William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 40 of 169)
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world not to legislate for nations, not to com-
mand armies, not to sit on the throne of
universal monarchy; but to teach religion, to
establish truth and holiness. The highest end
of htmian nature is duty, virtue, piety, ex-
cellence, moral greatness, spiritual glory;
and he who effectually labours for these is
taking part with God in God's noblest work.
The Christian ministry, then, which has for
its purpose men's spirittial improvement and
salvation, and which is entrusted for this end
with we^ons of heavenly temper and power,
deserves to be ranked amongst God's most
beneficent institutions and men's most honour-
able labours. The occasion requires that this
institution should be our principal topic.

How happy a change has taken place since
the words of Christ in the text were spoken I
Ministers are no longer sent forth into the
midst of wolves. Through the labours, suf-
ferings, and triumphs of apostles, martyrs,
and good and great men in successive ages,
Christianity has become the professed and
honoured religion of the most civilized
nations, and its preachers are exposed to
very Afferent temptations from those oif
savage persecution. Still our text has an
application to the present time. We see our
Saviour commanding his Apostles tt> regard
in their ministry the circumstances of the age
in which they lived. Surrounded with foes,
they were to exercise the wisdom or prudence
of which the serpent was in ancient times
the emblem, and to join with it the innocence
and mildness of tne dove. And, in like
manner, the Christian minister is at all



periods to regard the signs, the distinctive
marks and character of the age to which he
belongs, and must accommodate his ministry
to its wants and demands. Accordingly, I
propose to consider some of the leading traits
of the present age, and the influence which
they should have on a Christian teacher.

I. The state of the world, compared with
the past, may be called enlightened, and re-
quires an enlightened ministry. It hardly ,
seems necessary to prove that religion should
be dispensed by men who at least keep
pace with the intellect of the age in which
they hve. Some passages of Scripture, how-
ever, have been wrested to prove that an un-
learned ministry is that which God parti-
cularly honours. He alwa>'S chooses, we
are told, " the foolish things of the world to
confound the wise." But texts of this de-
scription arc misunderstood through the very
ignorance which they are adduced to support.
The wise who are spoken of contemptuously
in the New Testament were not really en-
lightened men, but pretenders to wisdom,
who substituted dreams of imagination and
wild hypotheses for sober inquiry into God's
works, and who knew comparatively nothing
of nature or the human mind. The present
age has a quite different illumination from
that in which ancient philosophy prided itself.
It is mariced by great and obvious improve-
ments in the methods of reasoning and inquiry,
and by the consequent discovery and diffusion
of a great mass of physical and moral truth
wholly unknown in the titT»e of Christ Now
we affirm that such an age demands an en-
lightened ministry. We want teachers who
will be able to discern and unfold the con^
sistency of revealed religion with the ttew
lights which are breaking in from natutC :
and who will be able to draw, firom all in«i*S
discoveries In th« outward world and in lh«lr



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DEMANDS OF THE AGE ON THE MINISTRY,



»7S



luitiationc, analogies, and aifu-
istianjty. We have reason to
the antbor of nature and
I estiiblished a harmony between
their beams are intended to
a joint radiance ; and, cxm-
things being ^c>al> that
itted to dispense Cnristianity
4 " ""'V^^^^K^ niind enaUes him to compare
SrfaaHi^B^SchiDg in his Works and in his
>Word, and to present the truths of religion with
/ those modifications and restraints which other
^ acknowledged truths require. Christianity now
needs dispensers who will make history, nature,
■"and the improTements of society tributary to
|ts eluddation and support; who will show
adaptation to man as an ever progressive
Ing ; who will be able to meet the objections
'to its truth which will naturally be started In
an active, stirring* inquiring age ; and, though
last not least, who will have enough of mental
and moral courage to detect and renounce the
errors^n the Church on which such objections
^e generally built. In such an age. a ministry
b wanted which will furnish discussions of
religious topics, not inferior at least in intelli-
gence to those which people are accustomed to.
read and hear on other subjects. Christianity
will suffer if, at a time when vigour and
acutcness Of tJfcinking are carried into all other
departments, the pulpit should send forth
nothing but i^ld declamation, positive asser-
tion, or dull c^ommonplaces, with which even
childhood is satiated. Religion must be seen
to be the friend and quickener of intellect.
It must be exHibi ted with clearness of reasoning
and variety of illustration ; nor ought it to be
deprived of the benefits of a pure and felicitous
diction and of rich and glowing imag^ery,
where these gifts fall to the lot of the teacher.
It is not meant that every minister must be
a roan of genius — for genius is one of God's
rarest inspirations ; and of all the breathings
of genius perhaps the rarest is eloquence. I
mean only to say that the age demands of
those who devote themselves to the adminis-
tration of Christianity, that they should feel
themselves called upon for the highest cultiva-
tion and fullest development of the intellectual
nature. Instead of thinking that the ministry
is a reftige for duhiess, and that whoever can
escape from the plough is fit for God's spiritual
husbandry, we ought to feel that no profession
demands more enlarged thinking and more
various acquisitions of truth.

In proportion as society becomes enlight-
ened, talent acquires influence. In rude ages
bodily strength is the most honourable dis-
tinction, and in subsequent times militaiy
prowess aiKl skill confer mastery and emi-
/r hence. But as society advances, mind,
thought, becomes the soverei^ of the world ;
and accordingly, at the present moment, pro-



found and glowing thought, though breathing
only from the silent page, exerts a kind of
omnipotent and omnipresent energy. It
crosses oceans and spreads through nadons;
and, at one and the same moment, the con-
ceptions of a single mind are electrifying and
kindling multitudes through wider r^ons
than the Roman eagle overshadowed. This
agency of mind on mind, I repeat it, is the
true sovereignty of the worid. and kings and
heroes are booming impotent by the side of
men of deep and fervent thougnt. In such
a state of things, religion would wage a very
unequal war if divorced from talent and
cultivated intellect, if committed to wbak
and untaught minds. God plainly intends
that it should be advanced by niunan agency;
and does He not then intend to summon to
its aid the mightiest and noblest power with
which man is gifted ?

Let it not be said that Christianity has an
intrinsic glory, a native beauty, which no art
or talent of man can heighten ; that Chris-
tianity is one and the same by whatever lips
it is communicated, and that it needs nothing
but the most naked exposition of its truths
to accomplish its saving purposes. Who does
not know that all truth takes a hue and form
from the soul through which it passes, that in
every mind it is invested with peculiar asso-
ciations, and that, consequently, the same
truth is quite a diflferent thing when exhibited
by men of different habits of thought and
feeling? Who does not know that the sub-
limest doctrines lose in some hands all their
grandeur, and the loveliest all their attractive-
ness? Who does not know how much the
diffusion and power of any system, whether
phvsical, moral, or political, depend on the
order according to which it is arranged, on
the broad and consistent views which are
given of it, on the connections which it is
shown to hold with other truths, on the ana-
logies by which it is illustrated, adorned, and
enforced, and, though last not least, on the
clearness and energy of the style in which it
is conveyed? "Nothing is needed in reli-
gion," some say, "but the naked truth."
But I apprehend that there is no such thing
as naked truth, at least as far as moral sub-
jects are concerned. Truth which relates to
God, and duty, and happiness, and a future
state, is always humanized, if I may so use
the word, by passing through a human mind;
and when communicated powerfully, it always
comes to us in drapery thrown round it by
the imagination, reason, and moral feelings
of the teacher. It comes to us warm and
living with the impressions and affections
which it has produced in the soul from which
it issues: and.it ought so to come; for the
highest evidence of moral truth is found in
the moral prrnciplrs and feelings of our



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DRMA14DS OF THE AGE



nature, and therefore it foils of its best sup-
port unless it is seen to accord with and to
act upon these. The evidence of Christianity
which operates most universally is not history
nor miracles, but its correspondence to the
noblest capacities, deepest wants, and piirest
aspirations of our nature, to the cravings of
an immortal spirit ; and when it comes to us
from a mind in which it has discovered nothing
of this adaptation, and has touched none of
these springs, it wants one of its chief signa-
tures of divinity. Christianity is not, then,
to be exhibited nakedly. It owes much of its
power to the mind which communicates it ;
and the greater the enlargement and develop-
ment of the mind of which it has possessed
itself, and from which it flows, the wider and
deeper will be its action on other souls.

It may be said without censoriousness, that
the ordinary mode in which Christianity has
been exhibited in past times, does not suit
the illumination of the present. That mode
has been too narrow, technical, pedantic.
Religion has been made a separate business —
and a dull, unsocial, melancholy business,
too — instead of being manifested as a tnith
which bears on and touches everything
human, as a universal spirit which ought to
breathe through and modify all our desires and
pursuits, all our trains of thought and emo-
tion. And this narrow, forbidden mode of
exhibiting Christianity is easily explained by
its early history. Monks shut up m cells ; a
priesthood cut off by celibacy from the sym-
pathies and most interesting relations of life ;
and universities enslaved to a scholastic logic,
and taught to place wisdom in verbal subtle-
ties and unintelligible definitions ; these took
Christianity into their keeping, and at their
chilling touch this generous religion, so full
of life and affection, became a dry, frigid,
abstract system. Christianity, as it came from
their hands, and has been transmitted by a
majority of Protestant divines, reminds us of
the human form compressed by swath ing-
bands until every joint is rigid, every move-
ment constrained, and almost all the beauty
and grace of nature obliterated. Instead <»
regarding it as a heavenly institution designed
to perfect our whole nature, to offer awaken-
ing and purifying objects to the intellect,
imagination, and heart, to develop every
capacity of devout and social feeling, to form
a rich, various, generous virtue, divines have
Cramped and tortured the Gospel into various
systems, composed in the main of theological
riddles and contradictions; and this religion
of love has been made to inculcate a monkish
and dark-visaged piety, very hostile to the
free expansion and full enjoyment of all our
faculties, and social affections. Great im-
provements indeed in this particular are
taking place among Christians of aJUnost every



denomination. Religion has been^ron^
from the cell of the monk and tfie ^choo^ of
the verbal disputant into life .and soct^;
and its connections with all oi^fHirMiiN and
feelings have been made rafaniA^^u^'^StiU,
Christianity, I apprehend, is'not vieww in
sufficiently broad lights to meet the djl[lt of
an age which is tracing coim^ctiphS^PRreem
all objects of thought and braneq^.^]i&ow-
ledge, and which cannot tibt'^dwlnftt aa^
alleged revelation, in as far as it is seen to
want harmonies and affinities with other
parts of God's system, and especially with
human nature and human life.

II. The age in which we live ders^nds not^
only an enlightened but an earnest sinistra
for it is an age of earnestness and excite*-
ment. Men feel and think at prelentwitb
more energy than formerly. There is more
of interest and fervour. We learn now from
exx^erience what might have been ^inferred
from the purposes of our Creator, that dvih-
zation and refinement are not, as has been
sometimes thought, inconsistent with sufll^
bility; that the intellect may grow withctf
exhausting or overshadowing the heart. I&e
human mmd was never more in earnest tilan
at the present moment. The political revo-
lutions which form such broad f^tiues and
distinctions of our age, have sprung from a
new and deep working in the human souL
Men have caught gUmpses, however indis-
tinct, of the worth, dignity, rights, and great
interests of their nature ; and a thirst for un-
tried good and impatience of long endured
wrongs have broken out wildly, like the fires
of Etna, and shaken and convulsed the
earth. It is imf>ossible not to discern this in-
creased fervour of mind in every department
of life. A new spirit of improvement is
abroad. The imagination can no longer be
confined to the acquisitions of past ages, but
is kindling the passions by vague but noble
ideas of blessings never yet attained. Multi-
tudes, imwilling to wait the slow pace of that
great innovator. Time, are taking the work of
reform into their own hands. Accordingly.
the reverence for antiquity and for aj^
hallowed establishments, and the passion for
change and amelioration, are now arrayed
against each other in open hostility, and all
great questions affecting human happiness are
debated with the eagerness of party. The
character of the age is stamped very strongly
on its literary productions. Who that can
compare the present with the past is not
struck with the bold and earnest spirit of the
literature of our times ? It refuses to waste
itself on trifles or to minister to mere gratifi-
cation. Almost all that is written has now
some bearing on great interests of hunum
imture. Fiction is no longer a mere amuse-
ment; but transcendent genius, acconuno-



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dating itscdf to the character of the age, has
aeiKd upon this province of literature and
tamed fiction from a toy into a mighty en-
gine; and under the light tale is breathing
through the community either its reverence
lor the old or its thirst for the new — commu-
nicates the s|»iit and lessons of history, un-
folds the operations of religious and civil
institutions, and defends or assails new
theories of education or morals by exhibiting
them in life and action. The poetry of the
age is equally characteristic. It has a deeper
and more impressive tone than comes to us
firom what has been called the Augustan age
of English literature. The regular, elaborate,
harmonious strains, which del^hted a former
generation, are now accused, I say not how
justly, of playing too much on the siuface of
nature and of the heart. Men want and de-
mand a more thrilling note, a poetiy which
pierces beneath the exterior of life to the
dq>ths of the soul, and which lays open its
mysterious workings, borrowing from the
is^ole outward creation fresh images and
correspondences with which to illuminate the
secrets of the world within us. So keen is
ths appetite, that extravagances of imagina-
tion and gross violations both of taste and
moral sentiment are forgiven, when conjoined
with what awakens strong emotion; axid un-
happily the most stirring is the most popular
poetry, even though it issue from the desolate
soul of a misanthrope and a libertine, and
exhale poison and death.

Now religion ought to be dispensed in ac-
( commodation to this spirit and character of
oar age. Men desire excitement, and religion
most be communicated in a more exciting
form. It must be seen not only to correspond
and to be adapted to the intellect, but to
lumish nutriment and appeals to the highest
and prolbundest sentiments of our nature. It
must not be exhibited in the dry, pedantic
divisions of a scholastic theology; nor must
it be set forth and tricked out in the light
drapery of an artificial rhetoric, in prettinesses
of style, in measured sentences with an insipid
floridnes^, axtd in the fonQ of elegantly feeble
I essavs. No ; it must come from the soul in
the language of earnest conviction and strong
ieeZsng. Men will not now be trifled with.
They listen impatiently to great subjects
treated with apathy. Th«r want a religion
which will take a strong hold upon them;
and no system, I am sure, can now maintain
its groniid which wants the power of awaken-
ing real and deep interest in the soul. It is
ot^ected to Unitarian Christianity that it
does not possess this heart-stirring energy;
and if so, it will, and still more, it ought, to
iaSL', fat it does not suit the spirit of our
times, nor the essential and abiding spirit
of human nature. Men will prefer even a



fanaticism which is in earnest, to a pretended
rationality which leaves xmtouched all the
great spnngs of the soul, which never lays a
quickening hand on our love and veneration,
our awe and fear, our hope and joy.

It is obvious, I think, that the spirit of the
age, which demands a more exciting adminis-
tration of Christianity, begins to be under-
stood, and is responded to by preachers.
Those of us whose memory extends back but
a little way, can see a revolution taking place
in this country. • • The repose of the pulpit "
has been disturbed. In England, the Estab-
lished Church gives broad symptoms of
awaking; and the slumbering incumbents of
a state religion, either roused by sympathy,
or aware of the necessity of self-defence, are
beginning to exhibit the energy of the freer
and more zealous sects around them.

In such an age earnestness should charac-
terize the ministry ; and by this I mean not a
louder voice or a more vehement gesture ;
I mean no tricks of oratory; but a solemn
conviction that religion is a great concern,
and a solemn purpose that its claims shall
be felt by others. To suit such an age a
minister must communicate religion — not only
as a result of reasoning but as a matter of
experience — with that inexpressible character
of reality, that life and power which accom-
pany truths drawn from a man's own soul.
We ought to speak of religion as something
which we ourselves know. Its influences,
struggles, joys, sorrows, triumphs should be
delineated from our own history. The life
and sensibility which we would spread should
be strong in our own breasts. This is the
only genuine, unfiling spring of an earnest
ministry. Men may work themselves for a
time into a fervour by artificial means ; but
the flame is unsteady. ' * a crackling of thorns"
on a cold hearth; and, after all, it is hard
for the most successful art to give, even for
a time, that soul-subduing tone to the voice,
that air of native feeling to the countenance,
and that raciness and freshness to the con-
ceptions, which come from an experimental
conviction of religious truth; and, accord- v
ingly, I would suggest that the most important
part of theological education, even in this
enlightened age, is not the communication
of knowledge, essential as that is, but the
conversion and exaltation of religious know-
ledge into a living, practical, and soul-kindling
conviction. Much as the age requires intel-
lectual culture in a minister, it requires still
more that his acquisitions of truth should be
instinct with life and feeling ; that he should
deliver his message, not mechanically and
"in the line of his profession," but with the
sincerity and earnestness of a man bent on
great effects; that he should speak of God.
of Christ, of the dignity and loveliness of

N



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DEMANDS OF THE AGE



Christian virtue, of heaven and redemption,
not as of traditions and historical records
about which he has only read» but as of
realities which he understands and feels in
the very depths of his soul.

III. The present is an age of free and
earnest inquiry on the subject of religion, and,
consequently, an age fn which the extremes
of scepticism and bigotry, and a raultipUcity
of sects, and a diversity of interpretations of
the Sacred Volume, must be expected; and
these circumstances of the times influence
and modify the duties of the ministry. Free
inquiry cannot exist without generating a
degree of scepticism ; and against this in-
fluence, more disastrous than any error of
any sect, a minister is bound to erect every
barrier. The human mind, by a natural re-
action, is undoubtedly tending, after its long
va^alage, to licentious speculation. Men
have begim to send keen, searching glances
into old institutions, whether of reUgion,
literature, or p(^i<7; and have detected so
many abuses, that a suspicion of what is old
has m many cases taken place of the venera-
tion for antiquity. In such an age Christianity
must be subjected to a rigid scrutiny. Church
establishments and state patronage cannot
screen it from investigation; and its ministers,
far Ax>m being called to remove it from the
bar of reason, where God has chosen that it
should appear, are only bound to see that its
claims be fairly and fully made known ; and
to this they are solemnly bound ; and, con-
sequently, it is one of their first duties to
search deeply and understand thoroughly the
true foundations and evidences on which the
religion- stands. Now it seems to me, that
just in proportion as the human mind makes
progress, the inward evidences of Christianity,
the marks of divinity which it wears on its
own brow, are becoming more and more
important. I refer to the evidences which
are drawn from its excellence, purity, and
happy influences ; from its adaptation to the
spiritual wants, to the weakness and the
greatness of human nature ; from the original
and unborrowed character, the greatness of
soul, and the celestial loveliness of its
Founder; from its unbounded benevolence,
corresponding with the spirit di the universe;
and from its views of God's parental character
and purposes, of human duty and perfection,
and of a future state; — views manifestly
tending to the exaltation and perpetual im-
provement of our nature, yet wholly opposed
to the character of the age in which they
were unfolded. The historical and miracu-
lous proofs of Christianity are indeed essential
and impregnable : but, without super^ding
these, tne inward proofs of which I speak
are becoming more and more necessary, and
xert a grsater power in proportion as tb«



moral discernment and sensibiUties of men
are strengthened and enlarged. And if this
be true, then Christianity is endangered, and
scepticism fortified by nothing so much as by
representations of the religion which sully its
native lustre and darken its inward signatures
of a heavenly origin ; and, accordingly, the
first and most solemn duty of its ministers is
to rescue it from such perversions; to see
that it be not condemned for doctrines for
which it is in no respect responsible ; and to
vindicate its character as eminently a rational
rehgion. that is, a religion consistent with
itself, with the great principles of human
nature, with God's acknowledged attributes,
and with those indestructible convictions
which spring almost instinctivdy from our
moral constitution, and which grow stronger
and stronger as the human mind is developed.
A professed revelation, carrying contradiction
on its front, and wounding those sentiments
of justice and goodness which are the highest
tests of moral truth, cannot stand ; and those
who thus exhibit Christianity, however pure
their aim, are shaking its foundations more
deeply than its open and inveterate foes.

But free inquny not only generates occa-
sional scepticism, but much more a diversity
of opinion among the believers of Cbris-
tiani^; and to this the ministry must have
a special adaptation. In sudi an age the



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 40 of 169)