Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New-York.
No. 127 Broadway.
To the Clergy and Laity of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New-York.
I HAVE, within these few days, for the first time, accidentally seen a printed pamphlet, which bears the title,"The Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Clerical Association of the City of New-York, and Forms of Prayer used by the Association. New-York. Printed by E. Conrad, 1829." Those of you, to whom this title first conveys the information of the existence of this association, will naturally conclude, that "The Protestant Episcopal Clerical Association of the City of New-York" embraces the Bishop and the great body of the Clergy of this Church, resident in that city. But this is not the fact. A minority of the Clergy have thought themselves warranted in assuming this title for their association; of which the Bishop, and a large majority of the Protestant Episcopal Clergy of the city, have declined being, or are not, members. [The Philadelphia Recorder states, that the association consists of 10 Clergy; six of these, it is believed, are resident in the city of New-York. The whole number of Episcopal Clergy in the city is 30.]
As the existence of this association, and the feet of the Bishop and a number of the Clergy not being members of it, are already known to many, and will soon unavoidably be a matter of general notoriety; and as this association professes to have for its object "the promotion of the personal piety and the official usefulness of its members, by devotional exercises, and by conversation on missionary, and such other religious subjects as may conduce to mutual edification;" it seems indispensable, in order to prevent misapprehension and misrepresentation, to state the reasons which have prevented the Bishop and a number of the Protestant Episcopal Clergy of the city from connecting themselves with an association whose object appears so highly commendable.
The station which I occupy in the Diocese renders this measure imperious on me. I ought certainly not to be inferior to others in solicitous efforts to promote my own piety, official usefulness, and edification, and the piety, official usefulness, and edification of the Clergy. It is essential, therefore, that I should exhibit the reasons why, in the present case, those efforts have Been directed, not in favour of, but, as far as an opportunity was afforded me, against, the association which professes this laudatory design. Situated as I am, my influence and usefulness may be very seriously affected by doubts as to the correctness of the course which, where the interests of piety, and the usefulness and edification of the Clergy are concerned, I may pursue. I have always felt myself deeply dependent on your good opinion, not in reference to my own consciousness of rectitude, and so far, personal independence of public sentiment, but to my influence and usefulness. In the present age, the "sic volo, sic jubeo," of a Bishop, will no where, and least of all in a country like ours, secure him from the ordeal of public reason. And though, in cases where no immutable and essential principles of right and wrong are involved, in matters of mere policy, expediency may dictate the support of his measures yet even here he ought to exhibit arguments which, without impeaching essentially his want of judgment, will account for the ground which he assumes and purposes to maintain.
But if, as is conceived in the present case, his conduct be influenced by reasons ultimately affecting, in his conscientious judgment, the peace, the order, and the purity of the Church of which he is one of the highest guardians, and the harmony and usefulness of its ministers, then, the duty, without regard to personal feelings or personal consequences, of a frank communication with his brethren the Clergy and Laity of his Diocese, rises to the highest obligation.
Some time during the last summer, the Rector of one of the principal congregations of the city, with whom I have the happiness to agree substantially as to principles and policy, stated to me his wish that there should be an organized association of the Clergy for the purposes of prayer, religious conversation, expounding the Scriptures, and other similar exercises. The object of this measure was the increase of the piety and zeal of the Clergy of which it was supposed there was a deficiency. I was prepared for this address to me; for I had been informed that the plan had been mentioned by him to some others of the Clergy, who declined taking any part in it, unless he made a previous communication of it to me. While, of course, I approved of the contemplated object, I stated various objections to the plan proposed of accomplishing it, and mentioned other modes by which any Clergyman might excite and increase his piety and zeal. The subject was kindly discussed between us; and he left me, I confess, with the hope on my mind, that there was an end of the matter; and undoubtedly with the conviction, that it would not be finally resolved on without further communication with me.
I was therefore very much surprised, when, at the Convention of our Church in October last, I accidentally heard that a meeting of some of the Clergy had been called, with a view of organizing this plan; and that another meeting, for the purpose of consummating it, was to be held the evening of the day on which I received this information. I immediately resolved on seeing two of the four or five Clergy of the city who, as far as I could learn, were as yet engaged in this measure, in order to a frank and friendly communication with them. One of them is the respectable Clergyman who had already conversed with me on the subject; and the other is the Rector of an old congregation, for whose personal character, disagreeing as we do in several particulars, I cherish sincere regard. To them I stated, earnestly and solicitously, (for I did, and do, feel earnest and solicitous on the subject,) but with as much mildness as was in my power, the reasons which convinced me, that, laudable as was their object, the plan which they proposed for accomplishing it, was inexpedient and unnecessary.
These reasons, somewhat more in detail, are as follows:--
1. Though every Clergyman should aim at the greatest piety and zeal, and with this view should devote himself habitually, and earnestly, and fervently, to private reading, meditation, and prayer, and should avail himself of occasional opportunities of counsel and converse with his brethren; yet organized clerical associations for prayer, and spiritual conversation, and expounding of Scripture, have a strong tendency to become the theatres of spiritual vanity and ostentation, and of that peculiar and artificial language of religion, which is significantly denoted by the term, cant; and than which, there is not any thing more offensive to the delicacy, simplicity, and purity of genuine piety.
2. As in these associations, excitement is the object, a more than ordinary glow of religious feeling, begin, as they may, in chastened spiritual conversation, in a well ordered prescribed form of devotion, the excited fervour of some at least will soon require conversations more impassioned, and devotions more ardent. The heats of enthusiasm will soon inflame religious conversation; and extempore prayers stirring up the animal passions, displace the dull routine of prescribed' 'formularies. Reason may remonstrate--but what is the still small voice of reason amidst the storms of enthusiasm. Some may oppose, and strive to check, the departure from sobriety--but they will soon be set down as formalists; and retiring from a whirlwind which they have been instrumental in exciting, but which they cannot control, they must see it assailing, and weakening, if not subverting, those barriers which public reason has established against private fancy, and those provisions which the wisdom and the piety of the Church have settled for the preservation of Christian unity, and the regulation of the devotion of her members. All this is in the ordinary course of human nature--all this is abundantly exhibited in the history of the Church of England, in the reigns of Elizabeth and the first Charles; and at a much more recent period. In the earlier part of the last century, Clergymen of that Church, with precisely the same plea which is now urged, the defective piety and zeal of the Clergy, formed an association for the "promotion of personal piety and for mutual edification." Not further is it from the intention of those engaged in the association which has occasioned these remarks, to do aught against their Church, than it was from the view of John Wesley, and his associates, to weaken or to injure the Church of England. Professing, and doubtless entertaining, the sincerest attachment for her ministry, and her liturgy, had John Wesley been told that the measures which he was pursuing would produce a schism in that Church, which would displace both her ministry and her liturgy, he would have exclaimed, in honest indignation, "Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?" Yet John Wesley lived to see all this.
3. Conversation on religious subjects, and particularly among Clergymen, on the spirit and the duties of their office, on its high destiny, its infinitely momentous objects, on all the various topics of Theology, when it takes place in the ordinary course of those occasional meetings which Clergymen always have, and always will have; and especially that converse, in which congenial friends pour into each others bosoms their thoughts and their trials, many of those feelings, which a delicate mind would reluctantly more publicly expose, is highly inspiriting, consolatory, and edifying. These artless, unpremeditated effusions, this "sweet counsel," these "words in season," "how good they are." But send me to a meeting organized with its presiding officer, its secretary, its book of minutes, &c. &c. in which I must talk spiritually, in which I am to prepare to talk spiritually, in which (such is poor human nature) the emulation may be, who can talk most spiritually--the charm is gone. Formality takes the place of simplicity; stateliness of ease; artificial or enthusiastic fervour of genuine feeling; the Clergyman as he would fain others should think him to be, of the Clergyman as he really is. And as there is to be discussion--discussion on subjects formally proposed, it is well, if a spirit does not creep in very different from that of mildness, meekness, and humility--well, if "they who are of like passions with other men," do not begin to contend for victory instead of truth; and to take the field as opposing champions of this or that opinion, this or that system of policy, this or that minute point of theological criticism, this or that mode of phraseology. Well will it be, if what begun for "mutual edification" does not end in mutual strife. Is all this imaginary? I could lay open a "clerical association," which once existed in our own country, at a period not very remote, which would prove that the picture here drawn is taken from the life.
4. But most exceptionable are these "clerical associations" when viewed as to the ease with which they may be made the powerful instruments of intrigue, and engines of party.
That such is the tendency of the particular clerical association on. which I now remark, that such is the design, or, if I may use the word, capability of any individual connected with it, I am far from asserting. But no fallacy is greater than that which views a measure in itself, independently of its remote consequences and of its operation as a precedent; and which determines the character and tendency of associations in their long continued and changing effects from the particular cast of the one which at the moment is before us. What are the associations now under consideration? Bands of Clergy united by the strongest ties, those of spiritual feeling and religious zeal. Give an impetus in any direction to one of these associations, and with what force and efficiency would it move I Let the power that gives the impetus be acquired by one or more members of these associations; and who will say that they will not be made the instruments of faction, and the engines of party?
And most to be dreaded are they under the popular form in which, in many respects, our Church is in this country organized. Our Bishops are elective; various officers intrusted with important duties, Standing Committees, &c. &c. are elective. Our Diocesan Conventions meet every year with legislative power, only controlled by the General Convention; to one house of which they elect deputies. When then our ecclesiastical system is thus popular in its organization, of how great importance is it to guard against the operations of faction and party influence.
Nor is the danger ideal that these associations will travel beyond their professed designs. The glory of God, the extension of the kingdom of Christ, the good of the Church, are objects so momentous, that they will, in those periods of excitement which these associations aim at producing, be considered as a complete justification of recommendations, and finally resolves and plans of various and probably conflicting kinds.
The Laity have cause to fear the power of the Clergy only when that power is exercised in self-created, irresponsible associations. The legitimate episcopal authority is liable to most danger from the Clergy, in these easily perverted societies, which may soon be applied to influence and control not only the Bishop, but the Diocesan Convention of Clergy and Laity. Counsel, which if given individually by Clergymen, a Bishop ought to receive with respect, and to consider with deference; he would feel it his duty to decline if it assumed the imposing and controlling character of a resolve or recommendation from organized associations, who, even if they should not encroach on the powers of the Convention of the Diocese, would prove, in this body, dangerous instruments of intrigue and faction.
5. These associations for promoting personal piety and mutual edification, by devotional exercises and religious conversation, &c. will become not only the instruments but the invidious badges of party.
Those who engage in them, however they may disclaim the representation, will be held up as more evangelical, more spiritual, more devoted to their Master's service, than those who do not avail themselves of these plausible means of personal piety and mutual edification. These latter must explain and justify themselves--criminations and recriminations ensue--party spirit is engendered--and soon the Clergy will be ranged in the parties of spiritual and pious, and secular and formal. No person can doubt that such must be the issue, who attends to the principles of human nature, to the workings of the human feelings, or to the facts which daily present themselves. Are not certain Bishops and Clergy now constantly charged with being bigotted, and formal, and anti-evangelical, because they resolutely maintain the distinguishing principles and institutions of their Church, in opposition to opinions and practices, which in their judgment would weaken and finally subvert both! And will not they who, for whatever purpose, employ these weapons of attack, find a new and powerful one in the charge that what they will doubtless extol as a most laudable plan of promoting clerical piety and edification, is not only discouraged, but disapproved of by a Bishop and many of his Clergy?
It was this consideration which I pressed with the most earnestness, on the two valuable and respectable Clergymen whom I addressed, with the view of inducing them to relinquish the plan of a clerical association in this city, which they had formed. I stated, that admitting they could not see the force of my objections; and that, in this proposed measure, one of disputed policy, and not certainly of imperious conscience, no deference was due to the opinions and feelings of the individual who holds the most responsible station in the Diocese; yet the contemplated association would certainly occasion divisions among us, and become a new source of party spirit. I urged that those of the Clergy and myself who did not join in the association, would appear before the public in the unpleasant light of not participating in the means which others of their brethren use and extol for the promotion of personal piety and mutual edification. And I therefore, with all deference, submitted to them, whether as a matter of peace and unity, of delicacy and kindness to their Bishop and brethren, inasmuch as it would not be pretended that the association proposed was essential to personal piety and edification; and as both could be promoted by other modes, to which there could be no possible exception; as the measure therefore could not be absolutely necessary, it was not expedient to relinquish it.
They seemed at the time affected by the consideration; and I confess I was sanguine in the hope that they would be conclusively so. For thus I reasoned with myself. Mere men of the world engaged in any association, would deem it unkind, if not indecorous, to adopt any measure not essential, which was disagreeable to a respectable portion of their associates, and which might subject those associates to misrepresentation and to odium. On Christians this delicate consideration towards their brethren in the family of the same divine Lord, is a duty much more obligatory. On the ministers of Christ this ready relinquishment of whatever is not essential, in deference to the wishes, the feelings, and the characters of a respectable portion of their brethren, and of him who is set over them in the Lord, seemed to me an imperative act of delicacy, kindness, and1 duty, not permitting a moment's hesitation.
No subsequent communication was made to me; and of course none was held by me with the Clergy concerned in the measure. It went into immediate operation.
For some time I understood that the association was confined to five of the Clergy in the city, and two or three in the vicinity. Hoping that there the matter would quietly rest, I abstained from taking any measures with respect to it, and even from conversing with several of the Clergy with whom, on this point, I had had no communication. But when I am informed that unremitted and pressing means are employed to extend the association in the city and in the vicinity; that repeated and urgent applications are made to several of the Clergy to unite in it; when from its printed constitution, accidently seen by me, I find it is styled "The Protestant Episcopal Clerical Association in the city of New-York;" providing for members from the vicinity, and for "any Protestant Episcopal Minister, not resident in the city or vicinity, attending its regular meetings;" when it appears to me most probable, that the pertinacious zeal which formed an association here, will seek to extend similar ones throughout the Diocese; and most certain, that the association and the circumstances attending it, and my disapprobation of it, will become matters of notoriety and of conversation, I think you will justify me in the resolve to address you, my brethren of the Clergy and Laity, frankly and fully on the subject. By this step only can I satisfy the inquiries which are and will be made as to my views of this business, and guard them from misconception, if not misrepresentation. And what I deem of the highest importance, by this measure only can I discharge my duty, as the guardian of the spiritual interests of the Diocese, of endeavouring to prevent the extension of associations, which, however well designed, and however partially beneficial, are, for the reasons which I have stated, in their general results as inexpedient, as in their provisions they are unnecessary.
For admitting that the evil will not, as I am fully persuaded it will, much, very much, over-balance the good; admitting that the form of prayer adopted by the association, which I understand is the same which is in substance used in a similar association in England, cannot be sincerely used, as! most certainly think it cannot, without the excitement of pious feeling, and of a deep sense of ministerial responsibility; yet in all plans of disputed policy, the decisive question ought to be--Can we do without them, and than avoid the evils which there is reason to fear will ensue from them? And who will for a moment pretend that associations of the description of the one under consideration, are essential to the personal piety, official usefulness, and edification of the Clergy! To suppose so, would be to cast a libel on the thousands and hundreds of thousands of ministers who, without these means, have pursued, as burning and shining lights, their luminous course to the bright day of heavenly glory. Let a Clergyman in private read, and meditate, and pray. Above all, let him cherish the spirit of supplication; lifting up at all times and in all places, unseen and unnoticed by the world, but seen and heard by his heavenly Master, his heart and affections in prayer for every spiritual Blessing which he needs as a Christian and as a Minister of the Lord. In the social circle of his brethren, in those clerical meetings which the various exigencies of the Church render necessary, and in the more confined groupe of those whom congeniality of temper and views, or other circumstances draw together, let him indulge, as opportunity offers, in converse as to all the points by which he may be excited or edified. He will enjoy sufficient means of personal piety and edification.
In these exercises, which have been tested and found adequate to their holy end, by a series of the most pious and faithful ministers, who in successive ages have adorned the Church, there can be no unhallowed intrusion of vanity, ostentation, or vain-glorious strife, of the selfish spirit of ambition and of the disorganizing purposes of restless action. To the constant and fervent use of these means of promoting personal piety, official usefulness, and edification, I would urge myself, I would call my brethren of the Clergy and Laity. Under the agency of the Divine Spirit, by them, in connexion with the worship and ordinances of the Church, we shall be excited and advanced in the spiritual life; animated and strengthened to the faithful discharge of the duties of the stations in which God, in his providence, has placed us; and finally secure, through the merits of our divine Lord, the great end of our calling, the salvation of our souls.
In these exercises every Clergyman may unexceptionably and effectually advance his spiritual improvement. And therefore he has no warrant for pursuing those means which are reasonably obnoxious to his brethren, or to those to whom, in unessential points, many considerations suggest the propriety of deference; which subject them to misapprehension or to odium; and which, however fraught with partial good, portend in their results a great preponderance of evil. "No man liveth to himself," is a maxim most applicable to the Minister of the Church. He has brought himself under many obligations, and subjected himself to the influence of many considerations, which materially affect his private rights.
There is no reason for supposing that there is such a deficiency of piety and zeal among us as to render necessary these associations. Without their aid the assiduous labours of the Clergy have been blessed to the prosperity and general harmony of the Diocese. Why run any hazard of interrupting this prosperity and union?
My brethren of the Clergy and Laity. Of the many harassing events of a trying episcopate of eighteen years, none has given me more pain than the one which, in my most conscientious judgment, has rendered necessary this letter to you. I have been accustomed to so much censure and misrepresentation of my motives and my acts, in cases where I thought both were correct, that it is natural for me to expect that, in the present instance, I shall not escape. But in any case of duty, to hesitate or to shrink through the fear of personal consequences, would indicate a moral cowardice unworthy of my station, of myself, of you. On this point, however, I have not much merit. The censures and misrepresentations to which I have been largely subjected, and which have undoubtedly led many to form, as I humbly conceive, erroneous opinions of my principles and character, have caused me personally little, very little, solicitude. The only solicitude is, lest thereby my usefulness in the Church, and especially in my own Diocese, should be diminished or lost. I know that in order to lessen me in your confidence, and to withdraw from me your support, there are those who insinuate, if not assert, that this confidence and this support, are a surrender of your personal independence of opinion to me. But this instrument working only on the weakest and most unworthy points of the human character, has hitherto been, and I trust, however artfully and perseveringly employed, will be ineffective in its undignified and dishonourable aim. I ought not to expect your confidence and your support, when my opinions or my policy unquestionably oppose the principles or the interests of that Church which enjoys my best affections, as it claims my sincere but inadequate labours. When I lose that confidence and support, I may be upheld by the consciousness of rectitude--I shall find, I hope, a refuge in the mercies and consolations of a divine Master--but I shall have no retreat from the conviction that my usefulness, as it respects you, is most seriously diminished, if not entirely at an end,
Brethren of the Clergy and Laity,
Very faithfully and affectionately yours,
J. H. HOBART.
New-York, February 21, 1829.
Allusion is made in the letter to "clerical associations" in the reign of Elizabeth and Charles I. which were styled "prophesyings." The ecclesiastical historian Fuller gives the following account of them. Full. Chh. Hist., book ix. sec. 4.
"1. The ministers of the same precinct, by their own appointment (not strictly standing on the old division of Deanries,) met at the principal place therein.
"2. The junior divine went first into the pulpit, and for half an hour, more or less, (as he could with clearness contract his meditations,) treated upon a portion of Scripture, formerly, by a joint agreement assigned unto him. After him, four or five more, observing their seniority, successively dilated on the same text.
"3. At last a grave divine, appointed on purpose, (as the Father of the Act,) made the closing sermon, somewhat larger than the rest, praising the pains and performance of such who best deserved it; meekly and mildly reproving the mistakes and failings of such of those, if any were found, in their sermons. Then all was ended, as it was begun, with a solemn prayer and at a public refection of those ministers together, (with many of the gentry repairing unto them,) the next time of their meeting was appointed, text assigned, preachers deputed, a new moderator elected, or the old one continued; and so all were dissolved."
The inconveniences which were seen in these clerical associations or prophesyings, are thus pointed out by the same historian.
"1. Many modest ministers, and those, profitable preachers in their private parishes, were loath to appear in this public way, which made them undeservedly slighted and neglected by others.
"2. Many young men, of more boldness than learning, readiness than solidity, carried away the credit, to the great disheartening of those of more age and ability.
"3. This concert of preachers kept not always time and tune amongst themselves, much jarring and personal rejections often disturbing their harmony.
"4. Many would make impertinent excursions from their text, to inveigh against the present discipline and government of the Church, Such preachers being more plausible to the people, generally best pleased with them who manifest their displeasure against the present authority.
"5. A wise person was often wanting to moderate the moderator, partially passing his censures rather according to affection than judgment.
"6. People factiously cried up, some one minister, some another, to the disgrace of God's ordinance.
"7. These prophesyings, being accounted the fairs for spiritual merchandise, made the weekly markets for the same holy commodities, on the Lord's day, to be less respected, and the ministers to be neglected in their respective parishes.
"8. In a word, the Queen was so perfectly prepossessed with prejudice against these prophesyings, (as if they foretold the rise of schism and faction,) that she was implacably incensed against Archbishop Grindal, as the principal patron and promoter thereof."
It is to be observed, that as these prophesyings were public, and the clerical association animadverted on in the preceding letter, private, all the above remarks will not apply to the latter. The attentive observer, however, will not fail to see in how many respects the remarks are strictly applicable. Besides, if these private clerical associations for the promotion of the personal piety and mutual edification of the Clergy be so beneficial as those who advocate them assert, it would be difficult to prove that their benefits ought not to be extended to the people, by being made public; so that the people might profit by the prayers, and the expounding of Scripture, &c. &c. It is believed that in another Diocese these private clerical associations have been thus extended.