Ecclesiastic Christendom (reported as "The Ecclesiastical Prospects of the Christian World”)
Frederic Henry Hedge
Berry Street Essay on Theology, 1851
Before the Ministerial Conference
May 27, 1851
GENTLEMEN AND BRETHREN, — I have great pleasure in accepting the invitation of your committee which places me here to-day. Our ecclesiastical year has no occasion to which I could speak with greater satisfaction than this.
The regulations adopted at a former meeting of this Conference have assigned to this morning session the discussion of theological topics; reserving for a later hour those of a practical and social nature.
Of theological topics,— if we give to theology the wide acceptation which use has established, — I know none more pressing at present than that which, during the past year, has chiefly agitated the religious mind at home and abroad, — the Ecclesiastical Prospects of the Christian world. It is the old question between Protestantism and Romanism which again, by a singular destiny, after so many years of comparative rest, has come to be the prominent question of the day. And we, as Protestants, are called to consider our position in relation, not to this or that sect or symbol of our fellow-Protestants, but in relation to our ancient antagonist, the Church of Rome. We are called to consider the position of Protestantism itself, — its present and its future, its resources, its capabilities, and its duties in relation to that long struggle whose fourth century now culminating exhibits as yet no sign of languescence, and no promise of peace.
It cannot be denied, that the present position of Protestantism is, in some respects, less favorable than it was a century ago, when the battle of Culloden had reconfirmed the Protestant succession of the English throne, and the peace of Dresden had secured to the house of Brandenburg a more commanding influence than any Continental power of the new confession had before attained. If the relative increase of numbers since then has been on the side of Protestantism, that increase is due to the growth of population in Protestant countries, and not to conversions made from the Roman faith. The increase from conversion has been on the other side; and the relative increase of influence in European affairs has been greatly in favor of the elder church.
With the beginning of this century there commenced a reaction on the irreligious tendencies of French philosophy and French politics, which is still in progress. The general direction of this movement was and is Rome-ward. Its first symptoms appeared in German literature, in the "crypto-catholicism " of the Romanticists, in the passionate regrets of Novalis, and the pious apostasy of Count Stolberg and the younger Schlegel. A generation passed before the movement reached England, where it assumed, after the manner of that country, a more positive and pragmatic character. If Germany, pausing in her intellectual progress, looked wishfully over her shoulder, "Young England" turned fairly round, and catching a momentary gleam of the sun, then behind her, on the painted windows of her abbeys, voted the last three centuries a mistake. Then commenced the revival of medeval tastes, which we Americans, having no Middle Ages, and no historic justification of such a fashion, copied, of course; changing our comfortable meeting-houses into grim sepulchral vaults, and putting ourselves on a short allowance of air and light. So much for the aesthetic. Let us now look at the political side of this reaction. I call your attention to what is most recent.
In Germany, the great battle-field of modern history, where, from the time of Yarns to the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Southron and the Saxon, the spirit of empire and the spirit of liberty, have met in repeated conflicts, —in Germany, during the past year, a battle of diplomacy has been waged, which, if ecclesiastical interests were not expressly named or officially present, was, nevertheless, as truly a battle of the churches as that which Lord John Russell and the Vatican have been waging on the English soil. Austria and Prussia, the one representing autocracy and the past, the other development and progress, — hence, indirectly, hierarchy on the one hand, and Protestantism on the other, — have stood confronting each other like pugilists in a ring, each watching to obtain some advantage over his adversary, each looking for some unguarded spot in which to plant a decisive blow; the ring being formed of the secondary German powers and the petty sovereignties, about equally divided between the two faiths. In this contest Prussia, with all her moral superiority, has discovered a weakness which shows that the Protestant interest has lost ground in Europe since the treaty of 1818; and were it not for the fear of internal division, and perhaps the counterpoise of the Greek Church in the counsels of Vienna, the "Ultramontane” power in Germany would come in for reprisals due from the time of the Suabian emperors, with added claims from the peace of Augsburg and the peace of Minster. It is this, together with the weakness of the Papal court, and not the energy of Protestant rule, that intercepts the advantage politically due to Rome from the present posture of German affairs. For on neither side of the Alps is strength or counsel, or the man for the hour. The mighty Hohenstaufen, who made the old empire the breakwater of Papal aggression, when its tide poured fiercest through the Raetian notch, are now represented by weaklings and dilettanti; and a client of the French republic holds the place of that Innocent whose ban-bolts made both France and England quail, and who dictated his own terms to both their kings.
In France the ecclesiastical power of Rome, whose singular privilege it is to gain new strength from every new reverse, has increased, instead of diminishing, since the revolution of 1848 and at no time within this century has the Church been more active and more conscious of its strength in that country than now.
In England, where the Papal power for nearly a century was thought to be almost extinct,— where " Catholic Emancipation," so hazardous in 1780, was accomplished without disturbance in 1829, —in England the progress of Roman principles, the forwardness of Roman influence, and the terror of Roman usurpation, were never, since the days of the Stuarts, so conspicuous and so determined as now. The cry of "No Popery," unheard since the Gordon Riots, is liable at any moment to become again the rallying-cry of an English mob. In that country the defections in favor of Rome, during these years, have probably outnumbered all the proselytes gained by Protestantism since the sixteenth century. Encouraged by these symptoms, the Pontiff has shown a disposition, so it is thought, to cast his shoe over England, and to contest with the Anglican Church the possession of that fair heritage which so captivated the first Gregory. Meanwhile he has begun by casting his hat, to an English ecclesiastic, during the past year, a cardinal's hat, conferring a seat in that college which fills the vacancies in the Papal chair. With Cardinal Wiseman's zeal and gifts the possibility is suggested of an English Pope, and should a change of residence for that functionary be thought desirable in the present decadence of secular Rome, an ancient precedent is there to justify it. What was admissible in the fourteenth century is admissible in the nineteenth, and the claims of Avignon then were no better than those of London or Dublin are now, or than those of Cincinnati may be a few years hence.
These are fancies, but what is certain is, that Popery is making extraordinary efforts to extend itself westward, and is extending with portentous strides. Its growth in our own country, where fifty years since it had scarcely a foothold, is not the least wonderful of American growths. The increase from conversion has been inconsiderable in numbers, and yet there are not wanting some very remarkable cases, which show that neither vigor of intellect nor high culture is proof against the seductions of that sorceress, who knows so well how to drug her cup with charms adapted to every shade and grade of mind. The increase by immigration, from year to year, is one of the most significant facts in our national statistics, connected as it is with other problems than the ecclesiastical one we are now discussing, — problems of social and political import, sufficiently perplexing, and suggesting, among others, this question, — Whether, with the present rate of foreign immigration, and in the present state of our naturalization Jaws, the universal suffrage which has hitherto been regarded as the strong palladium of our liberties may not prove, at some future period, to be their grave.
In all the most important cities in this country, the Roman Church is strongly rooted and a fixed fact. No church among us is stronger in the hold which it has on its subjects, in the subordination of its members to a common earthly head and a common earthly aim, and in the force it can bring to bear, at any moment, on any given point. The majority of Protestant families in this, as in most of our cities, contain one or more Romanist members. And in many cases those Romanist members are the most religious members of the family, after their fashion, — the most devoted to their forms and their church. No class of persons, in proportion to their means, pay larger pecuniary contributions to their church than the Irish who serve in our families; and we, through them, are all contributors in a greater or less degree to that Church's support. Wherever there is a centre of population or a centre of influence, there Rome has established a point of command. With every year she multiplies the nuclei of her spiritual life; and if immigration continues as in these years, and the children of immigrant Romanists remain to the parent Church, the time is not distant when, in point of numbers, that Church will overshadow us all.
I mention these things, not in the way of alarm. There is no ground for alarm. For if it were possible, in the order of history, that Romanism should swallow up Protestantism, such an event would imply in the prevalent Church a Divine authority by which it prevails. Such a success would show a preponderance of truth on that side, in view of which alarm and regret must yield to assent. Not every temporary success, indeed, can be regarded as proof that the cause which succeeds is the right cause. Yet, if we believe that history is providential, if we believe in a Supreme Ruler of human affairs, it should seem that only that can succeed in the final event which deserves to succeed, and that, taking large periods into view, the world's history is the world's judgment.
But we have no reason to anticipate such an event. We have no reason to apprehend the universal prevalence of the Roman Church, constituted and defined as it now is. To say nothing of its theological errors, or what we conceive to be such, its relations to science, politics, and human progress at present are such as to preclude that prevalence so long as a seed remains of the race by which the triumphs of modern civilization have been won. Before Romanism can swallow up Protestantism, it will have to undergo such radical modifications of its spirit, and such organic changes in its polity, as would leave little or nothing of those distinctive and obnoxious features which we now associate with it. It must become less Roman and more catholic, less Papal and more congregational, less ritual and more spontaneous, less ecclesiastical and more spiritual; above all, it must divest itself of its secular pretensions; it must have the scarlet washed out of it; in a word, it must Americanize before it can take up the Protestant American religions, which, with all their antiphonies among themselves, unite in a common and traditional repugnance to prelacy and Babylonian abominations. On the other hand, it is equally certain that Protestantism can never swallow up Romanism, nor even cope successfully with it, until it is at one with itself and understands itself; until its crudities are digested, and a common soul strikes through it and fuses it and recasts it into a solid whole.
But though the rapid growth of the Roman faith and the sudden accession of vigor and importance which that Church has acquired in these days are no cause for alarm, they are very significant facts; they suggest important topics of reflection, and call for new inquiry into the claims and grounds and resources of that faith, and the wants and defects, as well as the advantages, of our own.
As Protestants and Americans, we are apt to underrate the real strength and importance of the old Church, in this age of the world. We are apt to think of it as we do of other mediaeval creations, as we do of the material structures of that age, the old feudal castles that interest us only as ruins. We think of it as something surrendered to decay, dismantled, crumbling, scarce habitable through extreme decadence. Or if not exactly ruinous, we regard it as miserably weak in comparison with what it was in other centuries, and as growing yearly weaker in the tide of human progress which lashes its base. This is the view of Protestants generally. Those who think otherwise are looked upon as alarmists. Even our own Channing, in an article published originally in the Western Messenger, and abounding, like all his writings, in insight and wisdom, takes this view of it. "Its great foe,” says he, "is the progress of society. The creation of dark times, it cannot stand before the light…. The political revolutions of the times are enough to seal its death-warrant,” etc. I very much doubt the correctness of this estimate. Greater revolutions than those which Channing saw have occurred since he wrote. But all the revolutions which have agitated Europe for the last hundred years have rather strengthened the Roman Church than weakened it. To say that it is at this moment the strongest Church in Christendom is a very inadequate statement of the fact. It is the strongest organized power on the face of the earth. I do not see that it is not as strong now as it has been any time since the days of Hildebrand. I do not say that the Papal chair is as strong; that happens just now to be weak; yet not so weak as it has been many times before in the course of its history. The strength of the Papal chair depends on the incumbent for the time. But the Roman Church is apparently as strong now as she ever was; as strong, I mean, spiritually, not politically. It does not appear that the Protestant movement has essentially crippled her means, or weakened her power. Of decadence there is no sign, certainly no consciousness on her part. The countries on which she feeds are decayed, because she has absorbed their life. But there is life enough left to feed her, — she will take care to preserve so much, and she does not care that there should be any more,— no sign of decadence, and no misgiving or doubt of her own destiny. Mr. Macaulay, writing in 1840, before the Tractarian movement had fully developed itself, and when the prospects of Romanism were far less promising than they are now (scanning those prospects with the eye of an historian), can see no "sign that the term of her long dominion is approaching.” "She saw,” he says, "the beginning of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all.”
"We often hear it said,” he continues, "that the world is constantly advancing, is becoming more and more enlightened, and that this enlightening must be favorable to Protestantism and unfavorable to Catholicism. We wish that we could think so. But we see great reason to doubt whether this is a well-founded expectation. We see that, during the last two hundred and fifty years, the human mind has been in the highest degree active; that it has made great advances in every branch of natural philosophy; that it has produced innumerable inventions tending to promote the convenience of life; that medicine, chemistry, surgery, engineering, have been greatly improved; that government police and law have been improved, though not quite to the same extent. Yet we see that during these two hundred and fifty years Protestantism has made no conquests worth speaking of. Nay, we believe that, so far as there has been a change, that change has been in favor of the Church of Rome. Indeed, the argument which we are considering seems to us to be founded on an entire mistake. There are branches of knowledge with respect to which the law of the human mind is progress…. There is no chance that, either in the demonstrative or in the purely experimental sciences, the world will ever go back or even remain stationary…. But with theology the case is very different…. We are confident that the world will never go back to the solar system of Ptolemy; nor is our confidence in the least shaken by the circumstance, that even so great a man as Bacon rejected the theory of Galileo with scorn; for Bacon had not all the means of arriving at a sound conclusion which are within our reach, and which secure people who would not have been worthy to mend his pens from falling into his mistakes. But we are very differently affected when we reflect that Sir Thomas More was ready to die for the doctrine of Transubstantiation. He was a man of eminent talents. He had all the information on the subject that we have, or that, while the world lasts, any human being will have…. No progress that science has made, or will make, can add to what seems to us the overwhelming force of the argument against the real presence. We are therefore unable to understand why what Sir Thomas More believed may not be believed to the end of time by men equal in ability and honesty to Sir Thomas More. But Sir Thomas More is one of the choice specimens of human wisdom and virtue; and the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a kind of proof charge. A faith which stands that test will stand any test.”
It seems to me, on many accounts, important that we should not underrate the present significance and actual strength of Romanism; but chiefly on this account, because a just estimate of the power and position of that Church is necessary in order to appreciate aright the Roman Christian idea; and a right understanding of the Roman Christianity is essential to a right understanding of our own, — of Protestant Christianity as distinguished from the Roman. To know ourselves truly, we must know ourselves relatively, we must measure ourselves with others. It is good for us occasionally to collate these different versions of Christianity, and to judge ourselves by comparing the old and the new. Whatever may be our impression of the errors and corruptions of the Roman Church, it will hardly be denied that a Church which has reached such a point of command, and acquired such breadth of dominion, and, what is more, has stood its ground against such a combination of contrary forces as the two last centuries have levelled against it, has on the whole a good right to be and to thrive; that with all its corruptions there must be some sterling excellence in such a Church. There must be a good deal of truth and a good deal of virtue at the bottom of such success. Protestants may talk about "Babylon," and all that, but a power like this never yet based itself on mere corruption. In the long run, success does not side with falsehood. God will not stand by a lie for ever; and certainly of this Church it may be said, in the old Hebrew phrase, that the Lord of Hosts hath been on her side. It is worth our while to study the elements of this success, not for the sake of adopting them, — that would be like adopting another man's eyes or nose,— but in order that we may judge correctly of the comparative merits and defects of the two systems.
One very essential element in the success of Romanism is its lofty consciousness, its ecclesiastical consciousness, the Church spirit, the sense of Divine right. Protestantism, as Mr. Martineau very justly characterizes it, "has no self-knowledge.” "Possessed by a spirit which it did not understand, aiming at one thing and realizing another,” it "has always mistaken its own nature and place in history.” But Romanism has always understood itself, has always known its end and seen its way. Always conscious of its strength, and confident in its destiny, it has moved onward with no faltering step in the path of empire to which it conceived itself called in Him who was to have the heathen for his inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession. It conceives itself called to rule the nations by ruling the mind. The consciousness of such a call was manifest long before the Roman Bishop became the head of Christendom, in the early determination of the Western Church to authoritative settlements of theological questions. The genius of the East inclined to speculation, to free thought and large discourse in matters of religion. The West, ordained to deal with barbarous and unreasoning tribes, who could accept a final proposition, but could make nothing of theories, found it necessary to have opinion fixed in comprehensive and immutable statements. The Greek mind judged of truth by an intellectual standard, and would have every point philosophically legitimated; the Western judged by the standard of expediency, and wished to have all things ecclesiastically settled. Whether philosophically correct, or not, mattered little in their estimation; opinion must be canonically correct, by all means. It would have no open questions. It had the sagacity to perceive that these questions of metaphysical theology admit of no final solution by the intellect, and that the only way to secure any show of unanimity was by a solution ab extra; which, if it did not satisfy the intellect, might do what was next best,— keep it in order. The long controversy between the orthodox party and the Arians, which agitated the fourth century, was in some sort a struggle between the Western and Eastern Churches, the West being mostly united on the orthodox side. It was from that quarter that the great Bishop of Alexandria derived his chief countenance and support. In fact, though all the ecumenical councils were held in Asia Minor, there is reason to believe that the prevailing influence in those councils and their decisions represented the opposite end of the Mediterranean more fully and distinctly than they did its eastern borders.
A more striking instance of this consciousness, and a very essential condition of the ecclesiastical power of Rome, is the subordination of the secular to the spiritual. This Divine order, which Christianity inaugurated almost as soon as it had governments on its side, the Roman Church has never, in principle, abandoned to this day; and the newest controversy within the limits of the Church turns on that very point. The indebtedness of mankind to the Christian Church, as a barrier against secular tyranny, has never, I think, been acknowledged to its fullest extent. Such a thing as a public censure of government was unknown in the Roman empire since the dictatorship of Caesar, until Christians assumed the purple. The first Christians, it is true, did not obey the laws which compelled them to violate their conscience, but they did not criticize them. No one dreamed of criticizing government, until government, by becoming nominally Christian, became amenable to a higher law. And when Hilary of Poictiers and old Athanase fulminated their invectives against Constantius, the Roman world stood aghast at the boldness which dared to judge, where others had only learned to obey. The subordination of the secular to the spiritual was consummated, at a very early period, in the Western Empire. And such was the ascendency of the Church feeling not only over private interest, but over the moral sense, that, even when the government acted justly, the Church overruled its decisions, if they seemed to affront its own dignity or to contradict its own interest. The Christians at Callinicum had wantonly destroyed a Jewish synagogue. The Emperor Theodosius very justly sentenced them to rebuild it at their own expense. Ambrose opposed the decree as an insult to the Christian Church, which ought not on any pretence to be made instrumental in promoting the cause of Judaism. He defended the conduct of the Christians in this act. They had only retaliated, and that very imperfectly, the ancient persecutions of the Jews. He took the responsibility upon himself, and insisted that the authors of the outrage should be held guiltless. And the ruler of the world submitted to his dictation, as he did on that other more momentous occasion, when, for eight months, the church at Milan was closed against him until he had accomplished the penance exacted by the inflexible bishop for his Thessalonian enormity.
So, when Christianity was but three centuries old, in a despotic age and under an absolute government, she ruled the rulers and dictated the action of the state. How is it now, in her nineteenth century, in a constitutional age, and under a republican government? Does Christianity rule the rulers, or take her direction from them?
In this consciousness the Roman Church possesses a power peculiar to itself. In vain has the Anglican Church in these days, and its daughter, the Episcopalian sect, in this country, aspired to the same sense of Divine right. The successful development of it in individuals has only had the effect to take them up into the elder communion.
Closely connected with the Church feeling of which I speak, and perhaps a product of it, at all events a very important constituent of the power and success of that body, is the fervent faith of its members in the articles and doctrines of their communion. We hear of the unbelief of professed Romanists among the educated classes in the European capitals. I suppose that to be somewhat exaggerated. But allowing the fact, the sceptics at most are reckoned only by hundreds, the believers by millions. And such believers! The faith of the Romanist is not, as that of the Protestant is apt to be, a mere theoretical admission, or a practical acquiescence, but an assurance amounting to the uttermost possible degree of certitude. Said an individual of that church to a member of one of the Calvinistic churches of the city in which I live, "Why do you exclude Unitarians and Universalists from your church?” The answer was, "Because we believe them to be in error on points of vital moment in religion.” "But do you know that they are wrong?” "Why, we think we have sufficient reason for believing so.” "But unless you are absolutely certain, you have no right to exclude them.” "How is it, then, with you?” retorted the Calvinist; "you excommunicate all Protestants without distinction.” "Yes, because they are all alike wrong in matters of faith.” "That is, you think so.” "Not at all,” said the Romanist; "there is no thinking about it; we simply know that you are wrong as well as we know that you are alive.” Such has been in all periods the faith of Rome,—unquestioning, unreasoning, unwavering, — the faith of the will. It was faith like this that overthrew the Irminsul on the banks of the Lippe, and compelled the iron Vikings to receive the baptism of Ansgar. It was this that motived the great reaction of the fifteenth century, that rolled back the tide of the Reformation, and secured to the Vatican the fairest portions of Europe, — France, Austria, Bavaria, Poland, Belgium, — already on the point of secession, and assigned to Protestantism an early boundary line, beyond which it has made no conquest for two hundred years.
Still another characteristic merit of the Roman Church, and another source of its peculiar power, is the preponderance which it gives to the feelings over the intellect, the ascendency it accords to the devotional over the dogmatic in religion. It addresses the sentiments more than the understanding. This is true of some Protestant sects, of the Moravian, for example, and the Methodist; but it is not true of Protestantism as a whole. Protestantism, as such, has been too theological, it has busied itself too much with points of belief, with building up systems, or with throwing down systems, to the neglect of weightier things. Romanism puts theology in the background and worship in the foreground, devotion first and theory last. Hence a characteristic excellence of that Church, — let all justice be done to it, — devoutness. The Romanists as a body, it must be acknowledged, are more devout than the Protestants as a body. Grant that their devoutness is sometimes associated with loose lives. It certainly is not the source of that looseness, and in all probability makes their lives much better than they would be without it. They are more devout as a class than we are. Their churches, in the countries where that faith prevails, are always open; and every day, and almost every hour of the day, you may find there worshippers who have turned aside from their vocations to spend a few moments in prayer. And when matins or vespers sounds, you see them flocking to the church which is nearest the scene of their labor, in the guise and condition in which the summons finds them, — the laborer with his frock and his sabots, the maid with her basket or pail placed beside her as she kneels, the mother with her babe at her breast, the child, like Goethe's Margaret, "Halb Kinderspiel, halb Gott im Herzen.” There they kneel, while the din of the world, heard faintly without, like the breaking of the distant surf, gives one the feeling of an island of sanctity in a wild, roaring, godless sea; and the solemn aisles and vast spaces, dwarfing the human figure, supply a new and solemn perspective to human life; and the "antique pillars’ massy proof,” and the plaintive chanting of the priests, and the curling incense, and the sculptured saints and "ever-dying” martyrs, produce an impression of unearthly and eternal reality projected into this mortal, which no other experience awakens in a like degree.
I said Romanism addresses itself to the sentiments. Not only so, it addresses itself to the senses and the sensuous understanding. It speaks to a grade and condition of mind, which, with all our education-theories and means for the diffusion of knowledge, will probably, while the world stands, be the condition of a very considerable, portion of mankind. It reaches minds of this class by a shorter method than ours. Instead of cold abstractions, it gives them sensible images; it deals in the concrete, it puts things for words. It does not descant on Transubstantiation, but uplifts the consecrated wafer and bids the people kneel to the praesens numen in the host. It does not discuss the subject of Atonement, but puts a crucifix before them wherever they go, "by the way, in the places of the paths.” It does not argue the question of intercession, but points them to the Virgin
To whom, caressing and caressed,
Clings the eternal child.”
It does not philosophize on the efficacy of prayer, but puts a string of beads in their hands, and tells them, so many Ayes for this thing, and so many Pater-Nosters for that.
Another thing which that Church does, and to which it is also greatly indebted for its influence with the people, is this. It establishes an intimate relation with the whole of life. It does not dismiss its disciples at the door of the church, but follows them to their homes with its ordinances and its sacraments. It entwines itself with their whole existence, from the cradle to the grave, and even follows them beyond the grave with masses for the dead. It presides over their waking and their sleeping, over their business and their board, and over their very amusements, which it cares for with a thoughtfulness that considers and consults all the wants of earth-born man. At home and abroad its eye is upon them, its banner is over them, its symbols attend them.
When to these elements of power we add the masterly policy which, by universal confession, has always distinguished that Church, we see abundant cause for her past successes, and abundant probability of still further triumphs.
I have set before you the good side and the strong side of Romanism; not as having any sympathy with it, but partly because Protestant Christians, for the most part, have unphilosophically and illiberally ignored the good in that communion, in their rage against the false; and partly because it seems to me necessary to a right appreciation of our own theological position, that we should know and measure correctly those forms of Christianity which differ most from our own.
We can afford to do justice to Romanism we have nothing to fear from it. If we understand ourselves, if we have thoroughly digested our own idea, we have nothing to fear from it. That Church is destined to endure for many generations, and to make new conquests, and to realize vast possessions in this American world; but not, I am persuaded, not in its present form and with its old pretensions, — to supplant the Protestant idea or to check the Protestant spirit. For Protestantism, too, has an historical right to be. The Reformation is a great world-fact, second only in importance to the planting of Christianity by the Apostles. It was no fortuitous encounter, it was no momentary explosion, it was the sacred fire-heart of the German race, strong as the earth's core, that opened that vent in the old corruption. And that will always find vent for itself through all the layers which custom and falsehood may heap upon it. The crater may shift from age to age, but the fire is still there; and Rome will no more extinguish it than she will put out Vesuvius. "It is strong as death, and steadfast as the grave. Many waters cannot quench it, neither can the floods drown it.”
With all her advantages and merits, the Church of Rome is burdened with such fatal and damning defects, as, while they remain, must utterly preclude the universal dominion of that religion. What may happen, if ever those defects should be reformed, is another question. I have left myself no time to discuss those defects, I can only indicate them. And I say first, this Church sins by divorcing religion from morality; therein directly contradicting the Gospel, which aims to blend the two and make them one and inseparable. In saying this, I do not deny nor forget the fact, that thousands and hundreds of thousands of the purest, noblest, and most sinless characters which the world has known have been born and nurtured within the bosom of that Church. I only maintain that Rome, in her policy, does not regard morality as an end, and religion as a means to that end; but makes the Church the one great, absorbing end, to which all other considerations and interests, and (unless she is greatly belied) moral principle itself, must be offered up.
As radical vices of Romanism, I cite further its sacerdotism, — the dominion of a priestly caste; its excessive formalism, its intolerance, its jealousy of science, and its hostility to social progress.
We have seen the strength of Romanism, here we see its unmistakable weakness. And here, too, we see where our own strength lies. In those points in which the old Church fails, the new excels. The term Protestantism, as used to designate the Christianity of the Reformation, is on some accounts an unfortunate one. It expresses what was transient and momentary in that form of Christianity, not what is immanent. It expresses negation. But Protestantism is more than negation. It was my intention in taking up this subject to have unfolded to you the positive side of Protestantism. But the argument has unexpectedly taken another direction, and that purpose must remain unfulfilled. But this let me say, that the history of Protestantism teaches, — what indeed its theory, if it has any, avows, — that Christianity is progressive, that the true Church is not that stark, stiff, stolid immobility which Rome would have it, but a progressive self-unfolding of the Spirit through successive bodies or churches, from life to life. The theory of progressive development is the key to ecclesiastical history. It is the only theory which will solve the strange contradictions of the Christian ages, and justify the ways of the Spirit in the modes of each time. It is the only theory by which the history of Christianity can approve itself as providential. Why, if this dispensation is of God, and if, as we believe, our plain Unitarian doctrine was the evangelical type of Christian theology, —why for so many centuries have Athanasian and Augustinian views had possession of the Christian mind? Why, if Congregationalism, as we believe, was the primitive form of the Christian communities, — why through all the periods of medieval history, and before and after, have other polities, prelatical and hierarchical, usurped its place? "Perversion” and "corruption” are the words which most readily occur, when these questions are asked. But they do not satisfy me. I want to know why on this supposition God gave a revelation, and then virtually withdrew it; why the truth was shown, and then hidden again, and hidden so long. One of the strongest arguments in support of Christianity, — a divinely originated and authorized Christianity, — it has been considered, is the necessity of such a revelation to meet the moral and spiritual wants of mankind. This was the purpose of God in bestowing it. Now, if we say that Christianity, as we have it, is the only true Christianity, then we confess that that purpose was frustrated during a third of the time through which human history extends, and so deprive that argument of nearly all its force. I find the solution of this enigma in the word development;— development from a ritual and partial religion to a spiritual and universal one; from a system demanded by medieval conditions to one of ampler scope, adapted to full-aged man. No form of Christianity is absolutely and only true. Each successive one was right in its place, and good in its season; each put forward the face, and embodied the truth, which the time required. To say that a system which for more than a thousand years was the prevailing system of the Christian world, was a mere fraud, a pure invention foisted on the Gospel by human ingenuity, as our school criticism has very coolly pronounced it, seems to me a little monstrous. I cannot help hesitating at such a judgment, when I consider all that is implied in it, with regard to the Author of Christianity, and his connection with the Church. I do not see what becomes of the promised Spirit, on this supposition, or what becomes of Christ's presence with his followers to the end of the world. Not a human invention, I should say, but a phase which, in the order of Providence, and under the guidance of God's Spirit, Christianity was made to assume for its own behoof and the spiritual needs of mankind.
But now we have come out of that, we have outgrown it, we have no more need of it, and in Christ's name, with the leave of the Church, or without her leave, if need be, we will put it off. Protestantism says this, first of all, and defends it. Protestantism means movement. And when we say this, we pronounce its justification, we pronounce its eulogy. For what but movement is the destination of man in this moving world? Creation moves from everlasting to everlasting. This universe of things, whose sum no thought can grasp, is not a fixture, but a movement; the free self-movement of the eternal mind. All life is movement, and the quantity of movement is the measure of vitality. He who moves all things with his thought has not willed that any spirit should stand still. And the Church, the communion of spirits, must move or die. When, therefore, a church claims to be stationary, and makes it its vaunt, — contrasting its own immobility with the changes all around it, — that it stands unmoved in the flood of things, that its doctrine and discipline have been the same from age to age, it mistakes the aim of religion and the calling of the spirit; and that which it urges as its glory is truly its shame.
Herself progressive, Protestant Christianity tolerates progress in all things, and easily adjusts herself with it. She cultivates friendly relations with science and the arts of life, with the popular cause, and all the movements of society. She has no quarrel with the light, and no occasion to shut it out. She does not contract her pupil in the noonday of modern discoveries, nor complain to the moon
"Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient, solitary reign.”
Herein consists the strength of Protestantism, socially and politically, that it stands abreast with the world, it accepts the time and is accepted by it. It joins hands with popular governments, concurs with advancing humanity, and conspires with Freedom for individual growth and self-culture. This is its strength. Its weakness, one would say, is its schismatic tendency, its strong inclination to sever and secede, — the apparent preponderance in it of the centrifugal over the centripetal power. This has usually been regarded as its weak side. I have been accustomed so to regard it myself. But if Protestantism be essentially true in principle and spirit, this tendency, which constitutes so essential an element of Protestant Christianity, must be compatible somehow with its perpetuity and success. It is true, the centrifugal appears to predominate in it, when compared with Rome, — Rome being one, and Protestantism many. And yet the opposite tendency is also in it, or it would not have lived until now. Each fragment successively thrown off aims at wholeness, and rounds itself into shape, and revolves with the rest around the central sun, and draws its life from the Lord.
There is reason to believe that the process of separation is about complete; and though at present no decided tendency to recombination and consolidation appears, a movement in that direction among the Protestant sects may not unreasonably be expected in the order of the spirit's progressive life, — the centripetal affection again prevailing; as, according to some, the planetary systems in our firmament are drawing together, and will finally coalesce into one.
I believe, according to the creed of an elder age, in the "Holy Catholic Church.” I believe that such a church, as a visible earthly reality, is possible. I believe there is a foundation for it in human nature, and a promise of it in the Gospel; I believe it to be the destined consummation of our religion; a spiritual bond by which all men shall be one in Christ and one with God; a church combining the greatest liberty with the greatest union, consulting and conciliating all the wants of the spirit, gathering up and directing all our powers in a service which shall be the united action of all for the good of all.
Whether the Roman Church, putting off its corruptions, will ever expand into that, whether the Protestant sects, forgetting their differences, will ever merge into that, are questions whose answer is reposited in the deep mind of God, and not to be drawn thence by human foresight.
Meanwhile the question for us is, What can we do, what ought we to do, to maintain and promote the Protestant Christian idea and interest, in view of the growing strength and rapidly increasing spread of Romanism in our land and in the world? What can we do to develop and establish the true Church? We can do but this,— work in our place, work in our own church, and working, hope; work in a large spirit while we work in a small body, and seek catholic ends in the service of an insignificant and feeble sect.
We may congratulate ourselves, Gentlemen and fellow-laborors, as Congregationalists, as Unitarian Congregationalists (for in Unitarianism the Congregational principle is more fully realized than elsewhere), — we may congratulate ourselves on occupying a favorable position in the controversy between Roman and Protestant. We stand on the vantage-ground of a simple and intelligible principle, fully carried out. "Either you are right,” said a Roman Bishop to a Unitarian preacher, "or I am right; there is no consistent position between us.” As Protestants of the Protestants, we represent the Protestant idea in its last development and fullest extent. There is no tenable or defensible ground between reason applied to the interpretation of Christianity, and Rome.
We may congratulate ourselves on the steady progress of our communion, from year to year, and on the hold which our principles have gained on thoughtful minds beyond the limits of that communion. What we most want, as a body, is greater compactness and union among ourselves. We want more of the corporate spirit, a stronger sense of our denominational mission and calling, and through that of our relation with the Church Universal. I suppose there is no denomination of Christians in which there is so little of this spirit, so little concentration, so little care for their own commonweal and its success. This I consider a fault in our connection, the result sometimes of a daintiness which refuses to mix with the mass in any movement, or to let itself be used for any common end; and sometimes the result of an insensibility which ignores the obligation laid upon every believer, in some way to cooperate for the maintenance and promotion of Christian truth. But why cooperate in this particular way, through this connection, or any connection? Why league with a sect? Let every man give forth his own word on his own responsibility, independent of all sectarian alliance. Consulting only his own genius, let him cast his thought and action into the time, neither seeking the sanction nor heeding the resistance of any body whose system it may happen to favor or contradict. By all means! God forbid that any sincere word should be suppressed by the ban of a church or the censorship of a sect; that any soul should be so hampered by association, as to fail of its legitimate influence on the time; that any one who, like Paul, conceives himself to have his call, not from men, but from Christ direct, should not have the same liberty with Paul of not conferring "with flesh and blood,” nor going "up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before” him, but preaching his own Gospel in his own way. There is no danger that he will not have it. When God calls an apostle, He will see to it that his mouth is not stopped. .
But for those of us who can hardly claim an apostolic commission in this sense, the question is, How shall we most effectually promote the cause of truth and the kingdom of Christ? I say, by association, by joining with those who are nearest to us in theological or ecclesiastical position; by connecting ourselves with that one of the various ecclesiastical bodies for which, on the whole, we have the strongest affinity, although our affinity with it may be very imperfect, as in the case of a free and original mind it always must be. Even Paul was obliged to do this at last. He either could not, or from conscientious conviction would not, maintain to the end the position of uncompromising individuality with which he began. Compare the Epistle to the Galatians with the later Epistles, and see the change. He was stronger than any one of his Christian contemporaries; but the Church, combined, was stronger than he, and swept him in.
Christianity is once for all committed to churches and sects and organizations. That is a foregone decision, which we cannot reverse if we would. And the action and success of Christianity, at any given time, must depend on the vigor, the soundness, and prosperity of the various sects which represent Christianity at that time. Such being the case, it seems to me the duty of every one, who has the cause of Christianity at heart, to throw the weight of his influence into that denomination of Christians with which he can best adjust himself, and in which he can work with the best faith, to the best effect; to incorporate himself with it, to become an organic part of it, and, by sympathetic coaction, to give it all the impulse, aid, and support in his power.
As a sect, we want concentration, sympathy, the organic strength which comes from a common feeling and a common aim. I would that all the nominal members of our body might realize and make good their membership by frank consent and hearty cooperation. In our limited connection, we cannot spare one voice or heart or hand that might fairly be claimed as ours. And with us there is less excuse for standing aloof from the body to which we properly belong, than there is in other communions, from the fact that we impose no formulas or confessions of faith, and that those who belong to us by general sympathy and agreement of views need not be repelled by dissent on minor points, and are not required to do violence to their convictions, in cooperating with a sect with no one of whose members, perhaps, they entirely agree. This absence of formulas is another important advantage which we possess, and which, if we are wise, we shall not rashly abandon. We lose nothing by want of uniformity. The truths of the Gospel will shape themselves differently to different minds. They gain no additional value or power by being grouped into creeds as the stars are no brighter, and no more, for being mapped and constellated into those arbitrary figures which a plain man is puzzled to make out after he is told that they are there. Besides, we must not falsify our history; we must not act unhistorically, on pain of losing our real significance, and forfeiting a characteristic principle, without any certainty of an adequate compensation for so doing.
But while we avoid dogmatic impositions, let us gather more closely and unitedly around those ideas which we hold in common, and which we are called to represent; offering a solid, serried front to error and pretence in the Church and in the world. I have no faith in any measures or devices for creating a union and a sympathy which do not exist. But I would we might so ponder our place and calling, as to feel ourselves drawn into nearer communion and closer polity, and more effective action; and have a consciousness waked up in us which has not yet been.
We, brethren, as ministers, have a duty in this matter, beyond our special sphere and our daily work. We owe a duty to the time, to the Church Universal, above all, to the truth; a threefold duty, as old Melancthon defined it to the Clerus of his day. The ministers of the Gospel, he says, God has chosen to be the "keepers of the prophetic and apostolic books and the true doctrines of the Church.” "Quare diligentiam et fidem, in re omnium maxima, Deo, ecclesiae, et posteritati praestemus. Veritatem inquiramus, amemus, tueamur.”