Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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MACMILLAN & CO., Limited








Till we all come in the unity of the faith and of the
knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man,
unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

J13eto gorfe


All rights reserved



Copyright, 1921,

Set up and electrotyped. Published March, 1921



I How This Book Came to Be Written . . i
II I Give Unto Them the Keys of the Kingdom 14

III The Church's One Foundation .... 32

IV I Am Come to Preach Glad Tidings to the

Poor 52

V I Am Come to Give Life 64

VI I Am Come to Fulfill the Law and the

Prophets 84

VII I Have Manifested Thy Name .... 97

VIII I Have Come to Seek and to Save That

/Which Was Lost 119

IX I Came to Give My Life a Ransom for

Many 146

X Thy Kingdom Come on Earth . . . .171

Epilogue 188

Appendix ...,„.. . ... .-♦. ... .191



The Christianity of the Twentieth Century is
not the same as the Christianity of Jesus Christ;
and it ought not to be. For Christianity is a life,
and after nineteen centuries of growth it can no
more be the same that it was in the First Century
than an oak is the same as an acorn, or America
in 1920 is the same as America in 1787. Jesus
told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven
was like a seed planted, which from the least of
seeds would grow to be a great tree. This is what
has happened. The Roman Catholic Mass is quite
different from the Last Supper as taken by Jesus
and his friends in that upper chamber; the West-
minster Confession of Faith is quite different from
the Sermon on the Mount; the highly organized
churches of the present day are quite different from *
the Church in the house as described in the Book of
Acts. During these nineteen centuries philosophers
have been trying to interpret Christian life and

experience and so have developed a Christian



theology; reformers have been trying to apply the
principles inculcated by Jesus Christ to the varying
and often complex conditions of society and so have
developed a Christian social ethics ; men and women
have been trying to express their experiences in
methods adapted to their various temperaments and
so have developed Christian rituals; pagans coming
into the Christian life have brought their paganism
with them, so that while their paganism has been
Christianized at the same time and by the same
process Christianity has been paganized.

To-day throughout Christendom we are submit-
ting this modern Christianity to a sifting process.
We are trying to find out what in it is Christian and
what pagan, what natural growth and what artificial
addition, what we shall accept and what reject. The
Protestants are rejoiced to see this sifting process
going on in the Roman Catholic communion, the
Liberals welcome it in the conservative churches;
personally I welcome it wherever it appears and
whatever questions it asks. Unbelief is less dan-
gerous than insincere beliefs. But in this book I
do not take part in this sifting process. Without
attempting to determine what of modern Chris-


tianity is true and what false, I invite my reader
to join me in an attempt to get back of all the
product of centuries of life and thought, to inquire
what was Christianity as it was taught by Jesus
Christ in the First Century, to ascertain what is
essential in his spirit and his teaching which makes
Augustine and Luther, Calvin and Wesley, Lyman
Beecher and W. E. Channing, in spite of their dif-
ferences, Christian teachers, and the Roman
Catholic Sisters of Charity and the Social Settle-
ment workers Christian despite their differences in
temperament and method.

My critical studies have convinced me that we
have in the New Testament a fair reflection of the
teaching of Jesus Christ as it was understood by
his immediate disciples in the First Century; that
there is no inconsistency between his teaching and
that of the Apostle Paul; that the Fourth Gospel
was written by the Apostle John, or by one or more
of his disciples recording reports received from
him; that it truly reflects the mystical aspects, as
Matthew reflects the ethical aspects of the Master's
teaching; and that, if we would understand the
Master, we must realize that he was both practical


and mystical, Oriental and Occidental. But I do
not accept the conclusions of those scholars who
have attempted to distinguish in the Gospels be-
tween the teachings of Jesus and those of his inter-
preters. Such a discrimination cannot be accom-
plished by grammatical and exegetical methods.

I began the systematic study of the New Testa-
ment when I entered the ministry in i860. Since
that time I have been a student of one book, a
follower of one Master. My aim in life as teacher,
pastor, administrator, editor and author, has been
to understand the principles which Jesus Christ
inculcated and to possess something of the spirit
which animated him, that I might apply both his
principles and his spirit to the solution of the various
problems, individual and social, of our time. Other
books I have studied, to other teachers I have lis-
tened; but in the main either that I might better
understand Christ's teaching or better understand
the problems to which that teaching was to be ap-
plied. Many problems which theologians have at-
tempted to solve I am content to leave unsolved.
Like the Hebrew Psalmist I do not exercise myself
in things too wonderful for me. After sixty years


of study I still say with Paul, " I know only in frag-
ments and I teach only in fragments." After more
than sixty years of Christian experience, — for I
cannot remember the time when I did not wish to be
a Christian, — I still say with him, " I count not my-
self to have apprehended but I follow after that I
may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended
of Christ Jesus."

This volume is an endeavor to state simply and
clearly the results of these sixty years of Bible study,
this more than sixty years of Christian experience.
The grounds of my confidence in the truth of the
statements made in this volume are the teachings
of Jesus Christ and his apostles as reported in the
New Testament, interpreted and confirmed by a
study of life and by my own spiritual consciousness
of Christ's gracious presence and life-giving love.

Lyman Abbott.

The Knoll,

Cornwall-on-Hudson, N. Y.



On this my eighty-fifth birthday I look back over
the intervening three-quarters of a century and see
myself a boy of eight or ten, growing up in a
Puritan household under Puritan training.

This boy's mother is dead, his father is hundreds
of miles away, his home is with a grandfather whom
he reveres and an aunt whom he loves. His
supreme ambition is to be like his mother, his
father, his grandfather, his aunt. They are his

He has read his Bible, has attended church, has
heard sermons, though not listened to them, has
been at Sunday School, has honestly tried to do
right, to obey his conscience and the laws of God



as they have been explained to him by the Bible
and his religious teachers. He has heard the text,
11 Thou, God, seest me," and has wished that God
did not. He has been afraid to answer to God,
has dreaded the time when he shall stand before
God's judgment seat. To him God has been a kind
of awful and omnipresent police justice, and he a
scared culprit who knows he is liable to punishment,
but does not clearly know why. To him, in short,
religion has been little more than a succession of
sinnings and repentings.

As he has grown older, he has had explained to
him from the pulpit, often, the conditions of salva-
tion. The explanation, as he has understood it, is
something like this: He has broken the law of
God. It is necessary that he should be punished.
God is first of all a just God and must punish those
who offend his law. But Jesus Christ is merciful
rather than just, perhaps rather more merciful than
just. He has, therefore, come to the earth and
suffered the penalty of sin in order that the sinner
may be let off from that penalty. In order to be
let off from that penalty, the sinner must believe
that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he has


come to earth, and that he has suffered the penalty.
This boy, growing to youth and from youth to
young manhood, cannot bring himself to believe
anything merely because he is told that he must be-
lieve it. He wishes to believe only the truth. His
temperament is such that he cannot accept such a
theological statement simply on authority. He be-
gins, therefore, a course of theological study. He
gets Pearson on the Creed and reads it through.
Then he takes up the successive articles of the creed
and reads various treatises elucidating them.
Brought up in a Puritan household, he naturally
turns to Puritan divines. He reads Calvin's " In-
stitutes," Jonathan Edwards on the "Will,"
Dwight's " Theology." But the more he studies,
the more mysterious this theology becomes. It does
not fit in with his ideas of righteousness that one
person should be punished for another person's sins.
It does not appeal to his affections, this portraiture
of a God who can be satisfied only by inflicting pen-
alty on those who have done wrong. It does not
appeal to his reason, this religion which requires
him to forgive his enemy until seventy times seven,
yet tells him that God will not freely forgive the


least sin of the most unconscious sinner. His as-
sociations are in the Church of Christ. The men
and women whom he most reveres are members of
that church. The work which the church is trying
to do increasingly appeals to him. Finally, he goes
to the orthodox pastor of an orthodox church and
explains his difficulty and states his experience.
His experience is very simple : " I would like to
have a character like that of Christ and to do the
kind of work that Christ did in the world and I am
sorry that my character is not more Christlike and
my work more worthy. But the system of theology,
with its Three-Persons-in-One God, its vicarious
atonement, its eternal punishment, its foreordination
and decrees, I cannot understand; and the more I
study it, the less I understand it." And the ortho-
dox minister replies to him : " We none of us un-
derstand it very well and we should be glad to have
you join the church." And he does join the church.
As he looks back upon it, he has reason to suspect
that he was accepted, not on his very imperfect
confession of faith, but on the fact that his father
and his uncle were members of the church and he


was believed to be a young man without bad habits.

About this time he begins to attend Plymouth
Church and to get from the preaching of Henry
Ward Beecher a different conception of theology
and also a different conception of religion. The
change in his apprehension is gradual, so gradual
that, as he looks back over a period of more than
half a century, he finds himself unable to realize it
with any vividness or to describe it with any ac-
curacy. Even now, as he attempts to describe its
result, he is quite conscious that his description is
inadequate, if not inaccurate, and will be certainly
misunderstood, but it is something like this: He
begins to believe that Jesus Christ is not an am-
bassador from God to Man, not an intermediary
between God and Man, not a victim who has borne
the penalty which God exacts of man, but God
entering into a human life that he may enable men
to understand him.

Suppose that all your life you had dreaded an
awful God, or in fear submitted to a fateful God,
or hesitated between defying and cringing before
a hated God, or vainly sought to understand a hid-


ing God, and suddenly the curtain were rent aside
and you saw the luminous figure of the living Christ,
and over his head were written the words, " This
is thy God, O man." Something like this was the
experience which dawned on the mind of this youth
growing into manhood. He had thought of God
as infinite power. Here is a God revealed to him,
not by an awful manifestation of supernatural
power but by the endearing manifestation of an un-
paralleled love. He had thought of God as infinite
intelligence. Here is a God, revealed in the life of
a man who is limited in his wisdom as the men
about him, knowing no more of geography or his-
tory or science than those whose life he shares. He
had thought of God as impersonated justice, who
could not bear to look upon any wrongdoing and
to whom the peccadillo of a child and the crime of
a Nero or a Caligula were all as one. He sees in-
stead a God who takes the little children in his
arms to bless them, turns to the weeping, fallen
woman with the words, " Neither do I condemn
thee ; go, and sin no more " ; a God who reserves his
indignation for the hypocrite who devours widows'
houses and for a pretense makes long prayers. He


had thought of God as a great king, sitting upon a
great white throne, and he tried to send his prayers
up thither by a kind of wireless telegraphy, though
wireless telegraphy was not then known. But now,
when he kneels to pray, he first reads something
from the Gospels, then forms in his mind a picture
of Jesus, sits down by the side of the man and
talks with him and prayer becomes easy Conversa-
tion. He had thought of God as an omniscient
judge who knew him as the detective police know
and dog the footsteps of a criminal. Now, he reads
the story of a God in man who has known sorrow,
has wrestled with temptation, has understood by
experience the trials that come through the voices
of ambition, of pleasure and of affection.

God is no longer to him a great unknown. This
youth, growing to manhood, no longer goes to the
great theologians for light. He goes to the simpler
interpreters of life. He remembers his own fa-
ther, who might easily have made for himself a great
reputation in science or in philosophy, but who
gave himself to writing books for children that
children could understand. He reads those letters
of the author of " Alice in Wonderland " to the


little children, and sees how this great mathemati-
cian shared the children's life, felt their enthusiasms,
participated in their imaginations, was a child with
the children. And he begins to say to himself, " My
God has come to me as these authors went to the
little children. He has come to me that he might
write in his life on earth a language which I can
understand. He is one who sees life as I see it, ex-
periences life as I have experienced it, shares my life
with me, that I may see life as he sees it, experience
life as he experiences it, share his life with him.
Now I can understand him, for he has entered into
my life. We understand each other. We are
friends. He is to me the Great Companion."

This boy now grown to manhood, no longer goes
up to the great white throne to find his God, no
longer anticipates in the future life a day of judg-
ment when he will stand face to face with God.
His God who was here once is here still. The
veiled, invisible figure that is always walking
through life, always sitting at all men's side, was
for one moment made so clear that human eyes could
see him and human hands could handle him, then,
hidden from human eyes, escaping from human


touch, is the nearer to us because invisible, intan-
gible. There is no home in which love is centered
and cradled in which he does not sit as he sat in
the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus whom
he loved, no home where sorrow and tears have
entered, in which he does not come saying, " There
is no death. He that liveth and believeth in me
can never die." There is no man beating upon his
breast and crying out, " Oh, thou unknown God,
have mercy upon me a sinner," to whom he does
not say, " Thou art more justified than the proud
man who thought he was righteous." There is no
true wedding to which he does not bring the cheer
of merrymaking friendship. There are no children
whom he does not seek to take into his arms and put
his hands upon them and bless them. There is no
sorrow which he does not share with sorrowing
humanity. The bitterest sorrow of all, remorse,
the sorrow for wrong done that can never be un-
done, this he shares most of all. Henceforth,
through all the subsequent years of this seeker's
life, for him the glory of God shines in the face of
Jesus Christ. He has no interest in theological
debates concerning the metaphysical relation of


Jesus of Nazareth to the Eternal. He finds no
satisfaction in scholastic definitions of a triune and!
little known God, in the ecclesiastical characteriza-
tions of Jesus as Light of Light, Very God of
Very God, Begotten not Made, and the like. His
interest is in the divine light which Jesus Christ
has brought into the world. His satisfaction is in
the experience of fellowship with the God revealed
in Jesus Christ, — a God who is upon, the earth and
whose life is ever a Christ life, — a life of love,
service and sacrifice.

Inspired by this faith in a God whose glory is
reflected in the face of Jesus Christ, he is possessed
with a growing desire to give this faith to others.
It means so much to him. It so lightens burdens,
strengthens purpose, inspires with courage, solves
perplexities, simplifies life, bestows peace, that he
longs to give to others the gift which has been given
to him. He leaves his chosen profession of the
law, not because he is dissatisfied with it, but
because he is eager to devote all his engeries to the
joyous task of giving to others the glad tidings
which have made him glad.

To that purpose he has now for sixty years given


himself in various forms of activity, but with
unvarying purpose. As pastor, secretary, editor,
author, he has had no other aim. As preacher he
has known no other sermon. His first book was a
Life of Jesus Christ; his second, a volume on certain
New Testament aspects in Old Testament teachings ;
his third, a Commentary on the New Testament.
When he has written on the Bible, it has been to
interpret the prophets and apostles of the olden
time as messengers of a God revealed in man.
When he has written on theology, it has been to
interpret life as a discipline of men being made
God-like. When he has written on politics or
sociology, it has been to throw some light on the path
that leads to the kingdom of God. When he has
written as editor of a weekly journal, it has been to
interpret current history in its relation to this devel-
opment of the human race and to apply to current
problems, individual and social, the principles incul-
cated by Jesus Christ and still more the spirit which
Jesus Christ possessed. From first to last, he has
been a student of one book, the New Testament.
Other books he has studied, including the Old
Testament, for the light they throw either on the


teaching of the New Testament or on the sorrowful
conditions of human life for which Jesus Christ
has brought a remedy. From first to last, he has
been a disciple and a follower of one Master. A
Congregationalist because he was born and brought
up in the Congregational Church, he has been
equally ready to work with prelate or layman,
Catholic or Protestant, believer or agnostic, Jew
or Gentile, whether he formally acknowledged
allegiance to Jesus Christ or not, provided he was
imbued with the spirit of the Christ and was
endeavoring to inculcate the principles of the Christ.
That he has always been correct in his own interpre-
tations, he does not imagine. .But looking back
over that sixty years, he can and does affirm, as in
the presence of the Master, that his one controlling
purpose has been to give to others that secret of a
happy life which he has found in his faith that Jesus
the Christ, is the Savior of all men, especially of
them that believe.

And now that he has passed four score years, he
attempts to set down here, simply and clearly, what
he believes is the message which Jesus Christ has
brought to the world. This book has long lain in


his mind. Its failings will not be due to lack of
meditation; they will be due to the fact that no
one man can tell all that Christianity means. He
can only tell what Christianity means to him. This
book, therefore, will be a fragment, as every book
on the teaching of Jesus Christ must be a frag-
ment. " We know in fragments and we prophesy
in fragments," says the Apostle Paul. I am content
to add my fragment to those contributed by abler
predecessors and, as this volume sums up the
teaching of a lifetime, it will repeat sometimes,
doubtless in form as well as in substance, what the
writer has before taught ; and as the writer's under-
standing of the Master has grown and, therefore,
changed from year to year, this interpretation will
be inconsistent probably in more than one passage
with interpretations which he has before given to
the world. Nor does he intend to make any apology
for either the interpretation or the inconsistency,
for his aim is not to exhibit either originality or
consistency, but to interpret to others that message
of life which more than half a century of study in
and meditation upon the life and teachings of the
Master have interpreted to him.

chapter; ii


1 was ordained to the Christian ministry in i860,
my first pastorate was in Terre Haute, Indiana,
and almost my first pastoral activity was the or-
ganization of a Congregational Bible Class for
the study of the Life of Christ. Its membership
included men and women of every variety of
religious opinions, some of them not in my congre-
gation. One elderly gentleman was a Calvinist
who always doubted whether he had been elected,
another brought up under the religious instruction
of Dr. Furness in Philadelphia and Theodore
Parker in Boston, believed with the latter that a
" perfect man " was but the dream of silly school
girls. There were two rules and only two for the
government of the class: the first, that every mem-
ber was absolutely free to express his opinion with-
out hindrance ; the other, that while the freest inter-

1 See Appendix I.



change of opinions was encouraged, debate was not
allowed. We studied the Life together in a quite
frank and, I believe, very honest endeavor to learn
from the original narratives what we could of the
character, mission and teachings of Jesus of Naz-
areth. We all had our prejudices but we could not
assume them to be true. Whatever belief any one
of us entertained he must be able to make clear to
himself in order to make it clear to his neighbor.
These prejudices, freely presented but neither
attacked nor defended and never treated otherwise
than with respect, had a tendency to neutralize one
another. In such an atmosphere I found necessity
for much more severe study than I had ever known
in college. My original conception that Jesus
Christ was the founder of one of the four or five
great world religions, that this religion had in its
foundation a well defined theology, a church organ-
ization and a form or forms of worship, and that
the present variations in creed, church organization
and forms of worship are either corruptions which
have crept into the church or unessential and per-
missible variations, was rudely shaken in that first
year of joint study. Subsequent studies have not


reestablished that conception. They have over-
thrown it.

I no longer regard Jesus Christ as the Founder of
a system; I regard him as the Giver of life. I still
think that the various Christian creeds, rituals and
churches are instruments more or less honestly

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