Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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he said has come to seek and to save the lost — to
seek not merely to save those that sought him, to
call to repentance, not merely to answer the repen-
tant when they called. And in these sayings as we
shall see more fully later, he was interpreting the
spirit of his Father.

Animated by this spirit, Jesus not only preached
in the open fields and in private houses wherever
he could find an audience, but he visited in the
homes of the despised tax gatherers and the out-
cast sinners and sat at the table with them. The
Pharisees called him the friend of publicans and sin-
ners, in which saying they unwittingly told the truth ;
and a glutton and a wine bibber in which they con-


sciously lied. And yet, did they lie? Or were
they simply unable to conceive why any one should
attend a feast of publicans and sinners unless he was
attracted by the chance to eat and drink without re-
straint? Even in his indignation against pride and
false pretense Jesus was pitiful. By his public in-
vective against the men who devoured widows'
houses and for a pretense made long prayers, he
endeavored to pierce the fortress which their pride
had erected and he ended his invective with a cry of
lamentation : " How can ye escape the damnation
of hell?"

No one will claim that benevolence was born in
the first century. Pity for the suffering, mercy for
the wrong-doer existed in the world before Christ.
But in his birth they were reborn. From being an
incident, the service of the needy gradually became,
wherever the influence of Jesus Christ went, one
of the great objects of life. Mr. Lecky in his
" History of European Morals " has eloquently con-
trasted pagan and Christian philanthropy, from
which volume I quote the following sentences :

The greatest things are often those which are most
imperfectly realized; and surely no achievements of the


Christian Church are more truly great than those which
it has effected in the sphere of charity. For the first
time in the history of mankind, it has inspired many
thousands of men and women, at the sacrifice of all
worldly interests, and often under circumstances of ex-
treme discomfort or danger, to devote their entire lives
to the single object of assuaging the sufferings of human-
ity. It has covered the globe with countless institutions
of mercy, absolutely unknown to the whole pagan world.
It has indissolubly united, in the minds of men the idea
of supreme goodness with that of active and constant
benevolence. It has placed in every parish a religious
minister who, whatever may be his other functions, has at
least been officially charged with the superintendence of an
organization of charity, and who finds in this office one of
the most important as well as one of the most legitimate
sources of his power.

But the skeptic need not go back to the past for
an illustration of the power of Christ to awaken in
human souls " The Enthusiasm of Humanity."
Christ declared one object of his mission to be " to
set at liberty them that are bruised." A great na-
tion inspired by the spirit of service has given its
money, its food, its sons and daughters, to set at
liberty a people who were being cruelly bruised by
oppression. The fact that Catholics, Protestants,
Jews and agnostics have all united in this service
gives evidence that the Christian spirit has over-


flowed all the bounds set by creeds, rituals, church
ordinances, and church organizations.

Nor is this a mere transient enthusiasm produced
by the war. It has been intensified by the demands
of sorrow and suffering brought to our conscious-
ness by the war, but it existed before the war broke
upon us with its sad surprise and it continues after
the war, though the cannon have ceased their clam-
orous demands. There never was a time in the his-
tory of the world when so many men and women
were engaged in varied endeavors to relieve and
succor their suffering fellow-men. Look once more
at these words of Jesus defining his mission and
compare with them what men and women of our
time, of every sect and of none at all, are doing
to fulfill that mission, often with no consciousness
that it is a Christian mission which they are ful-
filling and that the spirit which inspires them came
from the Man of Nazareth.

It is this Christ spirit which inspires the move-
ment throughout Christendom not merely to amelio-
rate the sufferings of the poor but to abolish poverty.
The social reformers of our time are not always
wise in their methods nor Christ-like in their spirit.


Too often social reform has been marred by class
envy, jealousy and greed. Nevertheless the Christ
spirit has animated many single-taxers who have
attributed all poverty to the private ownership of
land, many socialists who have attributed it to a
false organization of productive industry, and some
political teachers who have endeavored to inspire
their scholars with the ambition to cure poverty by
bringing about a better distribution of wealth.

It is this Christ spirit which has inspired society
with the endeavor to discover some form of help
for every form of physical handicap, — limbs for
the lame, eyes for the blind, hospitals for the sick,
institutions for the defective and the insane.

It is this Christ spirit which marvellously ani-
mating at the same time Russia, England and
America, abolished in the last century serfdom from
Russia and .slavery from the West Indies and the
United States.

It is this Christ spirit which has inspired what is
inadequately termed prison reform, but what is
nothing less than an endeavor to provide a cure for
crime, not merely a punishment, to fit punishment
to the criminal rather than to the crime and so make


the object of criminal law the protection of the
community and the cure, of crime, not the gratifi-
cation of revenge.

It is this Christ spirit, seeking by a common
effort to save society from the ignorance which
imperils it, which has created and maintains the
public school ; has established social settlements ; has
inspired the better forms of socialism ; and has sent
thousands of Christian teachers, doctors and
preachers to carry into foreign lands and into the
poorer portions of our own land, the message of
Christ's sermon at Nazareth.

When Jesus breathed upon his disciples and said
" Receive ye the Holy Spirit," he did but symbolize
that inspiration which, by his teaching, his life, and
his unseen but not unrealized companionship, he
has been giving throughout the centuries in his loyal
friends and followers, and what he then said to
the eleven, he has been saying to all who love him
and love the truth and life which he has exempli-
fied : "As the Father hath sent me into the world,
even so send I you into the world." They who
have accepted this commission, though they never
knew who gave it to them, they who have accepted


this spirit of love, service and sacrifice, though they
knew not whence it came, are his followers. There
have been in the church many an ambitious Caiphas
and many a greedy Judas who were none of his;
and there have been without the church many a
repentant and generous Zaccheus who have made
him their guest without knowing whom they enter-
tained, and many an heretical Good Samaritan who
has manifested by his life the spirit of Jesus though
he worshiped not in Jerusalem.

These works of charity have not been prescribed
by rule or required by law. They have been a
spontaneous activity of an inward spirit. They
are an evident fulfillment of Christ's second defini-
tion of his mission. To that definition I next
direct the reader's attention.



As far back as I can remember I always wished
to be a Christian. But I curiously failed to under-
stand what the Christian life is. I thought to be a
Christian meant to live in obedience to the laws of
God. But when I compared my life with the laws
of God as embodied in the Ten Commandments
and said to myself what the rich young ruler said
to Jesus, "All these things have I kept from my
youth up," I had to add this question, " What lack
I yet?" From that feeling of lack I could never
escape. In fact without knowing it, I was a Jew,
not a Christian. Perhaps I should say a Christian
Jew. For I found in the teachings of Jesus, as,
for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, a higher
standard of character than in the Ten Command-
ments. As I studied not only his teachings but his
life, the desire to be like him increased, but the
difficulty of conforming my life to this higher



standard also increased. As I look back upon that
epoch in my life, it appears to me that I was like
a pupil in a sculptor's studio. There was before
me the work of a master. I imagined that I was
plastic clay and had to model myself into a copy
of the orignial. But I found that I was not plastic
clay, and however conscientiously I tried to repro-
duce the original, I always failed.

It was not until at about eighteen years of age I
came under the influence of Henry Ward Beecher's
preaching that I began to understand that Jesus
Christ is not a lawgiver but a lifegiver, and that
one is not a Christian because he obeys the laws of
God, but he obeys the laws of God because he is a
Christian. This change in my conception of the
Christian life was gradual. I cannot recollect how
and when it began, though curiously I can recollect
some apparently insignificant incidents which con-
tributed to it. One was a little booklet by Dr.
Mahan entitled, if I remember aright, " The Fox-
Hunter," based on the verse in the Song of Songs :
"Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the
vines." Another influence was a sentence picked
up somewhere in my reading, attributed to Augus-


tine: " Please to do right; then do as you please."
But the sentence which most clearly gave to me the
clew to the true interpretation of the Gospel as inter-
preted by Jesus Christ in his teaching and by Paul
in his Epistles, is the second definition which Jesus
Christ gave of his mission : " The thief cometh
not but for to steal and to kill and to destroy ; I am
come that they might have life and that they might
have it more abundantly."

Religion has often, I think has generally, been a
restraint, a hindrance, a prohibition upon life.
Such was the religion of the Pharisees in the First
Century, of the ascetics in the Middle Ages, of the
Puritans in the Seventeenth Century. That notion
of religion Jesus repudiated. Whatever lowers
vitality, lessens life, narrows it, impoverishes it,
by whatever name it is called, whatever authority
commands it, is anti-Christian. Christ declared
his mission to be to develop life, enlarge its sphere,
increase its activities, ennoble its character. The
life which he comes to impart transcends all defini-
tions. Paul is not speaking of a future heaven but
of a present Christian experience when he says:
" Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have


entered into the heart of man, the things which
God hath prepared for them that love him." Not
because it is a perfect definition, but because it is
the last I have happened to light upon in my reading
and is wholly free from theological phraseology, I
quote the following sentence from the Journal of
Henri Frederic Amiel :

As I understand it, Christianity is above all religious,
and religion is not a method, it is a life, a higher and
supernatural life, mystical in its root and practical in its
fruits, a communion with God, a calm and deep enthusi-
asm, a love which radiates, a force which acts, a happiness
which overflows. Religion, in short, is a state of the


The religion of Jesus Christ is a religion of
liberty, not of law; of affirmations and inspirations,
not of negations and prohibitions. For " Thou
shalt not " Christ substitutes " Thou canst." Thus
his Gospel is called the " power of God " because
he inspires us to believe that in companionship with
God we can accept our aspirations as divine guides
and can hope that our ideals can in time be by us
realized. Judaism said " No idols " ; Christ says,
" God is spirit ; worship him in spirit and in truth."


Judaism said " Thou shalt not steal " ; Christ says
" Give to him that asketh of thee." Judaism said,
inflict on the wrongdoer no greater injury than he
has inflicted on the wronged — " An eye for an eye,
a tooth for a tooth " ; Jesus says, resist not the
wrong; overcome his evil by your good.

To interpret these as commands is wholly to
mistake their meaning. They are inspirations.
The laws of Christ are not commands imposed from
without, exacting obedience; they are interpreta-
tions of an inward life, endowments with a God-
like power, promises of a divine perfection. Their
meaning is made clear by the conclusion to which
they lead: Ye may be the children of your Fa-
ther who is in heaven; ye can become perfect
even as your Father in heaven is perfect. The
Sermon on the Mount, which has been so often
misinterpreted as analogous to the Ten Command-
ments, only more spiritual, contains the promise
of divine life as a free gift from the Father to all
who seek it: " If ye then, being evil, know how
to give good gifts unto your children, how much
more shall your Father which is in heaven give the
spirit of holiness to them that ask him?"


It is extraordinary to what extent the law of
taboo has found its way into the teaching of the
church despite the teaching of its Master. The
church has prohibited dancing; Christ never refers
to dancing except with implied approval. The
church has urged fasting and discouraged feasting;
Christ did not fast and never declined an invita-
tion to a festivity. The church has frowned upon
fiction; Christ was a past-master in the art of story-
telling. The church has prohibited thinking;
Christ habitually provoked men to think for them-
selves, sometimes by calling on the questioner to
answer his own question : " Who, thinkest thou,
was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves ? "
Sometimes by putting questions to his congregation
and inviting their answer: "What think ye of
Christ? Whose son is he? "

The church has often prescribed rules for the
regulation of conduct. Jesus Christ prescribed no
rules; he inculcated principles; and he inspired his
disciples with a new spirit of life. Rules are tem-
porary; principles are permanent; and the spirit of
faith and hope and love is eternal. It knows no
limitations of time or space. The minister is con-


tinually asked to-day " Where shall I draw the
line?" The answer of Jesus Christ would be
" There are no lines." He would not teach that
knocking balls around a green lawn is right be-
cause that is croquet and knocking balls around a
green table is wrong because that is billiards. He
would not teach that cards are right if you have
historical names on them and wrong if you have
spades and hearts on them. He would not teach
that it is right to have a tableau or a charade in a
church sociable and wrong to see a play given by
professionals in a theater. He would not teach
that it is wrong to wear precious jewels and right
to wear precious flowers. He would teach this:
No enjoyment is right that does not help to develop
manhood and womanhood; and no enjoyment is
wrong that does help to develop manhood and
womanhood. What is luxury? A comfort that
enervates. What is comfort? A luxury that does
not enervate. The life is more than meat; the body
is more than raiment. Personality is more than
things. All things are right which contribute to
character; all things are wrong which deteriorate


But Christ not only inspired this life by his
teaching, it radiated from his person.

There is power in law enforced by police. There
is greater power in truth which fits the door of the
mind as the key fits the lock and gains entrance to
the fast locked soul. There is still greater power
in example, which is truth expressed by action. But
the greatest power of all is that of a great per-
sonality. Psychology has never disclosed its secret
or explained the nature of its operation. No edu-
cator can impart it. It is not inherited; its pos-
sessor cannot bequeath it to his children. It made
Thomas Arnold a great teacher, Robert E. Lee a
great general, Abraham Lincoln a great leader,
Phillips Brooks a great preacher. It is not con-
sciously put forth; it insensibly emanates. I once
knew a woman on whose gravestone might well be
inscribed the text " Blessed are the peace-makers."
I do not know that she ever intermeddled in a
quarrel; but in her presence turmoil was an imper-
tinent intrusion, and to her home we came as to a
sanctuary whither the worries and the strifes of
life could not follow.

This power of personality Christ possessed to an


eminent degree. Alone he faced the desecrators
of the Temple and they fled before him. Unarmed
he faced the mob and it parted and gave him a safe
passage. Officers came to arrest him and returned
only to report their failure because, Never man
spake like this man. Men who lived with him were
transformed by their companionship, Peter, in>
pulsive, ardent, self-confident, pushing forward into
a forewarned danger and denying his Lord when
that danger was imminent, became rocklike in his
steadfastness, and when brought before the Jewish
Council answered its order forbidding him to
preach with, " We ought to obey God rather than
man;' and followed it with a forbidden Gospel
sermon on the spot. John, by nature so vociferant
that he was called a " son of thunder," and so
ambitious that on the last journey of his Master to
Jerusalem he sought for himself and his brother
the first places in the anticipated kingdom of God,
became the preeminent apostle of gentleness and
love. And Thomas, so resolutely skeptical that he
would not accept any evidence of the resurrection
of Jesus Christ, when vanquished by his Master's
personal presence uttered the supremest confession


of faith recorded in the New Testament in his
greeting, " My Lord and my God."

This power of inspiring personality did not cease
with his death. Transmitted to his disciples it has
remained the one greatest single influence in the
history of the world for the last eighteen centuries.
It has always overflowed the boundaries of the
church and often exerted its influence in spite of the
hostility of the ecclesiastics. The church has
rarely comprehended the nature and extent of the
influence which its Master has had upon mankind.
If we want to know what is the life which he came
to give, we must ask history what is the life which
he has given.

To depict accurately the change in the life of the
world which has been wrought by the influence of
Jesus Christ would be quite beyond the limits of
this chapter, as it would be quite beyond the power
of the writer. But it is possible to suggest some
aspects of that influence. Its effect on man's
understanding of God and of the life acceptable to
him and so of the nature of both private and public
worship, I shall consider in a future chapter. Its
effect on man's political and social life I have


already briefly indicated. It has given him faith
in himself and in his supremacy over nature and is
giving him faith in his fellow man as a child of
God. The statement in the opening chapter of
Genesis that God made man in his own image and
gave him dominion over the earth and its forces
and inhabitants is the secret of all scientific
progress; the statement of JesUs Christ in the New
Testament, " Be ye not called Master for one is
your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren/ ,
is the secret of all social progress. Slowly finding
its way into the consciousness of the human race,
it is substituting a democratic brotherhood for a
feudal aristocracy, developing a widening and a
spiritual charity, organizing public systems of
education, inspiring a mutual interest and a mutual
respect, creating a public opinion almost wholly
unknown in the ancient world, and thus laying the
foundation for free popular governments which
can exist only when they are based on a common
intellectual and moral life.

The effects of Christ's influence on four chief
symbolical expressions of the inner life of man —
architecture, painting, poetry and music — is less


frequently recognized, but if more indirect is
scarcely less apparent.

It might be thought that a religious faith that
God does not dwell in temples made with hands
would be fatal to church architecture. Such, how-
ever, was not the case. The early Italian churches
were in some cases pagan temples, as the Pantheon
at Rome, or imitations of the pagan temples. But
as the Christian church, moving northward, escaped
from the dominating influence of Roman paganism,
it created a new architecture for itself. The term
Gothic, applied to it originally in derision, has
become the accepted designation of this type of
architecture, which was, however, so distinctive in
its character, and so evidently inspired by religious
motives, that it might well have received the
designation which excellent authority has proposed
to give it — Christian architecture. The cathe-
drals of Europe have well been called frozen music ;
they are symphonies of praise in stone. The domi-
nant motive of the architects, builders and workmen
was religious, as the dominating motive which
inspires and shapes our railroad stations, factories
and skyscrapers is commercial. Thus each type of


architecture interprets, because it expresses, the life
of the people who have created it. The interpre-
tation of the Gothic which Ruskin gives in his
" Seven Lamps of Architecture " has been criticized,
perhaps justly; yet every impressionable mind must
have felt in such edifices as the cathedrals of
Cologne, Rheims, Salisbury, and Canterbury that
sevenfold message of sacrifice, truth, power, beauty,
life, memory and obedience, which Ruskin has dis-
covered in them. Nor is it fanciful to see in their
aerial brightness an expression of the gladness of
heart and in their spires and pinnacles and pointed
arches a symbol of the heavenward aspiration of
the worshipers who gathered within their walls.

The first aim of the nascent Christian church was
to tell men the story of Christ's life. It saw in
Christ the. ideal of humanity and in every incident
of his life an inspiration for his followers. This
story could not be told by the pen, except to the
few, for the many could not read. It was told to
the many by the brush, for every one could see and
could comprehend the picture. Mrs. Jameson, in
her " History of Our Lord as Exemplified in Works
of Art," has shown how the whole history of that


life, from the Nativity to the Resurrection, was
told by artists. And every picture was a sermon.
That the first great pictures were of religious
scenes and were painted for the church, is not due
to the mere fact that the church created a com-
mercial demand for them. Christianity had in-
spired a recognition of the value of the deeper
life of the spirit, and it was inevitable that as soon
as culture was Christianized the artist should invent
a new medium for the artistic interpretation of this
deeper life. " It is Christianity," says Charles
Blanc, " which has supplanted sculpture by placing
beauty of soul above that of the body."

With the birth of painting came the birth of a
new kind of poetry. In the " Te Deum Laudamus,"
which is known to have been in use from the
beginning of the sixth century, with adoration are
mingled the tenderer feelings of penitence, of per-
sonal affection and of confident trust, unknown in
even the best of Greek and Roman poets. Nor is
it only sacred hymnology which has felt the effect
of the Christian life. Not only in Dante's ° In-
ferno," " Purgatorio," and " Paradiso," not only in
Milton's " Paradise Lost " and " Paradise Re-


gained," not only in Whittier's " Eternal Goodness "
and Longfellow's " Christus " is that influence to

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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 4 of 10)