The Difficulties and Discouragements, Responsibilities and Duties, incident to the Position of Liberal Ministers at this time
Samuel Kirkland Lothrop
Berry Street Essay, 1848
Before the Ministerial Conference
May 31, 1848
Note: This report from the Christian Register, June 3, 1848, is not strictly a summary of Lothrop’s address; however, it captures in some detail key points of the theological disputes of the time and I therefore believe that it provides an appropriate summary of Lothrop’s viewpoint at this time. Regrettably, neither a summary nor the original essay has been found. – Paul Sprecher
Rev. T. R. Sullivan remarked as follows: That he was as much in favor of being explicit, as against being exclusive. There either was or was not a difference of some importance between the system called Rationalist and the opposite; and if there was, it ought to be plainly declared. The preacher in the morning (Rev. S. K. Lothrop) had indicated a marked distinction between the persuasion which affirms that the New Testament contains a revelation accompanied by miraculous evidence, and that which denies that doctrine. Mr. W. H. Channing (while avowing himself a believer in miracles) controverted the above position on the ground that there was, amongst us, virtually, no difference of essential importance, because, for instance, one who denies miraculous testimony might hold to the superhuman character of Christ.
To which it is rejoined, that this reasoning does not meet the point in dispute; for, both parties admitting the superhuman character of Jesus, the question still is, as to the testimony on which that character is sustained. Two persons may both receive the superhuman character of Jesus Christ, and yet if one of them leave out of his creed the tenet, that one of the evidences of that superhuman character in Jesus is the miracles recorded in the N. T., his opinion is essentially different from that of the other. Mr. S. believed that the two views were essentially different; and that to receive the superhuman character or divine mission of Jesus, at the same time denying to it a miraculous seal or attestation, was to hold a form of Christianity essentially defective. Ho sustained this position by a reference to the Gospel of John, one of the leading objects of which plainly was, after making (in John 1.) a declaration of the superhuman character of Christ as the Word, Light, Life, Only Begotten Son of God, to present the miraculous and other testimony in support of its—a purpose obvious throughout that Gospel, beginning with a passage in the 2nd chapter (v. 11), where John says, "This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana in Galilee, and manifested forth his glory" ("the glory of the only-begotten of the Father," John 1), and proceeding to that near the end (John xx: 30, 31) where he sums up all relating to this branch of evidence by saying, "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son God, and that believing ye might have life through his name." Not that every one who rejects this miraculous testimony is to be refused the Christian name, for we have no right to withhold that name from any one professing to take it in religious seriousness. Nor that every one who receives Christianity on the testimony of the "words" only, and not the "works," of Jesus is to be denied Christian fellowship and the Christian hope: for no authority is given us to say on just what kind or measure of evidence an honest inquirer may become, or be accepted as, a Christian. Here, "to his own master, ho standeth or falleth." But we have a right to judge his form of Christianity essentially defective, just as a believer in a future retribution for he wicked must necessarily think the ultra universalist doctrine essentially defective. And if we judge so, we should say so, especially when the difference is so important as in the case of one holding negative or skeptical views in regard to miracles, who, as often as he has proclaimed those of the N. T. to be myths or fables, or denied that they are the credentials of Jesus a messenger from God, has taught what tended, though it were by no means intended, to the subversion of Christianity itself. And this protestation was enough, for responsibility to truth, without denunciation or exclusion. In making it there was no exclusion or exclusiveness, and none was proposed. As to ministerial exchanges, that is a matter between the ministers themselves, as the discretion of each may dictate. Protestation is the right of Protestants; and it is clearly distinguishable from Denunciation—protesting is not persecuting; to expose an error, is not to expel a brother.
Mr. S. added a few words on the subject of Social Reforms. He sided first for Principles, but did not oppose reforms. He asked for the divine blessing upon the cause of Peace, of Temperance, and of the Abolition of Slavery, and upon the efforts of the many honored instruments laboring well in those benevolent and important enterprises. But these are not the sum of Christianity. Neither should they be confounded with the great bonds which connect liberal Christians as a body. They are modes, not principles. They are incidental, not fundamental. They have a place, and an honorable one, but it is the second, and not the first. Religious truth, Christian freedom, practical faith, vital religion, human brotherhood, these were some of the great principles of union and action—the primary or leading objects. Take one example: Human Brotherhood. Human Brotherhood and Social Reform are both great ideas, but one is secondary to the other. The former is the principle; the latter, the application;—and if I receive and act upon the law of human brotherhood, my conscientious refusal to join in a measure for correcting some special social abuse, is no more to be condemned, than a difference of opinion as to the right of defensive war, or the vote cast at the last election. The example of the late Dr. Channing—a name never to be spoken without veneration—was last anniversary referred to approvingly by a speaker, as an illustration of the change alleged to be taking place in the liberal body, which, it was said, like himself in his later years, seemed to be taking a predominant interest in social reform. This, if so, is as digressive a step for the liberal party, considered as a religious body, as the same course was, in its reputed leader, considered as a theologian. Dr. C. not having been the professed, but only the reputed leader of the denomination, his course is not alluded to, to be condemned, but only to be avoided, regarded as giving the lead to Liberal Christians as a denomination or united religious body. For it is a substitution, for the time, of the secondary for the primary objects. That we might not lose sight of this distinction he would close by citing a striking passage from Dr. Noyes's Address before the Association of the Alumni of the Theological School, July 16, 1847, in which that distinction is recognized: "We have reason to congratulate ourselves," says Dr. N., "that this great subject of the application of Christianity to social abuses, did not take nearly exclusive possession of the mind of Dr. Channing, until he had rendered those invaluable Services to the cause of religious truth, which will, probably, in the end, do more for the advancement of human happiness, than those of his writings which have the abatement of social evils more immediately in view."