Project Canterbury

The Unpossessed Land: A Sermon Preached before the Schuylkill and Lehigh Convocation of Pennsylvania

By Leighton Coleman

Rector of St. Mark's, Mauch Chunk, Pa.

Boston: Published at the Office of the Church Monthly, 1867.


"There remaineth yet very much land to be possessed."—Josh. xiii. 1.

How any one can ever calmly and dispassionately view the spiritual horizon of this land, or, indeed, of any land, exposing, as it does, so much territory in every direction which has not as yet rightly acknowledged the LORD as its Governor, is, and must ever be, a marvel to those souls for whom He shed His most precious blood. The sight of it ought to bring shame and reproach to the consciences of those who may have been slothful in their service to Him, and cannot but cause intensest anxiety and grief to those who are His faithful and zealous subjects.

It is by no means a matter of indifference to Him whether or not all the kingdoms of the earth recognize in Him their Sovereign Ruler and their Anointed Saviour; else might it be so to us. Plainly, their coming under His sway can add nothing to His already perfect and complete majesty and glory, except in the eyes of men. Yet such is His incomprehensible love and His infinite justice that He cannot rest, so to speak, while a single soul remains obdurate or rebellious. Wonder at it, as we well may, still the fact remains; the mystery, though not solved, cannot be denied. He yearns for the obedience and devotion of not only every nation and tongue, but of each individual heart in the same. There is not a foot of soil now untrodden by the soldiers of Christ which He does not desire and claim to be His.

Let no one, therefore, cast the words of our text in the face of God, and flippantly say: "If He be this Almighty One of [3/4] whom the Scriptures speak, why does He not put forth His strength, and gather to Himself all the kingdoms of the earth? Surely if there remaineth yet much territory to be possessed, it must be that He willeth and alloweth it thus to be."

Such an one has not comprehended the very first and simplest revelations of the Divine Being; has not noted the agonizing supplications which He makes to the sons of men everywhere to turn to Him and live; has not understood His multiform commandments and ordinances intended for universal obedience; has not minded His various and earnest commissions to instructors, prophets, and evangelists, to go with their Gospel into all the world. He is especially incompetent to appreciate the contumely and suffering, willingly endured by the Son of God, that He might not lose one of those sheep which the Father had entrusted to His care. Nor can this skeptic know anything of the intercessions and groanings and influences of the Holy Spirit, who striveth with such determined zeal, that nothing of Jesus' will and work shall fail of its accomplishment; and who seeks unweariedly and lovingly to bring all men everywhere to a knowledge of the one only true God.

No, from the first communication made to man, by the Almighty, to the present hour of re-awakened ardour and earnestness, He has invariably, in one way or another, asserted His claim to the homage of all His creatures, and manifested His desire and command that, “from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, His name should be great among the nations, and that in every place incense should be offered unto His name, and a pure offering."

We must, therefore, look away from God at ourselves, as we seek to solve the inquiry, why the words of the text are still true why there remaineth not only land, but very much land, to be possessed. We propose to consider, though it be but imperfectly, a few of the reasons for this alienation from Him of so many of His children and dependents.

[5] We will not call into view such reasons as may be presupposed,—such as the great power and obstinacy of the Devil, who also sets up a claim for this same territory over which God has published his sovereignty; the love of pleasure and ease, and the almost judicial blindness which lead men to become his willing subjécts and colleagues; the covetous hoarding to themselves of the means which God has entrusted to them to aid in the dissemination of His light and truth; the supineness and indifference and impiety with which, while they are availing themselves of every opportunity for their own aggrandizement, they will suffer the world, in innumerable instances, to gain the advantage of Christ's kingdom, and make therein irreparable breaches.

All these, sad as they are to contemplate, must be added to other reasons, which, although growing out of them, do yet seem to be so many independent obstacles in the Redeemer's way. They are familiar to you all, perhaps; and their present treatment may not offer anything very striking or novel in connection with them; but it is hoped that by grouping three or four of them together, we may be enabled to press our subject the more warmly and closely upon our hearts and consciences.

In the front rank of these obstacles, we would place the want of unity amongst the professed disciples of Christ.

And this point of our discourse divides itself again into two branches—discord without the Church, and discord within the Church.

It is not difficult, surely, to discern it, whether within or without; nor is it hard to realize the very great injuries it inflicts upon the missionary work of the Church. There are some, we know, who really believe that it is not good for all those who profess and call themselves Christians to be united in one outward bond or association or church,—that the cause of our Redeemer is promoted by what they name the rivalry and competition between the different religious denominations; and gravely declare that it is the will of God that these dissensions and opposing organizations should exist, and (to complete [5/6] their reasoning) multiply. We must confess that we are always deeply moved by hearing such sentiments expressed. We can scarcely withhold a severe and indignant denunciation of them. Such persons seem to us to have read very many portions of the Holy Scriptures to no good purpose. How is it possible for them to fail in seeing the great stress our Blessed Lord lays upon all His disciples being one, even as He and His Father are one? What meaning do they give to St. Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians, in which he charges them all to speak the same thing, that there should be no divisions among them, that they be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment; and to his injunction to the Romans, commanding them to mark those who cause divisions?

At-one-ment was indeed Christ's great work on earth, not only between us and His Father, but also, through Him, between ourselves. Therefore, how can He behold with anything but displeasure and grief the manifold divisions into which they have allowed themselves to be formed, who all claim to be His followers, and to be alike seeking the doing of His will?

Let us cast our eyes over any portion of the world—over our land even—and see the practical operation of this principle or theory. We take it for granted that no one who is a thoughtful, intelligent, loyal member of any denomination is such, except from a clear and honest conviction that it is,all things considered, nearer right for him to enter than any other denomination; for if, while belonging to it, he is continually finding fault with it, and showing wherein others excel it, he is surely most inconsistent in retaining his place in it. And if it is the best for him to choose, it is, generally speaking, the best for his neighbors everywhere to choose. Accordingly, each one tries in every settlement, to found a branch of' the society of which he is a member; until it comes to pass in many hundreds and thousands of our villages and towns, that no one society is strong; and that more time and energy and means are consumed in proving each other wrong, than would [6/7] be necessary, were all united, to convert to God the whole population.

More especially is this true of what is purely missionary ground, at home and abroad. It requires but little effort to imagine the evil effect of this rivalry and competition, as it is called. When irreligious or heathen men observe how diverse these various missionaries are in their doctrines and usages; how easily the same amount of labour and money might accomplish so very much more where the ground for controversy and suspicion has been removed; how little they seem to co-operate in what appears to them as of the greater moment, is it any wonder if they should remain skeptical, and even think themselves better off in remaining where they are than in making a choice between the conflicting "churches" which are set before them?

No, we may be perfectly well assured that no one takes pleasure in the sight of these dissensions and weaknesses but the Devil, who would not be able to maintain himself with any degree of satisfaction or success were the whole number of professing Christians to present one undivided and indivisible front. Instead of diluting and crippling their strength in watching and seeking to uproot and destroy each other, we could, proceeding from place to place, occupy and faithfully till very much of the immense territory yet unpossessed. How long, O Lord, shall it be before we all realize this great truth? At times the signs look very encouraging; and the present generation seems more sensible of the need of unity (not union, for this is not half so effective as organic, visible, if you please formal, unity) than preceding ages, and we may therefore feel the more stimulated to prayers and efforts for its speedy coming and consummation.

And we Churchmen, who more than any others, appear to be anxious and striving for this consolidation of Christian forces and means, ought to be especially jealous of anything like discord amongst ourselves. While in every large society, differences, and sometimes grave differences, of opinion may be [7/8] inevitable, and while we are thankful to know that with us they have never produced, and are never likely to produce, such evident and irreconcilable divisions as have occurred in many of the denominations around us, yet we need, and especially at this interesting, and perhaps eventful, period of our history, to learn that if we wish for the greater influence without in bringing the thousands into that communion of ours which is now, and is destined to be hereafter (under God), more and more the great centre of unity for American Christians, we must have fewer points of disagreement amongst ourselves, and make much less account of them.

All we have to do now, or at any time, to bring about this entire accord, is to sit down together, and discuss the questions at variance as becometh children of the same holy mother, candidly, dispassionately, and lovingly; allowing to others the same intelligence, reason, and conscience as we claim for ourselves; renouncing and abating those things which may be proved to be untenable or hurtful, and allowing and using those things which are calculated to edify and sanctify. While we have so many enemies within our own souls to combat, and so many (albeit unfounded and ungracious) prejudices without to overcome, we surely have very little time to spend in judging and recriminating each other. The exigencies of the day demand leniency and charity in our criticisms of those things which may not on either side be deemed essential, fervour and loyalty in our devotion to the great principles and records of our Faith, and strict impartiality in examining ourselves, lest we too may be guilty of the same or like offences which we at times so inconsiderately charge upon our fellows.

With mutual concession and respect, a hearty joining of resources, and an humble reliance on Divine countenance and support, it is not easy to determine the power which would belong to this branch of the Catholic Church. Our feeble pen shall not mar the page with any attempts at describing it; but our soul can hardly contain herself for joy and gratitude as she follows our united and beloved bands of brothers and [8/9] sisters (for, thank God, women are now finding their proper place and opportunity for Christian work) in their triumphal course through the mighty empires which are to develop our favoured continent, and sees how they shall yet enter in and possess this good land for the Lord God of Israel. The seed sown in tears and humiliation, though with loving faith, shall be reaped in joy and exultation. Though it be as the smallest of all seeds, it shall grow to be as the greatest of all herbs, yea it shall become a wide-spreading and luxuriant tree, so that the birds of the air shall come and lodge in the branches thereof.

Oh for the labourers for this rich harvest! Will they then be more plentiful than they are now? Oh yes; surely men will not always be so slow in entering into the vineyard. They will then require the Master to call them but once, and they will instantly obey. Would that they were ready now!

Shall we not view this scarcity of clergymen—of tillers, of ploughmen, of builders, of leaders, as another great impediment in occupying this large portion of land which yet remaineth to be possessed? "How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard; and how shall they hear without a preacher?" There is at present, by all accounts, a great and alarming deficiency in the number of those who are coining forward into the blessed ministry. Few enough there are to take the places of those who are disabled or at rest; while the demands of new fields, already white unto the harvest, are almost totally neglected. The ranks of all other professions or callings—of trades, of arts, and of manufactures, are amply supplied. Parents will take pains to fit their sons for these, and when they can, set them up in business for themselves. It is reserved for the Sacred Ministry to beg for recruits, to persuade men of the holy and precious privileges belonging to its functions. It makes one's heart sick as one takes a general view of the Devil's territory, and sees in how very many places the Church of Christ is wholly unknown, or else is not half so strong as she might be had she only more Bishops (and they [9/10] smaller Dioceses), Priests, and Deacons. As it is now, laymen have almost to assume the offices of the Deaconate, Deacons that of the Priesthood, and Priests those of the Episcopate. Many a portion of this unoccupied land is, we are fully persuaded, ready for most compensating returns, if the clergy could be secured to lead in their working and developement. Oh how cruel and criminal it is in so many, every way qualified for this precious calling, to stand aloof and refuse to heed the earnest and piteous cries which reach the ear from almost every part of this unclaimed territory! Fill the ranks of the clergy to even the capacity of the points already sought to be covered, and what a weight would be lifted from the hearts of our Chief Shepherds. May we not respectfully hope that when they assemble again, they will cordially accede to the request adopted almost unanimously in the Lower House of the last' General Convention, that there should be added to our Litany this much-needed petition: "That it may please Thee to send forth more labourers into Thy harvest, we beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord."

The lack of thorough Christian and Ecclesiastical Education and Literature is another impediment in the way of occupying the remaining land. We have not at this moment a first-class college or periodical in all the Republic. There are those which have about them the necessary features and beginnings for such a rivalry with the too commonly irreligious schools and publications as would, with our means and faith, soon compel Church people to give to them their generous and steady support and co-operation; but at present they have to contend with very many discouragements and hinderances, and are but ill-furnished for the mastery over their long-established and richly-endowed competitors, while they are appealing to us with earnestness and sound argument for our sympathy and patronage, we are constantly strengthening institutions and periodicals which are not only directly antagonistic to our long-cherished Church principles, but also to those fundamental [10/11] portions of Christianity to which all religious people give their nominal sanction. Especially is it necessary to found these presses and schools in the great missionary fields, that the prejudices and ignorances of the old may be removed and remedied, and the young early instructed as to the manner in which the Gospel is preached in this branch of the Universal Church. If we are too supine and selfish and blind to reclaim the East—if we will countenance and support the movements of our opponents here—oh let us see to it that in the Valley of the Mississippi, and in the still remoter quarters towards the sun-setting, the Church shall provide for the education of the millions already making therein their permanent homes. Rome is already industriously at work laying her plans for the future harvesting of these promising fields, and we and other Protestant bodies, by our lack of unity, our withholding of means, and our short-sightedness, are aiding her most materially.

Sewell is unquestionably correct when he says, in writing so ably of the connection between Ethics and Catholic Christianity, “that the Church only has the right or the power to educate." Were we to withdraw all the support we are now giving to schools and colleges, to weeklies and monthlies and quarterlies, and devote the means thus consumed to the determined patronage of our own institutions and publications, we would be amazed to see how strong they would quickly become.

While the Church ought thus to undertake this work authoritatively and comprehensively, it may yet be done so kindly and wisely as to create no undue resistance from those who are not as yet our fellow-members, and who would, doubtless, in many instances, give to these efforts their grateful aid and countenance. It is certainly due to our own claims and mission, and to the spiritual welfare of our youth that much more than our present heed should be given to this most important topic.

[12] The much wider prevalence of the Free Church System would, in our humble judgment, contribute very largely to the possession by the Church of the wasted and unoccupied land which meets the eye in every direction. By this, I mean that system which provides that all the parochial, educational, and missionary work of the Church should be accomplished through the voluntary contributions of the people. It is too generally limited in its application to the current expenses of the several parishes. In this light, it signifies that no rental of sittings shall be allowed, but that the whole Church shall be thrown open to such as may choose to worship therein; that no person or family shall have the right to appropriate to himself or themselves any seat or seats; but that they shall all be free. This is, of course, one of the leading features of the system; and yet it is but a single, and perhaps an incidental, application of the great underlying principle. It may be that because at present it is more generally opposed than the other features, that it has assumed the prominence now belonging to it. It has indeed stout opposition to meet. Arguments of ease, of comfort, of dignity, and (worse than all, among members of the household of faith) of expediency to answer; but, thank God, these arguments can all be successfully answered. While it is proved by the practical operation of this system wherever it has been fairly tried, that all those benefits belonging to the Pew Church System which we as Christians, as Christian brethren would like openly to claim for it, are amply secured, it is also as plainly proved that many advantages belong to the Free Church System exclusively.

We are well aware that most persons are ready enough to allow it to be right and proper in theory, and only discourage it because they fear it cannot be carried out practically. We will not say anything in reprobation of what is so plainly inconsistent, and (we speak it in all charity) so irreligious, and withal so contrary to the records of centuries. It may not be unbecoming in us to say that we have worked under both systems, and that after a candid examination and testing of them [12/13] both, we are every year more and more convinced that the Free Church System is that which by many considerations is the best calculated of any other to accomplish the true errand of the Gospel. In breaking down distinctions in parishes, in cultivating friendly feelings in the congregation, in enlisting more heartily the sympathy and aid of the people, in throwing the parish the more on its own responsibility, in securing the more frequent attendance of strangers and enemies to the Church, and the early and regular attendance of the shifting population in every town, and in leading to a more scrupulous consecration of men's substance to God's service. We know of nothing that is, or can be made, so simple and yet so effective. There is no reasonable objection that can be applied to it that cannot be applied to the altogether modern and questionable plan of renting sittings.

And if this be so in regularly organized parishes, how much more likely is it to be the case in really missionary fields, and indeed as regards the godless and indifferent in regular parishes. Think, for instance, of compelling the Indians, the Chinamen, or the Africans to take pews before they could obtain a right to worship regularly in this place or that; or of arguing with the irreligious in our own towns in favor of their attendance upon the sanctuary, and at the same time presenting to them a list of the vacant sittings and of the varied annual rentals of the same! Could we unanimously return to the good, old, well-tried system of open, unappropriated seats, our churches, we believe, would invariably be crowded, and our parochial and missionary operations would be more constantly and liberally supported.

As we intimated, this is but a single application of the Free Church principle. If it were to pervade all our work, we should have no need of assessments, or funds, or pledges, or endowments as now. For assessments, we would have the free-will offerings of every child of God; for funds, a larger share of faith in Christ; for pledges, the conscientious laying by as God prospers us; for endowments, a burning zeal and [13/14] love towards God and the souls of men whom He died to redeem. This would seem to be very much nearer to the Gospel spirit, and to the spirit of early Christianity; and it could not fail of quickly superseding the timid, worldly, and self-exalting spirit which is so much of a hinderance in the way of the entire possession of the uncultivated land.

And in conclusion, will our dear brethren of the laity allow us to say that very much of the failure to possess more of this land results from the want of steady and generous co-operation on their part? We well know and sorrowfully acknowledge the short-comings of the clergy. Oftentimes, the supineness, and sloth, and even impiety, of the people are but the reflection of that belonging to the ministry; but often, too, the clergy are without that stimulus and encouragement and holy ardour which the zeal and goodness of the laity can quickly communicate. Very sad it is, for example, to reflect how very slow the Church in this country has been to recognize the advisability, nay the necessity, of organizing for her mission the services of Christian women, and even now to observe the over-sensitive dread which many have of anything which looks towards remedying this great want. Surely, if we are not to lose one of the most valuable lessons taught by the late war, and to be unmindful of one of the most significant hints given by the Church of Rome, we will not allow any greater loss to accrue to us than that already sustained from this failure to put to use the waiting and loving powers and capacities of so many earnest-minded laywomen; but will gladly employ then in the multiform works of charity, reform, and education for which the present time is so loudly calling.

If all her members were but once to study the history and characteristics of our beloved Church, were to appreciate the features of permanency, assimilation, and sanctification that belong to her, the immoveable grounds upon which are based her claims to the confidence and allegiance of all sorts and conditions and races of men, how plainly she is marked out [14/15] by her Divine Head as the most efficient and acceptable means of converting the ungodly of our Republic, and uniting into one the now discordant and warring elements of American Christianity; we can but believe that they would be instantly and thoroughly aroused to covet the happy privilege of aiding liberally and heartily every movement or desire which looks towards her rapid and complete development and growth.

The clergy cannot do this work alone; nor ought they if they could. While to them her spiritual ministrations are committed, her temporal and secular means of effort and progress depend, under God, upon the voluntary action of her laity, guided only by their enlightened and conscientions sense of duty. While she does not call upon them to neglect any true and righteous responsibility in matters connected with their business or households, yet she is deserving of much more time and thought and labour and wealth than are now devoted to her, and especially to her missionary operations—whether in prayer, in conversation, in instruction, in self-denying contributions, in sympathizing with their pastors, in more frequent and regular attendance upon her public worship, in urging others to accompany them, in recommending her oft-vindicated peculiarities, in making her interests and sovereignty identical with their own, there is surely ample opportunity for the constant and faithful employment of the humblest of her members. Were they, each and all, to give to those who are over them in the Lord this generous co-operation, we should much sooner be enabled to occupy the many vacant posts, and to cultivate still better the fields already occupied.

Let none of us, either of the clergy or laity, relax our applications, alms-giving, or work until all nations and all souls shall say "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord; we have wished you good luck ye that are of the house of the Lord."

Project Canterbury