Occasional Sermon (May 15, 1844)
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Delivered before the Southern Association, at Stratford, Conn., May 15, 1844.
BY REV. J. K. INGALLS.
I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. John xvi. 12.
In his search for moral and spiritual truth, the philosophic inquirer is led back through the long galaxy of names, which have shed their light on the moral world, to Jesus of Nazareth, who never fails to fix the attention and secure the admiration of the lover of purity and goodness. He has not alone been eulogized by christian moralists; for Pagans, Mahometans, unbelievers, all, who have contemplated the life of Jesus, as a life, have been forced to acknowledge its unblemished purity, its profound depths of sympathy and love. If they could not receive Christianity as a faith, owing to their own blindness, ignorance and prejudice, or the corruptions which have attached themselves to its form, they have uniformly admitted the transcendent virtues of the Savior’s character, in life and in death. The most benighted Pagan, and the most philosophical unbeliever, have united their voices in bestowing upon him the title of God-man.
Jesus attained the highest ideas of truth, and reduced them to perfect examples, for he was tempted in all points like ourselves, yet without sin. His religious and moral conceptions were perfect. Not only were they the best of his time, but of all times; embracing that excellence to which our natures are ever striving, that glory which the prophet of every age has “ desired to look into,” that beauty which all poets have attempted to embody in their song, and that consummation, for which every pious heart has yearned, in which the moral and intelligent universe shall be subdued to that obedience to heaven’s laws of right and love which the nature of the creature, and his relation to the great Father of all, demand.
The fundamental truth of all progress is here shadowed forth. In order to advance, we must have a rule in precept and example evermore beyond and above us. The idea of human progress is not only assumed in the Gospel, but the Gospel is represented as being itself the revelation or exposition of this progress, and Jesus as the head,
or elder brother of this spiritual family, which is to grow in grace and the knowledge of the truth, until it attains, in the unity of the faith, unto a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Other reformers have lived in advance of their age. Jesus was not only in advance of his contemporaries, but of all the ages which have yet developed themselves, and promises to hold out a bright and glorious example still, and to be a teacher of righteousness to ages yet unborn. We should ask no farther evidence j of the divinity of his mission, than its enduring and universal character, its adaptation to all people and all times, especially to those farthest progressed in the developement of their spiritual and moral capacities. Other teachers instruct people of their time. Jesus instructs people of every time. We read a human author until we attain his idea, and he is our teacher no longer. Jesus teaches us in our youth, and in our age. We never get beyond him; we never indeed arrive in this world to the point, where we feel not still the consciousness that we have almost infinite progress to pursue, ere we can grasp the sublime conceptions we behold manifesting themselves in him; and hope, in its holiest aspirings dare not promise us on earth, that perfection in practice which he maintained through a life fraught with trial and sufferings.
Had his age comprehended him fully, he would have ceased to be a teacher. Had he not taught 1 truths, or rather embodied them in his life, adapted to all time and all progress, then his mission may have ended long ago, and any farther hope for the race be despaired of; for he has either ceased to be a teacher, or else has put a stop to human progress, and is content with repeating the same things forever, imparting no new conceptions as we become prepared, or indeed allowing us to become prepared for any farther revealings of the truth or indwellings of the spirit of the Highest.
But we discover that he realized the poet’s dream, and prophet’s vision, and that their ideal, whether of ancient or modern lime, of christian, heathen or skeptic land, has never exceeded, has never equalled, the reality the Savior demonstrated of heavenly truth and divine love. Whatever the philanthropist, whatever the holiest and best men have longed for and attempted to grasp, is contained in the Gospel of the Son of God. All the dim shadowings of our purest thoughts, of our farthest reaching charities, of our deepest devotion to truth, to liberty and the weal of man, we can trace in their fullness and perfection when we contemplate the life of our blessed Lord and Savoir.
The gifted but unbelieving Rousseau is forced to confess:
“When Plato described his imaginary good man, enduring all the shame of guilt, yet meriting the highest rewards of virtue, he describes exactly the character of Jesus Christ; and exclaims—’ What prepossession, what blindness must it be to compare the son of Sophroniscus to the son of Mary! Socrates dying without pain or ignominy, easily supported his character to the last. He invented, it is said, the theory of morals. Others, however, had before put them into practice; he had only to say, therefore, what they j had done, and reduce their examples to precept. But where could Jesus learn among his competitors, that pure and sublime morality, of which he alone has given us both the precept and example? The death of Socrates, peaceably philosophising with his friends, appear the most agreeable that could be wished for; that of Jesus, expiring in the midst of agonizing pains, abused, insulted, and accused by a whole nation, is the most horrible that could be feared. Socrates in receiving the cup of poison, blessed the weeping executioner who administered it; but Jesus, in the midst of excruciating tortures, prayed for his merciless tormentors. Yes! if the life and death of Socrates were those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus were those of a God.”
But this admission, beautifully, truthfully as it is expressed, goes not far enough. Jesus was not only beyond the conception of his contemporaries, but almost infinitely beyond the progress we boast in our enlightened age. Have we ever formed, in our moments of holiest, loftiest thought, one flitting idea which we find not more than realized in him? With all our knowledge, and love of man, and devotion to truth, were we now to draw the picture of our “ imaginary good man,” would it not be an image of the son of Mary?
Paganism, Sabian and magian, existed after its day, but at length crumbled to pieces like the mighty tree which, having lived its time, becomes decomposed by the action of the same elements which had supported it in existence. The changes, in the elements of human knowledge and feeling, left it without sympathy or support, and facilitated its decay. But before it gave up the ghost, it required repeated modifications to accommodate it to the progress of the mind. So Mahometanism, which was in fact better than the nominal Christianity of its period, has required frequent revision. In truth Mahomet was excelled by his immediate successors; and the Dr.’s of the faith find it necessary now to give the greatest latitude of construction to many of his teachings, besides changing, diametrically, sentiments he insisted upon most strenuously. The human mind hag made such advancement, that the faith, which some ten or twelve centuries since, awakened the deepest enthusiasm, scarcely inspires now one spark of devotion. Like an inhabitant of the past, all unsuited to the society of the present, it sits there, in enchanted silence, with folded arms, awaiting the coming fate, when some theme, more consonant to the spirit of the times, shall attract the inert powers which enable it to “ sit still.”
But has Jesus any followers who have added any thing to his Gospel! With all our progress and reform, have we been able to give his sublime teachings even an adequate appreciation? Have not the greatest lights in the church been left in the back ground by the march of mind, the spread of human sympathies, and more extensive reception of the spirit of the Savior? If Mahomet would have been unsuited for a reformer and prophet of this age, so would Luther and Calvin. With their doctrines of final perseverance, election and reprobation; with the torch and faggot in their hands, they would find no work to do, were they to come upon this world again, great as was their work when they did live. But what if the enlightened and philanthropic prayer, which is breathed in the secrecy of the closet, and finds its outward manifestation in the benevolent enterprises and reforms of this age, could be fully embodied, and the worker sent of God which should correspond to our purest ideas of excellence; should we not see Jesus coming down again from above’, although it is eighteen hundred years since he ascended to his Father, and our Father, to his God and our God? And oh! does he not come down, wherever heaven’s love is felt? Is not the promise verified, “Lo I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world!”
The immediate followers of Jesus were unequal to the conception of his glorious Gospel. They were not only accused by him of misconceiving, entirely, the spirit of his mission, but of being unprepared, after all his instructions, to receive the communications of his grace in its fullness. It was found necessary to teach Peter, by vision, long after the ascension of the Savior, one of the first principles of the Gospel, and of some of the most important teachings of the Son of God, it is said, “ they understood not the saying.”
Oh long, long, has the church been employed in comprehending her head! The truth is, she has never been half christian. I would by no means invalidate die authenticity of the Epistles, or deny that the disciples sustained Christian lives; but that they had imbibed the spirit of the Gospel in its fullness, may be doubted without subjecting to the charge of heresy. I do not doubt that like the prophets, they even wrote of things, of which they had but faint conceptions; and certainly the church of that early time was not without deep blemishes and derelictions, according to the testimony of those very Scriptures. This condition is by no means to be attributed to the religion of Jesus, for in its diffusion in the world, it was necessarily burdened with many of the corruptions and superstitions of poor human nature.
The Gospel, may I say, never was intended to change our race in a moment; but by indefinite progression. With the exception, perhaps, of the inspired Apostles, none have ever received any more of Christ than what they were capacitated to enjoy and appreciate. Nothing has been given the church of any age more than what it was able to bear. If to grow is the law of our nature, and the progress of the race be assumed, then that which is Christianity in any age, must correspond to the developement of man s moral and spiritual powers. That the gospel is a reforming and progressive idea, we earnestly contend; and regard as its distinguishing glory, that it is not a reform—that is, confined to one subject and one time, but the- great soul of all reform, of all time. For it not only reforms and restores what has been lost by vice and error, but imparts to the soul a new life and increasing joy which a negative state of innocence never can impart.
It is therefore no disparagement, but the highest compliment to the reforming power of the gospel, when we say that it is subject also to the law of progress, in its application to the human mind. A Paul may be changed in a moment, yet should we waive the consideration that this was a miracle, we should derive no support to the idea that means are not necessary to carry out the great work of reform and advancement proposed by the dispensation of love. For not only the experience of the Savior, as regarded his immediate disciples, demonstrated that this doctrine could not be appreciated at once, but the experience of eighteen hundred years has corroborated this truth, and proved besides, that man is a progressive being, and that the gospel is adapted to every stage of his progress, keeping still in the advance, urging and leading us ever onward and upward; so that Paul’s is still the declaration of all good and wise christians: “Not as though I had already attained either, were already perfect; but I follow after, if that. I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus —forgetting the things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
But there is a lamentable tendency on the part of man, in holding fast the good that has been received, to the exclusion of all improvement. When too much light beamed upon the eye at once, it has contracted rather than expanded the powers of vision. Hence systems, and periods to this work; and surprising it appears, with what impatience we bear farther communication and revealings of the truth. Even in Apostolic times, the proclamation of the gospel among the Gentiles, had well nigh produced an irreconcilable division. And as Christianity advanced and received accessions from heathen and benighted converts, its true light became less and less supportable.
The early success of the gospel was owing to the presentation of simple propositions, for which the world was prepared. It enkindled an enthusiasm which has no parallel in the history of the world. A superstitious fear and consciousness of guilt which ever attend error and vice, pervaded all nations, which their sacrifices and propitiations could not appease. They were prepared to receive the doctrine of free forgiveness, and confide in the propitiation made by one for the sins of the whole world. Jesus was hardly received by them, in his highest character, but in what corresponded to their actual wants and could be comprehended by their limited conceptions. The gospel has never been received, generally, in any age, as a great system of truth and science of human progress, but rather as an expedient, and for this very reason any advancement which would deprive it of the expediency, has been dreaded and opposed.
The history of the church is but a repetition of the diffusions, corruptions and purifications of the principles of the gospel; thus progressing in the developement of its heavenly powers in the world, in accordance with the progress of mind, leading our race up from primitive barbarism and grossest superstition to the enjoyment of its blessed light and liberty. Yet while the gospel has been, and promises to be, the same yesterday, to-day and forever, adapted to aid man in every stage of his progress, and holding out to him a goal of higher perfection still; he, though running well for a season, has often become indolent, and desiring rest, has fortified his position against all new impulses to press forward, and attempts to induce all men to the opinion that his stand-point is the only desirable one. Indeed, the modern church is scarce more than such a fortification, which may protect from outward error and vice, but at the same time shuts out all instruction. She holds on with unrelaxing grasp to what has been attained, yet fights with infuriated zeal against all improvement. The Gospel is the science of progress itself. The Church has ever been conservative, yielding only as she has been forced to conform to the renovating power of truth, and the spread of human sympathy. There have been points where she has made rapid strides, but it has hardly been willingly. Some ungovernable child, like Luther, has dared to look out of her entrenchments, and found for goblins, and demons, and darkest Egyptian night, heaven’s light, and man’s hope beaming there instead. But how soon does he form shackles for the minds of his successors, and window-blinds for his church, lest those who came after should behold more light and embrace with farther reaching charities the creation to him unknown.
The fault of the church has been, that it has stopped short, or endeavored to do so, without proving all things, not that it held fast what was good. Even those who have made some progress, regard it sufficient evidence to substantiate a sentiment which divides them from more liberal christians, that it was held by the Fathers, while they will by no means admit this authority in their controversies with the more orthodox.
As soon as the church was prepared, the gospel, in its character of individual liberty and responsibility, was spoken and received : and this produced the Reformation, of which the doctrine of election was a necessary accompaniment. The Pope had assumed all power, temporal and spiritual, and regarded the fate of men and nations as dependant on the decisions of his pleasure. He had obliterated all individuality but his own; and God’s mercies and judgments were dispensed through him, and the ordinances of the church, of which he was the infallible and irresponsible Lead. To promote a reform of this nature, what more efficient than to proclaim God’s regard for the man, the unchangeable election of the individual, which nothing in earth, or heaven, or hell, could frustrate or oppose, the evidence of which depended not on the decision of Popes, or councils, or the absolution of priests, but upon the consciousness which the christian himself possessed within! With its leading idea, of justification by faith, borne conspicuous on its banner, no wonder Protestantism prevailed. The world was prepared for it; the church bore it. But was all the gospel embodied in that reformation? Certainly not; or whence sprung Arminianism? The doctrine of election embraced the truth of God’s immutable love for the individual, yet it had neglected that of his impartiality. Romanism had employed Christianity as an expedient, and appealed to men merely as individuals anxious to adopt some scheme for personal safety. Calvin and Luther adopted the gospel as a system of truth, and rule of life, but applied it only to the individuals. Romanism was endeavoring to save with its patent divinity. Arminius next promulgated “ universal redemption;” but as the world was not prepared, and could not bear this extension of idea in connexion with the predestination of Calvin, in fact, it amounted to little more in practice than a popish system of expedients, under which Jesus is adopted rather as a scapegoat, than as a teacher sent of God.
The elements of truth, heretofore evolved in the progress of gospel light, evidently composes the last form of it which the world is prepared to receive. I mean the undying regard of our great Parent for man, irrespective of all forms and establishments, which Calvinism has shadowed forth; the universal and impartial nature, of the Divine Benevolence, presented in Arminianism; and the subordinate yet efficient character of the Saviour to carry out the Father’s purposes for the instruction and elevation of mankind, which forms the distinctive feature of Unitarianism.
That the church should have been long employed in bring these important truths to coalesce, will not be thought remarkable when we consider that those to whom each has been respectfully committed, have been satisfied with that as a whole, when it formed but a part, and opposed those other parts which they thought hostile to their truth, but which in fact belonged to it; their capacity was too limited to discern the harmony, and hence they appeared discordant.
This disposition to hold fast to partial good, and to reject without investigation all new developed truth, has constituted the orthodoxy of the church in all time. Sitting, with her face reversed, she grasps the shadows of the past and metes them out to more benighted mortals as serious, living realites. All not discovered there, is opposed as most dangerous heresy; and dying man is pointed through all her mists and mouldering antique
relics, to a most questionable Savior—-one the tenth century might have recognized, but which the nineteenth will hardly acknowledge, notwithstanding we are assured the chain of succession is entire and unbroken!
But the Christianity of the present, is no expedient. It is a living, earnest truth, into which more of the spirit of the Savior enters than of all former periods. Hence we need not your rusty, time-worn chain, reaching wherever it may, thro’ the inists and barbarisms of the dark ages, which we nor you can penetrate. We must have a religion we can live and feel; we have indeed little care now for any scape-goat religion. We have some trust in God, some faith in man as his child. We prefer walking up to the new Jerusalem, comedown from God out of heaven; where flowers are strewn on every hand, and where heaven’s light, and peace, and joy, attend each advancing footstep, to being drawn by your clanking chain through the dark abyss our forefathers have been so long in crossing. Jesus is not in the past but in the future, and the glories of his gospel are beckoning us ever onward. Go, present to the hungry mortal, just reaching out his hand to pluck the ripening gram, the husks of former years, and let him see by your sallow visage that such is your daily food; but oh! do not mock the soul thirsting after righteousness with the Christianity of the past ages!
Like Paul, we are persuaded that not behind, but before, we shall find the Christ. Your feeble taper may have been serviceable to our fathers m aiding them to grope their way through the dark night of the middle ages; it is of little use to us in discovering this glorious sunrise. It will tend rather to circumscribe our vision and discolor this beauteous world, which the early morning rays are tinging with brightness; it will make us unconscious of heaven’s blessed light which is bursting upon enwrapt senses from every quarter of the universe. Reverse then your position, and in place of looking back, look up! Before you, extending in everlasting progression, God’s truth and love, and man’s life, and hope, and destiny, appear. We need no chain to draw us backward, only the light of heaven to guide and cheer us onward. We want not now a Saviour for an “ark of safety;’“ we want one rather who will give us some insight into our own waking sympathies, and teach us to give expression to those sentiments of love and deep desires for light we find struggling for utterance in speech and action. The time has come when the church will bear something more than a scheme of salvation. The question, this age is asking for solution, is not “what shall we do to be saved?” but what shall we do to aid oppressed, degraded and down-trodden humanity? how our brethren may be turned from vice to virtue, and become instructed ii: the right way of the Lord? Self enters less into the thoughts and impulses of this day than any which has preceded it: and but for a most grasping mammonism, which cannot bear a rival in the human heart, nor the words which the prophet and teacher must soon speak out, our religion ere this had been more practicable, if not less theoretical.
The signs of the times indicate that a great and good thought is struggling even now in the human breast. Even the late attempt to go backward in Tub Church, proves that she has been startled by the rapid advancement of the world, and has discovered that neither on earth or in heaven is there any such thing as sitting still forever. The stride-of-the-fence position, between Protestantism and Papacy can be maintained no longer. She must come out into the light of the present, and submit her claims to its searching gaze, or retire within the gloomy precincts of Rome, and by pompous pretensions and mysteries, by the credulity and mental ignorance of her adherents, shield them from the rigid scrutiny with which this age scans all things.
If we look from authoritative Christianity, to its other extremes of fanaticism and extravagance, the signs are equally pregnant with hope for the race. In the vagaries of the deluded Miller, one great and ennobling truth stands out in glaring contrast with the absurdities which enshroud it: to wit, the destruction of sin. No matter though it involves the destruction of the sinner! Better thus, than to have the one increasing in strength and malignity, the other writhing in infinite tortures through all eternity, despite the power, wisdom and boundless love of God. It shows that the world will by and by endure the extension of this idea, and the character of our heavenly Father not only become vindicated from the horrid aspersions that he designs and inflicts interminable pain, but glorified by the view of a world redeemed and saved from sin. The heart will next desire the salvation of the sinner, in connexion with the destruction of the sin. The spirit which suggested to the disciples that fire should be sent down from heaven and consume his earthly foes, will not now permit them to understand the spirit of Jesus, but finds exercise in contemplating the burning up of the wicked; the time, however, will come when the same impulse which substituted annihilation for the immortality of suffering, will also secure the adoption of that reforming, renovating idea which presents a God laboring for the uplifting and instruction of his children, with an undying regard which no circumstances or time or change can effect.
If we turn to the moral condition of the world we discover an equal tendency to a more christian view of reform, and nowhere, but in our own ranks do we behold other than brightest hope for our own cause. Universalism is not only in advance of the age, enlightened and philanthropic as it is, but of its professors. We have embodied more of the spirit and teaching of Jesus in our system than all sects beside, and yet how much coldness and indifference, how little comparative enthusiasm! Is it the fault of our faith? No; of ourselves. We are not able yet to bear, in its length and breadth and height and depth, the glorious gospel of the blessed God,
All that has called forth the devotion and enthusiasm of other times is embraced in that gospel as professed by us. Calvinism was loved for its strong assurance of hope for the individual; it was never loved for its narrow partialities, though ignorance, and prejudice, and bigotry could endure no farther advancement. It was the confidence it gave the man of the changeless love of his heavenly Father, which inspired devotion, not the thought that others were passed by and reprobated from the divine favor. The enthusiasm of the Arminian was induced by the idea of God’s impartiality and regard for all, not by the atheistical uncertainty adopted to escape the inevitable tendency of the system to Universalism. So that whatever has inspired true devotion in all systems and all times is embodied in our faith. Whatever the advocates of any creed have truly loved, is presented here in harmonious fullness. And yet we profess to receive it, and feel no better, no deeper devotion thrill through our being; can look upon the progress of mankind unconcerned; and sit and fold our aims to sleep, indifferent to the best interests of our race; satisfied to believe that by and by things shall come out right, and the world be saved! May not some of us have adopted Christianity for an expedient, and the Savior for a scape goat? When I see Universalists saying by word or act that they are satisfied to know that all are going to be saved, and see no use in preaching and praying and striving to lead a christian, God-like life, I think, somehow, such must have got misplaced .in the ages, and should have been born last century, or in some Catholic or heathen land, where the sounds of the gospel in its fullness never could have reached them, for they cannot bear it now. Their concern for religion is to get self saved, and seeing no other prospect except all are saved, they adopt a kind of Universalism our opposers have taught them!
To all such professors, let me ask: may you not want after all a Savior and system for some better purpose? Have you never felt in all your lives that there is a higher purpose to pursue than an expedient to get to heaven by? Have you not felt that to live was something and that some things were as necessary to life as earthly possessions? What matters it whether you are saved or no? You cannot carry that bag of gold, nor that selfish heart with you. But if to be saved is a good worthy your belief, suppose you partake some of its enjoyments now! Begin to live; you have never lived yet in any true sense—begin to live and you will find Christ of value as an instructor; His life and gospel will become your study and delight, a lamp to guide your feet in the way of life, and a bright example to encourage you to go on to the perfection your being requires; and which impulses within continually urge you to pursue, however grasping, selfish or foolish you may have become.
But we have I trust in a measure avoided the evils to which reference has been made, as attaching to the Church. The progress of our denomination shows that we do not look backwards, entirely; but have received the gospel as an exposition of progress. It is but a short time since Sabbath Schools and Conference meetings, and the administration of the Lord’s Supper, were almost unknown among us; but it is quite otherwise now. Within my remembrance, the doctrine of the Trinity, with the vicarious character of the Savior was held by many. Now the unity of God is generally received, with the idea of Christ as a teacher sent of Him, to instruct us in the duties of our stations, to be to us an example that we should follow his steps; and to reveal the paternal character and changeless love, and immutable purposes of God. He is believed and followed, I trust, as the bright star of morning, which is to lead us onward in our heavenly life toward the divine perfections; in all our progress in knowledge and love, still shining on with undiminished lustre, until faith is lost in sight, and we behold him as he is in truth.
Brethren in the ministry of reconciliation, and friends of the great salvation, let us strive to improve our own hearts, and to let our lights shine, that others seeing our good works may be led to glorify our Father who is in heaven; and we shall see the Church and its great Head approaching nearer and nearer to each other, until she becomes as a bride adorned for her husband; and the union be consummated, when the deep love and unblemished purity of the Savior shall be reflected in all her thoughts and actions. Let us labor in the cause of truth and love with the cheerful assurance that we shall ever have him for a guide and instructor, and that the farthest stretch of our powers, the fullest developements of wisdom, and the utmost expansion of our charities, will only ally us more and more to him, who will never cease to lead us onward and upward from glory to glory.
As our system of Faith embraces all the good of every system, all that inspires true devotion and gratitude to God, let our practice and life embrace also more of Jesus and the spirit of his gospel; and in love to God, in love to man, and in devotion to truth, let us demonstrate to the world that we receive, with grateful hearts, the instructions of the Son of God, and will attempt to improve, to our own and man’s good, whatever farther revelations our Father in heaven may have in store for us.
Source: Francis D Tandy, “Occasional Sermon, Delivered before the Southern Association, at Stratford, Conn., May 15, 1844,” Universalist Union 9, no. 6 (June 22, 1844): 497-502.