Theodore Chickering Williams.

Character-building : sermons and poems online

. (page 17 of 18)
Online LibraryTheodore Chickering WilliamsCharacter-building : sermons and poems → online text (page 17 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

does not teach men to think. It teaches them to act
and to love. It is not an academy, not a debating
club. It is an army, a family, and a house of prayer;
and so the great Christian community, full of error
and ignorance, not the least fastidious about consist-
ency, goes on in a masterful way disciplining men to
righteous and clean living, and touching their hearts
with vague but powerful sentiments of loyalty, pity,
reverence, kindness, and self-devotion.

Now, I am so much of a rationalist that I believe
truth and right-thinking are the foundation-rock of
life, and that all untruth and wrong and careless
thinking make men less noble, less steadfast in
goodness, and less a power for good, however well-
meaning they be.

Nevertheless, I recognize that a foundation is not a
building. So, until our rationalism and our liberality
do something to strengthen character and warm the
heart, they are certainly vain.

Let us consider the points in which Orthodoxy is
stronger than we, even where, and just because, it is
less reasonable than we, and let us see what we have
to take its place as a guide of life. What, then, does
Orthodoxy regard as above reason and better than

First, the Bible. The old-fashioned Christian be-
lieves his Bible, every word of it. You and I do not.
We claim the right to criticise it, to sift it, to trace
in it a many-sided human story. We study the Bible
historically, find out why it v/as ever written and put


together at all, and why it is of such varied worth.
Now, if after all this higher criticism, we leave the
Bible unopened, with clean white pages and dusty
covers, how immense is our loss! If the Bible no
longer reveals to us any eternal, divine word, no
longer helps us worship the Father, no longer touches
our lives with love, trust, and zeal for goodness, no
longer reveals inspiring examples of faith and service,
then the most unlettered man or woman who ever
wept or glowed over the sacred page has something
we have not.

My friends, there is nothing to take the place of
the Bible as a source of spiritual light and moral
enthusiasm. I believe the Bible can stand on its
own merits, and needs no prep of superstition to hold
it up. I believe the more we understand what those
books mean and what they say, the more lovely and
venerable they will be. But we cannot be blind to
the fact that the habit of Bible-reading is declining.
The very freedom and accessibility of the book make
against it. There was a time when men shed their
blood for the priceless privilege of "reading the
Scriptures." Even now men are struggling and suf-
fering abuse and misrepresentation for liberty to
study the Bible freely and intelligently. And yet,
just as there are people in London who never saw
Westminster Abbey, just as there are Swiss who
never saw the Matterhorn, as there are Americans
who never read our Constitution, so among your-
selves, with the Bible in every house, with our hard-
won liberty of its use and interpretation, people pass


it by, neglect it, and leave their children ignorant of
the treasure which is their heritage.

Surely, we rationalists are the people of all others
who need the Bible most as a help to our faith and
life; for it strengthens us most when men's argument
and intelligence are weakest. It touches the imagina-
tion, deepens feeling, makes men reverent and ear-
nest. The Bible shows us "the mystery of godli-
ness." It is good for us that its scenes are so foreign,
so ancient, so beautiful, and its language so sublime,
and often so difficult. This I am sure of: that, if
you go to your Bible with nothing but your criticism,
your worldly wisdom, your theories, you will not hear
what its message tells. Into that kingdom you must
enter as a little child. Carry a listening heart, and
listen most to what you love or feel most deeply.
Apply, if you will, your philosophy and history to the
Bible, but apply it to yourself, your conduct, to your
affections, to your longings after God. Its spiritual
riches must be spiritually discerned.

So, then, if the Bible is to touch your life, you
must separate your criticism of it from your daily use
of its holier portions for devotional and moral help.
Remember that religion is not only a belief. It is a
habit of the soul. Remember that a good and noble
life is formed very little on theories of life, almost
wholly by communion with great examples, by love of
radiant souls, by having one's daily thoughts possessed
with what is lovely and of good report. You have
some native spring within of love to God and your
neighbor; but this native spring is variable and lim-


ited. You need to kneel with Christ in his prayers,
to go with him upon his errand through the cities of
Judah, bringing faith and blessing as he goes. You
have some natural indignation against wrong, some
loyalty to what is just and noble; but the temptations
of the flesh and of the world will beset you every day.
You need to burn with prophet and apostle, as they
hold up wickedness to scorn. You need to fight their
warfare over, by hearing its story.

Can it be that you are so confident of your virtue
and spiritual elevation that you feel no need of such
help to better living? Then go to your Bible, that
you may be humbled and stirred by the sight of good-
ness in a grander style, and know that breathing
through the thoughts of all God's most faithful sons
is a sense of aspiration, a prayer of confession, and
a hope of forgiveness.

Or does life's moral demand already burden you so
much that you dare not confront any sublimer stand-
ard, and, struggling along the lower levels of your
poor partial attainments, dare not look upward to any
mountain of difficulty and more exacting ideal?

Then go to the Bible, that you may learn how lov-
ingly the Father deals with all who struggle and are
weary, and what are the great redeeming forces that
have lifted many weaker men out of the same troubles,
the same sins, that mar and check your better life.
See Moses, the wrathful, the shedder of blood, made
in God's hands an instrument of strong deliverance
for a people of slaves. Hear David's penitence, and
see his sins made white by sorrow and faithful ser-


vice. Read the Lamentations of exiles, martyrs, and
patriots, and how God's hand sustained them in the
hour of loss and under the dark cloud. Then learn
how Christ was "touched with a feeling of our in-
firmities/' and how by the spirit of Christ a great
company is gathered, who by love and faith and pa-
tient hope are saved out of an evil world, saved from
themselves, and led to victory and peace.

I care not on what spiritual plane you stand. You
cannot get beyond the Bible. You cannot fall so low
as to fall outside its divine spirit of pity and redemp-
tion. It is a book for saints and for sinners, for all.
It has a story for the child, a song for the poet, wis-
dom for the sage, and practical guidance for the busy
world of men and women, such as most of you live in.
If you neglect it, you are casting a birthright away.
It is a heritage for which your fathers struggled like
heroes, and which, if you lose, your children must
win anew, by long and weary warfare against supersti-
tion and unbelief; for the Bible is the world's book,
— a book for all time and every nation, — and not to
know it is to be, in the strictest sense, a barbarian^
outside the circle of man's noblest life.

Consider now the second source of authority, which
Orthodoxy places alongside of and above the natural
light of reason. I mean the Church. The doctrine
in its extreme form is that whatever the Church
teaches or ever has taught must be true, however
false and irrational it appears.

With all its faults and errors, it must be admitted
that the Church has done, and is doing still, a most


necessary work for mankind. It provides discipline
for the will, and secures for men reverent habits, and
the great power and enthusiasm which come of men
getting together in multitudes for the accomplishment
of high and noble aims. In a word, the Church gives
to religion and to conduct two immense powers, — the
power of drill and the power of organization.

Even the intellectual life of man is crude and in-
• effective, unless each man, as it were, be supervised,
trained and quickened, by some touch with the great
impersonal body of human knowledge. That is what
schools mean, and the university. They mean that
the minds of your boys and girls need drill. The
youthful intelligence, with tireless ingenuity, is exer-
cised, watched, corrected, and made to acquire habits
of attention and method. A country without schools
is always ignorant; and an individual who has never
had schooling, however great the native power, is al-
ways intellectually awkward. Then, after much train-
ing and discipline of intellectual habits, we send the
youth to the university. The intention is that he
shall come in touch with the main stream of the
world's intellectual life, and, even at the expense of
losing individuality, be saved for the rest of his career
from fads, delusions, and barbaric or outgrown ideas.
Universities do not succeed with all men; and men of
good minds, by travel, by reading, by broad intellect-
ual interests, find their university in the world. But,
however it be won, we recognize that there is such a
thing as what Matthew Arnold used to call ''cult-
ure"; i.e.^ being in touch with the world's best


thouofht of all times and abreast of all the newest



If, now, this patient drill and this large fellowship
with superior minds be necessary even to develop the
intellectual powers, how much more necessary is it in
matters of faith and morals! What an academy can
do for literature, what a university or scientific insti-
tute does for science, that the Church undertakes to
do for faith and for conduct.

Why, then, do we liberal Christians not accept the-
Church ? and what have we in her place ?

First, because the world has been for some centu-
ries growing to see that freedom is no less important
than organization. If there were nothing in the world
but drill and organization, we should be like the
Chinese. The greatest steps forward which ever have
been made by the human race were taken by men who
stood outside what was accepted and traditional. We
need not only the quiet, conservative forces of civili-
zation, but we need the pioneer, the reformer, and
the discoverer. In science the necessity of freedom
has been abundantly demonstrated. Had men gone
on thinking like their fathers and like all the world,
we should never have had Galileo nor Columbus, nor
Harvey, Newton, Darwin, or Pasteur. If the acade-
mies and the universities had absorbed all the in-
tellectual life of men, we should never have the
progress in art, the strong and varied literature which
is the glory of European life.

We liberal Christians stand for this principle of
freedom and progress in religion. This principle is


the Protestant principle of private judgment, what the
noble Puritans called "the liberty of prophesying."

This principle we chiefly stand for. This freedom
we maintain. And more and more the whole relig-
ious world is coming to recognize its sacredness.

Important as this service is which liberals render
to the rest of the world, yet, if we consider our per-
sonal needs, it is evident that we may be in danger
from losing out of our own lives just that drill, that
organization, that strength of habit and strength of
fellowship, which the old Church gives to all the
world except ourselves.

If we were all prophets, poets, religious geniuses,
the loss would not matter. If we were individually
like Luther or Channing or Emerson, we might dis-
pense with such spiritual bread as is distributed from
the tables of the church; but, on the contrary, we are
all learners, not originators. Our spiritual life, our
faith, our moral tone, are vastly influenced by our
habits and by our surroundings.

Therefore, just as our rationalism makes it the
more necessary that we should read and love to read
our Bibles; so our liberalism makes it the more essen-
tial that we should be faithful to all the forms and
institutions of religion which do not interfere with a
reasonable liberty.

But a grave decline seems to be going on in the
matter of religious habits. In our plea for freedom,
we are losing the immense benefits of drill. The
good old custom of family devotion is vanishing from
the home. Church-going is suspended for the light-


est cause. Even the beautiful and affecting symbols
of baptism and of the Lord's Supper are in many lib-
eral congregations wholly disused.

The Puritan, with his intense religious life, —
every man a priest in his own house, — might well
make public worship bare and plain; but, surely, in
this age of splendor and art, we cannot dispense with
any means by which the external forms of worship
shall subdue us to reverence, and reach the heart
through eye and ear.

We, of all other men, need the apostle's injunctions,
both that we should "stand fast in our liberty" and
also that we should not "use liberty as occasion to
the flesh"; i.e.^ for doing as we like.

Especially do we need to realize the great truth
there is in religion and in life, a sphere which
"passeth understanding."

"The world by wisdom knew not God." Faith has
not been born out of men's philosophies, but rather
out of the great emotional and heart-reaching experi-
ences of which human life is made, out of love and
sorrow and the sense of sin, out of struggle, out of
the love of justice and the hunger for a better world,
out of great storms, when all the waves and the bil-
lows have passed over the soul. Through these has
the wonderful faith risen up in men's hearts that God
is our eternal Father. Not of literature, not of
schools and scribes, has religion been given to men,
though by these it has been systematized and taught.
For the supreme inspirations of faith we do not look
to the groves of Athens, nor to Eastern sages, nor to


Western laboratories. We look to Gethsemane, to
Calvary, to Galilee. As with faith, so with right-
eousness. All the commandments, all ethical sys-
tems, are only the description in words of the way
good men and women do really strive to live. Only
because these — honesty, purity, peace, and kindness
— were already in the world, were laws and maxims
made to encourage them. Jesus says, "Your right-
eousness must be better than that of the scribes, or
you cannot go into the kingdom of heaven." The
scribes and Pharisees tried to reduce life to a rule,
to a system ; but Jesus says that cannot be, for a good
life comes of the fulness of love and light within the

In other words, we find in Christian goodness a
warmth, a largeness, a delicacy of feeling, which quite
overpass all verbal and logical statement. The new
commandment of love which Christ gives is not a
commandment at all, but a demand for an inward
renewal of our very very life both toward our heavenly
Father and our brother.

Therefore, in your plea for a reasonable and free
religion do not forget that in this sphere the intellect
may criticise, but not create. In all that is most
sacred, most inspiring, most beautiful in human ex-
perience, there is always more than you can under-
stand. You cannot argue a man into love. You
cannot lecture him into a joyful sense of the poetry
and beauty of the world. Neither can you impart
faith by articles and conclusions.

As thought is deeper than all speech, so are your


life with God and your fellowship with your brother
far deeper and larger than any creed can be.

"The world by wisdom knew not God." Let this
assurance give you calmness and patience in a time of
debating and creed-making and criticism such as we
live in.

Hear the argument. Respect the eager search for
truth. Be faithful to your liberty and light.

But know that this apparatus of the scribes is only
the beginning, only the preparation, for your worship
of the Father in spirit and in truth.

Of the making of books there is no end.

If God were known, his love revealed and his
mercy trusted only by those who scale the steep places
of human philosophy, then, indeed, there were no
gospel at all for the great half -blinded world of toil-
worn, suffering men.

But God is made known to us as a Father through
those experiences which are common to all and within
the reach of all God's children.

To the pure he showeth himself pure. To the
merciful he showeth himself merciful.

We know him best as we find him through the life-
experience of our common humanity, through simple,
natural gladness, the gladness of daily need and un-
purchasable sunshine, through sorrow, effort, faithful
service, unquenchable affections, bearing a brother's
burden, being brave, hopeful, and patient.

These are the elements in our nature to which
Christ speaks, to that spiritual life of faith and love
which is with "all sorts and conditions of men."


Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are they
who come to God, not in the pride of their attain-
ments, their refinements, their strong and subtle
minds, but who offer unto him just the simple, brave
true, and loving heart.

"The world by wisdom knew not God."

But, because Christ made known the preciousness,
the beauty, the power, which is in man as man, be-
cause he drew his parables of divine things from
man's lowliest estate, because he has wakened the
world of rich and poor, of Caesars and slaves, to a
sense of a common humanity, therefore he has revealed
our one Father in heaven.

The spirit of Christ in every age is the same. You
and I enter into it, not by any knowledge or wisdom
which separates us from other men, but only by our
share in the grand democracy of the spirit, by our
touch with the common heart of man.

That in human nature which is divine and heavenly
is that in which the world's distinctions do not enter.
It is the life of courage, love, and faith within the
soul, which is for all God's children, his "little
ones," wherever they may be.


I THANK Thee, Lord, that just to day
I have not seemed to go astray,
And that to-night, the setting sun
Smiles only on my duty done.

Father, not thus Thy name I bless,
From proud or blind self-righteousness,
Nor that I thus would hope to win
Remission of some wilful sin.

But if to-night I lift my eyes
Unto the all-beholding skies.
And seem to feel within me shine
Some kinship with their calm divine, —

The silent blessing bids me pray,
By this one glad and blameless day
To learn what all my days might be,
If each were holy unto Thee.


"Need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you ?
Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men."
2 Cor. iii. i.

It was the custom in the apostle's time for a
Christian teacher, going from one congregation to
another, to carry letters of introduction and commen-
dation. By this reasonable precaution, unworthy men
were excluded, and useful men assisted. It was the
rudimentary discipline of the primitive Church.
These little letters of fraternal introduction, so obvi-
ously necessary and proper, were an ecclesiastical
guarantee of a minister's soundness in faith and char-
acter. They accomplished the same ends that in our
time are aimed at by the varied machinery of modern
churches. Trials for heresy, an examination by synod
or conference, or an impeachment by a self-consti-
tuted committee, or a sentence by a bishop, — none of
these energetic methods of preserving "unity and con-
cord " in the Church had then been tried. I do not
say that the primitive Church is necessarily a model
for all time. I do not believe it is. Nevertheless,
it is always instructive to see how the problems of the
early Church were dealt with; and we see that, even
in this matter of letters of introduction, the great


free mind of Paul declares that there is a witness to
his ministry, better and more trustworthy than any
written credentials; namely, the living record of his
life and teaching, in that Corinthian church where he
had labored so fruitfully. He appeals from the wit-
ness of a written form, to the witness of living voices
and living men.

It may be we catch some tone of irritation in this
appeal, for the apostle Paul was much harassed and
interfered with by the other party in the Church.
He was thought a preacher of strange innovations.
His practices were free beyond precedent. In his
eagerness to reach the Gentile world with the gospel
of his Master, he was carried on to say and do many
things which seemed very dangerous, and even blas-
phemous, to those who could not see outside the
limits of Judaistic traditions. His largeness of view
was accounted mere looseness and want of faith. His
enthusiasm was disparaged as the evidence of a self-
willed and rebellious nature.

So, even in that Apostolic Church of the first gen-
eration after Christ, there were, as now, divisions,
controversies, personal jealousies, bigotry, injustice,
and general disturbances. The new and glorious
mission of Christianity to the world, the preaching of
the love of God, the story of Jesus and his sacrifice,
the bringing of a victorious love and heavenly hope
into human hearts, and thereby a regeneration of
human society, — all this glad tidings had to make its
way then, as now, against foes without and fightings
within. The treasure was in earthen vessels.


So, also, if we cast our view over the whole range
of Christian history, we find the same condition of
things. There are always controversies, always mis-
understandings, always parties in opposition. Great
and good men are divided from each other; and men
whose characters are such as honor human nature,
men whose whole lives are spent in search of truth,
in the service of their fellow-men, have been treated
like criminals.

Is it not one of the saddest sights? Is not this
turbulent history of the Church, whose gospel is
peace and love, one of the most melancholy evidences
of the littleness of man?

These reflections are naturally suggested to us by
the present agitations in the religious world. It is
necessary for us to set these contemporary events in
the large light of the past. As we do so, we see at
once that these interesting persecutions with which
the newspapers are busy, are encouraging signs of the
times. Compared with the awful persecutions of the
past, these annoyances are as spring showers to a
cyclone. What was once a terrible and dangerous
accusation is now a regretful suspicion. What was
once a furious curse is now a pitying sigh. What
would once on mere suspicion have consigned a man
to a horrid dungeon, and finally to death by torture,
is hardly enough now, unless the victim is very ner-
vous, to spoil a single night's sleep. The victory of
toleration is won, and not all the fiercest rhetoric in
the world can ever bring the old issues back. What-
ever cruel and uncharitable things may be said, no


one really believes that the distinguished men now
accused of heresy are a pestilential and evil influence
in the community.

Indeed, it is a matter of congratulation that the
men against whom the light batteries of the modern
inquisition are directed are so eminently able to bear
up under the assault. What need they, as do some,
" letters of commendation " from any formal author-
ity? They may appeal, or their friends may appeal
for them, to what is "known and read of all men," —
their public services, their long and fruitful minis-
tries, their characters as Christian men. If this agi-
tation be a persecution, it is not a cowardly one.
The heresy-hunter at present is like death: he "loves
a shining mark."

The tyranny of the received opinion is never so
galling and painful to distinguished men as it is to
the rank and file. Bigotry and intolerance are hard-
est to bear when their victims are made to feel their
power in the common walks of life, and a disfellow-
shipped minority are frowned down by a thoughtless
majority. While, therefore, th^ eminent preachers
and theologians now on trial before their respective

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17

Online LibraryTheodore Chickering WilliamsCharacter-building : sermons and poems → online text (page 17 of 18)