The Swift Ships: A Sermon Preached in Grace Church, New York on the Last Sunday of the XIXth Century.
By William Reed Huntington.
New York: A.G. Sherwood, 1901.
They are passed away as the swift ships.—Job ix. 26.
THE man is speaking of his life. He is recalling, in solemn mood, the days of the years of his pilgrimage. One word, a single syllable, phrases his thought. “Swift," that is it. “They are passed away as the swift ships."
On Christmas Day, while we were praying here, there died, after a brief illness, Buchanan Winthrop, heir to an historic name and for many years an office-bearer in this Church. When presently the Wardens and Vestrymen come forward to receive the alms basons we shall miss the tall figure and kindly countenance of our friend. Mr. Winthrop's duty as clerk of the parish made him, in a way, the historian of its corporate life. He kept our records, and the task was performed, as was every task he undertook, with diligence and accuracy. To him, in conjunction with another well-remembered benefactor of Grace Church, was due the first founding of our Summer Home for Children, which has proved such a fountain of blessing to the people of our portion of the East Side. To every proposition that looked toward the enlargement of the influence and the increase of the usefulness of Grace Church, Mr. Winthrop lent a cordial support. God grant that there never fail us a succession of like-minded founders and helpers.
My friends, what is true of the little lives of men is similarly true of the large life of the world. That also has for one of its most conspicuous notes, velocity. The years of many generations—where are they? They, too, are "passed away as the swift ships."
It is my wish to speak to you this morning about the religious aspects of the century which is drawing toward its death— that century with which the most of us have been identified in such a way that it will never be possible for us to think of the new and on-coming one as in any real sense ours.
 I want to speak to you, I say, about this century of wonders from the religious point of view. Others will have much to tell about its literary work, its political achievements, its inventive marvels; I seek to say a word as to its standing among those Christian ages of which it is the latest and, as I believe, the best. If it be demanded what there is about such a purely arbitrary division-of time as a century to justify a preacher in emphasizing the conclusion of it, the answer is that while it is perfectly true that the century has no such evident and natural warrant as the year or the month, one of which is ruled by the sun and the other by the moon, it does, nevertheless, derive a certain sanction of its own from the observed facts of human life. A century covers almost exactly the period of three generations—the world, that is to say, in the course of one hundred years is three times peopled. In the first third of a century one set of tenants hold the earth on lease, in the second third another set, and in the last third still another. When we take into account that law of social [5/6] progress which ensures that any given generation will react from the influences of the generation that immediately preceded it, the sons "deeming themselves wiser than the fathers, while the third generation inclines to hark back to the former way of looking at things, to see whether it may not be possible to reconcile it in some measure with the latter, when we do this we see that, after all, the century, viewed as a time-unit, has a significance peculiarly its own. Even if you disallow this vindication of the century's importance as too fanciful, you must still admit that usage, in and of itself, sometimes gives validity to things, and that the very fact that men have for so long been reckoning by centuries makes the ending of one of these established measures of time a supremely interesting event. God's government of the world has very evidently a periodic element in it, it is an affair of epochs and ages, times and "half-times," and even though the periods of man's devising may not exactly coincide with the periods of God's ordaining, nevertheless our arrival at the end of one of these [6/7] humanly scored boundary lines cannot but affect powerfully the imagination and fill the soul with awe.
But in taking for our own purposes Job's parable of the ships, we need not feel that we are shut up to the single thought of their swiftness. The years of the century that is ending have indeed gone rapidly; but there is another point to be noted—besides the quickness of their motion they have been full-freighted years. Some of them have been merchant vessels, and some of them ships of war, but whether weighted down with burden of food-stuffs or burden of shot and shell, they have had cargoes—every one.
The most characteristic feature of the nineteenth century, looked at from the side of religion, has been the endeavor to adjust the seemingly rival and antagonistic claims of the old faith and the new knowledge. The state of things to which I refer is commonly known as "the conflict between science and religion." It ought rather to be called the effort of science and religion to find their mutual [7/8] bearings. Science lays the main emphasis upon knowledge, and religion lays the main emphasis upon faith but it would be a mistake to infer that science, because it accentuates knowledge, has no use for faith, or that religion, because it accentuates faith, has no use for knowledge. Some of the most memorable of the discoveries of science have been, in the first stages, simply acts of faith, while, on the other hand, we find one of the most illustrious of all the men of faith asserting a scientific basis for his religion in the words, “I know whom I have believed." So, then, let us talk no more of the conflict between science and religion, but rather of the mutual approaches of the two—approaches hindered and hampered, no doubt, by many and great obstacles, but honest in purpose and not for a moment to be written down impossible. Of such of the discoveries of the century as have made for the quicker and wider distribution of intelligence, the greater rapidity of travel, and the larger diffusion of light, there is not one that has not helped the cause of religion, and [8/9] helped it immensely. The same may be said of the new and improved methods of medicine and surgery. Christian teachers coming to heathen peoples with these gifts of civilization in their keeping have had a vastly more cordial welcome, and have gained a far readier attention, than would have been the case had they gone empty-handed. No, it has not been these material gains, if we may call them such, that has caused those deep searchings of heart in Christendom to which I have referred. The discoveries that have filled the minds and souls of the faithful with perplexity and solicitude have been of another sort; they have been such discoveries as seemed, in one way or another, to render untenable the very most precious of all the beliefs that make the Christian religion what it is. Those who braved the storm, and by the blessing of God have weathered it, are beginning to see now how much the old truths gain in grandeur and sublimity when studied in the light of the new knowledge; but it is not to be wondered at that with the first influx of unsuspected truth there should [9/10] have arisen in timid souls the fear of too intense an illumination; First came Geology, pushing back the date of man's original appearance indefinitely into the past, and by its revelation of the fossil species negativing the belief that Adam's sin had first brought death into the world. Next came Chemistry and Physics with their doctrine of the correlation of forces, making it seem likely that before long all of the so-called forces—light, heat, electricity, and the rest—would be found resolvable into one everywhere present and everywhere active energy. This seemed to favor Pantheism, and the substitution of a sort of pervasive electricity for that Living God, whom, in the Benedicite, fire and heat, lightnings and clouds are bidden to magnify and praise. Then, too, what room was left for sin, viewed as transgression, in a world so completely at unity within itself? There followed the disclosures of- Biology, giving, as it was maintained, a death-blow to the doctrine of purposeful design in nature, and making us acquainted with a world of lower life in which [10/11] perpetual struggle brought to the weak perpetual defeat. And could all this, it was sometimes triumphantly, sometimes bitterly, sometimes sorrowfully asked, according to the animus of the asker, "could all this be reconcilable with belief in the love of the Almighty Maker for his creatures?" Last of all came stellar photography, peopling the spaces of the firmament, formerly thought empty, with constellation after constellation, system upon system, so that, from the few thousands known to the observers in years that most of us remember, the census of the stars went quickly up into the tens of thousands, and from that into the hundreds of thousands “And can it be," it was again triumphantly, or bitterly, or sorrowfully asked, according to the animus of the questioner, “can it be that man, the inhabitant of 'a third-rate satellite of a second-rate sun,'—that this poor creature engages for an instant or for the thousandth part of an instant the thoughts of a Being supposed to have been the Author of this stupendous framework?" Of such sort, dear friends, have been [11/12] the phantom shapes, the dread apparitions that have arisen out of the deep, and, flitting to and fro across the inner sky of the human consciousness, have more and more, as this marvellous century has gone on, set souls to wondering whether it were worth while any longer to keep on believing in the Christian's God. Alongside of this searching scrutiny of nature there has been in progress, moreover, a similar cross-questioning of history and tradition, Nothing has been accounted too sacred for dissection and analysis. Documents heretofore known as inspired have fared no better than documents acknowledged purely human. Assailed on the one side by the retainers of the infallible Pope, and on the other by the champions of the infallible Book, the scholars have held their way, determined to search the Scriptures as Christ bade them do, determined to find the truth, as He said they should if honestly and earnestly they sought it.
What now has been the counteraction to all this? What has been the practical effect of such disclosures and announcements as I have been describing? It has [12/13] been various, as was to be expected. Some, yes, many, it has driven into the negation of all belief. They have taken the ground that they did not know what to think. They would not absolutely deny, neither would they confidently affirm. All that religion asserted might be true, and then again it might not be true. They would not commit themselves. The embarrassments of such a position as this are only too evident, for why draw the line at religion? If the great truths called spiritual have been rendered uncertain by modern discovery, so have also the truths called ethical. If an agnostic in religion, why not then an agnostic also in morals? But this would mean the dissolution of society, and they see it. Others there are who have sought under the shadow of Roman authority shelter from the heats of controversy and quiet after the strife of tongues. When the century was just half way through its course the best minds, or shall I say many of the best minds, of the so-called Oxford Movement accepted this solution. Their example was followed by a few, but only a very few, minds of similar [13/14] grade here in America. God forbid that we should judge harshly those to whom this has seemed the wise course to take. Bitter disappointment and disillusionment have been the lot of a considerable number of them, upon their own confession, noticeably during the last year. But if we respect the honesty of the agnostic we are bound in all fairness to respect the sincerity of the infallibilist as well.
Still others there are who have adventured strange and grotesque religions, devised off-hand to meet the emergency, and liberally supplied with the catch-words of modern science, as a bait for just such unwary souls, as have been eager to swallow them. Some of these crude cults show traces of Oriental influence, others are purely Occidental in origin and style. But is there no more excellent way of dealing with the religious difficulties of the passing century than these? Yes, dear friends, there is, and many are turning to it as the true path of peace. That more excellent way is to stand firm by Jesus Christ, the historical Christ, the Christ of the New Testament (which is also but another name for [14/15] the living Christ of to-day), to stand by Him, and to believe that in what He says of the Father, of Himself, and of the Spirit, is to be found the clew to all our difficulties. There is not one of these difficulties, dear friends and fellow-learners, upon which his words do not throw some light; I do not say all the light that we would like to have, but some light. He never promised that all the light should come at once; He only promised that into all of it his faithful disciples should, at the last, and in the end, be led.
His doctrine of the universe as his Father's house meets all the demands of the new Astronomy. He ascended up on high, not that He might enter a tiny heaven just above the Mount of Olives, but that He might fill all things.
His doctrine of his sacrifice of Himself, that out of the seed so planted there might spring much fruit, marvellously supplements what Biology has to tell of the struggle for life; for while in Nature we see the many dying for the one, in Christ we see the one dying for the many, and it is that, just that, which is destined to solve [15/16] our social problem and give us a community through whose veins shall run the fresh, new, vitalizing blood of Christ.
And so I might go on, if there were time, showing how for each of the religious questions which the century's discoveries have raised there is an answer to be had either from Christ or in Christ, by which I mean either from his words or in his divine- human personality as such. If back of the universe there be a conscious, purposeful mind, and also a heart throbbing with an intensity of love, of which we mortals have as imperfect an appreciation as our poor brains have of the divine intelligence, why then it follows that the contents of that mind and heart can only be got at through a person; and what person has ever appeared upon the stage of human affairs in all the ages, who has a better prima facie case in the matter of credentials than one Jesus Christ? called Son of Mary, but called also Son of God? Him I commend to you as the authentic witness, the only trustworthy interpreter, of this century so soon to pass. If it is true as we say in the Creed, that "by" Him as by a pattern [16/17] or standard, the Father made the worlds, it follows that no possible or conceivable discoveries of what the worlds contain can ever dwarf his stature or affect his royalty, for with the increase of his Kingdom goes the increase of his Kingship also.
I began with one figure of speech—suffer me to end with another and a different one. Were I an artist commissioned to paint a symbolic picture of the Nineteenth Century, I should treat it thus: I should sketch a chariot and horses, and in the chariot a charioteer grasping the reins with all his might and by a tremendous effort holding in his freshly harnessed steeds. But what of the surroundings ? There should be no surroundings. Only, a little in advance of the horses, I would plant a barrier cloud, hiding the road beyond. That is the situation to-day. Man has just harnessed nature's forces to his car. By a tense rein he holds them. Whither will they carry him in the immediate future? God knows; for He is in the cloud, even as in Israel's day He was. But for the charioteer there is no prayer save this, "Lead Thou me on."