Out of this great and true law arises the idea of a parish, a local self-government for many civil purposes, as well as ecclesiastical ones, under a priest who—if he is to be considered as a little constitutional monarch—has his powers limited carefully both by the supreme law, by his assessors the church-wardens, and by the democratic constitution of the parish—influences which he is bound, both by law and by Christianity, to obey.
Arising, in the first place, from the fact that our forefathers colonized England in small separate families, each with its own jurisdiction and worship; our country parish churches being, to this day, often the sites of old heathen tribe-temples, and this very place, Notting-hill, being possibly a little colony of the Nottingas- -the same tribe which gave their name to the great city of Nottingham; arising from this fact, and from the very ancient institution of frank-pledge between local neighbours, this parochial system, above all other English institutions, has helped to teach us how to govern, and therefore how to civilize, ourselves. It was overlaid, all but extinguished, by the monastic system, during the latter part of the Middle Ages. It re-asserted itself, in fuller vigour than ever, at the Reformation. But with its benefits, its defects were restored likewise. The tendency of the mediaeval Church had been to become merely a church for paupers. The tendency of the Church of England during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, was to become merely a church for burghers. It has been, of late, to become merely a church for paupers again. The causes of this reaction are simple enough. Population increased so rapidly that the old parish bounds were broken up; the old parish staff became too small for working purposes. The Church had (and, alas! has still) to be again a missionary church, as she became in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when feudal violence had destroyed the self-government of the parishes—often the parishes themselves— and filled the land with pauperism and barbarism. But that is but a transitional state. Her duty is now becoming more and more (and those who wish her well must help her to fulfil her duty) to reorganize the ancient parochial system on a deeper and sounder footing than ever; on a footing which will ensure her being a church, not merely for pauper, nor merely for burgher, but for pauper and for burgher equally and alike.
But some will say that parochial civilization is only a peculiar form of civilization, because its centre is a church. Peculiar? That is the last word which any one would apply to such a civilization, if he knows history. Will any one mention any civilization, past or present, whose centre has not been (as long as it has been living and progressive) a church? All past civilizations—whether heathen or Mussulman, Jew or Christian—have each and every one of them, as a fact, held that the common and local worship of a God was a sign to them of their common and local unity; a sign to them of their religion, that is, the duties which bound them to each other, whether they liked or not. To all races and nations, as yet, their sacred grove, church, temple, or other place of worship, has been a sign to them that their unity and duties were not invented by themselves, but were the will and command of an unseen Being, who would reward or punish them according as they did those duties or left them undone. So it has been in the civilizations of the past. So it will be in the civilization of the future. If the Christian religion were swept away—as it never will be, for it is eternal—and a civilization founded on what is called Nature put in its place, then we should see a worship of something called Nature, and a temple thereof, set up as the symbol of that Natural civilization. So the Jacobins of France— when they tried to civilize France on the mere ground of what they called Reason—had, whether they liked it or not, to instal a worship of Reason, and a goddess of Reason, for as long as they could contrive to last.
To the world's end, a church of some kind or other will be the centre and symbol of every civilization which is worthy of the name; of every civilization which signifies, not merely that men live in somewhat better houses, travel rather faster by railway, and read a few more books (which is the popular meaning of civilization), but which means—as it meant among the Greeks, the Romans, the Jews, the Christians, among those who discovered the idea and the very words which express it—that each and every truly civilized man is a civis, a citizen, the conscious and obedient member of a corporate body which he did not make, but which (in as far as he is not a savage) has made him.
How far from this idea are the great masses of our really wealthy and well-to-do Londoners? How much is it needed, that wise men should try to re-awaken in them the sense of corporate life, and literally civilize them once more!
Consider the case, not of the average wretched, but of the average comfortable man. The small shopkeeper, the workman, skilled or unskilled—how small a consciousness has he of citizenship. What few incentives to regard civism as a solemn duty. For consider, of what is he a member?
He is a member of a family; and, in general, he fulfils his family duties well.
Yes, thank God, the family life of Englishmen is sound. The hearts of the children do not need to be turned to their fathers, or the hearts of the fathers to the children, as they did in Judea of old. Family life, which is the foundation of all national life—nay, of all Christian and church life—is, on the whole, sound. And having that foundation we can build on it safely and well, if we be wise.
But of what else is the average Londoner a member? Of a benefit- club, of a trades' union, of a volunteer corps. Each will be a valuable element of education, for it will teach him that self- government, which is the school of all freedom, of all loyalty, of all true civilization.
Or he may be a member of some Nonconformist sect. That, too, will be a valuable element, for it will teach him the solemn fact of his own personality; his direct responsibility to God for his own soul.
And I cannot pass this point of my sermon without expressing my sense of the great work which the Dissenting sects have done, and are doing, for this land (with which the Bishop of London's plan will in no wise interfere), in teaching this one thing, which the Church of England, while trying to carry out her far deeper and higher conception of organization, has often forgotten; that, after all, and before all, and throughout all, each man stands alone, face to face with Almighty God. This idea has helped to give the middle classes of England an independence, a strong, vigorous, sharp-cut personality, which is an invaluable wealth to the nation. God forbid that we should try to weaken it, even for reasons which may seem to some devout and orthodox.
But all these memberships, after all, are only voluntary ones, not involuntary. They are assumed by man himself—the worldly associations on the ground of mutual interest; the spiritual associations on that of identity of opinions. They are not instituted by God, and nature, and fact, whether the man knows of them or not, likes them or not. They are of the nature of clubs, not of citizenship. They are not founded on that human ground which is, by virtue of the Incarnation, the most divine ground of all. And for the many they do not exist. The majority of small shopkeepers, and the majority of labourers too, are members, as far as they are aware, of nothing, unless it be a club at some neighbouring public-house. The old feudal and burgher bonds of the Middle Age, for good or for evil, have perished by natural and necessary decay; and nothing has taken their place. Each man is growing up more and more isolated; tempted to selfishness, to brutal independence; tempted to regard his fellow-men as rivals in the struggle for existence; tempted, in short, to incivism, to a loss of the very soul and marrow of civilization, while the outward results of it remain; and therefore tempted to a loss of patriotism, of the belief that he possesses here something far more precious than his private fortune, or even his family; even a country for which he must sacrifice, if need be, himself. And if that grow to be the general temper of England, or of London, in some great day of the Lord, some crisis of perplexity, want, or danger,—then may the Lord have mercy upon this land; for it will have no mercy on itself: but divided, suspicious, heartless, cynical, unpatriotic, each class, even each family, even each individual man, will run each his own way, minding his own interest or safety; content, like the debased Jews, if he can find the life of his hand; and:-
'Too happy if, in that dread day, His life he given him for a prey.'
Our fathers saw that happen throughout half Europe, at a crisis when, while the outward crust of civilization was still kept up, the life of it, all patriotism, corporate feeling, duty to a common God, and faith in a common Saviour, had rotted out unperceived. At one blow the gay idol fell, and broke; and behold, inside was not a soul, but dust. God grant that we may never see here the same catastrophe, the same disgrace.
Now, one remedy—I do not say the only remedy—there are no such things as panaceas; all spiritual and social diseases are complicated, and their remedies must be complicated likewise—but one remedy, palpable, easy, and useful, whenever and wherever it has been tried, is this—to go to these great masses of brave, honest, industrious, but isolated and uncivilized men, after the method of the Bishop of this diocese, and his fund; and to say to them,—'Of whatever body you are, or are not members, you are members of that human family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and to suffer death upon the Cross; over which He now liveth and reigneth, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. You are children of God the Father of spirits, who wills that all should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. You are inheritors—that is, members not by your own will, or the will of any man, but by the will of God who has chosen you to be born in a Christian land of Christian parents—inheritors, I say, of the kingdom of heaven, from your cradles to your graves, and after that, if you will, for ever and ever. Behave as such. Claim your rights; for they are yours already: and not only claim your rights, but confess your duties. Remember that every man, woman, and child in your street is, prima facie, just as much a member of Christ as you are. Treat them as such; associate yourselves with them as such. Accept the simple physical fact that they live next door to you, as God's will toward you both, and as God's sign to you that you and they are members of the same human and divine family. Enter with them, in that plain form, into the free corporate self-government of a Christian parish. Fear no priestly tyranny; from that danger you are guaranteed by the fact, that the great majority of the promoters of this fund are laymen, of all shades of opinion. You are guaranteed, still further, by the fact, that in the parochial system there can be no tyranny. It is one of the very institutions by which Englishmen have learnt those habits of self-government, which are the admiration of Europe.
'Do, then, the duty which lies nearest you; your duty to the man who lives next door, and to the man who lives in the next street. Do your duty to your parish; that you may learn to do your duty by your country and to all mankind, and prove yourselves thereby civilized men.
'And confess your sins in this matter, if not to us, at least to God. Confess that while you, in your sturdy, comfortable independence, have been fancying yourselves whole and sound, you have been very sick, and need the physician to cure you of the deadly and growing disease of selfish barbarism. Confess that, while you have been priding yourselves on English self-help and independence, you have not deigned to use them for those purposes of common organization, common worship, for which the very savages and heathens have, for ages past, used such freedom as they have had. Confess that, while you have been talking loudly about the rights of humanity, you have neglected too often its duties, and lived as if the people in the same street had no more to do with you than the beasts which perish.
'Confess your sins. We monied men confess ours. We ought to have foreseen the rapid growth of this city. We ought to have planned and laboured more earnestly for its better organization. And we freely offer our money, as a sign of our repentance, to build and establish for you institutions which you cannot afford to establish for yourselves. We excuse you, moreover, in very great part. You have been gathered together so suddenly into these vast new districts, or rather chaos of houses, and you have meanwhile shifted your dwellings so rapidly, and under the pressure of such continual labour, that you have not had time enough to organize yourselves. But we, too, have our excuse. We have actually been trying, at vast expense and labour to ourselves, for the last forty years, to meet your new needs. But you have outgrown all our efforts. Your increase has taken us by surprise. Your prosperity has outrun our goodwill. It shall do so no more. We are ready to do our part in the good work of repentance. We ask you to do yours. You are more able to do it than you ever were: richer, better educated, more acquainted with the blessings of association. We do not come to you as to paupers, merely to help you. We come to you as to free and independent citizens, to teach you to help yourselves, and show yourselves citizens indeed.'
I hope, ay, I believe, that such an appeal as this, made in an honest and liberal spirit, which proves its honesty and liberality by great and generous gifts out of such private wealth as no nation ever had before, will be met by the masses of London, in the same spirit as that in which it has been made.
I am certain of it, if only the ecclesiastical staff employed by this Fund will keep steadfastly in mind what they have to do. True it is, and happily true, that they can do nothing but good. If they confine themselves to the celebration of public worship, to teaching children, to giving the consolations of religion to those with whom want and wretchedness bring them in contact—all that will be gain, clear gain, vast gain. But that, valuable, necessary as it is, will not be sufficient to evoke a full response from the people of London.
But if they will, not leaving the other undone, do yet more; if they will attempt the more difficult, but the equally necessary and more permanent labour—that of attacking the disease of barbarism, not merely in its symptoms, but in its very roots and its causes; if they will recognise the fact, that with the disease there coexists a great deal of sturdy and useful health; if they will have courage and address to face, not merely the non-working, non-earning, and generally non-thinking hundreds, but the working, earning, thinking thousands of each parish; in fact, the men and women who make London what it is; if they will approach them with charity, confidence, and respect; if they will remember that they are justly jealous of that personal independence, that civil and religious liberty, which is theirs by law and right; if they will conduct themselves, not as lords over God's heritage, but as examples to the flock; if they will treat that flock, not as their subjects, but as their friends, their fellow-workers, their fellow-counsellors—often their advisers; if they will remember that 'Give and take, live and let live,' are no mere worldly maxims, but necessary, though difficult Christian duties; then, I believe, they will after awhile receive an answer to their call such as they dare not as yet expect; such an answer as our forefathers gave to the clergy of the early Middle Age, when they showed them that the kingdom of God was the messenger of civilization, of humanity, of justice and peace, of strength and well-being in this world, as well as in the next. The clergy would find in the men and women of London not merely disciples, but helpers. They would meet, not with fanatical excitement, not even with enthusiasm, not even with much outward devotion; but with co- operation, hearty and practical though slow and quiet—co-operation all the more valuable, in every possible sense, because it will be free and voluntary; and the Bishop of London's Fund would receive more and more assistance, not merely of heads and hands, but of money when money was needed, from the inhabitants of the very poorest and most heathen districts, as they began to feel that they were giving their money towards a common blessing, and became proud to pay their share towards an organization which would belong to them, and to their children after them.
So runs my dream. This may be done: God grant that it may! For now, it may be, is our best chance of doing it. Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation. If these masses increase in numbers and in power for another generation, in their present state of anarchy, they may be lost for ever to Christianity, to order, to civilization. But if we can civilize, in that sense which is both classical and Christian, the masses of London, and of England, by that parochial method which has been (according to history) the only method yet discovered, then we shall have helped, not only to save innumerable souls from sin, and from that misery which is the inevitable and everlasting consequence of sin, but we shall have helped to save them from a specious and tawdry barbarism, such as corrupted and enervated the seemingly civilized masses of the later Roman empire; and to save our country, within the next century, from some such catastrophe as overtook the Jewish monarchy in spite of all its outward religiosity; the catastrophe which has overtaken every nation which has fancied itself sound and whole, while it was really broken, sick, weak, ripe for ruin. For such, every nation or empire becomes, though the minority above be never so well organized, civilized, powerful, educated, even virtuous, if the majority below are not a people of citizens, but masses of incoherent atoms, ready to fall to pieces before every storm.
From that, and from all adversities, may God deliver us, and our children after us, by graciously beholding this His Family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to suffer death upon the Cross; and by pouring out His Spirit upon all estates of men in His holy Church, that every member of the same, in his calling and ministry, may freely and godly serve Him; till we have no longer the shame and sorrow of praying for English men and women, as we do for Jews, Turks, infidels, and heretics, that God would take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of His Word, and fetch them home to that flock of His, to which they all belong!
SERMON XX. THE GOD OF NATURE (Preached during a wet harvest.)
PSALM cxlvii. 7-9.
Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God: who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains. He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry.
There is no reason why those who wrote this Psalm, and the one which follows it, should have looked more cheerfully on the world about them than we have a right to do. The country and climate of Judea is not much superior to ours. If we suffer at times from excess of rain and wind, Judea suffers from excess of drought and sunshine. It suffers, too, at times, from that most terrible of earthly calamities, from which we are free—namely, from earthquakes. The sea, moreover, instead of being loved, as it is by us, as the highway of our commerce, and the producer of vast stores of food—the sea, I say, was almost feared by the old Jews, who were no sailors. They looked on it as a dangerous waste; and were thankful to God that, though the waves roared, He had set them a bound which they could not pass.
So that there is no reason why the old Jews should think and speak more cheerfully about the world than we here in England ought. They had, too, the same human afflictions, sicknesses, dangers, disappointments, losses and chastisements as we have. They had their full share of all the ills to which flesh is heir. Yet look, I beg you, at the cheerfulness of these two Psalms, the 147th and 148th. In truth, it is more than cheerfulness; it is joy, rejoicing which can only express itself in a song.
These Psalms are songs, to be sung to music, and even in our translation they are songs still, sounding like poetry, and not like prose.
And why is this? Because the men who wrote these Psalms had faith in God.
They trusted God. They saw that He was worthy of their trust. They saw that He was to be honoured, not merely for His boundless wisdom and His boundless power: for a being might have them, and yet make a bad use of them. But He was to be trusted, because He was a good God. He was to be honoured, not for anything which men might get out of Him (as the heathen fancied) by flattering Him, and begging of Him: but He was to be honoured for His own sake, for what He was in Himself—a just, merciful, kind, generous, magnanimous, and utterly noble and perfect, moral Being, worthy of all admiration, praise, honour, and glory.
The Psalmist saw that God was good, and worthy to be praised. But he saw, too, that he and his forefathers would never have found out that for themselves. It was too great a discovery for man to make. God must have showed it to them. God had showed His word to Jacob, His statutes and ordinances to Israel.
He had not done so to any other nation, neither had the heathen knowledge of His laws. And, therefore, they did not trust God; they did not consider Him a good God, and so they worshipped Baalim, the sun and moon and stars, with silly and foul ceremonies, to procure from them good harvests; and burnt their children in the fire to Moloch, the fire-king, to keep off the earthquakes and the floods. God had not taught them what He had taught Israel—to trust in Him, and in His word which ran very swiftly, and in His laws, which could not be broken: a faith which, my friends, we must do our best to keep up in ourselves, and in our children after us. For it is very easy to lose it, this faith in God. We are tempted to lose it, all our lives long.
Our forefathers, in the days of Popery, lost it; and because they did not trust in God as a good God, who took good care of the world which He had made, they fell to believing that the devil, and witches, the servants of the devil, could raise storms, blight crops, strike cattle and human beings with disease. And they began, too, to pray, not to God, but to certain saints in heaven, to protect them against bodily ills.
One saint could cure one disease, and one another; one saint protected the cattle, another kept off thunder, and so forth—I will not tell you more, lest I should tempt you to smile in this holy place; and tempt you, too, to look down on your forefathers, who (though they made these mistakes) were just as honest and virtuous men as we.
And even lately, up to this very time, there are those who have not full faith in God; though they be good and pious persons, and good Protestants too, who would shrink with horror from worshipping saints, or any being save God alone. But they are apt to shut their eyes to the beauty and order of God's world, and to the glory of God set forth therein, and to excuse themselves by quoting unfairly texts of Scripture. They say that this world is all out of joint; corrupt, and cursed for Adam's sin: yet, where it is out of joint, and where it is corrupt, they cannot show. And, as for its being cursed for Adam's sin, that is a dream which is contradicted by Holy Scripture itself. For see. We read in Genesis iii. 17, 'Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.'
Now, that the ground does not now bring forth thorns and thistles to us, we know. For it brings forth whatsoever fair flower, or useful herb, we plant therein, according to the laws of nature, which are the laws of God. Neither do men eat thereof in sorrow; but, as Solomon says, 'eat their bread in joyfulness of heart.' And so did they in the Psalmist's days; who never speak of the tillage of the land without some expression of faith and confidence, and thankfulness to that God who crowns the year with His goodness, and His clouds drop fatness; while the hills rejoice on every side, and the valleys stand so thick with corn, that they laugh and sing—of faith, I say, and gratitude toward that God who brings forth the grass for the cattle, and green herb for the service of men; who brings food out of the earth, and wine to make glad the heart of man, and oil to give him a cheerful countenance, and bread to strengthen man's heart. Those well-known words are in the 104th Psalm; and I ask any reasonable person to read that Psalm through—the Psalm which contains the Jewish natural theology, the Jew's view of this world, and of God's will and dealings with it—and then say, could a man have written it who thought that there was any curse upon this earth on account of man's sin?
But more. The Book of Genesis says that there is none; for, after it has said in the third chapter, 'Cursed is the ground for thy sake,' it says again, in the eighth chapter, verse 21, 'And the Lord said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground for man's sake. While the earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, shall not cease.'
Can any words be plainer? Whatever the curse in Adam's days may have been, does not the Book of Genesis represent it as being formally abrogated and taken away in the days of Noah, that the regular course of nature, fruitful and beneficent, might endure thenceforth?
Accordingly, we hear no more in the Bible anywhere of this same curse. We hear instead the very opposite; for one says, in the 119th Psalm, speaking indeed of God, 'O Lord, Thy word endureth for ever in heaven. Thy truth also remaineth from one generation to another. Thou hast laid the foundation of the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to Thine ordinance: for all things serve Thee.' And so in the 148th Psalm, another speaks by the Spirit of God; 'Let all things praise the name of the Lord: for He commanded, and they were created. He hath also established them for ever and ever: He hath given them a law which shall not be broken.'
Yes, my friends, God's law shall not be broken, and it is not broken. And that faith, that the laws which govern the whole material universe, cannot be broken, will be to us faith full of hope, and joy, and confidence, if we will remember, with the Psalmist, that they are the laws of the living God, and of the good God.
They are the laws of the living God: not the laws of nature, or fate, or necessity—all three words which mean little or nothing—but of a living God in whom we live, and move, and have our being; whose word—the creating, organizing, inspiring word—runneth very swiftly, making all things to obey God, and not themselves.
And they are the laws of a good God; of a moral God; of a generous, loving, just, and merciful God, who, as the Psalmist reminds us (and that is the reason of his confidence and his joy), while He telleth the number of the stars, and calleth them all by their names, condescends at the same time to heal those who are broken in heart; of a God who, while He giveth fodder to the cattle, and feedeth the young ravens who call on Him, at the same time careth for those who fear Him, and put their trust in His mercy; of a God who, while His power is great and His wisdom infinite, at the same time sets up the meek, and brings the ungodly down to the ground; of a Father in heaven who is perfect in this—that He sends His sun and rain alike on the just and the unjust, and is good to the unthankful and the evil; of a Father, lastly, who so loved the world, that He spared not His only-begotten Son, but freely gave Him for us, and has committed to that Son all power in heaven and earth;—all power over the material world, which we call nature, as well as over the moral world, which is the hearts and spirits of men—to that Word of God who runneth very swiftly, who is sharper than a two-edged sword, and yet more tender than the love of woman; even Jesus Christ the Saviour, the Word of God, who was in the beginning with God, and was God; by whom all things were made; who is the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, if by any means he will receive the light of God, and see thereby the true and wise laws of Nature and of Spirit.
This is our God. This is He who sends food and wealth, rain and sunshine. Shall we not trust Him? If we thank Him for plenty, and fine weather, which we see to be blessings without doubt, shall we not trust Him for scarcity and bad weather, which do not seem to us to be blessings, and yet may be blessings nevertheless? Shall we not believe that His very chastisements are mercies? Shall we not accept them in faith, as the child takes from its parent's hand bitter medicine, the use of which it cannot see; but takes it in faith that its parent knows best, and that its parent's purpose is only love and benevolence? Shall we not say with Job—Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him? He cannot mean my harm; He must mean my good, and the good of all mankind. He must—even by such seeming calamities as great rains, or failure of crops—even by them He must be benefiting mankind. Recollect, as a single instance, that the great rains of 1860, which terrified so many, are proved now to have saved some thousands of lives in England from fever and similar diseases. Take courage; and have, as the old Psalmist had, faith in God. Believe that nothing goes wrong in this world, save through the sin, and folly, and ignorance of man; that God is always right, always wise, always benevolent: and be sure that you, each and all, are -
'Safe in the hand of one disposing Power, Or in the natal, or the mortal hour, All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, discretion which thou can it not see. All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good; And spite of pride, in erring reason's spite, One truth is clear—whatever is, is right.'
And pray to God that He may fill you with His Spirit, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of knowledge and grace of the Lord, and show to you, as He showed to the Jews of old, His laws and judgments, and so teach you how to see that the only thing on earth which is not right, is—the sin of man.