Charles Gordon Ames.

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" The object of the American Unitarian Association
shall be to diffuse the knowledge and promote the inter-
ests of pure Christianity ; and all Unitarian Christians
shall be invited to unite and co-operate with it for that
purpose." — Article I. of the By-Laws of the American
Unitarian Association.

University Press:
John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U. S. A.


What is the central and distinguishing thing in Chris-
tian^, or that which makes it differ from other religions?
I find its essence in the emphasis it places on man's
spiritual kinship to God, and in its simple reliance on the
power of divine truth and love to produce in man a char-
acter worthy of that kinship. It is the religion of nature
and reason better understood, loftilv taught and illus-
trated in a personalit} T , vitalized tty the original creative
force which we call the Holy Spirit, and continuously
transmitted from soul to soul and from age to age.

Christianity comes to me as a deepening and expansion
of the light that lighteth every man. If it did not hold
much in common with all other religions, if it were a
contradiction or blinding of reason, it could have no
place in our human world. Taken out of doors, on the
mount or by the lake, it is commended to us by its vivid
naturalness ; it recalls us to the simplicity of the little
child, yet opens to us the infinite heavens of wisdom, and
puts all the forces and faculties of life in upward motion,
simply b}' addressing us as children of the All-Perfect.

We are partakers of the divine nature ; we are children
and heirs of God ! Is there a higher conceivable interpre-
tation to human life and destin} T ? Are there higher
possible motives, or completer helps to realize that life
and destiny? Here shines the light which shows a clear
upward path for all humanity. Here glows the love which


overcomes evil with good and allies humanity in spirit and
purpose with divinity. Here is disclosed in our souls the
only life which is worthy to be immortal ; it is the life of
sonship. Here is the reason of reason, the root of ethics,
the secret of order and power, of beauty and joy.

Because this gives the highest conceivable interpretation
to human life and destiny, along with the highest motives
and completest helps to realize that life and destiny, I
must regard pure Christianity — apart from its transient
elements and perversions — as not only superior to all
other forms of religion, but as inclusive of whatever
good they contain, and as competent to take up into itself
every measure of truth and excellence which is yet to be
given to humanity. I can conceive of no religion higher
than that which makes us heirs of all things, and which
promotes our endless growth toward the perfection of

When I first came among the people called Unitarians,
I was naturally interested in finding out wherein they
differed from other bodies of Christians. I soon saw that
the}* regarded it as a task laid upon them to recover the
religion of Jesus from its corruptions, to distinguish be-
tween its transient forms and its enduring life, and to
exalt the spirit above the letter. It interested me that
James Freeman Clarke had formed a church for the " stud} 7
and practise of Christianity ; " and in the constitution of
the American Unitarian Association I read that its object
was " to diffuse the knowledge and to promote the
interests of pure Christianity," though every one seemed
left perfectly free to define Christianity for himself. Such
facts showed the general direction of the movement, but
it did not appear that anybody had thought the matter out
to full and final conclusions. Some of them seemed
brave ; others seemed timid. I could see that the timid
ones were afraid of going faster than the} 7 could be sure


of the road ; so that I respected their conservative
caution. The movement itself seemed greater than the
men ; and the meaning of it greater than the words they

Another thing gradually became clear : when they used
the word Christianity, they did not generally mean a doc-
trinal system, nor an organized church, — they meant the
life of Jesus, the life of sonship to God, continued in the
life of humanity ; and some of them saw, as Saint Paul
and Saint Augustine saw, that his kind of spiritual life was
always in the world and was older than the name. With-
out doing violence to language, and without straining the
facts of history, they could properly speak of the inner
spirit of Christianity as the absolute and universal re-
ligion, appearing in its most exalted form under the
inspired and inspiring leadership of the greatest of all the
prophets and foremost of all the sons of God. Some of
the most honest and earnest men among them were say-
ing, "We must get outside of Christianity in order to
reach the truth which Jesus did not teach, and to practise
the good he did not enjoin." But others said, " Chris-
tianity has no outside ; the spirit of Jesus is the spirit
of free progress ; in that name we can go on toward
perfection forever. Christian it}' is not bondage and limi-
tation ; it is free religion, taking up into itself whatso-
ever things are true and venerable, pure and just, lovely
and of good report, w r herever found." Words and names
are not things to stickle for, yet the}' prove mightily
convenient as signs and vehicles of the spirit. But
the clearest thinking does not stop at words or names ;
it penetrates to the realities which no language can
adequately represent.

With this large interpretation, there was no need to
drop the Christian name ; but there was need to charge
it with higher and nobler meaning;. There was no need to


withhold fellowship from good men who did drop the
name ; they were Christian in our sense, if not in their own
sense. There was ho need even to repel an honest and
true man who called himself an atheist ; for in living by
the highest law he, too, was proved a child of God, even
though he could not speak his Father's name.

We can therefore unite with the Association in pro-
moting the interests of " pure Christianity " without
narrowness, without proscribing a^'bod}', and without
making it a matter of fine-spun definitions. The true
business is to bring as mairy people as possible under the
influence of wisdom and goodness. All Unitarians could
respond heartily to a saying of Dean Stanlej' : " Nothing
greatly concerns us except that we become wiser and
better-; and that we should become wiser and better is
just what Christianity intends."

A few months before his death, I had a happy con-
versation with Phillips Brooks. We found ourselves
entirely agreed on this point : That Christianity was a
free, open, unstereot}'ped, world-wide movement, large
enough to take in every advance of light and everj 7 good
thing that is 3-et to come to the world ; and we also
agreed that if Christianity could not fairly bear this
inclusive construction, we should both be obliged to go
outside, in order to be true to ourselves, to our fellow-
men, and to God. From portions of his sermons preached
more than a dozen years ago, I know that Phillips Brooks
recognized the true Christ in pure-minded pagans who
never heard the gospel, even as Peter learned from a
vision that " in ever} T nation he that feareth God and
worketh righteousness is accepted of him."

We belong to the Church of Christ as we belong to the
republic of Washington and Lincoln, and are as little
trammelled by the first form of Christian teaching as by
the utterances and actions of these great patriots and


statesmen. Our libert}* is not impaired or restricted,
but preserved and extended, by the inspiring name of
Jesus. In that name we resent and resist all forms of
spiritual servility, and all impositions of authority which
would bid us call any man master. In emancipating
mankind from every yoke save the yoke of truth and
goodness, he simply bids us share with himself that
higher libert} 7 of the sons of God which is the proper
birthright of all souls. Under any lower interpretation,
Christianity brings bondage rather than deliverance, and
Jesus adds one more name to the long list of spiritual

Did humanity in Jesus rise to the conscious dignitj' of
sonship, or did divinitj* descend in fatherly love to draw
humanit}^ upward? As well ask whether the flower rises
to meet the sun, or the sun descends to meet the flower.
Enough for us is the union of the human and the divine ;
enough for us is the doctrine of Immanuel, or "God with
us," which Jesus has both taught and illustrated as the
natural order of life for all men.

In accepting Jesus as the captain of salvation for all the
world, or as the spiritual leader of all we can do or wish
to do for the higher welfare of mankind, we simply avail
ourselves of a great historic impulse, — an impulse to the
natural religious sentiment as vast and vague, and quite
as real, as the alphabet or the printing-press has given
to the growth of language and literature. We do not
separate from the best faith of the Christian world, but
we seek to put ourselves in the veiy middle of that stream
of power which has flowed down the ages, and in sympathy
with that great human heart which broke on Calvaiy for
love of all souls.

.1 am not here attempting a complete definition of
Christianit} T or of Unitarianism ; but it has seemed worth
while to show that the central and vital truth of the


former is precisely the truth which is central and vital to
the latter, — that if Christianity is an orderly outcome of
Nature and a free movement of spiritual or divine forces
in humanity, Unitarianism is simply a free movement of
the same kind and in the same direction. Much that
goes under the Christian name must be winnowed out and
blown away ; and the same thing is true of much that
goes under the Unitarian name. But the onlj r wa}' to get
rid of folly, error, and evil is to let the life principle have
free course in our hearts and in our churches.

I do not claim for the Unitarians superior intelligence
or superior virtue ; I do not claim that we have a bod} T of
final and verified truth which is destined to displace all
other ways of thinking ; nor do I claim that the ultimate
object of our activity differs greatly from that of other
churches and people. We unite with them in the praj'er
that God's kingdom may come and that his will may be

I do not stand here to say that others are all wrong, or
that we are all right. The sober fact is that neither
they nor we are very wise or very good.

But I do claim one great advantage in our method of
dealing with this whole matter of religion : ours is the
method of freedom. We have conquered the right of self-
correction and improvement, both in our beliefs and in our
practices. In theory at least, every member of our
churches is as free, in spirit and in conduct, to obej-
the inward monitor as if no such churches existed.
There is nothing in our principles, nothing in our organi-
zation — would to God there were nothing in our hearts!
— to prevent our instant and joyful response to any good
thing that may be or has been said or done in our own
time or in foregoing ages. No pressure is upon us to
believe or disbelieve, to do or to refrain from doing,
except as every one may be fully persuaded in his own


mind. We have no cause for being distracted about a
revision of our creed, for every soul of us silently
modifies his ways of thinking as the light enters to show
him the truth more clearly.

In this freedom we have really found our unity ; for we
have moved, amid many differences, toward essential
agreement. We need spend no force in resisting or
disparaging reason or science, nature or man. We accept
all the appointments of the world as divine provisions for
education. We find it easy to believe in yesterday, to-daj T ,
and to-morrow, without worshipping the god Antiquity or
the god Novelty. We have no fear that the true God
will contradict himself, if he shall speak again and again ;
and we are ready to identify the Word incarnate in
humanity with the silent Logos of creation. We have
the least possible partisan or ecclesiastical interest to
defend ; we covet to be what Dr. Bellows called us, " the
unsectarian sect." We are tempted by no powerful bribe
of property or standing, and b} r no silly dread of
inconsistency, to put the product of the new vintage into
old wine-skins, nor to pretend that we steer our ship by
calculations based on old almanacs. We can afford to
learn from Rome or England or from our neighbors ; we
can afford to profit b}' criticism, and to mend our manners,
our methods, or our principles, with no undue tenderness
toward our own errors, follies, or faults.

If these are indeed spiritual advantages, they are all
due to the free method, which permits a free move-
ment of free souls in a free church. If we do not live up
to it, that is not the fault of the method. But as it is
good for us, we believe it would be good for many others,
who for want of such a free method and generous fellow-
ship are living in spiritual solitude and sadness.

My view of the present religious situation and of our
dut} 7 is this : In nearly eveiy city and village, and scat-


tered through all the rural regions, are man}- tens of
thousands of men and women who are not reached, and
for various reasons cannot be reached in their deepest
nature and need, b}' the religious influences which proceed
from the Romish Church or from the so-called Evangelical
preachers, but who can be reached and helped by a more
free and rational religious appeal. Without saying one
word in criticism, and with hearty recognition of what
others are doing, I think we may agree that here is the
place and the part assigned to the Unitarians in the wide
field of religious work.

Is it worth while for Unitarians to keep up a separate
organization, and to plant more churches of their own
kind in this country, or anywhere else? There are some
who doubt it, — some who sa} r that our mission is substan-
tially accomplished, that the progress of free inquiry and
the spirit of wider fellowship have brought the older and
larger churches into such a degree of harmony with the
higher and more rational interpretation of Christianity
that we may now safely be mustered out of separate

For my part, I would gladly take this view, if it were
true. It is a life-trial and a settled grief to be outside
the great warm fellowship of Christendom, and to be
obliged to protest against the creeds which are taught
in the name of the Lord. Multitudes are rejoicing over
the softening of the old sectarian animosities and the
approach of all the churches toward harmony and good
feeling ; but we are still very far from being of one fold
and one shepherd. Quite as serious is the fact that the
great body, the vast majority, of the hundred thousand
pulpits in our country are obliged, either b3 r conviction,
by the pressure of opinion, or bj 7 church standards, to
restrict their religious instruction, not within the limits of
known truth, but within the limits of what was believed to


be true in former centuries. The Spirit which leads into
all truth cannot find full utterance in the pulpit, nor full
welcome in the pew, without a breach of ecclesiastical
order and a rupture of fellowships. I believe, therefore,
that the time has not come when we can safely cease to
testify for the full liberty of the sons of God and the right
and duty of independent thinking in matters of religion.
Every live Unitarian church we can establish will become
an object-lesson to the community, illustrating the possi-
bility and holy beauty of uniting "freedom, fellowship,
and character in religion."

There is another reason for the planting of Liberal
churches, if indeed they shall be composed of faithful
people. From two directions, in recent years, clouds
have been gathering to darken the intelligence of multi-
tudes. The very fact that every creed is under challenge
has made many ministers and people quite willing to evade
the questions which the Spirit of Truth is pressing upon
the modern mind. In one direction there has been a
rapid growth of unenlightened religious sentimentality,
which makes a blind use of the Scriptures to prevent
clear thinking ; while another section of the church
takes refuge in external observances, which multiply and
multiply, till thej 7 are mistaken for religion itself. The
rector in a New York church complains " that there is an
overwhelming bent toward ritualism, and that thinking is
discredited." It is eas}' to draw people to spectacular and
mechanical performances ; and a sad facilitj' is afforded
for admitting to the ministiy men who have no special
fitness for that work of religious instruction which
Jesus and his apostles made the chief instrument of

To claim for the Unitarian ministiy a monopoly of
intelligence would be ridiculous arrogance ; but certainly
our body, small as it is, has ever acted as a counterpoise


to the tendencies of obscurantism, fanaticism, and unthink-
ing religiosity. As a rule, our preachers are teachers ;
they believe in divine wisdom ; they make of every
congregation a school of thoughtful people, as well as a
compam T of worshippers ; nor can we ever get far away
from the idea that one must be thoughtful in order to wor-
ship the Father " in spirit and in truth." I think there is
need of many more churches in which the people feel
themselves called to meditate deeply and freely upon all
things that pertain to the kingdom of God and the welfare
of man. And I think the people who listened lovingly to
the preacher of Galilee were put in such a state of mind
that they wanted to know whatever could be learned about
all things in heaven and earth.

The scope of religious instruction among us being
widened so as to include all the relations of sound
knowledge to good living, and the free play of public
spirit being encouraged by our caring more for mankind
than for the sect, our churches have produced an extra-
ordinary number of men and women who have taken a
leading part in public affairs, in education, philanthropy,
and literature. Prominent Episcopalians and Presby-
terians in Philadelphia — a city of five or six hundred
churches — have more than once told me that the three
Unitarian congregations of that cit}^ furnished a large part
of the most competent and reliable supporters of every
general movement for reform and improvement. The
same thing is true here in Massachusetts, and it is said to
be true in England. This must be set to the credit of the
free method in religion.

The Unitarian kind of spiritual culture therefore tends
to produce an increased activit}' of the human mind, and
to direct that activity toward all worthy subjects of
thought. We are not alone in this ; but probably it is
more emphasized and urged among us "than by an}' other
section of the Christian Church.


Quite in a line with this habit of appealing to the
reason of mankind is the use we make of printed matter,
especially through the Post Office Mission, which carries
on an extensive correspondence with individual inquirers
scattered through all the States and Territories. This
opens the door for travelling preachers ; and these pre-
pare the ground for permanent societies.

But the progress of intelligence is opening many such
doors, and the demand for preachers of a faith at once
reasonable and reverent is far in advance of the supply.
The newly gathered congregations have generally a small
membership with small means, and the}' need encourage-
ment. Some of them fail by adopting building plans
that are too ambitious ; some because the} 7 cannot find
suitable ministers ; some because the religious interest
is shallow and short-lived. But some of them succeed,
and become a permanent power and blessing. This
mixture of failure and success in church-planting runs
all the way back to the da,ys of the apostles ; and then,
as now, the strong helped the weak, and the faithful
contributed the means to enable the preachers to give
themselves to the work. It was a work of faith and a
labor of love, all around.

We are obliged to ask whether this kind of labor and
outlay is not largely thrown hwslj. Every church has to
ask that question ; eveiy preacher has to ask it. For
one, I alwa}*s find the answer in the parable of the sower.
A part of the seed fell on stony places, a part b\ T the
waj'side, a part among thorns ; and all this was wasted, —
it came to nothing. But some seed fell upon good ground
and brought forth fruit. Not all of this was equally
fruitful ; some brought forth thirty fold, some sixty,
some an hundred.

It is so with our missionary work ; much of it } T ields
no adequate results. It is so with what we try to do in


our own churches and pulpits. And is it not the same in
every department of activity, — in education, in charity,
in business? To bring even a little to pass, we must
attempt much. Theodore Parker thought that if he
realty reached and helped five in a thousand of his
hearers, it was worth while to preach. Jesus must often
have felt that only a few of the multitude understood and
accepted his message ; and it is likely that this parable of
the sower was born of a . bitter-sweet experience. The
bitter part was that so many of his gracious words fell
on idle ears ; the sweet part was that some seed fell on
good grouud and brought forth fruit. And so he kept
sowing, as his faithful followers have done ever since,
with the same discouragements, the same moderate suc-
cess, the same sure harvest.

We do not shut up the schools, nor abandon social
reforms, nor go out of business because the results are
not all we wish. In these fields of effort we simply sow
more bountifully, as if to make up for the losses.

When we try to do good to mankind, the failures are
often due to our own mistakes, to our lack of judgment
or our lack of earnestness. Preacher-work and church-
work belong to the highest form of skilled labor ; but
neither ministers nor parishes have wholly learned their
business. And when we send new men to new fields, to
win souls and build up societies, will it be strange if some
false motions are made, and if some promising beginnings
come to naught? Even where we succeed, will it be
strange if the success is often quite moderate, and the
increase even less than thirty-fold? All the more must
we sow bountifully.

How often during our great war, when defeats were
mingled with victories, and the victories also were gained
at such frightful cost, our hearts were ready to sink ! It
seemed at times as if there could be no possible com-


pensation for the sacrific of so man}' precious lives, a
sacrifice which in many cases seemed cruelly needless.
The pain of it, the woe of it, is still like a shadow in
many thousands of hearts and homes. But when we
think what a long dark night would have set in upon this
continent had the Slave-Power succeeded, who will not say
that Liberty and Union are worth all they cost, worth
every drop of blood so freely given, worth every pang in
the hearts of mothers and wives?

Let us say the same about the setbacks and dis-
couragements which are incident to the promotion of
pure Christianity. The}' are very real, and often they
are very sad, and in many cases they appear to be the
result of human blindness and folly. But they are like
eddies in a strong stream, and the stream still runs on,
and is a river of divine benefits to mankind. We are the
sharers of such benefits ; they have come down to us
from former generations, through the lives and services


Online LibraryCharles Gordon AmesChristianity and Unitarianism → online text (page 1 of 2)