Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.
with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.
(Preached at Convocation, held in St. James's Church, Milwaukee, April, 1866.)
"Feed my Lambs."—ST. JOHN xxi., part of v. 15.
THERE is no question which, at the present time, more demands and deserves the attention of the earnest and thoughtful, than the grave question of Christian education. It involves, however, so many points, each of which deserves the most careful and minute consideration, that I can do no more than briefly state the most of them, and give to one alone the full consideration it needs.
A host of problems straightway present themselves for solution. Has the State the right, and is it its duty, to educate the people? Has the Church the same right and duty? In countries like our own, where Church and State are not united, if the State does educate, what is the duty of the Church with respect to State education? Ought it in any sense to try and mold and leaven the State education of the country? If it seeks to, can it possibly do so? If it can not do so now, is there any hope that it may do so by and by, and is it best to wait for this time?
If it be granted that the Church must educate, that she is failing in her duty if she does not do so, then comes up the further question as to what legitimate place religion holds in intellectual training. In short, what are those practical arrangements and necessary appliances which make a school to be, over and above any other marks and notes it may have, a Christian school?
There is another question, however, which involves in some measure all that I have mentioned, which lies behind them all, and which, except it be settled on right principles, will make any kind of Christian education, in the best sense of the word, almost an impossibility. The general question to which I refer is: What is the proper method of training Christian children, from the time of their Baptism until they renew their vows in the apostolic rite of Confirmation, and kneel for the first time at the Altar of God in the very presence of their Incarnate Lord?
Christian childhood, then—Christian childhood cared for as it ought to be by Christian parents—Christian childhood protected by the loving arms of the Holy Catholic Church—Christian childhood, like the divine Child, increasing in wisdom, and stature, and in favor with God and man—is the subject of my sermon.
O Holy Babe of Bethlehem, O loving Child of Mary, O obedient son to Joseph, be Thou my help to speak aright! Before I go further, let me state the premises from which start the great truths bearing on this subject, which, I take it for granted, you all believe.
First, I take it for granted that you believe that we are all conceived and born in sin; that we inherit from our parents, and they from Adam, a sinful nature; that our own dear Lord took upon Himself our nature, that He became the second Head and parent of our race, that we might receive a new nature; that we only become partakers of this new nature by being grafted into Him; that we are thus grafted into Him, and become members of Christ, the second Adam, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven, in holy Baptism. In short, that, as there is a natural life, so is there as well a Christian life; as there is a natural birth, so is there a spiritual new birth; and this new birth of man's nature is given, in and through the passion of Jesus, in the blessed Sacrament of holy Baptism.
I take another thing for granted, that it was never intended that so many of the souls for which Christ died should perish; that the Christian Church and the means of grace therein were intended to be real powers for the salvation of men; that if they were rightly, faithfully used, they would foil all the devices of sinners, and all the wiles of the prince of the power of the air; that if the world runs headlong into death and hell, it is because the Church of God does not put forth its awful powers and blessed forces, and assert its majestic commission to bind and to loose. In short, that, if the Sacraments of the Church and its system of training were allowed their full scope and work, not one child in a thousand could possibly fail to grow up into the perfect measure and stature of the man in Christ.
Brethren, I desire you, for a moment, to dwell upon this thought. If the training of the Church, as given in its Sacraments and system, were used as it ought to be, I do not hesitate to say that not one child in a thousand would fail to attain such a measure of Christian perfection as would make him useful in his day and generation, and enable him to do the good works prepared for him to walk in.
What an awful contrast does the actual state of things present!
Look at our young men—I will not speak of those more advanced in life. How many of them are faithful Christian men? how many of them are communicants of the Church? How many of them are there who are not actually living in mortal sin? How many are there among your acquaintances who are what the young man ought to be—pure, strong, brave, active, true, honest, gentle, loving? Where is he who is to be the support of the widowed mother, the stay of a father's declining years, the example and guide of younger children? Where is the burning zeal, the heroic devotion, the great acts done for Christ and His Church, which young men owe, and give—if they are what they ought to be—to that dear Lord who died for them?
I have watched young men, placed in some great city to do their part, and fight their battle, and conquer or fail. I have seen them in the midst of overpowering temptations, with scarcely one of the merciful helps our own loving Saviour gives to His children, having for employers men who neither care for their own souls nor for the souls of those under them, and for a home some wretched boarding-house. Without amusements—for, with a pious liberality which Satan must appreciate, we have given even the most innocent of them into his hands, and are afraid to try and reclaim them—exposed to the awful allurements of their own flesh within and a wicked world without, yet, in the midst of all this, undefended by the supernatural gifts and graces of God's Holy Church; nay, more, with a training from infancy which almost incapacitates them for fighting the battle at all; without self-control, without self-discipline, with no powers of self-denial, without even strong physical health, with no habits of prayer, with no horror and dread of sin, without the grace of Confirmation, undefended by the divine food of the Holy Eucharist, with no belief in the powers of the priesthood, with no love of the Church and its services, with a world around them never so alluring, never so wicked, never so degraded as to-day—young men, upon whose brow long ago the sign of the Cross was made, in token that they should continue Christ's faithful soldiers and servants unto their life's end, are left to the contest.
I have seen the young man struggle and fall, I have seen him rise and sink, I have watched him as step by step he went downward; I have known his first feeble efforts become feebler and feebler; I have beheld him hurried on by the rapid current; now his hands are raised in agony, now he breasts the tide, now he cries for assistance, but on and on he is borne. At first he makes resolutions which he does not keep; he loses his self-respect, his will becomes weakened. A quiet, settled despair creeps over him. In the midst of God's world of nature and of grace, he feels himself already lost. Such a one appears to me like a man walking in the ever-deepening twilight. At first only the far-off mountains are hid from view, and the distant landscape fades upon the sight. Then, nearer objects lose their accustomed form, and things by the very roadside take shapes strange and grotesque. Then murky clouds begin to hide the starlight, and the night deepens, and the mist thickens, until the pathway itself is no longer seen, and he walks, he knows not whither, over moor and fell and lonely waste. What wonder then if, over hidden graves, he follow the flickering corpse-light; what marvel if the wandering will-o'-the-wisp lead him into bog and quagmire; what matter for surprise if he kindle his fire and compass himself about with sparks, and walk in the light of his fire, and in the sparks that he has kindled, until, with failing strength and tottering footstep, in darkness and gloom, he lies down in sorrow?
My brethren, I know that for even such a one there is help. I know the Good Shepherd loves and seeks him. I know that he can pray if all else is taken from him, and mighty is the power of prayer. But I desire to show you, this evening, that it is in the power of parents, if they will, to save their sons from such a struggle, and the probability of such an end. Forgive me if, in my earnest desire to give practical help, I now and then descend even to homely details.
First of all, holy Baptism begins Christian training. Without it, whatever other training may be given, Christian training is an impossibility. Christian training differs from all other training in this one respect, that it believes in an implanted supernatural life, which can be and must be developed. It oftentimes uses some of the same means and appliances which other training uses, but it uses them to develop a new and a divine life infused into the soul by the Sacrament of the new birth. It trains the child as a member of Christ and a child of God. Without this supernatural grace implanted, without the divine life begun in the soul, without the Sacrament of Baptism as the starting-point, the beginning of the Christian life, human nature can never be trained into the measure and stature of the man in Christ. With what melancholy feelings, then, does one behold what so often occurs—holy Baptism postponed for weeks and months, and sometimes for years! It is no unmeaning direction of the Prayer Book which requires that the child shall be brought to the church to be baptized, the first, or at the latest the second Sunday after its birth. The Christian life of the child is to begin as soon after its birth as may be. Original sin is too awful a malady, too direful in its results, to be tampered with. The Christian parent will risk a cold or a colic; he will not tarry for a favorite clergyman, or pleasant weather, or an absent grandmother; he will not rest, he can not stay, until the child of his love has been taken in his Saviour's arms, has been washed in his Saviour's blood, has been signed with his Saviour's cross, and been made for evermore an heir of his Saviour's kingdom.
But the child is baptized—what then? When the seed is planted in the bosom of the mother-earth, though it be perfect in itself, though in it already is the living germ of the future plant, what mighty forces are required to bring it to the full corn in the ear! For it the clouds must gather, for it the rain must fall, for it the ocean must send up its-mists and exhalations, for it the winds must blow, for it the snow and frost must come, for it the life-giving sun must shine and glow—all for this one little seed, as fully and entirely as if there were no other.
Brethren, Christian nurture must as surely follow the implanted gift of holy Baptism as these forces are required to bring the seed to maturity.
The Church provides the loving care of father and mother, the instruction of sponsors, the guidance of priests, the mighty power of the Word, read and preached; the blessing of the law of obedience, and the sheltering wings of constant prayer, in private, in the family, and in the Church. Neglect any one of these, and the implanted gift is endangered; neglect them all, and what wonder if Christian childhood be an almost unheard-of thing? I know that the power of God's grace is mighty; I know that in the midst of all neglect—ay, and in spite of all neglect—the grace of regeneration still works mightily; but so do flowers sometimes bloom on the cold and desolate sides of mountains, and palm-trees rise in the very desert, and plants struggle into existence between the cracks in the pavement of some sunless and dreary courtyard.
Let me speak of two or three of these means of Christian nurture which to-day are most neglected.
First, the influence and example of the Christian father.
Mothers, so far as shopping, and dress, and visiting, and gossip, and multiplied opportunities of amusement will permit, still realize their responsibilities. Thank God, the last natural gift which is lost is a mother's love. But fathers, beloved—they toil and work and speculate and make money; they are engrossed in politics and trade; they have no time for home duties, and the minute and tender care which children require; they regard them as the solace of a weary hour, as the playthings of one tired with fretting cares. At most, they must be fed, they must be clothed, they must be comfortably and luxuriously sheltered, they must be educated, they must be taught how to make money or keep it. All this is realized by the father. In some sort he feels, too, that he has a charge over their morals, because sound morality is more or less necessary to material prosperity. But that he is the house-band—which is what husband means—the guide, the counselor, the head, nay, the priest of his family—this he does not comprehend. How often does the father leave the discipline and religious care of his children to the mother; how often does he say, "If I provide food and raiment, she must do the rest"; how often is the whole responsibility thrown upon the shoulders of the one least capable of bearing it! But it is not because it is a hardship that I speak of it. If it were only this, women's hearts are large enough to bear this, and more. But, my brethren, it is an utter impossibility. As well might you expect plants to grow by moonlight alone, with no rays of the fostering sun to cherish them, as for youth to grow to strong, manly proportions, without the care which the Christian father alone can give.
Nor is it care and good advice alone which the youth needs from the father. Care and good advice amount to nothing—nay, they are a perpetual instruction in hypocrisy —without good example. It is of no use for a father to advise a son not to swear, and then to swear himself; it is of no use to advise a son to go to church, and to stay at home himself. The son will hear the good advice, for a little while he will be affected by it; but one of two things must result: he either must give up his faith in his father, and empty himself of that dutiful reverence which is the best tribute of his heart, or else he must follow his father's example; and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he will do the latter. "Like father, like son," is an over-true proverb.
I can imagine nothing more terrible than when, at the last great day, the father shall meet the son he has neglected before the bar of God. I see them face to face. The excuses which have satisfied the father here on earth rush to his lips. "My son," he says, "I fed you, I clothed you, I gave you the inestimable advantages of a common-school education, I talked to you, I advised you." But the father pauses, he stops. Upon him is fixed the tender and reproachful glance of the Saviour of the world. I hear that awful sentence: "Your son was hungry for the bread of life, and you gave him no food; he was thirsty for the wells of Salvation, and you gave him no drink; he was a stranger from me, and you took him not in; he was sin-sick, sick unto death, and you gave him no healing medicine. Depart, unprofitable servant, into outer darkness!"
Let me speak of something further which applies to father and mother alike. How many parents before me have in their households those blessed influences of family religion which used to be so common—I mean family prayers, morning and evening; the going to church twice on Sunday, as a family; such measure of attendance at weekday services as is possible; the Sunday catechizing of the children, not delegated to irresponsible Sunday-school teachers, but done by father and mother in person?
My brethren, let me call your attention to something which has come under my own observation. Among the many boys who have been under my charge, I have been led to remark the marvelous difference which exists between those who have had such religious help as this at home, and those who have not. Such loving care, at least, protects from grosser sin. It becomes to the unprotected youth like the sheltering wings of invisible angels, and holy words and blessed prayers, and even half-unheeded teachings, go before and around him, like an armed host. I believe that parents rarely realize how great are the temptations to which even very little children are exposed. I do not believe they realize how powerless they themselves are, even with the best of care, to keep their children out of temptation; but, if they can send with them, wherever they go, the awful protection of heavenward-ascending prayers, and the majestic power of holy text and harmonious hymn, the powers of evil are frighted away.
I will not dwell upon the important subject of obedience. It is pitiable to see the miserable substitutes which take the place of one of the most blessed privileges which belong to childhood—reasoning, and talking, and moral suasion, and rewards—until one begins to fear that "Honor thy father and thy mother," and "Children, obey your parents in the Lord," have been changed into, "Parents, honor your children," and "Fathers and mothers, obey your offspring."
But there is one point which demands the most earnest attention: The reaction against the stern discipline which once prevailed in Puritan families has run to a most vicious extreme in another direction.
I have seen something like this take place: A man, whose childhood was a rough and hard one, brought up in the stern simplicity of some New England farm-house, was sent out, with little education and no money, with nothing but strong physical health, and the world before him, to make his way. He came to the West; he endured the toil of frontier life; he slept in huts and hovels; he had hard fare and hard lodging; by day the heat consumed him, and by night the frost. But at last, in middle life, in the midst of some mushroom city, he finds himself rich and honored; his wife and family are around him. "What shall he do for his sons? He looks back upon his own boyhood; he remembers his own toils and trials; he forgets that but for these toils and trials he would not have been what he is. He says, "My sons shall never know the sufferings I have known." He is tender of them; no rough blasts blow on them; they repose on feather beds and spring mattresses; they wash in tepid water, and sleep in the midst of furnace heat; they loll on sofas and in easy-chairs; they eat at every hour of the day, and are pampered with every luxury which our marvelous means of transportation can supply; they scarcely know the sensations of healthful hunger and honest fatigue. Their affectionate father is bent on giving them the advantages it was not his to enjoy. Alas! he does not know the result. There is no slavery so terrible as the slavery the pampered flesh demands. Softness and lust, inordinate affection and evil appetite, dyspepsia and nervousness, insanity and epilepsy, are the direful progeny of just such tenderness as this!
My brethren, I must mention a warning which I almost fear to utter. Men of various nations and countries form the inhabitants of this land. It is impossible to say which one of these nations, when all are mingled together, will give the predominant tone to the American people. At present, from their larger numbers and older occupation, the Anglo-Saxon race has the predominance; but unless our children are brought up to be strong and hardy and manly and pure and self-denying—in short, what, in too many cases, they now are not—they will become, in a generation or two, either extinct for ever, or hewers of wood and drawers of water to the men that are to be.
But I must hasten to a conclusion. I come to the last point—the most utterly neglected of all. After the child is baptized, as the priest gives the regenerated infant into the arms of the sponsors, he says, "Ye are to take care that this child be brought to the Bishop to be confirmed by him, so soon as he can say the Creed, the Lord's Prayer," etc. The same idea is conveyed in the Preface to the Confirmation office: "Be brought to the Bishop." Confirmation is a part of the training of the children. It is the duty of the sponsors, as well as of those for whom they answer. Children are not to be left to choose and decide, and argue and reason, about Confirmation, as though they had the right to be confirmed or not, as they may chance to think or feel; much less are they to be kept back when they actually want to come. They are to be brought to the Bishop—brought indeed in repentance and faith, brought humble and dutiful and prayerful, brought worthily, but still brought. This is the closing act of sponsorial duty: as they received the child at the font, so are they to bring him to the Altar of God, and leave him there, to be for ever fed by the great High Priest with the bread of heaven.
Brethren, Confirmation has never taken its due place in Christian training. So little is its proper meaning understood, that, even at the last General Convention, a Bishop of the Church desired the alteration of the Preface to the Confirmation office, and would fain have deprived us of one of the most glorious witnesses the Prayer Book bears to true Christian nurture. I believe a great many clergymen read it now with an inward apology to their reflecting congregations. Confirmation is regarded as a profession of religion, as the mere renewal of Baptismal vows, as something demanding great intellectual effort, and an advanced standard of holiness, instead of being what it really is, the complement of holy Baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the strength of the weak. It is the ordinance which properly belongs to little children. Before they leave home for school, before they are exposed to the more vigorous attacks of the world, the flesh, and the devil, they ought to receive the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Nor let any one imagine that young children may not come worthily. I have seen in them a deeper faith, a more earnest repentance, a more blessed preparation, than is often found in those who are older. Oh, there is no sight so blessed in the eyes of the holy angels, nothing on which the Good Shepherd of the Lambs looks down so lovingly, as on the innocent child, kneeling, in all the brightness of his promise, at his Confirmation and first Communion!
I know what is in the minds of you all: "But will he not fall away afterward?" Consider one or two points. Do you not judge the religion of young people by a harsher standard than you do your own? Do you not often expect, more from them than you ask of yourselves? Do grown people never fall away afterward? I believe it will be found that the proportion is not so great in the case of the children as in the case of grown people. I am sure, if they do fall away, for evermore, with a voice of unceasing entreaty, the grace that came with their early Communion will plead with them, and knock at the door of their hearts, until, like him of old, they will arise and go to their Father, and say, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son." Nay, I think it will be found that they who, in all ages of the Church, have done the noblest works for God, are most often those upon whose brow the anointing Spirit has early descended, and whose young life has been quickened by the food of angels.
And yet, two things need to be mentioned, or the system of the Church will not be done justice to. I would that the time were mine, and yours the patience, for me to be able to dwell upon them; but I must say that, if we would preserve our young people in the ways of holiness, if we would have the full benefit of Christian nurture, if we would keep them from falling away, there must be, accompanying Confirmation and succeeding it, diligent, minute, careful, earnest, personal, priestly care. There must be, in short, the time and the opportunity and the knowledge, on the part of the clergy, for individual dealing with individual souls. There must be, accompanying this, the possibility of sound training in the Christian school and the Christian college.
There is nothing in this fair earth, nothing amid all the costly jewels of the Bride of Christ, so glorious, so beautiful, ay, so awe-inspiring, as a true Christian boy. Early baptized, duly trained, sheltered by prayer, molded by obedience, pure and manly, of open brow and fearless glance, strengthened by Confirmation, for ever quickened and renewed by the Body and Blood of the Lord who died for him, he is a blessing and a comfort, a strength and support, a lesson and an example, to us all. Such have I seen or heard of now and then. Christian fathers, Christian mothers, Christian priests—alas, that they should be so rare!
As the most eloquent of modern French preachers, upon whose words of marvelous power all Europe had hung with breathless interest, drew near to the hour of his departure, he said to one who still lives to tell the story:
"I have always tried to serve God, the Church, and our Lord Jesus Christ; besides these, I have loved—oh, so dearly loved—children and young people." Let us, my brethren of the clergy, catch, if we may, something of this same priestly spirit. Let us lead forth into green pastures, and by pleasant waters, the gentle lambs of the fold; if so be we may share in their blessedness, whose angels do always behold the face of the Father in heaven.