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“The Reformed Church of Christendom, or the Duties of Liberal Christians to the National Faith at this Crisis of Opinions”
by Henry Whitney Bellows
A Sermon at All Souls Church, New York January 8, 1865
The last section heralds changes in religion and proposes some specific steps for liberal Christianity to increase in numbers and influence.
- What do you think of Bellow’s analysis and solution?
- What points do you think would still be true today?
Reformed Church of Christendom, or the Duties of Liberal Christians to the National Faith at this Crisis of Opinions.
REV. H. W. BELLOWS, D.D.
ALL SOULS’ CHURCH, NEW YORK
JANUARY 8, 1865
AMERICAN UNITARIAN ASSOCIATION, 245 Washington St.
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Some millions of the American people, sober, thoughtful and well-intentioned people, are thoroughly undermined in the foundation of the faith of their parents; are dissatisfied, afloat and inquiring; arc reading scientific books and spiritualistic literature, and trying to find some substitute in. ethics or pseudo. or real science, for a religion which they cannot longer believe. Now, being fully persuaded myself that there is no substitute for religion, and no religion that can satisfy except the gospel of Christ, I cannot but feel an intense desire to see the faith which we have found so instructive, comforting and saving — that statement of the gospel we call liberal Christianity — largely promulgated, freely offered to the American public, and urged in every way upon those who think that science, or literary criticism, or experience, or the progress of the age, or the growth of the human mind, have disproved or emptied of solid contents, or dissipated in mist, the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. It is in no controversial spirit, with no desire to disturb any existing faith, or to convert any satisfied believer, be he Catholic, Calvinist or Episcopalian, that I would urge this as the duty of liberal Christians. Nor is it with argumentation and discussion and polemic weapons that I would proceed. It is only by addressing the unchurched, the dissatisfied, the indifferent^ the skeptical and those disconnected from any existing organizations, that [***Page 17 / 000660 starts] I would propose to advance our cause; and I would address them, not by disputing old opinions, but by presenting new ones; not by attacking the past creeds, but by simple, affectionate and devout statement of the new creed — that creed which has been stripped of its various disguises and is believed by us to be the original creed of Christ and his apostles. The old controversy, textual and metaphysical between Unitarians and Trinitarians, has done its work and passed away. The work of destruction and negation is ended. We need now only to build up a broad temple on the cleared foundation, and invite in the passerby to a faith and worship which needs no recommendation but its own simple, affectionate and devout statement and publication.
Have we not a solemn and urgent duty to our faith thus to make it known? And was there ever a time when it could be proclaimed with such fair prospects of success? Is not public sentiment ripe for it? Has not the essential doing away with slavery removed the principal obstacle to a faith objected to by millions because it was radically subversive of that unchristian institution which found its chief support, next to the cupidity and pride of its beneficiaries; in the superstitious bibliolatry and false divinity of the Southern church and the more ultra orthodox churches of the North?
How can we fulfil our duties in this direction efficiently? The first condition of success is faith in our own principles and opinions as the real gospel of Christ. There are those among us who have lost this faith in a great degree, owing to the slowness of our past progress, the seeming want of adaptation in our system to popular acceptance, and the tendency exhibited by many of our own ministers and people to lapse into an unhistorical and Christless, an ethical, or merely sentimental faith. So when our war broke out, millions, and those among the best educated of [***Page 18 / 000661 starts] our countrymen, had lost their faith in American institutions, in the feasibleness of liberty, in the possibility of restraining the tendency of freedom to run into license and of universal franchise to degenerate through the ignorance of voters, into a perilous no government! But what an astonishing and wholesome revolution have we not experienced in this respect! What a revival of faith in our national ideas has blessed the common mind of the country! What has become of the admirers of English institution, of aristocratic grades, of limited monarchy, and an established church, or a limited franchise? What is to prevent as sudden, as general a resuscitation, of faith in liberal Christian sentiments: in the safety of a rational faith: in the sanctity of a simple, credible and reformed gospel creed? This seems to me to follow in a natural order the political and moral regeneration of the country. Our past slowness of progress has been nothing but the unseen rooting, of our ideas and principles in the vague literature, the unconscious public sentiment, the uninstituted feelings and sympathies of men. Representing, as our faith does, the real tendencies, moral, political and spiritual, of the age we live in, it has already taken large possession of the inarticulate thinking and unmethodized feeling of society: just as anti-slavery feelings and sympathies secretly and unconsciously occupied the under mind and heart of the loyal people of this coun-try when religious, political and social institutions were all forbidding them to know it, or say it, or even do anything, but angrily deny it. Yet when the test came, what was more evident than the thorough preparation of the people for the change which seemed to come without warning, and against all hope? I cannot doubt that the day is at hand when the crystallization or institutionizing of the changed religious ideas and sentiments of our country, into churches and liberal external creeds and communions, shall with sud- [***Page 19 / 000662 starts] den and vast strides reveal the secret, immense preparation which for thirty years has been going on in the American mind. In what form this now Reformation (for it is nothing less than that), this more Protestant Protestantism or rather more Catholic Catholicism, will break out I cannot tell. But I am confident of one thing, — the decay and, death of our old Unitarian organization or denomination, deplorable to our pride and grievous to our affections as it will be, cannot stop it, and may even be necessary to its realization. The new creed is perhaps more likely to storm the Christian mind and heart of the American church through the sudden leaping of ministers of the old creeds into the large and liberal teaching of our essential doctrines than through the courage, faith and enterprise of our own people. It would not surprise me in the least to see in five years a thousand American ministers of all denominations reunited in a new organization, animated with the very essence of our own ideas and opinions, but clothed in a more emotional, a less purely intellectual* a more external and attractive ritual, and worship than we inherited. Were the true leader to appear, moved by the spirit of God, — a new Luther or Wesley,— the field for him is white for the harvest; and I see not how he can be far off. Unitarians may take the matter seriously to heart that their lukewarmness, faithlessness in their mission, and deadness to their opportunities, will not thwart the patent purpose of Almighty God, nor drive away from the world the dove that finds no shelter in their cold bosom. A little time is given them to repent of their apathy and cowardice, their neglect of their opportunities, their withholding of their wealth and talents and social riches, of their moral standing and spiritual insight, from the great missionary work of moving the church and the world onward, and organizing their religious ideas on a scale worthy their heritage and their vocation. Five years more [***Page 20 / 000663 starts] of their present stupor and divisions and self-distrust, of the alienation of their laity from the methods of their ministers, of their lack of missionary enterprise, of the falling off in their supply of ministers, of their failure, to endow their western colleges and theological schools, of their feeble newspapers and half supported, magazines, will finish them as a body to whom the world can look for any great services; end their hopes as leaders, in the Christian church, and place some new body in the van of theological reform and spiritual progress.
One more effort to revive the latent life of the Unitarian body is to be made, and if it. fails, we must fold our arms and hug the memory of a past that was brilliant and glorious in its promise, with our backs on a future we are not worthy to enter and possess. Are we willing to submit to this humiliation and defeat; to this surrender of our birth-right? If not, we must wake from our slumbers. We must collect and organize our strength. We must have clear ideas of our duty. We must gather our thoughts, our feelings and our means with self-sacrificing and devout purpose about the duty of extending to the country at large, and with some swiftness and breadth, and on a national scale, the knowledge of our faith. We must begin by establishing, at the necessary cost, literary organs of our opinions; weekly newspapers, in New York and in Cincinnati, or St. Louis, on the scale of the Independent; papers each edited by the best talents that money can buy; papers so able, earnest, and pronounced so useful, instructive and entertaining that they must be read, and that a vast constituency of supporters can be found for them. What if it cost the Unitarian denomination a half million of dollars to establish its necessary, organs; to canvass the country for subscribers; to circulate them in every town and village of the whole land,—-would it not be the very least its wealth [***Page 21 / 000664 starts] and ability, its light and power owes to the church and the world, owes, above all, to the nation that has just escaped political ruin, and is not yet out of theological bondage? What are our little, starved newspapers doing for our cause, read by less than six thousand subscribers in a country of thirty millions? And what sort, of a representation of our learning, thought, enterprise and taste do they make living from month to month on the unwilling charity of a few pity-taking friends who are not quite willing to see them die of inanition? And what is the circulation of our quarterly journal, excellent as it is, or of the “Christian Examiner, a theological and literary journal that ought to be the first in the world? Beggarly both in the support they receive, and with little or no influence that can begin to deserve the name of national!
But next, we need ministers, living missionaries of the faith we profess to think the best and truest” in the world. Where are they? and why do they not come in ever increasing numbers from Harvard College and the homes of New England full of generous sentiments and free thoughts? For various reasons: 1. There has not been faith enough in our body in its own ideas for the last five and twenty years to fire the young hearts growing up in our fold with the impulse to become its preachers. 2. Such discouragement has attended our progress that young men have gone into other professions rather than into the ministry of our church. 3. Ministers in no denomination spring from the wealthier class and the city population, and Harvard College, a costly institution, has not been able to invite, by its charitable foundations, a very considerable body of students from the country and the middle rank of life, whence ministers are commonly made. 4. Divisions and discussions involving the very fundamental ideas of Christianity have been pending, which have daunted, where they have not [***Page 22 / 000665 starts] destroyed, the faith of our rising young men, and made them reluctant to prepare for the preaching of a faith which might turn out to be no faith at all before their preparation was complete. 5. The general state of the country has been unfavorable to the growth of the ministerial class, and its quality has depreciated as well as its numbers in most denominations. These reasons will suffice. Many others might be given.
Now we want to draw, for the ministers of the liberal faith, on portions of the country that have not been sicklied o’er with the New England subtleties of debate. They lie aside from the practical workings of the great national mind. We want to reach the unfastidious, healthy, hearty natures of the common people, such as heard our Lord gladly at first. We want to get our point of support, our purchase, nearer the centre of the country and nearer the intellectual and moral centre of American life. We want a college for the common people, where education can’be afforded to the farmers’ sons and mechanics and lumbermen, — sons of Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana — the very men who are now fighting the country’s battles; a college where, without sectarian influence, there shall be no coldness to and no plotting against liberal Christianity, and where those who have free thoughts and now religious ideas may go and cheaply find a liberal education. Such a college we started with the Christians at Antioch. We have it now free from debt, but without a penny of endowment. A hundred thousand dollars would put it in good working order! Two hundred thousand dollars would make it adequate to every want for twenty years to come. Let our denomination give it, the endowment it asks, and two years would see it with more students than Harvard College, and every class would turn, I verily believe, fifty, young men of earnestness and vigor and faith into the liberal ministry. Such a cheap and glorious opportunity no denomination but your own would throw away. Near by Antioch lives, wait- [***Page 23 / 000666 starts] ing to spring into large and noble vigor, our Meadville Theological School, now training only its eight or ten ministers per year. It is comparatively useless, because there is no college to train students for it. Make Antioch what it needs to be and Meadville would become by the same motion a really national school of the new theology. Fifty thousand dollars would give it all the additional endowment it requires. This done every thing is done we can do, and we could afford to wait for all other good to grow up out of these movements.
At a recent convention in Boston a resolution was passed calling for a general convention in New York, some time very soon, to organize the Unitarian body for these and other general purposes. Are you ready for such a convention? If you are cold or indifferent I shall expect to find less heart and less interest everywhere else. If you are earnest, willing and prompt to endorse and support such generous plans I shall have confidence to join in the call for such a convention, with some reasonable hope that its action and council would be productive, by dint of full and general organization, of wide and deep consequences. I was made chairman of the committee for calling this council. Perhaps I believe in its ends and objects as thoroughly as any one. If you fully and warmly support it I think I see in the sympathy of many of our most earnest ministers in all parts of the country, West and East, a prospect and a plan for the regeneration of our denominational life, and at least finally test the great question, Is liberal Christianity to be a permanent and a national demonstration in the great interests of Christ and his church, or is it to dwindle and die of dignified decency in the narrow track where it has hitherto walked? [***Page 24 / 000667 starts]
Brethren I have a faith it will .live, flourish, conquer, and bless the country and the world. If you, too, possess this faith, let us lay all our hands to the ark of the Lord and lift it high and carry it in triumph over tha desert and across the rivers, and set it down in the midst of a promised land of universal enlightenment, universal freedom, and universal faith and charity.