The Business of the Church
We have seen that religion is a social fact; that religious feeling creates social organizations, and is preserved and promoted by them. God is love, and love is social attraction; the children of God, who are made in his image, must find in their hearts a tendency to get together and worship and work together.
We find here a reciprocating action. An apple seed produces a tree which in its turn produces apples with seeds. So the religious impulse organizes the church, and the church cultivates and propagates religious impulses. The point to be emphasized is that religion, and especially the Christian religion, is inseparable from social forms; that its natural result is to bring human beings together in cooeperative groups.
It is the business of life to organize matter; there is no life without organization; the inorganic is the lifeless. These are facts which should be borne in mind by those who approve of the religious life but object to religious organizations. If religion is life, it will create organic forms.
In our last chapter we showed how worship, in its highest expression, is essentially social, and how impossible it would be to maintain it without the aid of institutions having the same essential purpose as the Christian church. Let us turn our thought now to the other great function of the church, the regeneration of human society.
Religion cannot be kept alive without alliance with the social forces; the social forces cannot be kept in healthful operation without the aid of religion. Neither blade of a pair of shears will cut without the other. You cannot raise corn without seed, and you can only get seed from corn.
Religion is not an ultimate fact. When men are religious just for the sake of being religious, their religion is good for nothing. Religion is for character. Its end is gained when it has made us good men and women. Religion is for service. It finds its justification in the work that it can do in making a better world of this. Jesus gave us the truth about it when he said, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." And he carried the truth forward to a larger application when he said, "I came not to judge the world, but to save the world."
"To save the world." That was the errand of the Christ; that is the business of his church. It is not merely to save a certain number of people out of the world, and to get them safely away to another world; it is to save the world.
There is no danger of giving to this phrase too wide an application. We are entitled to the expectation that this salvation is to have a large scope; that it is to include the earth and all its tribes of life. When we speak of making a better world of this, we ought to mean the physical world as well as the social world and the moral world. It is a true insight of faith which makes the poet say:—
"The world we live in wholly is redeemed; Not man alone, but all that man holds dear: His orchards and his maize: forget me not And heartsease in his garden, and the wild Aerial blossoms of the untamed wood, That make its savagery so homelike; all Have felt Christ's sweet love watering their roots: His sacrifice has won both earth and heaven. Nature in all its fullness is the Lord's. There are no Gentile oaks, no Pagan pines; The grass beneath oar feet is Christian grass; The wayside weed is sacred unto him. Have we not groaned together, herbs and men, Struggling through stifling earth-weights unto light, Earnestly longing to be clothed upon With one high possibility of bloom? And He, He is the Light, He is the Sun That draws us out of darkness, and transmits The noisome earth-damp into Heaven's own breath, And shapes our matted roots, we know not how, Into fresh leaves, and strong, fruit-bearing stems; Yea, makes us stand, on some consummate day, Abloom in white transfiguration robes."
This vital sympathy between man and his environment is never lost sight of by the great prophets. The redemption of man must mean, as they clearly see, the redemption of the world in which man lives. When the drunkard is reformed, the house which he inhabits puts on a new face and there are flowers instead of weeds in his garden. Isaiah knew that when his people were redeemed from their captivity, the wilderness and the parched land would be glad and the desert would rejoice and blossom as the rose.
That wonderful passage in the eighth chapter of the Romans shows how strongly Paul had grasped the old prophetic idea; he beholds the whole creation humiliated and disfigured by its share in man's degeneration, and waiting to be delivered with man from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. That expectation is yet to be realized. It is an essential part of the Christian expectation. It is part of what redemption means.
True, it is that by the selfishness and thoughtlessness of man large portions of the earth's surface have been despoiled; mountains have been denuded of their forests; fertile lands have been worn out, and fruitful fields have become wildernesses. But we are beginning to reverse this tendency, and now many a wilderness is being reclaimed, arid plains are green with corn, and the forests are creeping back upon the hillsides. As men become socialized, as they learn to cooeperate for the common good, as some sense of their social responsibility gets possession of their minds, we shall see this process extending; the waste of the common resources of the earth will cease; deserts will be visited by the life-giving water; swamps and jungles will be subdued; the earth, in many regions now uninhabited and desolate, will be made to bring forth and bud that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater.
All this is the natural result of the quickening in human hearts of the social sentiments, by which they are drawn into closer cooeperation for the common good; and this quickening of the social sentiments is the work that Christ came to do, and the work that his church will be doing, with all her might, as soon as she fully understands what is her business in the world.
The redemption of the physical order will be the result of the socialization of mankind. It is an integral part of the work that Christ came into the world to do. It is part of what he meant when he said that he came to save the world. When we realize this, we get some idea of the scope of the redemption which he proclaims. It is not a superficial or a sentimental thing that he proposes; it takes hold of life with the most comprehensive grasp; it proposes to redeem not only man but his environment.
It is not, however, the redemption of the physical order to which Christ primarily addresses himself. He begins in the spiritual realm. He begins with the individual. His first concern is to reveal to every child of God the great fact of the divine Fatherhood, and to bring him into filial relations. His whole programme for humanity rests on this simple possibility of realizing the Fatherhood of God. If this can be realized, everything else will follow. If any man is in the right filial relations with his Father in heaven, he cannot be in wrong social relations with his brother on the earth. If he is in harmony with God in thought and feeling, he must think God's thoughts about his neighbor, and the law of love will be the law of all his conduct. No man can love the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with heart and soul and mind without loving his neighbor as himself. Heartily to believe what Jesus has told us about the Father, and fully to enter into fellowship with him, is to put ourselves into such relations with our fellow men that every duty we owe them will be spontaneously performed. In a society composed of men who were thus in harmony with God the only social question for each man would be, "How can I best befriend and serve my neighbor?"
That the religion of Jesus begins here, in the heart of the individual, cannot be questioned. And it must never be forgotten that there can be no sound social construction which does not build on this foundation. But it is well to remember also that here, as everywhere, a foundation calls for a building, and is useless and unsightly and obstructive without it. The foundation of Christianity is the reconciliation of individual souls to God, and the establishment of friendship between these individual souls and God; but what is the structure for which this foundation is laid? It is the establishment of the same divine friendship among men. That is the building for which the foundation calls. If the building does not go up, the foundation is worthless. If the building does not go up, the foundation itself will crumble and decay. The only way to save a foundation is to cover it with a building.
Fault might be found with the figure, but the fact which it imperfectly illustrates is beyond gainsaying. The right relation to God, which Jesus always makes fundamental, cannot be maintained except as it issues in right relations with men. Here is the apostle John's blunt way of putting it: "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also."
The commandment is, in fact, only the statement of a logical necessity. How could any human being enter into a loving communion with that great Friend whose love is always brooding over our race, who is seeking to do us good and not evil all the days of our lives, who is kind even to the unthankful and the evil,—and not be a lover of his fellow men and a servant of all their needs?
It is evident, therefore, that a religion which has no room in it for social questions cannot be the Christian religion. The social question is the one question which Christianity—genuine Christianity—never ceases to ask. The first thing it wishes to know about your religious experience is, how it affects your relations with your fellow men. It insists that your relations must first be right with God, but in the same breath it declares that there is no way of knowing whether or not your relations are right with God except by observing how you behave among your fellow men. Faith is the root, but faith without works is dead, being alone; and works concern your human relations.
These principles enable us to determine what is the business of the church. Its business is to foster and propagate Christianity, and Christianity exists to establish in this world the kingdom of heaven. The church is not, therefore, an end in itself; it is an instrument; it is a means employed by God for the promotion, in the world, of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is not an ecclesiastical establishment; it includes the whole of life,—business, politics, art, education, philanthropy, society in the narrow sense, the family: when all these shall be pervaded and controlled by the law of love, then the kingdom of heaven will have fully come. And the business of the church in the world is to bring all these departments of life under Christ's law of love. If it seeks to convert men, it is that they may be filled with the spirit of Christ and may govern their conduct among men by Christ's law. If it gathers them together for instruction or for inspiration, it is that they may be taught Christ's way of life and sent out into the world to live as he lived among their fellow men. Its function is to fill the world with the knowledge of Christ, the love of Christ, the life of Christ. That is what Christ meant by saving the world. The world is saved when this is true of it, and it is never saved till then. The work of the church is successful just to the extent to which it succeeds in Christianizing the social order in the midst of which it stands.
If by means of its ministrations, the community round about the church is steadily becoming more Christian; if kindness, sympathy, purity, justice, good-will, are increasing in their power over the lives of men; if business methods are becoming less rapacious; if employers and employed are more and more inclined to be friends rather than foes; if politicians are growing conscientious and unselfish; if the enemies of society are in retreat before the forces of decency and order; if amusements are becoming purer and more rational; if polite society is getting to be simpler in its tastes and less ostentatious in its manners and less extravagant in its expenditures; if poverty and crime are diminishing; if parents are becoming more wise and firm in the administration of their sacred trust, and children more loyal and affectionate to their parents,—if such fruits as these are visible on every side, then there is reason to believe that the church knows its business and is prosecuting it with efficiency. If none of these effects are seen in the life of the community, the evidence is clear that the church is neglecting its business, and that failure must be written across its record.
Even though it be true that large numbers are added to its membership, that its congregations are crowded, its revenues abundant, its missionary contributions liberal, and its social prestige high; yet if the standards of social morality in its neighborhood are sinking rather than rising, and the general social drift and tendency is toward animalism and greed and luxury and strife, the church must be pronounced a failure: nay, even if it be believed that the church is succeeding in getting a great many people safely to heaven when they die; yet if the social tendencies in the world about it are all downward, its work, on the whole, must be regarded as a failure. Its main business is not saving people out of the world, it is saving the world. When it is evident that the world, under its ministration, is growing no better but rather worse, no matter what other good things it may have the credit of doing, the verdict is against it.
This judgment rests, of course, against the collective church of the community or the nation, rather than against any local congregation. It may be that there are a hundred churches in a city, and that ten of them are working efficiently to leaven society with Christian ideas and principles, while the other ninety are content to fill up their membership lists and furnish the consolations of religion to the people who make up their congregations. The church of that city would probably be a failure, but the ten congregations which had accepted Christ's idea of the church and were striving to realize it could not be charged with the failure. They would have done what they could to prevent it. If the rest had been working in the same way, the results would have been different.
The point on which attention must be fixed is simply this, that the test of the efficiency of the church must be found in the social conditions of the community to which it ministers. Its business is to Christianize that community. There is no question but that the resources are placed within its reach by which this business may be done. If it is done, the church may hope to hear the commendation, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" If it is not done, no matter how many other gains are made, the church must expect the condemnation of its Master.
It must not be gathered from this argument that the church in modern life is a failure. There may be discouraging signs, reasons for solicitude; but it may appear, after all, that the signs are on the whole encouraging. We are not maintaining that the social tendencies in modern society are all downward; far from it. We are simply pointing out that it is only by observing these tendencies that we can judge whether or not the church is fulfilling its mission.
It is greatly to be feared, however, that many of the churches of the present day fail to apply this test to themselves. Their social responsibility is by no means so clear to them as it ought to be. Indeed, there are not a few among them that spurn it altogether, declaring that their business is to save souls; that the condition of the social order is no concern of theirs.
There is some reason to believe that phrases of this kind are often used without due consideration of their meaning. What is meant by the saving of a soul? Is not the one sin from which souls need to be saved the sin of selfishness? Is not the death that threatens the souls of men, from which we seek to rescue them, simply the result of the violation of Christ's law of love? What is salvation but bringing them back to obedience of this law? And this law finds expression in the social order—can find expression nowhere else. It is the law of our social relations. What possible evidence can you have that a soul is saved until you see it entering into social relations and behaving properly in them?
It is to be feared that these very simple truths are not always so well understood as they should be. There is a notion that salvation is something metaphysical, or legal, or sentimental; that it consists in the belief of certain propositions or the experience of certain emotions. But all this is delusive and puerile. If it is with the heart that man believeth, he "believeth unto righteousness;" that is the destination of his faith; and unless his faith goes that way and reaches that goal, there is no salvation in it. Righteousness is the result of saving faith; and "he that doeth righteousness is righteous"—none else. Righteousness is right relations—first with God, and then with men. And no man can have any evidence that he is in right relations with God except as he finds himself in right relations with men.
The message of Christianity, we often hear it said, is to the individual. Yes, it is; and what is the message of Christianity to the individual? The first thing that it tells him is that he is not, in strictness, an individual, any more than a hand or a foot or an eye or an ear is an individual; that he is a member of a body; that he derives all that is highest and most essential in his life from the life of humanity, to which he is vitally and organically related; that no man liveth to himself; that his good is not, and can never be, an exclusive personal good,—that it is in what he shares with all the rest. The doom from which Christianity seeks to save the individual is the doom of moral individualism; the blessedness into which it seeks to lead him is the blessedness of love.
Thus it appears that even these cant phrases by which the church sometimes tries to fence itself off from the world into a pietistic religiousness that has little or nothing to do with life, all point, when you get their real significance, to a relation between the church and the social order so close and vital that any attempt to sever the bond must be fatal to the life of both. The church is in the world to save the world; that is its business; and it can never know whether it is succeeding in its business unless it keeps a vigilant eye on all that is going on in the world, and shapes its activities to secure in the world right social relations among men.
In what manner the church is to carry forward this work of Christianizing society is a practical question calling for great wisdom. It may not be needful that the church should undertake to organize the industrial or political or domestic or philanthropic machinery of society. Its business is not, ordinarily, to construct social machinery; its business is to furnish social motive power. It is the dynamic of society for which it is responsible. But the dynamic which it furnishes must be a dynamic which will create the machinery. Life makes its own forms. And the church must fill society with a kind of life which will produce such forms of cooeperation as shall secure the prevalence of justice and friendship, of peace and good-will among men. It may not be required to look after details, but it must make sure of the results. If the results are secured, if society is Christianized, if the social order is producing a better breed of men, if the business of the world goes on more and more smoothly, and all things are working together to increase the sum of human welfare, then the church may be sure that the life which she is contributing to the vitalization of society is the life that is life indeed. But if the social tendencies are all in the other direction, then she should awaken to the fact that the light that is in her must be darkness, and that the responsibility for this failure lies at her doors.
It is the recognition and acceptance of this responsibility for which we are pleading. That the church, in all the ages, has very imperfectly comprehended this responsibility is a lamentable fact. What the social aims of Jesus himself were, most of us can fairly understand. The Sermon on the Mount indicates to us the kind of society which he expected to see established on the earth. He never defined the kingdom of heaven, which he bade us seek first, but he described it in so many ways that we know very well what manner of society it would be. But the church which has called itself by his name has but feebly grasped the truth he taught. As a late writer has said: "As soon as the thoughts of a great spiritual leader pass to others and form the animating principle of a party, or school, or sect, there is an inevitable drop. The disciples cannot keep pace with the sweep of the Master. They flutter where he soared. They coarsen and materialize his dreams.... This is the tragedy of all who lead. The farther they are in advance of their times, the more they will be misunderstood and misrepresented by the very men who swear by their name and strive to enforce their ideas and aims. If the followers of Jesus had preserved his thought and spirit without leakage, evaporation, or adulteration, it would be a fact unique in history."
That his disciples held fast so many of the ideas and impulses he imparted to them, and that they have been turned to so large account in the reconstruction of the social order, is matter for profound thankfulness. But much of this has been indirectly wrought; the Christian elements which appear in the industrial order of to-day are largely of the nature of by-products. It can hardly be said that the church of Jesus Christ has ever, in any age, consciously and clearly set before herself the business which he committed to her hands. She has always been putting the emphasis somewhere else than where he put it; she has always been doing something else instead of the great task which he began and left her to finish. It is the great failure of history—the turning aside of the Christian church from the work of Christianizing the social order, and the expenditure of her energies, for nineteen centuries, on other pursuits.
The writer from whom I quoted devotes a very interesting chapter to the reasons why the church has never attempted the work of social reconstruction. He shows that it would have been almost impossible in the early Christian centuries for the Christians to have undertaken any work of social reform; if, under the rigors of the Roman despotism, they had meddled with politics, they would have lost their heads. Then they began to look for a miraculous return of Jesus to set up his kingdom in the world, and they waited for him to reconstruct the social order. That expectation held them for a thousand years. When it failed, they turned their thoughts to heaven, and "as the eternal life came to the front in Christian hope the kingdom of God receded to the background, and with it went much of the social potency of Christianity. The kingdom of God was a social and collective hope, and it was for this earth. The eternal life was an individualistic hope, and it was not for this earth. The kingdom of God involved the social transformation of humanity. The hope of eternal life, as it was then held, was the desire to escape from this world and be done with it." And this led to the ascetic tendency, which made men think this world not worth mending. Then came in the paganizing influences of the Middle Ages, which made ritual the supreme thing and paralyzed the ethical motive; and then followed the controversies about dogma, which deadened the life of the church, until finally the great ecclesiasticism was developed, and the church, instead of being the instrument for the Christianization of the world, became an empire in itself, separate from the world, arrogating to itself all the honors and powers of the kingdom of God. "By that substitution," says Professor Rauschenbusch, "the church could claim all service and absorb all social energies. It has often been said that the church interposed between man and God. It also interposed between man and humanity. It magnified what he did for the church and belittled what he did for humanity. It made its own organization the chief object of social service."
This is only a hint of the process by which the church has been deflected from its course, and hindered from undertaking, with conscious purpose and consecrated power, her own proper work. She has done many other things, some beautiful and excellent things, but the one thing she was sent to do she has not done.
It is only in our own time that she has begun to get hold of the true conception of her business in the world. That the church is here to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, to concentrate her energies upon realizing the kingdom of God in the world, now begins to be evident to men of insight; and there is a loud call upon her to bestir herself and take up this work so long neglected, and give to it all her energies. That is the meaning of the cry, "Back to Christ," which we are hearing in this generation. It means that the church needs to get into sympathy with its Leader and Lord, to try to understand his social aims, and to understand what he meant when he bade us seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Two or three practical suggestions may be ventured here to those who have followed this argument.
We have seen that, since religion is a permanent need of human nature, and since the church is indispensable to the maintenance of religion, it becomes the duty of good men and women to ally themselves with the church and help to make it efficient. But there are churches and churches. We cannot help noting, as we look over the community, some churches which at least dimly understand their business, and some which obviously do not.
Some of us may be connected by birth or confession with churches that do comprehend their true function. If so, let us rejoice in that fact, and give our strength to the support of such churches in their work. It is, far and away, the most important work that is being done in the world at the present day. If we can have part in it, we ought to rejoice in that privilege.
We may be connected with churches which do not understand their business. Possibly we may think that the best thing for us to do is to come out of them, and seek fellowship with churches more enlightened. Let us think two or three times before we decide upon this. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to stay where we are and use our best endeavors, modestly and patiently, to bring our own church to a realization of its responsibilities.
We may not be identified with any church. If we are not, then it is clearly the part of wisdom for each one to find the church which seems to him to understand its business best, and to give the strength of his life to making its life vigorous and its work efficient.
Is the Church Decadent?
The assertion is often made that the church is an effete institution; that its usefulness is past; that it is sinking into innocuous desuetude. That assertion has been current for a thousand years—perhaps longer; there have been many periods in which it was urged much more confidently than it is to-day. This fact would suggest caution in pressing such a judgment. Wise physicians do not hastily pronounce the word of doom. They have seen too many patients return from the gates of death. Men and women who, in their younger days, appear to have a slender hold on life, often reach a vigorous old age. The same thing is true of institutions. It is not prudent to assume that because they are ailing they are moribund.
The Christian church, as we have seen, is far from being in perfect spiritual condition. Some of her symptoms are disquieting. But even as we often have good hope for our friends when their health is impaired, and find that there are good reasons for our hope, so we need not despair of the recovery of the church from the morbid conditions which we acknowledge and deplore. That the patient has a good constitution and surprising vitality is indicated by the experience of nineteen centuries. More than once, through this long lifetime, she has been in a worse way than she is to-day, but she has rallied, and returned to her work with new vigor.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century her case seemed to be desperate; but heroic remedies were used, and while the cure was far from complete, and did not reach the root of the malady, there was at least a partial recovery. In England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and in America at the end of the same century, the symptoms were alarming; but she lived through those critical periods, and has done better work since than ever before.
That the work of the church has been sadly misdirected; that she has often put the emphasis in the wrong place; that while she has been doing many things that were worth doing she has largely left undone the main thing she was sent to do, was made plain by our study in the last chapter. And there can be no doubt that this misdirection of her energies, and this failure to exercise her strength in normal ways, have resulted in many morbid conditions, some of which she has partly overcome, but from some of which she is still suffering.
With the disorders from which the church has suffered in past generations we need not now concern ourselves. But the weaknesses and ailments of the present time demand our attention. We must know what they are that we may help to cure them. That responsibility rests upon us all. If the church is to be made whole, it must be by the intelligent and normal action of the men and women who are members of the church. We must know, to begin with, what health is, and what is disease; we must have some clear idea of what would be the normal condition of Christian society.
Men sometimes mistake conditions of disease for conditions of health. In cases of nervous breakdown, patients are often spurred on, by the malady itself, to work when they ought to rest. The less able to work they are, the harder they work. They do not know that this restless activity is a sign of disease, they think it is proof of abounding vitality. And there are many ways in which morbid conditions tend to propagate themselves. The instinctive impulses of an invalid are not safe guides. Yet there are many cases in which, even if the man is not his own medical adviser, he must have an intelligent idea of what ails him, in order that he may be able to follow medical advice, and adopt the regimen which leads to health. His reason must be summoned to discern and resist his morbid impulses, and keep himself in the ways of life.
Equally true is it that if the church, which is the body of Christ, is out of health, the men and women who are the members of that body must know what ails them, and how to supply the remedy. And when they summon their reason and seek to have it divinely enlightened, they are likely to discover that many of their worst disorders are conditions which they have been cherishing; that some of the things they have been most proud of are ills that they must pray and work to be rid of.
1. The first and the worst of the church's infirmities is unbelief. In one of the moments of vision, when the long obscuration of his light in the future centuries was revealed to him, Jesus sadly wondered whether, when the Son of Man came, he would find faith on the earth. The pathetic query has always been pertinent. Faith is the vital force of Christianity, and the weakening of that vital force is the prime cause of all its disorders.
The unbelief which brings enfeeblement and decay to the church of Christ is not, however, the kind of unbelief which the church is most apt to reprove.
There is, doubtless, in the church of to-day some weakening of faith in the historical facts of the Christian religion, and in the central doctrines of the Christian creed. Science and criticism have rendered incredible some statements which once were universally accepted. Considerable revision of theological belief has been found necessary, and it is probable that in this process the hold of some upon the central verities has been relaxed.
It may even be that the theories of some Christian confessors respecting the person of Christ have been modified, so that his humanity is more strongly affirmed than once it was. To some persons this change of emphasis may seem to be a serious form of unbelief.
Admitting all this, however, these intellectual changes are not the principal cause of the enfeeblement of the church. These changes, however we may regard them, have affected but a small minority of the members of our churches; the great majority of them continue to hold substantially the same theological opinions that they have always held. The trouble with the church is not chiefly a lack of faith in the creeds, it is a lack of faith in Christ. And it is not a lack of faith in the metaphysical theories of Christ's person, but a lack of faith in the truth of his teaching. It is an unbelief in which the most orthodox people are quite as much involved as those who are considered heretics.
The central question is not, after all, what we think about the nature of Christ. There is good reason to believe that none of the twelve apostles held, during the life of our Lord, opinions which would be regarded as orthodox concerning his person. They believed that he was a great Prophet, a revealer of God; nay, they believed that he was the Messiah, the long promised King, who was to set up his kingdom in this world. Of this they had no doubt. This was the belief that Jesus himself sought to fasten in their minds; and when he had drawn from Simon Peter a confession of this faith he cried out, "Blessed art thou, Simon son of John; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." It was this faith in him as Lord and Ruler of men, as the Founder in this world of a kingdom of righteousness and peace, on which, as he declared, his church should be builded. Such faith as this these twelve men had. They would have found it difficult, probably, to assent to the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed; but they believed in Jesus as Lord and King, and they believed every word of his Magna Charta found in the Sermon on the Mount; and they were ready to do what they could to establish that kingdom in this world. It is just here that the faith of the church is lacking. It believes the Nicene Creed, but it does not believe the Sermon on the Mount. It believes what men have said about Christ; it does not believe what Christ himself said. It does not accept the practical rule of life which he has laid down. It does not believe that the Golden Rule is workable in modern life. It does not believe that it is feasible to love our neighbors as ourselves. It does not believe in the kingdom of heaven as a present possibility. It expects that Christ will come, by and by, in person, with miraculous power, to revolutionize society, and that after that it will be practicable to follow the law of love, in all our human relations; but, for the present, we must let the law of competition control all our practical affairs.
Of course it is not often that the teachings of Christ are directly controverted; they are generally ignored, or passed by, as "counsels of perfection" which we are to admire rather than obey. But we sometimes find arguments in which disbelief in the teachings of Jesus is distinctly justified. In a late volume, one of the great leaders of the German church elaborately contends that we cannot follow Jesus in his social teachings. "Our attitude toward the world," says Herrmann, "cannot be that of Jesus; even the purpose to will that it should be so is stifled in the air that we breathe to-day. The state of affairs is very clearly described by Naumann, who says with truth: 'Therefore we do not seek Jesus' advice on points connected with the management of the state and political economy.' But when he goes on to say: 'I give my vote and I canvass for the fleet, not because I am a Christian, but because I am a citizen, and because I have learned to renounce all hope of finding fundamental questions of state determined in the Sermon on the Mount,' we can detect a fallacy. He regards as painful renunciation what ought, on the part of the Christian, to be a free, decisive, and voluntary act."
Naumann repudiates, rather regretfully, the counsels of Jesus about economic and civil affairs, but Herrmann says that he does it light-heartedly, because he has found out that these counsels are not applicable to existing conditions.
It is evident that these counsels must be rationally applied,—the spirit and not the letter of them is the essential thing; but what these teachers mean is more than this. How far they have departed from the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount is indicated by the words already quoted. The reason why Naumann does not seek the advice of Jesus in questions of public concern is that he is determined to give his vote and influence for the German fleet; and Herrmann is following the same impulse when he characterizes the call for the disarmament of the nations as a "noble folly." It is evident that the reason why these teachers feel that the way of Jesus is impracticable is that they are fully committed to the ideas of German imperialism. To conceive that nations could dispense with war is a "noble folly." And, for the same reason, they conceive that any attempt to substitute cooeperation for competition in the industrial world would be disastrous to modern society. The morality of strife outranks, in their judgment, the morality of service and sacrifice. The law of Jesus may be permitted to hold some subordinate place; it will be found useful in mitigating the savagery of strife; but as the regulative principle of the industrial order it is not to be considered.
The attempt of these German theologians to frame a philosophical refutation of the Sermon on the Mount gives us something of a shock; but, practically, this has been the attitude of the church in all the generations. The hopeful sign is that it does now give us a shock to have the doctrine badly stated.
Through a large part of the Christian era the teaching of Jesus with respect to strife has been flouted by the church. The bitterest and most wasteful wars have been religious wars. The disciples of the Prince of Peace saw no incongruity in the settlement by the sword of such questions as whether Jesus Christ was of the same substance as the Father or of a similar substance; and whether the cup should be administered to the laity in the Eucharist or only the bread. The Thirty Years' war in Europe was a religious war. Roman Catholic theories still maintain the right of the church to enforce its teachings by the sword.
All these facts show how far, through all its history, the church has departed from the teaching of Jesus. When our German theologians set themselves to prove that the Sermon on the Mount is no sufficient guide for public affairs, they have the whole history of the church behind them.
Nevertheless they might have noted that the drift, for the last few centuries, has been in the direction of the teaching of Jesus. It is hardly conceivable that Christian nations should go to war to-day for the settlement of points of doctrine. Three hundred years ago the whole church thought that necessary; to-day a very large part of the church would think it horrible and monstrous. It is not very long ago that the church believed in the settlement by force of disputes between individuals. The wager of battle was supposed to be a proper and Christian way of determining the guilt or innocence of an accused person. To most of the great Christians of the fifteenth century the proposition to dispense with that would have seemed a "noble folly," just as the proposition of general disarmament now seems to some twentieth century Christians. But the church has learned that there are better ways of settling personal quarrels than the wager of battle; and it is likely to learn, after a while, that there are better ways of settling international and industrial difficulties than the way of war. The church is beginning to see that the way of Jesus is not, after all, so impracticable as it has always been supposed to be; it is beginning to discern the truth that the law of service is a stronger law than the law of strife. One of these days we shall find the church of Jesus taking its stand on the Golden Rule as the practical rule of everyday life, and insisting upon the organization of the industrial and the political order on the basis of good-will. When that day comes we shall have a right to say that the church believes in Jesus Christ. When that day comes it will be evident to all that the main cause of the church's enfeeblement through all these centuries has been her unbelief. And we shall marvel that it took her so long to find out what might there is in meekness and what force in gentleness; and that it was so hard for her to understand that the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God stronger than men.
2. The second of the church's chronic infirmities has been orthodoxism. Perhaps it was the recoil of her unbelief in Christ that sent her over into the intellectual prostration of orthodoxism.
Orthodoxy is defined as correct belief. But when we ask what is correct belief, orthodoxy answers: "That which is generally believed to be correct." Its demand is, therefore, conformity to current opinion. It assumes that essential truth has been sought out, registered and certified once for all and finally: this you must believe, and you must believe nothing other or more than this. Of course, then, belief must be stereotyped and stationary. There can be no growth of doctrine; no new light can break forth from God's holy word.
"Orthodoxy begins," says Phillips Brooks, "by setting a false standard of life. It makes men aspire after soundness in the faith rather than after richness in the truth.... It makes possible an easy transmission of truth, but only by the deadening of truth, as a butcher freezes meat in order to carry it across the sea. Orthodoxy discredits and discourages inquiry, and has made the name of free thinker, which ought to be a crown and glory, a stigma of disgrace. It puts men in the base and demoralizing position in which they apologize for seeking new truth. It is responsible for a large part of the defiant liberalism which not merely disbelieves the orthodox dogma, but disbelieves it with a sense of attempted wrong and of triumphant escape. It is orthodoxy and not truth which has done the persecuting. The inquisitions and dungeons and social ostracisms for opinion's sake belong to it."
It is evident that when for loyalty to the truth is substituted loyalty to a prescribed statement of truth, the entire moral order is subverted. Truth for me is what justifies itself to my reason and insight; to that my choices must conform; by that my conduct must be guided. To accept statements to which my judgment does not assent, which are repugnant to my reason, because others seek to impose them upon me, is in the highest degree immoral. "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind," is the apostolic maxim.
Every honest man wants to know what is true, and seeks to have his character and his conduct conform to the truth. But orthodoxy insists that he shall limit his acceptance to fixed and definite statements prepared for him by others. Freedom of investigation is denied him. The limits are set, beyond which his thought must not range. If there is truth outside of the boundaries of orthodoxy, he must not reach out after it; if he does, he shall suffer the consequences.
For there always is a penalty for heresy. Those who diverge from the orthodox standards are always exposed to some measure of censure or discredit. In former days the stake or the gallows was the penalty. John Huss and Michael Servetus, Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer were put to death on the demand of orthodoxy. It was not because they were not lovers and seekers of truth; it was because they declined to assent to the statements which authority sought to impose on them. Orthodoxy has found a great variety of methods of enforcing its demand; in recent times it does not often resort to physical coercion, but it never fails to use some kind of pressure. Those to whom orthodoxy is dearer than truth have ways of their own, even now, of making uncomfortable those to whom truth is dearer than orthodoxy. Thus it is that the progress of truth has been greatly impeded. "Ye shall know the truth," said Jesus, "and the truth shall make you free." "Ye shall know," says orthodoxism, "only the truth that has been prescribed and ticketed by authority; ye shall be taught what is orthodox, and orthodoxy shall keep you safe and sound." The entire attitude of the mind is changed, under this demand. It is no longer that of free inquiry, of open-minded search for truth; it is that of passive assent, of unreasoned submission to authority.
Just to the extent to which orthodoxism succeeds in forcing its demand is progress rendered impossible. There have always been brave men to whom truth was dearer than orthodoxy, and to them we owe all the gains the church has made. "The lower orders of the church's workers, the mere runners of her machinery," says Bishop Brooks, "have always been strictly and scrupulously orthodox; while all the church's noblest servants, they who have opened to her new heavens of vision and new domains of work,—Paul, Origen, Tertullian, Dante, Abelard, Luther, Milton, Coleridge, Maurice, Swedenborg, Martineau,—have again and again been persecuted for being what they truly were—unorthodox."
The temper of coercion, physical or moral, which is an essential element in orthodoxism, always produces, in those who do not submit to it, the temper of resentment and rebellion, which largely characterizes what is known as liberalism. Those who are thus flung off into opposition are in no mood to examine fairly the truth that there is in orthodoxy. Their mental attitude is apt to be quite as unfavorable to the discovery of the truth as that of the other party. Between those who affirm, with the threat of the withdrawal of fellowship, and those who deny, with the sense of injury and oppression, the truth has a poor chance for itself in this world. The enfeeblement of the church, in all the generations, has been largely due to this cause.
What orthodoxism produces when it has free course and is glorified, may be seen in the Greek church. More than any other branch of the Christian church the Greek church has put the emphasis upon orthodoxy. The natural and inevitable result has been that that church has destroyed itself and the nation whose life it has dominated and blighted. It is the Greek church that has led Russia to its doom. And it is orthodoxism that has made the Greek church a blind leader of the blind, and has plunged nation and church into the ditch together.
Truth, not orthodoxy, is the sovereign mistress of the human intellect. What I must know, for my salvation, is not what everybody says, but what is true. There is old truth—truth that has nourished the lives of men in many generations; let me cling to that and feed my soul upon it. There is new truth—some fuller outshining of the great revelation of God, in nature or in human nature; let me hail that light and walk in it.
It is often useful for me to know what others have believed and now believe. Not to be influenced by the consenting voices of the great and good of the past would be childish egotism. But it is always needful that my mind should be open to new truth and that I should be free to seek it. Orthodoxism restricts this right and disparages this privilege, and in doing this it has greatly weakened the Christian church.
Several other sources of weakness must be treated much more briefly.
3. Sectarianism is not the least among them. To a large degree it is the product of orthodoxism. Men who venture to think for themselves are driven forth from the fold of the faithful and compelled to organize in separate groups. Sometimes they are not driven out, they go out and slam the doors behind them. The seceders often claim a superior orthodoxy; their separation from the fold is an act of judgment on those they leave behind. The responsibility for these divisions sometimes rests more heavily on those who go out, and sometimes on those who stay in. On the one side or the other, often on both sides, pride of opinion is a main procuring cause. Sometimes men go out because they desire to hold fast in peace the truth which they have found, and sometimes they are thrust out because they will not permit those who are within to hold fast in peace the truth which is their inheritance.
The ambition of leadership also figures largely. Men who are not able to control the church to which they belong are often tempted to lead away a faction in which they may be more conspicuous. Satan, according to the Miltonic mythology, was the founder of the first sect; and his philosophy was that it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. The leaders of many of the sects have had a similar inspiration.
It would not be true to say that all schisms have sprung from selfishness: they have often originated in a larger vision of the truth, and their testimony, which has cost them many sacrifices, has enlarged the thought and enriched the life of the whole church.
It must, however, be admitted that selfishness, in the forms of ambition and pride of opinion, has had more to do with the multiplication of sects than love of the truth or loyalty to the Master. The existence of such numbers of organizations, differing from one another only in the most trivial particulars, cannot be reconciled with the plain principles of Christian morality. There is no justification, in reason or conscience, for the existence of so many sorts and kinds and classes of Christian disciples. Even if we could admit the wisdom of the larger divisions, what excuse can be offered for the endless subdivisions? What possible need can there be for thirteen different kinds of Baptists, and twelve kinds of Mennonites, and eleven kinds of Presbyterians, and seventeen kinds of Methodists, and twenty-three kinds of Lutherans? Could any rational man maintain that these multitudinous variations on a single string represent distinctions that are useful?
The rivalries and competitions which these sectarian divisions promote are the scandal and the curse of Christendom. The sectarian procedure habitually and brazenly sets aside the Golden Rule and pushes partisan interest, with very slight regard for fairness or equity. Churches are all the while doing to other churches what they would not like to have other churches do to them. "Every church for itself, and the angels take the hindmost," is the sectarian motto. The competition which exists in the ecclesiastical realm is almost always cutthroat competition; it destroys property and crowds out rivals with merciless purpose.
No argument should he needed to show that the existence of such a spirit and tendency in the church must cripple its power and impede its growth. The sect spirit is the antithesis of the Christian spirit; the sectarian propaganda is an attack upon the fundamental principle of Christianity, which is unity through love. The superior loyalty of every true Christian is due to the kingdom of God. "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness!" What makes a man a sectarian is the fact that he loves his sect more than the kingdom of God, and is willing that the kingdom of God should suffer loss in order that his sect may make a gain. Sectarians are doing this very thing, all over the land, every day.
How great have been the injuries suffered by the Christian church through the existence of this antichristian spirit of sect it would be difficult to estimate. How alien it is to the spirit of Jesus Christ one does not need to point out. It is simply amazing that the followers of him who prayed, in his last prayer, that his disciples might all be one, in order that the world might believe in his divine commission, should imagine that they can be pleasing Christ while they persist in these childish divisions.
Some sense of the shame and sin of sectarianism has, of late years, been getting possession of the mind of the church, and the tendencies toward unity are stronger now than the tendencies toward division. Splits and secessions are rare in these times; movements toward unity are multiplying. All this is hopeful, but many generations of toil and sacrifice will be required to recover for the church the ground she has lost by the ravages of sectarianism.
4. Only one more cause of the enfeeblement of the church can be mentioned here; that is her too close reliance upon the principles and forces of the material realm. She too often forgets whence her help must come; she is too willing to go down to Egypt for her allies instead of trusting in the Lord of Hosts. She cannot always understand that she is safer and stronger when she puts her entire reliance on moral and spiritual forces; when she refuses to sacrifice truth for the revenues of the rich or the friendship of the strong.
The church is probably suffering more from this cause at this day than she has ever suffered in any former period. She lives in the midst of the abounding marvels of the materialistic civilization; she sees how much is accomplished through the use of material forces; and the spirit of the time gets into her brain and blood, and she begins to think that money and the things that money can buy are the most essential conditions of her growth and usefulness. Therefore she makes such friendships and adopts such policies as will bring to her the revenues she thinks she must have for the prosecution of her work. And thus her vision is dimmed for the truth she needs to see, and her arm is weakened for the work she has to do.
No influence so insidious as this, and none so fatal, has ever assailed the Christian church. She is passing through her greatest temptation. It is Mammon who has taken her up into an exceeding high mountain and shown her the kingdoms she wants to conquer and the glory she hopes to win, and is saying to her: "All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me!" May God grant her the grace to answer "Get thee behind me, Satan; I hear the voice of one who said: Thou shall worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve."
That the church has suffered serious injury and enfeeblement from the causes we have considered,—from her lack of faith, from her subjection to orthodoxism, from the ravages of sectarianism, from her entanglements with Mammon, no one can deny. But that these evils are tending to increase is not evident. There is reason rather to hope that they are all on the wane, unless it be the last.
That the church is far from being in perfect spiritual condition we will all admit. But that she is growing worse rather than better we need not believe. Most of these maladies are of long standing, but they are less acute now than once they were, and there is better hope of recovery. Above all, we may say that the church knows to-day what ails her better than she ever knew before, and that she may therefore more intelligently proceed to apply the needful remedies.
What kind of treatment is called for will be the subject of the next discussion.
The Coming Reformation
It would be instructive to study the attempts which the church has made, in past generations, to escape from the evil conditions into which she has fallen. For she has been convicted more than once of her sins of omission, of the perversion of her powers, and the misuse of her opportunities, and has bestirred herself to cast off the yokes that were oppressing her, and the bands that were impeding her progress. It cannot be said that she has ever yet become fully conscious of her radical defect. She has never quite clearly discovered that her enfeeblement and failure are primarily due to the fact that she has been neglecting her real business in the world, or making it a secondary concern. When she gets that truth fully before her mind, and that conviction upon her conscience, we may hope for better things.
There was, however, one epoch in her history when she came very near making this discovery. That was the period of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. What happened then is full of interest for us in these days; it throws a flood of light on the problems with which we are dealing.
We have been taught by the historians of the Reformation to think of that event as mainly a theological crisis, as an intellectual revolt against certain doctrines imposed by the church upon the faithful, or a rebellion against the stringency of ecclesiastical discipline. That issues of this nature were deeply involved in it is true; but these were by no means the only causes of that uprising. It was largely a social and economic movement. It was, in its inception, less a reaction against bad theology than a revolt against unchristian social conditions. What weighed most heavily on the people who started the uprising that we call the Reformation was not theological error and confusion, it was their poverty, their servitude, the miseries and wrongs of their daily life. They knew something of the Christ of Nazareth, and they could not believe that he meant to leave them in that condition, and therefore they began to have a dim sense of the truth that the church which bore his name was misrepresenting him, and needed to be reformed. This was the source of the movement known as the Reformation. It was, therefore, a sharp reminder to the church that she had wholly forgotten her main business in the world.
One of the latest of the histories of the Reformation, that of Dr. Thomas M. Lindsay, brings this truth into clear light. His chapter on "Social Conditions" gives us a vivid sketch of the economic and social forces which were operating at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century.
It was the time of transition from the old system of home production and home markets to the era of world-wide commerce. Under the old system, industry had been largely regulated by guilds, and there was a fair measure of equality; while trade, though not extensive, was regulated by civic leagues.
But the end of the fifteenth century brought the great geographical discoveries and the beginning of a world trade. "The possibilities of a world commerce," says Dr. Lindsay, "led to the creation of trading companies; for a larger capital was needed than individual merchants possessed, and the formation of these companies overshadowed, discredited, and finally destroyed the guild system of the mediaeval trading cities. Trade and industry became capitalized to a degree previously unknown.... This increase of wealth does not seem to have been confined to a few favorites of fortune. It belonged to the mass of the members of the great trading companies.... Merchant princes confronted the princes of the state and those of the church, and their presence and power dislocated the old social relations."
This enormous increase of wealth manifested itself in every form of senseless luxury. Of refinement there was little; pleasures were coarse, indulgence was beastly. "Preachers, economists, and satirists," says Dr. Lindsay, "denounce the luxury and immodesty of the dress both of men and women, the gluttony and the drinking habits of the rich burghers and of the nobility of Germany. We learn from Hans von Schweinichen that noblemen prided themselves on having men among their retainers who could drink all rivals beneath the table, and that noble personages seldom met without such a drinking contest. The wealthy, learned, and artistic city of Nuernberg possessed a public wagon which every night was led through the streets, to pick up and convey to their homes drunken burghers found lying in the filth of the streets."
Such were the manners of the house of mirth at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It might be supposed that when luxury was so riotous the poor would have plenty, but that is never the case. Profusion at the top of the social ladder means poverty at the bottom. The world has never yet been so rich that waste did not work harm to the neediest. Even if the poor had been actually no poorer in these flush days than they had been when manners were simpler, the glaring contrasts would have been maddening. But multitudes of them were, no doubt, not only relatively but positively poorer; the destruction of the guilds of labor, the displacements in industry, had left great numbers not only of the peasantry and the artisans but also of the poorer nobles in practical destitution. The organization of society was giving strength to the strong and weakness to those of no might—thus exactly reversing Mary's prophecy of what her royal Son should bring; and those who were thus dispossessed and scattered felt, and had a right to feel, that the social organization under which such things could be done was antichristian.
"While," says Dr. Lindsay, "the social tumults and popular uprisings against authority, which are a feature of the close of the Middle Ages, are usually and rightly enough called peasant insurrections, the name tends to obscure their real character. They were rather the revolts of the poor against the rich, of debtors against creditors, of men who had scantly legal rights or none at all, against those who had the protection of the existing laws; and they were joined by the poor of the towns as well as by the peasantry of the country districts. The peasants generally began the revolt and the townsmen followed, but this was not always the case. Sometimes the mob of the cities rose first and the peasants joined afterwards. In many cases, too, the poorer nobles were in secret or open sympathy with the insurrectionary movement. On more than one occasion they led the insurgents and fought at their head."
The uprising against the church was due to the fact that the church, instead of being the friend of the poor, had become their social oppressor. Through all these social mutterings runs the outcry against the priests, and this was not because the priests were teaching a false theology, but because they were grinding the faces of the poor. Not only in Germany, but all over Europe this cry was heard. "The priests," says an English reformer, "have their tenth part of all the corn, meadows, pasture, grain, wood, colts, lambs, geese, and chickens. Over and besides the tenth part of every servant's wages, wool, milk, honey, wax, cheese, and butter; yea and they look so narrowly after these profits that the poor wife must be accountable to them for every tenth egg, or else she getteth not her rights at Easter, and shall be taken as a heretic." "I see," said a Spaniard, "that we can scarcely get anything from Christ's ministers but for money; at baptism money, at bishoping money, at marriage money, for confession money,—no, not extreme unction without money! They will ring no bells without money, no burial in the church without money; so that it seemeth that Paradise is shut up from them that hath no money. The rich is buried in the church, the poor in the churchyard. The rich man may marry with his nearest kin, but the poor not so, albeit he be ready to die for love of her. The rich may eat flesh in Lent, but the poor may not, albeit fish perhaps be much dearer. The rich man may readily get large indulgences, but the poor none because he wanteth money to pay for them."
This revolt against priestly oppression was by no means, however, an irreligious uprising. It was characterized by intense religious feeling, with which, as Dr. Lindsay says, "was blended some confused dream that the kingdom of God might be set up on earth, if only the priests were driven out of the land." Among a populace so ignorant it was, of course, inevitable that the social revolt should take on fanatical forms. Wild zealots arose, drawing the multitude after them, and inciting the people to revolution. Hans Boehm, a wandering piper, had visions and went forth as a preacher of righteousness, railing against priests and civil potentates. True religion, he declared, consisted in worshiping the Blessed Virgin, but the priests were thieves and robbers, the Emperor was a miscreant, "who supported the whole vile crew of princes, overlords, tax gatherers, and other oppressors of the poor." He predicted the coming of a day when the Emperor himself would be forced, like all poor folks, to work for days' wages. The people flocked by thousands to hear him preach, but his day was brief.
They burnt him at the stake, but multitudes venerated him, and made pilgrimages to the chapel which had been the scene of his triumph. The "Bundschuh" revolts which broke out in Elsass and spread through Switzerland and Germany were of a similar character. Then came years of famine, which deepened the popular disquiet, and which help to explain the fact that "on the eve of the Reformation the condition of Europe, and of Germany in particular, was one of seething discontent and full of bitter class hatreds—the trading companies and the great capitalists against the guilds, the poorer classes against the wealthier, and the nobles against the towns."
These were the social conditions in the midst of which Luther appeared. It was on this turbulent flood of social unrest that the Reformation was launched. When the great reformer's voice was heard, denouncing priestly misrule and hierarchical tyranny, these were the people who listened, and they interpreted his words by their own experience. If his quarrel was largely with theological or ecclesiastical abuses, theirs was mainly with industrial inequalities, but it seemed to them that he was fighting their battle. Indeed, his brave words gave fit utterance to their hopes. For, as the historian reminds us, Luther's message was democratic. That must have been its character if it was, in any proper sense, a return to "the simplicity that is in Christ." "It destroyed the aristocracy of the saints, it leveled the barriers between the layman and the priest, it taught the equality of all men before God, and the right of every man of faith to stand in God's presence, whatever be his rank and condition of life. He had not confined himself to preaching a new theology. His message was eminently practical. In his 'Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation' Luther had voiced all the grievances of Germany, had touched upon almost all the open sores of the time, and had foretold disasters not very far off. Nor must it be forgotten that no great leader ever flung about wild words in such a reckless way. Luther had the gift of strong, smiting phrases, of words which seemed to cleave to the very heart of things, of images which lit up a subject with the vividness of a flash of lightning. He launched tracts and pamphlets from the press about almost everything, written for the most part on the spur of the moment, and when the fire burned. His words fell into souls full of the fermenting passion of the times. They drank in with eagerness the thoughts that all men were equal before God, and that there are divine commands about the brotherhood of mankind of more importance than all human legislation. They refused to believe that such golden ideas belonged to the realm of spiritual life above."
When, therefore, the religious reformation was fairly launched, a great uprising of the poor people speedily followed. It seemed to them that the return to Christ meant, for them, the breaking of yokes and the enlargement of opportunity, and they proceeded to claim for themselves some portion of the liberty that belonged to them. Their demands, as voiced in their "Twelve Articles," were by no means extravagant, from our point of view. The abuses of which they complained were flagrant, the rights they claimed were far less than are now, even in despotic Russia, fully granted to the humblest people. And they protested most earnestly that they "wanted nothing contrary to the requirements of just authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical, nor to the gospel of Christ."
It would, however, have been unreasonable to expect that such people would confine their protest within the bounds of law and order. It was, in fact, a revolution, and it discerned no way to its goal but the way of violence. That, indeed, is the path that most of the seekers after liberty have felt constrained to take.
What was Luther's relation to this uprising? It cannot be said that he had kindled the flame, but he had fanned it to a conflagration. And yet when it began to rage, he found himself unable to control it. It had come to pass, in the exigencies of the warfare he was waging, that his allies were the German princes. Only through them, as he believed, could he hope to win the fight he was making against the Roman hierarchy. If he put himself at the head of the peasants' movement he would alienate the princes, and it seemed to him that the Protestant cause in Germany would he stamped out in blood. And therefore, after vainly attempting to quiet the insurrection, with whose principal aims he had confessed himself in sympathy, he turned upon the peasants in almost savage wrath, and in his tract "Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants," he urged the princes to crush the insurrection. "In the case of an insurgent," he says, "every man is both judge and executioner. Therefore, whoever can should knock down, strangle, and stab such publicly or privately, and think nothing so venomous, pernicious, and devilish as an insurgent.... Such wonderful times are these that a prince can merit heaven better with bloodshed than another with prayer."
The princes followed Luther's counsel, and the peasants' uprising was put down with relentless severity. Thus ended in blood the movement which promised to make the church the champion of social freedom. It seems, as we look back upon it, a tragical issue. What these poor people asked for was really only a crumb or two from the table of the lords of privilege; they thought that the brotherhood taught by Jesus warranted them in expecting it, and they seemed to hope that the church of Jesus Christ, when purified from formalism and superstition, would support that expectation. It must have been a bitter disappointment to them. And it is a sorrowful reflection that the great hero of the Reformation fell, in this matter, so far below the Christian ideal.
Doubtless his strenuous repugnance to revolutionary methods was a good trait in his character; but surely revolutions are sometimes justifiable, and it looks, at this distance, as though this one was as nearly so as most of those that have succeeded. If Luther had put his great heart and mighty will at the head of this movement which he confessed to be most righteous, it might have succeeded, and Protestantism, in its beginnings, might have made a firm alliance with those whom Jesus Christ recognizes as his representatives in the earth. But it was hard for him to believe that the poor of this world, chosen to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, were stronger allies than the German nobles. He thought that he must have the support of the princes, and he turned his back on Christ's poor.
It was a melancholy conclusion, not only for Luther but for the cause which he represented. "It is probable," says Dr. Lindsay, "that he saved the Reformation in Germany by cutting it free from the revolutionary movement, but the wrench left marks on his own character as well as in the movement he headed." One wonders whether success won at such cost is worth having; and whether, if he had gone down with the peasants in their struggle for freedom and opportunity, the sacrifice would not have brought a larger and fairer Reformation.
It was the coming reformation to which your attention was called, and we have kept our eyes for a long time upon the past. But this history has been uttering, through the entire recital, its own prophetic word. Conditions have greatly changed since the sixteenth century; but we are still confronting the same issue which forced itself upon the church in the days of Luther. Many of the disabilities and wrongs under which the common people were suffering then have been removed, but the poor are still with us, and the cries of millions of overworked, underfed, pale-faced men and women and children have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. There ought not to be any poor people in this country; if it were a thoroughly Christian country there would not be. If there were those who because of mental or physical defect were unable to care for themselves, we could easily provide for their wants, and in the exercise of such compassion we should find an abundant reward. If there were those who because of idleness and vice were indisposed to provide for themselves, we should find a way of inspiring them with a better mind. But, if this were a thoroughly Christian country, there would be no willing workers dwelling anywhere near the borders of want. There are resources here which are ample for the abundant supply of all human needs; if ours were a completely Christianized society, the needs of those who were able and willing to work would be abundantly supplied.
We are often told that this is already done; that there are no poor in this country save those who are either incompetent or indolent or vicious. If that could be proved, the question would still remain whether the incompetency and the indolence and the viciousness may not, to a considerable degree, be the effects of causes for which society is responsible, and which, in a thoroughly Christianized society, would not be permitted to exist. But it cannot be proved that poverty is wholly the fault of the poor. The fact is that a very large number of those who are doing the world's work to-day are receiving less than their fair share of the wealth they produce.
It is true that there are many laborers who earn large wages. Compactly organized labor unions have been able to secure a favorable distribution of the product of their industry. But we are often reminded that but a small percentage of the laborers of this country are organized; and the wages of those thus unprotected are often lamentably small. Many attempts have been made to find out what is the average wage of the average workman; our census reports contain very carefully prepared statistics. I have taken pains to go over some of these, and here are the results.
In the textile trades, with 661,451 workers, the average weekly wage of all workers is $6.07; of men over sixteen, $7.63; of women, $5.18; of children under sixteen, $2.15.
In the iron workers' trades, with 222,607 workers, the average weekly wage is $10.46.
In the boot and shoe trades, with 142,922 workers, the average for all is $7.96; for men over sixteen, $9.11; for women, $6.13; for children under sixteen, $3.40.
In the men's clothing trades, with 120,950 workers, the average for all is $7.06; for men, $10.90; for women, $4.88; for children, $2.61.
These weekly wages are obtained by dividing the annual wage by 52. Often the weekly rate is much higher, but for many weeks the workers are unemployed; the only fair estimate is that which is based upon the annual wage.
Have we any right to be content with conditions like these? Is the average wage of the average worker, as it is here indicated, all that he ought to ask? Should society wish him to be content with such an income? Sit down yourself and figure out just what it would mean to be obliged to maintain a family of four or five on such a stipend as is indicated in any of these trades—even those best paid. Find out how much should have to go for rent, and how much for food, and how much for the plainest clothing, and how much for doctor's bills, and school books, and street-car fare, and how much would be left, after that, for books and church contributions and the wholesome pleasures which we ought to count among the necessaries of life. Life can be maintained on such an income, but is it the kind of life that we wish our fellow men to live? And is there any need that life, for the humble laborer, should be reduced in this rich land to its lowest terms? With the marvelous productiveness of fields and mines and forests and waters, with the immense development of machinery, by which the wealth of the nation is multiplied, might we not have an organization of industry and a method of distribution which would give to the army of manual toilers a much larger average income?
That is the question they are asking, and it calls for a candid answer. Their needs are not as dire as were those of the German peasants of the sixteenth century, but they are real and serious needs. Now, as then, a tremendous industrial revolution has dislocated industries and demoralized and impoverished many; now, as then, the concentration of capital in great companies has destroyed small enterprises and left many who were once thrifty stranded and discouraged; now, as then, glaring contrasts in condition excite the resentments of the needy; now, as then, the propertiless are wondering whether this is the kind of thing that the church has been looking for when she has prayed that the kingdom of God may come. And there is a feeling now, as there was then, among the millions of the toilers, that the church which assumes to represent Jesus Christ needs to be reformed, in order that through its testimony and its leadership the kingdom of God may come.
It is sadly true that there are many among these toiling millions who are embittered against the church, who have no faith in it, and no expectation that any good will come out of it; but the great majority are not hostile to the church; at worst they are indifferent, and this indifference is due to their belief that the church no longer represents Jesus Christ. Toward him there is often a pathetic outreaching of hope; if the church would come back to the simplicity that is in Christ and would plant itself on the Sermon on the Mount, it would quickly win their loyalty. And I cannot help feeling that now, as in the sixteenth century, there is in the minds of the toiling millions "a confused dream that the kingdom of God might be set up in the land," and that the time is ripe for it. Nor can I deem it possible that this great expectation of the multitude will now be disappointed. The church of this day must be able to see that this call of the poor and the humble is the call of its Master. It is with the weak and the needy that he is always identified; service of them is loyalty to him; neglect of them is scorn of him. It is his own word.
The coming reformation will be signalized by a great change in the attitude of the church toward the toiling classes. It will not turn its back on them, as it did in Luther's day; it will not maintain toward them an attitude of kindly patronage, as it has done in our day; it will recognize the fact that its welfare is bound up with them; that the barriers which separate them from its sympathies and fellowships must be broken down, at whatever cost; that it must make them believe that the church of Jesus Christ is their church; that it needs them quite as much as they need it; that it is a monstrous thing even to conceive that a church of Jesus Christ could exist as a class institution, with the largest social class in the community outside of it.
The coming reformation will consist in the awakening of the church to its social responsibilities. It will see more clearly than it has ever yet seen, that those who pray that the kingdom of God may come, and who are responsible, as citizens of a republic are responsible, for the answering of that prayer, must see to it that justice and liberty and opportunity are established in the land. The church of Jesus Christ, with a passion that is born of loyalty to its Master, must set itself to the task of realizing, in the social order, the principles of his teaching. That was what the peasants of the sixteenth century called upon it to do; and for answer it turned and smote them to the earth. It will not repeat that blunder, which was nothing short of a crime. It hears the same call to-day, and when it obeys, as obey it must, it will save its own life and that of the nation with whose destiny it is put in trust.
The New Reformation will be wrought out with weapons that are not carnal. One of the lessons that the church has learned, in the nineteen centuries of its history, is that it must keep itself free from all suspicion of entanglement with physical force.
That statement needs qualification. It is not universally true. The Greek church, as we have seen, is still fatally involved in political complications; the Roman church, while forced to abstain from the use of the temporal power, has maintained its right to use it; and other state churches, as those of England and Germany, retain some hold upon the political arm. But we are speaking of the church in our own country; and of the American church it is true that it has ceased to rely upon the power of the state. The entire divorce which our constitution decrees between the government of the church and the government of the state has become, with us, a settled policy, which we do not wish to disturb. It is doubtful whether intelligent Roman Catholics in the United States would be willing to have this condition changed, and no other Christians would for one moment consent to it.
What the church does in the way of improving social conditions must, therefore, be done by purely moral and spiritual agencies. Society is not to be Christianized by any kind of coercion. The church cannot use force in any way, nor can it enter into any coalition with governments that rest on force. "It is not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord," that the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. It is as irrational to try to propagate Christianity by coercive measures of any description, as it would be to try to make plants grow by applying to them mechanical pressure.
Nor can the church undertake to dictate or prescribe the forms of industrial society. Its function is not the organization of industry. It would not wisely attempt to decide between different methods of managing business.
It would not, for example, be expedient for the church, at the present time, to take sides in the controversy between collectivism and private enterprise. The Socialists declare that the wage system, based on private capital, tends to injustice and oppression; the advocates of the existing system contend that Socialism would destroy the foundations of thrift and welfare. The church cannot be the umpire in this contest, nor can it take sides with either party. Questions of economic method are beyond its province. Its concern is not with the machinery of society, but with the moral motive power. Or, it might be truer to say that it seeks to invigorate the moral life of men, and trusts that reinforced life to make its own economic forms. Its business is to fill men's minds with the truth as it is in Jesus, and to make them see that that truth applies to every human relation; and it ought to believe that when this truth is thus received and thus applied, it will solve all social problems. When employers and employed are all filled with the spirit of Christ, the wage system will not be a system of exploitation, but a means of social service.
Here is an employer of many hundreds of men, at the head of a very large business, which is rapidly increasing. This is not an imaginary case. This employer is a man of flesh and blood, and he is in the very thick of the competitive melee; he is using the machinery of the wage system, but he is governing all his business by the principles of Christianity, and the business is thriving in a marvelous way. This does not mean that the manager is piling up money for himself, for he is not: he is living very frugally, and is adding nothing to his own accumulation; but the business is growing by leaps and bounds. The increasing profits, every year, are distributed in the form of stock among the laborers who do the work, and the customers who purchase the goods. The men who do the work are buying for themselves beautiful homes in the vicinity of the factory; in a few more years they will own a large part of the stock of the concern. This manager is not getting rich; but he has the satisfaction of seeing his business prospering in his hands; he is helping a great many men to find the ways of comfort and independence, and he insists that he has himself found the secret of a happy life. It is evident that if all employers were governed by the same motives, the wage system would be an instrument of philanthropy. Whether this man is a church member or not does not appear, but he is certainly a Christian; he has learned the way of Jesus, and is walking in it. If the church could inspire all its members with this kind of social passion, all social questions would be solved. And this is the church's business—to inspire its members with this kind of social passion. Without this spirit in their hearts, no matter what the social machinery might be, the outcome would be envying and strife and endless unhappiness.
We have had the inside history of some of the many communistic enterprises that have come to grief, and all of them have been wrecked by the selfishness of their members, most of whom were seeking for soft places, and shirking their duties,—each trying to get as much as he could out of the commonwealth and to give in return for it as little service as possible. These contrasted cases show that the machinery of the wage system cannot prevent the exercise of brotherliness, and that the machinery of communism will not secure it. No kind of social machinery will produce happiness or welfare when selfish men are running it; and no kind of social machinery will keep brotherly men from behaving brotherly.
We are often told by Socialists that the present regime of individual initiative and private capital tends to make men selfish and unbrotherly, while the tendency of Socialism would be to make men unselfish and fraternal. If the church were sure that this is the truth, she would be inclined to throw her influence on the side of Socialism. But, on the other hand, it is urged that Socialism tends to merge the individual in the mass, to destroy the virtues of self-respect and self-reliance, and to weaken the fibre of manhood. If the church were sure that this is true, she would be constrained to pause before committing herself to the socialistic programme.
She knows, in fact, that there is truth in both these contentions. That the individualistic regime has bred a fearful amount of heartlessness and rapacity is painfully evident; that such socialistic experiments as have been tried have weakened human virtue appears to be true. Under which regime the greater damage would be done is not yet quite clear. Therefore the church cannot commit herself to either of these methods. The best work she can do, at the present time, is to inspire men with a love of justice and a spirit of service. She must rear up a generation of men who hate robbery in all its disguises; who are determined never to prosper at the expense of their neighbors, and who know how to find their highest pleasure in helping their fellow men. If the Christian morality means anything, it means all this. A church which represents Jesus Christ on the earth must set before herself no lower aim than this. And a generation of men whose hearts are on fire with this purpose may be trusted to fill the earth with righteousness and peace, whether they work with the machinery of the wage system or with the machinery of Socialism.
There are many good men, outside the church as well as within it, who believe that the existing social order can never be Christianized; that it must be replaced by a new social system. But most of us are still clinging to the belief that the existing social order can be Christianized, so that justice may be established in it, and good-will find expression through it. That it has been sadly perverted we all confess; we acknowledge with shame that it has become, in large measure, the instrument of injustice and oppression. But we believe that it may be reformed, so that it shall represent, in some fair degree, the kingdom of God.
The redemption of the social order is, then, the problem now before us. Can it be accomplished? President Roosevelt thinks that it can, and those who stand with him and support him assume that the existing competitive regime can be moralized and made to represent the interests of equity and fair dealing. If this can be done, nothing more is needed. If it cannot be done, the existing regime must make way for something better. The conviction that it can be done is finding expression just now in the vigorous efforts that are being made to amend and strengthen the laws which restrain plunderers and oppressors, so that opportunities may be equalized and the paths to success be kept open for men of all ranks and capacities. This is simple justice, and for this the church of God must stand with all the might of her influence.
That she has been derelict in the discharge of this duty must be confessed. If she had kept the charge committed to her, the inequalities and spoliations now burdening society would not be in existence. For although it is not the business of the church to furnish to the world an economic programme, it is her business to see that no economic programme is permitted to exist under which injustice and oppression find shelter. The right to reprove and denounce all social arrangements by which the few prosper at the expense of the many is one of her chartered rights as the institute of prophecy. A church which fails to exercise this function is faithless to her primary obligation.
That the church has incurred heavy blame because of the feebleness of her testimony against such wrongs must now be confessed, and the least she can do to make amends for this infidelity is to speak now and henceforth, with commanding voice, against all the corporate wrongs that infest society. It may be that by her testimony the magistrates will be strengthened so to enforce the laws that aggressors shall be restrained, and freedom and opportunity secured to all; and that thus the existing industrial order may become, so far as law can make it, the servant of justice and good-will.
This is the first step toward social redemption. The reenthronement of justice is the primary obligation. John the Baptist must speak first. The conviction of social sin is the beginning of social righteousness. The church has a great work to do in awakening the public conscience to forms of injustice which are so involved and concealed that our attention is not fixed upon them. Professor Ross has just announced a volume with the title "Sin and Society." It is an illuminating word. The deadliest of the evils which are oppressing the community to-day come under this category. They are hidden from the public view. They assail you from ambush and you are helpless. The deadly missiles smite you on every side, but there is no revealing flash by which you can locate your foe. The social order is so complex that wrongs of this nature are easily perpetrated. Many of the transactions by which we are wont to profit are veiled injustices. They are of a nature so subtle and indirect that the law has not yet defined and forbidden them. Those who suffer these injustices are at a distance from us, and there is a network of legal and commercial relations between ourselves and them; we know that they will never confront us and call us to account; it is safe for us to do wrong, and we keep on doing it until our consciences are dulled, and we are not able to see that any wrong has been done.
The fact is, that such a complex social system as ours needs for its safe administration a kind of conscientiousness far higher and finer than that which men needed for honest living fifty years ago. Unless our minds are trained to see the right and wrong of very intricate transactions; unless our ethical imagination is sensitive enough to discern the nature of far-reaching and wide-spreading social relations, we shall constantly be profiting by the injury of our neighbors.
It is the business of the church to train the consciences of men for the moral problems that confront them, and this work has been but indifferently done. The first step in the redemption of the social order is the education of the Christian conscience to discern the smokeless sins. It is with evils of this character that the nation is now in a life and death grapple; the church ought to be able, by its testimony, to lend effective aid in this conflict.
The nature of the testimony needed may be indicated by a typical instance.
Not many years ago a very prosperous manufacturing company was doing business in a thriving American village, giving employment to fifteen hundred men and women, many of whom had purchased homes, in the expectation of having permanent occupation and livelihood. It was known to be a well-paying business; its stock, which was in few hands, was not in the market.
Suddenly a project of reorganization was announced, and stock amounting to five times the value of the property was placed upon the market. It was eagerly taken, for the reputation of the company was very high. With the proceeds of this sale of securities the managers made themselves very rich men. It was not necessary for them to do business any longer. Indeed, they could not have continued to pay dividends on the amount of stock which they had sold; they had never expected to do any such thing. What they did was promptly to close the business. The price of the stock dropped immediately to the neighborhood of zero, millions of values were canceled, and thousands of investors were made to suffer loss. But the direct consequences were seen in the village whose prosperity was suddenly destroyed. Fifteen hundred men and women were deprived, at a stroke, of employment and livelihood. In many homes there was destitution and hunger; hundreds of men were compelled to seek employment elsewhere, sacrificing the homes whose value had been greatly reduced; businesses that depended on the patronage of the mill hands were ruined; churches were paralyzed; families were scattered; discouraged men fell into ways of dissipation; young women were led into the paths of shame.
All this was done under the forms of law, and yet it would be hard to find in the annals of crime an instance more flagitious. And the men who did this thing were church members—members in good standing, leading members of an evangelical church. Nor does it appear that they suffered any discredit in the church to which they belonged, and to whose revenues they continued to contribute out of the plunder by which they had impoverished and ruined so many. The church had not sufficient moral sense to reprove and denounce this iniquity. What is worse, the church had not had enough moral sense to make these men see beforehand that such an act was infamous.