William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 85 of 169)
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should rob me of my reputation, rob me of
the affection of my friends and of my means
of doing good. " He who takes from me
my good name," takes the best p>ossession of
which human power can deprive me. It is
true that a Christian's reputation is com-
paratively a light object ; and so is his pro-
perty, so is his hfe; all are light things to
him whose hope is full of immortality. But,
of all worldly blessings, an honest reputation
is to many of us the most precious; and he
who robs us of it is the most injurious of
nnankind, and among the worst of persecutors.
Let not the friends of denunciation attempt
to escape this charge by pleading their sense
of duty, and their sincere desire to promote
the cause of truth. St. Dominic was equally
sincere when he built the Inquisition ; and I
doubt not that many torturers of Christians
have fortified their reluctant minds, at the
moment of appljring the rack and the burning
iron, by the sincere conviction that the cause
of truth required the sacrifice of its foes. I
beg that these remarks may not be applied
indiscriminately to the party called "Ortho-
dox," among whom are multitudes whose
humility and cliarity would revolt from making
themselves the standards of Christian piety,
and from assnihng the Christian character oit
their brethren.

Many other considerations may be added
to those which have been already urged,
against the system of excluding from Christian
fellowship men of upright lives, on account
of their opinions. It necessarily generates
perpetual discoid in the church. Men differ
in opinions as much as in features. No two
minds are perfectly accordant. The shades
of behef are infinitely diversified. Amidst
this immense variety of sentiment, every man
is right in his own eyes. Every man discovers
errors in the creed of his brother. Every man
is prone to magnify the importance of his own
pecuharitics, and to discover danger in the
peculiarities of others. This is human natiu^.
Every man is partial to his own opinions, be-
cause they are his own, and his self-will and
pride are wounded by contradiction. Now
what must we expect when b^ngs $0 erring.



so divided in sentiment, and so apt to be un-
just to the views of others, assert the right of
excluding one another from the Christian
church on account of imagined error? as the
Scriptures confine this right to no individual
and to no body of Christians, it belongs alike
to all ; and what must we expect when
Christians of all capacities and dispositions,
the ignorant, prejudiced, and self-conceited,
imagine it their duty to prescribe opinions to
Christendom, and to open or to shut the door
of the church according to the decision which
their neighbours may form on some of the
most perplexing points of theology? This
question, unhappily, has received answer upon
answer in ecclesiastical history. We there
see Christians denouncing and excommuni-
cating one another for supposed error, until
every denomination has been pronounced
accursed by some portion of the Christian
world; so that were the curses of men to
prevail, not one human being would enter
heaven. To me, it appears that to plead for
the right of excluding men of blameless lives,
on account of their opinions, is to sound the
peal of perpetual and universal war. Arm
men with this p>ower, and we shall have
"nothing but thunder." Some persons are
sufficiently simple to imagine that if this
"horrid Unitarianism" were once hunted
down, and put quietly into its grave, the
church would be at peace. But no: our
present contests have their origin, not in the
" enormities " of Unitarianism, but very much
in the principles of human nature, in the love
of power, in impatience of contradiction, in
mens passion for imposing their own views
upon others, in the same causes which render
them anxious to make proselytes to all their
opinions. Were Unitarianism quietly interred,
another and another hideous form of error
would start up before the zealous guardians of
the " purity of the church." The Arminian,
from whom the pursuit has been diverted for
a time by his more offending Unitarian
brother, would soon be awakened from his
dream of security by the clamoiur of denim-
ciation ; and should the Arminian fall a prey,
the Calvinists would then find time to look
into the controversies among themselves, and
almost every class would discover, with the
eagle eye of their brethren at New York, that
those who differ from them hold "another
gospel," and ought to be " resisted and de-
nounced." Thus the wars of Christians will
be perpetual. Never will there be peace
until Christians agree to differ, and agree to
look for the evidences of Christian character
in the temper and the life.

Another argument against this practice of
denouncing the supposed errors of sincere
professors of Christianity, is this. It exalts
to supremacy in the church men who have



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the least claim to influence. Humble, meek,
and affectionate Christians are least disposed
to make creeds for their brethren, and to
denounce those who differ from them. On
the contrary, the impetuous, proud, and
enthusiastic, men who cannot or will not
weigh the arguments of opponents, are always
most positive and most unsparing in denun-
ciation. These take the lead in a system of
exclusion. They have no false modesty, no
false charity, to shackle their zeal In framing
fundamentals for their brethren, and in
punishing the obstinate in error. The con-
sequence is, that creeds are formed which
exclude from Christ's church some of his
truest followers, which outrage reason as well
as revelation, and which subsequent ages are
obliged to mutilate and explain away, lest the
whole religion be rejected by men of reflec-
tion. Such has been the history of the
church. It is strange that we do not learn
wisdom from the past. What man, who
feels his own fallibility, who sees the errors
into which the positive and "orthodox" of
former times have been betrayed, and who
considers his own utter inability to decide on
the degree of truth which every mind, of
every capacity, must receive in order to salva-
tion, will not tremble at the rcsponsibiUty of
prescribing to his brethren, in his own words,
the views they must maintain on the most
perplexing subjects of religion? Humility
will always leave this work to others.

Another important consideration is, that
this system of excluding men of apparent
sincerity, for their opinions, entirely subverts
free inquiry into the Scriptures. When once
a particular system is surrounded by this bul-
wark ; when once its defenders have brought
the majority to beUeve that the rejection of it
is a mark of depravity and peraition, what
but the name of liberty is left to Christians ?
The obstacles to inquiry are as real, and may
be as powerful, as in the neighbourhood of
the Inquisition. The multitude dare not
think, and the thinking dare not speak. The
right of private judgment may thus, in a
Protestant country, be reduced to a nullity.
It is true that men are sent to the Scriptures;
but they are told before they go that they will
be driven from the church on earth and in,
heaven, unless they find in the Scriptures the
doctrines which are embodied in the popular
creed. They are told, indeed, to inquire for
themselves; but they are also told at what
points inquiry must arrive ; and the sentence
of exclusion hangs over them if they happea
to stray, with some of the best and wisest
men, into forbidden paths. Now this " Pro-
testant Uberty'* is, in one respect, more irri-
tating than Papal bondage. It mocks as well
as enslaves us. It talks to us courteously
as friends and brethren whilst it rivets our



chains. It invites and even charges us to
look with our own eyes, but with the same
breath warns us against seeing anything
which Orthodox eyes have not seen before
us. Is this a state of things favourable to
serious inquiry into the truths of the Gospel ?
yet, how long has the church been groaning
under this cruel yoke !

Another objection to this system of ex-
cluding professed disciples of Christ, on
account of their opinions, is, that it is incon-
sistent with the great principles of Congre-
gationalism. In churches where the power
IS lodged in a few individuals, who are sup-
posed to be the most learned men in the com-
munity, the woric of marking out and ex-
cluding the erroneous may seem less difficult.
But, among Congregationalists, the tribunal
before which the offender is to be brought is
the whole church, consisting partly of men in
humble circumstances and of unimproved
minds; partly of men engaged in active and
pressing business ; and partly of men of
education, whose studies nave been directed
to law and medicine. Now, is this a tribunal
before which the most intricate points of theo-
logy are to be discussed, and serious in-
quirers are to answer for opinions whidi they
have perhaps examined more laboriously and
faithfully than all their judges? Would a
church of htunble men, conscious of their
limited opportimities, consent to try, for these
pretended crimes, profiessing Christians as
intelligent, as honest, and as exemplary as
themselves? It is evident that, in the busi-
ness of excluding men for opinions, a church
can be little more than the tool of the mi-
nister, or a few influential members ; and oar
churches are, in general, too independent and
too upright to take this part in so solemn a
transaction. To correct their deficiencies,
and to quicken their zeal on this point, we
are now threatened with new tribunals, or
Consociations, whose office it will be to try
ministers for their errors, to inspect the
churches, and to advise and assist them in the
extirpation of ' ' heresy. " Whilst the laity are
slumbering, the ancient and free constitution
of our churches is silently undermined, and is
crumbling away. Since argument is insuffi-
,cient to produce uniformity of opinion, re-
course must be had to more powerful instru-
ments of conviction ; I mean to ecclesias-
tical COURTS. And are this people indeed
prepared to submit to this most degradmg
form of vassalage — a vassalage which reaches
and palsies the mind, and imposes on it the
dreams and fictions of men for the everlast-
ing truth of God 1

These remarks lead me to the last conade-
ration which I shall urge against the proposed
system of exclusion and separation. This
system will shake to the foundation our reli-



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gknis institutions, and destroy many babits
and connections which have had the happiest
influence on the religious character of this
people. In the first place, if Christian com-
munion and all acknowledgments of Christian
character are to be denied on the ground of
difference of opinion, the annual "Conven-
tion of Congregational Ministers of Massa-
chusetts, " that ancient bond of union, must
be dissolved ; and in its dissolution we shall
lose the edifying, honourable, and rare ex-
ample of ministers regularly assembling, not
to exercise power and to fetter the conscience,
but to reciprocate kind affection, and to unite
in sending relief to the families of their de-
ceased brethren. This event may gladden
the heart of the sectarian ; it will carry no joy
to the widow and orphan. — In the next place,
the "Associations of Ministers," in our dif-
ferent counties, must in many cases be broken
up, to make room for new associations,
founded on similarity of opinion. Thus, that
intercourse which now subsists between mi-
nisters of different persuasions, and which
tends to enlarge the mind and to give a
liberality to the feelings, will be diminished,
if not destroyed ; and ministers, becoming
more contracted and exclusive, will commu-
nicate more of this unhappy spirit to their
sodetfes. — In the next place, neighbouring
churches, which, from their very foundation,
have ctHtimted Christian commimion, and
counselled and comforted each other, will be
mutually estranged, and, catching the temper
of their religious guides, will exchange fel-
lowship for denunciation ; and instead of de-
lighdng in each other" s prosperity, will seek
each other's destruction. — Again : in the same
church, where Christians of different views
have long acknowledged each other as dis-
ciples of our Master, and have partaken the
same feast of charity, angry divisions will
break forth, parties will be marshalled under
different leaders, the sentence of excommuni-
cation will be hurled by the majority on their
guiltless brethren (if the majority should be
••orthodox"), and thus anger, heartburnings,
and bitter recriminations will spread through
many of our towns and churches. — Again :
many of our religious societies will be rent
asunder, their ministers dismissed, and reli-
gious institutions cease. It is well known
that many of our country parishes are able
to support but a single minister. At the same
time, they are divided in sentiment; and
nothing but a spirit of charity and forbear-
ance has produced that union by which public
worship has been maintained. Once let the
proposed war be proclaimed, let the standard
of parfy be rai^d, and a minister must look
for support to that party only to which he is
attached. An " Orthodox" minister should
Uush to ask it from men whom he denounces



for honest opinions, and to whom he denies
all the ordinances of the Gospel. It surely
cannot be expected that Liberal Christians
Will contribute, by their property, to uphold a
system of exclusion and intolerance directed
against themselves. What, then, will be the
fate of many of our societies? Their minis-
ters, even now, can with difficulty maintain
the conflict with other denominations. Must
they not sink, when deserted by their most
efficient friends ? Many societies will be left,
as sheep without a shepherd, a prey to those
whom we call sectarians, but who will no
longer have an exclusive right to the name, if
the system of division which has been pro-
posed be adopted. Many ministers will be
compelled to leave the field of their labotirs
and their prospects of usefulness ; and, 1 fear,
the ministry will lose its hold on the affection
and veneration of men, when it shall have
engendered so much division and contention.
— But this is not all. The system of denying
the Christian name to those who differ from
us in interpreting the Scriptures, will carry
discord not only into churches but families.
In how many instances are heads of families
divided in opinion on the present subjects of
contioversy? Hitherto they have loved each
other as partakers of the same glorious hopes,
and have repaired in their domestic joys and
sorrows to the same God (as they imagined)
through the same Mediator. But now, they
are taught that they have different Gods and
different gospels, and are taught that the
friends of truth are not to hold cornmunion
with its rdecters. Let this doctrine be re-
ceived, ancf one of the tenderest ties by which
many wedded hearts are knit together will be
dissolved. The family altar must fall. .Reli-
gion will be known in many a domestic
retreat, not as a bond of tmion, but a subject
of debate, a source of discord or depression.

Now I ask. For what boon are all these
sacrifices to be made? The great end is, that
certain opinions, which have been embraced
by many serious and inquiring Christians as
the ttuth of God, may be driven from the
church, and be dreaded by the people as
among the worst of crimes. Uniformity of
opinion — that airy good which emperors,
popes, councils, synods, bishops, and minis-
ters have been seeking for ages, by edicts,
creeds, threatenings, excommunications, in-
quisitions, and flames— this is the great object
of the system of exclusion, separation, and
denunciation, which is now to be introduced.
To this we are to sacrifice our established
habits and bondsof union ; and this is to be pur-
sued by means which, as many reflecting mer
believe, threaten our dearest rights and liberties.

It is sincerely hoped that reflecting laymen
will no longer shut their eyes on this subject.
It is a melancholy fact that our long-estab-



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39a ON THE SYSTEM OF EXCLUSION

lished Congregational form of church govern- expression of superiority on the pajt of owr
ment is menaced, and tribunals unknown to brethren should be repelled as criminal usur-
our churches, and unknown, as we believe, pation. But, in doing this, let the friends of
to the Scriptures, are to be introduced ; liberal and genuine Christianity remember
and introduced for the very purpose, that the spirit of their religion. Let no passion
the supposed errors and mistakes of minis- or bitterness dishonour their sacred cause. la
ters and private Christians may be tried and contending for the Gospel, let them not lose
punished as heresies, that is, as crimes. In its virtues or forfeit its promises. — We are
these tribunals, as in all ecclesiastical bodies, indeed called to pass through one of the
the clergy, who make theology their profes- severest trials of human virtue, the trial of
sion, will of necessity have a preponderating controversy. We should carry with us a
influence, so that the question now before sense of its danger. Religion, when made a
the public is, in fact, only a new form of the subject of debate, seems often to lose its
old controversy which has agitated all ages; empire over the heart and life. The mild
namely, whether the clergy shall think for and affectionate spirit of Christianity gives
the laity, or prescribe to them their religion, place to angry recriminations and cruel stir-
Were this question fairly proposed to the mises. Fair dealing, uprightness, and truth
public, there would be but one answer; but are exchanged for the arts of sophistry. The
It is wrapped up in a dark phraseology about devotional feelings, too, decline in warmth
the purity and order of the church, a and tenderness. Let us, then, watch and
phraseology which, I believe, imposes on pray. Let us take heed that the weapons of
multitudes of ministers as well as laymen, our warfare be not carnal. Whilst we repel
and induces acquiescence in measures, the usurpation, let us be just to the general recti-
real tendency of which they would abhor, tude of nwiny by whom our Christian rights
It is, I hope, from no feeling of party, but are invaded. Whilst we repel the uncharitable
from a sincere regard to the religion of Christ, censures of men, let us not forget the deep
that I would rouse the slumbering minds of humilityandsenseofunworthiness with which
this community to the dangers which hang we should ever appear before God. In our
over their rehgious institutions. No power zeal to maintain the great truth, that Our
is so rapidly accumulated, or so dreadfully Father in Heaven is alone the Supreme
abused, as ecclesiastical power. It assails God, let us not neglect that intercourse with
men with menaces of eternal woe unless they Him without which the purest conceptions
submit, and gradually awes the most stubborn will avail little to enthrone Him in our hearts,
and strongest minds into subjection. I mean In our zeal to hold fast the * ' word of Christ,"
not to ascribe the intention of introducing in opposition to human creeds and formu-
ecclesiastical tyranny to any class of Chris- laries, let us not forget that our Lord demands
tians among us ; but I believe that many, in another and a still more unsuspicious oonfes-
the fervour of a zeal which may be essentially sion of him, even the exhibition of his spirit
virtuous, are about to touch with imhallowed and religion in our lives,
hands the ark of God, to support Christianity The controversy in which we are engaged is
by measures which its mild and charitable indeed painful ; but it was not chosen, but
spirit abhors. I believe that many, over- forced upon us, and we ought to regard it as
looking the principles of human nature and a part of the discipline to which a wise Pro-
the history of the church, are about to set in vidence has seen nt to subject us. Like all
motion a spring of which they know not the other trials, it is designed to promote our
force, and cannot calculate the effects. I moral perfection. I trust, too, that it is de-
believe that the seed of spiritual tyranny is signed to promote the cause of truth. Whilst
sown, and although to a careless spectator it I would speak diffidently of the future. I stQl
may seem the '* smallest of all seeds," it has hope that a brighter day is rising on the Chris-
yet within itself a fatal principle of increase, tian church than it has yet enjoyed. The
and may yet darken this region of our country Gospel is to shine forth in its native glory,
with its deadly branches. The violent excitement by which some of the

The time is come when the friends of corruptions of this divine system are now sup-
Christian lilxrty and Christian charity are ported, cannot be permanent ; and the uncha-
called to awake, and to remember their duties ritableness with which they are enforced will
to themselves, to posterity, and to the church react, like the persecutions of the Church of
of Christ. The time is come when the rights Rome, in favour of truth. Already we have
of conscience and the freedom of our churches the comfort of seeing many disposed to in-
must t)e defended with zeal. The time is quire, and to inquire without that terror which
come when menace and denunciation must has bound as with a spell so many minds,
be met with a spirit which will show that we Wc doubt not that this inquiry will result in a
dread not the frowns and lean not on the deep conviction that Christianity is yet <5*-
favour of man. The time is come when every figured by errors which have been tiiuismUM

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from ages of darkness. Of this, at least, we candid, and charitable temper. I pray God
are sure, that inquiry, by discovering to men that this most happy consummation may be
the difficulties and obscurities which attend in no degree obstructed by any unchristian
the present topics of controversy, will termi- feelings, which, notwithstanding my sincere
nate in what is infinitely more desirable than efforts, have escaped me in the present con-
doctrinal concord— in the diffusion of a mild, troversy.



EXTRACTS FROM A LETTER ON CREEDS.



My aversion to human creeds as bonds of
Christian union, as conditions of Christian
fellowship, as means of fastening chains on
men's minds, constantly gains strength.

My first objection to them is, that they sepa-
rate us from Jesus Christ. To whom am I to
go for my Icnowledge of the Christian reli-
gion but to the Great Teacher, to the Son
of God, to him in whom the fulness of the
divinity dwelt ? This is my great privilege as
a Christian, that I may sit at the feet not of a
human but divine master, that I may repair
to him in whom truth lived and spoke with-
out a mixture of error; who was eminently
the Wisdom of God and the light of the
world. And shall man dare to interpose be-
tween me and my heavenly guide and Saviour,
and prescribe to me the articles of my Chris-
tian faith? What is the state of mind in
which I shall best learn the tnith ? It is that
in which 1 forsake all other teachers for Christ,
in which my mind is brought nearest to him ; it
is that in which I lay myself open most entirely
to the impressions of his mind. Let me go to
Jesus with a human voice sounding in my ears,
and telling me what I must hear from the Great
Teacher, and how can I listen to him in sin-
gleness of heart? All Protestant sects, in-
deed, tell the learner to listen to Jesus Christ;
but most of them shout around him their
own articles so vehemently and imperiously,
that the voice of the heavenly master is well
nigh drowned. He is told to hsten to Christ,
but told tfiat he will be damned if he receives
any lessons but such as are taught in the
creed. He is told that Christ's word is alone
infillible, but that unless it is received as in-
terpreted by fallible men, he will be excluded
from the communion of Christians. This is
what shocks me in the creed-maker. He in-
terposes himself between me and my Saviour.
He dares not trust me alone vrith Jesus. He
dares not leave me to the word of God. This
I cannot endure. The nearest possible com-
munication with the mind of Christ is my
great privilege as a Christian. I must learn
Christ's truth from Christ himself, as he
speaks in the records of his life, and in the



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 85 of 169)