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nobling principles of our common humanity subordinated to sectarian shibboleths, and that Divine charity, which is the essence of the Godlike, and the sum of every virtue in man, narrowed down to the dimensions of a particular creed, or smothered under the petty limitations of speculative theology.
Driven thus to choose between our loyalty to sect and our allegiance to God, and feeling still the need of some outward helps in the cultivation of the religious sentiment, we were naturally led to investigate the whole subject of religious organization, its nature, uses and sphere, and the source and extent of its powers. The result of our inquiries is a clear conviction, that Churches, however high their pretensions of authority derived from God, are only human organizations, and the repositories of only such powers as may have been rightfully conferred upon them by the individuals of whom they are composed, or derived from the laws of our social nature. It is time that this truth, so long obscured by the sorcery of priestcraft, were clearly understood and boldly proclaimed. Too long have the common people been deluded with the idea that the Church holds a mysterious organic relation to the Infinite,-a relation distinct from that existing between the soul and its Creator, and conferring special powers and prerogatives. Perhaps no error has done more than this to debase and enslave the mind of man, to fetter his godlike powers, and make him the ready instrument of superstition and priestcraft. It is the most vicious element of Popery, from which our Protestant sects are not yet delivered. Our religion, which should make us free and self-reliant, willing to bend the knee only to God, as he stands revealed to our own consciousness, withered by the touch of this superstition, becomes, in the hands of ambitious and designing men, the instrument of our degradation, the symbol of littleness, meanness, bigotry and hypocrisy. The Romish Church sets up for herself a claim of absolute infallibility, and the various Protestant sects, professing to deride her pretensions, yet tax our credulity scarcely less. From the Episcopal Church, with her imposing ritual and elaborate ceremonials, down to modern Quakerism, with its professed abjuration of all forms, its rustic garb and look of “meek simplicity," all seem deluded with the idea that the Church, being made after a Divine pattern, is supernaturally preserved from error. Even the Quaker regards the decision of his Yearly Meeting with a superstitious reverence scarcely inferior to that which the Catholic awards to the decrees of the Pope and the Cardinals. Do his reason and common sense suggest that the Yearly Meeting has decided erroneously or unjustly, he banishes the thought as little less than impious, becomes sile.t if not acquiescent, and mayhap lays his reason and common sense a sacrifice on the altar of the Church. Poor man! let him be once fairly convinced that ecclesiastical bodies, however sa cred their professions, however worthy of esteem within their legitimate sphere, are yet only human, and without authority to bind the conscience ever of the humblest of God's children, and he will no longer dare to offer such a sacrifice, to dishonor his Creator by debasing his own exalted powers.
It would be easy to show that this claim of supernatural power, on the part of the organized Church, is at war with the whole genius and spirit of Christianity as exhibited in the life and teachings of Jesus, and without warrant in the writings of the Apostles and primitive Christians, as well as subversive of individual rights and responsibilities. Jesus nowhere indicated an intention to organize a Church clothed with such power. Indeed, it does not appear from his recorded words that he even contemplated any organization whatever of those who should embrace his doctrines. He specified no such work as incumbent upon those whom he sent forth as witnesses of the truth, but left them to adopt such instrumentalities as might seem to them adapted to promote the object of their mission. The Apostles did indeed organize Churches, but they did not pretend that they were framed after a Divinely prescribed pattern, still less that they were clothed with a supernatural power. “It was not,” says a learned writer,* “ until the number of personal followers of Jesus increased by thousands, and the need of some organization began to be felt, that any thing like the institution of a distinct and permanent religious society appears to have been definitely contemplated. And then nothing more was done, than was necessory to that present exigency. Thus the whole institution of the Church at Jerusalem grew up by degrees, as one step after another was called for by a succession of circumstances altogether peculiar.” A religious periodical of high authority in matters of ecclesiastical history, † testified, some years since, as follows : “Men have clung as with a dying grasp to a few shreds of ancient tradition, and deemed it sacrilege to meddle with these consecrated relics. They have attached a peculiar sacredness to their own constitutions, councils, ordinances, creeds and decisions, as if they rested on Divine right and apostolic authority... The beautiful theories of Church government, devised with so much care and put together with so much skill and art, have, we are sure, no manner of resemblance to the
* Leonard Bacon, in his “Manual for Young Church Members.”
Churches mentioned in the Acts and Epistles. The primitive Cluis tians, could they come among us, would be not a little surprised to hear their assemblies, gathered by stealth for worship, with or without particular standing officers, referred to as the models after which the superstructure of denominational Churches is supposed to be fashioned. They were simple-hearted men and women, exposed to continual persecution, and bound together in Christian love; forming and modifying their regulations exactly as was needed ; never once dreaming that they or their successors were bound to a single system by some great code, provided by Divine authority ....The reason of associating together was, to further this great end, mutually to enliven the feelings of devotion, strengthen the principles of piety, and aid in, and urge to, the discharge of duty. . . . Some things were practised in some Churches and not in others. Some officers existed in one and not in another; some met in one place and not in another; and all had a right to do whatever might be conducive to the general good.”
We have dwelt at some length on this point, because we deem it of fundamental importance. This claim of organic communion with God lies at the root of many evils in the Churches around us, and hence we desire to make our denial of its validity as emphatic as possible. We would impress upon the minds of all whom our voice may reach, the truth, that there is no mysterious alchemy whereby a company of men, mean and selfish as individuals, are transmuted into a holy body; no Divine aflatus vouchsafed to them in the mass, superseding the necessity of personal conformity to the will of God. Such a claim is the acme of superstition and imposture. It is amazing that it should for so long a period have deceived and befooled the nations! When will the people learn that there is nothing Divine, nothing too sacred for investigation, in the artificial arrangements and prescribed formalities of sects? Alas! what multitudes join the popular Churches, submitting to their rites and paying the expenses of their administration, deluding themselves meanwhile with the idea that they are thus ensuring their eternal salvation, even though their daily lives are defiled by sordid and debasing acts, and they scarcely lift a finger or breathe one honest aspiration for their own or the world's moral improvement!
Our inquiries into the nature and uses of Religious Organization have also brought us to the conclusion, that the Churches around us have made a vital mistake in demanding uniformity of belief in respect to scholastic theology, ordinances, rites and forms, as a condition of religious fellowship and the basis of associated effort. It would hardly be possible to exaggerate the evils resulting from this mistake. It has loc the Church into dissensions, hypocrisy and all uncharitableness, and instead of promoting a manly, vigorous and healthful piety, which ever manifests itself in works of practical benevolence and would make her a burning and a shining light in the presence of surrounding darkness, it narrows the scope of her vision, dwarfs the intellect, smothers the heart, and makes her the purveyor of traditions and shams, a covert for mean
ess and treachery, and a hiding-place for the perpetrators and apologists of popular wickedness. It reverses the arrangements proposed by Jesus and his early followers, putting that first which should be last, the incidental in place of the primary, the temporary in place of the eternal. Jesus enjoins it upon his hearers to “ seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness ;” but the popular Church practically tells us, on pain of eternal perdition, to seek first of all the theology of that kingdom, assuring us, with impious tongue, that if we only master that, get its different parts properly arranged and labelled, and learn to believe them, however inconsistent with each other, and contrary to our reason and common sense, the righteousness may safely enough be left to take care of itself! Instead of requiring as the evidence of our piety the “fruits” demanded in the Gospel of Jesus, it sneers at “good works” as “carnal” and inefficacious, bids us mind our catechisms, disciplines and con fessions of faith ; to come regularly to its assemblies, and worship according. to its prescribed forms! It is no wonder that politicians, bent upon schemes of selfish aggrandizement, mock at the Higher Law, and declare their own oppressive statutes a finality, when the Church is found thus corrupt and apostate. No marvel that insatiate Wealth tramples upon lowly Poverty; that War's “red thunders” reverberate round the world • that Drunkenness counts its victims by tens of thousands; that Land Monopoly grinds humanity in the dust; that Lust is doing his work of defilement and shame with impunity ; that immortal beings are driven to their daily toil under the lash, and even sold in the shambles, when the Church proffers absolution for such crimes upon terms so easy of fulfilment.
The natural counterpart of this false and superstitious devotion to creeds and forms is an unnatural sourness and melancholy—a Pharisaical spirit, which frowns upon amusements as an offence to God, and which would cover the face of society with a sanctimonious gloom as repugnant to Religion as to unperverted human nature. The victims of this spirit converse about religion, not in manly and natural tones, indicative of sincerity and earnestness, but in a whining, canting manner, as if it were a burden hard to be borne, but which they reluctantly consent to carry during their mortal life, as the only means of eternal salvation! We are persuaded that the exhibitions of this spirit on the part of the Church have produced incalculable mischief, by exciting the prejudices of the young against all Religion as necessarily of an ascetic character, and by placing amusements beyond the pale of Christian irfluence, thus making them liable to excesses which might otherwise be avoided. The Christian, of all other persons, should not be of a sad countenance, but ever cheerful and hopeful in his demeanor, making the very atmosphere he breathes a witness of the serene joy that dwells in his heart. No false idea of sanctity, no superstitious or fanatical “worry" about his soul, should he ever suffer to make his presonce distasteful and unwelcome to the young.
We cannot undertake to particularize all the errors of principle and practice in the popular Churches, which our investigations have revealed to us; but there is one more which we must not pass in silence. We allude to that vicious and despotic feature in the organization of most of them, which, beginning in the subordination of the individual to the local Church, or to Elders, Overseers, or other officers thereof, ends in the subjection of local bodies to some larger assembly or central power. There are, indeed, some Churches which have attempted to abolish this system, but they are still too much bound by usage to practices inconsistent with their theories. Experience, as well as observation, has taught us that local organizations should in the first place be formed upon principles which will offer the best possible safeguard to the equal rights of the individual members, and discourage tyranny, whether of the many or the few; and, in the next place, that they should never allow any other body, however numerous or imposing, to exercise authority over them. The forms of Church organization, instead of being such as are suggested by the ideas of individual freedom and responsibility which pervade the teachings of Jesus, would seem to have been borrowed from anti-Christian and despotic systems of civil government, whereof force is the vital and controlling element. Under such forms, religious tyranny, always difficult of repression, is sure to spring up into a vigorous life. It would be easy to illustrate this truth by a reference to the history of any of those Churches in which the affiliated and subordinating system of government prevails, but the experience of many of our number naturally leads us to point to the Society of Friends as a warning against this lamentable evil. The setting apart of ministers as a distinct order of persons, and for life; the appointment of Elders to sit