William Rainey Harper.

Religion and the higher life; talks to students online

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granted only to those holding high ecclesiastical
position. There is in this a great lesson for us all;
and yet, it is better to have error stalk high through
the land than to deprive a single man of the privilege
of interpreting for himself and of accepting for him-
self the significance of the Sacred Writings. But
where privilege is granted, there responsibility rests;
and you may never shift upon another the responsi-
bility which is solely yours.

It follows that one can well afford to put forth
the greatest possible effort to secure in correct form
this food for the nourishment of his spiritual life.
The strange thing is that men who profess to value
this food so highly satisfy themselves with so small
an amount of it. The most serious act of hypocrisy
which a Christian can commit is to boast loudly on
the street corner, or on the housetop, of the value
and authority of the Sacred Scriptures, assigning
each and every word literally to the finger of God,
and then to accord to these same Scriptures less
thought and attention by far than he gives to the
daily newspaper. In how many Christian families
of the city of Chicago do you suppose the reading
of the morning paper at the breakfast table has
supplanted the morning reading of the Bible so com-
mon in these same families less than twenty years
ago? Every Christian man should face this ques-
tion: "Is the Bible what I have supposed it to be?
If so, it is for me to treat it differently, to make it


the subject of systematic study, and, through acquaint-
ance with it, to come closer to God; to know him
better, and, having this knowledge, to realize, as I
have not hitherto realized, my responsibility to my
fellow-men." No man need ever fear that he will
attain too large a knowledge of these sacred books.
It is promised many times in these same Scrip-
tures that to him who approaches God in this attitude
of mind the Holy Spirit, in turn, will come with
blessings of mercy and comfort and peace. This
promise, the saints of all ages assert, has always
been fulfilled. Let it be our prayer that it may find
large fulfilment in the case of every man or woman
who, in earnestness and sincerity, determines to
study this sacred volume in the future more carefully
more assiduously, and more systematically than


THE world has had sixty centuries of history.
How many centuries of life man lived on earth
before the dawn of history we can only guess, as
new discovery pushes back still farther the date
of history's beginnings. These sixty centuries fall
quite naturally, and with a peculiar symmetry,
into three divisions of about twenty centuries each.
During the first twenty the great civilizing forces
came from the fertile region of the lower Euphrates
and the Tigris, Babylonia a country whose petty
kingdoms were first organized into an empire by
Sargon of Accad 3800 B. C.; a civilization which,
through two thousand years or more, pervaded and
uplifted the countries west of the Mediterranean.
Egypt all this while was developing a second civiliza-
tion, but the aggressive spirit seized her much later.

The end of the twentieth century B. C. was
marked by the movement westward through Meso-
potamia to the Palestine seaboard of a group of
nomadic tribes under Abraham, one of which, in
the providence of God, was to bring to humanity
the true conception and apprehension of a personal
God. These twenty centuries of Babylonian civil-
ization on one side, and Egyptian civilization on


the other, had furnished the preparation of Syria,
and of those who were to be Syria's inhabitants,
for the great work which was to follow. It is true
that after this both Babylon and Egypt flourished,
but their real work had reached its culmination,
and their continuance only assisted the later steps
in Syria's development. Babylonia was the great
power in the first twenty centuries, Syria in the
second. The close of the first saw the coming of
the Hebrew tribe under Abraham's leadership; the
close of the second was marked by the coming of
the Son of man, the ideal Hebrew, to whom Syria,
with sore travail, at last gave birth. The work of
centuries of Greek and Roman history was but a
contribution to this, the crowning event of forty

The third period of twenty centuries is but now
drawing to its close. The Hebrew, though not born
as a nation till nearly half the period had passed,
was the central influence of the second period. In
this third period the central figure has been Eng-
land, although in her case, too, a good portion of
the period had elapsed before she took her place
among the nations. Babylonia, Syria, England!

Another great period is just being ushered in,
which promises to eclipse its predecessor even as
that predecessor eclipsed those that preceded it.
The lines separating these great periods are not
sharply drawn. Perhaps we are already fairly


under way in the new period. A thousand years
from now men will be better able to determine.
In any case, we know, and the world knows, that
what Babylonia was in the first period, what Syria
was in the second, what England was in the third,
all this and more America will be in the fourth.

This westward movement has been synchronous
with the history of the progress of civilization. And
the history of civilization has been synchronous with
the development of a pure and true conception of
God, and of his relation to man.

Did God enter into this wonderful development
for the first time when Abraham was called ? And
did he take a journey into a far-off country when
Jesus Christ ascended into heaven? Was not God
acting throughout the period of Babylonian influence
just as truly as through the period which began with
Abraham and closed with Jesus? May we not
believe that he has been as closely identified with the
period which is now closing as with that which pre-
sented the Sacred Scriptures to humanity? The
Babylonian, Syrian, and English periods are passed.
The American is coming. Will there be new revela-
tions of God in this period ? Surely we may expect
them. Does not the world know God in a new way
because of the events in the world's history during
the past two thousand years ? Does not the world
know God in a new way because of the dis-
coveries made by science in these latest years dis-


coveries which teach us nothing, if they do not teach
of God and of his laws? It must be remembered
that the revelations which God has seen fit to make
of himself in the past have been accepted as such
by very few of those to whom they were first given.
The Christ himself was rejected by the mass of those
who saw and heard him. It has taken centuries for
most of these revelations to gain recognition as divine.

For myself, I am compelled to believe that during
these centuries words have been uttered and ideas
developed which later generations will recognize
as a revelation from God himself. What, now,
is the nature of this revelation which has not yet
been clearly discerned? and toward what does it
point? In Christ the Son we are accustomed to
say, and we believe, that God the Father revealed
himself. But it is also true that in him for the first
time ideal man and ideal humanity were revealed;
and the discovery that such a revelation was given
is only gradually coming to us in these last centuries
of Christian progress.

The social rights, which aforetime had been
limited to a few lords and vassals joined in solemn
compact, were acquired by the great non-feudal
classes only at the breaking up of feudalism. It
was through the great political revolutions of Eng-
lish history that humanity learned that political
rights were not the grants of a sovereign in a charter,
as under the Norman kings, but the God-given


possession of the people themselves to be admin-
istered according to the will of the people. It was
in the Reformation that humanity began to appre-
ciate the true conception of religion as something
not to be mediated to men by other men of special
sanctity or authority, or by an institution of peculiar
divine appointment, but rather as the appropriate
prerogative of every individual.

I need not give further illustration. My point
is this : The contribution of these nineteen centuries
in other words, the contribution of Christianity
has not been simply a better, truer knowledge of
God. Men knew very much about God before
Christ came. It has been a better, truer knowledge
of man himself, of whom men knew next to nothing
at the dawn of the present era. The powers and
rights which had supposedly belonged to classes
are now known to belong to individuals as such.
Every idea of individual right, as distinguished from
the privileges of caste or class or guild, has been
worked out into definite expression since the birth
of Christ.

This idea of individualism, of the paramount
dignity of the individual, has expressed itself, more
clearly and more specifically, in every advance of
civilization. In the increasing effort to control the
powers of nature every man today is, potentially, a
thinker, a scientist; for to no man is there denied
the privilege of securing such control; in the effort to


make provision for the conflicting claims of persons
with similar interests every man is, potentially, a
producer, an economist; in the effort on the part
of a constantly increasing number of persons to
secure the full enjoyment of the highest life every
man is, potentially, a co-operator, a citizen; in the
effort to secure the highest privilege, that of freedom
of opinion on religious subjects, every man is, poten-
tially, a worshiper, a priest. Within the bounds
of the various fields, every man has come to be
recognized as by nature endowed with the power
of a freeman. This is the teaching of nineteen
centuries of Christian civilization; in other words,
of Christianity.

But, now, these ideas have been demonstrated
only "piecemeal, and incoherently, in separated
times and places." However clearly they may
have been taught in the new Testament, they have
not yet received their perfect demonstration in human
history. The question of individualism as a whole
is still on trial; the real test of Christianity's success
is still in the future. She cannot be said to have
achieved final success until her founder Jesus Christ
has been everywhere recognized. The arena in
which the great trial shall be conducted is America.
The old countries, with their traditions and institu-
tions which obstruct their performance of full human
functions by the masses, cannot work out the prob-
lems which confront us.


The history of the church during these centuries
is sufficient evidence of this proposition. Here
in this great country, provided by God himself
with all the facilities needed, preserved in large
measure by God himself from the burdens and
trammels of dead institutions and deadly traditions,
the consummation of Christian life and thought
will be realized. This is the message written on
every page of our nineteen centuries of history. It
is a wonderful and significant message.

Is its meaning appreciated? God is in the
world as of old. He may move slowly in further
revelations of himself; yet when the days are placed
together, each will be found to have furnished some
such revelation. And the days that are coming
will surpass any that have gone; except that one
day which saw God take the form of man, the day
which saw him live as man, and die as man, and
rise again as God. And of all that is coming,
America, broadly speaking, will be the scene of

We remember that in Babylonia the masses were
only beasts in their filth; and we realize how much
more rapid the advance of true thought and life would
have been had the highest ideals permeated that
empire. We remember that Syria, and even Jeru-
salem, were rotten with the putrefactions of debauch-
ery and sin; and we can see that the battle waged
for centuries between the prophets and the people


would have brought much sooner the long-expected
Messiah, but for the fact that the time was not yet
come, the world was not yet ready.

Today we see the vileness of life even in Christian
England, and among her children in every section
of the world; and we wonder how, with such vileness
at home, progress in heathen lands can be expected.
We need only to look at our own country to see how
burdened it is with vice and crime, with skepticism
and indifference. If, now, our faith is sure that
there has been committed to us this great mission,
shall we not purify ourselves ? Shall we not organize
ourselves as a nation for the work that lies ahead ?

Purification and organization, that is Christian-
ization. But the Christianity of the future will be
something different from that of the past. When
one thinks of the battles fought, the men and women
slain, the prisons filled, the crimes committed, the
closing of the door to efforts for progress, and the
closing of the ear to cries for help all in the name
of Christianity one may well be excused for sus-
pecting that, after all, not Christ but Satan has been
at God's right hand. How did this all come to be ?
Simply because of ignorance. The new Christianity
will have no room for ignorance. Education will
be its watchword. The ideal purification is a puri-
fication from vice and immorality, from sin of every
kind and from impurity; but it is more it is a
purification (I use the word advisedly) from ignor-


ance and prejudice, from narrowness of every kind,
and from intellectual dishonesty. What is needed ?
The gospel and education. The gospel, as it is
commonly understood (again I speak advisedly) is
not sufficient. It will free men from vice and
impurity; but, when thus freed, the converts would
better be permitted to die, unless they are provided
with an education which will free them from narrow-
ness and prejudice and dishonesty. But, happily
for humanity, the gospel has in itself, if only it be
permitted to exercise them, the elements which incite
to education; and, in the future, education will con-
stitute a larger part of the work of evangelization
than in the past, both at home and abroad.

The call to mission work in America is a call
from heaven. Can this be doubted by anyone who
reads the pages of history and is familiar with the
achievements of the last half-century? It includes
a call to educate the Indian poor outcast, for whose
extinction even Christendom itself has, by its attitude,
petitioned heaven. It is a call to the education of
the negro, anticipating thus by thousands of years
what by natural development would have been the
career of a downtrodden race.

It is a call to work out the problems of the city
problems appreciated many centuries ago, when the
sacred writer described the building of the first city,
and connected with it all the woes and wickedness
of advancing civilization; problems avoided by the


Rechabites of old, whose ancestor forbade residence
in cities because of the attendant temptation and
wrong-doing; problems which today appall the
stoutest heart. It is a call to take in hand and
organize that element which has not yet become a
true part of our American civilization, and which,
if Christianized and guided, will, by the intermixture
of blood, make America just what Palestine was;
which, however, if left to itself and its anarchistic
socialism, will bring down speedy ruin on our heads,
and plunge us into grief more bitter even than that
with which civil war overwhelmed us.

It is a call to evangelize this great West of ours
a land so boundless and so full of possibilities as to
make even reasonable calculation seem like visionary
dreaming. It is a call to establish here at home the
foundations for the evangelization of the world; for
if the world is to be evangelized, America must do
it; and if America is to do the work of evangelizing
the world, she must first Christianize, that is, purify
and educate herself. America is the world's great
mission field, because of what she is, and because
of what she is to be. It is a call to train the boys
and girls in all our churches; for has not history
shown that he who is to lead must be trained ? If
as Christians, we are to make progress, we must have
our own leaders leaders whom we ourselves have
trained. It is a call to equip all our academies and
colleges and theological seminaries, and to see to it


that the instruction given in these institutions bears
upon its face the mark of truth ; has its roots in the
established principles of the faith.

America, then, is to be the leader of the world's
influence and thought during the next twenty cen-
turies, just as Babylonia, Syria, and England, each
in turn, has been leader during the past centuries.

But, more than this, she is to be the arena of an
intellectual, social, and spiritual conflict, in which
Christianity must vindicate itself against all opposing
forces a conflict more serious than any which has
yet been waged. No man or woman in our num-
ber doubts for a moment the ultimate triumph of
our Christianity; but, in order that the triumph
may be decisive, in order that the agony of the strug-
gle may not be too greatly prolonged, let us use
foresight and farsight. Let us purge our ranks,
putting aside everything that will not be of service
in the conflict. Let us organize our forces, strength-
ening at every point the places of vantage-ground.
Christianity's contribution to the world is a single
thing, and a simple thing : to teach the meaning of
love ; for this includes God and humanity, each in its
relation to the other. The message has been received,
but the lesson has not been learned. Mankind still
lingers in the kindergarten. The lesson, though in
itself single and simple, is very complicated in its
applications. The Great Teacher is patient; no one
knows better than himself the importance of funda-


mental training. Centuries will pass; and gradually
humanity will come to recognize the significance of
love; gradually Jesus the Christ will come to reign
in the hearts of men. In this work of educating
humanity to understand God and itself, America is
the training-school for teachers.

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Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 11 of 11)