Project Canterbury


"The Signs of the Times."





General Theological Seminary.









Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011


ON motion, Resolved, "That the thanks of the Trustees of the General Theological Seminary be presented to the Rev. Professor McVickar for his able and appropriate Sermon delivered in the churches in this city, in aid of the Funds of the Seminary; and that he be requested to furnish a copy to be published with the Proceedings of this Board.
Secretary Board of Trustees.


MATTHEW xvi. 3.
"Can ye not discern the signs of the times?"

WE live in an age that may well make the Christian tremble as well as rejoice. In every land, the labors and boasted success of infidelity—in Protestant countries the recent rapid increase of a corrupt Church, that was believed to be for ever shorn of its strength—in our own vast continent the extension of our population far beyond all proportional means of spiritual instruction—and too often within sacred walls, the follies exhibited by the wise, and the ravings of the ignorant, under the sacred name of Religion, must be esteemed calls upon us, as Churchmen and as Christians, to rouse ourselves up to greater watchfulness in guarding that sacred treasure of Gospel truth which CHRIST hath committed to our charge. But by what means is this to be done? Where are the guards to be doubled? On what side are the ramparts to be strengthened? This is the question I now bring before you, and, as the advocate of the General Theological Seminary of our Church, it becomes my duty to maintain, as it has long been my serious conviction, that upon it, as a [5/6] chosen sentinel, we are mainly to rely for our safety. The argument I shall press is shortly this—the signs of the times are such as demand a more than ordinary preparation in the education of our clergy, and if these signs are to be to us, as we may judge from the reproachful question of the text, the indication of our present line of duty, it then follows that we are peculiarly bound to strengthen that seminary which was founded by the united wisdom of the Church for this very end; and which, from all the circumstances which distinguish it, is most likely to send forth ministers, learned and thoroughly educated.

Such is the argument to which I respectfully solicit your attention; and as the conclusions follow necessarily if the premises be admitted, my main object will be to satisfy your reason, that such is the demand made upon us by the signs of the times—for,


WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF BOLD, INTELLECTUAL INQUIRY. This is the first sign of our times. The world is afloat under a new deluge; and, as of old, the [6/7] Church is the only ark of safety—old landmarks of human opinion are pulled up or swept away, and a new survey is to be taken of the ground. Be it for good or ill, such we see to be the character of our age, and that the Christian Church must now hold its own, not by ancient reverence but by modern reason. Never was it so true as now, that "knowledge is power," since never was its dominion half so extended. All are educated. Learning has come forth from its cloister, and Science has come down from her high seat, that they may make acquaintance with the common throng of men—they sit, I may say, with the artisan at his trade, and the poor man in his hovel, and even with the child in his infant school; for it is a truth, that we now give to lisping infancy more of scientific knowledge than constituted the once admired wisdom of our fathers. Now, to make this gift of knowledge a blessing, it must be sanctified by Religion; but, to convert learning, Religion must itself be learned. It is obvious, therefore, that for such a generation, more learned pastors must be provided than sufficed for their less inquiring forefathers. As the shepherd must go before the flock—at whatever pace they travel—so must the clergy be in advance of the laity, under the penalty of being despised as ignorant, or abandoned as incompetent [7/8] teachers: and such is found to be the fact. Though at all times it has been the duty of the Christian teacher to be prepared to give to every man that asked, "a reason of the faith that is in him," never was it so hard a task as now to satisfy the querist; for the question is too often put, not in honest doubt, but in infidelity and scorn; and the doubter is knowing, and the infidel is learned, and the scorner is eloquent, and even the most ignorant caviller at revelation has his sophism and his answer, while the eager and half learned auditors of such discussions, (and by the road-side may we now hear such questions argued as a century ago were confined to the closets of the learned,) these half-learned judges, I say, are always ready to vote the truth a lie, so soon as its advocate is gravelled by objections which he has not learning to answer. What, then, is to be our security? Humanly speaking, this, and this alone—let the advocates of truth be more learned than those of error—let our clergy not only live down infidelity by pious lives but also be able to preach it down by sound argument, and to shame it down by an exposure of its sophistry and ignorance—let them be able, like St. Paul, when met with the taunting challenge, "What will this babbler say?" to meet the challengers on their own ground, and by an appeal to their own [8/9] boasted altars of science and proud philosophy, to convict of ignorance those who come to sit as his judges.

Believe me, then, my brethren, this is no age in which the Church may safely repose on the lap of ignorance. "Can ye not discern, the signs of the times?" Can ye not see that learning is an enemy, if not schooled into being an ally, and, consequently, that Churchmen may not, without sin, leave feeble that seminary, from which its most learned defenders are to come forth.

But, secondly, THE AGE IN WHICH WE LIVE IS ONE OF WILD DELUSION. Learned infidelity, like a lowering cloud, may threaten storm, but ignorant fanaticism, like a lurid light in a cloudless sky, betokens more fearful convulsions. But I need not dwell upon the picture. The question is, as to the remedy I answer—sound and thorough scriptural learning in our clergy. This is the opponent fanaticism most dreads, and before which its spirit is ever forced to quail. But that we may not prejudge the question, by stamping all as fanaticism which condemns or lightly esteems clerical learning, let us hear the arguments by which such condemnation is maintained. They [9/10] are the same in principle, and differ only in degree. Some reject learning as needless—others condemn it as unscriptural, while too many, without going to such lengths, hastily conclude against it, as unfavorable to the cultivation of evangelical piety.

By some it is pleaded, that the promised aids of the Spirit supersede, in religious truth, the cultivation of human reason. But, is it reasonable, I would ask, that we should close our eyes, because GOD vouchsafes us light to see?—for reason is to man as the eye, and revelation the heavenward light to guide it. What, too, is the light of reason, but natural revelation; and equally with that brighter beam, coming down from the Father of all lights? To despise reason, therefore, is not to qualify, but to unfit ourselves for revelation—it is to bring down upon us the condemnation, "Take from the slothful servant that one talent which he hath buried."

But, to look at the question in another shape. If to the Christian an inward light may supersede any one exertion of his reason, I would ask him, which one? and, if one, why not all? for in each instance, the argument must be equally good or equally worthless; and, if in all, then let us close [10/11] our translated Bibles, for that translation is the fruit of much and varied human learning, and without it, would never have been effected. But, if driven by this absurdity, the argument of learning be esteemed good for the translation, it follows, conclusively, that it is equally good for the interpretation, since that alone is the end in view; and, consequently, that there is and ought to be no other limit to sound theological learning, than the time, means and talents, wherewith GOD hath blessed us.

But, say again such reasoners, look at the scriptural model? What were the blessed apostles but "unlearned and ignorant men?" I answer, such were they in the eyes of their blinded persecutors; but not such in the estimation of the Christian—no, nor in the eye of reason. Accurate acquaintance with all written Scripture, profound skill in its interpretation, and a thorough acquaintance with foreign languages—these are not the marks of ignorant men; but on the contrary, the very definition of clerical learning; and they who exhibit them are truly learned, however the attainment may be come by; whether by the inspiration of a moment or the study of years. Setting aside, therefore, the inapplicability of their case, that of the apostles, if adduced at all, must [11/12] be in proof of the necessity of a learned ministry, since GOD was pleased to work even miracles to make them so. He might, we well know, have converted the world, before dumb and ignorant men; as, from stones, he might have "raised up children unto Abraham;" but He chose rather to work by means and second causes, and to make His first Gospel ministers eloquent and learned, as well as humble and pious, in order that they might be a model to their successors through all succeeding ages.

But we might further retort upon such reasoners their own argument. If we take the apostles for our model, which among them, we may ask, was most successful in his ministry? Who converted nations by his preaching, and made kings to tremble on their thrones, and cry out, at the words of a prisoner in bonds, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." Was it not he who, alone among the apostles, was brought up in all human wisdom, and educated at the feet of a most learned teacher? May we not, then, on our part, say that GOD has here set His seal to a learned ministry, by thus blessing more abundantly the piety and zeal of the preacher when armed with the knowledge which education gives.

[13] Is it not, then, our bounden duty, we ask again, to provide the means of this increase, and to strengthen that seminary which is most likely to send forth such laborers into the harvest.

But again, what foundation is there for the opinion, that clerical learning is unfavorable to clerical piety? Does reason teach this doctrine? Where is the argument which shows the improvement of the understanding to be at the expense of the heart? Or is it likely that we shall love GOD less because we know him better? It is the fool, who hath said in his heart "there is no GOD," who alone can be permitted to say in his folly, that "Ignorance is the mother of piety." For the Christian to say so is a suicidal act: it is to fight the battle, not for GOD, but for the father of lies, and that, too, with a poisoned weapon that shall pierce the hand of him that useth it." Does revelation thus teach, or He who is the blessed author of it, when He calls upon men to unite "the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove," and to take pattern from those blessed spirits with whom knowledge and holiness go hand in hand? Does it come from observation of facts? Has learning hurt the piety of him whom we all delight to honor, and who stands forth in our Church as its profound scholar, as well as its [13/14] pious and venerable patriarch. [* Need the name be added of the Right Rev. Bishop White?] Are the uneducated of our Church the most pious of its sons, or the safest among its teachers? Would it not be found, on the contrary, generally speaking, that the Gospel is preached among us in greatest simplicity, as well as with greatest strength, by those who in early training and clerical learning have armed against the seducing influence the ignorant feel, of the presumptuous novelties of modern unauthorized interpretation? How stands the experience of the Christian Church in this matter? What does its whole narrative teach us, but that piety and learning in the clergy; ignorance and corruption, however disunited in particular instances, have always, as a general fact, proceeded hand in hand; learning and ignorance being as the seeds of which piety and corruption were the fruits. It were long to examine the proofs of this assertion, but look at the accordance of general facts. If we ask, what led the way to the corruptions of the Church of Rome? History answers us, an illiterate clergy. What kept the Church bound for ages in that den of iniquity? the answer is the same—the shackles of ignorance—the inability of the majority of the [14/15] clergy even to read—let alone, to interpret the word of GOD. What, too, awakened it from that deadly lethargy? under GOD'S providence, clerical learning. Luther became a reformer under GOD'S mercy, because Luther was a zealous scriptural scholar; his eyes were opened by reading the Christian Scriptures in their original tongue; and as to the knowledge of the Hebrew we have his own emphatic words, "For the whole Turkish empire would I not exchange it." And who were foremost in this glorious work of reformation? they who were foremost in the ranks of human learning? Who, too, defaced it with false novelties, and wild heresies and licentious fanaticism? they who had zeal without knowledge; the ignorant, but well-meaning preachers of the Gospel; and if since that time we seek among the nations of Europe, for "the pure faith once delivered to the saints," where shall we find it? save in that country where alone clerical learning has been liberally cherished. Yes, my brethren, with all the defects that may be charged upon the learned seminaries of our mother land—defects inseparable, it may be, of all things human; and, at any rate studiously aggravated by such microscopic minds as can count the cost but not the gains of a wise expenditure; under all these, it must yet be acknowledged, that the learned schools of England [15/16] have been to all Christendom as a shield and buckler, and to the Protestant faith in particular, the only vigilant sentinels of its Gospel purity—they alone have kept sufficient watch and ward against those wild and wandering heresies of human pride and ignorance which have unobservedly crept in, or openly forced their way into every Protestant church not similarly guarded. Now, if these facts be so, and we need not fear to put the issue upon them, let us hear no more of that idle cant which sets learning in opposition to piety. The experience of the Christian Church teaches another lesson—that next to an humble heart, piety has no ally like sound learning; and next to a wicked one, no enemy so deadly as intellectual ignorance. Give, then, to our clergy thorough education, and give to the Church the means of training them in it, that they may be watchful guardians of the apostolic faith, and sound expositors of the pure word of GOD.

The last sign of our times is one that makes the learning of the clergy not only a sacred duty
but a glorious privilege. IT IS AN AGE OF THE FULFILMENT OF PROPHECY. Whether it be that we are approximating to its closing period of which the indications are doubtless not a few, and, therefore, it is that all truth is coming forth [16/17] on the side of religion, is a matter that it might be presumptuous here to enter upon; and, at any rate, is foreign to our argument; but unquestionably such is the fact as to human knowledge; it is every day ranking itself more and more under the banners of revelation, as if marshalling it to its great and final triumph. Science is, step by step, as I may say, Christianizing itself; recanting all its infidel conclusions, and turning into arguments for our faith those very physical phenomena which it once laid as stumbling-blocks in our path. Of this argument, thus novel, forcible, and cumulative, permit me to bring before you two examples in illustration.

The organic remains of our globe, indicative of its early changes, have been, until our own day, boastfully spread forth by unbelievers as a scientific demonstration of the falseness of the Mosaic narrative of the creation; but how stands it now? these mouldering bones of living forms, which even Adam never saw, have sprung up before our eyes into living witnesses of Adam's faith and Moses' veracity; [* See Cuvier on Organic Remains.] the infidelity, which science planted—science, with its own hand, now roots up; and the once hostile study of [17/18] geology now ranks itself the willing handmaid of revelation.

Astronomy, too, began with being infidel—the scriptural picture of the creation of this fair scene, and still more of its destruction by fire, was, in the eyes of astronomers, as a nursery tale. Now, the creation of new worlds is one of the facts of science, and their dissolution by fire, one of its most rational conjectures, if I may not rather call it, one of its observed phenomena; [* The most remarkable instance of this on record, was the case of a new star which appeared in 1572, in the constellation Cassiopeia. It became all at once so brilliant that it surpassed the brightest stars, and even Venus and Jupiter, when nearest the earth. It could be seen at mid-day. Its color, too, varied greatly, like that of flame. Gradually the brilliancy diminished, and, without changing its place in the heavens, eventually disappeared; and has been no more seen. A similar phenomenon was observed in 1604, in relation to a star in the constellation Serpentarius; which, after similar variations, has also entirely disappeared.] and recently, as if to meet the very sneer of the skeptic, at the ignorance or inconsistency of Moses in antedating the creation of light, while as yet there was no sun—as if to meet, I say, this very sneer—the astronomers of Europe are even now promulgating from their high observations, that among the nebulae, or spots of diffused light, long seen in the heavens, certain prominent ones have [18/19] recently been observed concentrating, and a star or sun by degrees presenting itself in their stead. [* See the Paper of Sir William Herschel, addressed to the Royal Society, in 1811, on the subject of the celestial nebulae. From this it appears, that all these diffused masses of light are, by a regular process of gradual condensation, approaching to a spherical form, and gradually assuming the definite brightness of regular, fixed stars; whence we might conclude, independent of the Mosaic narrative, that such had been the process of the creation of our own sun, and that its original state had been that of a luminous fluid. See also Shuttleworth, "On the Consistency of Revelation with Human Reason," Chap. V. See also the Nebular Hypothesis of La Place; and Whewell, B. II. c. 7.] My brethren, what would we more? Though our dull ears hear not in those distant regions the morning stars sing together, yet do not our eyes there behold a renewal of that mysterious morn, when, amid songs of joy, our own glorious Sun first arose out of the pre-existing light, and began "as a giant to run his course." Thus—thus it is that wisdom is justifying her children. Now, what an argument is involved even in this single phenomenon, not merely for the confirmation of the Christian, but for the overthrow of the infidel. How happens it, we may ask, that Moses thus anticipated a physical fact, which it has required the science of four thousand years to develop? How happens it, that this oldest of all books, should not, like all [19/20] other books, have become antiquated in its knowledge; but that while the most unpretending as to science, it should yet be outliving all the boasted science, which, in every age, has dared to rise up and condemn it; and all its supposed errors and ignorances, which infidels have triumphed in detecting, should be successively turning out to be a wisdom and knowledge of nature, to such proud sciolists unknown? Is not the very existence of such a book a miracle and is it not a most worthy and noble argument, and one that our clergy should be enabled, by education, to press home upon this inquiring age—that of bringing to bear upon the Bible all the increasing lights of human reason. In our day, too, this argument will have double weight, not only from the temper of the age to value it, and the fitness of hearers to receive it, but also because the rapid advance of physical knowledge is daily multiplying these points of contact.

So marked, indeed, is this sign of our times, as to have already called forth the conjecture of reflecting minds, that to centuries, as to individuals, may belong each its appointed task; and that the peculiar task and duty of that in which we live, will be to Christianize science, by identifying its results with the truths of revelation. Noble [20/21] and cheering prospect! True it is, that we can here pick up, but, as it were, among the ruins of the temple, piece by piece, scattered fragments of that divine philosophy which once made all nature a glorious mirror of the power, the presence and the mercy of God; but still, who knows how near we may arrive, or how much may be effected, by uniting learning with piety in the education of our clergy? For, if to human endeavor be destined so glorious a reward, to whom belongs that honor before the Christian ministry? And if to the Christian ministry, what portion of right can claim it before the clergy of a Church which boasts its descent from the most learned Church of Protestant Christendom? one that has ever stood foremost in the cause of CHRIST, when either the sword or the shield was wanting in its defence.

But, in the meantime, let us bethink ourselves what is the condition of that Seminary from which they are to come forth, that Seminary for which I plead, and which I may well term the right hand of our strength, whether it be for war or triumph. Do its numbers accord with this increasing call upon it? do they correspond even to the existing necessities of our church? In fitness, those whom it sends forth, are all we ask; for [21/22] learning and piety in the teacher beget them in the scholar. But how small the band. Let Churchmen say why its numbers should be but one-third of the Presbyterian Seminary at Princeton, and one-fourth of the Congregational School at Andover?

Look, too, at its funds; do they correspond with the wealth and liberality which unquestionably exist among us, and as unquestionably are displayed by us in answer to almost every other demand? Can Churchmen be aware that this unfed mother of their children is consuming, I may say, her own heart's blood in their support? Yet such is the fact. At the rate of near $100 a year is its productive capital annually decreasing, through its necessary, though most economical expenditure. Means of relief, it is true, it has in prospect; but though ample in name, in reality they are unavailing. Exposed, besides, to all the uncertainties which attend future contingencies, and therefore not to be relied on by prudent men; above all, in a cause of such present emergency. What, too, are they in a question of our duty? When our starving children ask bread, shall we give them what is colder than a stone, the fair sight of some distant crop which other hands have sown for their future support; [22/23] or even if such funds could be anticipated, would it not be shame in us as Churchmen, thus prematurely to exhaust a fountain which, rightly guarded, will one day send forth a perennial stream; and tenfold shame, as men and Christians, thus to add meanness to sacrilege to rob the treasures of the dead in order that we may throw off our own responsibilities, on a pious liberality that has now gone to its reward.

Let Churchmen, then, give to this holy cause as GOD hath prospered them, and, in some proportion, if they can, to the great interests that are at stake. Once satisfied of its necessity, let them not transfer to others a duty which, by their own acknowledgment, rests upon them; nor take upon their consciences what, by neglecting to give, they unquestionably do—the guilt of causing its failure; for however the great Head of the Church may raise up to the Seminary other friends, yet, inasmuch as the call is now upon you, my brethren, upon you that responsibility rests.

But, I fear not your decision. If you will but rightly regard the signs of the times, you cannot but appreciate the value of a well-educated ministry. Like watchful mariners, you will see the necessity of anchoring your Church beyond [23/24] the influence of these shifting currents of ignorance and human passion. As Churchmen, you will feel a virtuous pride in making it an ark of safety to those driven about without chart or compass; and, as Christians, you will feel it your imperative duty to hold high and feed well that lamp of religious truth which CHRIST hath committed to your keeping, in order that over this intellectual, enthusiastic and prophetic age, it may shed a pure, and steady, and heavenward light— that when the cry is made, (and who knows how soon it may be made?) "Behold the Bridegroom cometh!" our Church and its true members may be ready to join in that triumph, and to "enter in with Him into His glorious kingdom."

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