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XIX. The Free Church the Witness to the Brotherhood of Humanity in Christ Jesus.
A Sermon Delivered before the Free Church Association on the Occasion of Their Second Annual Meeting, May 17, 1877.

By Henry C. Potter, D. D., LL. D.
Bishop of New York

From Waymarks, 1870-1891: Being Discourses, with Some Account of Their Occasions.
New York: E.P. Dutton, 1892.


No review of ecclesiastical life in the United States would be complete which did not recognize the considerable change which has taken place during the last twenty years in the matter of free churches. It cannot, indeed, be said that that change has greatly affected the convictions of a large and intelligent constituency, whose attitude toward free churches has in some cases changed only from one of languid indifference to one of distinct and sincere hostility. With these the free-church movement is associated with certain elements of unreality, if not of phariseeism,--which latter, it must frankly be owned, is sometimes apparently, if not really, present in the extravagant language of its advocates. It is one thing to say, as it would seem might justly be said, that the principle of a free and open house of worship, where all men, of whatever rank and condition, are equally welcome, is the right principle in worship, and quite another to say that those who tolerate or have a part in any other system are guilty of a deliberate denial of the first principles of Christianity. There is unquestionably room for an honest difference of opinion in regard to a movement which is encompassed with many serious practical difficulties, and which--to some, at any rate--seems to lose almost as much in one direction as it gains in another.

It may be said, for instance, as an objection to the free-church system, that it exhausts, if not the energies, at least the interest, of a congregation in the maintenance of public worship, and that when provision for this has been made, most free-church congregations do little or nothing for the [309/310] work of the church beyond their own walls. It may be said, again, that the system assists the evasion of just responsibility for the maintenance of public worship, by leaving it so entirely to voluntary offerings as to bind upon no one a precise and definite obligation. It may be said, yet again, that it devolves upon the clergy a vulgar and anxious concern in regard to the pecuniary interests of a parish, which is at once disheartening and secularizing. Still further, it may be said that the actual working of a system which denies fixed and reserved places in the church edifice to all alike is injurious to the solidarity of the family, which is scattered and disintegrated, as so many isolated individuals, on all occasions of public worship. And, finally, it is sometimes urged that in practice the system is often no better than the pew system, since it not unfrequently concedes arbitrarily to favored persons what it affects to deny to all, and this upon no accepted basis of "first come, first served" or "best pay, best seat," either of which principles has at least the merit of some kind of equity.

But when all these objections have been urged, there remains a profound conviction of which it is sufficient to say, by way of preface to the two discourses which follow, that its fruits demonstrate it to be a steadily growing conviction. At the beginning of the second half of the present century free churches were, in the communion for which the writer is permitted to speak, so rare as to be almost phenomenal. Within the last quarter of a century they have become so numerous that in some dioceses there are no others, while in others they are the rule rather than the exception. As was to be expected, they most widely prevail where social distinctions and those created by wealth are least marked; while, on the other hand, in great cities they make way against both these hostile influences but slowly; and yet in these, and conspicuously in one or two instances in the Diocese of New York, they have achieved a success which is most of all [310/311] precious because it betokens the breaking down of prejudices which are most likely to be fatal to the progress of the Church and her divine message among those whose sorrows and burdens make most pathetic claim for her divine consolations.

The first of the sermons following was preached at the consecration of Grace Chapel, New York, on Sept. 25, 1876, and the second in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Philadelphia, on the occasion of the anniversary of the Free-Church Association, May 17, 1877.


For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ.--GALATIANS iii. 27, 28.

A NEWSPAPER in this city, referring, the other day, to this Annual Meeting of the Free-Church Association, kindly heralded your preacher to the confidence and respect of those who were to listen to him, by informing the public that he ministered to the most exclusive congregation, who themselves worshipped in the most expensive pews, to be found in any church in all the land.

If a congregation which cheerfully welcomes strangers by hundreds to a share in its sittings on every Lord's day through all the year, a congregation in which single sittings may be had for eight dollars a year and a pew for twenty-five dollars, and in which the average cost of each Sunday service to each sitting in the church, is ten cents per service,--is open to so sweeping a charge as I have referred to, then, certainly, the indictment with [327/328] which he who speaks to you to-night has been welcomed to this place is true,--then, and not otherwise.

I have referred to it, however, not because such a statement is of sufficient importance to merit a serious disclaimer, but because, after all, though so ingeniously erroneous in fact, it is so eminently suggestive of the conviction which lies behind it. That is to say, it may be easy to prove in any particular instance that churches or congregations charged with being exclusive are not exclusive,--that certain traditions of exclusiveness that linger about them have long ago been banished by a decenter and more Christian practice,--it may be easy to prove that in this or that church the clergy have laid down certain rules as to the hospitality to be exercised to strangers of whatever rank and in whatever garb, and that they resolutely maintain the observance of such rules. But all this, a little reflection must show one, does not really touch the root of the matter. That involves the question, On what terms is a worshipper to be admitted to God's house? Is he to be admitted there upon sufferance as the tolerated guest of some other fellow-being, who owns in that holy place an exclusive right to the occupancy of so many square feet and so many pounds of hair pillows, or as a fellow-citizen of the household of God, in that Divine Republic in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, Brahmin nor Pariah, bond nor free, superior sex nor inferior sex (or, as the Apostle puts it, male nor female), but where men are all one in Christ?

In other words, such a statement as I have referred [328/329] to is significant, whatever may have been the motive that in any particular instance has happened to inspire it, because it is the indication of a popular conviction; and that conviction is, the inconsistency of all pewed churches, however hospitable their welcome or inexpensive their accommodations, with the Church's doctrines and her Master's teachings.

For no man can read those teachings without straightway seeing that they are at war, distinctly and unequivocally with the spirit of caste, of exclusiveness, of mutual suspicion or contempt. Coming in, as it did, upon a condition of imperial despotism on the one hand, and of cringing servitude on the other, the religion of the New Testament sets to work straightway to teach the world the blessed evangel of the brotherhood of humanity in the liberating and ennobling bond of a common Saviour and Redeemer. It preaches no communism; it denounces no existing government; it undertakes to overthrow or undermine no political fabric. "Honor all men; love the brotherhood; fear God; honor the king." This is the four-fold legend with which it flings its blood-dyed banner to the wind. "Servants, obey your masters. Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. Custom to whom custom; honor to whom honor; fear to whom fear. Art thou called, being a servant? Care not for it. . . . For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is Christ's free man." In other words, Christianity assailed no existing social institutions from without; but it wrought from within, sanctifying and ennobling individual character. It [329/330] recognized, what you and I must recognize, that so long as human society exists there will exist certain inevitable distinctions, which will as inevitably perpetuate themselves, in spite of every theory and every endeavor, whether of Fourier or of Brook Farm, to do away with them. Wealth, mental ability, force of will, the brain to conceive and the hand to execute, "the genius of administration," as some one has called it, -- these will rule the world, and possess themselves of its best things by virtue of the authority of that earlier revelation which God has written not in a book but in the brain, as long as the world stands.

I. But precisely at this point appears the function or office of the Church of God in the world. What is the tendency of the growth of wealth, of learning, of power, in any particular class? It is inevitably to produce that thing which we call the spirit of caste,--that sentiment which in the heart of an oriental becomes at length a chronic temper of scorn and disgust. In Malabar to-day, a Nayadi, or lower caste native, defiles a Brahmin if he comes within seventy-four paces of him. A Pariah is so called because formerly he was obliged to wear a bell so that a Brahmin could be warned of his approach and thus avoid him. We smile, perhaps, at these follies of other races, but what are they, after all, but caricatures of what exists among ourselves? What is so imminent a danger as that, when wealth and refinement and luxury increase among a people, ignorance and vice and degradation shall increase with them? And what has been the result of this growth in opposite [330/331] directions but a development of the spirit of haughty and heartless indifference on the one hand, and of impatience, envy, and resentment on the other? "There is a tendency at work among us," wrote an English man of business not long ago, "to make the wall of moral separation between the rich and the poor broader, higher, and more impassable, until now many of the poor have so little personal acquaintance or intercourse with the rich that to many of them the well-dressed neighbors whom they meet in their daily walks hardly seem to be their own fellow-beings, with one single passion, trait, motive, or feeling in common with themselves." Does any one to whom I speak and who has seen much of life in our great cities doubt whether or no such a spirit of social alienation is at work among us? And is any one of us in ignorance as to what sooner or later it will produce? If so let him read the history of the French Revolution, whether of 1789, or 1848, and he will realize what bitter and bloody fruit the growth of social alienation may bring forth.

And for what does the Church of God exist in the world, if not to resist and rebuke this hateful spirit of caste? What is the meaning of her Master's teaching, if it is not that, whatever inevitable distinctions exist elsewhere, inside the household of the common Father, and in the dear fellowship of the Divine Elder Brother, they are to be obliterated and forgotten. How of old, in that flippant Galatian community to which the Apostle wrote the letter from which I take my text, the grave Israelite, eaten up with his pride of race, despised the [331/332] laughter-loving Greeks. How the Roman freedman scorned and insulted the slave over whom at last he had lifted himself. How everywhere in that old world manhood spurned and degraded and enslaved womanhood. Hearken now how, into the midst of all this seething strife of caste, comes the great-hearted Apostle to the Gentiles crying, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ."

It is a message which the Church must to-day not only preach but live. When a few years ago in France the Commune of Paris murdered its venerable archbishop, of what was that blind and bloody deed the expression? Certainly not of personal animosity toward a pure and blameless prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, who, according to universal testimony, had lived an unspotted and exemplary life. No! but of resentment toward that thing which called itself religion, of which, in their eyes, that feeble old man was the representative,--a thing which baptized itself with the name of Jesus, and claimed to have come to teach the world the Master's new command of love, but which, as they knew it, had strengthened the reign of caste, had neglected the poor and the outcast, and had cringed and bowed down to wealth and vulgar power. And so these men had reasoned, and reasoned rightly, "If this be religion we want no more of it! Away with it, and with its lordly and arrogant representatives!" Now, then, I have no slightest apprehension that if we in America perpetuate and foster the pew-system, any bishop, priest, or deacon will ever enjoy the [332/333] doubtful honors of martyrdom therefor; but this I do venture to predict, that if, in this or any other matter, we continue to lend ourselves to the spirit of caste, we shall, as a church, sooner or later find ourselves without a flock to feed or souls to guide. Little by little the spirit of alienation will do its deadening work, and one day we shall wake up to find that in our excessive anxiety for the heathen in Walnut Street and on Murray Hill we have lost all hold upon the living heart of that great human mass which makes up the people.

But at this point it may very justly be asked, How does all this bear upon the present condition of things in our ordinary parish churches? Is it a criminal indictment of the pew-system as it exists, anywhere and everywhere alike, and of those who maintain or acquiesce in it? Most distinctly, no. A criminal indictment implies a criminal intention, and in producing that result which we find in the Church to-day there has been no criminal intention whatever. The first pews in England, as Archibald Hale shows in his quaint book, "A series of Precedents illustrative of the Discipline of the Church of England," were undoubtedly simple sittings, introduced for the aged and infirm; and Hale mentions that "so late as 1617 it was considered an offence for a young lady to be seated with her mother." But while in England the modern pew was the result of the steady encroachments of wealth and class-feeling, their introduction into our own land was certainly free from any motive of exclusion. From the beginning churches were pewed in these colonies, and a pew-tax was assessed as the [333/334] simplest and most obvious method of providing a revenue. It is true that the pews and the taxes both implied a double proscription of the poor. They must sit in the gallery, and they must pay a rental for their pews or be liable to be turned out of them. But class-distinctions seemed natural enough to a people who, though they had renounced their allegiance to a king, were yet trained to revere rank and to give way to a titled aristocracy. Our ancestors called themselves Republicans in 1776, but it was a long time after that before the influences of nurture under a king and his courtiers ceased to assert themselves. Meantime, however, the pew-system, inherited as it was from our mother Church beyond the seas, became with us the exponent of an entirely different feeling. In England, a nobleman's pew stood for the precedence of rank,--a precedence often won by heroic deeds and a long line of distinguished ancestry. With us it has come to stand simply for wealth,--however acquired and however used. The best pew is for the man who will pay the best price for it; and so, to the common mind, the Church seems to be saying that, not eminent services, not saintly living, not age nor worth shall have foremost place and utmost honor, but simply he who, by whatever means, has acquired the most money. This is the point to which the Church has come, not of deliberate purpose, but by a process of unconscious drifting. It is not that the Church has created the pew-system to perpetuate castes and to exclude the poor, it is that others have taken advantage of a system already in existence to use it for selfish and worldly ends. But [334/335] while these facts exonerate the Church from any worldly or unChristian or exclusive design, and therefore from any criminal intent, it does not excuse it from responsibility for that which though not a crime is an evil,--an evil which has grown up within the Church's very walls, and whose proportions and influences are now such that it must be resolutely and courageously dealt with.

II. And this opens the way for the further question, How are we to deal with this evil? To that question, I would answer, in the first place, Not, certainly, by hurling denunciations. Much has been written and said about the clergy who minister and the people who worship in pewed churches, to provoke contempt from the one and resentment from the other. When a clergyman is called to the cure of souls in a pewed church which he neither built nor planned and for whose internal financial regulations he has had no slightest responsibility, it will not help to enlist him in efforts toward the introduction of a better system than the pewed system--it will not encourage him to efforts for reform--to insinuate that lie is maintaining an evil (which often he is quite powerless to remedy) merely in his own selfish interests. No man honors those faithful and self-denying men who have identified themselves with the free-church movement more than I do; but they have not strengthened their cause nor commended it to others by the readiness with which some of them have been willing to hint that their brethren in pewed churches were more concerned about a comfortable maintenance than for the honor of God and for the salvation of souls. Do those who speak [335/336] bitter words about pewed churches and about the pew system understand that, in cities at any rate, pews are often valuable pieces of property, and that the bald proposition absolutely to surrender them would be greeted in most cases, at first, simply with good-natured ridicule? Do they know that such property has often been inherited from generation to generation, and that a proposal to surrender it to common use sounds, to many persons, like a proposition to convert the family burial-place into a part of the public highway. I believe it is true that the venerable corporation of Trinity Church, New York, has for years been endeavoring to acquire, either by gift or purchase, a title to its pews so as to make the sittings in that noble edifice as free in name as they are in fact. But it has been found that such a proposition is met, even by those who have long ceased to worship in those pews, very much as one would greet a scheme for paving the streets with the family tombstones. Now, then, pray do not let us waste our breath by denouncing such a feeling as irrational, as puerile, as a mere prejudice. Of course it is a mere prejudice. But you cannot drive the plough-share of revolution through cherished and inherited prejudices without turning up something else than a kindly soil in which to sow the seeds of reform. Wrongs must sometimes be righted by revolution, but evils will be corrected just so fast as, and no faster than, you can enlighten and educate any prejudiced mass of people to a clearer vision of the truth.

III. And this leads me to speak, finally, of those obstacles which such education and enlightenment must set [336/337] itself to remove. One of these I have already indicated as that right of property which so many persons have been led to entertain and even sacredly to cherish in connection with the possession of a pew. Another is--

(a) That reluctance to submit one's self to personal discomfort which is undoubtedly a powerful factor in the sum total of the ordinary hostility to the pew system. Now it is the fashion to denounce this feeling as utterly unworthy of any one who professes and calls himself a Christian; and I have heard a clergyman, when it had been mildly intimated that cleanly habits and personal neatness were not unworthy of being considered in a congregation where every one had equal rights, unctuously rebuke such a suggestion with the remark that " God did not look to see whether people were clean or dirty when they came into His house, and that we ought to be glad to get them there upon any terms." To be sure, the assumption as to what God cares for, especially in view of what an inspired Apostle has to say in this connection about having our bodies washed with pure water, is a somewhat bold one; but the real value of such a remark becomes chiefly apparent the moment you consider the standpoint from which it is made. The bishop sits in his throne (I believe we call them thrones now-adays), and the priest sits in his stall, or chair, and the deacon sits in his chair. As an officiating clergyman 1 never sat in a pew in my life, save in a church in New England, where there was a preacher's pew in which the preacher sat, and in which no one else might ever, under any possible circumstances, sit with him. In a word, no [337/338] one ever crowds the bishop or the presbyter or the deacon. Their rights of sitting are reserved. Their class-privileges are sacredly guarded, and the encroachments of some portlier neighbor upon their twenty-two inches of pew-room never makes it necessary for them to cry, with a new sense of the Prophet's meaning, "Oh, my leanness! my leanness!" And therefore one cannot help feeling that there is a little bit of pharisaism in that facility with which the clergy urge upon the laity the unseemliness of objecting because one cannot sit in a particular seat, or have just so much room in which to stand or kneel. No one ought to know better than a clergyman that one cannot worship to edification so long as some physical discomfort is painfully reminding him of his body. "I set my face toward the East," says the author of Eiithen somewhere (1 do not undertake to quote his exact words), "and I travelled on, and on, and on, until I might come to a race of people that did not sit in pews." Suggestive pilgrimage! which, if not as religious in its professed object as some others, was yet, I verily believe, the outcome of a genuine need and of a devout instinct. It was Daniel Webster who said that he regarded the survival of Christianity after having been preached for so many generations in tub-pulpits as a most signal evidence of its Divine origin. Even so it must often have occurred to many another to question whether the survival of the instinct of worship amid the evils and the injustices of pews is not a similar evidence of the Divine origin of that instinct. If free and open churches are ever widely to obtain among us, I believe it will he because we have constructed and furnished [338/339] them with chairs instead of pews, and have educated those who gather in them to that brotherly consideration for others which will strive to free occasions of close personal proximity from every needless condition of personal annoyance.

(b) But besides the questions of so-called rights of property and personal discomfort there is in the popular mind this further opposition to the abandonment of pews, that it involves ordinarily the separation of families. Here again let me say that if we are ever to have any widespread success in the free-church movement, this prejudice--if prejudice it is--must be fairly and generously dealt with. No change in our customs of worship which seems rudely to ignore the instincts or affections of the family will ever make successful progress, nor does it deserve to. Old as is the Church, the family is older, and if the one is a Divine institution no less is the other so. We shall do best, I venture to think, if we strive to adjust ourselves to the wishes and accommodate the preferences, of parents and children in this matter; and the friends of free churches in England have shown their wisdom by endeavoring to do so. In the Church Congress at Stoke two years ago one of the speakers at the meeting, in the interests of free and open churches, argued for an annual assignment of sittings by lot; and another showed with much ingenuity how, in a crowded parish church, such as was instanced at St. Martin's, Scarborough, it was simply necessary to anticipate a little the hour of attending upon Divine service in order to secure for any family a certain number of contiguous sittings. For instance, according to [339/340] the calculation of this speaker, in the church referred to, a family of sixteen might sit together if they went to church fifteen minutes before church-time; that eight might sit together if they went ten minutes before, and so on. It is by such homely but practical solutions of such a difficulty as this, that objections are best met and prejudices allayed.

(c) I do not forget, I need hardly say, that there are still others of a graver nature and of a more unyielding character. There are the questions of support, and of revenue for church purposes, outside of the parish as well as in it, which I think it must candidly be admitted have been most imperfectly solved. If free churches have been successful in maintaining themselves (and they have not always done that), they have as yet done little more. And, what is most discouraging of all, the movement has as yet made but the slightest impression upon the great mass of our prosperous, well-to-do Church people. These do not believe in it and do not want it. We may as well face the fact. The clergy who minister to them are doubtful about the principle, and distrustful about its practical working. And yet the co-operation of these two classes is indispensable to ultimate success.

How shall we secure such co-operation? I answer, first by invoking it, and then by deserving it! We must seek for and ask for the sympathy of all good men, whether they worship in pewed churches or in free churches, and we must deserve their sympathy by the loving fidelity with which we preach and live the Apostle's doctrine of the common brotherhood of all men, [340/341] everywhere, in their common Lord. There is a mediaeval legend of a priest who, knocking at a peasant's door, finds his sovereign seated at meat at the peasant's table. So great is his surprise that he cannot but express his apprehension as to the effect of such excessive condescension. "But," answers the King, "do we not meet as brothers about the table of a common Lord, yonder in the place where you are wont to minister? And if I own that brotherhood so freely there, shall I not sometimes own it elsewhere also?" It was an answer which, homely as it seemed, contained the sum and substance of the whole matter. If they for whom Christ died are brethren, then let those who say so show the world that they believe it. No mere toleration of the poor or the unrefined or the uneducated will do this. No mere spasm of occasional condescension, whether in church or out of it, will do it either. Nothing will do it save a new and mightier baptism of that Divine Spirit of love and self-forgetfulness for which even now the Church is waiting! And therefore, first of all, men and brethren, let us long and look and pray for that! Let us cry straight up to heaven, ay, let the whole Church lift up her voice to Him who is her living Lord and Head, for such a Pentecostal breath of life and fire as shall shrivel and burn up every pitiful prejudice, every lingering residuum of exclusion, every last and smallest vestige of self-will and self-love. For then, believe me, the pew-doors will fly open, because, first of all, God has made the hearts and the hands that now hold them shut to fly wide open also!

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