Laymen's Criticisms of the Church

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Ernest Howard Crosby

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By ERNEST H. CROSBY, President Social Reform Club, New York.

It seems to me that the great mistake that the Church makes is in supposing that the spiritual life of the community may be Christian without showing its effect in the social life. The Churches are apt to forget Christ’s statement that “by their fruits ye shall know them.”

It is a fact which no one can deny that the moral standard of certain bodies outside the Church is higher than within the Church. The single-taxers, for instance, hold that it is the moral duty of the owners of land to share its value with their neighbors. The socialists expand this idea to all capital which is used in producing wealth. The trade-unions believe that it is wrong to force men to work an excessive number of hours. Yet on none of these vital functions has the Church taken a stand.

When Christ laid down the guiding principle of His teaching in His first sermon at Nazareth, He said that He would preach “glad tidings” to the poor. It is these “glad tidings” that the Church often forgets. If I were going to some American city in which I was not acquainted, and wished to see the homes of the millionaires, I should take a map and pick out a quarter where the Protestant churches were, and I should be certain to find all the richest people living in that neighborhood. If, on the other hand, I wanted to find the slums, I should pick out the section where no Protestant church was to be found.

We know, by the law of supply and demand, that churches go where they are wanted, and the necessary inference, from the geographical position occupied in our cities by Protestant churches, is that they are preaching glad tidings to the rich and not to the poor. And this is the case. They permit a man to collect excessive rents for unhealthy lodgings, to pay wages too low to support properly the workmen whom he employs, and, in many ways, directly and indirectly, to “grind the faces of the poor”; and yet, if they are regular attendants at church, if they keep Sunday, if they give a certain amount of money to the ordinary charities, they are looked upon as Christians in good standing.

The weak point in the position of the Church to-day is its attitude toward the questions of wealth and poverty, of capital and labor. I remember that twenty years ago the principal picture in the rooms of the New York Young Men’s Christian Association was a group of the wealthy merchants of New York. This was the ideal held up to the young men of the community by a Church which preaches that “ it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” Of course this is hypocrisy. And the one sin which seems to have shocked Christ was the sin of hypocrisy. He had nothing but kind words for the adulteress. He had no reproach for the thieves on the cross. He associated with publicans and sinners, but he had nothing but condemnation for hypocrisy of every kind. The Church must return to the morality of the Sermon on the Mount if it wishes to regain the working-classes, and to have the influence which it ought to have.

My attention is called to the fact that the Church cares for the poor in its mission work, in the erection of parish houses, etc. I would say that so long as church work of this kind takes the form of almsgiving by the rich to the poor, it will never produce the effect that is intended. The early Church was a mission from the poor to the rich, and so long as the Church to-day continues to be a mission from the rich to the poor, it can never accomplish the same results.

At the same time it is interesting to note that some of the churches are throwing open their doors for the discussion of the questions that concern wealth and poverty, capital and labor. The other evening the (Protestant Episcopal) Church of St. Michael (New York) was used for a meeting of this kind. Speeches were made on reform topics, some of them being made by ladies, which is certainly quite a departure in the Episcopal Church. It is a pity that there are so many large halls in so many churches that cannot be utilized for this purpose more often than they are.

The fault with the sermons of the day is that while they touch quite sufficiently on the necessity of love to God and your neighbor, they do not carry those ideas to a logical result in a man’s real life. I think there should be more sermons preached on practical subjects, basing them on the central principle of Christianity. Last Sunday I heard a sermon in which the clergyman urged business men to take their Christianity in their business. It struck me at the time if there were two business men in the Church who followed that advice they would be obliged to go out of business before the end of the week. The whole foundation of business life is founded on hatred to your neighbor and selfishness; the whole thing is a compromise between the service of God and man with the devil.


  • Ernest Howard Crosby, “Laymen’s Criticisms of the Church,” Homiletic Review 30, no. 1 (July 1895): 26-27.