American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition


Back to the Classic Unitarian Writings  page


The Worst Enemy of Christianity

Jabez T. Sunderland

"After the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers."acts 24:14.

It is always incumbent upon a people who persist in maintaining a different form of religious doctrine or worship from the majority of the people of the community or country in which they dwell, to be ready, on fitting occasion, to give a reason.


I shall occupy the time before us this morning in stating, as briefly and plainly as I can, why I, for one, find myself compelled to take my stand outside of so-called orthodoxy, and to worship the God of my fathers in the way that the majority of the people of this country and Christendom call heresy.


I believe that nothing of more value than Christianity ever made its appearance among men.


But I believe that what is generally understood by Christianity today, whether in Protestant countries or Catholic, is not pure, original Christianity, as Jesus taught Christianity by lip and life, but that Christianity corrupted, and corrupted by the introduction of elements entirely foreign to it and essentially bad.


These bad elements do not, of course, more than to a limited extent, destroy the Christianity with which they are mixed; but they are, nevertheless, so far as they themselves go, corrupting and harmful to it.


What are these bad and corrupting elements? Without hesitation, I answer, in my judgment, first of all, and worst of all, is that religious philosophy, or theology, or series of doctrines about God and man and religion, which wears the popular name of orthodoxy, and which includes in its list, among others, the doctrine of the fall of the race in Adam, the doctrine of universal total depravity, the doctrine of an endless hell, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the coming down to earth of the second person of the Trinity to die in man's place and so satisfy God's justice, the doctrine that following Christ, or believing in Christ, or being saved by Christ, means in any sense accepting the idea that Jesus died to reconcile God to men, or to make God one whit more willing or ready or able to save men, that is, one whit more a Father than he always has been, and finally, not to mention any others, the doctrine of Jesus-worship, which is so popular in our time, as practically, in large measure, to crowd out worship of God.


I say of all the things that wound Christianity today and make it bleed, of all the things that corrupt and poison it and tend to make it other than the sweet and healthful and divine thing which it was when Jesus gave it new to the world, of all the things which tend to make it an offense to the best thought and intelligence of the time, without hesitation I name, as in my judgment first and worst, the system of theology which includes these doctrines which I have mentioned, and which is known popularly as orthodoxy.


Do you ask why I thus judge orthodoxy to be the worst foe which Christianity has today? I answer, in a general way, first, because of where it is, and second, because of what it is.


As to where it is, it is inside the church. If it were outside, it would be comparatively harmless, for it is always comparatively easy to defend against on outside enemy. But when an enemy gets inside the camp, as orthodoxy has done, then is the difficulty and the danger vastly increased.


Long ago, in darker ages, orthodoxy fought its way into the very heart of the Christian church, and there, by intolerance and proscription and every art, entrenched itself. And now, in our day of greater light, when men begin to discover that it is not Christianity, but an intruder and a foe, it is so strongly fortified in its position that it is only with the greatest difficulty that it can be stirred. Indeed, it has actually, to a very large extent, captured the Christian religion. And so today, wherever we go, we find orthodoxy preaching in the most unblushing manner that it is Christianity, and that everything opposed to it is not Christianity. It is mainly because of this condition of things that that body of, on the whole, remarkably intelligent and sincere men, known as the Free Religionists, have taken their stand outside of the Christian name. So plainly do they see that the Christian name has been captured, and now stands identified in the minds of the mass of mankind with orthodoxy—something which they believe to be false and degrading—that they declare it to be hopeless to attempt to capture the name back again.


But, for one, while I feel the force of their reasoning, I cannot acquiesce in their conclusion. I don't think it is hopeless to attempt to capture it back again. It will take a long hard battle to do it, but all the better forces of our civilization are certainly rallying to our side to help us, and we shall, by and by, accomplish it. The transformations of history are very strange and often dark. But, amidst them all, this we know


"Truth crushed to earth shall rise again; The eternal years of God are hers."


And this also we know, "Every plant that my heavenly Father hath not planted shall" (sooner or later) "be rooted up" [Matt. 15:13].


But, furthermore, I believe orthodoxy to be the worst foe against which. Christianity has to contend today, not only because it has got for itself an inside position and claims that it alone is Christianity, but also because it is so thoroughly anti-Christian in its nature. Mark what I say, so that I shall not be misunderstood, I do not say that people who believe in orthodoxy are not Christian people. Many of them, so far as character and practical life are concerned, unquestionably are Christian people. However, their Christianity does in no sense lie in their orthodoxy. On the contrary, it is something incomparably higher, broader, sweeter, diviner, and altogether a different thing from their orthodoxy. Their Christianity would remain all the same if their orthodoxy should vanish, and, indeed, would only have found a more vigorous and worthy growth if it had never had the incubus of orthodoxy to weigh it down at all.


So that my position is that, whereas orthodox people are, large numbers of them, undoubtedly truly Christian in character and life, notwithstanding their theology, yet orthodoxy as a theology, in all that which is peculiar to it as orthodoxy, is essentially and eternally anti-Christian, and has always and everywhere hurt and not helped the cause of true religion on the earth.


But, to come down from the general to the specific, precisely in what respects is it anti-Christian? I reply, chiefly in four respects:


First. Orthodoxy is not taught by Christ, but, instead, contradicts many of his plainest teachings.


Second. It is unreasonable.


Third. It is essentially immoral.


Fourth. The time and manner of its usurpation of its place in the Christian church can be clearly traced in history.


1. The first specific charge, then, that I make against orthodoxy is that it is not taught by Jesus, but, instead, is clearly in contradiction with many of his most prominent and oft-repeated teachings.


To begin with, Jesus nowhere gives any intimation that he knows anything about any Trinity; he expressly calls his Father the only God; he usually calls himself the son of man; he never calls himself by any title which even hints that he is God; he declares outright that his Father is greater than he. And, as to his unity with the Father, he declares it to be of the same kind with his unity with his disciples, and with God's unity with all loving and obedient children, to wit, plainly, unity of spirit, of love, of aim, of desire.


Orthodoxy, on the contrary, declares that there are three Gods in one God (not simply a mysterious, but a self-contradictory statement), and that Jesus is the true God—eternal, omnipotent, and the Creator of the world.


Again, Jesus teaches that the best and truest conception of God which we can get is that of a Father, who always loved and always will love every human child of his, who forever desires his children's best welfare, and neither has his heart steeled against them when they sin, so that he does not wish to save them, nor his hands tied by figments of law or justice, so that he cannot save them, but, instead, that he is a Father who waits all the day long for his erring children to come back to him, even as the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son waited—ready, rejoiced, glad to forgive always; nor does he want anybody to die in their place either, before he forgives, any more than the father of the Prodigal wanted somebody to suffer death before he would forgive his repentant boy. Contrary to all this, however, orthodoxy teaches that God has always been angry with his human children when they have sinned, and either could not or would not (you may take which horn of the dilemma you choose) forgive them, no matter how deeply they repented, until an innocent person had died in their stead.


Again, Jesus taught that salvation is primarily and essentially salvation from sinning, that is, salvation into present holiness and consequent happiness. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, teaches that the great and all-important idea of salvation is escape from endless penal torment in the next world, and entrance into a far-away heaven, from which, certainly, a large part of those whom we love most will be shut out.


Again, Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven comes not "with observation," but is "within you" —a silent, hidden thing of the heart and conscience and character, beginning in the smallest germs of good planted in the mind, and growing and developing, silently and naturally, as the influence of leaven spreads in meal, or as corn grows in the field—first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.


Orthodoxy teaches, on the other hand—is it too much to say so?—that the kingdom of heaven comes with observation, and lo! heres, and lo! theres, with crowds, with excitements of preaching and singing and exhortation, with loud professions, with conversions blazoned to the world, and all that kind of thing.


Again, Jesus taught that they who in the judgment-day shall be accepted and hear the welcome words, "Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world," will not be those who have said ,"Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?" but those who have done the will of the Father by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, receiving the stranger, ministering to the wants of the poor and suffering of their brother human beings in this world. Orthodoxy, on the contrary, teaches that those who shall be accepted at the judgment are those who have simply believed that


"Nothing, either great or small,

Remained for them to do;

Jesus died and paid it all,

Yes, all the debt they owe."


Finally, to mention no other antagonisms between the two, Jesus taught that the only proper object of worship for human beings is God, the Father of all, even inditing a form of prayer beginning, "Our Father who art in heaven," and never giving any hint of encouragement to anything whatever which even looked in the direction of worship of himself. Orthodoxy, however, that is to say, Protestant orthodoxy of the so-called evangelical or revivalistic type, which has been so popular in England and America of late, has reversed all this and has erected Jesus into, not simply an object, but into the principal object of human worship. Virgin Mary worship is scarcely more conspicuous in Catholic countries than Jesus worship is getting to be in this country. Not only in preaching, but in hymns and prayers, God has fallen quite into the background, and Jesus has taken His place.


Other points of antagonism between orthodoxy and the teaching of Jesus, nearly or quite as important as these, remain, but I must pass them by. I have only time for a word or two of a general character.


Not long ago, in conversing with a brother minister regarding the Sermon on the Mount, he remarked that this sermon of Christ was very noticeable, and for several reasons. And, first of all, it was noticeable for what it did not say—quite as noticeable for that as for what it did say—for the truth could not be escaped, he urged, that, in that most lengthy and complete of all Jesus' public discourses, in which he laid down the truths he had to offer men more fully than anywhere else, the great Teacher altogether omitted everything which comes under the head of the doctrines of orthodoxy. He explained and set forth the Christianity which he had to offer to men, with all these left out. And if we follow the teachings of Jesus right on from that time to the end, I do not know how anyone can deny that we always find him setting forth a Christianity which has all these doctrines which are peculiar to orthodoxy persistently left out. The Trinity, Adam's fall, total depravity, the "plan of redemption," and every other one, is conspicuously wanting. The only seeming exception is the doctrine of an eternal hell. But, even in this, the exception is rather seeming than real; for, in those cases where Jesus refers to punishment in the next world, and uses the words "everlasting" or "eternal" in connection with it, in every case the Greek Αιων or Αιωνος, translated eternal or everlasting, is the same word which is used repeatedly in other places in the New Testament in connection with things which come to an end.


And, if the doctrines of orthodoxy are not supported, but, on the contrary, are nearly all of them plainly denied and combated by the teachings of Jesus, so also, I hold that they are in like manner confuted, instead of established, by the Bible as a whole. I grant that there is more which seems to uphold these doctrines in other parts of the Bible than in the Gospels. And you notice that when anyone comes before you, attempting to prove almost any doctrine of orthodoxy, as a rule he goes for his main proofs, not to the great Teacher, but to some disciple, or some writer of the Old Testament, whose light was not so clear, and whose understanding of these things was not so perfect as that of Jesus. In other words, he takes you into the candlelight, and not into the sunlight. Why don't he take you into the sunlight of the Sermon on the Mount, and the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth of John, and the Gospels generally, to see how these subjects appear there? If they are the great central doctrines of Christianity, as is claimed, certainly they will be found in the teachings of the Founder of Christianity. But, no, instead of taking you there, he takes you to the writings of men who lived before Jesus, and had only the light of Judaism, or else to the disciples, who were far below their Master, and who certainly, all through the ministry of Jesus, were forever misunderstanding him, even with regard to the plainest things of his teachings. And yet, I cannot admit that even their writings, interpreted candidly and in the light of a broad culture, do really teach one of the distinctive doctrines of orthodoxy. And this is noticeable, that those writers of the Bible who are furthest advanced, and most near to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual level of Jesus, always give least of even seeming countenance to the doctrines of orthodoxy, and harmonize most fully and clearly with Jesus in teaching truths that antagonize orthodoxy at every point. But I have dwelt upon this part of my subject quite too long, though I should be glad, if time allowed, to push it much further still. I go forward now to my next point.


2. Orthodoxy is irrational. I charge it with being quite as antagonistic to reason as it is to the teachings of Christ. And this is something not to be regarded lightly. It disparages reason, and says reason is of the natural man, and to be held always in subordination to faith. The thing of most importance to be done, the thing most pleasing to Heaven, the thing without which there is no safety or salvation, is to believe, simply believe. And the explanation of the mystery, why the old theology is able to retain its hold upon the minds of the people as it does, lies, more than anywhere else, in just this fact, that it teaches that men must not doubt, must not question; they must believe. To use their reason in connection with religion, beyond a certain very narrow limit, is of the devil.


I shall never forget my own long and bitter experience in this particular. After doubts and misgivings about different doctrines of the old theology began to arise in my mind and trouble me, I was kept on the rack of mental torture for months and years by being told by everyone whom I went to for light that my doubts were all temptations of the Evil One. I must pray against them. I must struggle against them. I must put them down, for the glorious doctrines of the true faith were doctrines to be reverently and implicitly believed, and not to be much reasoned about. The human reason was a depraved faculty. It had fallen with the fall of Adam, and so was to be distrusted.


Well, of course, a theology that has once obtained a hold upon the popular mind—and this theology got its hold, we must remember, in ages darker than ours, it could not do it now—but having once obtained a hold upon the popular mind, of course that hold would be very firm and hard to shake, because it guards so securely the initial—checking its adherents the moment they begin to doubt, saying, You must not doubt or question or reason, for all this is the very essence of sin.


And, of course, too, a theology which defends itself by forbidding or limiting inquiry, and by tabooing reason, must necessarily be an unreasonable theology. It declares itself to be devoid of reason in its very condemnation of reason. If it were itself rational, it would have no objection to being submitted to the tests of reason and inquiry. Things born of the light do not fear the light.


The most intelligent supporters of orthodoxy know only too well that every increase of light and intelligence tends to show the weakness of their theology. That is the reason why that theology has fought science as it has.


Orthodoxy seems instinctively to have perceived from the beginning that science is its enemy. And so, while it has made loud professions of friendship to science, and while many of its believers have been truly devoted to science, and in not a few cases have been themselves the promoters of science, yet, as a theology, it has not been friendly, but hostile to science. Scarcely anything in the history of civilization has been more conspicuous than was its bitter opposition to the Copernican system of astronomy, unless it be its later quite as ridiculous opposition to the science of geology. And today it is holding at arm's-length a large proportion of the leading scientific men of the world—especially of Germany, France, and Great Britain, and these are the leading scientific nations—and heaping upon these men such epithets as "skeptic," "infidel," and the like. And for what other reason, only because it sees that the tendency of these sciences and of the investigations of these men is to sap the foundation on which its leading doctrines stand? It grows uneasy; it trembles at the incoming of new light, because it knows not what one of its theories will next melt away before it as a phantom of the night. No, the investigations of reason have already made so fearful havoc with the doctrines of orthodoxy that I do not wonder that the cry should be sounded with redoubled fervor all along the line—"Believe, only believe; have faith; trust and accept, even when you can't see; and, above all things, do not put your confidence in reason. "I say, I don't wonder that this cry is sounded forth, with almost desperate earnestness, all along the line of the orthodox front.


3. I come now to my third point. Orthodoxy is immoral. I affirm that it is not only, first, contrary to the teachings of Jesus, and secondly, irrational, but that it is, thirdly, essentially immoral. Mind, I do not say that people who believe in orthodoxy are necessarily immoral people; nor do I say that men who preach orthodoxy never preach in addition to it, or, more accurately speaking, in opposition to it, morality. Certainly some men of morals irreproachable are men who undoubtedly regard orthodoxy as true; and some preachers, who preach with great vigor and power against sin and in favor of righteousness, are preachers of orthodox communions. What I say is that orthodoxy as a theology is mixed up, through and through, with ideas that are immoral in their tendency, and that nearly or quite every essential doctrine of it is either founded upon, or else necessarily involves, principles which, when legitimately carried out, and just in so far as they are legitimately carried out, lead to the degradation of God and the moral injury of men.


The fact that these tendencies are to some extent practically checked, and that these principles do not always flow out to their legitimate results, does not change the nature of the case at all. If I place upon my dinner-table bread that has poison in it, and serve it out to my family, it is only a poor excuse that I also serve out with it other food that is healthful, or even that I provide to some extent medicines and antidotes to the poison. The fact is, poison is poison, whether material poison or moral, and should never be given into either stomach or brain, nor can it be with impunity.


Let us for a moment look at a few of the leading doctrines of orthodoxy separately.


For example, the doctrine so earnestly preached of the infallibility of the Bible, or the idea concerning the Bible that every word of it is a word of God, and that the book must be accepted from cover to cover, with no reservations. See what that doctrine involves. It involves believing that it was right, for instance, for Joshua to conquer Canaan, to drive out a peaceful people, who had never offended him, from their homes, and moreover to murder, not only men, but helpless women and children, by thousands and thousands, for we are given to understand that all this was with the approval of God. And some of the most outrageous cases of all, of cruelty and wholesale murder of women and children, we are expressly told were by command of God. Now what kind of morality is that?


So also this view involves believing that it was right for David to pray against his enemies the most vindictive and cruel and shocking prayers as that they might be cut off, destroyed, have their bones broken, that God's vengeance might be upon them, that they might never be forgiven, that their wives and children might come to want, and find none to help them, that their little ones might be dashed against a stone. I need scarcely ask whether it was right for David to pray for such things. And yet they appear in the Psalms, and if the Psalms are all inspired so as to be infallibly perfect, then these dreadful and revengeful imprecations must be accepted as of God.


Again, you recollect the conduct of Jacob, how that with the connivance of his mother he deceived his blind old dying father, and made that father think he was his elder brother Esau, and so got his father's blessing, which Esau ought to have had, thus by dishonesty of the most flagrant kind supplanting his brother, and getting an advantage over him about the greatest possible for a man in those times to gain over another. And no word of condemnation is ever breathed against Jacob in the Bible account, but, on the contrary, he is everywhere represented as the especial favorite of God. What kind of morality is that? But every man who claims that the Bible is infallible, and to be accepted as every part and particle from God, and perfect, is obliged to receive all these and such like things (and there are scores of like cases in the Old Testament) as right. Now what is that but undermining morality, and degrading the character of God, in the most awful manner?


So, then, who will deny that the orthodox doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible, for one, is an immoral doctrine?


But turn from this to the doctrine of the fall of the race in Adam. That doctrine teaches that because of the sin of one man, the whole human race, not one of them yet born, and some of them not to come into existence until thousands of years later, are held to be guilty, and so terribly guilty that the punishment provided for them is eternal torment. Could anything be imagined more palpably unjust, and morally outrageous?


Then, again, the doctrine of election and foreordination. This teaches in essence that a father chooses and appoints from all eternity some of his own children to be saved and others to be lost. What kind of paternity is it that can do that? Could you do it, or I, even poor, erring, imperfect beings as we are? And if not, then think you God can, who is the perfect Father, infinite in power and wisdom, and goodness and love?


And the doctrine of the atonement as taught by orthodoxy. According to this doctrine, the race is guilty; Jesus is innocent. The innocent is punished; the guilty go free. What kind of morality is that? Why was the innocent punished, do I ask? So that justice might be satisfied, it is answered. But, I reply, that is precisely the way that justice is dissatisfied. Justice, that is real justice and not a pretense, never finds satisfaction in the punishment of innocence, no matter if the innocent party does offer himself of his own accord to be punished. To satisfy the demands of justice, the guilty must either be punished, or else forgiven, forgiven squarely and honestly for good cause. And in any transaction of punishing an innocent person, and playing it was the guilty person that was punished, justice can have no part or lot. It washes its hands of all such kind of thing.


Finally, the doctrine of sudden conversion—the teaching that one may step in a moment out of a condition deserving hell, into a condition fit for heaven, by simply performing the mental act of believing something! What a strange overturning of moral order does this involve! Suppose a case in point. Suppose here is a man who has lived a life as bad as a man can live. He has made a brute of himself; he has blasphemed God, and he has injured his fellow-men all in his power. He is a liar, a thief, an adulterer, a murderer. At last, after many escapes, he is arrested, tried, sentenced to death. Finding that he is really caught, with no chance for escape, he becomes alarmed. He is told to believe in Jesus and he shall be saved. He is converted, hung, goes to heaven. Here is another man who has lived a life most exemplary; he has been a dutiful son, a loving husband, a faithful father, a good citizen, a helper of the poor and needy and suffering always, a friend to every good cause, even a supporter of the church and a sustainer of religion, and, in his own way, according to the dictates of his own conscience, a worshiper of God. But he has never passed through that experience of mind called by orthodoxy believing in Jesus. He dies—is lost. The murderer who said "I believe," lifts up his eyes in heaven; the good man who omitted to say that, lifts up his in hell.


Is that kind of doctrine moral? Or is it not rather immoral in the worst way? Indeed, could any teaching be devised tending more strongly to put a premium upon vice and crime, and discourage virtue and morality, than that? If so, I see not what it is.


Other doctrines of orthodoxy might be shown to be as bad as these which I have mentioned. But I have gone far enough. If the specimens already looked at are not enough to condemn the whole system as in its nature dishonoring to God and destructive of virtue in men, then I am incapable of judging.


4. I come now to my fourth and last charge against orthodoxy, viz., that the time can be traced easily and clearly in the history of the Christian church, when all the more prominent of its doctrines arose, and the way in which they arose and foisted themselves upon Christianity.


The doctrine of the Trinity came into being, as is well known, in the third and fourth centuries, having had its origin, unquestionably, in the speculative and exceedingly mystical Neo-Platonism of Alexandria. A theological battle arose over it, which raged throughout Christendom, tearing in pieces the Greek and Latin churches in the most terrible manner, and awakening everywhere alienation and hatred where before had been peace and harmony. The council of Nicea, which established it as orthodox, and to be henceforth the faith of the church, for a long time hung in even balance over it; and when at last the council turned in favor of the doctrine, it was by a majority so small as to be insignificant; while there is not wanting evidence (and this from orthodox sources) that the real influence which turned the scale was the Emperor Constantine, a man who shaped all his course by what he thought policy, having several different times in his life changed back and forth between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism. And so, but for the influence of the crafty emperor, who happened at that moment to be training with the Trinitarian party, Unitarianism, the belief of the church up to that time, instead of Trinitarianism, would doubtless have been the prevailing doctrine of Christendom today.


Coming down a century or two, we find another new doctrine, spun out of the somber and metaphysical brain of Augustine, presenting itself to the church. This time it is the doctrine of total depravity. The controversy over this doctrine (called in history the Pelagian controversy) desolated Christendom for well-nigh a century. At last it carried in favor of the speculation of Augustine, and from that time total depravity, with the fall of the race in Adam, was a part of the faith of the Christian church.


Coming on down to the twelfth century, we find the doctrine of the atonement or the vicarious sacrifice of Christ appearing. The early church held to no such doctrine. For a long time after the death of Christ and the apostles, Christians were content with the simple representations and statements of the New Testament. And when at last, as the metaphysical ages came on, they began to frame speculative theories, the first theory they framed, looking at all in the direction of the modern doctrine of the atonement, was that Jesus died, not to pay any debt due to God, or to appease the wrath of God, or anything of that kind, but that he died to pay a debt to the devil. A compact had been entered into between God and the devil, that if God would give Christ over into his (the devil's) hands to afflict him and put him to death, he (the devil) would relinquish his claim upon the human race, and allow God to save them from hell. And that doctrine held sway as the received doctrine, until the twelfth century, when the great scholastic theologian Anselm published a book (Cur Deus Homo, in the year 1109), containing a new doctrine to the effect that Jesus died as a sacrifice demanded by God's justice. God's justice demanded the damnation of the whole race because of their fall in Adam, and Christ died in their place, so that they might go free. Well, this doctrine, propounded as it was in the very darkest time of the medieval night, and enforced by the great intellectual ability of its author, at last won its way to acceptance. And so we have it before us today, as a doctrine which we are asked to receive, or forfeit salvation.


Coming down the stream of history a little further, we find in the sixteenth century Luther's doctrine of justification by faith appearing, and a little further still, that cluster of doctrines known as Calvinism.


The history of the rise of all these doctrines was essentially similar. Each had its origin in the brain of some theological speculator; each won its way to acceptance in an age of comparative, and some of very great darkness, and only after a battle, which long raged and tore the church into hostile factious in the most sad and dreadful way.


And now, in our day, all these different doctrines have the audacity to come before intelligent people and demand to be accepted as Christian. Born at the times they were, and coming into the Christian church as they did, not one of them being held by the church in its earliest and purest ages, they yet have the face to claim to be the very essence of Christianity. To say the least, it is strange, passing strange! But enough.


So much, then, for some of the more prominent of the reasons I have to offer why I, for one at least, find myself compelled to reject orthodoxy as in no true sense Christianity, and to take my stand as a Christian outside of it, to worship the God of my fathers after the way that so many call heresy. A thought or two more, and I have done.


We often hear laments of the decline of Christianity, of the skepticism and materialism of the age, of the indifference of the more intelligent and educated classes to religion. It is said that physicians are generally skeptics, that lawyers are seldom attendants upon churches, that our leading editors and authors usually manifest little interest in spiritual things, that our leading politicians and statesmen are becoming more and more lost to all care for the Christian religion except as a sort of political power with the masses, to be turned to their own personal advantage. So also, it is often remarked that the leading businessmen of our great cities are coming to be less and less churchgoers. Now what does all this mean? It has a meaning. What is it? Ah! These tidings which I have been uttering in your ears this morning only tell too plainly what it means. It means nothing less startling than that the intelligence of this age and this country is growing away from a religion too narrow and too unreasonable for it. Things are taught as the essence of religion which vast numbers of these men have come to see are too trivial and absurd for them to give their time and attention to. Accordingly, while they are respectful to the institutions of Christianity, and in many cases rent pews and subscribe toward building churches, and even go so far as to favor their wives and children going to church, they themselves slip out of going just as much as possible, preferring to stay at home and read Tyndall, and Spencer, and Proctor, and the reviews, and their daily papers, from which they can get something that commends itself to their reason and feeds their intelligence, rather than go to churches and hear doctrines which they have heard a hundred times, and which appear the more plainly absurd the oftener they hear them. It is not very long since the New York Evangelist, speaking on this subject, used such startling words as these:


"Among all the earnest-minded young men, who are at this moment leading in thought and action in America, we venture to say that four-fifths are skeptical of the great historical facts of Christianity. What is taught as Christian doctrine by the churches claims none of their consideration, and there is among them a general distrust of the clergy, as a class, and an utter disgust with the very aspect of modern Christianity and of church worship. This skepticism is not flippant; little is said about it. It is not a peculiarity of radicals and fanatics; most of those who hold it are men of calm and even balance of mind, and belong to no class of ultraists. It is not worldly and selfish. Nay, the doubters lead in the bravest and most self-denying enterprises of the day."


Said the late Rev. Dr. Newman, in a recent address as reported in a secular paper: “Within the next decade, ay, and within the next five years, Christianity will be tried as it never has been tried before. There are men in England and America today, who will bring to the assault a ripeness of scholarship, a power of intellect, and a breadth of view, unequaled by the past, and there are men and women before me tonight who are destined to have their faith terribly shaken.”


It is not long since Bishop Simpson publicly declared that the time had passed by when the Christian church (meaning, of course, the orthodox Christian church) could recruit its ranks any longer from grown men; the only hope that was left to it now was the young, especially the children. Therefore he exhorted his religious brethren to give double diligence to their efforts to get firm hold of the children before they grew up, and, of course, got so intelligent (though he did not express it in exactly these words) as to turn their backs upon the churches.


What do all these things mean? Are any so blind that they cannot see? Alas! Alas! They mean, what these men whose words I quote are beginning to discern, that Christianity is entering upon a crisis such as it has never known before, not even in the persecutions of the second century, or the throes of the German reformation. But they mean vastly more than that; and the strange thing is that these men do not see it. They mean that the occasion and cause of the crisis is primarily the astounding folly and blindness of the Christian church itself in continuing, in the very face of all the light and intelligence of the age, to cling to a theology which that light and that intelligence are so fast and plainly discovering to be hollow and false.


The intelligence of the age does drift away from the teaching of the churches of this age, because it ought to; and it will continue so to drift, more and more, as surely as that truth is truth, and God rules, until the time comes when the Christian churches shall have a theology to offer men which does not oppose the plainest teachings of the Founder of Christianity; which does not outrage reason and common sense, which does not violate man's deepest sense of justice and right, and which has not plainly foisted itself upon Christianity from without, as orthodoxy has done.


I tell you that men who stand up today in this enlightened age and country to reaffirm the old decaying doctrines of orthodoxy are just bombarding the best brain and culture of the country right out of the churches. No matter if these men do draw crowded houses and win what for the moment seems a success. It is all the same. Their success is a rushlight. A whiff of sober reason blows it out. In the long run, in the deep and permanent and real effect which they produce, they drive the best thought and intelligence of the country away from Christianity and, sad as it is to say it, in the direction of disbelief of all religion. The only thing that can hold the intelligence of this age, not to say the certainly larger intelligence still of the ages coming, is a Christianity which is pure, reasonable, clear and clean from the degrading survivals of darker centuries—in a word, Christian. Such a Christianity, once held up in its divine beauty, cannot fail to commend itself to the earnest and devout minds of this and every other age.


And believe me, friends and brothers, such a Christianity is the certain inheritor of the future. We may not live to see the day when it shall prevail, but prevail it must and will, by and by, by and by.


northfield, Mass., October, 1875.

© 2006 American Unitarian Conference