William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 77 of 169)
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nances, we are bound to seek the gift in his
appointed way ; and that, having actually
chosen this method of imparting it. He may
justly withhold it from those who refuse to
comply with his appointment. I reply, that
the right of the Innnite Father to bestow his
blessings in such ways as to his infinite wis>
dom and love may seem best, no man can be
so irr ev erent as to deny. But is it not reason-
able to expect that He will adopt such methods
or conditions as will seem to accord with bis
perfection? And ought we not to distrust
such as seem to dishonour Him ? Suppose,
for example, that I were told that the Infinite
Father had decreed to give his Holy Spirit
to such as should bathe freely in the sea.
Ou^ht I not to require the most plain, un-
deniable proofs of a purpose apparently so
unworthy of his majesty and goodness, baore
yielding obedience to it? Trie presimiption
against it is exceedingly strong. That the
Infinite Father, who is ever present to the
human soul, to whom it is unspeakably dear,
who has created it for communion with Him-
self, who desires and delights to impart to it
his grace, that He should ordain sea-bathin|^
as a condition or means of spiritual coraimi-
nication, is so improbable, that I must insist
on the strongest testimony to its truth. Now,
I meet precisely this difiiculty in the doetrkM
that God bestows his Hol^ Spirit on those
who receive bread and wme, or flesh ud
blood, or a form ^of benediction or IwnKhw .
or any other outward ministration, fixMM fht
hands or lips of certain privileged ndnisten or
priests. It is the most glorious act and nm^
testation of God's power and love to imp«C
enlightening, quickening, purifying influenoet
to the immortal soul. To imagine that tbetft
descend in connection with certain wonl%
signs, or outward rites, administered bf «
frail fellow-creature, and are withbcAd «r
abridged in the absence of such rites, 9
at first, an intuit to his wisdom and \

• CclowiusiIi.z4. tJolm«B.|i(

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ness ; seems to bring doum his pure, infitiite
throne, to set arbitrary limits to his highest
agency, and to assimilate his worship to that
01 false ^ods. The Scriptures teach us that
"God giveth grace to the humble ;" that *'he
giveth his Holy Spirit to them that ask him."
This is the great law of Divine communica-
tions; and we can see its wisdom, because
the mind which hungers for Divine assistances
is most prepared to use them aright. And
can we leaUy believe that the prayers and
aspirations of a penitent, thirsting soul need
to be seconded by the outward offices of a
minister or priest ? or that for want of these
they find less easy entrance into the ear
of the ever-present, all-loving Father? My
mind recoils from this doctrine as dishonour-
able to God, and I ought not to receive it
without clear proofs. I want something more
than metaphors, or analogies, or logical in-
ferences. I want some express Divine testi-
mony. And where is it given? Do we not
know that thousands and millions of Chris-
tians, whose li\'es and deaths have borne
witness to their faith, have been unable to
find it in the Scriptures, or anywhere else?
And can we believe that the spiritual com-
munication of such men with the Divinity
has been forfeited or impaired, because they
have abstained from rites which in their con-
Spienoes they could not recognize as of Divine
aifioiBlment ? That so irrational and extra-
vagant a doctrine should enter the mind of a
man who has the capacity of reading the New
Testament would seem an impossibility, did
IMA history show us that it has been not only
believed, but made the foundation of the
bitterest intolerance and the bloodiest per-

The notion that, by a decree of God's
sovereign will, his grace or Spirit flows
through certain rites to those who are in
union with a certain church, and that it is
promised to none besides, has no foundation
in Scripture or reason. The church, as I
bave previoody suggested, is not an arbitrary

nntmeot ; it docs not rest on Will, but is

ned on account of its obvious fitness to

nplish the spiritual improvement which

I tbe end of Christianity. It corresponds to

It is a union of means, and in-

1 offices which rational and moral

I need. It has no affinity with the

^ operations so common in false re-

*; its agency is intelligible and level to

unon mind. Its two great rites,

md the Lord's supper, are not

: fo act as charms. When freed from

t and superstitions whkh have clung

J forages, and when administered, as

J should b^ with tenderness and solemnity,

a^tif are powerhil means of bringing great
troths to the mind and of touching the heart,

and for these ends they are ordained. The
adaptation of the church to the promotion of
holiness among men is its grand exceUence ;
and where it accomplishes this end its work is
done, and no greater can be conceived on
earth or in heaven. The moment we shut
our eyes on this truth, and conceive of the
church as serving us by forms and ordinances
which are effectual only in the hands of
privileged officials or priests, we plunge into
the region of shadows and superstitions ; we
have no ground to tread on, no light to guide
us. This mysterious power, lodged in the
hands of a few fellow-creatures, tends to give
a servile spirit to the mass of Christians, to
impair manliness and self-respect, to subdue
the intellect to the reception of the absurdest
dogmas. Religion loses its simple grandeur,
and degenerates into mechanism and form.
The conscience is quieted by something short
of true repentance ; somethmg besides purity
of heart and life is made the qualification
for heaven. The surest device for making
the mind a coward and a slave is a wide-
spread and closely cemented church, the
powers of which are concentrated in the
hands of a "sacred order," and which has
succeeded in arrogating to its rites or minis-
ters a swav over the future world, over the
soul's everlasting weal or woe. The inevit-
ably degrading mfluence of such a church is
demonstrative proof against its Divine ori-

There is no end to the volumes written in
defence of this or that church ^hich sets it-
self forth as the only true church, and claims
exclusive acceptance with God. But the un-
lettered Christian has an answer to them all.
He cannot and need not seek it in libraries. He
finds it, almost without seeking, in plain pas-
sages oif the New Testament, and in his own
heart. He reads and he feels that religion is an
Inward Life. This he knows, not by report,
but by consciousness, by the prostration of
his soul in penitence, by the surrender of his
will to the Divine, by overflowing gratitude,
by calm trxist, and by a new love to his
fellow-creatures. Will it do to tell such a
man that the promises of Christianity do not
belong to him, that access to God is denied
him, because he is not joined with this or
that exclusive church ? Has not this access
been granted to him already? Has he not
prayed in his griefs, and been consoled ? in
his temptations, and been strengthened ? Has
he not found God near in his solitudes and
in the great congregation? Does he thirst
for anything so fervently as for perfect assi-
milation to the Divine purity? And can he
question God's readiness to help him, because
he is unable to find in Scripture a command
to bind himself to this or another self-magni-
fying church ? How easily do^ the experi-


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ence of the trae Christian brush away the
cobwebs of theologians I He loves and
reveres God, and in this spirit has a foretaste
of heaven ; and can heaven be barred against
him by ecclesiastical censures? He has felt
the power of the cross and resurrection and
promises of Jesus Christ ; and is there any
"height or depth" of human exclusiveness
and bigotry which can separate him from his
Lord? He can die for truth and humanity ;
and IS there any man so swelled by the con-
ceit of Tiis union with the true church as
to stand apart and say, "I am holier than
thou?" When, by means of the writings
or conversiations of Christians of various de-
nominations, you look into their hearts and
discern the deep workings, and conflicts, and
aspirations of piety, can you help seeing in
them tokens of the presence and operations
of God's Spirit more authentic and touching
than in all the harmonies and beneficent in-
fluences of the outward universe ? Who can
shut up this Spirit in any place or any sect?
Who will not rejoice to witness it jn its fruits
of justice, goodness, purity, apd piety, wher-
ever they meet the eye ? Who will not hail
it as the infallible sign of the accepted wor-
shipper of God ?

One word more respecting the arguments
adduced in support of one or another exclu-
sive churdi. They are continually, and of
necessity, losing their force. Arguments owe
their influence very much to the mental con-
dition of those to whom they are addressed.
What is proof to one man is no proof to
another. The evidence which is triumphant
in one age is sometimes thought below notice
in the next. Men's reasonings on practical
subjects are not cold, logical processes, stand-
ing separate in the mind, but are carried on
in intimate connection with their prevalent
feelings- and modes of thought. Generally
speaking, that, and that only, is truth to a
man which accords with the common tone of
his mind, with the mass of his impressions,
with the results of his experience, with his
measure of intellectual development, and es-
pecially with those deep convictions and biases
which constitute what we call character. Now,
it is the tendency of increasing civilization,
refinement^ and expansion of mind, to pro-
duce a tone of thought and feehng unfriendly
to the church spirit, to reliance on church
forms as essential to salvation. As the world
advances it leaves matters of form behind.
In proportion as men get into the heart of
tilings, they are less anxious about exteriors.
In proportion as religion becomes a clear
reahty, we grow tired of shows. In the pro-
gress of ages there spring up in greater num-
bers men of mature thought and spiritual
freedom, who unite self-reverence with reve-
rence of Go4« aiid who cannot, without a

feeling approaching shame and conscious
degradation, submit to a church which accu-
mulates outward, rigid, mechanical obser-
vances towards the Infinite Father. A voice
within them, which they cannot silence, pro-
tests against the perpetual repetition of the
same signs, motions, words, as unworthy of
their own spiritual powers, and of Him who
deserves the highest homage of the reason
and the heart. Their filial spirit protests
against it. In common Ufe, a refined, lofty
mind expresses itself in simple, natural, un-
constrained manners ; and the same tendency,
though often obstructed, is manifested in
religion. The progress of Christianity, which
must go on, is but another name for the
growing knowledge and experience of that
spiritual worship of the Father which Christ
proclaimed as the end of his mission; and
before this the old idolatrous reliance on
ecclesiastical forms and organizations cannot
stand. There is thus a perpetually swelling
current which exclusive churches have to
stem, and which must sooner or later sweep
away their proud pretensions. What arails
it that this or another church summons to
its aid fathers, traditions, venerated usages?
The spirit, the genius of ChristiaDity is
stronger than all these. The great ideas of the
reUgion must prevail over narrow, perverse
interpretations of it. On this ground I have
no alarm at reports of the triumphs of the
Catholic Chiux:h. The spirit of Christianity
is stronger than popes and countals. Its
vencrableness and divine beauty put to shame
the dignities and pomps of a hierarchy; and
men must more and more recognise it as
alone essential to sah'ation.

From the whole discussion through which I
have now led you, vou will easily gathu" how
I regard the church, and what importance I
attach to it. In its true idea, or regarded as
the union of those who partake in the spirit
of Jesus Christ, I revere it as the noblest of
ell associations. Our common social tmiaiis
are poor by its skle. In the world we fbim
ties of interest, pleasure, and ambirioo. '^Ht.
come together as creatures of time and sene
for transient amusement or display. la tiw
Church we meet as God's children ; we i»»
cognize in ourselves something higher dun
this animal and worldly life. We eatnt tiflit .
holy feelings may spread from heart to toMt
The church, in its true idea, is a retreat 6mi
the world. We meet in it that, by imlon witfi
the holy, we may get strength to withstand
our common intercourse with the impUMb
Wc meet to adore God, to open oar smAvM
his Spirit, and, by recognition of the 4
mon Father, to forget all distinction
ourselves, to embrace all men as
This spiritual union wifli the holy
departed and who yet live, is the begtelftiV

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of that perfect fellowship which constitutes
heaven. It is to survive all ties. The bonds
of hois^nd and wife, parent and child, are
severed at death ; the union of the virtuous
friends of God and man is as eternal as
firtue, and this uhion is the essence of the
tme church.

To the church relation, in this hroad,
apiritual view of it, 1 ascribe the highest
dimity and importance. But as to union
with & particular denomination or with a
sodety or Christians for public worship and
instrtlctlbn. th!s, however important, is not
to be regajrdcd as the highest means of grace.
\Vc ought, indeed, to seek help for ourselves,
and to give help to others, by upholding
r^gious institutions, by meeting tcgether in
the name of Christ. The influence of Chris-
tiasilty is perpetuated and extended, in no
small degree, by the public offices of piety,
ly the visible "communion of saints." But
it is still true that the public means of religion
are not its chief means. Private helps to piety
are the most efficacious. The great work cw
religion is to be done, not in society, but in
secret, in the retired soul, in the silent closet.
Communion with God is eminently the means
of rtfUgion, the nutriment and hfe of the
soul, and we can commune with God in soli-
tude as nowhere else, tjere his presence
may be most felt. It is bv the breathing of
the unrestrained soul, by the opening of the
wfaoltf heart to " Him who seeth in secret ; "
it is t)j? reviewing our own spiritual history,
by searching deeply into ourselves, by solitary
tAou|4it, and solitary solemn consecration of
Oor^ves to a new virtue ; it is by these acts,
axK! not by public gatherings, that we chiefly
mak6 progress in the religious hfe. It is
coipmon to speak of the house of public
Worship as a holy place ; but it has no exclu-
ijvc sanctity. Th« holiest spot on earth is
ttat where the soul breathes its purest vows,
and forms or executes its noblest purposes ;
and on this ground, were I to seek the holiest
spot in your city, I should not go to ^our
splendid sanctuanes, but to closets of pnvate
prayer. Perhaps the "Holy of Holies"
among* yoii is some dark, narrow room from
which most of us would shrink as unflt for
hrnnan Ixabitation; but God dwells there.
He heais there music more grateful than the
swell of an your oigans, sees there a beauty
such as nkture, in these her robes of spring,
does titrt .unfold ; for there He meets, and
sees, and hears the humblest, roost thankful,
roost trustful worshipper; sees the |sorest
trials sei^enely borne, the deepest injuries (oiv
gfren} sees tods sod sacrifices cheerfully sus^
taioed, ^nd death approached through poverty
and lonely iDness with a triumphant faith. The
Consecration which such virtues shed over the
dtaoirest spot is not and cannot be com-*

municated by any of those outward rites by
which our splendid structures are dedicated
to God.

You see the rank whkih belongs to the
church, whether gathered in one place or
spread over the whole earth. It is a sacred
and blessed union, but must not be mag-
nified above other means and helps of religion.
The great aids of piety are secret, not public.
The Christian cannot live without private
prayer; he may live and make progress with-
out a particular church. Providence may
place us far from the resorts of our fellow-
aisdpleS, beyond the sound of the §abbath-
bell, bevond all ordinances ; and we niay hnd
Sabbatns and ordinances in our own spirits.
Illness may separate us from the outward
church as well as from the hving world, and
the soul may yet be in health and prosper.
There have been men of eminent piety who.
from conscience, have separated themselves
from all denominations of Christians and all
outward worship. Milton, that great soul, in
the latter years of hfs life, forsook all temples
made with hands, and worshipped wholly in
the inward sanctuary. So did William Law,
the author of tliat remarkable book, ' • The
Seriotis Call to a Devout and Ploly Life."
His excess of devotion (for in him devotion
ran into excess) led him to disparage all occa-
sional acts of piety. He lived iq solitude,
that he might make life a perpetual prayer.
These men are not named as models in this
particular. They mistook the wants of the
soul, and misinterpreted the Scriptures. Even
they, with all their spirituality, would have
found moral strength and holy impulse in re-
ligious association. But, with such examples
before us, we learn not to exclude men from
God's favour because sevei^d from the out-
ward church.

The doctrine of this discourse is plain.
Inward sanctity, pure love, disinterested at-
tachment to God and man, obedience of heart
and life, sincere excellence of character, this
ys, the one thing needful, this the essential
thing in religion ; and aU things else, minis-
ters, churches, ordinances, places of worship,
all are but means, helps, secondary influences,
and utterly worthless when separated from
this. To imagine that God regards anything
but this, that He looks at anything but the
heart, is to dishonour Him, to express a mourn-
ful insensibility to his pure character. Good-
ness, purity, virtue, this is the only distinction
'y\ God's sight. This is intrinsically, esssn-
tially^ everlastingly, and by its own nature,
lovely, beautiful, glorious, divine. It owes
iaothmg to time, to circumstance, to outward
connections. It shines by its own light. It is
the sun of the spiritual universe. It is God
Himself dwelling in the human soul. Can
any man think lightly of it because it has not

A A 2

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grown up in a certain church, or exalt any from the free air, the cheeriW l^R**** *j*

church above it? My friends, one of the goodlv prospects, the celestial beauty of the

grandest truths of rdigion is the supreme im- church universal,
portanoc of character, of virtue, of that divine My friends, I know that I am tddreKttJ

spirit which shone out in Christ The grand those who hold various opinions is to Cbc

heresy is to substitute anything for this, whe- controverted points of theology. We m«

ther creed, or form, or church. One of the grown up under different inmwiocSi We

greatest wrongs to Christ is to despise his bear different names. But if MfC PJ^PJ^

character, hb virtue, in a disciple who hap- solemnly to do God's will, and are foUowmg

pens to wear a different name from our own. the precepts and example of Chri*. we are

When I represent to myself true virtue or one church, and let nothing divide as. Ui'JJ-
goodness ; not that which is made up of out- sities of opinion may incline us to wonhlp
ward proprieties and prudent calculations, under different roofs ; or diversities oi tistts
but that which chooses duty for its own sake, or habit, to woiship with different fon^
and as the first concern, which respects impar- But these varieties are not schisms; ^^
tially the rights of every human being, which not break the unity of Christ's church. We
labours and suffers with patient resolution for may still honour and love and rejoice in one
truth and others' welfare, which blends energy another's spiritual life and progress as Ifwy
and sweetness, deep humility and self-reve- as if we were cast into one and the 5«nle1B»•
renoe,whichplacesjoyfulfaithintheperfection yielding form. God loves variety in nW
of God, communes with Him intimately, and and in the human soul, nor docs He W^
strives to subject to his pure will all thought, in Christian worship. In many great trotte.
imagination, and desire ; which lays hold on in those which are most quickening, pvn*
the promise of everlasting life, and in the ^ng, and consoling, we all, I hope, ag|^
strength of this hope endures calmly and There b, too, a common ground of prtctice,
firmly the sorest evils of the present state ; aloof from all controversy, on which **|J^
when I set before me this virtue, all the dis- all meet We may all unite hearts and has©
tinctions on which men value themselves fade in doing good, in fulfilling God's purpose »
away. Wealth is poor; worldly honour is love towards our race, in toiling and suffer^
mean ; outward forms are beggarly elements, for tte cause of humanity, in spreading int»-
Condition, country, church, ^Isink into un- ligence, freedom, and virtue, in maldn^ Goo
importance. Before this simple greatness I known for the reverence, love, and inutalwj
bow, I revere. The robed priest, the gor- of his creatures, in resisting the abuses va
geous altar, the great assembly, the pealing corruptions of past ages, in exploring ^
organ, all the exteriors of- religion vanish drying up the sources of povertjr, in rg°°*
firom mv sight as I look at the good and great the fallen from intemperance, m succonn^
man, the holy, disinterested soul. Even I, the orphan and widow, in enlightening a*
with vision so dim, with heart so cold, can elevating the depressed portions of l^*^
sec and feel the divinity, the grandeur of true munity, m breaking the yoke of the ^WJ^
goodness. How, then, must God reganl it? and enslaved, in exposing and wilhsttB**
To his pure eye how lovelv must it be I And the spirit and horrors of war, in sewo*
can anyof us turn fh>m it because some water God's Word to the ends of the •'"^lJJ
has not been dropped on its forehead, or redeeming the world from sin and woe. T*^
some bread put into its lips by a minister or angels and pure spirits who visit our eartn
priest ; or because it has not learned to repeat come not to join a sect, but to do good to sJi*
some mysterious creed which a church or May this universal charity descend on ^
human council has ordained ? and possess our hearts ! may our w""'*"^

My friends, reverence virtue, holiness, the exclusiveness. and bigotry melt awaf J^JJ '

upright mriU which inflexibly cleaves to duty this mild, celestial fire ! Thus we "•JJ^

and the pure law of God. Reverence nothing only join ourselves to Christ's U"}*^

In comparison with it. Regard this as the Church on earth, but to the Invisible Choice

end, and all outward services as the means, to the innumerable company of the jatf>>^

Judge of men by this. Think no man the perfect, in the mansions of everiastiag ^^

better, no man the worse, for the church he and peace. _^__

belongs to.. Try him by his fruits. Expd

from your oreasts the demon of sectarianism, Notes. ^

narrowness, bigotry, intolerance. This is not, I HAVE spoken in this discoune oftoe

ns we are apt to think, a slight sin. It is a Romish Church as excluding from sahaWJ

-i-nial of the supremacy of goodness. It seU those who do not submit to it. I know, ana

mething, whether a form or dogma, rejoice to know, that many Catholics arc ttw
the virtue of the heart and the life, wise and good to hold this doctrine ; but tw

«:— 2 t.._,r.._ . , ^. . interpretedbyitspastwo * -"''"^*^

> liberal.

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iniMn immures itself in its particular Church, interpreted^ itspast words and actt
as in a dungeon, and is there cut off is not so liberal.



I hare also expressed my reverence for the
Hhtstrious names which have adorned the
Engtish Church. This Church sets up higher
claims than any other in the Protestant
work! ; but b^ a man acquainted with its
early history it will be seen to be clothed
with no peculiar authority. If any Protestant
diurch deserves to be called a creature of the
state, ft is this. It was shaped by the sovereign
very much after his own wilL It is a problem
in history bow the Ejiglish people, so sturdy

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 77 of 169)