Some of you have often asked me to put into your hands a brief explanation of free church principles. I therefore address to you the present letter, trusting that, by God's grace, it may be useful to you.
To avoid as much as possible all cavilling, I think it expedient at the very outset to define what "free church" means.
The title "free" does not, as many suppose, signify "voluntarily supported," nor "endowed," nor "poor," nor "unsettled," nor "disorderly."
So long as Christian men are not compelled by any divine or human law to exchange a portion of their worldly substance for certain privileges and possessions in the house of God, they are unquestionably entitled to all the credit of perfect voluntariness in adopting such a mode of sustaining the ministrations of the church. But men often do wrong quite as willingly as they do right. It depends altogether upon the character of their deeds whether their "willingness" to do them be matter of praise or blame. If the pewed system be wrong, those who confess that they voluntarily uphold it condemn themselves. Most readily I grant, therefore, that the revenue of a pewed church is quite as willingly contributed by the people as the revenue of a free church.
It is a common mistake, also, to imagine that a free church is in some way independent of its congregation as to its moneyed resources; that it is either endowed or sustained by private funds. But the most liberal endowment does not of necessity make a church free. Nor does a church become free by its congregation being delivered from the necessity of contributing to its support. For the present it is enough to say that "free church" bears no such sense in these pages.
Neither does it mean "poor church," or "church for the poor." God is the Father of all Christian people. He is no respecter of persons, and in His household no worldly distinctions should be known. The members of the Church of Christ are all brethren, and are all alike entitled to the same spiritual privileges. As Christians, there are no rich but the "rich in faith," no poor but those who lack grace. A free church embraces all classes and conditions of men. Its liberty is of as much importance to the rich as to the poor.
Missionary and infant parochial churches are often free. But there are free churches which are fixed and established. Consequently, "free" cannot mean "missionary," nor "young," nor "unsettled."
And, as common sense teaches us that congregations consisting of men, women and children, regularly and statedly assembling, must, for the comfort and convenience of all their various members, be arranged according to some known and settled order, so the allotment of certain sittings to families and individuals in nowise affects the church freedom here treated of. But of this I shall speak more hereafter.
"Free church" then is simply a term used in contradistinction from "pewed church," and denotes deliverance from shackles and restraints which the plan of maintaining the Gospel by the proceeds of the sale of pews always imposes upon the church.
How the pewed system enslaves the church I shall proceed at once to show. I affirm that the pewed system sets aside or ignores the divine right of the Church of Christ to a portion of the substance of all Christian people. Instead of teaching or leading men to do their duty to God, it makes a compromise with their selfishness and their pride, and receives the church's right as a matter of barter and exchange. It, in fact, subjects the church to the world. The abandonment of a divine duty it calls "a coming down to human nature and the habits of the age." And surely a sad coming down it is! The payment of God's royal tribute is now scarcely thought of by the majority of Christians. To offer God anything is regarded by many as entirely optional with themselves. By others again, all gifts to the church are considered as charitable donations. Indeed, there seems to be comparatively few who remember that they ought not offer alms to God, who bethink themselves that not from pity from the Church of God, not from pity towards Christ's ministers, nor even out of compassion to their fellow-beings are they to sustain Christ's kingdom on earth, but from their piety, their knowledge and sense of duty to God, in payment of his just claim as their protector and king.
This homage God has always demanded of his people. In patriarchal days Abraham paid tithes to Melchisedech, the priest of the Most High God, not as a strange, but as a known and customary duty. The Mosaic Law most strenuously obliged the Israelites to honor God with offerings of their substance. Ever year the chosen people were bound to expend in the service of Jehovah the first fruits and a double tithe of all their increase. Why should it be imagined that God has now left His church on earth without any like provision for its sustenance? Surely His word is clear and explicit enough. "The Lord hath ORDAINED that they which preach the Gospel should live by the Gospel." "Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things." "The Laborer is worthy of his reward." Under the Jewish law it was left to each man's conscience to enforce the fulfillment of the divine requirement. So too now, Christians are not forced to keep this law of God, save by their consciences. But the law is not conditional, and men have no right to make their fulfillment of it conditional. How irreverent it is for Christians to insist upon having something back in the shape of proprietorship in the house of God, as the sole condition on which they will yield to God his due, I hardly need observe.
There is, indeed, strong reason for believing that the law of tithes is enjoined in the New Testament. The passage just quoted from First Corinthians seems almost decisive on the point. The practice of the primitive church is certainly in favor of such a belief. And, even if the law of tithes could be shown to be abrogated, why should Christians do less than Jews in the service of their God?
But the great truth which I am now setting forth is, that some portion of a Christian's goods belongs to God. Of course, as all God's servants have not equal talents entrusted to their care, some men are bound to render God a larger return than others. And here again the pewed system does the church great injury. As the root-evil of that system is the substitution of selfish for pious motives, so its fruit-evil is the substitution of mean and little for large and liberal deeds. Many men who feel that in some way they owe duty to the church, think it fulfilled when they have paid their pew bill. Any further contribution to the church they regard as a work of supererogation. But the pewed system cannot be barely honest until it requires Christian men to pay for their sittings in the house of God according to their personal ability. At present pews are valued by their size, convenient position, comfortableness, and the reputation of the clergyman who preaches, and the fashionable character of the congregation that worships in the building in which they are situated. And the price of a pew is the general standard and limit of a Christian man's duty!
No wonder that under such a miserable system the resources of the church are crippled. Not at all difficult is it to discover the reason why it is so hard to eke out a scanty livelihood for the Church of Christ, and why kind hearts and fertile brains are so busily resorting to popular preachings and lectures, concerts, balls and fairs to keep the church from starving. The majority of our congregations are in debt for their houses of worship. The missionary work of the church is carried on by spasmodic gushes of pious feeling. The ministers of the Gospel are straitened in their support to the last degree. They are clogged in their work, and tormented with moneyed debts which they are forced to contract, and are worried and anxious about their daily bread. It is no discredit to the church, nor to the clergy to be in honest poverty. But Christians are fast forcing the church and the ministry into a condition of pauperism. The pewed church system has so obscured the righteous claims of the church, that even the clergy are fain to sue for their own dues to the charity of their brethren. Now, I do not believe that God ever intended that those who labor in His service should subsist on the alms of their brethren. The notion is abhorrent to our common manhood. Wilful pauperism is sinful, and therefore, mean and despicable. He that works has a right to eat. To be forced to depend upon the bounty of others by adverse circumstances, by sickness, by inability to labor, by want of opportunity to labor, need shame no man. The most lofty spirit, in such case, may with self-respect gladly receive a brother's help. But why should Christian men dole out their alms to Christ's minister? Does he not work? True, he is God's servant, and to God he must look for his reward. But that reward God had lodged in trust in the hands of the laity. The Christian minister is the steward of God's spiritual mysteries. He bears his Master's treasure, though in an earthen vessel. On the peril of his soul he is obliged to impart of it to his brethren. So, the Christian layman is the steward of God's temporal things. He, too, is bound on the peril of his soul to pay his Master's debts. He cannot, without robbery, apply to his own use that which belongs to God. If Christian men would do their plain and undeniable duty, the clergy would not be subjected to the peril and disgrace of being and feeling themselves paupers. I say "peril" as well as "disgrace," for, of all men, the ambassadors of Christ should be free from that cringing and time-serving spirit which is the constant attendant, not on poverty, but on pauperism.
But let us follow out the working of the pewed church system in some other respects. I think it safe to say, that there can be no failure in duty to God without some breach of duty to man. In putting duty to God out of sight, we invariably put duty to our neighbor out of sight also. By cutting off and withholding God's tribute, man is defrauded as well as God. The constant result of selling and renting sittings in our churches, is to drive away the poor from our borders. This is brought about not simply by the tendency of the pewed system to shut out from the house of God those that cannot "pay." Even where some semblance of charity is preserved by setting apart some sittings "for the poor," yet any distinction in church, founded on wealth, is wrong and unhappy in its results.
It is wrong. "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord, Jesus Christ with respect of persons. For if there come into your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment: and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing and say unto him, sit thou here in a good place: and say to the poor, stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool; are ye not then partial in yourselves, and become judges of evil thoughts?" "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors."
It is unhappy in its results. Poor people are more exposed to the invidious glances and remarks of their brethren than rich people. They are quite as sensitive as other Christians. And we have no reason to expect that poverty any more than wealth should have the power of conferring saintliness. The fact stares us in the face, that the poor do not throng our churches. Nay, I believe that in some of our pewed churches, there is not the pretence of provision for any Christian not able to pay a pew rent.
There are many other evils which have crept into the church under the wing of the pewed system. That system gives an unbeliever the same influence in the management of church affairs, as it does the pious Christian. Even when it supports the clergy, it forces them to receive their hire as clerks of "real estate associations." It nurses pride. It damps devotion. In fine, it is a worldly corruption in the church, not to be cast out without an earnest struggle. But it never will be cast out until Christian men open their eyes to its real nature, and by upholding and maintaining the ancient free system, restore to the church its ancient liberty and life.
There is, however, a very large number of well-informed Christians who say that they have nothing to urge against free churches, except that it is utterly impossible to sustain them. They acknowledge that the free church system is right in theory, but altogether impracticable. Now, there is nothing right which is not practicable. When right ceases to be practicable it ceases to be right. If, therefore, the free church system be right, it can be put into successful operation. The history of the earlier ages of the church should teach us that Christian faith, and reverence and love, are the surest and most abundant sources of temporal support to the church. The reason why these sources do not now yield as abundantly as formerly, is simply because they are not appealed to, touched and opened. The church relies on men's selfishness to do the work which rightly belongs to their obedience and love. The pewed system has been so long obliterating the dutiful instincts of pious hearts, that new habits and practices, nay, new principles even, have to be acquired by free church congregations before they can really work understandingly and appreciatingly. And the difficulty is considerably augmented in our own country, whose sea-like population is ever in motion. Besides this, the apparent friends of free churches do not really help them as they could. If all who confess that they are convinced of the rightness of the free church system, would engage in free churches and work, there would not be many "failures" to prolong the days of the pewed system. The clergy, too, have holden back, fearful, perhaps, of going from a bad condition of things to a worse. But truth however overborne for a while is at last resistless, and "right," however difficult, is never quite impracticable.
There is indeed another objection to free churches which, though it looks very small, yet practically amounts to something very large. It is that in such churches families do not have a regular sitting. Many persons do not like to be parted in God's house from their nearest friends. Some, too, think that they are less restless, and can more easily attend to divine service if they feel at home in some fixed seat. I have already intimated that the arrangement of a congregation in any church is altogether a matter of expediency. So long as the laws of piety and charity are observed, the general convenience, comfort and tastes of Christian assemblies ought undoubtedly to be provided for and gratified. The proper officers of a congregation can appoint to all its families and individuals, fixed and regular sittings in church. Such appointment would of course convey no power to turn away any well-behaved stranger who should perchance pre-occupy a sitting so designated and allotted. Christian courtesy would harmonize any temporary disarrangement. The upholders of pewed churches strenuously insist that such courtesy is exercised by them, and that they are glad thus to show their Christian breeding. They therefore cannot complain that free church people also are expected to be courteous and polite both to strangers and to their brethren. And those who think that the pewed system has revealed too much unkindness and selfishness amongst Christians, I ask to remember that the recognition in free churches of common fraternity in Christ, will do much toward mitigating and subduing the contemptible pride of worldly wealth and position.
A third objection against free churches brings the specific charge that the majority of church goers do not feel under any obligation to contribute to the support of the Gospel, and consequently will attend the services of the church without giving even the paltry sums which they have been compelled to pay as pew-rents. If this be so, (and to some extent it is so) it is only another evidence how wretchedly the pewed system has fashioned the principles of Christians. But, after all, it is the spirit of infidelity which prompts men to rely upon worldly forces instead of spiritual. It is a lurking devil of scepticism amongst Christians which persuades them to trust in earthly helps instead of in the mighty power of God. The Holy Ghost is in the church. He is in the hearts of all true Christians. He is mighty enough to sway their consciences, their will and their hearts, and to enable them to bring forth most precious and abundant fruit to God. To think that selfishness, that pride, that vain ambition, that personal comfort, that the gratification of a commercial tendency can produce more worthy and copious results than love to God and man, than obedient humility, than reverent faith, is to deny the energies and potencies of God's grace. Brethren, God is mightier than the world. The silver and the gold are his. Let us trust in Him and see what he shall bring to pass.
And here let me say a few words as to how a free church can be maintained. Let Christian men bravely acknowledge that to God belongs some portion of their worldly means. Then let every man "according to his ability," cheerfully, thankfully, reverently offer his tribute to God in the service appointed by the church. It is a good rule for every one "to lay by in store, week by week, as God hath blessed him." The weekly offertory, however, gives every one the opportunity of selecting the time most convenient to himself of paying his duty to God. The laboring man can offer a mite saved from his weekly pay. The rich man by often giving, can ever keep himself in mind that only at God's pleasure he holds wealth. All, indeed, can thus bring themselves near to God, and learn to lean upon his love and providence. Constant giving, like prayer without ceasing, is full of blessedness and peace.
In conclusion, let me remind you, brethren, that because we believe the pewed church system is wrong, in that it obscures and defiles one of our highest duties to God, impoverishes the church, debases the clergy, and shuts out the poor from the means of grace, we are not, therefore, to forget Christian charity, and be divided in our heart from our brethren who do not see the matter just as we do. If the free church system should puff us up spiritually, or make us think ourselves better than our brethren, we should have little to thank it for. Let us hold the "truth in love." So long as God shall enable us, let us stoutly maintain what we believe to be right. The free church system is good, because it puts no obstacle in the way of fulfilling our duty to God; because it recognizes God's ministers as men, and treats all the children of God with impartiality.
Upon you, my brethren, rests the support of these principles and views in your present parish. Your piety will enkindle the piety of your brethren. Your labors will incite their zeal. Your faith will encourage them to persevere. Your obedience will glorify the name of God on earth and draw upon you, through Jesus Christ, His grace and blessing.
Truly, your servant,
In our Lord Jesus Christ,
J. H. Hobart Brown.