Project Canterbury

Free and Open Churches

A Sermon Preached in Holy Trinity Church, Brooklyn, October 11th, 1868, and in Calvary Church, New York City, October 25th, 1868, at the Request of the Free and Open Church Association.

By Thomas Atkinson.

New York: Free and Open Church Association, 1868.

"Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature."--St. Mark xvi.16.

We have here stamped upon the Christian Church, by the hand of Him who framed it, and in the very hour when the decree went forth that it should be built, one mark by which it is plainly and indelibly distinguished from every religious system that had existed before that time: a mark which therefore belongs to it as an essential characteristic for all time. And that mark is its universality. It is in its idea, in the purpose of its Founder, in its very nature, a Church not for a country but for the world, not for a section of humanity, but for every human creature. It had not been so with other religions. Judaism itself, true as it was for its time, showed that it was only temporary, by being only national. The one limitation implied the other. He who was God over all, would surely provide for the wants of all. A dispensation which provided only for the spiritual wants of one people, proved itself thereby to be merely introductory to something better, more perfect, that was yet to come. The religions of the heathen being the offspring of human thought and human feeling, indicated their origin by their narrowness and their partiality. The gods of Greece were not the gods of Persia or Egypt; nor was it thought at all requisite or desirable that they should be. A mission [1/2] from one country in order to propagate and diffuse a religion in another, would have been an almost inconceivable idea to the ancient heathen, and the heathenish state of mind of many persons at the present time is unconsciously betrayed by the antipathy they show, and the ridicule with which they receive such enterprises. As an Athenian could not understand why a follower of Zoroaster, a worshipper of the Sun, should be disturbed in his religious convictions by having the claims of Minerva urged upon him, so there are many persons in Christian countries, who think missionaries much to blame for annoying the Hindoo and the Chinese by urging on them the claims of Christ as the rightful object of their Faith and Worship, and money given for such an object they regard as wasted, or perhaps worse than wasted. According to their philosophy, any religion is good and true to him who believes it. But the wisdom of Christ assures us that no religion is true and good except that which He teaches, and that it is a sacred duty to impart that to every man. "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature." This duty may be violated, however, this solemn commandment may be broken, not only by excluding men by territorial lines from the sphere of Christian sympathy and Christian effort, but still more inexcusably perhaps by dividing society itself by horizontal sections, and making Christianity the religion of a class and not of the community.

This was one of the many evils which disfigured the heathen systems of Faith and Worship. They had distinct gods for different orders of men: gods of the sailors, and gods of the soldiers, gods of the hunters, and gods of the husbandmen, and so in the middle ages they had patron-saints for the different callings and professions. These superstitions contradicted the very genius and spirit of the Gospel. Its office is to unite, theirs to divide, and whatever tends to division in religion, tends by necessary consequence to error in doctrine, to weakness of faith, and to corruption of morals. It is on this account that schisms are represented in the Scriptures as being not only great evils but heinous sins, at least on the part of those who originate them. The voice of Divine Truth proclaims that there is one God, one Christ, one Faith, one Hope, one Heaven for all men, and that all are to be taught that Faith, and exhorted to seek [2/3] that Heaven. Whatsoever then tends to erect barriers between class and class, and to hinder the diffusion of religious Truth among all men, whatever tends to make the blessings of the Gospel the privilege of a few and not the possession of the many, is opposed to the gracious counsels and purposes of God, and hinders the salvation of mankind. And these serious consequences seem to flow very certainly, and by a clear necessity, from the practice so prevalent among us of dividing the house of God itself into compartments, and then selling or renting these to him who will pay most for them, and thereby making Mammon the porter to stand at the door of the Temple of God, to open or to shut as he is or is not propitiated by those who desire to come in. For this is incontrovertibly the effect of the Pew System. It gives the right of entrance into the sanctuary of God to the man with a purse, but to him who, like the Apostles, is constrained to say, "Silver and gold have I none," its reply is, then, I know you not, depart from me. If you have no money, you have no place in this house of God. For you there are no sacraments, no ministry, no worship. What then is its effect? That the Gospel becomes one of the luxuries of the rich, and not the Bread of Life to hungry souls. What then follows? That a church (by which I mean here a society of Christians) consistently and steadily acting on the system of selling or renting pews in its houses of worship, must estrange itself from the mass of the people, and thereby abandon them to what on its own principles is religious error, or to that which is perhaps still more ruinous, religious ignorance, indifference, and insensibility. Now how are these reasonable presumptions borne out by facts? On the continent of Europe, where the Christian Faith is disfigured by many corruptions, but where, on the other hand, the houses of God are open not on one day in the week only to a few pew-holders, but every day to all who choose to enter to pour out their souls before their Heavenly Father, there religion has its firmest hold on the lower classes, who enjoy all its benefits without having the education or the intelligence to be repelled by the superstitions which are mixed up with it. The upper classes, on the other hand, find it impossible or very difficult to accept these superstitions, and they become to a great extent infidel. In England, again, religion is [3/4] presented in a most attractive form, with a pure Faith, Apostolic order; with a chastened but noble Ritual, and with a Liturgy of the most touching beauty, and yet of solemn majesty. Intellectual men, educated men do, therefore, in that country, honor and love their National Church, and wherever they go they seek to carry it with them, so that in all the towns and villages on the Continent of Europe, and even in Asia, in Africa or in America, where you find any trace of an English population, you will find an English church, except of course within the jurisdiction of our own Communion, which is affiliated with theirs. And in the rural districts of England itself, where the church buildings--although somewhat cramped and disfigured by one, two or three pews occupied by the families of local dignitaries, the Squire of the parish and the like--are yet substantially open to the whole population, that population, in the main, continues attached to the venerable National Church; while in the cities where the houses of worship are generally set off in pews, and money is the condition of admission into them, there Dissent flourishes, and there beyond the pale both of the Church and Dissent, there are immense multitudes of godless, heedless, untaught, unbelieving, callous, and by consequence immoral and lawless people. In the metropolis of England alone, it is estimated that there are a million of this dangerous class, who know nothing, and believe nothing, and hope nothing, and fear nothing from God or Saviour, Angel or Devil. And the skilled mechanics shut out from church by pew rents, but with minds active and in some degree cultivated, become very often, and I am afraid most usually, conscious and avowed Infidels. Here is indeed England's danger. Perhaps I might ask, is it not also a danger in New York? From these quarters are threatened assaults on social order, on property, on liberty, and it is not extravagant to say, on civilization itself. And if modern civilization is ever to be overwhelmed as the ancient was, it will not be by the breaking in of barbarians from beyond its pale--that pale has ceased to exist--but it will be barbarians of another sort: by the uprising of the neglected classes of society, the barbarians from within and below--such as were seen in the streets of Paris in 1792, and 1794, and 1849.

They have needed many things to be done for them which have not [4/5] been done: better houses, more comforts, more instruction, and especially more religious light and guidance; and now the sins of those who were guilty of this neglect, seem likely to be visited on their own heads in social and civil disturbances and insecurity. In our own country the Church has had less in its power, and certainly has done far less for the mass of the people than in England. If the religious interests of our population had depended altogether on our action, what would have become of them? For thirty years after the present' organization of our Church had been accomplished, such was the war of prejudice and obloquy that rested upon it, that it seemed content merely to be allowed to live. For the last fifty years, however, it has made very rapid and gratifying progress. From the seashore--where alone, a few years ago, it reared its altars--it has spread over the continent, and wherever its worship is established, it attracts to itself, by a sort of magnetic power, a large proportion of the intelligence, the wealth and the refinement of the community. But what has it done for the laboring classes? that is, the great body of the population? What has it accomplished in attracting their sympathies and their affections, and in gaining over them authority and influence, to be exercised for their elevation and purification in time, and their abounding and unending happiness in eternity? Ah! in this direction we have accomplished little. It is not we who cheer the poor man, the laboring man, the man who follows the plow for his hire, the man who strikes the anvil, the man who carries the hod on his head to the dizzy height of some lofty building along the street of some great city--it is not we who cheer these men in their toils, and strengthen them in their temptations, and comfort them in their troubles, and point out to them the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world. These high and blessed functions of a Christian ministry are left undischarged, or at least not discharged by us. We cannot offer as an evidence of our mission our performance of that blessed duty, by His performance of which our Saviour vindicated His authority. Unfortunately we cannot, in His words, say that by us "To the poor the Gospel is preached." Now this state of things, it seems to me, cannot continue--perhaps I should say, ought not to be allowed to continue; we must go onward, or we must fall back; we cannot continue to be the Church [5/6] of a class; we must aim to be the Church of the people, or we shall fail utterly. For man is a social, I may say a gregarious animal. He craves in all matters of opinion and action the support and countenance of his fellow man. Especially, as he walks on the way to that land which is far off, does he like to be assured by other pilgrims that he is in the right path. The Church of the people will absorb into itself, more and more, any class which stands apart from the people. But how can we become the Church of the people, unless we open our doors to the people? There are other things which we ought to do, but this we cannot afford to leave undone: we must have free and open churches. There must not be a man standing at the door and saying, Pay your rent or you cannot go in. It may be said people ought to be willing to pay their rent and then they could go in. But to this there is a two-fold answer: 1. That it is not everybody who is able to do this, however willing. It is not every sempstress, nor every street laborer who could pay the pew-rent of one of our churches which may happen to be near them, and which they would like to at, tend if they could. It is probable that the poor woman whom our Saviour commended so highly for casting in her two mites into the Treasury of the Temple, would not have been allowed to enter the Temple had that Jewish building been managed on the principles of one of our splendid modern Christian churches. Nay, it may be questioned whether without a miracle our Saviour himself and His Apostles could have entered into the Temple, if thus managed; and of course it is doubtful, or rather it is very certain, that if He were now on earth as He once was, He could not without a miracle go as a constant worshipper to one of the very churches which are called by His name, where His precepts are continually read, and men are taught there is salvation only by following Him. Could the Apostles if they were now on earth in the same condition as when they were on earth,--could they attend one of our Apostolic churches?

But I said that there was a two-fold answer to the objection that churches need not be free and open, because men ought to be willing to pay their dues. My first answer was, that men, even the best men, might be willing and not able. The second is, that churches are built not for men who do what they ought to do, but for men who will not do [6/7] what they ought to do. If a man be avaricious and worldly-minded and unbelieving, that is not a reason why he should be kept from church, but rather the very reason why he should be invited and urged to go, that he may learn to repent of these sins and to forsake them. "The whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." "Jesus Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." It may however be said that there are mission chapels for the poor. Not very many, however, in proportion to our entire number. And to send the poor man to a mission chapel,--is it not very much like saying to him, as St. James forbids us to say, "Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool." The mission chapel is some upper chamber, or some very plain, hastily-erected structure, where the music is usually not very good, and the preacher some young deacon trying his powers on these poor people, or some older minister who has striven to rise to a higher place and has failed. The poor man on some occasion perhaps strays away from his mission-chapel and enters the splendid edifice occupied by the congregation which established and supports the chapel. He admires the arched roof, the lofty columns, the storied windows, the sweet and noble harmonies of the music, and the eloquence of the preacher, and in the pride and haughtiness of his heart he says, If I cannot worship God as my neighbor does, whose soul is of no more value than mine, if I have to worship Him as a pauper or a pensioner, I will not worship Him at all. I will spend my Sundays at home, or in some place of recreation, or in some house of worship where rich and poor can meet together on an equality. No doubt he is wrong, but it is because he is wrong that you erect mission chapels for him. He is wrong, but still he is a man,--still he has a soul--,and for him Christ died, and for him the disciple of Christ should be willing to make some sacrifices. In the meantime under the Pew System it is very evident that to the poor the Gospel is not preached; the last injunction of our Saviour, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature," is not obeyed. Many are kept out of the church, many are compelled to withdraw from it, because they have suffered losses; and when they most need comfort, they are told in effect not to come there for comfort. The mass of the people are denied the blessings and privileges which our Lord at so great a [7/8] price bought for them: they are handed over to error and superstition and fanaticism and irreligion; the state of public morals grows worse and worse; the prospects of the country are darkened, and the welfare of immortal souls is greatly endangered.

Now, you may ask, what is the remedy? And here, as elsewhere, I advocate none that is sudden, violent, revolutionary. These are not the religious methods. These are not the Divine remedies for evils. Man is ever hurried. God hastes not, rests not. He tolerates many evils, and in His good time calmly and quietly removes them. His reforms are not accomplished by revolutions. Pewed churches are then to be tolerated, vested rights are to be respected, even prejudices are to be respected; but the evils of the system are to be exposed, until men shall feel constrained to remove them, and wonder why they permitted it to continue so long.

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