutually conflicting claims of these, we, as a small band of reputed heretics, are much indebted for our safety. Besides, almost every one of them has been rent in twain; and we now find a portion of each more liberally disposed than it was before the division. Then, too, they are nearly all engaged in earnest controversy about creeds or usages that formerly passed amongst them unquestioned; — and what does this imply, but that men's minds are active on religious subjects; that they are exercising the right of individual judgment; that many are dissatisfied with old doctrines and modes; and that, if there is something better attainable, they are resolved to have it? It is a common remark, moreover, that, in proportion as intelligence is diffused in any community, and the people are trained to independent thought, Orthodox teachers are constrained to cover the sharp points of their theology, and to give greater prominence to the practical principles of Liberal Christianity. We may be reminded, also, that several new sects have been formed; and do they not, almost without exception, stand on a less exclusive basis than the old ones? Are not their creeds shorter, less rigid, and more in accordance with reason and Scripture? But what is more particularly noticeable as an encouraging fact is, that, whenever and wherever a Christian party has organized itself on the principle of having no formulary of faith but the Bible, and no ecclesiastical authority out of and above its individual churches, it has come at length to adopt views similar, for the most part, to those which are cherished by us. And as regards our own sect, — if sect it may, without offence to any, be called, — we, indeed, know that it is not, comparatively, very large; and some say its growth is not rapid. But have any to learn that strength is not in numbers alone? The sober truth, in my view, is, that from our ranks there is going forth, at this moment, a greater power to shape public opinion, as to religion and morals, for the coming generation, than is exerted by any other single denomination of Christians in the land.
But the state of religious parties is less indicative of favorable tendencies than certain undercurrents of thought and feeling in society, which are seldom much affected by the creeds of churches, the disputes of theologians, and the movements of sects. There is that in human nature, not to mention other forces ever active in intelligent and enterprising communities, which neutralizes the effect of false doctrines and bad ordinances. How often do we find men, even of the straightest sect, conducting themselves every day, in private life, on the pure and generous principles of a common Christianity, and, in public, taking the liberal side of all important questions! As a means of ascertaining the popular sentiment in regard to religious matters, nothing is more deceptive than tables of ecclesiastical statistics. A large proportion of the churches of this Commonwealth, for instance, are said to be Calvinistic; and yet, in fact, not one in twenty of those to whom such a belief is imputed thinks or feels or acts in conformity with it at home, or could be induced abroad to array himself against those who hold a milder creed. Errors float about in society, so clothed in words as to hide from men their meaning and power; and doctrinal phrases pass daily over the lips of thousands, of which could they only feel the spirit and significance, they would be led at once to perceive the discrepancy between the language they use and the sentiments they cherish, and to declare themselves, as they are at heart, Liberal Christians. One reason why this latent Unitarianism, if I may so term it, does not oftener manifest itself in revolt from the exclusive churches, and in accessions therefrom to our own, is, that those churches have been for some years free from excitements and other occasions of annoyance. But this state of things will not last long; and when it ceases, we may expect large additions to our ranks. Another reason is to he found in the general law of progress. In the natural course of events, forms of Christian belief continue to be cherished in a community which is far in advance of them. Usually, men are not in haste to abandon their accustomed religious positions, though convinced that there are others which are preferable. As the snake, some one has said, lives in his old skin until a new covering is perfected, so societies remain in their early ecclesiastical connections until they can mature their opinions and go forth thoroughly furnished. We must not be impatient because the process is slow. Believing that it is steady and sure, we may rejoice in good hope.
Kindred to the topic just remarked upon is another, the consideration of which should afford us encouragement. Not only is the heart of the Christian world losing its interest in those sectarian doctrines which, whatever truth they may seem to contain, are found to exert little good influence in common life, but it yearns, as it has done at no former period, for union. It feels that the Savior meant something, when, in supplication to his Father, he besought that his disciples might "be one”; and it will never be satisfied, till the true import of the prayer he fulfilled. But what class of Christians, except that called Liberal, seems either to understand what Gospel unity is, or to hold the principles by which alone it can be effected? It is vain to look to the Papal Church; for it is impossible, in the nature of things, that any visible organization can embrace all the true disciples of Christ. Equally futile must be every Protestant attempt, like that of the late London Convention, to unite them all by means of a creed. If Christians are ever to be one, as Jesus prayed they might be, they will become so under the banner of love; which is the same as saying that the union will take place on the ground occupied by ourselves. In other words, they must agree, like us, to lay stress, not on what is outward, but on what is inward; not on visible churches and published creeds, but on the unseen, unwritten sentiment of love in the heart. The time is not so distant as some suppose, when, through the influence of this noble principle of union and fellowship, which distinguishes us, the value of Liberal Christianity will be generally acknowledged, and its ministrations sought from afar.
In harmony with this desire of union is another power at work, till lately unknown, which is doing a great deal for us; — I mean, the principle of benevolent association in behalf of reform. This is one of the most prominent features of the age. The Gospel, in its later developments, aims not only to regenerate the individual man, but to amend all the institutions of society that are imperfect. In these days, every body, one might almost say, considers himself, by virtue of his Christian profession, as, in some sort, a philanthropist. The spirit of his religion goes outward; it seeks to improve the condition of communities; it would pour its healing waters into every impure stream that flows through social life. Ultraists, indeed, abound, who do much to spoil the good work; but the great movement of which I speak is as glorious as it is surprising; and, God be thanked, it is to go on. Now let it be observed, that not only is it the tendency of the associated action to which this new spirit of the age has given rise to unite members of various sects in the same benevolent enterprises, and thereby soften their prejudices, but its natural effect also is to show how, after all that has been said of the essential importance of certain doctrines rejected by us, the great principles of Liberal Christianity are, in fact, the only ones that are of any practical use in the business of reform. What company of earnest men or women, met to deliberate on ways and means for carrying forward a philanthropic movement of any kind, can be supposed to advert, even in thought, to the seven sacraments of one church, or to the five points of another? Who, that, with intelligence and zeal, sets himself at work to promote temperance, to abolish slavery, to put an end to war, to improve the discipline of prisons, to take from penal enactments their needless rigor, or to change for the better any institution or custom of society, even so much as dreams of depending for success on any other facts, principles, or motives, of a moral and religious kind, than are furnished by Liberal Christianity? In short, and in truth, the reforming power, by whomsoever used, is not in sectarian peculiarities, but in what is common to all classes of disciples, who, reverencing their Master's authority, character, and word, strive to be filled with his spirit. And as the knowledge of this fact must be extended by every experiment of associated action for benevolent ends, the interests of our denomination will by the same means be advanced.
In connection with this reformatory spirit, let us glance at the material agencies of modern times; most of which tend, directly or indirectly, to favor the spread of such a religion as we seek to promote. Liberal Christianity, unlike other systems of faith, loves the open light of day; invites, rather than shuns, examination; is willing, not reluctant, to submit its claims to trial before reason and common sense; welcomes, instead of repelling, the spontaneous outgushings of the heart's natural sentiments; and feels itself at home and about its fitting work, not only in the church, but wherever living, active men toil, or travel, or congregate, or communicate with each other. Friends and coadjutors, therefore, it finds in the new instrumentalities of this later age (such as steamboats, railroads, and magnetic telegraphs) whereby distant communities are brought into proximity; or different classes of the people are enabled often to meet, and mingle, and converse together; or books are cheaply and widely circulated; or epistolary correspondence is increased; or channels, of any kind, for the free course of thought and feeling are opened in all directions. True, these are facilities of which other sects, as well as ours, may avail themselves; but the advantage is greatly on the side of Liberal Christians; inasmuch as where the collisions of mind with mind are frequent, and the sympathies of many hearts flow together uninterruptedly, a religion of plain truth and kindly fellowship, suited to men's common relations and pursuits, is sure, in the long run, to gain the victory over a religion of mysterious dogmas and stern exclusiveness, which can be put to no good use in social or practical life.
In passing from material to intellectual agencies, our attention is arrested by an improved philosophy, fast gaining repute, which is in harmony with our views of religion, and cannot fail to be one of our most efficient helpers. Nothing seems clearer, than that the old set of notions, designated by the terms sensational, material, necessitarian, mechanical, has for years been on the wane. Spiritualism, so called, in one form or another, is now in the ascendant; and it is destined, in future, to rule the intellectual world. By spiritualism, I mean the philosophy which starts from conceptions of reason, rather than intimations of sense; which recognizes the higher nature of man; asserts the trustworthiness of the faculties; maintains the validity of human knowledge and faith; establishes the freedom of the mind, the right of private judgment, and the obligations of virtue, on facts of consciousness; gives vitality to nature by showing God in the midst of his works; and from evidences presented in man's mental and moral structure, in the ways of Providence, and in the law of life and death, draws conclusions, as probable as they are interesting, in respect alike to the reality, nearness, and benign government of the spiritual world. Such is the philosophy which an advanced civilization develops, and which it will sustain. Already its spirit has entered deeply into the departments of science, ethics, legislation, theology, and religion; and its prevalence and power will be more and more manifest as time and truth advance. Now, in my view, there is no sect of Christians which this improved mode of philosophizing will so much assist as our own. Before it, when fully and consistently carried out, irrational and degrading systems of religion cannot stand; but it is the natural ally of Liberal Christianity. The heralds of the one, as if from instinct, embrace the other. Spiritualism, in its true form, — for there is the spurious form, which causes young men and maidens, not a few, to dream dreams, and see visions, and prophesy lies, and some fathers and mothers in Israel to think and utter foolish things, — spiritualism in its true form, and the incorrupt Gospel, are henceforth to go hand in hand; and the interests of the latter, I cannot doubt, will be much aided by the influence of the former.
If we look now to the teeming press, and note the character of what it daily furnishes for the reading of the people, we shall be reminded, in another way, of the liberalizing tendency of the age. Trash there is, in abundance; and a great deal of what has lately been written and published must exert a bad influence on manners, morals, and religion. Yet it is no exaggeration of the truth to declare, that literature, from the light essay to the profound disquisition, can enumerate more excellent works, as the production of the last half-century, than of all former periods since the revival of letters. What effect are they producing? Do the books, pamphlets, and papers, whose agency is like that of the winds, dispersing the evaporation collected in the higher regions of thought over the wide surface of society, contribute very much to the growth of those old theologies which have their roots in the soil of the Middle Ages? How seldom do we find, in any work of reputation which treats upon the science either of matter or of mind, — upon law, politics, morals, government, legislation, or social economy, or even upon natural religion and the evidences of Christianity,— so much as an allusion to such doctrines as the Trinity, total depravity, baptismal regeneration, the sacrifice of the Eucharist, election, reprobation, vicarious punishment, salvation by faith alone, and everlasting hell-torments! Nor are topics of this kind oftener touched upon in poems, novels, orations, reviews, and newspapers. The current literature of the day seems divorced from every species of thoroughgoing Orthodoxy. So far as it contains the Gospel element at all, its influence is chiefly in favor of Liberal views. To be lamented, indeed, it is, that our popular authors do not avail themselves more frequently of the truths and sanctions of Christianity. But the reasons of this neglect lie, in general, where they are not commonly sought. The simple fact is, that religion, in the form in which it has prevailed, is such as educated men are becoming daily more ashamed of; — they may fall in with its ordinary and periodical ministrations; but they will not incorporate it with their writings. Men of high and pure minds cannot but love and respect the name of Christian, so soon as they understand its true import; but they will neither accept for themselves, nor allow their pens to be the medium of conveying to others, the elements of a religion that misrepresents God, contradicts the teachings of nature, does injustice to the affections of the heart, and reflects dishonor on the claims of the intellect. It follows, that, before the spirit of the Gospel shall thoroughly pervade the products of the press, it must be more generally received in its own simplicity, purity, and power; but meanwhile we have cause to rejoice, that, in a negative way at least, the literature of the age befriends Liberal Christianity.
And what do we see in the department of education? Never before were such intelligence and zeal engaged for the culture of the young, as are now manifested. New systems of teaching are devised; modes of instruction, choice of studies, adaptation of text-books, the whole machinery of means, have been brought under severe revision. And among the results of all this, is any one thing more noticeable than that, whether regard be had to the theories most approved or to the actual workings of the systems generally adopted, the tendency of education, in our day, so far as it favorably affects morals and piety at all, is in the direction of Liberal Christianity? Consider the theories. With which of the three leading ideas of religion do they agree with that of the Roman Catholic, who, trusting in the power of the priest, looks for his chief good to a routine of intercessory rites; or with that of the Orthodox Protestant, who, relying on the efficacy of a mysterious faith, is content with being fed and stimulated by doctrinal assurances; or with that of the Christian Unitarian, who, depending on character as the main thing, strives, with all inward strength and by all external helps, to make this, in purity, elevation, and beauty, like that of Jesus, the great Model? Manifestly with the last. To educate, in the true and now prevailing sense of the term, is, not to alter the child's nature, nor to crowd it with foreign ingredients, but to bring out what the Creator put into it; to unfold its inherent capacities and powers; in a word, to train up the well-made little being to the stature of a true, well-proportioned, perfect man. This chief end, as the subject is understood by our most intelligent and experienced educators, all outward influences are to subserve. The Gospel even, and the constant aid of God's holy spirit, are supposed to fall under the same category of means for the full development of man's nature. Such is the modern theory of education. Words need not be multiplied to show how it clashes with the views both of Roman and Genevan theologians, or how exactly it accords with the principles of the Liberal faith. Can those views be for ever sustained, can this faith be long kept in abeyance, provided such ideas of human culture shall continue to prevail?
Turn now to the actual workings of the popular system of education. Are they adapted to turn out to order youthful Catholics or Calvinists? Where in the land is there a free common school, supported at the public expense, in which, were we to enter it on any day of the week, we should be reminded, by any thing either read or said, of the tenets that distinguish the exclusive sects? No wonder that zealots for ancient creeds and ordinances of human device grow restive, as they think how the rising millions of the country are taught, from year to year, in seminaries where only the Bible, without note or comment, is used as a religious manual, and, while the general principles of piety and morality are inculcated, all exercises in sectarian theology are forbidden. But that so it shall be, the people have determined; and the decision will never be reversed. What do we see in this, but at once a proof that the advocates of false systems of religion have less of power than of desire to sway the world, and another sign that the tendency of the age is with us?
But I have no right to be endless, even upon a subject that seems without end. It was, indeed, my wish and purpose to remark upon other topics. Happily, however, it has at length occurred to me, that there is a limit beyond which the patience of my hearers must not be wearied. Brethren, if a tithe of what has been said is true, have we not, as in the intrinsic excellence of Liberal Christianity, so in the outward facilities afforded by our age and country for its diffusion, sufficient reason for joy and gratitude and hope? Causes enough, indeed, for humility and self-reproach we cannot but perceive, as often as we cast a retrospective look on what we have done, or rather left undone, in the noble sphere of privilege and duty to which Providence has called us, both as individuals and as a sect. Nevertheless, seeing as we do, not only that the ship we sail in is stanch, and laden with what the world more and more wants, but also that she is sped by favoring currents and propitious breezes, let us, while lamenting the poor way in which, too often, we have heretofore trimmed her sails and guided her helm, thank God, take courage, and resolve that for the future our fidelity, devotedness, activity, and zeal shall be as our trusts and as our opportunities. Greater trusts and more precious opportunities the blessed Father of all bath not bestowed on any other members of his family on earth, since ha spoke by his Son to the chosen ones of Judea. If they are neglected by us, we shall incur the penalty of self-reproach, of Heaven's frown, and of the malediction of the civilized world.