Page images
PDF
EPUB

devoted will spare neither their money nor their time. But how are men to become thus devoted ? Are we to use no means to render them so, until they are already such ? Are we to be told that there is no motive to bring men within Christian influences, short of that absorbing religious feeling, which would show that the work is already nearly done? Certainly not; there are other motives, powerful motives. It as much pertains to good citizenship as to piety, to take care that public worship be supported ; and multitudes of those, who are at present indifferent and worldly, think of it reverently and well, and intend by and by to be sanctified by it. All these are to be entreated to perceive their obligations; they are to be called on as patriots and friends of social order and peace, to prevent the downfal of these powerful seminaries of moral instruction. But I have more particularly in view another class—those already referred to, who count themselves the subjects of a glorious emancipation, the participators of a great light, and who freely use words of self.congratulation. They are, or profess to be, keenly alive to a sense of mental degradation, and are perfectly aware of the great privilege they enjoy in the light and liberty of the present era. They are very honestly ready to thank God that they are not as other men-members of churches, which fetter them by human confessions and bind them to make no advance in their apprehensions of spiritual truth. Now is it decent for such men—who not only enjoy great privileges, but show that they are aware of it—is it decent for them to withdraw their support from the institutions which guarantee their peculiar advantages ? Is it consistent or becoming in them to forsake the churches, which they assert to resound with the purest doctrine ? To doom to poverty, the preachers whom they believe to be the most enlightened apostles of God's word, and to discourage the eloquent asserters of the most important views which have dawned upon the earth? I address these questions to a select class, which it is mortifying to say has an existence, but which, God be praised ! is as small as it is arrogant and false. I address their sense of shame, their sense of dignity, their love of consistency, their magnanimity, their intelligence, their hope of immortality, their faith in a future reckoning.

If all who profess to honour religion were religious men, there would inileed be no call for expostulation or entreaty, on behalf of religion. But, alas ! the inconsistency of believers with their profession, is an evil as old and as notorious, as the existence of the church itself. The solemn and indignant questions of Paul, in his second chapter to the Romans, have been equally applicable to multitudes in every age since; and it is more a matter of grief than astonishment, that they still apply to many of our own day. The increase of light is with them rather a cause for glorying, than a call to duty. They with great complacency rest in their light, and make their boast in God, and know his will, and approve the things that are more excellent, and yet, through unfaithfulness to their lighi, they dishonour God. They live respectable lives of worldly decorum, but have no spirituality of affection, no desire for excellence beyond the ordinary mark, no conception of anything more pure and disinterested, than the average of decent society has presented to their view. Their standard is low, their tastes sensual, their principle inactive, their wisdom earthly and sensual, though not perhaps devilish. They live decently, but only for themselves and for this

world. They would be very sorry to be accounted other than friends of religion, but they would be greatly ashamed to be pointed out as pious men. They are proud of the dignity of their intellectual nature, and do not doubt the immortality of their souls; but nothing is further from their intention or desire, than to occupy their minds now, with the subjects which they suppose are to occupy their future immortality,

There is a lamentable deficiency in our practical apprehension of what are the requisitions of our religion. We do not see, feel, realize, the extent and strictness of its obligations. With all our getting, we have not got a spiritual understanding of its admirable and glorious purpose. We are yet in the alphabet of Christian attainment; we are of the earth, earthy. Who is there, that in his best hours of serious contemplation, has not been made deeply to deplore this ? Let me not be met with the cry that there is such a thing as being righteous over-much ; nor let the old saying be turned against me, Physician, heal thyself,--practice instead of preaching.' No one has such a claim to be heard in denouncing evil, as he who can tell of it from personal experience; no man's warning is so good as his who can shew how himself and his friends are suffering. There is a great dislike to austerity, a great dread of puritanism, a horror of cant and fanaticism and superstition ; and one cannot recommend a stricter devotion, or a more scrupulous moralitys than the ordinary customs of the world make requisite, without the risk of being branded by the more worldly as an enthusiast or a hypocrite, and being told by many of the more serious, that it is too late in the day, that this preciseness and scrupulosity were well enough formerly, but that the spirit of the times forbids it now; nous avons changé tout cela ; it is vain to think of carrying men back to modes of thought which are long obsolete, and to habits of devout observance which savour more of the cloister than of the world.'

Let us admit the changes which have taken place, and which render it requisite to abandon modes of operation and address and observance, which are no longer adapted to accomplish their design; but human nature has not changed--the Christian religion has not changedthe institutions of God have not changed ;—there may be a diversity of operations, but there is the same God who speaks, the same truth for the instrument, the same nature to be wrought upon. The requisitions of that God are as rigidly conformable to the eternal and uncompromising law of right, as they ever were ; the path of sentiment and life to which truth would lead, is no whit less straight and direct; the nature to be perfected, is accessible to the same and to no different principles and motives, and is to be moulded into the same character. Surely, that the Christian character is to be inferior in moral elevation, that it is to have less of spirituality and self-consecration to principle, less of the Christlike and the Godlike than in other days, will not be pretended. What it was in the days of Jesus, such it is now ; such as it showed itself in his example, such it must be in the lives of his followers at the present time. To make it less disinterested, less unworldly, less scrupulously averse from all contamination of impurity, and all suspicion of wrong, would be to make it another thing than the Christian character. To make it more compatible with a heart devoted to ambition and gain, with a life of thoughtlessness, frivolity and uselessness—to make it synonymous with self-interest, and the decent external proprieties of civilized life-would be to change its definition from that which its master gave to it. To make it of so pliable a texture, of so flexible and complying a disposition, that it shall be consistent with any degree of selfishness and worldliness which does not destroy a man's reputation; with any devotedness to luxury and folly, or any modes or forms of business which are not discreditable; with any absorption in useless fancies, indolent indulgencies, or money-making cares, which are not absolutely injurious to society; or, in a word, with all and any character of heart and life, which does not offend against human law, or honour, or fashion ;-is to make it a convenient tool for human depravity, instead of an infallible guide to celestial purity. And yet, we are perfectly aware, that there are men of all these sorts of characters, who deem their lives very sufficiently religious, and who are indignant against the austerity and uncharitableness of any definition of the Christian life, which would put in jeopardy their empty selfcomplacency.

There must be some standard ; and it cannot require to be proved, that it must be a peculiar one--a high one-man inflexible one;-a standard, which will not vary to accommodate itself to different states of society, or different dispositions of individuals; but which, like him who established it, is the same yester-day, to-day, and for-ever; making the true disciple of the first century, the same, in all essential and characteristic features, with the consistent Christian of the middle ages and these latter days; in things indifferent granting a privilege to human imperfection ; but, in the vital spirit, the essential elements, the absolute characteristics, demanding imperatively an absolute and underiating conformity.

The great danger is that of admitting too lax a standard. The world is always encroaching upon it, and the weakness of the human heart gives way. It may be that the figure is too strong, which represents the Christian character as a fire burning from out of the ocean, which can exist in the midst of so contrary an element only by perpetual miracle ; but certainly there are counteracting impulses, principles, and opinions in the world, which render a perpetual effort necessary on the part of the Christian to sustain the liveliness and purity of his faith ; there are influences from society, from example, from without and from within, which tend constantly to secularise his feelings, to bring down the tone of his affections and convictions, to dull his susceptibility to truth and purity. The crying danger is that of admitting too low a standard. Many a man who has learned what human virtue should be, from the study of the Scriptures and devout communion with God, and who, in the private contemplations of his early days, has suffered his imagination to draw pictures of the good people whom he was hereafter to meet in the world—has found, on entering life, that his notions were far above the actual standard of good men, that his idea of the prevalent religion was too beautiful for the Christianity of Christians, was an image of something not to be seen in the world; he has found them shaking their heads at him with a wise and meaning smile, as they informed him that his notions of goodness were impracticable, that they would do for the closet, but not for those who know the world and must live among men. At first he is disappointed, shocked and mortified ; but he gradually becomes accustomed to so lamentable a state of things,

acquiesces in it as unavoidable, and comes by and by to have his enthusiasm as thoroughly cooled, and his ardour for perfect goodness as completely turned into discreet caution, and his charity as carefully guarded by selfishness, as the older men about him.

It has been the disgrace of Christians, that they have not stood out against this worldly tendency, and kept themselves up to their own temperature in spite of the cold atmosphere of society. If their souls had imbibed the full vitality of their religion, if they had been filled with the spirit of its life, they would have found in themselves the power of resistance, just as they find it in their bodies. The mysterious principle of organic life imparts to the body a sustaining energy, which keeps the vital heat invariably the same; though all around be chill, it remains unaltered; and Providence has afforded means of aiding it to preserve this temperature which protects it from distraction. When the soul truly lives, it possesses a similar power of resistance to external influence. The world may operate upon it, the moral atmosphere of society may close around it with its deadliest influences; but it has the power of resistance, it may retain its own standard ; and God, by his word and spirit, has made provision of means, by which, in any extremity of exposure, it may be completely protected. If men will not use those means, if they will not clothe themselves in the protecting dress of watchfulness and prayer, they will lose in the world the warmth of their devotional natures, and cease to enjoy the full health of the immortal soul. It is the disgrace of Christians that it has so often been the case with them. Some, many, have wrapt themselves in their principles of holiness, and refused to give place for a moment to earthly solicitation or example, and thus hare exhibited illustrious instances of the beauty and excellence of Christianity. But, alas ! others, too many, have conformed themselves to the world—they have dreaded to be singular-they have been ashamed to be better than others and they have thus lost both the influence with others and the peace within themselves, which they might and ought to have possessed. Hence it is, that society is not more thoroughly Christianized. The friends of Christianity have gone to the world, instead of insisting that the world should come to them. They have weakly given way. They have failed of presenting that dignified and resolute adherence to the convictions of conscience, that unhesitating, immoveable devotedness to grand and immortal principles, which their infinite importance deserves. Nothing less than such devotedness could persuade a worldly-minded man, that they actually believed in their reality and eternity. How could he be persuaded, that those men loved supremely a better and immortal life, who were as eager and as unprincipled as others in the struggles of this? How could religion gain ground in the world, when advocated by men who were constantly qualifying and modifying the requisitions of their faith, to suit a sensual and worldly taste, and accommodate their own temporal interests?

There is no more serious mistake than the idea of promoting the interests of religion by diminishing its strictness, and thus bribing the favour of the world. The world is not to be so bribed. It sees through and despises the shallow manœuvre. None understand better than your most devoted worldlings, the essential incompatibility between their spirit and the spirit of Christ, and they feel nothing but contempt for the weakness which thinks to attain their suffrages by softening down the requisitions of the eternal law. They can read and understand what the Lord requires of them, and their consciences compel them to admire its unapproachable purity. They feel for it something of the reverence and awe, which it is suited to impress on every intelligent mind. And when they perceive its guardians and friends so insensible or so faithless to its claims, as to press upon men something inferior in its stead, they view them as traitors, and instead of embracing, on their invitation, a cause, which is thus unfaithfully dealt with, they turn with contempt and loathing from the false-hearted men. The cowardly and short-sighted policy, has repelled from Christianity the very men it was designed to conciliate and win.

Christianity is designed to produce a great effect upon men and the world. But not a mixed, adulterated, mitigated Christianity. It produces its effects by what it is. Change it, and its power ceases; make it something else, and its operations are no longer the same. Say, that instead of going down into the bottom of the soul, and taking possession of the whole man, and informing his entire spirit and character, it is sufficient that it regulate his exterior deportment, and restrain him from the grosser sins—you alter its character; it is no longer what Christ taught, and it can no longer produce the effects which he proposed. It will excite a feeble interest, it will awaken a feeble emotion, it will therefore call forth slight exertion, and will end in a feeble virtue. Little will be felt, little therefore attempted, very little accomplished. Make the way very broad and easy, and many will walk in it; but whither will it lead them ? There can be nothing of the striving, the earnestness, the energy, by which alone great characters are formed, and great enterprises achieved, and an exalted virtue reached. It is not the languor of an easy path which elevates and perfects; we must enter in by a straight gate; we must strive through a narrow path; we must seize the kingdom of heaven by violence. We must feel that everything is at stake, and then we shall be ready to attempt everything. Make our way so easy that nothing shall seem to be at stake, and we shall attempt nothing.

It is perfectly true, and Gibbon was right when he said it, though the unhappy man did it maliciouslythat Christianity gained on the world and flourished at the beginning through its very sternness and austerity. It was uncompromising in its strictness, and thus compelled attention, respect, admiration, awe, roused vehement feeling, and forced the homage and allegiance of men. And so it has been in all ages since. The severest forms, the straitest sects, have always had the most resolute followers, have always left the strongest, deepest and most permanent impressions on the world. The looser sects have had their votaries, but they have not exercised the greatest power, nor done so much to decide the fortunes of the world. Even at the present day, when monkish austerity is wholly out of vogue, and all superstitious strictness derided, yet now, the more of rational severity of doctrine a sect upholds, the more peremptorily it exalts the standard of religious character, the more sure it is to receive the homage of the multitude, and to commend itself to the thinking friends of society and man. This is agreeable to human nature; so much so, that in all ages and all religions, it has been the pretence of universal sanctity, the show and inculcation

« PreviousContinue »