Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Kentucky.
PROTESTANT EPISCOPAL PRESS.
Adams & Torrey, printers.
The following Essay first appeared in the "Literary and Theological Review," as a notice of Mr. Van Dyck's book on Christian Union. The just views which it is generally thought to contain, and its kindly and conciliatory spirit which has commended it to universal approval, have led some, who are interested in the subject, to solicit the privilege of publishing the essay in its present form. To facilitate this design, Bishop Smith has made such alterations, as were necessary to its appearance independently on the book, which suggested its composition.
It is a subject eminently worthy of the attention of Christian men, and especially of those who stand in the high places of Zion. The notice which this essay has already attracted, proves that some minds at least, are prepared to inquire and deliberate on this theme of inestimable importance to the prosperity of Christ's kingdom. So far from claiming, therefore, that Bishop Smith gave the first impulse to the desire for unity which is now found to pervade extensively the blessed company of all faithful people, we are rejoiced to acknowledge, nay, to maintain, that lie has but given expression to sentiments deep-rooted and wide-spread in the Christian community. In order to foster, and to extend these impressions, and to systematize the views of any now disposed to think on the subject, this tract is committed to the press. And we would bespeak for it the serious attention of every one who can breathe out of a pure heart fervently the prayer of David for the spiritual Jerusalem--"Peace be within thy walls!"
We have spoken with gratification of the favorable notice which this essay has secured from the Christian public. Yet there are two classes, and they somewhat numerous, who regard the Bishop's views with some distrust, when associated with the application with which he would consider them connected--the papists and the sectarists! The papist, whose creed teaches him to execrate protestantism, approves every thing that is conservative in the Bishop's principles, and leaps at once to the conclusion, (which is the very point in question,) that, faithfully followed, they would conduct the whole Christian world to the feet of his Holiness the Pope. The sectarist, [5/6] horror-struck with the apprehension of such an issue, concludes that division is essential to the spirituality of religion;--that so much good has grown out of the separation of the Church into different parties, that it is rather to he considered as a special ordinance of Providence, than an evil which has been overruled "for the furtherance of the Gospel." And with this love of sectarism many, and without it some, conceive that discrepancies in doctrine, discipline and worship, are so great as to render the hope of general union entirely visionary. That we have not misrepresented the papist appears in the fact that a Romish Bishop (Kenrick, of Philadelphia) has addressed a public letter to Bishop Smith in which he propounds the assumption above attributed to the members of his Church. His positions will, we have reason to believe, be canvassed at a proper time, by one on whom the task most properly devolves. And that there are sectarists who entertain the opinions attributed to them, has appeared in some of our religious periodicals, which treat this important theme of Christian reflection with an indifference or a flippancy the more surprising according to the general evangelical spirit by which they are characterized.
The greatest obstacle to Christian union, and that which really lies at the foundation of all others is, an uncompromising spirit possessing the various sects into which Christendom is divided. They are too tenacious of the peculiarities which distinguish them severally from each other! Mint, anise, and cummin have usurped, with too many, the importance of justice and the love of God. But with what class of minds does this prejudice most strongly prevail? With those which are enlarged by any adequate conception of the Gospel scheme? Do these repellant principles find place in hearts which possess any enviable share of Christian benevolence? By no means. We maintain that the position is perfectly tenable (hat just so far as this unwillingness to conciliate prevails, the spirit of Christ has failed to gain its proper ascendancy; and with whatever zeal any body of Christians or any individual man may pursue the great modes of Christian effort, yet if they do not preserve the "unity of spirit" with others who name the name of Christ, their zeal is not "according to knowledge." Turn not away, then, Christian reader, from the serious study of this subject, until you have faithfully inquired whether the great obstacle to its profitable entertainment is not one which, with the help of God's grace, you can remove, occupying, as it does, the very avenue to your own heart! H.
The institutions of the United States have had the effect of allowing to the Christian Religion all the advantages of its own internal strength and resources, for its indefinite extension on the voluntary principle. But this liberty has also given allowance for any evil tendencies in the outward form of Christianity, as we received it from our forefathers, to unfold themselves to the greatest possible extent. That those tendencies were not all salutary, is evident from the result of an experiment, daring the period of more than two hundred years. The tendency was to dissent and separation from the early established order of the Holy Apostolic Church. And the result has been, the subdivision and multiplication of sects, until almost every well-informed Christian, whose views have been liberalized by travelling and by an acquaintance with the early history of the Church, has come to the conclusion that the existing state of things is absolutely intolerable, and that all Christians are called upon by the signs of the times, seriously to inquire into the causes of disunion, and into the principles upon which the Unity of the Church, should again be restored. Such, in effect, is the object of the following brief essay. The echo has hardly died upon our ears, of almost universal acclamations in favor of the division of Protestant Christendom into sects. But we listen at length to a far more correct note of warning from many quarters, against the [7/8] prodigious evils of so unchristian a state of things. And it is scarcely less remarkable, that the first note is sounded, not from the other side of the Atlantic, where the principle of subdivision has been tested only in its milder forms, but from America, and from a section of Western America, where it has been experimented, one would think, on a scale exaggerated enough to satisfy the wildest advocate for the peculiar benefits of united action amongst adverse and contending sects. This fact alone may be hailed with humble gratitude to Almighty God as one of many indications that America, in its influence over those who profess and call themselves Christians, will be most auspicious in numberless respects; not only by presenting an unobstructed field upon which Christianity may exert her highest energies; but also by giving scope to whatever elements of evil may have wrought themselves into its frame work to manifest themselves suddenly in their more baleful forms, so as to compel the earlier use of appropriate remedies.
This thought has often forced itself upon our attention, when we have contrasted the far greater evils, of endless subdivisions amongst Christian people in new countries, with the milder forms in which they manifest themselves in old and well established communities. Where population is dense, and causes long in operation have served to bind together a vast majority of the people in the support of a preacher of someone of the orthodox denominations, the evil is hardly felt to be an evil, and can easily be tolerated. But where enterprize and emigration have brought together in a small new village at the West, men of all shades of religious opinion--representatives not merely of the leading sects every where scattered through the country, but also furious advocates of some two or [8/9] three splits and subdivisions amongst all these sects; how they are ever to be brought together to erect a suitable place of worship, or to sustain Christian institutions upon a respectable and permanent footing, is a proposition which no modem inventor has yet had sufficient sagacity to solve. In such a state of things, Christianity must grovel dishonored in the dust.
But we hold it to be impossible that evils so appalling and wide spread, can fail of working their own cure, and of opening the eyes of all dispassionate and truly benevolent Christians to the greatness of the evil of disunion, and the imperative duty of all Christian people to agree in the unity of the Church. Here in America, where the curse of sectarism has been the most bitter, its cure will be most sudden and most complete!
How the sentiment ever gained currency that sectarism, is, upon the whole, a blessing, is utterly inconceivable! Kindly dispositions must have led men to apologize for the prodigious evils of this system, or prejudice must have kept them stone blind, otherwise they never could have conceived that the base and low-born principle of emulation, (the only consideration adduced in favor of sectarism,) could compensate for the innumerable evils of the spirit of party.
Volumes would ill suffice to unfold the evils of disturbing that unity, in which the Saviour prayed, that all his disciples might be bound together. A mere summary of those evils would cover too many of our pages with the blackness of darkness. It ministers food to pride and self-importance, it encourages upstarts, it magnifies the merest trifles into saving points of faith, it eats out the heart of personal and family religion, it divides families and convulses communities, it saps and undermines the [9/10] due influence of the ministry, it encourages the spirit of insubordination and misrule, it alienates and embitters against each other the best of Christians, it strengthens the hands of the ungodly and loosens the loins of the Church, it encourages the contempt of the blasphemer and hardens the heart of the infidel, it wastes and misdirects the energies of the Church, fills Christendom with mourning, and covers it with dishonor, whilst it abandons the unenlightened heathen to their own forgotten and un-pitied miseries. Sectarism is one of the master devices of Satan. It goes farther than any other influence, perhaps, in keeping real Christians from that fulness of growth and vigor to which, without it, they might attain; stands directly in the way of the conversion of the multitude in Christian lands; presents Christianity to the heathen in a mutilated and degraded form; and fritters away or paralyzes the energies of Christians for evangelizing the world. It may almost be questioned which yields the adversary of souls most victims,--a debased and corrupt form of Christianity, or Christianity deformed by the curse of sectarism!
Most of the remedies which have been pointed out for these evils, are mere expedients and palliatives. It could hardly be otherwise, since he has not even attempted to point out the causes of division. That mind to which God in his providence and by his Spirit, shall reveal the true causes of the evils which exist, will, most likely, become the honored instrument of exhibiting the true remedy. God only knows whether the deep-seated and true cause has ever yet been fully discovered. And it may be reserved for some champion of the cross, more honored and more happy than Luther or Cranmer, to usher in a new reformation, the effect of which shall [10/11] be to restore the Church to its primitive oneness and glory.
We have not the presumption even to dream that either of the causes about to be disclosed, is that one great secret, but true cause, of all this difficulty, upon the discovery of which the remedy must depend. But discussion in the spirit of candor and sincere humility, cannot have the effect of heaping more rubbish upon these causes where they lie concealed; but may, on the other hand tend somewhat towards removing a little of the rubbish, and to bringing us nearer to laying our hand upon the great cause.
It would be aside from our present purpose, to attempt to trace the cause of divisions and dissensions in the Churches to the self-love and restlessness of base and ambitious men, or the impatience and headiness of mere novices, or to the pride and wilfulness of the human heart. The attempt is, to point out some of the nearer and more palpable causes in which these elements of evil, belonging to our common nature, have betrayed themselves.
Has not the time come when the inquiry may safely be pursued by Protestant Christians, whether one of the grand mistakes of the Reformation were not separation from the Church, instead of reformation in the Church? Might not all that patient perseverance, and humble energy which distinguished the very eminent saints of that day, if exerted long enough within the Church, have prevented in the end any separation from it? Might they not have resulted in the entire removal of all material error, either in doctrine or practice, which had been gathering around primitive Christianity during a space of more than a thousand years? It would seem that a return to those outward forms and symbols of our faith which [11/12] prevailed in the earliest and comparatively uncorrupt ages of Christianity must yet be the standard after which all Christians must agree to copy. How much better would it have been to have returned to these standards without ever having violated the unity of the Church!
May we venture upon another fundamental inquiry? Was it wise to attempt to add to the brief, general, comprehensive creeds, by which, down to the time of the Reformation, Christians were content to regulate their faith? Has any thing been gained by spinning out the standards of faith into all the more minute ramifications of metaphysical and polemic theology? May not the thousand-and-one split amongst Protestant Christians, on points of doctrine, be mainly traced to this fundamental mistake? Agreement in essentials and freedom in unessentials, is a wise axiom. Has it been the leading axiom of doctrinal sects? The knife which divides the polypus cannot be more prolific, than that knife which has been so much in use, in cutting off every member from the Church who differed in any thought from some standard, by which the operator has been pleased to try his opinions. An unnatural effort to keep men's minds pared close, in order to conform to a particular creed, has led to more numerous and far wider departures from it, than could otherwise have taken place.
It would be venturing on still more delicate ground were we to ask, whether the effacing of the scriptural and primitive distinctions between clerical and lay officers in the Church, has not, by lessening the respect for the sacred order, and fostering a spirit of misrule and insubordination, greatly tended to the multiplication of sects? When the authority of proper officers ceases to be recognized, and the respect and obedience due to them are subverted, [12/13] who can predict what endless discords may ensue? The tendency of this evil is manifestly to be traced in the far greater number of subdivisions amongst those sects, by whom the clerical order has been the most completely degraded.
It will be perceived that these three causes are of a general and permanent nature: and they are the rather adverted to, on account of a tendency too generally prevalent to refer these evils to casual, local, or temporary causes. We perceive as plainly as others can the operation of these latter causes, and we deplore them as devoutly. And indeed we know not but a summary of them ought to be sketched, for the sake of the unsuspecting. But we have felt solicitous in the present article, of directing the attention of reflecting men to the main and more influential causes of the divisions which abound among us.
Among the local and temporary causes which have aggravated the evils of sectarism in our country, may be mentioned the radical spirit of the age, the fever for excitement and change, the prevailing disregard for office, and contempt of government, the violent impatience of restraint, and the almost universal desire of power. These tendencies to evil have been rendered more precipitant, by the cast of education given to religious teachers, bewildering them with nice and useless doctrinal distinctions, diverting their studies from the history of the Church, and inflaming them with impatience for immediate results, instead of teaching them to lay deep and well the foundations of a future and permanent increase. But enough of this.
Let us hasten to the most important practical part of the subject, the suggestion of remedies. And here it is [13/14] also aside from our object to point out the one grand remedy--the omnipotence of Christian charity, because we are not penning an exhortation, or dreaming of the time as already come when all Christians shall be perfect Christians; but we are endeavoring to bring out practical suggestions, which may meet the exigencies of the present times, taking Christian people as they are.
And thus are we brought precisely to the knotty point of our subject. All are agreed that disunion exists and is increasing to a frightful extent. Most men are becoming sensible that such divisions are grievously unchristian and pernicious. Many think themselves quite prepared to adopt any effective remedy which may be proposed. But what shall be done, what that remedy is, we have found comparatively few who are quite prepared to determine.
Preliminary to the discussion of this topic, the great question arises, What sort of a union amongst the followers of Christ should be proposed? Shall they be called upon to unite, in some way or other, as they now stand divided, or are they bound to agree IN ONE OUTWARD FORM OF CHRISTIANITY. Many appear to entertain no other idea of union amongst Christians, than an agreement that they shall not bite and devour one another. For our part we most explicitly avow our conviction, that every attempt to put a stop to the dissensions and subdivisions which distract the Church must forever prove futile, until Christians are agreed in one outward form of Christianity. We have no room to pause for unfolding in full our reasons for this opinion. They are briefly these, however. Our Saviour Christ, in his last prayer for his disciples, and St. Paul, in frequent arguments in his epistles, refer to the oneness of the Church--and at that period no idea could have been conveyed by their language, but a Church one in form, as well as in spirit. The earliest and purest writers of the Church, employ language precisely similar, and, by the unity of the Church, always mean unity in form and practice, as well as unity in doctrine and spirit. Common sense can repose with satisfaction on no other idea. Outward Christianity, with the multitude, is the whole of Christianity. Disunion in practice, is disunion in fact. And to talk about union in feeling and spirit, whilst there is disunion in fact, is about as wise as to exhort those to love one another between whom some occasion of deadly feud actually exists. This common sense principle is sufficiently tested, by asking contending sects in Great Britain and America, bow they can present one Gospel to the people of China, without a previous agreement in what outward form Christianity must be sent to them?
The hopelessness of such a union is the great argument against it. But is it any more hopeless than the triumph of Christianity over the tempers of men, whilst actual occasions of difference are left unremoved? Is more grace necessary to guide the understanding to right results, than under the most unfavorable circumstances, to regulate the affections of the heart? We look only to a Divine influence controlling the thoughts and hearts of men, to lead them into all truth, and to bring them back again to the unbroken unity of the Church. Is it too much to hope, that, under this influence, the minds of all good men will be guided into all truth?
But when the preliminary question is settled that, in order to heal the divisions amongst Christian people, there must be a return to one outward form of Christianity, a much more difficult question occurs, what that form shall [15/16] be. Shall it be any one of the existing forms exactly as it is? Shall one of the best of these be modified so as to approach more nearly to some supposed perfect standard? Shall the excellencies of each be chosen and formed into an entirely new model, avoiding all the evils of those which now exist, and combining all their advantages? Or shall it be abandoned to chance, or left to expediency to determine what that form shall be? Neither of these methods will bear the comments of common sense. Under either of these suppositions it would be impossible to put into the hands of every honest and good man precisely the same cue, with the perfect confidence that it would lead him, upon principle, to the same results.
As inductive men we do not like to state what that principle is, in the form of an axiom; and yet we know not how it can better be stated than in the words of Tertullian; "Whatever is first is true; whatever is more recent is spurious." In other words, we must go back to that period in the Church when it was as free from corruption in doctrine and practice as it can well ever again become before the millennium; when the Church did appear in absolute oneness of outward form. By correct methods of investigation, we must ascertain what that form was, and with willing minds and hearts, we must agree, in all essential respects, to return to that unity.
Here enough is fixed and permanent to satisfy the honest inquirer. Here all is plain, for facts and truth become the objects of search. And it has appeared to us one of the strangest anomalies of the human mind, that so much which belongs to our common external Christianity should universally be received by Protestant Christians upon this only correct principle, and yet so many disputed points, involving the most disastrous [16/17] consequences, should never be brought to the test of the same principle.
Is it important that Christians should agree in one Bible? Might not the most desolating and disastrous consequences result from controversies respecting the books which go to make up this one Bible? Would it prove fatal to Christianity to leave the determining of this question to caprice, or expediency, or chance? These Christians have done well in agreeing upon those sound principles of investigation which lead them to substantial and sufficient agreement, what the Canon of Scripture is. The principle is correct, and therefore all honest minds rest satisfied in the same results. Abandon the question of the oneness of the Bible, to be agitated and kept afloat on the perturbed ocean of expedience, as the question is respecting the oneness of the Church, and very soon we should have amongst us almost as many books claiming to be Bibles, as we have sects claiming to be Churches.
And what are the laws of evidence, guided by which all Christians come to such admirable agreement as to the Canon of Scripture? Do we settle that grave point by appeals to the Scriptures alone? Do we require a "thus saith the Lord," for the admission of any book within the compass of the Bible? If not, how may the method of investigation, in few words be stated?
We select some period of Christian antiquity by universal consent anterior to great corruptions; and in order to be quite safe, anterior to the existence of great causes tending to corruption; the year 300, for example, previous to the conversion of Constantine, or the year 250, when the documents of the then existing Christianity were abundant; or the year 200, when men were living who had [17/18] conversed with the disciples of John; and we ask, what books were received by Christians every where, and with one consent, as sacred books; and these and no others we admit into our Canon. Then, with the utmost care, we look into every previous writer, for concurring, or for opposing evidence. Finding nearly every thing clear and satisfactory, we finally repair to the books of the New Testament themselves for incidental and internal evidence to endorse for, and confirm the whole. And here we rest satisfied that we have grasped the TRUTH.
What hinders the application of precisely the same rule, which we apply to the integrity of the one Bible, to the question of the one Church? Here there is some change of subject as to a few details, but not as to principle. Both are outward matters, inseparable from Christianity. Both involve a great variety of facts, and the question can never be settled in either case except by an appeal to facts.
' Is it then too much to hope that the progress of theological learning, stimulated by the evils of sectarism, and guided by humility, true piety, and still increasing freedom from prejudices, will ultimately lead the best men and the best ministers in our country to the adoption of correct methods of investigation, in order to restoring the unity of the Church? If here and there a ray of light has been scattered through those pages, we should be most thankful if we could concentrate every one of them upon the sentence,--that men accustomed to investigation will be brought to agree in some external form of Christianity, just as soon as they are agreed as to the methods of investigation by which the truth of that one form may be ascertained!
We have purposely excluded every sentence which [18/19] might even imply in what direction these plain principles might guide us. With us it would matter nothing to which of the existing denominations they would conduct; or what modifications they would demand of each. Nay it would not startle us at all, were they to point out some outward form of Christianity, buried and forgotten for fifteen hundred years. By following principle, we are quite fearless where we are conducted. We have only to hope and pray that the same spirit may be given to every inquirer, and that every candidate for the ministry may give the subject the attention which its importance demands, and then we shall all soon rejoice together, as members of one body, in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace.
It concerns us less than we can express whether these opinions are regarded as foreign to the subject, or exceedingly new and strange. When unfolding great principles, praise or blame are alike indifferent. But far different are our feelings with regard to the place which we could wish that these principles might occupy in the minds and hearts of our most prayerful inquirers and our leading theological teachers. To them, not the article, but the principles upon which the article is based, are most solemnly commended, in the name of God, with the earnest entreaty that they may be subjected to the most rigid scrutiny, that their fallacy, if any is to bo found in them, may be exposed, or if not that their correctness may be avowed and straightway applied to practice. For many years, ever since that return to a better state of religious feeling, out of which the chief missionary efforts of Great Britain and America have grown, and more particularly since the great general societies, for the distribution of Bibles, religious tracts, &c. have sprung into existence, the subject [19/20] of greater union amongst Christian people has been much discussed. And for a time it was confidently anticipated, that revivals of religion, and co-operations for great objects upon principles of almost boundless toleration, by effacing the distinctions amongst sects, and leading their respective representatives to bury their animosities, would, in the end, bring Christians to be much more of one mind. We rejoice to bear testimony to the hallowed Christian influences which, owing to these causes, during short intervals, have evidently filled the hearts of the best Christians in the land. But the indications of any tendency to greater practical union from these causes, if it ever existed any where but in the imaginations of good and ardent men, have long since passed away. We know of none who continue to look to what have been called the great national societies, or to such revivals of religion as of late have run over the land, as sending forth one ray of hope that the Church will soon be restored by their means, to greater unity and love. On the contrary, the bad spirit seems to be converting these mighty engines, into the readiest instruments of his will, in creating more divisions, and more wide-spread disorders.
We must look abroad, therefore, for other and better influences, which we may hope are tending, and that God will overrule, to the desired end. That there is an actual increase of the spirit of primitive Christianity amongst us, notwithstanding the increase of fanaticism and infidelity, is a fact which cannot be questioned. And we may rest assured, that just in proportion as primitive Christianity pervades the hearts of men, will it become more and more easy to bring them to unite in primitive forms of Christianity. There may be some religion where sectarism [20/21] prevails. But just in proportion as religion soars above and triumphs over sectarism, will the one Church prevail in its primitive glory.
We have already interwoven the sentiment with the whole of this article, that the exaggerated and frightful evils of sectarism amongst us, will shame and compel all good men, to seize fast hold upon principles which must lead them to agreement. The multiplication of sectarian theological seminaries, in the end, must hasten this result. For, in proportion as men become truly humble and teachable by greater theological attainments--as they occupy more commanding points of view for overlooking the desolating contests between Christians--and as the responsibility of training the champions of their party for the time to come weighs more heavily upon their consciences,--just in these proportions will they be compelled to be modest, distrustful of themselves, and obedient to the guidance of correct methods of investigation. Let the professors of all our Theological Seminaries apply head and heart and hand to the discussion of this subject, having no object in view but truth, ready to go any whither, if only guided by principle; and as to any remaining differences amongst them, they might as well make a faculty of one school!
It would seem, also, as if Providence were shutting up the advocates of scriptural and primitive Christianity to the necessity of uniting against a common foe. Radicalism, infidelity, and fanaticism seem to be making common cause, and to be raging with more than ordinary fury against the Lord and against his Anointed. It will be a madness in the friends of pure religion past conception, should they fall into the contest, through their own internal dissensions.
 A similar constraint presses upon them in reference to the present posture of the missionary enterprize. At first the salvation of souls from amongst the heathen, was the great and almost exclusive object of the missionary. But the time has now come when the few scattered bands of converted heathen are to be gathered into Churches, and to be supplied with a permanent ministry. Can it be that the conductors and friends of our various missionary societies will go forward in their labors upon principles which must perpetuate, on the heathen soil, and to the ends of the earth, the paltry and degrading controversies which agitate the Church at home?
Should the present state of things continue, and its tendencies be still further acted out, it is impossible to conceive how much more disgraceful to Christianity and more ruinous to souls it may become. Of this, at least, we have reason to be terribly afraid, that Almighty God, wearied by the follies and sins of those who profess to honor him, will visit them with some great chastisement, calculated to restore them to a sense of their duty towards him. Some of the best Christian writers, for many years have been filled with apprehensions, lest nothing but a season of persecution should prove sufficient to restore the Church to its sense of duty. Violent persecutions are like great weights upon the key-stone of an arch; they keep the true Church together by mere force. May God in his mercy bring about the desired change without being constrained to resort to a whip of scorpions to scourge Christians into a right state of feeling! The time is at hand! Christians must at once, of their own free will, agree upon principles surely conducting them to one outward form of Christianity, and all, with one consent, cheerfully return to the unity of the Church; [22/23] or they must expect that the change will be brought about by convulsions and sufferings, at thought of which the heart sickens! May the great Head of the Church, for the great love wherewith he hath loved it, speedily purify "it unto himself, a holy Church, without spot or wrinkle, (or rent,) or any such thing."