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Does the Free Church System Injuriously Affect the Missionary Offerings of the Church?

Correspondence between the Bishop of Western Michigan and the Free Church Association.

Philadelphia: Free Church Association, 1880.

In the “Spirit of Missions," for June, 1880, the following paragraphs appeared as a report of a portion of a paper entitled "The Financial Situation," read by the Right Rev. Dr. Gillespie, Bishop of Western Michigan, at a general Missionary Meeting, held April 21st, 1880, in St. John's Church, Detroit.

“Third: The use of the offertory for parochial support. A system attains even in parishes of respectable size and strength, by which the salary of the minister is secured by a Sunday (sometimes at both Services) offering. The system has two faults. What is no more than family or individual expense is surrounded with all the sanctity of the offertory; the people are taught to regard as the free-will offerings of loving hearts, the lending unto the Lord, the laying up treasures in heaven, what is no more sacred than any other expense of life. It seems to me that there is almost a profane trifling with holy things, when a congregation, after covering the alms basins with envelopes marked to get credit on the treasurer's books, as though they had discharged the grand claim of stewardship, rise and sing, ‘All things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given thee.’”

“As grave an objection, is that the opportunity for the Missionary offering is thus precluded--the ground is preoccupied. There [1/2] are parishes where the minister is even denied the alms at Holy Communion, secured to him by canon.

"This selfish plan extends to turning all the rivulets of contribution into the parochial channel. The admirable system set forth in a report by Bishop Neely and others, based on subscription, is shut out by every phase of subscription being employed to run the parish. The mite boxes sent out from the Mission Rooms were no sooner found to be a good device, than they were diverted to home purposes. I am impressed that, owing to the appropriation of all available means of collection to parochial sustentation, we are to-day worse off as regards real charity than we were a quarter of a century ago. Pew rents may have had their objections, but then they kept the Rector's salary, the sexton's pay, the outlay for fuel and lights, etc., out of the Church, and the plates on the altar meant New Testament giving."

PHILADELPHIA, June 10, 1880.


In the account of the Missionary Conference lately held in Detroit, published in the June number of the “Spirit of Missions," a paper read by you, entitled "The Financial Situation" is given at length.

From the character and position of its writer, the very great importance of the subject treated, and the lamentable condition of the Missionary Boards treasury which it disclosed, this paper seems to have excited strong interest in the Conference; and it will undoubtedly be widely read by Church people through the Country.

In this paper, page 186, my attention has been called especially to two paragraphs, (beginning, “Third, the use," etc.,) which appear to be an argument against the principles advocated by the Free Church Association, of which I have the honor to be the President, to wit: free seats and voluntary offerings, as opposed to reserved seats and pew rents.

May I ask you, on behalf of the Association, whether you meant to convey the view which those paragraphs seem to indicate, namely: 1st. That there is no more sacredness in offerings made for the maintenance of religious services and parochial [2/3] work than in payments for secular expenses; 2ndly. That congregations make these offerings to get credit with the treasurer of the parish (i. e. I presume, to acquit a commercial obligation in a commercial way,) and are thus guilty of hypocrisy, when the offering is made with an ascription as if a voluntary gift; 3dly. That the use of the offertory, or presentation of gifts, is degraded by using the money for "selfish (or parochial) purposes," and that the cause of missions suffers thereby.

It is because another construction can be placed on some of your remarks, and because of the importance of the subject, and the consequent necessity of clear and defined statement thereon, that I venture to address you with this inquiry.

For I think the three points named above will be commonly accepted as your meaning; and if not, it is proper that the fact should be known. But if so, this Association will consider it a duty to make a suitable reply, and to give such reply as much publicity as that of the original utterance.

With great respect, I am yours, very truly,

President F. C. A.

To the Right Rev. the Bishop of W. Michigan.


GRAND RAPIDS, July 8, '80.

President, Free Church Association.


I regret that absence and engagements have prevented an earlier reply to yours, June 10th.

You address me in regard to certain sentiments expressed in a paper on the Financial Situation, read by me at the late delegate meeting of the Board of Missions, at Detroit.

Let me say first, that in preparing and reading that paper, I had no intention of criticising the Free Church system. Indeed it was not until I received your letter, that I was informed that the so called envelope plan is so important a part of that system.

[4] I suppose a Free Church to be one where there is no assignment of pews, and the call upon the attendants for support is not graduated by the position of the sittings occupied. This being secured, the subscriptions may be gathered outside the Church, or placed in an alms chest. Should there be no form of subscription, the latter mode would yet answer; but in my experience, a parish depending upon unpledged offerings is unknown.

My object in the part of my address to which you take exception was, to show that the system of collecting the support of the Church through the offertory was a very serious obstacle to securing offerings for extra parochial objects. The practical difficulty I have encountered is that the only opportunity for such offerings is by money in the plate outside the envelopes. Now as, human nature is, a large part of the congregation will be content with depositing the parochial envelope. In parts of the country where the Church is strong, and many of the parishioners are affluent, this difficulty may not be serious. In this diocese, there is one parish where the contributions for “outside objects” are commendably liberal, but this is secured by efforts outside the Church, and the money is not in the offertory.

The first inquiry you put is--"whether you meant to convey the view which the paragraphs (page 186, column 1, Spirit of Missions for June, 1880), seem to indicate, namely, that there is no more sacredness in offerings made for the maintenance of religious services and parochial work than in payments for secular expenses?"

I hold that a person is chargeable with the care of his own soul, and the souls of those dependent upon him. And that in the discharge of this duty, he is to expend in proportion to his means and the necessity of his position. So far, I can see "no sacredness" in the payment, however made. The exception would be, a member of the Church moved by a desire to extend the blessings of public worship to those unable to pay, or indifferent, contributing beyond what would be just for him and his.

Your second question--"whether you meant to convey the view that congregations make these offerings to get credit with the treasurer of the parish, i. e., I presume to acquit a commercial obligation in a commercial way?"

[5] Bearing in mind the system as I have found it, viz:--the parishioners pledged to a certain sum per week, which sum is placed in the collection plate on Sunday, designated as from him, the treasurer crediting him on his books, and taking some other means of collection should the envelopes not appear, I must say that you have correctly apprehended my meaning.

Your question proceeeds, “And are thus guilty of hypocrisy when the offering is made with an ascription as if a voluntary gift." While I must grant that my language is strong, it seems to me that there is almost a profane trifling with holy things, when a congregation after covering the alms basin with envelopes marked to get credit on the treasurer's books, as though they had discharged the grand claim of stewardship, rise and sing, "All things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee;" I am not disposed to modify, yet I would not charge intended deception in the worshippers, especially when this is done under the lead and direction of their spiritual head.

Your last inquiry is, “whether you meant to convey, that the use of the offertory or presentation of gifts, is degraded by using the money for selfish or practical purposes?"

"Degraded" is a strong term, which I have not used. That this is a perversion of the offertory, I am ready to assert.

On the last evening of the Missionary Conference, the. Rev. Dr. Schenck took exception to my remarks, as he had a right to do; and contended that such a use of the offertory was what was contemplated and referred to certain texts, 1 Cor., IX, 7, 11, 13, 14, Gal., VI, 6, 7. If the Church endorses the system of each parish exclusively responsible for its own support, the argument is just: I understand that our present system is modern and not churchly. I presume the offertory to contemplate a general treasury for some large division of the Church, as in our nomenclature, a City of Parishes, a Diocese, a Province. Under such an arrangement, to illustrate, in the City of Brooklyn, the alms basins of the several parishes and missions would be poured into a general treasury, and then distribution would be made for the staff of clergy, according to size of family, &c., and all branches of missionary work, in the widest sense of the term, would receive their quota.

[6] You will infer that I am unable to see the difference between the collection of pew rents and subscription, (viz.., the envelope system) in the Church. To my mind the pew rent is as sacred as the subscription.

I will add that I have recommended, when it is thought necessary to bring the support of the parish into the Church, to give one Sunday in the month to receiving the pew rents or subscriptions as the case may be, but to omit the offertory.

You write, “it is proper that the fact," viz., my meaning as you have presented it, "should be known; but if so, this Association will consider it a duty to make a suitable reply, and to give such reply as much publicity as that of the original utterance."

The publication of my paper was by request, but having been published, of course it is your right to issue and circulate a reply.

No harm can come of a temperate discussion. If the plan which your Association endorses will meet the case which you justly style "the lamentable condition of the Missionary Board's treasury," the objection which I had specially in view will be removed. I would be glad to have testimony taken under the head--contributions to Board of Missions from Parishes and Missions where envelopes are received in the collection plates, once or twice on every Sunday, for the support of the parish.

You are at liberty to regard this as an open letter.

Yours, very truly,



PHILADELPHIA, August 3, 1880.


Your letter of the 8th ult., was duly received; from which it gives me pleasure to learn, in the third paragraph, that in preparing and reading your paper you had no intention of criticising the Free Church System. I submit with all respect, that your language might readily create in the mind of the ordinary [6/7] reader a contrary impression, and lead one to suppose that you preferred in some respects the plan of renting pews.

I suppose there can be no dispute between us as to what the Free Church System really is, the principles on which it is based, and the methods by which those principles can be consistently carried out in practice. Resting upon the fundamental idea that every one should give of his substance to God, according to his ability, and not pay a tax to enable him to enjoy the privileges which the Church offers to all men, it is very evident that no pledges should be required or demanded. All that is required is the positive and persistent teaching that it is each one's duty to give according to his ability, both for parochial and extra parochial purposes, indeed for all purposes of church work; and the conscientious performance of this duty will secure the requisite money, both in a particular parish, and at large. This, and only this, is the system which this Association advocates, and advocates earnestly, as the only one having the authority of the Bible; and of the uninterrupted practice of the Church from its beginning until very modern times.

Pledges and the use of envelopes are matters entirely within the option and discretion of those who give. This Association urges very strongly the duty of giving systematically, and is very fond of quoting the text, “On the first day of the week, &c." If a man finds that he can better perform this duty by determining in advance to give a fixed amount at stated times, and if he can further make sure of putting by, each week, this fixed sum, placing it in an envelope on the plate, let him do so. If he does not find either of these to aid him, or if he cannot pledge a fixed sum, and can discharge his duty as well without them, he will use neither pledge or envelope. I do not think you will find in my previous letter anything to justify your inference that "the so-called envelope plan is so important a part of that system."

Many parishes in this country are maintained by the offerings alone, without endowment, pledge, or subscription. In this connexion I call your attention to our publication, No. 11, which furnishes statistics on the subject.

With regard to the position taken in your paper, that [7/8] missionary offerings are injuriously affected "when the minister's salary is secured by Sunday offerings," I would remind you that as yet this is a matter of pure speculation; with the probabilities all against it, because the most "successful" pew rented churches, being those which provide no place for the poor and outcast, are those in which the missionary character of Christ's Church is most completely ignored. If your impression has been derived from your own diocese, as intimated in your letter, I would observe that the amount given for extra parochial objects in free churches, varies greatly in different localities; not only absolutely, but relatively to that for parochial uses. In our publication No. 12, you will find a table, giving these particulars from over 900 parishes which maintain themselves on the voluntary basis.

By this table it appears that the annual amount given for "unselfish purposes" averaged $2.30 per communicant, a sum which if only equalled in the pewed churches, would have produced in the United States $750,000. The Association will, as soon as practicable, endeavor to obtain the data, on which to form a valuable opinion upon the important point you have raised: Meanwhile I must express upon its behalf the belief, that so far from injuring the missionary contributions of the Church, which are now so inadequate to the crying wants of the country and of the foreign fields, the system it advocates, of freeing the seats of all churches and teaching the common duty of giving on the Scriptural basis, is the only one which can increase them.

A few words from you to the “Spirit of Missions" explaining your former remarks, will remove all misapprehension now existing, and I sincerely trust that you may be ready to send them.

The Council may perhaps desire to avail themselves of your permission to print this correspondence.

With great respect, I am, yours truly,

President F. C. A.

Rt. Rev. Geo. D. Gillespie,
Bishop of Michigan.


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