ERASTUS H. PEASE,
It is due to the author of the following remarks to state, that they formed part of an address delivered by him on the occasion of laying the corner stone of a new Free Church at Fort Edward, just previous to his departure on a voyage to Europe, where he is now absent: that the address was prepared amid the hurry and confusion incident to preparations for an unanticipated voyage, and much of it was in fact written on his way to the place where it was delivered, and no subsequent opportunity was afforded for its revision and correction. Many of his friends who took a deep interest in the subject of free churches having urged its publication, he was finally prevailed upon, almost at the moment of sailing, to commit to them the manuscript, with permission to select and publish such parts as related to that subject.
It is recorded among the pious acts of David, King of Israel, that he conceived the design of erecting a Temple for the Lord; and we are informed that though God did not permit him to carry that design into effect, yet he smiled with approbation upon the devout and grateful sentiments that prompted it. His son Solomon, with a kind of filial pride, tells us, "it was in the heart of David my father, to build an house for the name of the Lord God of Israel. And the Lord said unto David, my father, 'whereas it was in thine heart, to build an house unto my name, thou didst well, that it was in thine heart.'" And so my friends, I venture to say to you to-day. You have laid the first stone of an house for the mighty God of Jacob--you have formed the purpose of erecting an edifice durable and commodious, to be set apart forever to the service of Him, who gives us life and breath and all things. If the design be suggested, as I trust it is, by your zeal for the honor of God--by your wish to advance your own spiritual interests, and the spiritual interests of your fellow men--by your earnest desire to worship the Lord, in the beauty of holiness and to see him so worshipped by others; then whatever may be the issue of the enterprise--whether these materials are destined to grow up unto an holy temple, or whether they are to be scattered to the four winds--in any event you reap your reward--you receive a noble commendation from God. Even though, for inscrutable reasons, he should see it best to frustrate your intentions, as I humbly [3/4] trust he will not--but even though he should, he will still say to you, as he said to the King of Israel: "whereas it was in thine heart, to build an house unto my name, thou didst well, that it was in thine heart." The very thought, the very desire, is pleasing and acceptable in his sight; and even though an unexpected interposition of his providence should arrest this enterprise in its present stage, I might still venture to affirm, that the services of this day will not have been performed in vain. The anxious thought, the labor, the treasure, which you may have expended, will not have been expended to no purpose. You have sought to honor God--to erect an altar where others may be enabled and induced to honor him, and he will bless you--in the presence of saints and angels he will honor you with his commendation and eternal reward.
I know of no design more worthy of a pious and liberal Christian, than that of erecting an house to be consecrated forever to the purposes of religious worship and instruction. It is raising a monument, whose very walls and towers will remind the passing traveller, generation after generation, that there is salvation for the guilty--that there is comfort for the afflicted--that there is a judgment for the ungodly. It is opening a fountain of living waters, from which streams will flow out year after year, to revive the faint and to purify the unclean. It is building a city of refuge, to which the poor pilgrim, when pursued by care, by sorrow, or by sin, may fly for safety and for comfort. It is erecting another altar to the only true God, in the midst of altars devoted to false idols, to mammon and to lust. It is raising another watch tower from which the watchman may proclaim the "truth as it is in Jesus;" and cry aloud, not only to the living, but to their children, and their children's children, "turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die?" The visible benefit resulting from many of our pious acts, may be transient. Every trace of them may quickly pass away. The food and the raiment given to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked is speedily consumed; but how different the pious enterprise in which [4/5] you are now engaged. When I look forward, in imagination, through the long series of years during which humble and holy men will proclaim to their people in this temple the unsearchable riches of Christ, their words dropping like manna in the wilderness; when I think of the hearts that may here be touched and melted--of the anxious minds that may here obtain relief--of the feeble and afflicted stranger that may here find comfort; when I think of the fervent, united, scriptural devotions that will ascend from this holy place sabbaths without number, of the infants devoted to God in baptism, of the children taught to walk in wisdom's ways, of the youth ratifying their baptismal engagements and receiving the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands; when, above all, I think of the heavenly feasts, that will here be enjoyed, imparting life and spiritual strength, I cannot, I cannot but esteem you honored and happy in being permitted to lay this corner stone. If you carry up these walls in a reverent, devout and joyful spirit, conscious of the dignity and utility of your work, with hearts echoing to the angelic song, Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good will toward men," your labor will be precious in the sight of the Lord; it will be a labor, which I will not say that I envy, but which I am sure will bring its own rich reward. Thank God, then, my friends, for that which is already accomplished, and take courage. You are embarked in a holy enterprise. You are aiming, I trust, at no selfish, no sordid object. You are laboring, not merely for the families which you now see gathered around you, but for multitudes, who will come to cast in their lot with you; for many a passing stranger, who will come to refresh his spirit in your sanctuary, for generations yet unborn, who will assemble in these courts when you shall have passed away, and who will be indebted to you for the most precious privileges. You labor, directly, or indirectly, for multitudes whom no man can number, and most of whom you will never meet, till you meet them before the judgment seat of Christ, when He will say, as he points to those strangers, "forasmuch as ye have [5/6] done it unto one of the least of these ye have done it unto me." Be of good courage, then; put your trust in God. Let every thing be done with a single eye to his glory, and you shall soon find that all things are possible to them that believe.
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I cannot conclude these hasty remarks, my friends, without expressing the high gratification which I feel, and which many of your brethren elsewhere feel, in knowing that the church to be erected on this spot is to be made a free church; free in every part of it, without any precedent purchase of right, to the poor as well as to the rich; free for every man and every woman to enter, without being met at the door with the thought of exclusive privileges, or with questions of bargain and sale; free as the air for all, who desire to worship God and to be instructed and comforted by his word in a holy place, without the necessity of pausing to consider first whether they have the means of paying for the privilege. O it is a blessed thing, to find in this sordid world, where God's earth and the good things of his providence are monopolised and held as private property by dying mortals, where almost every thing that the eye can see has been seized upon and appropriated exclusively to some proud man, and made the theme of envy and jealousy, the occasion of angry and vehement contests; it is a blessed thing to find in such a world one little sanctuary, one holy place, where "all things are common;" where God is the exclusive proprietor; where men cannot intrude with their exclusive rights and their petty pride of power and wealth. Here the rich and the poor will meet together on terms of perfect equality, forcibly admonished that the Lord is the maker of them all, that all mere temporal distinctions are lost in his awful presence, and that as sinners they have nothing to boast of, nothing to glory in but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I cannot but entertain the hope, that this principle of free churches will rapidly gain favor with the world, and that in a few years we shall find them multiplying in every part of [6/7] the country. We have too long been partakers in that fearful sin, which is so vividly described, and so severely reproved by St. James. In the great majority of our churches, of all the churches of the land, what has been-the practical effect of the arrangements in regard to pews but a saying, in the face of all the world, and in language not to be misunderstood--a saying to the rich man, "sit ye here in a good place," and to the poor man, stand thou there, or sit ye yonder!"
I am the last person in the world to countenance the insincere and selfish attempts every where making in this country to excite the poor against the rich, to fill the humbler classes with jealousy and ill will against those who are their natural protectors, and who, under proper influences, would be their best friends. But we must not attempt to disguise the notorious fact, that the pew system, as commonly adopted in most of our churches, and especially in the larger towns and cities, is a flagrant violation of the plainest principles of the gospel. It is not such a system, as ought to be adopted by those, who profess to "love God with all their heart, and their neighbor as themselves." It is contrary to our duty to God; for it converts sacred things into common things; it seizes upon things, which have been solemnly consecrated to Almighty God, and gives them up as private property, to be used as instruments of luxury and pride by individuals. It brings some of the worst passions of our nature, envy, and jealousy, and ambition, and avarice into the sanctuary of the Most High. It aims at sustaining the ministrations of the Lord's house on principles of bargain and sale, (giving to an individual an absolute and exclusive property in a portion of the sacred edifice as an equivalent for his contribution,) I say the pew system aims at sustaining the ministrations of the Lord's house on principles of bargain and sale; when they ought to be sustained, by free-will offerings, brought and laid devoutly on the altar, without thought of retaining an equivalent, or of making conditions, without any object, but that of expressing humble and grateful devotion to the honor and worship of God, and zeal for the good of man. Thus irreverence is produced, the whole [7/8] character and tone of the ministrations of the sanctuary is lowered and debased, and (what is perhaps worst of all) those contributions, which, rightly made, as religious offerings, would be felt by the individual to be a religious act, and would, like any other religious act, go to sanctify his nature, and to elevate his conceptions of the right use of property, those contributions, made in connection with the pew system, as the hire or purchase of a right, a possession in the house of God, assume a secular, worldly character, and are often regarded by the contributor as a mere business transaction. Thus a sacred act is converted into a common act, and the whole benefit of it to the individual, the whole worth of it in the sight of God, is nearly destroyed. Let the services of the sanctuary be sustained by free-will offerings, reverently laid on the altar, for the use of the Lord's house, without thought of any equivalent, save spiritual privileges; and the offering will be holy, in the sight of God, will be sanctifying in its influence on the character of the worshipper.
But if the pew system, as commonly administered, is destructive of reverence, is contrary to our duty to God, is a sacrilegious intrusion of worldly motives and passions and principles into the sanctuary of the Most High, what shall be said of that system as matter of charity toward our neighbor, as matter of kindness and respect towards those poorer members of Christ's flock, whom especially God has chosen out of this world to be " rich in faith, and heirs of the promises which He hath given to them that love him." When we enter a crowded congregation where such a system prevails, what do we behold? We see all those parts of the sacred edifice, which are conspicuous, which are comfortable, which afford advantages for seeing and hearing, monopolized by the rich, held exclusivley as private property by the rich, fitted up by them with every luxurious accommodation; while the poor and the stranger, if they can gain admission at all, are thrust off into some remote corner, where there are few comforts, and where it is almost impossible to see or to hear; and thus we behold, at first glance in that holy assembly, a spectacle, which flatly contradicts all [8/9] their professions of humility and charity, which is an insult to the most glorious attributes of the Being, whom they profess to honor and worship. Is it well, that the lukewarm and the scoffer, on entering the house of God, should meet, at the very threshold, with such a practical demonstration of the worthlessness or of the inconsistency of Christian profession?
There will be an apprehension in many minds at first, on hearing a proposition to abolish pew rents, that the ministrations of a church will not and cannot be sustained by means of voluntary Sunday offerings. If this be so, then, as a Christian people, we have been badly educated. But let us see how the matter stands: ten cents a week, would make five dollars a year; and with a thousand contributors would produce an annual income of five thousand dollars! In a city church, well filled with all classes, might we not hope to see one thousand persons, who, on an average, would be quite able and willing to contribute at least ten cents weekly? Very nearly that amount is contributed in that way in a free church in Brooklyn.
Six hundred contributors, at five cents a week, would produce fifteen hundred dollars a year; three hundred contributors, at five cents a week, would produce seven hundred and. fifty dollars a year, a larger sum than is now raised by means of rents and subscriptions in small parishes containing that number of worshippers. A woman can earn, as a domestic, or with her needle, from five to eight dollars a month; or from one to two dollars a week. Ten cents a week is a tenth of the smaller, and a twentieth of the larger sum. Five cents a week is a twentieth of the smaller sum, and a fortieth of the larger! Even an Israelite gave more than a tenth of his goods for holy uses! A woman in the city of New York said she would give ten cents a week, for she could save it by walking, instead of riding in an omnibus! With what strength and cheerfulness will she walk! What comfort will she find, all through her weekly toils, in the thought, that by the help of God, she is doing something to keep alive the fire on His altars!
 But if a poor woman may do so much, how much might be done by the man with his larger wages, and especially by persons in easy circumstances; and what a blessed influence would such weekly offerings, rightly viewed, diffuse over the whole life of the humblest Christian!
Again, it is a great mistake to suppose, that in a church, where sittings are free alike to all, there must necessarily be confusion, and constant changes in the place, occupied by the individuals or families composing the regular congregation. Even if this were the case, I cannot admit that such a mere inconvenience--one which would certainly be felt less and less, as we became accustomed to the change from our present usages--should be allowed to present an insurmountable obstacle to a return to right principles and right practice in relation to the use of God's house. I cannot however believe, that any such inconvenience would result from the introduction of the system of free pews. Men have a natural tendency to fall into a regular manner of doing, whatever they are called upon to do frequently. The seat which one has once occupied, he will, on that very account, be the more likely to occupy the next time he visits the place. Such is the invariable course of things in our courts and other regular public assemblages. The very beggar's claim to his accustomed post at the corner of the street or at the temple gate, ripens into a right, that none, not even his fellow beggar, will infringe; and surely, we cannot expect less from those who are met to humble themselves and offer their devotions together in the solemn and orderly services of God's holy temple. The tenure by which we now hold our accustomed seats in the sanctuary would indeed be changed. What, we now claim as legal and proprietory right, would then depend upon the law of kindness and Christian courtesy--upon obedience to the rule of doing unto others as we would that they should do unto us--upon the sense of what we all feel to be due to the natural and proper desire of offering our accustomed devotions in our accustomed place--upon the universal and instinctive readiness of mankind every where and among all, and especially among [10/11] the members of a Christian congregation, to recognize and respect the claims which usage and habitual occupation create. Should higher and better motives fail (which I cannot permit myself to believe) even self-interest might suggest that a proper respect on our part for our neighbor's claims and wishes would be the best security for the admission of our own.
How different would be the effect upon the temper and disposition of our hearts, of a system resting upon the basis of reciprocal kindness and concession between all the members of a Christian congregation--high and low, rich and poor--from the effect of the prevailing system of private pews, appealing, as it does, only to low and selfish principles, and resting wholly upon our title deeds, and exclusive possessions! How much truer and better would be our frame of mind when we entered into the presence of Him before whom all human distinctions are as nothing, were we made to feel, that there our wealth and our possessions could not there avail us--that there the poorest and the humblest had equal rights with ourselves--nay, that to their spirit of concession and good will we owed the very privilege we enjoyed of worshipping upon the spot which had become specially consecrated to us by long association with our holiest affections. Not less happy would be the influence upon the poor, than upon the rich; it would awaken new sympathies between them, binding them together by the feeling of common rights and common privileges--of reciprocal kindness and mutual concessions, and blessing alike those who gave and those who received.
I thank you, my friends, that you are resolved to treat the house, which you are about to erect, not as your house, but as the house of God; that you are resolved to reverence it as a holy thing, in which, having been once set apart from all common uses, and devoted to the Most High, individuals can no more have a real property, as they have a property in common houses and lands, than they can have a property in the holy vessels that stand on the altar. Whatever custom may seem to sanction, yet in a religious view, it will be seen and felt by all, that nothing, which has once been given to [11/12] Almighty God, can belong to man, except for a holy use. Any other view involves the sin of sacrilege. We ought not to think that our humble gifts entitle us to lay claim to any thing in God's house. The church of the living God cannot, by any probability, become debtors to us. We may lay our gifts upon its altars--we may contribute of our substance to carry up its walls and its towers--but what then! Have we laid the church under obligations to us? Alas, no! If God has given us the heart to do any thing for it, we may indeed be thankful! to Him be all the glory and praise! But after all, what have we done for the church compared with what it does for us? or compared with the things in which we have utterly failed, and have nothing to plead but mercy? And what an unworthy thing it is, when we have made. our humble contribution, to think of holding any part of the house of God as a temporal possession! to think of adding it to our worldy goods, and of calling it by our name! and worst of all, of paying taxes on it as we pay taxes on houses and lands!
Glad indeed am I, that you have resolved to set the example of doing holy things in a holy way; that you propose to make your offerings, note unto man, but unto God; that you are determined to guard against the admission of any views or feelings that may lead to the intrusion of a secular, sordid, or irreverent spirit into the house of God!