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TENDENCIES TOWARD A MANIFESTATION OF THE UNITY OF THE AMERICAN CHURCH.
THE three centuries of history which we have passed under rapid review comprise a series of political events of the highest importance to mankind. We have seen, from our side-point of view, the planting, along the western coast of the Atlantic Ocean, without mutual concert or common direction, of many independent germs of civilization. So many of these as survived the perils of infancy we have seen growing to a lusty youth, and becoming drawn each to each by ties of common interest and mutual fellowship. Releasing themselves from colonial dependence on a transatlantic power, we find these several communities, now grown to be States, becoming conscious, through common perils, victories, and hopes, of national unity and life, and ordaining institutes of national government binding upon all. The strong vitality of the new nation is proved by its assimilating to itself an immense mass of immigrants from all parts of Europe, and by expanding itself without essential change over the area of a continent. It triumphs again and again, and at last in a struggle that shakes the world, over passions and interests that threaten schism in the body politic, and gives good reason to its friends to boast the solid unity of the republic 399as the strongest existing fact in the political world. The very great aggrandizement of the nation has been an affair of the last sixty years; but already it has recorded itself throughout the vast expanse of the continent in monuments of architecture and engineering worthy of the national strength.
The ecclesiastical history which has been recounted in this volume, covering the same territory and the same period of time, runs with equal pace in many respects parallel with the political history, but in one important respect with a wide divergence. As with civilization so with Christianity: the germs of it, derived from different regions of Christendom, were planted without concert of purpose, and often with distinct cross-purposes, in different seed-plots along the Atlantic seaboard. Varying in polity, in forms of dogmatic statement, and even in language, the diverse growths were made, through wonders of spiritual influence and through external stress of trial, to feel their unity in the one faith. The course of a common experience tended to establish a predominant type of religious life the influence of which has been everywhere felt, even when it has not been consented to. The vital strength of the American church, as of the American nation, has been subjected to the test of the importation of enormous masses of more or less uncongenial population, and has shown an amazing power of digestion and assimilation. Its resources have been taxed by the providential imposition of burdens of duty and responsibility such, in magnitude and weight, as never since the early preaching of the gospel have pressed upon any single generation of the church. Within the space of a single lifetime, at an expenditure of toil and treasure which it is idle to attempt to compute, the wide and desolate wilderness, as fast as civilization has invaded it, has been occupied by the church with churches, 400schools, colleges, and seminaries of theology, with pastors, evangelists, and teachers, and, in one way or another, has been constrained to confess itself Christian. The continent which so short a time ago had been compassionately looked upon from across the sea as missionary ground has become a principal base of supplies, and recruiting-ground for men and women, for missionary operations in ancient lands of heathenism and of a decayed Christianity.
So much for the parallel. The divergence is not less impressive. In contrast with the solid political unity into which the various and incongruous elements have settled themselves, the unity of the Christian church is manifested by oneness neither of jurisdiction nor of confederation, nor even by diplomatic recognition and correspondence. Out of the total population of the United States, amounting, according to the census of 1890, to 62,622,000 souls, the 57,000,000 accounted as Christians, including 20,000,000 communicant church-members, are gathered into 165,297 congregations, assembling in 142,000 church edifices containing 43,000,000 sittings, and valued (together with other church property) at $670,000,000; and are served in the ministry of the gospel by more than 111,000 ministers.243243 These statistical figures are taken from the authoritative work of Dr. H. K. Carroll, “The Religious Forces of the United States” (American Church History Series, vol. i.). The volume gives no estimate of the annual expenditure for the maintenance of religious institutions. If we assume the small figure of $500 as the average annual expenditure in connection with each house of worship, it makes an aggregate of $82,648,500 for parochial expenses. The annual contributions to Protestant foreign and home missions amount to $7,000,000. (See above, pp. 358, 359.) The amounts annually contributed as free gifts for Christian schools and colleges and hospitals and other charitable objects can at present be only conjectured. But this great force is divided among 143 mutually independent sects, larger and smaller. Among these sects is recognized no controlling and coordinating authority; neither is there any common leadership; neither is there any system of mutual counsel and 401concert. The mutual relations of the sects are sometimes those of respect and good will, sometimes of sharp competition and jealousy, sometimes of eager and conscientious hostility. All have one and the same unselfish and religious aim—to honor God in serving their fellow-men; and each one, in honestly seeking this supreme aim, is affected by its corporate interests, sympathies, and antipathies.
This situation is too characteristic of America, and too distinctly connected with the whole course of the antecedent history, not to be brought out with emphasis in this concluding chapter. In other lands the church is maintained, through the power of the civil government, under the exclusive control of a single organization, in which the element of popular influence may be wholly wanting, or may be present (as in many of the “Reformed” polities) in no small measure. In others yet, through government influence and favor, a strong predominance is given to one organized communion, under the shadow of which dissentient minorities are tolerated and protected. Under the absolute freedom and equality of the American system there is not so much as a predominance of any one of the sects. No one of them is so strong and numerous but that it is outnumbered and outweighed by the aggregate of the two next to it. At present, in consequence of the rush of immigration, the Roman Catholic Church is largely in advance of any single denomination besides, but is inferior in numerical strength and popular influence to the Methodists and Baptists combined—if they were combined.
And there is no doubt that this comminution of the church is frankly accepted, for reasons assigned, not only as an inevitable drawback to the blessings of religious freedom, but as a good thing in itself. A weighty sentence 402of James Madison undoubtedly expresses the prevailing sentiment among Americans who contemplate the subject merely from the political side: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists, in the one case, in the multiplicity of interests, and, in the other, in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects.”244244 The “Federalist,” No. 51. And no student of history can deny that there is much to justify the jealousy with which the lovers of civil liberty watch the climbing of any sect, no matter how purely spiritual its constitution, toward a position of command in popular influence. The influence of the leaders of such a sect may be nothing more than the legitimate and well-deserved influence of men of superior wisdom and virtue; but when reinforced by the weight of official religious character, and bathed by a majority, or even a formidable minority, of voters organized in a religious communion, the feeling is sure to gain ground that such power is too great to be trusted to the hands even of the best of men. Whatever sectarian advantage such a body may achieve in the state by preponderance of number will be more than offset by the public suspicion and the watchful jealousy of rival sects; and the weakening of it by division, or the subordination of it by the overgrowth of a rival, is sure to be regarded with general complacency.
It is not altogether a pleasing object of contemplation —the citizen and the statesman looking with contentment on the schism of the church as averting a danger to the state. It is hardly more gratifying when we find ministers of the church themselves accepting the condition of schism as being, on the whole, a very good condition for the church of Christ, if not, indeed, the best possible. It is 403quite unreservedly argued that the principle, “Competition is the life of business,” is applicable to spiritual as well as secular concerns; and the “emulations” reprobated by the Apostle Paul as “works of the flesh” are frankly appealed to for promoting the works of the spirit. This debasing of the motive of church work is naturally attended by a debasement of the means employed. The competitive church resorts to strange business devices to secure its needed revenue. “He that giveth” is induced to give, not “with simplicity,” but with a view to incidental advantages, and a distinct understanding is maintained between the right hand and the left. The extent and variety of this influence on church life in America afford no occasion for pride, but the mention of them could not rightly be omitted. It remains for the future to decide whether they must needs continue as an inevitable attendant on the voluntary system.
Sectarian divisions tend strongly to perpetuate themselves. The starting of schism is easy and quick; the healing of it is a matter of long diplomatic negotiations. In a very short time the division of the church, with its necessary relations to property and to the employment of officials, becomes a vested interest. Provision for large expenditure unnecessary, or even detrimental, to the general interests of the kingdom of Christ, which had been instituted in the first place at heavy cost to the many, is not to be discontinued without more serious loss to influential individuals. Those who would set themselves about the healing of a schism must reckon upon personal and property interests to be conciliated.
This least amiable characteristic of the growth of the Christian church in America is not without its compensations. The very fact of the existence, in presence of one another, of these multitudinous rival sects, all equal before 404the law, tends in the long run, under the influence of the Holy Spirit of peace, to a large and comprehensive fellowship.245245 “This habit of respecting one another’s rights cherishes a feeling of mutual respect and courtesy. If on the one hand the spirit of independence fosters individualism, on the other it favors good fellowship. All sects are equal before the law. . . . Hence one great cause of jealousy and distrust is removed; and though at times sectarian zeal may lead to rivalries and controversies unfavorable to unity, on the other hand the independence and equality of the churches favor their voluntary coöperation; and in no country is the practical union of Christians more beautifully or more beneficially exemplified than in the United States. With the exception of the Roman Catholics, Christians of all communions are accustomed to work together in the spirit of mutual concession and confidence, in educational, missionary, and philanthropic measures for the general good. The motto of the state holds of the church also, E pluribus unum. As a rule, a bigoted church or a fierce sectarian is despised” (Dr. J. P. Thompson, in “Church and State in the United States,” pp. 98, 99). See, to the like purport, the judicious remarks of Mr. Bryce, “American Commonwealth,” vol. ii., pp. 568, 664. The widely prevalent acceptance of existing conditions as probably permanent, even if not quite normal, softens the mutual reproaches of rival parties. The presumption is of course implied, if not asserted, in the existence of any Christian sect, that it is holding the absolute right and truth, or at least more nearly that than other sects; and the inference, to a religious mind, is that the right and true must, in the long run, prevail. But it is only with a high act of faith, and not as a matter of reasonable probability, that any sect in America can venture to indulge itself in the expectation of a supremacy, or even a predominance, in American Christendom. The strongest in numbers, in influence, in prestige, however tempted to assert for itself exclusive or superior rights, is compelled to look about itself and find itself overwhelmingly outnumbered and outdone by a divided communion—and yet a communion—of those whom Christ “is not ashamed to call his brethren”; and just in proportion as it has the spirit of Christ, it is constrained in its heart to treat them as brethren and to feel toward them as brethren. 405Its protest against what it regards as their errors and defects is nowise weakened by the most unreserved manifestations of respect and good will as toward fellow-Christians. Thus it comes to pass that the observant traveler from other countries, seeking the distinctive traits of American social life, “notes a kindlier feeling between all denominations, Roman Catholics included, a greater readiness to work together for common charitable aims, than between Catholics and Protestants in France or Germany, or between Anglicans and nonconformists in England.”246246 Bryce, “American Commonwealth,” vol. ii., 568.
There are many indications, in the recent history of the American church, pointing forward toward some higher manifestation of the true unity of the church than is to be found in occasional, or even habitual, expressions of mutual good will passing to and fro among sharply competing and often antagonist sects. Instead of easy-going and playful felicitations on the multitude of sects as contributing to the total effectiveness of the church, such as used to be common enough on “anniversary” platforms, we hear, in one form and another, the acknowledgment that the divided and subdivided state of American Christendom is not right, but wrong. Whose is the wrong need not be decided; certainly it does not wholly belong to the men of this generation or of this country; we are heirs of the schisms of other lands and ages, and have added to them schisms of our own making. The matter begins to be taken soberly and seriously. The tender entreaty of the Apostle Paul not to suffer ourselves to be split up into sects247247 1 Cor. i. 10. begins to get a hearing in the conscience. The nisus toward a more manifest union among Christian believers has long been growing more and more 406distinctly visible, and is at the present day one of the most conspicuous signs of the times.
Already in the early history we have observed a tendency toward the healing, in America, of differences imported from over sea. Such was the commingling of Separatist and Puritan in New England; the temporary alliance of Congregationalist and Presbyterian to avert the imposition of a state hierarchy; the combination of Quaker and Roman Catholic to defeat a project of religious oppression in Maryland; the drawing, together of Lutheran and Reformed Germans for common worship, under the saintly influence of the Moravian Zinzendorf; and the “Plan of Union” by which New Englander and Scotch-Irishman were to labor in common for the evangelization of the new settlements.248248 See above, pp. 61, 95, 190, 206, 220, 258. These were sporadic instances of a tendency that was by and by to become happily epidemic. A more important instance of the same tendency was the organization of societies for charitable work which should unite the gifts and personal labors of the Christians of the whole continent. The chief period of these organizations extended from 1810, the date of the beginning of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, to 1826, when the American Home Missionary Society was founded.249249 See above, pp. 252-259. The “catholic basis” on which they were established was dictated partly by the conscious weakness of the several sects as they drew near to undertakings formidable even to their united forces, and partly by the glow of fraternal affection, and the sense of a common spiritual life pervading the nation, with which the church had come forth from the fervors of “the second awakening.”250250 Among the New England Congregationalists the zeal for union went so far as to favor combination with other sects even in the work of training candidates for the ministry. Among the “honorary vice-presidents” of their “American Education Society” was Bishop Griswold, of the Eastern Diocese of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The societies, representing the common 407faith and charity of the whole church as distinguished from the peculiarities of the several sects, drew to themselves the affection and devotion of Christian hearts to a degree which, to those who highly valued these distinctions, seemed to endanger important interests. And, indeed, the situation was anomalous, in which the sectarian divisions of the Christian people were represented in the churches, and their catholic unity in charitable societies. It would have seemed more Pauline, not to say more Christian, to have had voluntary societies for the sectarian work, and kept the churches for Christian communion. It is no wonder that High-church champions, on one side and another, soon began to shout to their adherents, “To your tents, O Israel!” Bishop Hobart played not in vain upon his pastoral pipe to whistle back his sheep from straying outside of his pinfold, exhorting them, “in their endeavors for the general advancement of religion, to use only the instrumentality of their own church.”251251 Sermon at consecration of Bishop H. U. Onderdonk, 1827. And a jealousy of the growing influence of a wide fellowship, in charitable labors, with Christians of other names, led to the enunciation of a like doctrine by High-church Presbyterians,252252 Minutes of the Convention of Delegates met to consult on Missions in the City of Cincinnati, A.D. 1831. The position of the bishop was more logical than that of the convention, forasmuch as he held, by a powerful effort of faith, that “his own” church is the church of the United States, in an exclusive sense; while the divines at Cincinnati earnestly repudiate such exclusive pretensions for their church, and hold to a plurality of sectarian churches on the same territory, each one of which is divinely invested with the prerogatives and duties of “the church of Christ.” A usus loquendi which seems to be hopelessly imbedded in the English language applies the word “church” to each one of the several sects into which the church is divided. It is this corruption of language which leads to the canonization of schism as a divine ordinance. and contributed to the convulsive and passionate rending of the Presbyterian Church, in 1837, into nearly 408equal fragments. So effective has been the centrifugal force that of the extensive system of societies which from the year 1810 onward first organized works of national beneficence by enlisting the coöperation of “all evangelical Christians,” the American Bible Society alone continues to represent any general and important combination from among the different denominations.
For all the waning of interest in the “catholic basis” societies, the sacred discontent of the Christian people with sectarian division continued to demand expression. How early the aspiration for an ecumenical council of evangelical Christendom became articulate, it may not be easy to discover.253253 The first proposal for such an assembly seems to be contained in an article by L. Bacon in the “New Englander” for April, 1844. “Why might there not be, ere long, some general conference in which the various evangelical bodies of this country and Great Britain and of the continent of Europe should be in some way represented, and in which the great cause of reformed and spiritual Christianity throughout the world should be made the subject of detailed and deliberate consideration, with prayer and praise? That would be an ‘ecumenical council’ such as never yet assembled since the apostles parted from each other at Jerusalem—a council not for legislation and division, but for union and communion and for the extension of the living knowledge of Christ” (pp. 253, 254). In the year 1846 the aspiration was in some measure realized in the first meeting of the Evangelical Alliance at London. No more mistakes were made in this meeting than perhaps were necessarily incident to a first experiment in untried work. Almost of course the good people began with the question, What good men shall we keep out? for it is a curious fact, in the long and interesting history of efforts after Christian union, that they commonly take the form of efforts so to combine many Christians as to exclude certain others. In this instance, beginning with the plan of including none but Protestant Christians, they proceeded at once to frame a platform that should bar out that “great number of the best and holiest men in England who are found among the Quakers,” 409thus making up, “designedly and with their eyes open, a schismatic unity—a unity composed of one part of God’s elect, to the exclusion of another; and this in a grand effort after the very unity of the body of Christ.”254254 See the pungent strictures of Horace Bushnell on “The Evangelical Alliance,” in the “New Englander” for January, 1847, p. 109. But in spite of this and other like mistakes, or rather because of them (for it is through its mistakes that the church is to learn the right way), the early and unsuccessful beginnings of the Evangelical Alliance marked a stage in the slow progress toward a “manifestation of the sons of God” by their love toward each other and toward the common Lord.
It is in large part the eager appetency for some manifestation of interconfessional fellowship that has hastened the acceptance of such organizations as the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor; just as, on the other hand, it is the conscientious fear, on the part of watchful guardians of sectarian interests, that habitual fellowship across the boundary lines of denominations may weaken the allegiance to the sect, which has induced the many attempts at substituting associations constituted on a narrower basis. But the form of organization which most comprehensively illustrates the unity of the church is that “Charity Organization” which has grown to be a necessity to the social life of cities and considerable towns, furnishing a central office of mutual correspondence and coordination to all churches and societies and persons engaged in the Christian work of relieving poverty and distress. This central bureau of charitable coöperation is not the less a center of catholic fellowship for the fact that it does not shut its door against societies not distinctively Christian, like Masonic fraternities, nor even against societies distinctively non-Christian, 410like Hebrew synagogues and “societies of ethical culture.” We are coming to discover that the essence of Christian fellowship does not consist in keeping people out. Neither, so long as the apostolic rubric of Christian worship255255 James i. 27: “Pure and unpolluted worship, in the eye of God, consists in visiting widows and orphans in their tribulation, and keeping one’s self spotless from the world.” remains unaltered, is it to be denied that the fellowship thus provided for is a fellowship in one of the sacraments of Christian service.
A notable advance in true catholicity of communion is reported from among the churches and scattered missions in Maine. Hitherto, in the various movements of Christian union, it was common to attempt to disarm the suspicions of zealous sectarians by urgent disclaimers of any intent or tendency to infringe on the rights or interests of the several sects, or impair their claim to a paramount allegiance from their adherents. The Christians of Maine, facing tasks of evangelization more than sufficient to occupy all their resources even when well economized and squandering nothing on needless divisions and competitions, have attained to the high grace of saying that sectarian interests must and shall be sacrificed when the paramount interests of the kingdom of Christ require it.256256 An agreement has been made, in this State, among five leading denominations, to avoid competing enterprises in sparsely settled communities. An interdenominational committee sees to the carrying out of this policy. At a recent mutual conference unanimous satisfaction was expressed in the six years’ operation of the plan. When this attainment is reached by other souls, and many other, the conspicuous shame and scandal of American Christianity will begin to be abated.
Meanwhile the signs of a craving for larger fellowship continue to be multiplied. Quite independently of practical results achieved, the mere fact of efforts and experiments is a hopeful fact, even when these are made in 411directions in which the past experience of the church has written up “No Thoroughfare.”
I. No one need question the sincerity or the fraternal spirit with which some important denominations have each proposed the reuniting of Christians on the simple condition that all others should accept the distinctive tenet for which each of these denominations has contended against others. The present pope, holding the personal respect and confidence of the Christian world to a higher degree than any one of his predecessors since the Reformation (to name no earlier date), has earnestly besought the return of all believers to a common fellowship by their acceptance of the authority and supremacy of the Roman see. With equal cordiality the bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church have signified their longing for restored fellowship with their brethren on the acceptance by these of prelatical episcopacy. And the Baptists, whose constant readiness at fraternization in everything else is emphasized by their conscientious refraining from the sacramental sign of communion, are not less earnest in their desire for the unification of Christendom by the general acceptance of that tenet concerning baptism, the widespread rejection of which debars them, reluctant, from unrestricted fellowship with the general company of faithful men. But while we welcome every such manifestation of a longing for union among Christians, and honor the aspiration that it might be brought about in one or another of these ways, in forecasting the probabilities of the case, we recognize the extreme unlikeliness that the very formulas which for ages have been the occasions of mutual contention and separation shall become the basis of general agreement and lasting concord.
II. Another indication of the craving for a larger fellowship is found in the efforts made for large sectarian 412councils, representing closely kindred denominations in more than one country. The imposing ubiquity of the Roman Church, so impressively sustaining its claim to the title Catholic, may have had some influence to provoke other denominations to show what could be done in emulation of this sort of greatness. It were wiser not to invite comparison at this point. No other Christian organization, or close fellowship of organizations, can approach that which has its seat at Rome, in the world-wideness of its presence, or demand with so bold a challenge,
Qum regio in terris non nostri plena laboris?
The representative assembly of any other body of Christians, however widely ramified, must seem insignificant when contrasted with the real ecumenicity of the Vatican Council. But it has not been useless for the larger sects of Protestantism to arrange their international assemblies, if it were for nothing more than this, that such widening of the circle of practical fellowship may have the effect to disclose to each sect a larger Christendom outside to which their fellowship must sooner or later be made to reach.
The first of these international sectarian councils was that commonly spoken of as “the Pan-Anglican Synod,” of Protestant Episcopal bishops gathered at Lambeth by invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1867 and thrice since. The example was bettered by the Presbyterians, who in 1876 organized for permanence their” Pam-Presbyterian Alliance,” or “Alliance of the Reformed Churches throughout the world holding the Presbyterian System.” The first of the triennial general councils of this Alliance was held at Edinburgh in 1877, “representing more than forty-nine separate churches scattered 413through twenty-five different countries, and consisting of more than twenty thousand congregations.”257257 “Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia,” vol. i., p. 63. The second council was held at Philadelphia, and the third at Belfast. The idea was promptly seized by the Methodists. At the instance of the General Conference of the United States, a Pam-Methodist Council was held in London in 1881,—“the first Ecumenical Methodist Conference,”—consisting of four hundred delegates, representing twenty-eight branches of Methodism, ten in the eastern hemisphere and eighteen in the western, including six millions of communicants and about twenty millions of people.258258 Buckley, “The Methodists,” p. 552. Ten years later, in 1891, a second “Methodist Ecumenical Conference” was held at Washington.
Interesting and useful as this international organization of sects is capable of being made, it would be a mistake to look upon it as marking a stage in the progress toward a manifest general unity of the church. The tendency of it is, on the whole, in the opposite direction.
III. If the organization of “ecumenical” sects has little tendency toward the visible communion of saints in the American church, not much more is to be hoped from measures for the partial consolidation of sects, such as are often projected and sometimes realized. The healing of the great thirty years’ schism of the Presbyterian Church, in 1869, was so vast a gain in ecclesiastical economy, and in the abatement of a long-reeking public scandal and of a multitude of local frictions and irritations, that none need wonder at the awakening of ardent desires that the ten Presbyterian bodies still surviving might “find room for all within one fold”259259 Thompson, “The Presbyterians,” p. 308. in a national or continental Presbyterian 414Church. The seventeen Methodist bodies, separated by no differences of polity or of doctrine that seem important to anybody but themselves, if consolidated into one, would constitute a truly imposing body, numbering nearly five millions of communicants and more than fifteen millions of people; and if this should absorb the Protestant Episcopal Church (an event the possibility of which has often been contemplated with complacency), with its half-million of communicants and its elements of influence far beyond the proportion of its numbers, the result would be an approximation to some good men’s ideal of a national church, with its army of ministers coordinated by a college of bishops, and its plebs adunata sacerdoti. Consultations are even now in progress looking toward the closer fellowship of the Congregationalists and the Disciples. The easy and elastic terms of internal association in each of these denominations make it the less difficult to adjust terms of mutual coöeration and union. Suppose that the various Baptist organizations were to discover that under their like congregational government there were ways in which, without compromising or weakening in the slightest their protest against practices which they reprobate in the matter of baptism, they could, for certain defined purposes, enter into the same combination, the result would be a body of nearly five millions of communicants, not the less strong for being lightly harnessed and for comprehending wide diversities of opinion and temperament. In all this we have supposed to be realized nothing more than friends of Christian union have at one time or another urged as practicable and desirable. By these few and, it would seem, not incongruous combinations there would be four powerful ecclesiastical corporations,—one Catholic and three Protestant,—which, out of the twenty millions of church communicants in the United 415States, would include more than seventeen and one half millions.260260 If the Lutherans of America were to be united with the Presbyterians, it would be no more than was accomplished fourscore years ago in Prussia. In that case, out of 20,618,307 communicants, there would be included in the four combinations, 18,768,859.
The pondering of these possibilities is pertinent to this closing chapter on account of the fact that, as we near the end of the nineteenth century, one of the most distinctly visible tendencies is the tendency toward the abatement of sectarian division in the church. It is not for us simply to note the converging lines of tendency, without some attempt to compute the point toward which they converge. There is grave reason to doubt whether this line of the consolidation or confederation of sects, followed never so far, would reach the desired result.
If the one hundred and forty-three sects enumerated in the eleventh census of the United States261261 Dr. Carroll, “Religious Forces,” p. xv. should by successful negotiation be reduced to four, distinguished each from the others by strongly marked diversities of organization and of theological statement, and united to each other only by community of the one faith in Jesus Christ, doubtless it would involve some important gains. It would make it possible to be rid of the friction and sometimes the clash of much useless and expensive machinery, and to extinguish many local schisms that had been engendered by the zeal of some central sectarian propaganda. Would it tend to mitigate the intensity of sectarian competition, or would it tend rather to aggravate it? Is one’s pride in his sect, his zeal for the propagation of it, his jealousy of any influence that tends to impair its greatness or hinder its progress, likely to be reduced, or is it rather likely to be exalted, by the consciousness that the sect is a very great sect, standing alone for important principles? 416Whatever there is at present of asperity in the emulous labors of the competing denominations, would it not be manifold exasperated if the competition were restricted to four great corporations or confederations? If the intestine conflict of the church of Christ in America should even be narrowed down (as many have devoutly wished) to two contestants,—the Catholic Church with its diversity of orders and rites, on the one hand, and Protestantism with its various denominations solidly confederated, on the other,—should we be nearer to the longed-for achievement of Christian union? or should we find sectarian animosities thereby raised to the highest power, and the church, discovering that it was on the wrong track for the desired terminus, compelled to reverse and back in order to be switched upon the right one?
Questions like these, put to be considered, not to be answered, raise in the mind the misgiving that we have been seeking in diplomatic negotiations between high contracting parties that which diplomacy can do only a little toward accomplishing. The great aim is to be sought in humbler ways. It is more hopeful to begin at the lower end. Not in great towns and centers of ecclesiastical influence, but in villages and country districts, the deadly effects of comminuted fracture in the church are most deeply felt. It is directly to the people of such communities, not through the medium of persons or committees that represent national sectarian interests, that the new commandment is to be preached, which yet is no new commandment, but the old commandment which they have had from the beginning. It cannot always be that sincere Christian believers, living together in a neighborhood in which the ruinous effects of division are plain to every eye, shall continue to misapprehend or disregard some of the tenderest and most unmistakable counsels of their Lord and 417his apostles, or imagine the authority of them to be canceled by the authority of any sect or party of Christians. The double fallacy, first, that it is a Christian’s prime duty to look out for his own soul, and, secondly, that the soul’s best health is to be secured by sequestering it from contact with dissentient opinions, and indulging its tastes and preferences wherein they differ from those of its neighbor, must sometime be found out and exposed. The discovery will be made that there is nothing in the most cherished sermons and sacraments and prayers that is comparable in value, as a means of grace, with the giving up of all these for God’s reign and righteousness—that he who will save his soul shall lose it, and he who will lose his soul for Christ and his gospel shall save it to life eternal. These centuries of church history, beginning with convulsive disruptions of the church in Europe, with persecutions and religious wars, present before us the importation into the New World of the religious divisions and subdivisions of the Old, and the further division of these beyond any precedent in history. It begins to look as if in this “strange work” God had been grinding up material for a nobler manifestation of the unity of his people. The sky of the declining century is red with promise. Hitherto, not the decay of religious earnestness only, but the revival of it, has brought into the church, not peace, but division. When next some divine breathing of spiritual influence shall be wafted over the land, can any man forbid the hope that from village to village the members of the disintegrated and enfeebled church of Christ may be gathered together “with one accord in one place” not for the transient fervors of the revival only, but for permanent fellowship in work and worship? A few examples of this would spread their influence through the American church “until the whole was leavened.”418
The record of important events in the annals of American Christianity may well end with that wholly unprecedented gathering at Chicago in connection with the magnificent celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus—I mean, of course, the Parliament of Religions. In a land which bears among the nations the reproach of being wholly absorbed in devotion to material interests, and in which the church, unsupported and barely recognized by the state, and unregulated by any secular authority, scatters itself into what seem to be hopelessly discordant fragments, a bold enterprise was undertaken in the name of American Christianity, such as the church in no other land of Christendom would have had the power or the courage to venture on. With large hospitality, representatives of all the religions of the world were invited to visit Chicago, free of cost, as guests of the Parliament. For seventeen days the Christianity of America, and of Christendom, and of Christian missions in heathen lands, sat confronted—no, not confronted, but side by side on the same platform—with the non-Christian religions represented by their priests, prelates, and teachers. Of all the diversities of Christian opinion and organization in America nothing important was unrepresented, from the authoritative dogmatic system and the solid organization of the Catholic Church (present in the person of its highest official dignitaries) to the broadest liberalism and the most unrestrained individualism. There were those who stood aloof and prophesied that nothing could come of such an assemblage but a hopeless jangle of discordant opinions. The forebodings were disappointed. The diverse opinions were there, and were uttered with entire unreserve. But the jangle of discord was not there. It was seen and felt that the American church, in the presence of the unchristian and antichristian powers, and 419in presence of those solemn questions of the needs of humanity that overtask the ingenuity and the resources of us all combined, was “builded as a city that is at unity with itself.” That body which, by its strength of organization, and by the binding force of its antecedents, might have seemed to some most hopelessly isolated from the common sympathies of the assembly, like all the rest was faithful in the assertion of its claims, and, on the other hand, was surpassed by none in the manifestation of fraternal respect toward fellow-Christians of other folds. Since those seventeen wonderful September days of 1893, the idea that has so long prevailed with multitudes of minds, that the only Christian union to be hoped for in America must be a union to the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Church and in antagonism to it, ought to be reckoned an idea obsolete and antiquated.
The theme prescribed for this volume gives no opportunity for such a conclusion as the literary artist delights in—a climax of achievement and consummation, or the catastrophe of a decline and fall. We have marked the sudden divulging to the world of the long-kept secret of divine Providence; the unveiling of the hidden continent; the progress of discovery, of conquest, of colonization; the planting of the church; the rush of immigration; the occupation of the continent with Christian institutions by a strange diversity of sects; the great providential preparations as for some “divine event” still hidden behind the curtain that is about to rise on the new century,—and here the story breaks off half told.
To so many of his readers as shall have followed him to this last page of the volume, the author would speak a parting word. He does not deprecate the criticisms that 420will certainly be pronounced upon his work by those competent to judge both of the subject and of the style of it. He would rather acknowledge them in advance. No one of his critics can possibly have so keen a sense as the author himself of his incompetency, and of the inadequacy of his work, to the greatness of the subject. To one reproach, however, he cannot acknowledge himself justly liable: he is not self-appointed to a task beyond his powers and attainments, but has undertaken it at the instance of eminent men to whose judgment he was bound to defer. But he cannot believe that even his shortcomings and failures will be wholly fruitless. If they shall provoke some really competent scholar to make a book worthy of so great and inspiring a theme, the present author will be well content.421
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