Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.


The sermon lectures which are submitted to the judgment of the reading public in the following pages, were not written in the first instance with any thought of their ultimate publication. They were prepared by the author and delivered by him in the course of his duty as preacher to the congregation of which he is the pastor. Reports of the lectures were published in the daily press, which reports attracted wide attention, and gave rise to much discussion and contention. Because of this it seems wise to publish the discourses in full in order that the writer may be judged by the whole body of his thought, rather than by any selected portion of the same.

It was the intention of the speaker that these utterances should serve the double purpose of the lecture and the sermon: as lectures it was their main object to impart historical information, as sermons they were intended to rouse spiritual emotions and to inspire moral action. The writer is aware that he has not altogether escaped the dangers which follow upon the effort thus to combine the work of the lecturer and the preacher. He has, he fears, unwittingly, brought into the region of heated theological controversy, matters that belong rather to the clear, calm, [1/2] dispassionate department of historical investigation. His only excuse is that religion and history are so closely associated that it is impossible to treat of the one without reference to the other. Especially is this the case when one attempts to consider the relation of the religious to the political life of man. This subject must be considered historically or not at all.

In view of the discussion which has been occasioned by the publication of the 12th lecture in this course on the Present State of the Churches, it seems wise for the writer to devote a few prefatory pages to a simple explanation of the historical method as it is used by modern scholars in the investigation of historical phenomena in general and of the phenomena of religious history in particular.

Historic criticism, as a science, has for its purpose the discovery and establishment of historic truth. Any one who is at all acquainted with human affairs is well aware of the fact that one cannot believe all that one hears. Stories are told of what men have said and men have done, stories which, while they may have some basis in truth are yet so turned and twisted, so colored and informed by the hopes and fears, the prejudices and passions, the inaccuracies and exaggerations of the story tellers, that it is only by a rigid process of examination and cross examination that we are able to arrive at anything like a truthful account of what actually occurred. Every one admits that in the ordinary affairs of the world, [2/3] one must exercise the utmost caution if one would not be lead into error. If a man runs after every rumor and listens to every tale, he is sure to come to grief. A prudent man will not act upon any information until he has tested that information by a rigid method of investigation which will give him reasonable assurance that what he has heard is true. Every prudent man is, therefore, an historical critic. He is applying to current history the same method which the student uses in his study of the history of the past.

The law courts are engaged daily in this process of historical criticism. They seek to arrive at the truth by a rigid system of examination. These courts have by long experience evolved rules of evidence which guide them in their administration of justice. To be a perfectly competent witness a man must have knowledge at first hand of the fact to which he testifies. If he has not himself seen or heard he is not competent to tell. Not only must he have this first hand knowledge but he must also be, as far as possible, without prejudice or partiality; the character of a witness, his ability, his fairness, his moral integrity and his intellectual capacity must all be considered in weighing his testimony. Moreover, a witness, in certain circumstances, to be of value, must not only have a knowledge of the particular fact to which he testifies, but also of the relation of that fact to the general order of the world. An [3/4] ordinary person may be competent to testify that a man was wounded in a given part of the body and yet not be competent to say that the wound in question was necessarily fatal and the cause of the man's death. Before he is competent to give such evidence he must know somewhat of human anatomy and physiology, and of the effect of such wounds upon the life of man. He must not only be an eye witness, he must also be an intellectual expert.

Not only does historic criticism take into account the character and opportunity of the witness, but it also considers the nature of the alleged event. An assertion which falls in with the ordinary daily experience of mankind can be established by evidence much less cogent than is required to sustain a statement which contradicts such experience. We can believe readily the word of almost anyone who tells us that a certain man walked upright upon the land; we would examine much more searchingly the same witness should he assert that a certain man walked upright on the water. In the one case the witness is corroborated by universal experience; in the other case universal experience is against him, and of all witnesses, universal experience is the most convincing. What we call natural law is simply an accurate statement of this universal experience. From the earliest times men have observed that heavy bodies when thrown into the air fall again to the earth. An accurate measurement of the velocity [4/5] of the fail of such bodies gives us the Newtonian law of gravitation. We can test that law at all times and it never fails us. When once this law has become a part of our mental endowment, we can readily receive all that is in accord with it, while any violation of it appears to us impossible. All the wonders of astronomical science, beside which all the recorded miracles of the world are but as child's play, seem to us credible because they conform to this universal experience.

If we are told of a certain being in human form, born of a human mother, expressing consciousness in human speech, living a human life and dying a human death, we naturally predicate of such an one a human fatherhood as well as a human motherhood, for universal experience bears witness to the fact that everyone who is the child of a human mother is also the child of a human father. To overcome this presupposition which is established by universal experience would require testimony of overwhelming force. The burden of proof lies with those who deny, not with those who assert the validity of universal experience to establish a given fact.

Historic criticism simply applies these principles to the examination of historic documents. It is a well known fact that in the beginning the mind of man was not trained to accurate observation and accurate statement. Nor was he sufficiently acquainted with the course of Nature to be able to interpret rightly [5/6] natural events. His history was not the result of careful research, of painful composition and toilsome correction; but it was a tale told by the fireside and passed from lip to lip--growing and changing with every repetition. Primitive man was moreover unable to distinguish between the creations of his own imagination and the facts of the external universe. His dream by night was as real to him as his sight by day. He projected himself into the universe and made the world in his own image. The sun and the moon and the stars, the winds and the waves, the trees and the running waters, were conceived by him to be living creatures like himself, capable of joy and sorrow, inspired by hopes and fears, indulging loves and hatreds. The earliest literature of the world is the expression of the facts of the universe in general and of human life in particular in the terms of the undisciplined human imagination. This literature is sublime poetry, but it is not accurate history. The historical critic classes stories of this kind under the name of mythology. In the next period of human thinking man recognizes more clearly his distinct place in nature, but he cannot yet measure his own powers, nor be fully conscious of his own limitations. He is ready to ascribe to his fathers, to ancient kings and heroes mastery over nature which later experience will not allow. The stories which make up his history have only a general relation to the facts as they occurred. His fathers and his heroes are the [6/7] personification of race feeling such as race pride, race fear and race hope. Stories of this class, which have some basis in fact, are grouped by the historic critic under the name of legend. After legend comes sober history--when trees are trees and men are men and facts are facts.

It has been the sole work of the historical critic to thus arrange and classify historical statements. The Christian critic has not hesitated to apply this method to all history except the history of his own religion. And is he not in honor bound to use the same measure for himself which he metes out to others? And this is all that the present writer contends for in the 12th lecture of this series. He claims the right to investigate the facts of his own religion by the same method which he has been taught to use in the investigation of the facts of all other religions. He would be ashamed to claim for his own great religion what he is not ready to allow to the poorest religion of the world. If the literature and formularies of his religion contain historical statements, then those statements must be subjected to the process of historical criticism, and if we find there the elements of myth and legend let us not be afraid to confess that our religion like all religions has had its infancy and its youth, as well as its years of sober manhood. And the writer of these lectures further asserts that whether we, the Christian ministers, like it or not, the historical content of the [7/8] Hebrew and Christian religion has been and will be subjected to the correcting process of historical criticism and is it not better that we, ourselves, should do this necessary work rather than be forced to receive its results at the hand of strangers?

The true believer has nothing to fear from historic criticism. His faith does not rest in any given interpretation of history; for him God is God, man is man, Jesus is Jesus, the Spirit of Holiness is the Spirit of Holiness in the eternal now, no matter what may have happened in the past.

Note.--Before going to press the author desires to qualify a statement made in lecture 12, concerning Theological Seminaries. It is there asserted that these Seminaries are the only institutions of learning which do not employ the scientific method in the investigation and establishment of truth. This is true of Theological Seminaries in general, but there are notable exceptions. The Union Theological Seminary in New York, Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, the Divinity School of Chicago University, the Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Mass., are all schools of scientific as opposed to scholastic theology and are doing work of a very high order.

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