« PreviousContinue »
ART. II.-HOW IS LIFE TO BE MAINTAINED IN
THE UNITARIAN CHURCHES?
THERE seems, at the present moment, to be a general consciousness pervading the Unitarian mind that all is not satisfactory in the religious condition of the body; that somewhere in our constitution something is wanting; that our success is inconsiderable and disappointing; that our action is languid; that some of the elements necessary to an efficient spiritual operation on mankind are not included in our Faith, or neglected in our modes of Administration. Never was there less hope of accession to our numbers from foreign quarters. Even the most amiable zeal indulges no longer in the simplicity of conviction that a rational Christianity, as soon as it has exhibited itself, must run an easy and triumphant course; that conversions to a truth so apparent must take place by multitudes; and that the Establishment, when scattering splendid churches over the land, is only providing chapels for the Unitarians. Instead of this, we have tones of dejection, and not unfrequently of complaint, from individuals, Periodicals, and public meetings. The last and most emphatic expression of this sense of defect, insufficiency, and failure, is the CONFERENCE summoned to London for the nineteenth of June, “ to take into consideration the present state of the denomination, and to consult upon measures for promoting its future welfare." Although the time will not permit us to discuss in the present number schemes adopted or proposed, we hope in an article of Intelligence to give an account of what takes place in this first Unitarian general Council.
All these indications of a consciousness of want, though in themselves perhaps the best signs that there is still life and high purpose in the body, are proof sufficient that Unitarianism is no more satisfied than it has reason to be with its position in this country. We are grateful that we are not required to prove inefficiency or unhealthiness of condition; that we have not to awaken this painful consciousness. We believe that there is no apathy or insensibility to the truth. It is felt through the body, as a sensation uncomfortable, and not to be mistaken. So far, the best part of the work is done, and the healthiest promises of life exhibited. We are not deceiving ourselves. We are waking up; asking what can be done; and taught by failure that we have been deficient in some of the indispensable instruments of influence. We would gladly contribute something to direct the awakened mind aright to our real wants and weakness. We strongly hope that nothing external, nothing artificial, may be entertained as an efficient means of re-animating languid life, or strengthening a feeble influence. We wish to describe some of the most active causes of our present state, and to suggest the one Remedy in which we have confidence; the only source of influence to which we look for a Restoration, if indeed we should not rather say, for a New Creation.
The want of vitality in a religious community may be evidenced in two ways, either by the absence of increase from without, or by the absence of interest within, by a cold and feeble religious life in its existing members. The numbers of a party, or the warmth of a party, may be taken as the measures of its Life. Thin congregations or cold congregations may indicate the languor of a Faith. Apparently, our failure is in our want of increase; in our few and inconsiderable conversions; in our unpeopled chapels; in our feeble action upon other sects; but in reality, perhaps our failure is much more within the bosom of our own churches, than in any deficiency of external success; and numbers from all parties, though without formally joining our ranks, have been receiving our general principles much more rapidly than we ourselves have been carrying on the work of internal improvement; more rapidly than we ourselves have proceeded on those principles, and extracted from them their fruits of sentiment and truth, for the continual nourishment and edification of the minds that have already embraced them. Many and satisfying are the proofs of an indirect extension of our general spirit and principles, the only kind of extension that, with any knowledge of the world and of the slow processes of thought in the mind of society, could ever have been expected. We have no reason to complain that the leaven is not leavening the lump; and the complaints that are made on this head savour more of the zeal of partizanship than of the purified love of Truth. Everywhere a nobler and freer spirit is manifesting itself; but this does not satisfy us, because the number of our avowed adherents is not swelled by such modes of progress. We want such a Triumph of Truth as will magnify our sectarian importance. We want the progress of opinion to be marked by conspicuous conversions—to be signalized by party accessions. We are not satisfied with that gradual assimilation, by which all important changes in modes of thought work their way through the mind of a people. Large and avowed conversions in the present condition of society with respect to Religion, are events impossible. The public mind is not directly exercised on these subjects. Its efforts of active and eager thought do not take these directions, and consequently such definite results of Opinion, such clear and sharply-cut conclusions, as force men upon the public profession of a newly attained faith, must very rarely be occurring. Imperceptibly fine is the process by which Truth insinuates itself into minds that are solely dependent for the growth of their views upon sympathy with the growing spirit of society; upon the slow enlightenment of public opinion. The feelings of such minds are gradually changing long before their convictions assume new forms; and by a process of assimilation which they are often undergoing without suspecting, their transformation is conducted. This description of progress, this sympathetic action of Truth upon the mass of minds, is constantly proceeding, though the results are not broadly manifested, though they make no apparent difference in the relative strength of parties, and occasion no accessions or secessions to or from sects. The very zeal of the fanatical party betrays their consciousness and their fear of this fact; and that if the progress of our spirit and views is not enough to satisfy ourselves, it is quite enough to alarm them. Their constant complaint and terror is of the spread of a growing liberalism. It is not so much any definite opinions, the prevalence of any particular heresies, as a general latitudinarian spirit, that fills them with alarm. It is the milder tone of society on these subjects from which they augur so badly. They are perfectly aware of what seems to have escaped some of ourselves, that every improvement in the spirit of the age, every practical expression of that respect which man, as a member of society, owes to the mental rights of his fellow man, is the necessary precursor of other and more important revolutions; is the herald, at whatsoever distance, of corresponding religious reformations; of new developments of spiritual liberty. Few things mark so accurately the growing strength and importance of opinions, as the tone in which they are spoken of by opponents. It is a satisfactory sign of the progress of a liberal spirit in Theology, that the tones of contempt are dropped—and the sharper tones of fear, alarm, and hatred substituted; tones that mark the sense of a felt and approaching danger.
Theunsatisfactory position of Unitarianism is not then in relation to its influence on the generalmind, forits spirit, the spirit of liberty and love, is spreading in all directions. We must look nearer home for an explanation of our feeling of discomfort. There is a feeling amongst us that Unitarianism is not what it ought to be, entirely apart from the question of its reception in the world. There is a growing idea that, even for ourselves, its influence is not sufficiently full, varied, intense, generous yet stringent, comprehensive of our whole nature. Men never complain of views that warm, nourish, and delight themselves, merely because others do not adopt and profess them. The faith that gladdens, and
elevates, and occupies a mind, is never suspected by that mind of inefficiency or feebleness. Let us be true. The real cause of our dissatisfaction is the want of warmth, nourishment, interest, development, within ourselves. We are uncomfortable, not because others refuse to come to our warmth, but because we feel cold in ourselves. An attempt to trace some of the causes of this want of strong interest, of the sense of sufficiency, of the mind's occupation
and perfect satisfaction in the nutritive power of our faith, will perhaps place us on that track of thought which is most likely to suggest, and guide us to the Remedy.
I. A congregational, that is, a popular interest cannot be kept alive upon convictions that are merely combative--the effect of which is mainly to detach those who hold them from the religious sympathies of the world around them. It is a stern and cold bond to feel ourselves merely separatists. Separation from others, however it may gratify the feeling or the principle of the time, will not continue to supply a sustaining and nourishing interest, if it merely gives us over to a barren liberty, the assertion and defence of which we regard as the peculiar mission of our section of Christianity. A lofty and just sense of the value of religious liberty and of the importance of individual convictions, is enough to do the first work of religious reformation; to wage the needful wars against intolerance; and to carry out the emancipated hosts; but this zeal of battle lasts no longer than our mental Rights are in peril, and spiritual liberty is contending for her life; when the high struggle is over, and the victory won, then it is not Liberty, but the fruits of Liberty, that must feed the interests of our hearts; and instead of standing upon the ground we have fought for, with arms in our hands, and the sentiment of resistance swelling in our bosoms, we must take quiet and delighted possession, and erect the tents of worship wherein our souls may use the freedom we have contended for; and, undisturbed by antagonism, productively pursue the “whatsoever things are true, holy, pure, lovely."
Those who have to fight for their liberty are not in the best position for enjoying their liberty. They are defending or contending for that which others are employing. They are making a battle-field of the ground which, under happier circumstances, they would be peacefully cultivating. The sentiment of combat rises up, and interferes with the finer sensibilities which surrender themselves in entire devotion to the good. They are more engaged in guarding against danger from without, than in cherishing life and warmth within. Their position has made them afraid of error, rather than in love with truth; indignant opponents of religious evils, rather than ardent and devoted cultivators of the religious soil.
Now, however the tendencies of such a position may suit professional theologians who have educated their tastes in such a school, they do not long feed the religious affections or keep alive the interest of a congregation. It is not the evil they escape from, but the positive good they habitually obtain; the states of pleasurable feeling and emotion that can be kept up in them, that dwell most in men's minds, and influence their associations with a religion. The principles which separate us from others, though from
their position very naturally occupying largely the minds of our Ministers, are not the principles which are best fitted to nourish the religious life of our congregations. Our ministers naturally dwell much upon the points of difference which insulate them from the sympathies of the Christian world, and impose upon them the high and solemn duty of standing apart at whatsoever sacrifice of feeling or of interests. Our congregations are not individually so distinctly called upon to look at the negative or separating principles of our faith; this question is not brought so personally or so recurringly before them; their sympathies are more with their own positive religious wants, their own positive demands for a religious nourishment, than with the preliminary questions of Right that have formed them into a party; and hence arises a frequent uncongeniality between the minds of ministers and the minds of congregations; the one feeling the responsibility of assuming and maintaining an independent position; of dividing the Church of Christ; and therefore constantly re-asserting the first principles which make our points of departure from the majority; the other thinking little of their position, but much of their religious affections and wants, and therefore desiring only the positive aspects of their faith ; its consolation, its strength, its inspirations to duty and high effort, its power to subordinate the lower cares and passions, its ideality.
Our ministers are in many cases more sectarian than our congregations. This does not arise in them from a naturally sectarian temper of mind, but from yielding without resistance, perhaps without knowledge of the evil influence, to the injurious tendencies of their position. This tone of mind adheres to them even when engaged with topics not controversial; with the devotional, the practical, the spiritual. They do not pursue these with the fulness, the relish, the overflowing soul, which mark the outpourings of a mind that speaks on loved subjects which are its familiar and undisturbed delight. They speak as those whose rights to enter on these demesnes are not sufficiently uncontested to have given them the quiet, full, and trustful tones of tranquil and secured possession. This tendency of mind, exceedingly natural to their position, frequently throws them out