Copies of this Sermon may be had free for distribution, by applying to the Corresponding Secretary of the Free Church Guild, the Rev. W. N. Dunnell, 292 Henry Street, New York.
Gal. III. 28.--"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female."
There is a tendency among men, pervading every department of human relations, to create and aggravate distinctions. There may be nothing in the line of separation which would necessarily give any superiority to one over another. Yet the distinction, looking at it from my point of view, separates my satisfied self from something inferior. The impartial judgment of the world, or of the ages, may give verdict that in the comparison I am really the lesser, yet, where I differ from my neighbor, I see myself in the softening light of favoring interest, while the rays of a scrutinizing criticism bring out all another's defects. Thus I find myself wiser than my real wisdom; higher than my relative rank; better than the true measure of my goodness; in comparison with another, nearer the truth than the Divine eye beholds me.
I stand, in my adversary's point of view, quite otherwise; but his opinion is powerless to influence my estimate of myself. He may be of another grade of civilization, so that I name him savage. He may have marked me down as an effeminate coward and useless idler. But I am thankful that I am not as he, even if he is glad that he is not such as I. Each rather cherishes the distinction which divides us, each rejoicing in his own superiority.
 Franklin, in one of his letters, mentions an instance, in colonial times, of commissioners appointed to conclude an Indian treaty, who offered, among other advantages, to give to some of the sons of chiefs a college education. They declined, as in all previous experiments of the sort their sons had come back to the forests useless. They however, would, in acknowledgment of the kind offer, take a limited number of the children of the whites and train them in the hardy life of the wilderness. Each thus saw a distinction between himself and the other, but with a manifest advantage on his own side. Each felt in himself a superiority, for the other a contempt, which marked more strongly the division and heightened the mutual repulsion.
Moreover a distinction beginning upon one subject reaches soon to another, and indeed another class of subjects, until the universally superior in physics and morals and intellect, if imagination can in any way affect the decision, is upon my side of any dividing line.
When in the old Bible days the Jew and the Greek came in contact, each noted and dwelt upon the points of distinction. The Jew was like any other foreigner a barbarian to the Greek. The Greek was but a common Gentile, one with all the rest of the world to the Jew. I am a favored individual, within this little circle circumscribing the chosen children of God; they must not approach the temple where I worship, for their presence is pollution; the heaven which I shall enter has no room for those--their [4/5] portion is among the unbelievers. The Greek on the other hand was very little troubled with this condemnation, and was quite willing that an exclusive, little heaven should open its narrow gate to the Jew, whom he abhorred, whose cherished sign of true faith and descent he held in contempt.
Other marks of difference, which God had impressed upon His creatures, were accepted signs of privilege. Woman was the inferior, and man the ruler, to such a degree that in the ancient world one became a tyrant, and the other a slave, impossible of freedom excepting by surrendering the perfection of womanhood.
Thus the few distinctions which men found, as of race or sex, they intensified and aggravated greatly beyond their proper signification.
To those natural divisions were added innumerable others, as of master and servant, developed by time into lord and slave. The grades of society always existing, but under favorable circumstances shading off into and amalgamating with each other, rose up into castes, with their lines of division impassable. Sects and ranks hampered progress, and brought religion into disrepute, until those which remain in the graves, and lodge in the monuments; which eat swine's flesh and broth of abominable things, are they who say to neighbor or companion 'Stand by thyself; come not near to me, for I am holier than thou.'
When in this broken and divided world the Gospel was preached, one of its great objects was to throw [5/6] down barriers which man had made, and to give their true significance to those ordained by God. There was for all one worship, one promise, one blessing. Baptism and salvation were for every creature under heaven. The Greek, who had before been excluded from Jewish worship, the woman, whose inferiority the Mosaic ceremonial implied, the slave, whose conscience was in his master's keeping, entered now into a kingdom, where there was a perfect equality, one Lord and master of all, above all, and through all, and in all.
The world has never perhaps seen the day when this equality was acknowledged and put in force. The disciples, during the Lord's life, and after His death, desired the headship. The members of the Christian Church distorted into rivals of each other Paul and Apollos, and Cephas, and ranged themselves into parties under opposing banners, bearing those names as watchwords.
The minister of Christ, to magnify his office, added to his Lord's ordering his own conceptions of what was proper. Considering them necessary to discharge the duty delegated to him, he claimed powers having no warrant in his commission. Bishops received privileges which became transmuted into rights. That which was conceded to the see of Rome as an honor, was reckoned at length as of divine appointment. That which was accepted because convenient or expedient in spreading the Gospel, and organizing the world into this new [6/7] kingdom, if it helped to lift one above another, or above the rest, grew finally into a principle.
A survey of the Church which proclaimed at first the destruction of privilege, and equality of membership, and practised the community of wealth, reveales now the wonderful and sad conformity of the church to the world. The social ranks; the exclusiveness of wealth; its comfortable enjoyments; its gratified tastes; the worship of money in elevating into false position him who seems to possess it; the lifting up those who stand high; the crowding down those who are already low; the thousand points which mark the increasing inequality of the world; behold them all reproduced and triumphant here in the Church. So far as, and whereinsoever this is so, the progress of Christianity, bound up in the existence of the Church, will be impeded and checked. No attempts at compensation, can balance or neutralize an evil whose foundation is inequality, in those respects in which Christians were once made equal before God.
One of the evils and abuses of the Church of this day is the assigning for money in ownership or exclusive possession pews or seats in the house of God. That which was introduced for one purpose, has been pressed into quite an antagonistic service. That which was once designed to bring people into church, now operates to keep them out of it.
The history of the introduction of right or proprietorship in a particular portion of the church building, is not clear to us, because there is no marked and universal date, at which the common possession of [7/8] the house of God gave way to this private use of ownership. So far as we can ascertain it was, in the far larger number of cases, not as a matter of individual honor, but for the general convenience, that seats were permanently allotted. In the country parishes of England, we are told, that while the Squire may have his pew, his privilege works no exclusion of any poor man from the house of God: but that each inhabitant of the parish can by law compel the churchwardens to assign or find for him also a seat.
In the New England colonies, where the church building was the common property of the community, not only was there room for all, bat attendance of all was compelled at public worship. When in later days, in some societies, voluntary subscription was substituted for the tax, the assigning of seats was not intended to be a matter of trade, in which each received in proportion to his gift. Members were supposed to contribute according to their possessions. Seats in church were in theory awarded upon quite different considerations.
With the usual progress in turning all marks or divisions into signs of distinction or privilege, an entire revolution has been brought about in the practical operation of assigning fixed pews, until that which was intended to secure to each his place in church, and thus bring all men in, operates now in our larger towns and cities to exclude far more than it invites.
The usage has been found very convenient with reference to an income to meet the charges of worship and ministerial support. Indeed this seems to be the [8/9] strong argument anywhere for the maintenance of the system. It enables the financial officers of the church equitably to distribute the burden upon all partaking of the benefit. By this means they arrange the services in reliance upon a fixed and reasonably sure list of receipts. Convince fully any vestry, that while they will nave a better attended church under the free system, their income will equal its present amount, and you have more than half persuaded them to throw their doors freely open. If they can be led a step further, to the conviction that free-will offerings must overpass the prescribed tax, but a feeble opposition upon any other ground will interfere with the proposed change.
We frequently meet another argument in favor of assigned seats,--an argument brought so prominently and continually forward, that it might, were there no other signs, be received as the weighty reason. It is that people like to have a fixed seat in church, and families ought not to be forced into separation at times of worship, as so often happens in a crowded free church. Now and then, too, a voice more fastidious than sanctified, objects to plebeian contact, to the exposure of the chance of sitting side by side with some ragged and otherwise unneat fellow-worshipper.
This reasoning from convenience or propriety, which probably first prepared the way towards a general prevalence of the pew system, is apparently a secondary argument now: the prominent and controlling reason urged, being the financial consideration.
 Allowing, however, the utmost force to any pleas in favor of rented seats and in opposition to the free church system, it must at times, to every thoughtful Christian appear that for all the advantage we pay a fearful and unholy price, in the actual exclusion of multitudes from the house of God, from the Communion of the church. Before the establishing of any free place of worship, such was actually the exclusive position of our church in New York. We have the record, on the Convention Journal, in the words of the Bishop of the Diocese, that owing to the prevailing usage there were multitudes separated, as by a wall of adamant, from the Gospel--its word and its Church. With thirty free churches to-day, the same sad story is not true, yet it is true that the attempt to remedy a great evil has brought in another, in some respects, especially in a republic, quite as much, perhaps more, to be deprecated.
We strive to make provision for all by multiplying churches. Each rich congregation must build two churches, the one of which is to supplement the deficiencies of the other, but is in all respects and usages as unlike as possible. The one Church is large and imposing, and in all its appointments costly and magnificent and luxurious. On the second, the chapel, with its unadorned walls and hard stats, they bestow one dollar, where the great church cost them ten. The eloquence of the country must contribute some favored son to fill the pulpit of the church. That which the trustees would not tolerate, answers for the chapel. Propose for the chapel an organist and [10/11] a choir as perfect and expensive as those of the church and a smile of ludicrous expression will be the reply. Rented seats, down to the very door, fill the church. The chapel congregation is composed of families who like as well to keep together and sit always in the same spot, but the usage, so strongly defended and clung to in the great church, is for some unexplained reason reversed in the chapel, whose scats are free up to the altar rail. In the church it is considered better that persons should pay for their seats, as they have then an interest and connection in the parish, advantageous to both them and it. In the chapel, attended by human beings influenced by the same motives with their more favored brethren, worshippers are left without those attractions and binding cords which the feeling of possession wreathes around us, and the inclination to give is chilled by the consideration that it is not necessary, as services will be supported there whether they aid or no.
To complete the contrast between the two churches, the worshipper of the one is placed at a still further disadvantage in comparison with those of the other. The first has its governing body elected by itself; directly or indirectly appoints its own clergy, and is represented by its own delegates in convention. The second has its governing body elected by parties entirely outside of itself; its clergy appointed by others; no independent citizenship in the church is accorded; and as a congregation of disfranchised men, they receive what and whom others may esteem best. If the rich have not said to the poor 'Stand [11/12] thou there, or sit here under my footstool,' they have done worse--warned them altogether from the door to the position of inferiority in every respect which makes cheap the Free chapel.
Thus while aiming to remedy a disease, and compensate in some way the exclusion of the poorer classes from our churches, we have succeeded in erecting caste churches. There is nothing so full of hindrance to the wider reception of the Gospel, as this worldliness within the Church herself. It is a fur more fearful enemy than infidelity. In the swinging of the pendulum of inevitable change, we progress towards superstition in. one generation, to recede toward radicalism in another--the advancing ritualism of to-day will, we may safely predict, be ultimately succeeded by comparative indifference to observance. Bat where is our hope when spirituality and the awakened life of Christianity roused to a sense of neglected duty, have hut made their worldliness more painfully evident by repeating in the church the distinctions, and even the abolished distinctions, of the world?
The evil more deplorable than all others, resting upon our Church in New York to-day, is not of doctrine but of practice. The erroneous views of one set of men will, in a comprehensive Church, encounter antagonism and meet final destruction. We have more to fear when good men of every shade of religious opinion, some deliberately, others in unthinking acceptance of what is, not only rank men in the Church as they are ranked in the world, but bend [12/13] themselves actively to a course which intensifies the world's distinctions, and tends to make them permanent in the Church's polity.
Protestants are never weary of condemning the Romish system of masses for souls in purgatory, which gives the man who has rich friends an earlier entrance into bliss. What are we better than they, if with us a living man's wealth gains him access to spiritual privilege, from which the poor man is shut oat and consigned to a pauper's fragments?
It is often said that the toleration in our Church of unscriptural belief and foreign practices, prevents many from entering her fold. The system of caste churches repels uncounted numbers more. The masses, not possessed of wealth, find no place in houses of worship where the full purse of a rich man can alone bear the forced contribution.
An American's independence will not accept a beggar's portion, hence the multitudes live churchless. It is not because the multitudes are irreligious, far from it; in sickness and need they summon to their dwelling the clergyman whom they have never sought in church. In his own home, at least, each is the equal of any other. There he can accept, with no dreaded and unnecessary humiliation, the ministrations, as freely given at the bedside of the poor, as that of the rich.
Pardon me, dear brethren, if I have dwelt long upon a question in which we are well agreed, and have spoken warmly upon a subject, the very contemplation of which will ever stir your blood. Leaving [13/14] then this topic of privilege and misplaced distinction in the churches, let us turn our thoughts towards another quarter. We need to do more, than to show the evils attending our prevailing system. We must point the way out from the embarrassing position in which those are placed, who are dissatisfied with the operations of the present pew and mission system, and yet know of no way of securing a fixed and sufficient support of worship but by renting seats.
We are told that voluntary offerings can never equal the requirements. To this objection reply might be made in various ways. Perhaps in many cases the best answer would be to refer the objectors to the finances of their own church, directing attention to the fact that the voluntary gifts of that, as of almost any congregation, exceed what is laid upon them by assessment or tax. We could easily collect statistics, showing the receipts of churches in New York from the pews. It would be impossible to state the aggregate sum contributed voluntarily, through a thousand channels, through missionary and educational and charitable associations, to soliciting Bishops and other clergy, and to numerous objects of general interest. No one can for a moment doubt that the voluntary donations of Christians in this city immeasurably excel that which they pay as a matter of charge or bargain. We can safely say further that were any plans of offering devised which should be based upon a tax to be laid to meet all calls, the proceeds would fall far short of the sums at present contributed. By general acknowledgment [14/15] the best way to secure the largest gift for all missionary or charitable work, is to make it an entirely freewill offering. Yet it seems to be strangely supposed or assumed that one's own parish church, nearer and dearer to most Christians than anything except the household hearth, is the sole object towards which the abundant and ready gift will fail to flow in ample profusion.
I entered upon my ministry six and twenty years ago, with the resolution never to be pastor of any but a free church. No observation or experience has brought me to the conclusion that such a purpose was unwise. On the contrary, I know to-day what I believed then, that a man chooses to give more than he shall give. Without a moment's hesitation, were my abilities equal to the charge of any large city church, I would cast its list of pew rents to the flames, and take its pew doors from their hinges, knowing that those people would do more for their pastor, and spend more upon their church, of choice than of necessity.
But we are told the Free Church system has been tried and failed. "I believe it is generally acknowledged by the advocates of free churches, that they are not a success," remarked lately a good brother. We are pointed to the condition of the free churches in this city, and told, "You say you have thirty free places of worship in the Communion of the Protestant Episcopal Church. How many of them pay their way?" The question is legitimate, and bears seriously upon the whole free church subject.
 We answer honestly, not many. But you have given us here a terrible burden to bear. We must make bricks and you monopolize the straw. If we go outside of New York, or perhaps we may say of our large cities, you will find the system of free-will offerings so far successful, that nearly one-half the churches of our Communion in the United States are now entirely free; and there are dioceses in which, with one or two exceptions, every church is free. This spread of the practice indicates of itself the general success. In this city the very name of free church for long years had its synonyme in "poor people's church." The multiplication by rich pawed churches of free churches intended for the poor, has cast a sympathizing shadow over all free churches. Even to this day to say, one goes to a free church, is at least a confession that one does not go where fashionable people gather; that most of their fallow worshippers arc plain, many poor. The pewed churches, not the free, are however responsible for this condition of things. Their first aim is to offer advantages which will gain them a revenue; ours to get a congregation. They induce the rich to attend. We succeed in persuading the poor to enter. All have equally souls to be saved, but it is much easier to carry on arrangements for the saving of souls that can pay, than of those which cannot. If we have the latter, it is because they have the former. Remove all the social distinctions out of Christ's kingdom, so that as we stand in God's sight, thus we assemble also in church, high and low, rich and poor, one with another, all perfectly equal in our [16/17] spiritual relations, and it will no longer be objected that financially the free church is a failure.
Again we say financially the free church system baa proved a success, and not a failure, even with its social disadvantages. Consult the rector of any free church, before you pass that fatal condemnation, and he will tell you that the free will offering of the larger portion of his flock, especially of the poorer members, is more than could be collected from them in any other way. That those who would feel themselves entirely unequal to a pew rent of twenty dollars, and would probably stay away from church if it were demanded, exceed that amount in the sum of their weekly offerings.
The fault in our free churches, and one equally detrimental to financial success in a pawed church, is that they are too small. We are told of the pewed churches, having a capacity of six or eight hundred, that it is not possible to realize from rents a sufficient sum to pay expenses. Many of our pewed churches are built with from twelve to twenty hundred or more sittings. The largest free church ever erected in New York, was the Church of the Redemption, on Fourteenth street, with fourteen hundred sittings; and so long as it was an independent church it bore its own expenses, St. John the Evangelist, St. Ann's, The Epiphany, and All Saints' churches accommodate each about one thousand persons. With these exceptions there is not, so far as I know, a single free church in the city capable of seating much, if any, over six hundred. Now a free church, no less than a [17/18] pewed church, must be larger in size and membership for purposes of self-support. If it be built for but three or four or even nine or ten hundred people, we are placing a free church, attended by those of slender means, in an unfavorable condition for its prosperity. If on the contrary, our free churches were to be built with at least sixteen hundred sittings, accommodating at one time the worshippers of four hundred families, numbering two thousand souls, you have, in filling it, a body able to support itself. An average of fifty cents weekly from each such family, or ten cents weekly from each individual, would be over ten thousand dollars a year, and yet not the fourth of a tithe of the income of a congregation made up of the persons filling such a church even in the poorer parts of our city. Place this large church in the richer districts and the moderate expectation of one hundred dollars each, from its four hundred families, will yield the large yearly return of forty thousand dollars, sufficient to sustain the required clergy, and munificently provide for all the expenditures upon worship. Where this large and handsome free church is to come from does net yet appear. If by some combination of resources the amount spent upon two or three mission chapels were used to built and furnish one large free church, seating as many as they all, the funds now erecting two or three small chapels, which must be a perpetual expense to their builders, would make room for a flourishing congregation self-supporting from the very start. Or if the money used to erect but a single one of the more costly parochial free [18/19] chapels, were handed over to a church situated like St. Timothy's, with an ample plot of ground, the condition of the gift being that a church, forever free, to accommodate sixteen hundred persons, should be there built; the money would have done a greater work than if expended upon the chapel at home, and the donors freed from an annual drain for the support of a worship, which they have placed in position to nourish itself.
In the present inclination to make charity so far as may be parochial, perhaps it is too much to hope that any such project will find immediate favor, and we must be content to work our way gradually up. Even in this city we have cause for thankfulness that there are so many churches, if in most cases small and struggling, yet independent and free.
Whether the future be near or distant, which shall leave the Free Church in all respects equal to those which, in beauty of architecture and sumptuous worship, have now the advantage, we cannot tell. We can hardly be otherwise than exultant when we know that the day is doomed to come, invoked, too, by unexpected allies.
The committee on the new cathedral is composed, as to its clerical members, entirely of pastors over churches, whose seats are owned and rented by the occupants. Few, if a single one of the lay members of that Committee, belong to the congregation of a free church. Many, and perhaps the majority of their number, are not believers in the Free Church system. Yet that same body of men has taken a step which [19/20] must work a revolution against the present, and give to the Free Church cause all the triumph it desires, that of perfect equality.
To be sure it would seem unbecoming and strange that the Church of the Bishop and of the Diocese should make any distinction between the highest and the least. Yet we can not but think that it was without a full forecasting of the probable results, that these very persons, accustomed to argue against our cherished cause, applied to the legislature for the charter of a cathedral to be forever free.
Praise God, however, for it. When that cathedral is built and occupied, in our children's day, and rich and fashionable people are among its frequenters, as they are sure to be, the question will be persistently asked, "Why should the cathedral be for every one, and that neighboring church be for an exclusive few?" When the leading church of our city and Diocese and continent, the first in size and beauty, in its rendering of the service, in the learning and eloquence of its pulpit; when that church is free, it is but a day, and the universal victory will be gained, these unfitting distinctions banished, and our Communion, with its open churches, will reap the rich, if long delayed, harvest of worshippers.