Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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living church and a stable church, a progressive
church and a rocklike church. So he said, It is
built upon living stones and out of living stones;
a church of living spirits built upon a living

And as this is the natural interpretation of the
text and the interpretation of Peter himself so it
is the interpretation given to it by history. The
great leaders of the church, almost without excep-
tion, have been men transformed by their spiritual
experience of fellowship with a companionable
God: — John, a son of Thunder, wishing to call
down fire from Heaven on the Samaritan village,
and a self-seeker, going in the very last hours of
Jesus' life to ask of him the first office in his
1 James Moffat: "Translation of New Testament."


kingdom, but transformed into the beloved disciple
and the preacher preeminent for his message of
peace and love; Paul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees,
transformed into the eloquent herald of the glory
of the liberty of the children of God; Augustine,
transformed from a roue into a saintly theologian;
Luther, called from the monastery to become the
founder of Protestantism; Wesley, the High
Churchman, made, in spite of himself, the founder
of a great free church; John B. Gough, rescued
from a drunkard's fate to become the apostle of
temperance; Henry Ward Beecher, bred in the
school of an iron-clad Puritanism to become a
leader of the Puritan churches from their bondage
unto law into the liberty wherewith Christ makes
free. There is scarcely in all the history of the
church a captain of its industries or a framer of
its thought or an inspirer of its life who has not
known the transforming power that was shown in
Peter, who has not been changed, manifestly, and
before the eyes of all mankind, changed that he
might lead others into a larger and more Christ-
like life.

This interpretation of a passage confessedly


enigmatical is illustrated and further confirmed by
one of Christ's parables.

As he approached that Valley of Death which each
one of us must at last pass through alone, he had
a great desire for one hour of quiet companionship
with his friends. From one of his secret followers
in Jerusalem he borrowed an upper chamber that
he and his disciples might, as a family, take their
last meal together undisturbed. He made one
final effort to recover Judas Iscariot from his crime,
but in vain, and unable longer to endure the traitor's
presence, bade him go and fulfill his design. Then
with characteristic self-devotion he set himself to
prepare his disciples for the tragedy of the morrow.
He told them that he was about to die, and used
his unfailing courage to impart courage to them.
You will leave me, he said, to face this hour alone ;
yet I shall not be alone for the Father will be with
me. I shall seem to leave you alone; yet you will
not be alone, for the Father will give you the
strength-giving spirit he has given to me and that
spirit will abide with you forever. You will not
see him but you will know him because he will be
in you as he has been in me. You will think me


dead; but I shall not be dead. I will come to you
and you will share my imperishable life with me.
And my Father will come and we will dwell with
you and bring peace to you. And then he gives in
a simple and to them familiar figure his interpre-
tation of the Israel of the future, borrowing the
figure from the Hebrew Psalmists, one of whom
had, in the exile, sung of the vine which Jehovah
had planted.

Thou broughtest a vine out of Egypt:
Thou didst drive out the nations, and plantedst it.

Thou preparedst room before it,
And it took deep root, and filled the land.

The mountains were covered with the shadow of it,
And the boughs thereof were like cedars of God.

It sent out its branches unto the sea,
And its shoots unto the River.

Why hast thou broken down its walls,
So that all they that pass by the way do pluck it?

The boar out of the wood doth ravage it,
And the wild beasts of the field feed on it.

Turn again, we beseech thee, O God of hosts :
Look down from heaven and behold, and visit this vine.


To this cry of the seemingly deserted Israel,
Isaiah's use of the same figure furnishes a reply :

Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved
touching his vineyard. My well beloved had a vineyard
in a very fruitful hill: And he digged it, and gathered
out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest
vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also hewed
out a winepress therein: and he looked that it should
bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What
could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have
not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should
bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And
now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard : I will
take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up;
I will break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden
down: and I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned nor
hoed; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will
also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of Jehovah of hosts is the house of
Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he
looked for justice, but, behold, oppression; for righteous-
ness, but, behold, a cry.

In the days preceding the Last Supper Jesus had
recalled to the multitudes in the temple this ancient
figure and had compelled from the people their
condemnation of the rulers of Israel : " The Lord


of the Vineyard," they had said, "will destroy
those wicked men and will let out his vineyard
unto other husbandmen who will render him the
fruits in their season." And Jesus had com-
mended their verdict : " The Kingdom of God,"
he said, " shall be taken from you and given to a
nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." Now,
speaking to his disciples to revive their hopes and
inspire their courage, he recalled to their minds
this familiar parable of the vineyard, and gave to
it a prophetic interpretation :

I am the true vine. My Father is the husbandman.
Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, He taketh
away. And every branch that beareth fruit, he cleanseth
it that it may bring forth more fruit. Already ye are
clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear
fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, no more can ye
except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches.
He that abideth in me and I in him, the same bringeth
forth much fruit. Because apart from me ye can do
nothing. In case any one shall not have abided in me he
has been cast out like the branch that is withered, and
they gather them together and they are burned. If ye
abide in me and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what
ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Therein is my
Father glorified; so that ye shall bear much fruit and
shall become my disciples.


This is the fullest description which Jesus has
left to the world of his ideal for that Brotherhood
to which he has committed the completion of his
commission. The members have organized them-
selves into different worshipping congregations
separated by the variety of their theological opin-
ions, expressed in creeds, and the variety of their
tastes and temperaments, expressed in rituals.
These Christian organizations are sometimes treated
in religious writing as though they were one and are
called the Church, or The Holy Catholic Church;
but the Christian Brotherhood out of which they
have all grown is more than the Church or all the
Churches combined. It is founded not on agree-
ment in opinion, that is on a creed, not on agree-
ment in forms of worship, that is on a ritual, not
on agreement in the form of organization, that is
neither on an hereditary priesthood nor on a demo-
cratic congregation, nor even on love for a sacred
but long since buried Messiah; but on love and loy-
alty to a living Messiah, forever incarnate in the
hearts and lives of his disciples, in a more intimate
companionship and with a far wider and mightier
influence than when he trod the earth with the few


score of faithful friends whom he gathered about
him. 1

This prophetic parable giving Christ's interpre-
tation of what the Christian Brotherhood should be,
interprets and is interpreted by the history of the
Christianity. The little seed has become a great
tree. The little band of twelve has grown to such
proportion that it is counted by millions. The
Brotherhood that had no purse nor scrip, nor even
so much as two changes of raiment apiece when
they went forth on their travels, is now endowed
with a wonderful equipment. .There are no edifices
in the world more splendid than some of the edifices
which this Brotherhood has constructed. There are
no schools of learning better than those which this
Brotherhood has endowed. It has spread over the
globe, so that to-day there is scarcely any language
in which the praise of their Leader is not sung;
scarcely any community in which his word is not
proclaimed; scarcely any spot where men do not

1 For the sake of greater clearness I will in this chapter use
the word church or churches to indicate the visible worship-
ping congregations with their creeds and rituals, and the word
Brotherhood to indicate the spiritual and invisible fellowship
out of which all the churches have grown.


gather to honor his name, and to strengthen them-
selves the better to do his service. The influence
from this band overruns its boundaries. Belief
in the Leader, belief in a good God who rules the
world, is no longer confined to the professed suc-
cessors of these twelve. It is difficult to tell who
are within the Brotherhood and who are without
it, because the faith of the Christian church has
become the faith of the Christian community, and
the principles of the Christian church are, in some
measure at least, accepted by those who do not
profess to belong to it.

It is true that the prosperity and progress of
the church has been its peril. While it has
been pushing its influence out into the world, the
world has been pushing its influence into the
church. Deeds of avarice and cruelty have been
strangely interwoven in the fabric of its his-
tory with deeds of unselfish devotion and self-
sacrificing love. It has been both narrow-minded
and large-hearted; both divided into petty sects
quarreling over forms of words and united in world-
wide service by love for its Master. Whenever
it has lost that love; whenever it has substituted


an admiration of beauty for a reverence of good-
ness, emotional enjoyment for self-denying service,
regulation of conduct for inspiration of the spirit,
belief in a creed for faith in a Person, whatever its
wealth, its political power, its prestige, whatever
the beauty of its services, the regularity of its order,
or the soundness of its theology, it has ceased to
be a living church, and has had pronounced against
it the condemnation uttered nineteen centuries ago
against its prototype : " Thou say est, I am rich,
and increased with goods, and have need of nothing;
and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miser-
able, and poor, and blind, and naked."

Nevertheless, no organization has been so en-
during, so world-wide in its influence, so beneficent
in its service, so deathless in its vitality as the
Christian church. And wherever it has gone it
has sown the seeds out of which have grown hos-
pitals for the sick, asylums for the poor, schools
for the ignorant, liberty supplanting despotism, a
reverence of love supplanting the reverence of fear,
and, growing clearer with the passing of time,
divine ideals of courage, chivalry, charity and
brotherhood unknown before. It has been attacked


by ruthless persecution from without and by feuds
and factions not less ruthless from within. Again
and again its usefulness has seemed to come to an
end, and it has seemed to die a death from which
there could be no resurrection; again and again it
has been entombed, the rock door of its tomb has
been sealed and its enemies have declared its power
ended; and again and again it has risen from the
dead, cast off its grave clothes and entered upon
a new life.

In the first century Nero thought that he had
killed the infant child, and three centuries later
the successor of Nero proclaimed Rome a Chris-
tian empire. In the Middle Ages the Christian
Church had adopted not only the outer form but
the persecuting spirit of pagan Rome, and the splen-
did cathedrals became its tomb and the jeweled
robes of its priests became its grave clothes; yet
all the while its deathless life inspired the Preach-
ing Friars laying in England the foundations of
England's future liberty, and the self denying
sisters of mercy and charity precursors of the Red
Cross of the then distant future. In the eighteenth
century the Protestant Church seemed dead in


England. The Cross was on the spires of the
cathedral but not in the lives of the clergy; the
preaching was an ethic as uninspiring as that of
Confucius; the religion of Dean Swift was no more
Christian than the infidelity of Bolingbroke; the
most famous moral teacher of his time, Archdeacon
Paley, defined virtue as " doing good to mankind
in obedience to the will of God and for the sake
of everlasting happiness." And yet out of this
decadent church issued the enthusiasm of Wesley-
anism in England and of Moravianism on the
Continent. The nineteenth century saw dogmatism
within the church and agnosticism without uncon-
sciously joining their forces to destroy the church
which was the only confessed defender of the truth
and of the vitality of spiritual experience, and the
century was called by friend and foe alike the " age
of skepticism." And yet it is in this age of skep-
ticism that the Christian church has given birth
to the Young Men's Christian Association, the
Young Women's Christian Association, the Salva-
tion Army and the Red Cross, and their work has
furnished the most luminous illustration the world
has ever seen of the spirit of him who laid down


his life for us that we might lay down our lives
for the brethren.

Jesus told his disciples that, " Where two or
three are gathered together in my name there am I
in the midst of them." Whenever two or three
are gathered together united by their love and loy-
alty to Jesus Christ as their Master and by their
common purpose to carry on the work which he has
left his followers to do, he is their comrade, and
their organization is a part of his great Congrega-
tion, a branch of the vine of which he is the life.
The church, as he defined it, is much more than
a body of Christian disciples possessing the same or
similar beliefs, rituals, and form of organization,
as the Roman Catholic, the Episcopal, the Presby-
terian or the Congregational church; it is some-
thing more than a visible and organic body of
believers united by their acceptance of the creeds
and some of the forms of worship of primitive
times. The church, as Christ defined it, is the entire
body of all those who are Christ's comrades in the
work which he is carrying on in the world, united
by their fellowship with one another and their faith
in him.


Christianity is more than the institutions of
Christianity. An institution is but a corpse if it
does not embody a living spirit; form without
spirit is always lifeless; language is but idle words
if it is not a vehicle for thought or feeling; the
kiss may be a symbol of treason as well as of
loyalty; the palace without love is a hovel, the hut
which enshrines love is a home. But it is also
true that spirit without body is almost as useless.
Love in the heart inspires no one if it is not ex-
pressed; unexpressed thoughts are of little service
to him who possesses them and of no service to
others. The Declaration of Independence would
have been of no value if there had not been men
willing to fight for it and die for it. Christianity
is the spirit of Christ; the Christian Church is its
imperfect embodiment. The institutions of religion
are not religion; but religion would be almost
wholly ineffective if it were not for its institutions.

The work of the Christian Brotherhood is not
ended and will not be ended so long as there is
wickedness to be fought and human need to be
helped. And never before was this Brotherhood
more Christian in its essential spirit than it is to-


day. Are there hungry men? By this Brother-
hood charity ministers to them? Are there sick?
By this Brotherhood hospitals are built. Are there
insane? This Brotherhood has taught men that in-
sanity is not a crime. Are there criminals? This
Brotherhood has taught that crime is a disease
and the criminal is to be cured while he is pun-
ished. In many a distant village or remote prairie
at home, in crowded cities and in scattered popula-
tions in foreign lands, men inspired by this hope,
animated by this purpose, and following their
Leader, are attempting to bring about the Kingdom
of God upon the earth, giving themselves to an
unrewarded ministry, and accepting the opportu-
nity for service as itself the best of all rewards.

What is the condition of belonging to this age-
long and world-wide Brotherhood united solely by
that love which is the bond of perfectness, Christ
has made clear : " Ye are my friends," he said, " if
ye do what I have commanded you." Obedience to
Christ's commands is the only condition which Christ
has prescribed for membership in the Christian
Brotherhood. What are his commands I ask my
reader to consider in the chapters which follow.



Jesus in a single sentence has defined the mission
of his followers: " As the Father hath sent me,
even so send I you." He calls on his followers to
carry on in successive generations, with his com-
panionship and under his personal but invisible
leadership, the work he was commissioned by his
Father to do. What that work is he at different
times and in different language has explicitly stated.

The earliest of these statements is contained in
his first reported sermon preached in the synagogue
at Nazareth, in which he declared that he had come
to fulfill the prophecies in the Old Testament of a
kingdom of God on the earth, and that a distin-
guished feature of that kingdom would be a new
spirit of philanthropy.

He came to Nazareth where he had been brought up:
and as his oustom was, he went into the synagogue on the



Sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was
delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And
when he had opened the book, he found the place where
it was written, The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because
he hath anointed me to preach glad-tidings to the poor ; he
hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliver-
ance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the
acceptable year of the Lord. . . . And he began to say
unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

Both the teaching and the practice of Jesus
interpret this definition of his mission. His religion
was a religion of humanity. He came to give a
new creative impulse to benevolence and so a new
meaning to human life. He put the heretical but
humane Samaritan above the callous priest and
Levite. He pictured life as an estate left by an
absentee landlord in the care of a steward who
would be tested by his treatment of the tenants.
The nations accounted those great who wrung
service from their inferiors; Christ accounted those
great who rendered service to others. He esteemed
no acts of genuine good-will insignificant. Two
farthings in a contribution box or a cup of cold
water to a thirsty pilgrim, if the gift of a generous
spirit, he accounted an act of religion. To the men


and women whom society, then as now, regarded
as outcast sinners he brought promise of pardon
and hope of a new life. But the man who devoted
himself to accumulating and investing wealth he
called a fool ; and he declared that hell would be the
doom of the rich man who feasted sumptuously
every day and left the beggar at his door uncared
for, and of the Pharisee who devoured widows'
houses and for a pretense made long prayers. In
the only description of the last judgment which he
ever gave, he declared that the Judge would measure
men, not by their creeds, their church attendance,
or their scrupulous observance of prescribed rituals
and ordinances, but by their treatment of their
fellow-men. The fact that they had never known
him and were not conscious that they had rendered
him any service would not condemn them. The
fact that they had known him and confessed him as
their Lord would not save them from condemna-

His life illustrated his teachings. He gave him-
self with utter abandon to the service of others.
Were they hungry, he fed them; sick, he healed
them; crazy, he restored to them their recovered


minds; ignorant, he taught them; in despair, he
brought them hope; isolated from their fellow men
by their pride, he pierced the walls of their prison
house with sharp invective. No service was so
lowly that he was unwilling to render it. Once
his disciples who had been out all night fishing and
were disheartened by their failure, when they came
on shore found that he had cooked their breakfast
for them. Once they had walked the dusty streets
of Jerusalem with sandaled but unstockinged feet,
and had hotly contested their respective rights to
places of preeminence at the supper table. He
waited till they had settled this important problem,
then he girded himself with a towel as their
servant and washed their feet himself. Finally, he
freely offered up his life for enemies who hated
him and for companions of whom one betrayed
him, one denied him, and the rest, with one excep-
tion, abandoned him.

Nor was it merely the unhappy condition of the
common people which moved his sympathy. At
the very outset of his ministry he perceived clearly
that the secret of the highest happiness and of the
most poignant sorrow is in the spirit of man; in


his character, not in his condition ; in what he is, not
in where he is. He saw clearly that he could not
fulfill his mission by merely feeding the hungry.
Even if he turned the stones into bread the relief
would be but slight and temporary. Heart hunger
is more difficult to bear than bodily hunger. The
blessed are not the rich but the lowly in spirit; not
the sorrowless but those who are strengthened by
their sorrows; not the grasping who acquire much,
but the unselfish who inherit from their Heavenly
Father what he chooses to bestow upon them. Alas
for you rich! he cries, for you have received your
consolation. Alas for you that are full! for you
shall hunger. Alas for you laughing ones ! for you
shall mourn. Alas for you of whom all men shall
speak well! for so did their fathers of the false
prophets. These four types of men whom we are
apt to envy, — the rich, the full, the merry an,d the
popular — Christ pities. The rich, not because he
is rich, but because he has gotten that for which he
has been striving; the satisfied because he has no
aspirations; the laughing ones because- life is serious
and they never take life seriously; the man whom
all men praise because all men never praise the man


who with courage and real power is making the
world better than it has been.

Jesus looked upon the crowds of ignorant men
and women with compassion; not chiefly because
they were poor, oppressed or hungry, but because
they were a prey to demagogues, ill led and unpro-
tected, like sheep without a shepherd. Neither their
ignorance, their weakness nor their sins alienated
him. Sin he counted a disease ; an insane conscience
was to him like an insane mind. The Son of Man

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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 3 of 10)