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[Transcriber's note: this book uses several non-standard spellings,
e.g. "tho" (though), "thoro", "thoroly" (thorough, thoroughly), "thru"
(through), etc.]






FROM BONDAGE TO

LIBERTY IN RELIGION


A SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY


BY

GEORGE T. ASHLEY




THE BEACON PRESS

BOSTON




Copyright, 1919

BY THE BEACON PRESS, INC.


All rights reserved




FOREWORD

The substance of what is written in this book has been given on several
occasions during the past five years in the form of sermons or
lectures. On each occasion they met with such hearty commendation, and
so many requests that they be written and published in book form that
they might have a wider circulation, that I have been induced to
undertake it. This volume is the result.

It is in no sense a treatise on controverted theological questions;
altho some of these are incidentally treated, but only as they entered
as factors into my own religious life and experience. This book is
simply the story of my own religious life from my early childhood to
the present time, in its various transitions from the narrowest
orthodoxy to a broad, liberal, rational religious faith. It
necessarily deals to some extent with certain theological problems that
from time to time confronted me, the way in which I solved them, the
conclusions I finally reached, and why I reached them. But these have
been treated in mere outline only. The temptation has been very great
to treat, some of these at least, more elaborately; but I have been
compelled to content myself often with the bare statement of my views,
with few or no detailed arguments to support them. But as my object
has been, not so much to try to solve these problems for others, as to
point the way thereto, and stimulate the reader to further inquiry and
deeper investigation of the subjects treated, if I have succeeded in
this, my main object has been accomplished.

No one is more sensible of the many defects in this work than I am. It
makes no pretension to any literary merit, nor to any scholarly
erudition. I am not a "professional writer." I have simply tried to
tell my story in a simple way and make it "readable" if possible. My
sole purpose in writing these pages has been to try to help others who
may still be in the fetters of ecclesiastical bondage, or wandering in
the quagmires of agnosticism - and I know there are many such - to find
the way to light and liberty in a rational religious faith. If I can
accomplish this, even in a small degree, I shall feel abundantly repaid
for the time and labor spent in reviewing the story of my own religious
evolution.




INTRODUCTION

When the traveller, bent on some important quest, makes a prolonged and
perilous journey and returns in safety to his friends and neighbors,
instinctively those who have known him in former years realize that he
is, and he is not, the same person who had dwelt among them. He has
seen unfamiliar peoples, traversed strange lands, encountered
unexpected dangers. Old prepossessions have been effaced, erroneous
opinions have been corrected, new habits of thought have taken the
place of old ones and the narrow world of youth has expanded on every
side. Naturally, what has happened to him becomes a matter of
curiosity and enquiry, and the hero of a great achievement is expected
to relate the story of his adventures.

The man who, in these revolutionary days, takes religion
seriously - there are many who do not - must make a journey which is
fraught with as many surprises and filled with as many
anxieties - especially if it be a pilgrimage from orthodoxy to personal
independence - as that which the explorer encounters in a voyage to the
North Pole or the jungles of Africa. At every turning of the way he
must be prepared for disillusions and the discovery of facts and errors
which call for unlimited courage and boundless faith. Religion is not
simply a matter of the emotions, its very perpetuity depends upon that
sane and persistent activity of the intellect without which the
emotions are tyrannous and fateful. Emotion in religion is the driving
force by which religion may be applied to human welfare, but if emotion
be not governed and directed by the well-trained intellect, informed by
patient thought and the use of all the evidence available from those
who are entitled to be summoned as witnesses, the result inevitably is
merely a matter of superstition, or a spineless acquiescence in old and
futile beliefs. To continue all the while to believe in _religion_
while one is pursuing a course of reasoning which is bound to shatter
many of the interpretations of it which one has previously accepted,
requires the kind of intellectual endurance and the quality of faith
which characterize the inventor, or the scientific explorer.

When the author of this volume, as an unquestioning disciple of his
ancestral fellowship, earnestly sought to pledge all that he was and
all that he hoped to become to the salvation of those who he believed
stood in peril of everlasting torment, it was the unadulterated spirit
of religion which prompted him. But he was at that time unaware of
that fact. Religion was with him when it moved him to give himself for
others, but to him religion was itself something entirely different.
He was urged and commanded by a force, old as mankind, and it took him,
as the reader of these pages will see, many years of heart-breaking
endeavor, to learn that what most he desired was what most he
possessed. His quest was a long and weary one, and the reality of it
and the importance of it to him are proven by the thoroughness and the
eloquence with which his spiritual experience is recalled and set down
in these pages. Only one who had begun in earnest, proceeded in
anxiety and continued to the end, as if he absolutely believed in the
integrity of the human reason and the intimate friendliness of a
supreme Guidance, could have emerged at last triumphantly and with the
ability to tell the tale.

To him who thinks of religion only as a matter of course, or as an
affair of the church, or as a medium of social advantage; or to him who
identifies religion with the ravings of half-witted fanatics and
regards it with patronizing contempt, this book will make no appeal.
But to the man or woman who has learned that religion is one thing and
theology another, and at whatever cost, is willing to share with the
author in his struggle to know the truth about it and be at peace,
these pages will command undivided attention; for they relate not only
the story of mental perplexity ending in a great personal solution, but
they likewise have the charm of a real romance of the soul.

LEWIS G. WILSON.




CONTENTS


CHAPTER

I MY CHILDHOOD, YOUTH AND EDUCATION
II SEEKING LIBERTY
III NEW VISIONS AND DISTURBANCES
IV NEARER THE CRISIS
V THE CRISIS
VI THE REACTION: A NEW CONFESSION OF FAITH
VII A NEW INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION
VIII JESUS OF NAZARETH




FROM BONDAGE TO LIBERTY IN RELIGION

A RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY


CHAPTER I

MY CHILDHOOD, YOUTH AND EDUCATION

Practically all people inherit their first religious opinions from
their parents, their early environment or both, as I did mine. The
trouble with most of us is that we never get beyond that stage. We
take it for granted that these opinions, whether about religion,
politics or anything else, are correct, because we have been told so,
and never go out of our way or trouble ourselves for a moment to
investigate their truth or error. And thus we go on from generation to
generation, traveling in the same old ruts, thinking the same old
thoughts, in the same old way, each of us assuming that our particular
ancestors could not possibly have been wrong about anything; and
although Christianity is divided into several hundred different
denominations and creeds, each believes his creed to be absolutely
correct and all the others partly or wholly wrong.

Like Saul of Tarsus, I belonged to the Pharisees of the strictest sect.
I was taught from infancy that the church of my parents was the one and
only true, scriptural and orthodox church on earth, with an unbroken
organic succession from Jesus Christ himself down to the present time;
that it was the only true exponent of apostolic faith and practice; the
only true and lawful custodian of the word of God, and the only
authority for the administration of the ordinances of the gospel; that
all other organizations claiming to be churches were not churches in
fact, but merely religious societies; and that while some of these
societies might do some little good in the world, and some of their
members might ultimately be saved, they could never reach those sublime
heights of glory reserved exclusively for the truly baptized members of
the true and only church. Just when and how these ideas first took
concrete form in my mind it is impossible for me now to remember. As
above intimated, in the plastic condition of my youthful mind, I
naturally absorbed them from the very atmosphere in which I lived, from
the common talk I heard around me, as well as from the direct
instruction given me.

As far back as I can remember, I understood the Bible to be the word of
God, every word of it, from the first word in Genesis to the last
"Amen" of Revelation; that it was all divinely inspired, _verbatim et
literatim_, just as it appeared in the old King James version; that it
was God's revelation to mankind, beside and outside of which there
never was, and never would be any other; that every word of it was
literally, and infallibly true, just as it read. Such a thing as
figurative, or allegorical interpretations I never heard of until I was
a grown man, as we shall see later.

This, of course, meant a literal six-day Creation, an anthropomorphic
God, a literal physical heaven, and likewise a literal, physical hell,
a personal devil, the absolute, literal, truth of the story of Eden,
the original perfection and fall of man, total depravity of the race,
vicarious atonement and the eternal damnation of all mankind,
individually and collectively, who did not accept the prescribed creed
of the church of my parents, as the only means of escape.

My first conception of God was that of a great big good man sitting
high up in heaven on a great white throne, whence He would judge the
world; that heaven was a great city somewhere up in the skies, with
streets of gold and walls of jasper; that hell was a literal burning
lake of fire and brimstone somewhere down under the world, and that it
was presided over by the devil and was made to burn people in who were
not good, or who had not believed in Christ as a personal Savior. As a
little child I was taught that if I was not a good boy, when I died,
the devil, usually spoken of as "the bad man," would get me and burn me
in this hell forever and ever; and that I never could burn up or die,
and if I called for water he would pour melted lead down my throat.
Many a time I would think over this horrible torture that I might
inadvertently fall into by doing some bad thing when at heart I really
meant to be good, and sincerely wish I had never been born.

In my night visions I could see the devil with his tea-kettle of melted
lead, pouring it down the throats of the helpless little ones, writhing
in the tortures of the never ending fire!

On the day that I was twelve years old a little incident occurred that
so indelibly stamped itself on my mind, and so changed the course of my
thoughts thereafter, that it is necessary to mention it. I was proud I
had reached that stage of life. I was boasting of it to a hired man,
with whom I was doing an errand, informing him that I was now "more
than half a man," and that in nine more years I would be a man, when "I
could do as I pleased." He informed me that, after all, it was not a
thing to be so proud of; that I had that day reached "the age of
accountability"; that on that day I became personally responsible to
God for my sins; that if I had died before that day I would have been
saved from hell by God's free grace, because of my infancy; but that
_from that day on_, I must account to God for myself; and that it would
be necessary for me to repent, and pray daily for the forgiveness of my
sins, lest I die and fall into the "bottomless pit" for all eternity.
This was news to me. I had never heard of before. It produced a
profound sensation in my thought; and to say it seriously troubled me
is to put it mildly. As soon as my errand was done I went to my mother
with it. She confirmed it. Then I sincerely wished I had died before
I reached that fateful day.

Another serious trouble confronted me. When told I must repent of my
sins and pray for forgiveness, I could not comprehend just what it
meant to "repent." I was told that it was "to be sorry" for my sins.

To be frank, I was not conscious of any sin. I had tried to be a good
boy; I was obedient to my parents, and did no evil to any one that I
was aware of. True, I made childish mistakes every day, as all
children do. But I could not recognize that I had been personally
sinful against God. I knew I had not meant to be. Then they told me
that I was _born_ a sinner! That when Adam ate the "forbidden fruit"
it made every person that was ever born into the world thereafter, a
sinner by nature; and I would have to repent of this sin, as well as
all that I ever committed, if I ever expected to escape the lake of
fire and brimstone "where the worm dieth not and the fire is not
quenched." My whole nature, even as a child, revolted against the
injustice of thus making me responsible for, and punishing me for
something some one else did thousands of years ago; but I had no remedy
and had to take it and prepare to repent of Adam's sin.

What a monstrous doctrine to teach a child! Can any mortal in this age
of the world believe such nonsense, or perpetrate such a caricature of
God? I wondered how the "Good Man" up in the skies on his great white
throne in his beautiful city of gold, could be just and plunge a little
child into hell and burn it for ever and ever because Adam ate fruit
from the wrong tree! But I believed it then, because I was told so,
and knew no better. I don't believe it now, and how any human being
with the instincts of justice pertaining to the common brute creation
can believe such a thing is a mystery to me.

As time went on I learned more about repentance, faith, conversion,
baptism and the current theology of my time and environment. But I was
ever anxious to escape from that dreaded hell that ever yawned before
me in daytime and disturbed my dreams at night. The thought of it was
a veritable nightmare to me. It destroyed the happiness of my early
life. As a child I could not reconcile it with any conception of God's
goodness or justice. I was often, in the silence of my heart, tempted
to rebel against God and defy him. But I was afraid. My thought was
to make the best I could of a bad situation, and at the earliest
possible moment make good my escape. Perhaps this is as good a place
as any to state the fact that my parents were members of the Baptist
Church, and that in this faith I was brought up. However, I am glad to
be able to state that they were much broader and more liberal in their
views than many of their brethren. I do not wish to be unjust to this
great organization; but it is necessary here to make some statements
concerning its doctrine and practice, in order that my future relations
to it may be the better understood - statements, the truth of which, all
intelligent Baptists will testify to.

First, the Baptist Church is just as exclusive in its claim to being
the only true, scriptural, orthodox, apostolic Church as are the
Catholics, Episcopalians, or any other Christian body. But this
applies _only_ to their ecclesiastical organization, and _not_ to the
character of its membership.

Second, it _does not_ hold that baptism is essential to salvation, but
that it _is_ to church membership. They do not baptize people _to
make_ them Christians; but because they recognize them as already being
Christians, thru repentance, faith in Christ, and the regeneration of
the Holy Spirit. Thus, they _recognize_ the true Christian character
of any and all others who furnish evidence of these fundamental
characteristics of a Christian life, tho they do not recognize them as
"church members," no matter to what other ecclesiastical organization
they may belong. These statements are necessary to understand what
follows.

Now in the country where I was brought up, in the time of my boyhood,
there were but two churches, - Baptists and Methodists. In fact I was
nearly grown before I knew there were any others at all. These
churches were generally friendly - in a way. While there was occasional
criticism of each by the other, and some controversy over doctrinal
differences, there was no open warfare; and often members of each would
attend and worship with the other.

As above said, I was anxious to make terms with God by repenting, being
baptized, or anything else that would relieve me of that constant dread
of eternal damnation that overshadowed my life.

Perhaps the reader has already surmised that I was brought up in the
country districts. Our churches usually held services but once a
month. But in the summer, when the "crops were laid-by," we usually
had our "protracted meetings," usually lasting a week - from Sunday to
Sunday - having two services a day at the church, with dinner on the
ground "for all who came." This was the annual revival season, when
sinners were "snatched from the eternal burning," back-sliders
reclaimed and the cold and indifferent warmed up and aroused.

Well, the summer after I was twelve years old and had reached that
fateful period of "personal accountability," at our protracted meeting,
I wanted to go to the "mourner's bench," repent, join the church and be
baptized, and thus make good my escape and my "calling and election
sure." At this time I had no clear conception of the meaning of
conversion. Somehow I identified it with joining the church and being
baptized. Contrary to the teachings of my church - which at that time I
did not understand, - to me, baptism was the main thing. I wanted to be
baptized. But they told me I was too young, - and too small to go down
into the deep water. This was a great disappointment. But I saw a ray
of hope.

The next week the Methodist Church near our home had its protracted
meeting and we attended. There I saw children, younger and smaller
than myself go to the mourner's bench, join the church and be
baptized, - by sprinkling. They even sprinkled babies. While I clearly
understood that this was not _true baptism_, I also knew that many of
the Methodists were considered truly good people, good Christians, and
sure of heaven at death, notwithstanding their lack of true baptism. I
therefore conceived the idea that after all, this sprinkling might
possess some merit, at least provisionally; and I therefore insisted on
being permitted to join the Methodist Church and be sprinkled for the
time being, as a sort of emergency measure, until I should grow up to
that age - and size - where I might join the Baptist Church and be
baptized right. But this pleasure was denied me.

During the next two years I learned much; for I was a close student,
altho only a child. My mind also underwent a considerable change.
That constant and tormenting fear and dread of hell gradually weakened.
In fact I was consciously growing more and more indifferent toward it.
Yet I was not altogether uninterested. I had learned much more about
the meaning of "conversion" as I saw it manifested in many, and
sometimes violent, forms of demonstration. As I saw these I fancied
that this was the kind of conversion I would like to have. I wanted to
"get happy and shout" as some of the others did.

The time came for the annual protracted meeting at the church of my
parents. At this meeting I found myself the object of considerable
solicitude. I was now old enough to be converted, join the church and
be baptized. They were all anxious that I be "saved." Of course I had
to repent of my sins, - and also of Adam's. I was not so self-conscious
of innocence now as I was a few years before. I really felt that I had
something to repent of.

The preacher, and a good honest, sincere man he was, pictured the
flames of hell and the torments of the damned with such power that I
almost felt the warmth of its fires and smelled its fumes of sulphur.

I set out in earnest to repent of my own sins as well as Adam's.
Repenting was very easy. I cried until the tears refused to flow
longer. Believing was easy, for I believed it all. Being baptized was
easy. But I had not yet been "converted." There was no miraculous
transformation in me. I had not yet "got happy and shouted." I waited
for it. My tears dried up. I still went to the "mourners' bench," but
nothing came of it. I could not even cry. One day the preacher,
noting my condition, had a talk with me. I told him my feelings, and
he said I was converted. But I told him that no such change had come
over me as the others told about, and that seemed manifest in their
emotions and actions. Then he told me that as I was young and had
never been a great sinner I could not expect that wonderful
"experience" that often comes to the old and hardened cases. I was
truly glad to hear it. I really felt saved. I had now escaped the
devil. I had already learned the doctrine of "once in grace always in
grace," and I felt supremely happy to think that after all I had now
escaped from the "eternal burning" and was entirely out of danger. I
joined the church and was baptized.

I have thus referred at some length to my childhood for two reasons: It
will be seen later how some of these experiences affected my
after-life; and also because I feel that in some measure I am only
repeating in substance the experiences of millions of others who have
passed through similar conditions of life. Also to say to you, who
were brought up in the light of a liberal faith and free from these
dogmas of dread, despair and damnation, that you ought to be sincerely
thankful that you have escaped at least this much of hell, no matter
how much the orthodox may have in store for you in the future; and
further, to exonerate my parents from any blame in the premises. They
taught me only as they had been taught and firmly believed, and did it
all for what they honestly believed, to be for my best interests. Like
millions of others, they did the best they knew at the time.

THE CALL TO PREACH. - It was a part of the orthodox belief at that time,
and is very largely so even now, that after the fall of Adam,
practically all the human race was lost except now and then a worthy
patriarch like Abel, Enoch and Noah, down to the call of Abraham; and
after that only the pious and faithful of the seed of Abraham, thru
Isaac, were saved, down to the coming of Christ. All the balance of
mankind were utterly and irretrievably lost, both wicked and apostate
Jews and _all_ Gentiles. And since the death of Christ those only are
saved who repent and believe in him as a personal savior, and accept
the prescribed creed of the particular church presenting it. All the
balance of mankind, including all Jews and nine-tenths of the balance
of mankind are irretrievably lost.

This being the case, the sole end and aim in life is to escape hell
hereafter. Nine-tenths of the preaching in my boyhood was to warn men
to "flee from the wrath to come." But little was said about the love
of God or the brotherhood of man, the nobility of character, human
helpfulness, the promotion of happiness here, and the general uplift
and advancement of civilization and mankind.

It was wonderful the way they did ring the changes on hell and
damnation, and fire and brimstone! It thundered from every pulpit like
the traditional thunders from Mt. Sinai.

Taking this view of the world, of life and mankind, I felt that the
greatest thing in the world a man could do would be to devote his life
to warning men of their danger and pointing the way to safety. I
wanted to sound my voice in warning men to "flee from the wrath to
come." Believing that all men were lost if they did not follow the
prescribed course laid down by my church, I felt that if I did not do
all in my power to direct them in the way of eternal life their blood


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