Page images
PDF
EPUB

think, that no form of church organization has so fostered individual initiative in Christian work, independence of judgment, and capacity for intelligent self-government.

Equally the natural fruitage of Congregational principles is a further trait of the type of piety favored by Congregationalism, - its intelligence. Like all Christians who felt the strong impulse given to religious thought by Calvin, Congregationalists from the beginning have loved the school and the college. They do so still. Beyond any other religious body in this land, they have fostered education. Though a modern Congregationalist might smile at the quaint phraseology of the Massachusetts statute of 1647, which gave as the cause why schools should be established, that “one chiefe project of y ould deluder, Satan [is] to keepe men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures,” his reason for supporting education is essentially the same to-day. He be ieves that intelligence is of exceeding value to a full-rounded Christian life. The apprehension of God's ways with men demands no exercise of a blind and unintelligent faith. It calls for the best use of the utmost powers of heart and mind which God has granted to men. Education is a safeguard to the church no less than to the State. A Christian who is not endeavoring to learn more of God's truth in the books of nature and of grace is not a Christian who shows the appropriate fruits of the Congregational conception of the religious life.

Such self-reliance and such emphasis on intelligence as have been pointed out as characteristic of the Congregational type of piety are naturally associated with a third quality, that of independence. A Congregationalist is typically a man who thinks for himself. Each Congregational church holds itself competent to formulate Christian truth in its own statement of belief. Many a Congregational minister, especially in the years immediately following his graduation from the seminary, believes himself competent to improve the doctrinal statement of the church of his charge. Congregational societies for missionary work at home and abroad have been singularly independent of direct and responsible relation to the churches in their inception and management. Congregational churches rejected a prescribed liturgy originally because they believed it contrary to the Word of God; but they now freely modify their services, and each church feels at liberty to be a law unto itself. In all departments of thought, worship, and activity this spirit of independence is manifested. To many of those who have been trained in an atmosphere less unfettered than that of Congregationalism such freedom as is manifested in the discussion of great theologic themes, to call attention to but a single instance of this independence is incomprehensible and seems highly dangerous; but to those who have entered into the spirit of Congregational history and faith the fundamental spiritual unity of our churches, their harmony and fellowship, show this freedom to be a blessing rather than an evil. In no religious body, I think it may be truthfully affirmed, is there more oneness of spirit and brotherliness of feeling than in our Congregational churches of to-day. Better a unity of spirit in the cause of Christ and in loyalty to him, whatever our minor divergences, than a uniformity of confession or ritual maintained by church courts or ecclesiastical censures.

Such independence in discussion and action implies a further quality in the type of piety favored by Congregationalism, - that of openness to new thoughts and methods. Since the time that John Robinson expressed the confident belief -- regarding church polity certainly, if not in respect to Christian truths in general, as many think he intended,- that “the Lord had more truth and light yet to breake forth out of his holy Word,” Congregationalism has been marked, in some measure at least, by hospitality to fresh presentations of the content and significance of the Gospel message. Least manifested in the seventeenth century, when this quality seemed at times almost absent, it gave us the most original school of American theologians in the eighteenth century; while in the nineteenth, it has been increasingly apparent, not only in the influence of such a thinker as Bushnell, but in the welcome accorded to foreign religious thought, particularly to that of England and Germany, in recent years. The readiness of Congregationalism to welcome new methods of Christian activity may be sufficiently attested by calling to recollection the facts that Congregationalists were the first Protestant Christians on this continent to organize for foreign missions, that they established the first Protestant theological seminary in America, and that a Congregationalist originated, and Congregationalists have welcomed, the Young People's Society for Christian Endeavor.

The appropriate fruitage of such hospitality to new thought and method is to be seen in a spirit of charitableness which I think we may claim as highly characteristic of our churches. They are tolerant of one another's divergencies. They trust one another's Christian character. They can, as has been abundantly proved by the debates of recent years, discuss keenly and feel strongly, and yet be brethren. Their sympathies are not confined to those only of their denominational name. They have a friendly spirit of co-operation with other Christian bodies. They have no desire to arrogate to themselves the exclusive use of the title “ Church,” or to deny to others whose views of sacramental observance differ from theirs full recognition as fellow Christians.

The Congregational type of piety has its dangers and its faults as well as its virtues. He would be a blind panegyrist, indeed, who refused to recognize them. Its emphasis on intelligence in religious things has led it at times, chiefly in the past, to lay too exclusive weight on the intellectual side of religion, to the neglect of its emotional aspects. Important as the sermon is, - and its place in Protestant worship must always be central, - Congregationalism has at times been prone to esteem the sermon practically all the service. Prayer, scripture, and song have sometimes been “preliminary exercises” in the thought of minister and people. But such an overestimate of the intellectual side cannot truthfully be affirmed of the present, when the cry goes up from many quarters for improved Sunday school instruction and for catechetical classes that our young people may be better grounded in the rudiments of Christian doctrine.

With the consequences of some aspects of our Congregational independence we face a more difficult problem. For communities of moderate size, permanent Anglo-Saxon population, and a high average of general intelligence the, Congregational type of piety and the Congregational church are admirably adapted. The history of New England demonstrates the fact. But how to maintain selfgoverning and, in aim at least, self-supporting local churches amid the shifting peoples of great cities, especially where poverty limits the means and increases the needs of the congregation, is a problem which not even generous contributions to home missions can wholly solve. It requires some greater degree of individual and churchly co-operation and concentration than we have yet developed.

Very similar in its difficulty is the problem presented by the decaying hill-town community, with its decreasing native population and its influx of foreigners by birth, and aliens to our religious ideals. It is a problem distressingly familiar in many sections of our country besides New England. The independence of our Congregational type of piety grapples with it with difficulty. Congregationalism recognizes the obligation that lies upon the strong to help the weak to bear their burdens, burdens of diminishing resources in men and women of strength and leadership quite as much as of declining financial ability, - but how the stronger can most effectually help the weaker neighbor is a question which state and national home missionary societies and regular contributions, helpful as they are, do not wholly answer.

Nor is Congregational piety without its more individual point of strain in these days of changing standards of personal Christian conduct. The passing of the old Puritan strenuousness regarding amusements, the comparative disuse of family worship, the growing emphasis on the social rather than the individual message of the Gospel, the diminished sense of the duty of attendance on the public worship of God's house, which are undeniably characteristic of our times, have undoubtedly greater peril for those accustomed to individual freedom of thought and action than for those whose ideals of religious observance are more uniform and prescribed. Yet, judged by the standards of other Christian bodies which are affected by the same influences as our churches, Congregational piety is adequate to this test. Its manifestations are changing in some respects; its vital principle of loyalty to the Master is as firm as ever.

And one final trait of the type of piety fostered by Congregationalism justifies any Congregationalist in hopefulness regarding the ultimate solution of any questions that press upon us. Congregationalists have felt in high degree the obligation to labor for the advancement of the Redeemer's kingdom, not merely in the local churches of which they are members, but in its wider aspects. The feeling is characteristic of them to-day as fully as at any time in the past. Theirs is a strongly missionary spirit. The centre of interest in missions may vary. At one time it may be the work of spreading the gospel abroad that most appeals to Christian effort and benevolence. Now, if we may judge by the recent experiences of our missionary societies, the larger response goes forth to more local objects of Christian labor, oftentimes but loosely, if at all, connected with our distinctly denominational activities. Congregationalists are largely content to sow the grain and let others reap the harvest. Their interest goes out readily to the broad range of the religious and semi-religious, educational and philanthropic causes that have the general betterment of the community as their aim. We may deplore this tendency to seek other channels than those in which the benevolence of the fathers flowed. The present speaker certainly does. Better would it be, in his estimate, if a larger loyalty to our established denominational agencies should bring with it an enhanced sense of the primacy of their claim on our gifts ; nor can the expenditure of so much of the labor and the money of the members of our churches on objects having philanthropic rather than distinctly evangelistic ends be without its serious inroads upon what the churches have heretofore considered their chief work. But we recognize the fact that though the proportion of interest in objects of out-reaching benevolent effort may change, some such interest and effort is increasingly regarded as part of a normal Christian life and is a prime trait of Congregational piety.

Each important group into which the Christian church is organized has its characteristic type of piety. The one deep Christian life which is the basis of them all reveals itself in many forms. That characteristic of Congregationalism is as individual, as simple, and as wholesome as the New England of the fathers by which it was so long nurtured. Without the emotional enthusiasm of Methodism, without the sense of ancient usage and sacramental nourishment felt by high church Episcopacy, without the mysticism frequently found in German Lutheranism, or the renunciation of the individual will characteristic of Roman Catholicism, it flowers forth, sturdy, independent, profound in its sense of God, deeply conscious of its responsibility to him for personal conduct and for the betterment of the world in which he has placed us, and eager to know all that it can of his ways with men.

THE SACRAMENTS: THEIR FUNCTION IN PERSONAL

LIFE AND IN ENLARGEMENT AND IMPROVEMENT
OF THE CHURCHES.1

REV. J. G. VOSE, D. D., PROVIDENCE, R. I. The simple ordinances appointed by our Lord have taken a strong hold upon the history of the church. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are sacred symbols, both given by our Saviour's command. The value of these ordinances is confirmed by experience. Ceremonies are needed in all important institutions. A ceremony

[blocks in formation]
« PreviousContinue »