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XV. A Sermon Preached at the Consecration of the American Church of the Holy Trinity, Paris;
on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1886.

By Henry C. Potter, D. D., LL. D.
Bishop of New York

From Waymarks, 1870-1891: Being Discourses, with Some Account of their Occasions.
New York: E.P. Dutton, 1892. pp. 256-270

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008


And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me and keep me in this way that I go, . . . so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God; and this stone which I have set up for a pillar shall be God's house.--GENESIS xxviii. 20-22.

THE common and familiar things of life are forever surprising us by their nearness to the things that are seemingly uncommon and remote. Looking at men from the outside, their aims and activities appear to us tame and secular and transient. Here is a workman toiling for his wage; yonder is a woman nursing her babe; over against us is a household busy with its thousand petty interests,--and all alike seem centred in the present. But now and then some chance breath of adverse fortune, some startling incident, some sudden joy or grief, lifts the veil, and we see how imperfectly we have judged. The workman has seen a vision; the nursing mother has heard a voice; the busy household has been touched by some common sorrow or some common inspiration. Into these lives there has broken, now in one way and now in another, the consciousness of another life, higher than [256/257] the senses, more ennobling and more enduring than the present,--the life, in one word, of God and the soul.

Something like this had happened to that young man of whom we have been reading this morning. In one aspect of it, what a homely and commonplace picture it is! Here is a youth growing up among pagan surroundings, who is bidden, after that elder fashion of parental authority which in such matters we Americans have long since learned to disesteem and disregard, to go and find a wife among his mother's kinsfolk. "And Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him, Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan." This youth of godly nurture was not to marry a heathen. "Arise; go to Padam Aram. . . . and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban, thy mother's brother." That was the errand on which the young man set out. It does not require much imagination to picture the thoughts with which he journeyed,--the youthful enthusiasm, the delight of new-found freedom, the eager interest of a traveller amid unfamiliar scenes, and also the shrewd curiosity of an acute and forecasting mind; for the traveller is Jacob, remember. All these, I think, we can readily conceive to have gone along with him. And then there comes the solitary encampment for the night, with the stone for a pillow, and then the vision,--the suddenly opened heavens, the "ladder set up on the earth," "the angels of God ascending and descending on it," and the Lord standing above it. Ah, what a new world broke then, it may have been for the first time, upon the consciousness of that young soul! [257/258] Trained in devout routine, nurtured from infancy in the simple religion of his fathers, there came that night, as there comes in some such pause and stillness to every young soul to-day, the vision of the Lord. His journey to Padan Aram, the home and the flocks that he had left behind him, the pleasures and possessions that lay before him,--a few moments ago, and as he fell asleep these had seemed the sum of life; and now that life had come to have another meaning and another end, for "behold, the Lord stood above it."

It is such a vision which explains our presence here to-day. Surely the occasion which assembles us is as suggestive as it is unique. Strangers most of us in this strange city, we have gathered here to give to God this holy and beautiful house to be His own forever. Look around, I pray you, and see with what cost and massiveness it has been builded. These stately outlines, these enduring columns, this unstinted expenditure, these ample proportions, do not suggest the transient or the temporary. No, they are the fitting expression of an enduring provision for enduring wants,--wants that no restlessness can smother, nor any frivolity ultimately ignore or forget.

We Americans are supposed to be a somewhat flippant people, more or less intoxicated by a prosperity which is largely accidental, and which has made us fond of pleasure, display, and change. These are the tastes, we are told, which make us swarm wherever life is the most gay and amusement the most abundant; and under such conditions, we are told also, we are very apt [258/259] many of us to forget our earlier nurture, and especially to let go those more sacred traditions which once bound us to duty and to God.

I am not here, my fellow-countrymen, to dispute that charge nor to bandy words with those who have made it. Alas! must it not be owned that, in part, at any rate, it is true, and that there are those whose religion has seemed to be geographical,--of force and authority on one continent, and somehow suspended as to its duties and obligations in another? For one, I have no desire to ignore a fact which we may all wisely recognize, and which we must needs profoundly deplore.

But in doing so, there remains that other fact,--thank God for those tokens of it which greet us elsewhere, as well as here!--of which this building and these services are the witnesses. Yes, the wayfarer may forget his earlier nurture and his Father's house, but there comes a moment when, amid the peril and loneliness of a foreign land, that happens to more than one such which happened to Jacob on his way to Padan Aram; and his eyes are opened,--opened to his own need, opened to the over-arching care that broods above him, opened to the nearness of the life that is to that other which is to be. In other words, we may outrun our earlier traditions and our accustomed restraints, but we cannot outrun those deepest hungers which, to-day as of old, utter themselves in the prayer of the fugitive David: "From the ends of the earth I cry unto thee to help me: lead me to the Rock that is higher than I."

It is to satisfy those hungers that these services long [259/260] ago were instituted, and that this house has now been reared. It is a witness at once to our individual needs and to our belief, as a nation, in God and His revelation of grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. I know that the existence of that belief has been doubted if not denied, and that our American republic has been widely represented as a nation which, having no established religion, has hardly any at all. I may not tarry here to show how false is any such impression alike to the history of our past and the witness of our present. Those who have read the one do not need to be reminded how the foundations of our republic were laid by God-fearing men, nor do Churchmen need to be told that Washington and some of his most illustrious associates were children of the same household of faith which gathers us to-day. And as little do intelligent students of the religious history of our own land need to have demonstrated to them the fact that the most aggressive form of modern Christianity to-day, that whose missionary activities, whether at home or abroad are the most generous in their expenditures and the most untiring in their efforts, is that Anglo-Saxon Christianity which finds its home in the United States of America. Indeed, of what is this sanctuary the token, reared though I know it is, in good part, by the gifts of those who are resident here,--nay, what is the faithful and patient ministry of him who has voluntarily expatriated himself that he may labor here, but tokens of how that American Church whose children we are cares for her children, so far as she is able, wherever they may go, and follows them, as [260/261] the angel of God followed Jacob, into a foreign land with that incomparable message of hope and consolation without which life becomes an intolerable burden, and the grave the gateway of despair.

Such is to be the mission of this holy house and of him who ministers in it. But while this fact is that which of necessity must be most prominent in our thoughts to-day, we may not, on the other hand, forget--nay we must needs rejoice gratefully to remember--those many links which connect this occasion and this sanctuary with the land in which it is reared, and with those venerable traditions of Gallican Christianity among which it finds itself. This is a chapel, with a worship in the English tongue, and according to a ritual which to many a Frenchman is severely plain. Nay, more, it is also true that as children of the Anglican Reformation, we are not able to find our spiritual home in sanctuaries which acknowledge that unwarranted claim of Papal supremacy which once and again the Gallican Church has so courageously disowned and resented. [* The Gallican Church, Lloyd, pp. 40, 63, 64, 78, 83, 84.] But on the other hand, can we who are Churchmen ever forget that the Liturgy which England gave to us was substantially the Liturgy which, long before, France had given to England. A comparison of the earliest liturgical forms, which have come down from ancient times, with our own Eucharistic office, furnishes strong reasons for believing that that primitive use which toward the beginning of the second century was introduced into [261/262] Gaul by missionaries from Asia Minor was the parent, in all essential features, first of the Anglican Liturgy, and through that of our own. [* Vide "The Prayer Book: its History," etc, Daniel, pp. 11, 12.] When toward the close of the sixth century Augustine landed in England for the purpose of evangelizing the pagan Saxons, he found that a church already existed there with an episcopate and a ritual of its own, derived from Gallican sources. He would fain have displaced it, as we know, with that Roman Liturgy which he had brought with him. But with a wisdom beyond his time, and in striking contrast with the subsequent policy of the Roman Church, the great Gregory to whom he appealed replied, in words which may well be the rule of those who are engaged in the weighty business of liturgical revision and enrichment in our own day:--

"Thou, my brother, art acquainted with the customs of the Roman Church, in which thou was brought up. But it is my pleasure that if thou hast found anything which would better please God . . . in the Gallican or in any other church, thou shouldst carefully select that. . . . For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Select therefore from each church those things that are pious, religious, and rightful; and when thou hast collected them into one whole, instil this into the minds of the Angles for their use."

It is not easy to imagine a more exact description of the origin of our own Liturgy,--using that word both in its more precise and more general sense, than such language. But while, therefore, we gratefully remember the many and various sources to which our American [262/263] prayer book has been indebted, it belongs to us here, and to-day, especially to call to mind that primary source to which it owes so much; I mean the earliest formularies of Gallican worship.

A living church, however, is one which is marked not only by an orthodox worship, but by a Scriptural and evangelical teaching. And how can we who are American Churchmen ever forget how much we owe to the witness for God and His truth, of that long line of saints and heroes and martyrs, which, beginning with that great prelate and doctor, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, runs on through all the eventful history of France, down to this hour? In our American metropolis, in a sanctuary dear to many of us here, there is a window which commemorates Saint Martin of Tours, that soldier first, and pupil of Athanasius later, who as Bishop of Tours in the fourth century, by his resolute refusal to join with the Spanish bishops in the persecution of the heretical Priscillianists, taught to his fellow-ecclesiastics and the whole Christian world a rare lesson of religious toleration; and who thus, in an age which, alas, could not understand it, became a witness to that great principle of Religious Liberty, which, centuries after, found its sure refuge and its abiding resting-place on our American shores. My brethren, as we rear our altar on this French soil to-day can we forget prophets and apostles such as these? nay more, can we forget those others who were, if not all of them tactually, yet most surely spiritually their successors,--Fenelon and Pascal and Lacordaire on the one hand, and those Huguenot [263/264] heroes and martyrs, on the other, who from age to age have spoken and suffered for Christ! Surely, in a sense the deepest and most real to us who are here, that is no alien or foreign soil which has bred such witnesses as these for our Master and theirs! Gladly and gratefully do we claim our spiritual kinship with them all, and thank God, as we shall do presently in yonder Eucharist, for the good examples of all these, His servants, and our brethren in Jesus Christ!

And yet again: on this day, dedicated as it is by the chief magistrate of our country to the sacred duty and privilege of national thanksgiving,--a day most happily chosen, as I think you will agree with me, for the consecration of this American church,--must we not also gladly recall another tie which binds us to France, and which makes our relations to this people, in one aspect of them, more sacred and tender than to any other?

On an American Thanksgiving-day, at home, as your will remember, it has long been our custom, in connection with our Church services, to review our national history, and to enumerate the various occasions for gratitude or admiration which such a review suggests. Was there ever more appropriate occasion for such a retrospect than to-day?--first, in view of all that in the happy completion of this Christian sanctuary we who are here have especially to be thankful for, and then in view of the manifold blessings and the marvellous prosperity which have been vouchsafed to our native land. Can any American recognize the profound significance of all that is coming to pass in his own [264/265] country without an equal sense of awe and wonder in view of its august suggestions? We are accounted a boastful people, easily misled by the superficial blunder of mistaking territorial and numerical bigness for national greatness; and the imputation, in view of much that is said and written is not altogether without warrant. But it is not what we may say or think of ourselves that compels us to recognize the tremendous possibilities of our national future, so much as what has been deliberately predicted by others. In a recent work on the "Possible Future and the Present Crisis" of America [* Our Country, by Rev. J Strong. New York: Baker and Taylor.] I find the words of two men of whose calm and unimpassioned judgment of facts, whatever we may think of them in other regards, there can be no smallest question. Neither of them is an American, nor, so far as I am aware, have they any smallest sympathy with American institutions or ideas, but each of them represents a mind of the highest rank and an authority which in their several departments is supreme. Says one of these, the late Mr. Darwin, "There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; for the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated, during the last ten or twelve generations, to that great country, and have there succeeded best. Looking at the distant future, I do not think that the Rev. Mr. Zincher [* An English Divine and Writer.] takes an exaggerated view when he [265/266] says: 'All other series of events--as that which resulted in the culture of mind in Greece, and that which resulted in the Empire of Rome--only appear to have purpose and value when viewed in connection with, or rather as subsidiary to, the great stream of Anglo-Saxon emigration to the West.' Wrote Mr. Herbert Spencer, speaking of the future of our country:--

"One great result is, I think, tolerably clear. From biological truths it is to be inferred that the eventual mixture of the allied varieties of the Aryan races forming the population will produce a more powerful type of man than has hitherto existed, and a type of man more plastic, more adaptable, more capable of undergoing the modifications needful for complete social life. I think, whatever difficulties they may have to surmount, and whatever tribulations they may have to pass through, the Americans may reasonably look forward to a time when they will have produced a civilization grander than any the world has known."

And if it be objected that these are vague and general statements, there are others which may easily be verified, not vague nor general nor difficult to understand. Here is one of them: at the present ratio of increase, another century will give to our country 700,000,000 of people. Here is another: between 1870 and 1880 the manufactures of France increased in value $230,000,000; those of Germany, $430,000,000; those of Great Britain, $580,000,000; and those of the United States, $1,030,000,000. Or, to turn from past growth to future possibilities, again: if you would get a conception of the territorial extent of our country, take the State of Texas alone and lay it on the face of Europe, [266/267] and this American "giant, resting on the mountains of Norway on the north, with one palm covering London, and the other reaching out to Warsaw, would stretch himself across the kingdom of Denmark, across the empires of Germany and Austria, across northern Italy, and lave his feet in the Mediterranean." [* Our Country, by Rev. J. Strong, p. 16.] And to add one more group of statistics, perhaps more impressive than any other to a certain class of minds, consider the actual wealth of the United States. Great Britain is by far the richest nation of the Old World; but our wealth exceeds hers by $276,000,000. From 1870 to 1880 we produced $732,000,000 of the precious metals alone from our own soil; and to-day the $43,642,000,000 which is the estimated wealth of the United States is "more than enough to buy the Russian and Turkish empires, the kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, Denmark and Italy, together with Australia, South Africa, and South America,--lands, mines, cities, palaces, factories, ships, flocks, herds, jewels, moneys, thrones, sceptres, diadems, and all the entire possessions of 177,000,000 of people." [* Ibid., pp. 112, 113.] And this is true of a people with a republican form of government, already demonstrated to be at once the most stable and the most elastic, and speaking a language of which long ago Jacob Grimm, the German philologist, wrote, "It seems chosen, like its people, to rule in future times in a still greater degree in all the corners of the earth," until, as he elsewhere predicts, the language of Shakspeare shall become the language of mankind.

[268] This is the marvellous present and the marvellous future of our country, as others, not we, have described them. But can we forget, I ask again, the events in which this greatness took its rise? Wrote Count d'Aranda, after signing the Treaty of Paris in 1773, to his sovereign, the King of Spain: "This federal republic is born a pygmy. . . . a day will come when it will be a giant." But would the pygmy ever have come to its birth at all if it had not been for the outstretched hand of France, and the timely help of Lafayette and those who were his brave associates? Can we who are Americans ever cease to remember those whose brave and heroic support when, so far as all other sympathy or countenance were concerned, we stood alone made it possible that our republic should survive its baptism of blood and live to take its place among the nations of the earth? Surely, as we consecrate this house to-day and lift to heaven our grateful praises for the blessings which are ours here and our fellow-countrymen's at home, we may not forget that they were Frenchmen who at the first made possible all that has since then come to pass.

And so, as we dedicate this house to God and His glory and honor, I would lift this prayer for the people among whom it is reared: May God bless the French republic and all who dwell within her borders. May the two great peoples--theirs and ours--go forward hand in hand, not merely in material prosperity, but in that righteousness which alone exalteth a nation. May yonder doors stand ever open to welcome all who may long for the message and the help of Him who came to incarnate [268/269] that righteousness, to tell the world of the true brotherhood of man, and to reveal in His own person the only service in which there is perfect freedom and perfect fraternity. There are aching and empty hearts in this great and glittering capital. May this be the refuge in which, whatever tongue they speak, not a few of them may find at once pardon and hope and peace. And so from these portals may there never cease to stream forth to bless and illumine mankind the clear and steadfast light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. French munificence has lately reared its stately gift, with flashing torch uplifted, at the portal of the metropolis of our Western World; and to-day we place here a gift to France, not less costly and not less helpful surely, to fling o'er all this tangled skein of modern continental life a light like none that "ever was on land or sea,"--the light of Him who said, "I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness." God keep it bright! God make it to shine clear and strong and steadfast!

My dear brother, [* The preacher here addressed the rector.] this is a happy and blessed day for you. May I not in the presence of this your flock offer to you, and through you to them, the congratulations that are glowing in many hearts to-day on both sides of the Atlantic? I account myself happy that it has fallen to my lot to be the bearer of those congratulations, and to tell you how glad and happy are we of that Diocese of New York from which I come, in view of the success which has crowned your efforts. In that, your mother diocese, and in the parish in which it was once my [269/270] privilege to serve, you first received your commission as a minister of Jesus Christ. With that diocese you are still, as a presbyter, canonically connected, even as from it--as I know you gratefully remember--you have received again and again munificent assistance in the task of which to-day we commemorate the completion. What a noble completion it is! They who have come here this morning are witnesses of the consummation of a work which has cost you and your people more anxious hours than any but you yourselves can know. May I not tell you for myself and this whole congregation how much we honor you for the rare courage with which you and those who have stood by you have toiled and striven and waited? In the completion of this noble church a work has been accomplished whose influence, I believe, we who are gathered here can only imperfectly conceive. But be it greater or less than we anticipate, nothing can dim the record of that steadfast faith and that unwearied patience with which you and yours have labored. May God make this "psalm incorporate in stone" a daily consolation and inspiration to you and them in all the work that lies before you! May He help you to witness for Him in this pulpit and to minister before Him at yonder altar; and so, out and up from psalm and sacrament and sermons, may you and your flock, with Jacob at Peniel, climb into closer fellowship with Him to whose honor this holy house is reared, until yours too and theirs shall be the pilgrim's vision and the pilgrim's cry,--"This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

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