The Broad Church

Frederic Henry Hedge

Berry Street Essay, 1860

 

Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1860

 

"And they shall come from the cast, and the west, and the north, and the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.” - Luke xiii. 29.

 

We all know how utterly and astonishingly this prediction was verified in the first centuries of the Christian Church, which is what is here meant by the kingdom of God. Fifty days after the death of Christ, in whose tomb it was seemingly extinct, and whose resurrection was then the private persuasion only of a few friends, the soul of that kingdom burst forth again with irrepressible vehemence at Jerusalem. It swept the city with a rushing mighty wind from heaven, and a demonstration of fiery tongues, inaugurating the new heavens and the new earth of the Christian ages. Three thousand souls sat down in the kingdom, by invitation of Peter, that day. East, west, north, and south were all represented. "For there were dwelling at Jerusalem at that time Jewish proselytes out of every nation under heaven,” providentially gathered to the feast of the tribes; Parthians, Males, Elamites, from the east; people from the parts of Libya about Cyrene, strangers of Rome, Cappadocians, Phrygians, from the west and the north; and dwellers in Mesopotamia from the south. When this rushing mighty wind struck them, it lodged a seed of the kingdom in their souls, which they took with them to their proper homes, and sowed in their several lands, where it grew to be a heavenly plantation, a spiritual oasis amid the perishing polytheisms of the Empire, and the droning synagogues of the Dispersion.

These plantations were replenished and reinforced from time to time by missionaries, apostolic and other, from the old centre and the neighbor lands. Paul went to Arabia and Asia Minor and Greece and Italy, some say to Spain,—to what was then the uttermost verge of the West. Thomas, according to tradition, went to the uttermost verge of the East. Philip, by mediation of a household officer of the Queen of Meroe, whom he baptized on the road to Gaza, planted the word far down in the South. Others, most likely disciples of Paul, carried it to Britain, high up in the North. The plantations grew, and flourished, and spread. The Empire writhed under them, and made desperate efforts to throw them off; and no wonder, for they rode the Empire as a green and lusty parasite rides some huge bole of a thousand rings, the monarch of the forest, which, vast and robust as it is, must filially succumb to the stealthy encroachment.

The plantations grew and spread till they ran together into a kingdom of God, which covered the earth, the known and travelled earth of that time. Cosmas, the great navigator of the sixth century, found Christianity established in Malabar; he found Christian churches and bishops in Ceylon, whose "spicy breezes” had pleaded, and not in vain, with the saints aforetime, as they pleaded in saintly Heber's day, for missionary effort. Already from uttermost China, jealous then as now of her own productions, the Emperor Justinian had received, through Christian missionaries, the secret of the silk-worm; and thus, as sceptic Gibbon confesses, a Christian mission had accomplished what secular commerce had labored in vain to effect, —the introduction of the silk culture into Europe. There were Christians at the mouth of the Ganges, Christians in "distant Aden,” Christians in Ormuz, and in Abyssinia. Saracen hordes from the heart of the great desert had listened to St. Simeon from the top of his prison column, and received the Gospel at his hands. In Persia, Christian bishops had overthrown the temples of the sun. On the slopes of the Caucasus, a Georgian king and queen, themselves instructed by a Christian slave, had succeeded in evangelizing their people. Meanwhile, at the other extremity, Ireland, converted by holy Patrick as early as the fifth century, was known as the "Island of Saints,” the school of Christian Europe, and a centre of spiritual light. The savage Goth was tamed into a peaceful confessor of the Gospel of peace, and, German-like, must have the word in his native tongue. Learned Jerome, in his cell at Bethlehem, translating the Bible into Latin, is astonished by a message from two Goths inquiring the true meaning of certain passages in the Psalms. "Who would believe,” he says, "that the barbarian tongue of the Goth would inquire concerning the sense of the Hebrew original, and that, while the Greeks were sleeping, the Germans would be investigating the Word of God.” A very significant fact it is, that the first translation of the Scriptures into German, the language of a rising world and of modern thought, was contemporary with the first authoritative translation into Latin, the language of medieval thought and a dying world.

So mightily grew the Word and prevailed, and so it was that geographically east and west, and north and smith, sat down in the kingdom of God. And in our clay, though other religions may number more disciples, there is none so widely diffused as the Christian,—none that can vie with it in geographical extent,—none which embraces so many latitudes and longitudes, and differing nationalities. A few meridians include the boasted millions of Hinduism and of Islamism. When daylight dies along the waves of the Caspian, it disappears to all the worshippers of Buddha; when "sets the sun on Afric's shore, that instant all is night” to the followers of Mohammed; but Christendom is a kingdom on which the sun never sets, where east and west, and north and south, sit down together, and earth's extremities join hands.

But the prophecy of our Lord has another meaning and fulfilment besides the geographical one we have been discussing. The kingdom of God has other distinctions and relations, divergences and approximations, than those of space. The spiritual horizon has its polarities as well as the material. There are cardinal points of the spirit, as decided in their peculiarities as cast and west, and north and south, and, like these divisions of the compass, organic constituents of the spiritual world, necessary each to its orbed completeness and indispensable to its very being. Viewing the prophecy in this light, it expresses the spiritual completeness of the kingdom of God, or the Christian Church, as well as its geographical extent. East, west, north, south, may be regarded as typifying different tendencies and qualities of the spirit;—the east, stability, conservatism; the west, mobility, progress; the north, internal activity,—the inner life, idealism, mysticism; the south, exterior productiveness, ritualism, symbolism, ecclesiastical organization.

All these tendencies and types of spirit were represented in the primitive Church,—the Church of the Apostles. We find them all in the New Testament. The element of stability—the conservative element—was impersonated in Peter, and still more decidedly in James, first Bishop of Jerusalem,—in general, we may say, by that first Jerusalem church, which adhered so strongly to the Old Covenant, to Moses and Mosaism, that in fact it was only a Jewish sect,—a synagogue, differing from other synagogues only in the one tenet that Jesus was the Christ. The antagonist principle of progress, how perfectly it was incarnated in Paul, the daring innovator, founder of cosmopolitan Christianity, who burst the bonds of Judaism, cut loose from the moorings of the Old Covenant, and carried the New to the Gentile West.

If we look for traces, in this age, of the idealistic, mystical spirit, we find them clear and decided in the Gospel and First Epistle of John, whose author thought more of the invisible Church than of the visible, and less of the Jewish historical Christ than he did of the eternal Christ, the Divine Word incarnated in him, whose God was not the Jehovah of the Jews, but light and love, and who in his inwardness and ideality is the prototype of the mystics and quietists of later time.

Finally, the ritual and symbolical side of religion was also represented in the primitive Church and in the New Testament. The Epistle to the Hebrews finds in all the ceremonial of Judaism the foretype of Christian sanctities, and the Book of Revelation under the figure of the New Jerusalem contemplates a Christian church which is something more than the spiritual fellowship of believers,—a close organization, a compact, corporate institution, with the powers and functions pertaining to such a body.

What is true of the primitive Church and the undeveloped Christianity of the apostolic age, how much rather is it true of every subsequent age of the Church! When Eastern and Western Christendom divided in the irreconcilable antagonism of their views and claims, in spite of the geographical separation, the spiritual compass remained unimpaired and complete. The Western Church, with which our Protestant Christendom more immediately connects itself, had still its spiritual east and west, its north and south. Through all the period of the Middle Age these types are present, and these tendencies at work. Take the culmination of the Roman hierarchy. The period of the greatest consolidation and seeming uniformity was also that of the greatest internal divergency. If conservatism reigned undisputed on the seven hills, reform was triumphant in the gorges of the Jura and the valleys of Provence; if ritualism was rampant in one quarter, idealism had reached its climax in another. Peter the Venerable is oracle here, Peter de Brucys is oracle there. The mighty Innocent in his pride of place is constrained to approve the beggar from Assisi, whose ominous career he would fain have suppressed, but that policy finds the popular preacher less dangerous within the Church than out of it. While Thomas Aquinas is seeking to perpetuate the past, and to fix the sum of theology in inexpugnable and irrevocable dogmas, Raymond and Oliva and others are proclaiming the "Everlasting Gospel” of human progress, and announcing a new age and a new dispensation of the Holy Spirit.

If now we come to the world of our own time, to the Protestant Christendom of to-day, we find there also—regarding Protestantism externally and historically as one movement—a complete church, in which east and west and north and south are all represented. Protestant Christendom is bounded on the east by the Rocky Mountains of immovable Orthodoxy, on the west by the River of Free Inquiry, on the north by the White Sea of mysticism, on the south by the Gulf of Prelacy, which divides it from the Church of Rome. In other words, Calvinism at one extremity, and Universalism at the other, Quakerism and Spiritism on this hand, and Episcopacy on that, define this spiritual kingdom and attest its completeness. But though Protestantism as a whole, externally and historically considered, exhibits this compass and variety, it is one of the evils of Protestantism that, internally and practically, it is not a whole, but a chaos of disunited, independent states, having no ecclesiastical fellowship with each other. The Protestant Christian, however catholic his own temper and views, is practically shut up within the fold of a sect which, if liberal, is excluded by all the rest, and which, if illiberal, excludes them. If a native of the cast, it is not lawful for him to sit down with them of the west; if he come from the west, he is an offence to the saints of the east; if inclined to the north, he is cut off from the sympathies of the south; if reared in the south, he is early imbued with a holy horror of the north. The only way to obviate this evil in each particular communion is by individual tolerance to strive for completeness within that fold. Each sect should seek, so far as practicable, to be a catholic complete church. A sect is then in a healthy state when a due admixture of conservatism and liberality, of speculation and activity, of idealism and formalism, answering the condition and satisfying the necessities of different minds, supplies all the elements of ecclesiastical edification, and completes the spiritual horizon. East, west, north, and south must unite in every kingdom of God, and every sect is in theory such a kingdom.

I. Every church must have its east. The east is the region of steadfastness, of perpetuity. The terrestrial east, the geographical east, the old Asian world, has had historically this character,—the home of aboriginal, imperishable light, of eternal dominion and unchangeable custom. Every church must have its conservative side, its point of resistance, its fixed fact, its morning sun of unchangeable verity,—something eternal, immutable, sufficing. And what should that be but the Christ, God's Christ and our Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, the spiritual sun of our human world? Fundamental and indispensable to every true church is the idea of Christ, not the moral teacher and philosopher, a Jewish Socrates or Confucius, but Christ the Son of man and the Son of God, impersonation of the divine-human, never as a name and a sanctity to be set aside or superseded, however the doctrines and views connected with that name may change and disappear with the course of time. In fact, that name is the only one of a veritable, historical personage, that has had the power to organize history,—not the history of this or that tribe, but the world's history,—to thread the nations and the ages on the string of au idea, and to bind them in ecumenical relations to the throne of God. It was this that laid hold of the Now World, and—what commerce and conquest could not do—attached it to the Old, and gave to these States the spiritual results of the past without the tedium of its processes. No name has spanned such chasms and schisms of thought and life. None carries with it such pledge of perpetuity. What changes may yet pass upon society, what revolutions, political, ecclesiastical, moral, may toss, and convulse, and remodel the Church and the world, surpasses the sagacity of man to predict. But of this be sure,—this, even amid the darkness and the deeps, the uncertainty, perplexity, and agony of time, through which humanity is now groping its perilous way, we may venture to affirm,—that the name of Christ and its sacred import will surmount all and survive. All the tempests that sweep society will not pluck the idea of divine humanity incarnate in Christ from the soul of man and the path of history. So long as the sun which makes our natural day shall rise in the east and hasten on to the west, that diviner sun which makes our soul's day will continue to rise on each successive generation and accompany each to their rest.

Other ideas there are, necessarily connected with that of Christ,—ideas of man's nature and calling and destiny, of reconciliation and atonement in Christ,—ideas underlying, but by no means identical with, the dogmas of the sects, which are also original constituents of the Gospel, and therefore necessary elements in a true Christian church. These are that fixed and unchangeable which every church is bound to respect, and in virtue of which every church must have its conservative side, its cardinal east, the eye of its horizon, the salient principle and starting-point of its spiritual life.

II. Then, secondly, each church must have its west. The west, in our interpretation of this Scripture, stands for mobility, variety, progress. Our own west, this young continent, with its rapid and amazing growths, its spreading populations, its ever multiplying ways of communication, its endless traffic, and its shifting customs, suggests this use of the term, type as it is of mobile and progressive life. Every church should be flexile and plastic enough in doctrine and discipline to allow of growth; it must not assume to have all truth and all knowledge in its traditions, to be "perfect and entire, wanting nothing,” nor think to confine the action of the mind, to limit the progress of inquiry, and to tie Christianity forever to its creed. Christianity, though bound to a given idea and to certain immutable truths, is not, for the rest, a fixture, but a movement and a growth; not a divinely established system of views and institutions and immutable forms of thought and life, but a flowing demonstration of the spirit in such forms and aspects and embodiments as each successive age required, or was fitted to apprehend and to profit by,—a series of evolutions in which truths and principles unchangeable in their essence are variously expressed to differing minds in different times,—a progressive revelation of God in Christ. That such is the true and providential character and destiny of our religion is evident in the writings of the New Testament, when we compare the statement of Christianity in the first chapters of the Acts with the statement of it in the Epistles to the Corinthians and the First Epistle of John. We see there the immense stride which the Church made in the age of the Apostles, and in their hands, from Jewish Christianity to universal Christianity, from a national polity to a humanitarian faith. The march thus inaugurated did not stop for nearly a thousand years, and then only slackened in the darkness and storm of the feudal flight. It has never really stopped to this day; when in one organization it found itself hampered and brought to a stand, it burst into schism and resumed the movement in a new. The Holy Spirit, whose body is the Church, does not bind itself to uniformity of doctrine or rite, but adapts itself to different minds and times. The spirit is one; but there are differences of administrations and diversities of gifts, divergent views and dissentient tongues, one Lord and many confessions, unity in variety. This is the method and law of the Church universal, and each particular church and connection should respect in this the mind of the Spirit, not seek to impose a uniform system of belief, not insist on a single solution of every question, but open itself to free discussion, tolerate dissenting views, allow full scope to philosophic speculation within the limits of the Christian idea, and maintain an open and liberal west, as well as a close and steadfast east.

III. And further, every church must have its north. The north I have designated as the region of idealism, which, in religion, soon turns to mysticism. The terrestrial north, with its atmospheric peculiarities, its magnetic mysteries and auroral splendors, indicating as it were a nearer commerce with the skies, may seem to warrant this designation. The Puritan genius of our American churches has no affinity and little patience with what is called mysticism, inclining rather to literal interpretations and surface views. But mysticism is a very important element in religion, a feeling after God, "if haply we may find him.” It is that by which religion lays hold of the invisible and enters into fuller, that is, more conscious and intimate, communion with the spiritual and heavenly world. Without it there is danger that the Church will lose the consciousness of God, and become a distant province of God's kingdom,—an outlying colony, governed by deputies, instead of that kingdom itself, with God in Christ for its present and conscious home-government and head. When the Church in ages past had become that, or was threatening to become it; when the Roman hierarchical polity had slipped its holdings, cut itself off from the invisible by its earthliness and secularity, and set itself up for an independent kingdom, with Rome for its heaven and a pope for its God, there arose in the order of Providence the great mystics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the new fathers, not inferior to the old, who restored the Church to the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit. Who can read with attention the Gospel of John, and not see how a tincture of mysticism deepens and quickens and intensifies what is best and holiest in religion! How much more profound the Christianity there, than that of the other Gospels! How much more intimate the author's communion with the soul of Christ, and his appreciation of Christian truth! The other Evangelists give us a prophet, the fourth gives us the Word made flesh. If we were to strike from the library of Christian literature the writings which could best be spared, they would be the folios of systematic theology, the Bodies of Divinity, so called,—those weary compilations in which massive and useless dogmatic edifices are reared on the oldness of the letter, with no apparent apprehension in the writers of the deeper import which the letter conceals. But if we were to select from the writings of the Church the works which we would not willingly let die, the works to be preserved and handed down, they would be those mystic compositions of the Roman and Protestant communions, which, though little read by the flighty readers of this time, are felt to be given by inspiration of God, and to be invaluable for suggestion and reproof and "instruction in righteousness,” the writings of Anselm and Thomas á Kempis and Tauler and Fenelon and Jacob Boehme and William Law,—inexhaustible treasuries of fructifying thought and celestial monitors of heart and life. Something of mysticism is inseparable from devotion. Every prayer which we breathe, which is not a formal offering or a begging for temporal good, but a genuine aspiration, a gushing up of the deep heart, a yearning after God, is a mystical act, and, if analyzed and referred to the fundamental principle involved in it, will be found to point to mystical theories of man and God. I say, then, that mysticism in this sense is a necessary element of religion, and can never be wanting in a true church. It is this that keeps the heavens open and God near, and the soul awake, nature holy, the word significant, and life divine. Every church that is sound and flourishing will welcome gladly and cherish kindly this mystic northern light, whose very eccentricities and dancing meteors, the sportive gleams and wild corruscations which seem so unpractical, confess at least a sublime aspiration, prophetic, it may be, of a better life, when heaven and earth shall meet in eternal day.

IV. Finally, the Church must have its south. A church requires a ritual, requires symbols and sacraments,—something outward as the exponent and medium of ecclesiastical life. The teeming and exuberant south, with its tropical luxuriance, fertile of forms, abounding in varied and  organic life, may serve to typify this side of religion and the Church,—its organism,—by which term I comprehend whatever pertains to worship and communion and corporate action. The necessity of organization to a church, the necessity of ritual or something corresponding thereto in the way of worship, and of some description, however simple, of ecclesiastical polity, is proved—if the nature of things and the laws of life are not sufficient for that purpose—by the case of the first, the aboriginal church, and the example of the Apostles. Jesus prescribed no form that we know, and none was needed so long as the Master himself was present, the fountain-head and lord of life, to fill and to bind the Church of his disciples. Its organization was then spontaneous, life from the living source pervading the whole, a flowing articulation from moment to moment of thought and love. But no sooner was the Master withdrawn than his followers began to organize at once both worship and life, and we find them in those first days joining in litanies, choosing officers, assigning functions, establishing a commonwealth, and holding councils. The Holy Spirit which was poured upon them took to itself an organic body, and became articulate in forms and rites. And from that time to this, formal worship, liturgical devotion, and ecclesiastical organization have been co-ordinate, or nearly so, with the Christian name. Whatever exceptions there may be but confirm the rule. If any movement of dissent from the doctrine and practice of a given church has failed to organize devotion and action, it has passed away, or is passing; it has been absorbed, or is destined to be absorbed, by other sects, in which the vital principle is more energetic and organific. A church without a ritual, without symbols and sacraments and a corporate organism, as a permanent institution, is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. The religious sentiment, it is true, is spontaneous and eternal; in one form or another it will always exist where man exists; but this spontaneous religion, unfixed and uncertain, may so degenerate as to become an evil rather than a good. There is no absolute religion for man, but only particular, given religions. And any particular religion, as the Christian, for example, preserves its identity by means of symbols, without which what is Christian this year may turn to heathen the next. Religion craves expression,—a permanent religion a stated expression, a common religion a common worship and common rites. In other words, religion requires a church for its exponent, and a church requires a ritual for its medium, and a corporate organism for its conservation. The individual may feel no want of symbol or sacraments, and no satisfaction in them. It is because the religious sentiment in him is imperfectly developed, or not of the genuine Christian type. And though the individual may do without them, a church cannot. A fatal weakness inheres in the church that wants or neglects them; its doom is writ, its dissolution is sure. A true church with other requirements and belongings will have and cherish this southern side of ritual worship, this southern principle of organic life; and however its antecedents and its exigencies may forbid the tropical luxuriance of the Church of Rome, where ritual runs to mummery and organization to despotism, it will reverence at least and hold fast whatever in the way of symbol and rite belongs by tradition to its proper constitution.

These four, represented by and representing the fourfold completeness of the spiritual horizon, east, west, north, and south, stability and progress, ideal and ritual, are the cardinal constituents of a true church. To which we must add, as the complement and crown of the whole, the Charity which binds and pervades and harmonizes all,—that supreme grace of the Christian dispensation, love manifest in works of social reform, in ministrations to the poor and suffering, in health to the sick, and light to them that sit in darkness, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. The church in which these elements unite is a broad church, though numbering its disciples not by millions, but by hundreds or by tens. A holy catholic church it is, though the smallest sect in Christendom, and excommunicated by all the rest. I believe in the Broad Church thus defined. According to the creed of the Fathers, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,”—not that which consists in masses and indulgences, in manipulations and genuflexions, and infallibility and a broaden God, but that which consists in faith and progress and devotion and love. Let each church labor in its place and kind to develop and assert this catholicity, and the boundary lines which divide the sects shall be washed clean out in. the gracious life that shall flood them all, and fuse them all into one prevailing kingdom of God, whose unshut gates shall exclude none that desire to enter, and where east and west and north and south shall meet in peace and join in praise.