Project Canterbury


  The Cause and Evils of Sectarianism.





A.D. 1852,








--"The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." 1. TIM. iii. 15.





NOTE.--It will be understood by the reader of this, that the word "Catholic" is used in its common meaning, "universal." The Roman branch and the Greek branch of the One Catholic Church, each claim the exclusive right to be called the Catholic Church. The Anglican Church claims only to be a part of the Catholic Church.


2 TIMOTHY, II. 15.

"Rightly dividing the word of truth."

THE fact that greater dissension and distraction exist upon the subject of religion in our day and country than ever before existed, must be admitted by all.

Look around, and you may hear every sort and kind of doctrine; you may see every kind of organization, called churches--each claiming to be according to the model set forth by the Saviour of the world.

Continually new developments are being made, new systems of religion are devised, new teachers and leaders of parties spring up, and not a year passes but some new notion is started, and multitudes embrace it, however absurd.

I think this, my brethren, no exaggerated picture, and that you all, whatever may be your idea as to the cause, will admit that such is the fact, and that this evil is one that distinguishes our age.

Evil, did I say? I ought here to state another fact, which I believe is peculiar to the present age, if not peculiar to our country. Many hold and teach that religious dissension is no evil; that the multiplicity of sects is a [3/4] great good, as it affords every one an opportunity to suit himself in religion; that one sect watches another, and thus they hold each other in check.

Many who call themselves Christians, seriously defend this sentiment, which is founded in infidelity and disbelief in the word and promise of God. I shall take it for granted that you who are present are Christians; that you believe in the divine character of the Son of God, in the excellency of what he said, and the binding obligation of what he requires. In reference to this particular, when you hear the Son in his human nature praying thus: "Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one as we are;" when you find that the members of his body, the Church, are said to be one with him, "he in them and they in him;" when an apostle gives a most express command, "Let there be no divisions among you;" and when told that there is but "one Lord, one faith, one baptism;" when you think of these and many other scriptures of like import, you cannot believe it a BLESSING that there are so many divisions--so many sects--so great diversity of doctrine, of faith, and of practice. How can those be one with the Father who deny the Son in that character which alone unites them to Him? How can those be one in spirit, or in communion of feeling, who believe in and who deny the future accountability of man? How can those be one, who believe in the supreme deity of the Son of God, and in the binding nature and divine efficacy of those sacraments wherein he alone' bestows his grace to the members of his body, the Church; and those who think them mere emblems, and his Church a human institution which may be changed and modeled according to human caprice or fashion, or to accord with civil government as circumstances may require?

What an assortment of religious creeds have we among us! What contradictory doctrines are taught for truth! [4/5] What strange interpretations of the Bible! All these claim to be one with Christ, and some are so absurd as to think they are one with each other--because they are all sincere. I think every sober-minded person who pretends to be a Christian will consider the multitude of religious sects a great Evil--an evil, to avoid which, we are most specially commanded by our Saviour himself. Our experience teaches us the wisdom of this divine command. Do we not see much unholy rivalry--much bad feeling, much party spirit, and much sectarian misrepresentation grow up between the members of these multifarious sects? Above all, do we not know that thousands upon thousands make use of this religious dissension for an excuse to reject altogether the claims of the Church and the religion of the Saviour? They say: "Well, there is so much division, so much strife, and so much dispute about religion, I will neglect it altogether until those who profess to be its friends are more agreed among themselves." If these things be duly considered, I am sure no one will seriously defend the opinion which we hear sometimes expressed, that religious sectarianism is not an evil but a good. I shall, then, take it for granted that we all believe it would be far better if there were no religious dissension--that we all walked by the same rule--had been baptized with the one baptism, of water and the Holy Ghost--professed the same faith--lived as brethren of one household, in unity and love; that each one was filled with an holy desire to do his duty faithfully in the sphere of life to which God had called him, in the way that God requires and commands, as a member of one great family of which Christ is head and each individual a part. As far as this is not the case, and as far as men are in opposition to each other--one teaching this and another that; one setting up this and another that, as necessary to be done or believed, one condemning another as wrong: so far, it is without doubt a great and prevailing evil of our [5/6] day. And, surely, my brethren, if serious-minded people can divest themselves of pride and prejudice, and can, with Christian candour, search out for the causes why this state of things exists; if they can succeed in any good degree in satisfying these inquiries, a great step will be taken to restrain a growing, increasing, and threatening malady.

All the sects, into which those who have separated from the Church have become divided, acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God, and profess to be guided by its doctrines and precepts. Even the latest development, which, by some, is thought to be the most absurd of all, the Mormons, believe in the Bible, and believe that the Bible itself predicts the establishment of their "latter-day Church," with their supplement to its contents. We seem almost involuntarily to ask ourselves, is it possible that the members of all these sects, differing so much from each other, holding opinions of such an opposite character--one teaching this, another that, and a third something else, as necessary to salvation--agreed in nothing, except in opposition to the Church of Christ, as it exists in the greater part of the world do all walk by the same rule, do all receive the same book as the revealed word of God? It is even so.

The answer to the question, Why it is so? I shall attempt briefly to investigate in this discourse. I can but put your thoughts in a train of investigation, for it would take a volume to enter into detail, and to solve this problem at full length. Should any of you be enabled so far to dispel the prejudices which you may have imbibed--so far to disabuse your minds of errors, which you have been taught to believe were self-evident truths, as that you shall be able calmly to reflect on the subject, I shall have gained a great point, and shall consider such in a good way for a return to the "Old Paths" from whence either they themselves or their fathers have strayed.

There was a time when the Church of Christ was one--[6/7] when there was one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Head--when she possessed the power, and exercised it too, of casting from her bosom those who denied her Lord and refused submission to her authority. She is now in captivity; her authority is denied, the rights of her priesthood invaded, and the united strength of error and irreligion seems to be exerted against her. From the time when a Council of the Church settled what was to be received as the true word of God--that is, what books of the Old Testament and what Gospels and Epistles were genuine, and what spurious--and thus collected into one volume what we now call the Bible, till the time that Luther began in the year 1521 what is called the Reformation, there was one uniform rule of determining in what sense this Bible should be understood. There had been added from time to time, in various branches of the Church, some practices and some doctrines which from the beginning had not been so, and which were not universally received by the great body of the Church in the world. In all the substantials of doctrine, of the divine efficacy of the blessed sacraments, of the sacred character of the ministry, the whole Church was agreed. During this period, although many heresies and schisms had arisen, they were condemned by the voice of the Church, and soon ceased to be. If any one taught a new doctrine and established a new ministry, or set up a strange altar, his claims were examined by comparing what he did or what he taught with the word of God, as explained by the Creeds and Councils of the Church, or by those fathers whose expositions had been approved.

In looking back upon the history of the Church in those ages, we find indeed many strange doctrines and many ridiculous fancies set forth by individuals, and embraced to a greater or less extent by others; but we do not find any such systematic and organized opposition to the regular [7/8] Church as now exists. Some whose doctrines obtained a temporary popularity, and were finally condemned as soon as the Church could act, still continued in the outward communion of the Church, until they were cut off by an act of excommunication.

I say, then, until the time of Luther, the rule by which Christians knew what was true or false in religion, was, "the Bible, the Bible alone as explained by the Church;" and this was a safe and sufficient rule, for it preserved to the Church what was essential and fundamental. The "gates of hell did not prevail against her" while this rule was followed. Though there were occasional schisms, they were but temporary, and were soon exterminated by the prevalence of Catholic truth. But Luther, and after him Calvin, set forth a new rule of interpretation. Because they found that the Church of Rome had introduced many customs which they thought abuses, they considered she had retained nothing stable and nothing good. Knowing well that their own conduct, in cutting themselves off from the Church, and setting up a new Church, could not be defended by any appeal to antiquity--that every Council of the Church and every exposition of Scripture by the fathers, condemned their conduct in attempting a reform without, instead of within the Church--it became necessary for them to devise some new doctrine to justify their proceedings. The doctrine they taught was thisthat the Bible, and the Bible alone, was sufficient for every individual; that it was proper for every person to judge for himself what was true, after he had searched his Bible; that the individual opinion of each one as to the meaning of Scripture was as good now as the opinions of others in any former age of the Church. It is obvious, then, here was adopted a great change in the rule of faith. The Catholic Church through the world, and particularly the branch established in England, made the Bible, as [8/9] explained by the Fathers and the early Councils, their rule.* Luther and Calvin and the Protestants made the Bible, as each one understands it for himself, their rule. [If any are disposed to doubt the fact that the Church in England, as a Church, has recognized this view of the subject, let them look at the Homilies, and it will be found that the Fathers and Councils of the Church are appealed to as authority in almost numberless instances. A canon of that Church most expressly recognizes the authority of the first six General Councils.]

As I wish to make this clear. to every one, I will illustrate the difference between these two views by an example. I will take the doctrine of baptism. There had been individuals who denied the doctrine of infant baptism, and that grace was communicated thereby, before the time of Luther. It was shown, however, that the Church had always practiced Infant Baptism; that though not expressly mentioned in Scripture, the custom of the Church had always been to admit children to her privileges, and to incorporate them into the body of Christ by holy baptism; that it had always been taught, that therein they received the remission of sin, and were taken from the world and made members of Christ. It being thus proved that such had been the doctrine and such the practice of the Church, the early Councils and Fathers expressly recognize this as the duty of parents and the privilege of children. This heresy was soon put down. Persons, for a time led away, saw that they had erred, and returned again to the bosom of the Church, and these novelties continued but for a time, and but partially prevailed. The rule, as then followed, condemned those as "schismatics" who refused to bring their children to the "laver of regeneration."

This same notion was started subsequent to the time of Luther, among those who had embraced his views. The Anabaptists arose in Germany soon after Luther began his work. By him, they had been taught to believe nothing [9/10] but what they themselves found in the Bible--they were to be their own interpreters. Suppose Luther should have come in contact with one who thus rejected Infant Baptism. He would say, "Do you reject Infant Baptism? Do you not think that children should be made members of the Church?" "Yes, I do reject it as not warranted by the Bible; I do not find it there commanded. I do not think children capable of becoming members of Christ's Church." Says Luther: "You are acting in opposition to what I think to be required by the word of God." "I cannot help that; you have taught me that I am to judge for myself, and why should I regard your opinion or the opinions of Bishops, Councils, and others? They are as likely to err as I am." There can, be no doubt, that the argument of the Anabaptist would be conclusive. Suppose our Anabaptist had met with a member of either branch of the Catholic Church, who did not believe the new doctrine of Luther and Calvin. He would say: "Although I do not find Infant Baptism on the surface of Scripture, yet I believe the word of God was entrusted to the Church--that its Head has promised to keep that Church from essential error--that the early Bishops of this Church, the early Councils, and all history, recognise Infant Baptism; and, therefore, I think it was from the beginning, and is obligatory upon all Christian parents. You, therefore, or the whole Church, must be in error.

I have taken this case for illustration, because it is a prominent one. If it be true that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the only guide, and every one is judge for himself without deference to authority, then each one may believe what he pleases, and practice as he thinks best, on this as on other subjects. I should be glad to point out the difference between these two views of the interpretation of Scripture, and make the whole matter so plain that every one present should have a distinct idea of what I mean. To enable me to do this, I will resort to a familiar illustration. [10/11] The written constitution of these United States was adopted sixty-four years ago. It prescribes that there shall be officers to enforce obedience to it, and judges to explain its meaning. To these it was given in charge by its framers. These officers have gone on and carried the design of its makers into execution. The judges have administered the laws passed by its authority. One of the provisions of this Constitution is, right or wrong we do not say, that those persons who owe service to the inhabitant of any state shall, if they escape, be returned. Lately a new set of interpreters of the Constitution have arisen, who say the word slave or slavery is not to be found in the Constitution at all, and that what is there, can be explained away, and therefore Congress ought to pass laws at once to free all slaves--this is their interpretation of the law and Constitution. But say others--if we look at the history of the formation of this Constitution--of the expositions of it, written by its authors--at the decision of the courts, established by its authority, we find the right of property in slaves most distinctly recognized, and never disputed until of late. To this it is answered--what care I for your courts and precedents: I must judge of the Constitution for myself, and my judgment is as good as any body's else. I do not find there the word slave, and will not believe all that is said, for slavery is in my opinion opposed to the will of God, and is wicked and sinful. [The author does not desire to be considered as an advocate of slavery. He here only speaks of it as, in this country, a legalized institution. He thinks this provision in the constitution should be altered, and all laws for carrying it into effect repealed. That one Christian should buy, or sell, or own, another Christian, and that the clergy where slavery exists, whether they belong to the Roman or Anglican communion, should even by silence countenance this traffic in the body of Christ, seems anti-Catholic, and in express violation of the duty enforced by the doctrine of "communion of saints." The author has seen no reason to alter his mind in a single particular, as set forth in the sermon published by him in the year A.D. 1848, and republished in the American edition of Bishop Wilberforce's most valuable History of the Church in America.] I will suppose that those who think this, and will not be convinced, should choose to form a union of societies, to elect a great leader to be their President, to organize courts, and to assume the government over their own [11/12] members. Suppose that those who believe that this Constitution is capable of a different interpretation in other points, should do the same, and each one undertake to govern its own members. We will suppose that these separate organizations all profess great love towards one another, and attachment to the Constitution of the country--all believe it to be the supreme law of the land, and think that one has as good a right to put his construction on it as another, and that none are bound to be governed by the practice and decisions of previous legislatures or courts. They all think government of some kind necessary, and think one kind as good as another. To what would all this lead? Should we not have as many separate governments as there were aspiring persons to start new views and interpretations of our Constitution--our great charter? Would not great confusion and distraction everywhere abound? Would this be tolerated in our civil affairs? Should we for one moment permit such a state of things to exist? Who does not see the absurdity of such a method of construing the meaning of our Constitution? Every good and obedient citizen, if he doubts what this Constitution means, takes the best method he can, to find out what its makers meant--what were their views who lived the nearest the day of its formation--what the courts and officers appointed for its execution have decided that it does mean. Having ascertained this, even the soundest and most able lawyers (much more ought the common people) submit their own private views to that judgment, though they may sincerely differ in their opinion of its correctness. This is the only safe rule [12/13] of interpretation, and those who depart from it, are denounced as disorganizers by all good citizens of every party.

How diametrically opposite to this is the common and practised method of interpreting the Bible. The Bible is the Church's charter--it was given to her in charge. By her authority the books composing it were determined. Her Councils, assembled from time to time, have taught her children what the law requires, and what it forbids. This great Church is virtually one in doctrine, in discipline and order; though divided into three great parts--the Greek, the Roman, and the Anglican--each receives as authority the acts of the first six General Councils, and acknowledges the authority of the teaching of those Fathers by them recognized as such. But since Luther's time, on the continent, and to some extent in England, the rule first set forth by him has been received, that every man "must judge of the Bible for himself." Filled with this notion, the greater part of the first settlers came to America, and here this doctrine has had full room to develope itself. There has been little to resist the progress of this unlimited freedom of interpretation; sects after sects have arisen--obtained followers--have organized and made churches so-called--have called all to unite with them, for they have found out the true meaning of the Bible--they have all taught that the old Church is wrong, though they have agreed upon nothing as true among themselves. In a word, we have the same confusion in our religious affairs that we should have in our civil, if the same rule was observed in interpreting the charter of our civil rights, as is now in use among religious sects in interpreting the great and Holy Charter of our hopes of happiness and of all that is most valuable in time and eternity. [I have been surprised at the wholesome denunciation heaped upon the Mormons, who do but exercise the same right of "self-interpretation" as most of those who condemn them. They believe in the Old and New Testaments, and also believe that in them are contained predictions of the establishment of the "latter-day Church," and of the addition to the books of Revelation as made by their founder. In this case is illustrated the absurdity of the argument in favor of sectarianism, on account of success in obtaining converts. How often do we hear it said: "This sect must be right, or it would not so increase; God would not bless it." Perhaps the Almighty may permit this, as he does all evil, for trial or punishment. No sect has increased with such rapidity, if we may believe the statistical reports of its numbers; none has ever manifested more zeal and perseverance.]

[14] As far as the Church, in England and this country, is concerned in this matter, as a branch of the Catholic Church, she has retained and recognizes the view of this subject as held by the great Catholic Church in the world. Most unfortunately, though her standards are clear, and her practice, as a Church, has been correct, ever since the pestiferous influence of the Continental Reformers was felt within her borders, individuals of her clergy have held and taught the doctrine of the unlimited exercise of private judgment in the interpretation of Scripture; and it is to the prevalence still of this latitudinarian sentiment among some of her clergy, that any such are so willing to compromise her claims, and by their teaching and example to reduce her to the level of a sect among sects. They think that the Bible teaches that there is an invisible Church, which covers all deficiencies, to belong to which, will cancel neglect of the Church which Christ established. The Catholic Church never taught that the Scriptures set forth any such doctrine at all; but it did teach that, as there was but one Faith and one Baptism, so there is but one Catholic and Apostolic Church.

My brethren, it must be apparent that these two different modes of interpreting Scripture will, of necessity, lead to different results. The modern, necessarily leads to division, to distraction, to indifference, and finally to unbelief and irreligion; the Catholic doctrine, to unity, to [14/15] confidence, to faith, to humility of mind in search of truth, to holding "the unity of the faith in the bond of peace." [Among the most disheartening signs of the times is the fact, that some bishops and clergymen and laymen in this country have united in establishing a society, called an "Evangelical Society," with the avowed object of publishing and circulating books, the tendency of which is to promote this "unbelief and irreligion." The design of these editors and authors is to lower the claims of the Church of Christ; to undervalue the office of the Christian ministry; to reduce the blessed sacraments to mere "beggarly elements;" to set forth the crudities and speculations of Luther and Calvin as doctrines of the Church; and thus to distract the faith of its members. Heads of families and Sunday-school teachers should be careful how they permit any of the works of this society to find a place in their libraries.]

It would carry me far beyond the limits of a sermon to take up in detail many of the doctrines and practices, as well of sects in and among us, as of a large branch of the true Church; and to show how these would be condemned by an appeal to the views of the ancient Catholic Church. The extravagant claims of the Bishop of Rome--the modern doctrine of transubstantiation, in which the attempt has been made to fathom the mystery of our Lord's real presence in one of the sacraments of the Church, and to account for it philosophically--the rejection of infant baptism by many who call themselves Christians--the indifference with which the holy sacraments of the Church are viewed--the doctrine of no future accountability on a day of judgment--the substitution of flights of fancy instead of acts of holy obedience, as evidence of the life of God in the soul--the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity and all the sublime doctrines connected with our Lord's incarnation and his exaltation--the recent excitement in regard to the near approach of the end of the world;--all these, and many other such like notions, when brought to the test of Scripture, as interpreted by the Church, would be "weighed in the balance and found wanting." So also would be condemned many visionary interpretations of texts at present so common, which every one, however little informed, interprets for himself, and it would be found [15/16] that there is, on the whole, great harmony in Catholic exposition.

Out of a great multitude of such texts, I will select those on one subject, by way of illustration. During the interesting period of our Lord's continuance on earth after his resurrection, and before his final ascension, he said to his disciples, and particularly to his apostles: "As my Father hath sent me, so send I you." And again: "Lo! I am with you always, to the end of the world." Now, says one individual expositor, this means that as our Saviour voluntarily took upon himself the office of preacher, because he thought it best; so may every person, who thinks it his duty to become a preacher, and thus he is sent; and if he succeed in reforming any, then he may be sure that Christ is with him, and in this sense and no other he will be with his Church. Another says: You see Christ was sent; therefore, he is of less dignity than the Father, and is not divine; and, therefore, he can be with his Church only by his doctrine, and in a figurative sense.

I suppose I might give various other senses in which modern individual expositors would have these passages understood; but what has the Catholic Church taught to be their true and plain meaning? That as the Father sent the Son, so the Son sent the Apostles, by giving them an external commission, and appointing them to act for him in discharging all those functions pertaining to the Christian priesthood; that they were empowered to send others as he had sent them; that he would thus be with them in the transmission of ministerial gifts, and send his gracious spirit to give efficacy to their ministry and sacraments, "to the end of time." It is obvious that here is a definite meaning to these texts--one which has been universally received in the Church. To be sure, it is not a convenient interpretation for those who thrust themselves into the "priest's office," and act upon their own supposed call; but it is the interpretation which has been [16/17] received by all others. This must serve for an illustration; I might speak of hundreds of other texts.

I suppose the question may be asked: "How far this is practicable? How can each individual have time to consult the Fathers and Councils of the Church?" I answer, they have as much time for this as they have to consult Scott, or Clarke, or Henry. I would inquire, for what purpose is public teaching made a part of the ministerial duty? If all who preach were duly authorized, and were as well informed in Catholic interpretation of the Bible as they are in modern controversial theology--if they spent the same time in the study of Catholic exposition as they do in defence of their various and ever-varying dogmas, they would not only be qualified, but they would, by their public teaching, put forth a vast amount of solid and substantial knowledge. They would also be able themselves to afford ample instruction to those who might want private information; the people would not be agitated from time to time with ignorant declaimers, with boasting pretenders to new light; neither would they be perplexed with various subtle expositions of speculative doctrine, urged upon them as all-important to salvation. [Dr. Pusey, the Rev. Mr. Keble, and others, in England, have done the Church great good in publishing valuable translations of the "Works of the Fathers;" such as St. Chrysostom, St. Cyprian, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, &c., &c. These books should be in the library of every clergyman, affording almost an inexhaustible supply of Catholic truths.] There would no longer be the cry, "Lo! he is here! Lo! he is there!" and they could not be kept on the continual look-out for something new.

In our country and age, the unlimited exercise of private judgment, subject to no control, has had full latitude, and we see all its legitimate consequences. The wildest fanaticism--the most pernicious errors--infidelity, both open and avowed, concealed under a Christian garb­a neglect of the Church of Christ, and the most [17/18] opprobrious epithets heaped upon her, some of her own children betraying her into the hands of her enemies, by compromising her doctrines and order;--all these prevail, and yet most of our population say they believe the Bible, and interpret it for themselves.

If this mere sketch of an argument upon a subject which would require a volume for its illustration, shall be the means of putting any individual on the road of inquiry--if any who are trusting in themselves, in their own ability to know the deep things of God, shall be led to see their weakness, their dependence on God's grace in his Church for further aid, and by this infallible guide shall be led, to certainty, to rest of mind here and to hopes of glory and happiness hereafter, founded on the promises contained in Scripture, and shall be hereafter enabled to serve God in newness of spiritual life--the object intended by the preacher will be accomplished. He can have no other motive in speaking thus plainly than your good, my dear brethren, and when he thinks he can no longer promote that, he prays that God in mercy would close his tongue in silence.

Project Canterbury