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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
for them to do;
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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."
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.”
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
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.
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
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™