Christian Brethren and Friends,
I consider myself happy, in being permitted to stand here to day, to speak for the truth of God. I stand on ground solemnly consecrated to that truth; at the Corner Stone of a Church, which is to bear the very name of the blessed mother of His Son; amidst a people professedly knit together in its love; by the side of a brother, whose strong arm has ever been raised in the foremost ranks of its defenders. I count myself happy, then, in being able to stand here to-day, to speak a word for the truth of God.
Many appear to think, that there is nothing in a Church, beyond the comfortable accommodation of a suitable number of worshippers. Nothing, in respect to form, or style, or furniture, which would render one such building more acceptable to God, or to be desired by Christian men, than another. That it matters little what the place of worship be, if only the heart of the worshipper be right with God. To have the heart right, is, indeed, the first care. And the heart may be right in the humblest place. But can that heart be considered right, which dotes upon its possessions, and surrounds itself with ease and costly splendour, while it pleads for cheapness in the house of God? Can that heart, be right, which prompts, the question, "For what purpose is this waste?" "Might not" these needless decorations, "have been sold for much, and given to the poor?" While it never or seldom prompts a liberal gift to these? Suppose the congregation, which are assembled here to-day from their costly dwellings, had come to lay the corner stone of a cheap and rustic Church, far below their means, and the style of their worldly comforts; what would the fact have told, of the state of their affections?
Brethren, there is an awful self-delusion among us on this subject. Men argue for plainness in Churches, under the plea of having more to devote in other ways to the service of Christ; but an honest self-scrutiny would often show them, how sadly they have mistaken the motive of their plea--show them the guilt of essaying to "rob God," under pretence of doing Him extraordinary service. The Jewish people, just before Christ came, made this mistake, and suffered for their guilt. And who can tell how much of the sin of the suffering Church, now, is to be ascribed to the same cause? Brethren, he that gives from love to Christ, never gives sparingly. He that works for love of Him, never works by halves. He that is constrained by what Christ has done and suffered, to raise a monument to His name and praise, never thinks of means, but to deplore their painful insufficiency to meet the glorious end.
It is said, again, that the God of heaven cannot surely be pleased with such vain things of earth as wood and stone, however skilfully wrought, or magnificently constructed. In answer, we point you to the ancient temple of God, reared under His own guidance, upon the mount of Zion, with its towers and bulwarks, its walls of precious stones, and all its countless marks of surpassing splendour. We point you to its goodly train of Priests, by Divine command, arrayed in state, glittering with gems, and shining in costly robes. And while we ask you, not to seek for yourselves great things, not to indulge your pride, or covet man's applause, we feel constrained to warn you, how you follow a selfish heart, in deciding that God cannot be pleased with what you are so loth to provide; to warn you against the spirit of a utilitarian age, in which selfishness has grown rank, and faith given place to sight.
With these remarks, I enter upon the question, what the construction and arrangements of a Church should be; or, what they should teach; and, hence, what we should ever have before our minds, in determining their character.
We may premise, that a Church is not to be built to show how rich we are, or how liberal we can be; how little we think of wealth, and how much we think of God; is not to be to us an expiatory offering; a lure, as it were, to Divine justice; a kind of Babel, upon which we are to climb to heaven. But it should be so constructed and arranged, as to preach to sinners the life-giving doctrines of the Cross, and in their due proportions, and oneness of effect.
And, the first of these doctrines--the one which forms the centre of all saving truth; the bright star, around which all others revolve--is the awful doctrine of the Incarnation of the Eternal Son of God, for the salvation of men. This being the most vital element in the Christian's faith, should form the leading feature in the Christian's place of worship. Every thing, there, should tell of this great mystery of Godliness: "God manifest in the flesh." Not that this mystery should merely constitute one among many of other kindred ideas; but that it should be one, in absence of which, all others would be without meaning and force; and one, into whose spirit all others, to have a name and significance, must be baptized. Besides, Church arrangements should be such as to indicate this mystery, as one idea. Not as God here, and man there; but as God and man united every where. The glory and the weakness, the majesty of the God, and the humiliation and suffering of the Man, should, in every thing, be blended. Socinianism should be rebuked at every point; should meet the truth of God Incarnate, in every position.
Then, there is the subordinate doctrine, involving the object of the great mystery, that God became united to us, that we might be united to Him; became partaker of our nature, that we, in some sort, might become partakers of His; share His likeness, and be admitted to His fellowship. The laver of our regeneration, then, in its form, and position, and emblems, should be expressive, so far as possible, of this wonderful truth; should remind us of our high union with Christ, and our state of discipline, under the tutelage of the Holy Ghost. And then, the young members of Christ's body should be kept near this laver; not turned loose upon the world, or after an hour's instruction weekly, be sent to worship in other temples, or in some remote corner of our own; but have a place by the font of their new birth, under the eye and, constant teaching of him, who was the instrument of their ingrafting into Christ, and who is commissioned to feed them, as His lambs. And, they should be kept and nurtured there, till they are so grown up into Christ, their Head, as to be advanced to the foot of His altar, to be publicly acknowledged as His own, and called to the higher communion of His love. Hence, a Church should be so constructed, as not only to admit of this, but to require it; to be unintelligible and unmeaning without it.
And then the further, the still more awful lesson, in this same truth, of our being one with Christ, to be nourished to the fulness of His stature, should be represented to our minds. The lesson, not only that we, at baptism, become "partakers of Christ's death;" but also, that, if we would live by faith upon Him, we must have Him with us, as our constant "spiritual food and sustenance"--have Him with us, not merely in imagination, not merely by His Holy Spirit; but really, though spiritually, in His own proper person, as He suffered on the Cross, or as He ascended into heaven. I know this is a great and fearful mystery. But it is a vital one. One in which our spiritual life is hid. "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." "Because I live, ye shall live also." "He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me and I in Him."
It is indeed impossible to express this truth in all its divine reality and significance; to give an adequate conception of it, by any arrangements of the material edifice, the temple made with hands. But, something may be done. To the faithful, much. If nothing palpable can be exhibited, the senses may be overawed; the imagination restrained; the eye of faith made to look in the right direction; the pure in heart to feel the invisible presence of the great High Priest, the incarnate God, made, by His own hand, a sacrifice for guilty men. It is difficult, I know, to tell you how this can be done; how chancel and altar may be so constructed, and disposed, and adorned, as that faith may be aided, in realizing the presence of the Lord of Life. But the thing may be conceived by holy minds; and has been conceived and wrought out, in holier times. In times, when the spirit of truth prevailed. When Christians regarded the wisdom of this world as foolishness with God; and quarrelled not with His wisdom, because it was wrapped in mystery. When they were thankful for glimpses of His presence, for intimations of His will, and complained not that they were compelled to walk by faith: compelled to admit the existence of things which their bodily vision might not see, their carnal minds might not comprehend; compelled to arrive at the full realization of truth, in the way of holiness. There were such times, but far back in the history of the Christian Church. They did pass by, however; and left their impress on the places of Christian worship.
And here we have a brief answer for those, who are wont to sneer at our fondness for antiquity, even in the construction of Churches. It is not antiquity we so much love, it is truth: not antiquity we seek after, but our Lord Christ. And it is only because we find, or think we find, in the ancient Church, clearer conceptions of Him, and of His relation to ourselves, that we fondly turn to that Church. Because the fashion and furniture of her temples are more after His image; speak to our minds more impressively of His condescension and love; seem to bring Him nearer to our hearts, and to make us realize more fully our union with Him, and dependence upon Him, that we strive to make them our pattern.
This is neither the place, nor the time, to consider minutely, the question of the value of Gothic Churches, in perpetuating the true Catholic faith. It must be manifest, however, to every one, who has given a thought to the subject, that such Churches, so far as they can be made to speak, are the most stable and enduring, and trust-worthy monuments of truth. Men may change their minds; creeds may be corrupted; language be explained away: but these giant witnesses for Christ, cannot be made to speak falsely; to pervert or suppress Catholic truth. They lift their towering heads above all low conceits, and frauds of men of corrupt minds; and proclaim to a gazing world, what has always, and in every place, by all the faithful, been held as the truth of God.
We may urge, too, the moral or religious effect of such Churches. We are, emphatically, creatures of sense, and gather our ideas from the impression of external things. How important, then, if we would be fitted for heaven, that, at least, some of these things should tend to lead our thoughts and affections away from earth. And where have we a right to look for these, if not in the houses of God? And in what houses of God shall we seek them, if not in those constructed after the early Christian models; where every thing seems to speak of God in Christ, and the glory and blessedness of the saints made perfect. Indeed, I am compelled to doubt the proper state of that man's heart, who can pass from the glare and gaiety of a thoughtless world, into "the dim, religious light," of an ancient Gothic Church, and not feel that God is in the place; feel that a veil has suddenly interposed, as it were, between him and earth; and a crowd of holy influences arisen-- around him, gently inclining his thoughts, and desires, and affections, to the enjoyment of a heavenly state.
You may call this Popish. I call it Catholic. I call it Christian. I call it a thing divine. And I hesitate not to affirm, that you do Rome over-much honour, in ascribing to her such just conceptions of what should be the place, and the helps, of the worship of Almighty God, "reconciling the world unto Himself," through His incarnate Son; and that you yield her a signal advantage, by your superstitious dread of being found in agreement with her, in things so essential to the due edification of God's worshipping children. Suppose some of her decorations be wrong; shall this diminish the value of those that are right, and which she has been only the medium of transmission to ourselves from a pure and primitive age? Suppose she has introduced some things which tend to divert the mind from Christ: shall this hinder our adoption of such as are calculated to beget in us more lively conceptions of Him; to unveil our clouded sight, quicken our dull perceptions, and raise our sluggish desires? Alas, my brethren, for the mistake of those who stumble at the altar or the Cross, because others, under another system, have rendered to them a superstitious homage!
But I must not detain you here. Another point or two must claim our attention.
In the arrangement of Churches, due care should be had to the suitable posture of the worshipper. Men, now-a-days, go for comfort, and the accommodation of numbers, instead of reverence and self-dedication. Hence, the order of the Church, to kneel, is interpreted, if we may trust the language of our modern structures, to mean, to recline, or sit, in a lounging, easy way. And, little or no provision is made for any other posture. And, if made, it is usually so scant, as to force the worshipper to turn his back upon the altar of Christ; as though this were necessary to show that he is not a Papist.
And--a point still more vital--where, in our Churches, is the place for the poor? I ask this question with shame and sorrow. Where is the place for the poor? Stand they with us, side by side, in the house of prayer? God has made them dependent upon us. Christ, the Head of the Church, has committed them, as a special charge, to our care. How have we fulfilled our trust? How proved to the world, our high commission? Admit, that, here and there, a poor person has a seat in our Churches. Where is it? Is he invited to sit with us, "in a good place?" Or, do we say to him, "Stand thou there, or sit here, under my footstool?" Brethren, this is a horrible sin; and, without repentance and amendment, a horrible punishment must ensue. Our neglect of the poor cries to heaven, and heaven will avenge their cause! We may defend ourselves, as we will; there is no excuse, no help for us. We may toss our heads in contempt, at the proposition to provide for the poor a place at our side in the house of God. But I venture to predict, till this be done; till our hearts be sufficiently humbled to worship in the same Church, and in the same part of the Church, with our poor brother, the blessing of Almighty God will be far from us; His terrible judgments will overtake us. Our pride, I know, will rebel, our self-importance shrink from the contact. But "God knoweth the proud afar off." Let us not imagine that these are empty words, or that they have no application to ourselves. The time hastens, when the day of our probation will be past, the term of our commission have expired, and nothing, be left us, but to give account of our stewardship. The poor will meet us at the judgment, and the Friend of the poor will be our Judge; and the ground of final acquittal, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."
I thank God, that the Church is giving some symptoms of a return to a better mind, on this subject. I thank God, that, with the revival of more just ideas of Church architecture, there is a growing recognition of our duty, and of the true notion of our duty, in "preaching the Gospel to the poor."
In conclusion, let me guard you against a too common negligence, in respect to the security of a Church; before its consecration. That is an act of the deepest interest and solemnity. It is the making over to Almighty God, in a manner the most sacred and binding, all our right of property, in the building set apart to His service. With what conscience, then, can we perform or consent to this act; when, from debt, or any other cause, there is the smallest probability that the Church, in after time, may be wrested from its holy purpose, and desecrated to a worldly or common use? With what conscience can we enter into this act, and then look upon any portion of the building as our own? Thus "keeping back part of the price," when we profess to give all to God, with "ourselves, our souls and bodies."