Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

submitted to the great Cumberland secession of 1810, preferring well-tried method to mere numerical increase ; and when, in consequence of the famous “ Plan of Union,” it found itself invaded with New England usages and New England ideas, it preferred the excision of nearly half its members rather than not purge itself of the foreign element. Whatever successes it has gained have not been gained by denying its principles, or by making terms with its opponents. The steady growth of this powerful communion, in the face of its uncompromising assertion of a rigid dogmatic system, furnishes a striking illustration of the decided preference of a most intelligent section of the American people for a vigorous and welladministered ecclesiastical system. The Reunion of 1871, when, after a separation of more than thirty years, the two branches of the Presbyterian church were once more happily united, whether considered in its immediate or its ultimate consequences, is second in importance to no recent event of our religious history. It fixed universal attention as showing that the tide had turned, and that the weary period of discord and secession was to give way to a new period of union and consolidation. There seems no good reason why other Presbyterian bodies should not follow the example.

This marked preference of the majority of our people for well-ordered system may be still more conclusively shown from contrasting the progress of the Congregational and Presbyterian bodies. A century ago the Congregationalists were by far the more numerous and influential. The two were in close sympathy, and Congregational delegates were allowed to sit and vote in the General Assembly. Both cordially united in the “ Plan of Union” for combined missionary operations at the West; but it was found that whenever the stronger organization came into contact with the weaker, the weaker was uniformly swallowed up, and the result was an immense loss of strength to the Congregational communion.

It would, however, be an error to represent that the change in the relative strength of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists was due wholly to difference of polity. Other causes contributed to weaken Congregationalism in its own seats. The proclivity of the Congregational clergy for political dis

VOL. CXXII. — NO. 250.

3

cussion, so conspicuous in the period preceding the Revolution, was hardly less marked during the stormy times that preluded the memorable “ Civil Revolution of Eighteen Hundred.” Almost to a man the Congregational clergy of New England were on the Federal side. The biograplier of Mr. Jefferson complains with bitterness that the ministers were all for Hamilton. As an inevitable result, the Democratic triumph swept from the New England parishes all whose sympathies were pledged to the victorious faction, and considerable numerical strength, if not much piety, was carried over to rival congregations. But the fatal wound was inflicted upon New England Congregationalism, not by an enemy, but by its own hand. The doctrinal antagonism which the Revolution for a time had smothered blazed up at the publication of Belsham's Life of Lindsey; and when Channing preached his famous ser mon at Baltimore, the divorce between the main body of Congregationalists and their oldest traditions and finest culture was complete. Henceforth the New England Israel, that had come out of Egypt so gloriously, pursued two separate paths, and presented the unedifying spectacle of a house divided against itself.

This impulse of our leading religious bodies to a complete logical development has naturally led to a sharper accentuation of ecclesiastical distinctions. The Protestant Episcopal Church furnishes a striking illustration of this tendency. Attaining its complete organization in 1789, when White and Provost were consecrated at Lambeth Palace, during its early years it reflected the moderate temper of the English Church of the last century. Its leading characteristic was eminent respectability ; its preaching had the mild accent of that apologetic period when, as Johnson put it, the Apostles were tried regularly once a week on charge of committing forgery. Bishop White, whose unswerving support of the cause of independence showed that he was lacking in no manly element, as à preacher was “ dignified without animation,” and “ much esteemed for solid and judicious instruction.” Bishop Jarvis was noted for an unusually slow and deliberate pronunciation,” a characteristic not suggestive of excessive fervor. The amiable Madison “at all periods of his life was much addicted

to scientific studies.” The early style of Bishop Griswold, “ like that which generally prevailed in the church at the time, was rather moral than evangelical.” Though the church derived its ecclesiastical legitimacy from England, and made the Anglican Church so far as possible its model, yet the altered conditions of society necessitated some not unimportant changes. Though the American bishops retained the name and ecclesiastical functions, they lacked the civil rank and ample revenues which conferred so much additional lustre on the English prelates; and the absence of patronage threw increased power into the hands of the parishes. But the most important constitutional change was one carried through by the influence of Bishop White, which introduced the novel principle of lay representation. In consequence of these modifications, the “Protestant Episcopal Church” corresponded nearly, if not exactly, with the model which Baxter declared would suit himself and the more moderate Presbyterians. Nothing could be more marked than the mildness with which the claims of the new church were asserted. The popular prejudice which still lingered against the office of bishop, and “ the fashion of objecting to it prevailing even among a considerable proportion" of the church, led to a cautious definition of Episcopal titles. The Convention of Maryland, in 1783, recognized “other Christian churches under the American Revolution.” The Virginia Convention, two years later, while expressing a decided preference for uniformity in doctrine and worship, declared that this should be pursued “ with liberality and moderation.” Where the church, before the Revolution, had been established by law, its tone was uniformly most conciliatory ; where, on the contrary, it had been in opposition, its tone was most pronounced. The stanchest Churchmen were in Connecticut. When Griswold moved from Connecticut to Rhode Island, sermons which had been preached with applause in the former State were received with “ great disfavor" by Episcopalians in Providence and Newport. Coke's friendly overture to Bishop White, proposing a union of the Episcopalians with the Methodists, drew from the latter the reply “that he did not think the difficulties insuperable, provided there was a conciliatory disposition on both sides.” The first evi

dence of a change of tone was the publication, in 1804, of Hobart's “ Companion to the Altar,” in which, not the nature of the sacraments, but the “ lawful authority" by which they might be administered was discussed. This provoked the memorable controversy with Dr. Mason, in which the distinctive claims of the Episcopal Church were for the first time publicly set forth. These were further asserted in Hobart's

Apology for Apostolic Order,” published in 1807. The eminent personal qualities of Hobart marked him for a party leader, and his elevation to the Episcopate, a little later, proved a signal epoch in the history of the church. In a Pastoral Letter of 1815 he took strong grounds against co-operation with other Christians in promoting religious objects, and, in defiance of a growing sentiment represented in the formation of the American Bible Society, he boldly declared "that all the differences among Christians are on points subordinate and non-essential is an unfounded assertion.” For a time these views found a weighty counterpoise in the Evangelical party, but, by degrees, what was first described as “bold and startling came to be accepted maxims, and by the action of the Convention of 1814 the church was placed conclusively upon Hobart's ground. And the decided growth of the Episcopal Church dates from the period when it clearly enunciated its distinctive theory. The later controversies which have disturbed its peace bave not touched this principle, and those who differ most widely on questions which the Tractarian and Ritualist have raised are heartily agreed upon what constitutes the Church of the true Order."

The tendency so clearly revealed of American Christianity to aggregate itself in a few great denominational families, strenuously affirming theological or ecclesiastical tenets that are mutually exclusive, deserves special attention in its bearing upon the prospective development of a truly catholic type of Christianity. It might have been supposed that the contact, upon a perfectly equal footing, of so many Christian bodies, each zealously asserting its distinctive faith, would have provoked such mutual comparison as would gradually have brought into clear relief the essential truths which all were agreed in recognizing. Professing to receive the same Gospel, it might have seemed that somewhere there must have existed substantial harmony; but no such result has followed. It is amazing to note how slight has been the reciprocal influence which these bodies have exerted. They seem to have pursued their separate paths, coming into contact with each other's opinions only to controvert them. With individuals, of course, changes of opinion have been frequent; but so far as concerns the formal affirmations of the leading religious bodies, with the sole exception of the Congregationalists, there has not been the slightest change. With most of these bodies no modification has been thought of; in one or two cases, where the relaxation of some distinctive denominational feature has been suggested, it has drawn forth a storm of indignation. The irreligious world has laughed at the spectacle of an eminent philanthropist actually brought to trial on the atrocious charge of singing hymns with Christians of another name. It is evident that our leading religious organizations have done

nothing in the way of promoting any external Christian unity. · There are many to whom this state of things is not repugnant,

who defend the “ denominational ” type of Christianity as the natural efflorescence of the Reformation, and rest content with it as the ultimate achievement of Protestant Christianity. On the other hand, there have been some who have protested against " the evangelical' heresy that the normal state of the Church universal is a state of schism.” From many quarters have come eloquent expressions of the conviction that the sectarian system, however much it may stimulate zeal, does not furnish the conditions of the finest and noblest Christian culture. But no adequate remedy has thus far been proposed, and American Christianity seems hopelessly committed to the denominational experiment.

This drift of American religious sentiment towards the formation of compact and powerful religious organizations not only affects the relations of these bodies to one another, it is already presenting novel and difficult problems in relation to the civil power. To comprehend fully the most important of these, it must be remembered that for many years two antagonistic opinions have been developing themselves with respect to the functions of political society. On the one hand the maxim

« AnteriorContinuar »