At the Temple Gate


FROM the time I met Mr. K. in the latter part of February, 1894, when he told me the enchanting story of the millionaire philanthropist who had placed a million dollars in his hands as an endowment for a college, as I have already stated in the preceding chapter, until September of the same year, when I was to enter that college as an especially favored student, my whole life was a state of intense expectancy. The future so beamed with joy that, like a child on Christmas eve, I often wished I might have fallen asleep at the end of our conversation and awakened in the class-room at the college.

In the meantime, my friend Mr. K. was leading to a successful conclusion negotiations to secure control of the small college at North Manchester, Indiana. Finally, the college, which had been struggling painfully for years to maintain its existence, was placed in his hands, and he proceeded with characteristic western enterprise to mature the plans stipulated in the endowment contract.

On the fourth day of September, 1894, my pilgrim staff rested in North Manchester. There I found Mr. K. bearing the prerogatives of his office as college president with the simple dignity of a Lincoln. The citizens were happy that a new and virile educational era was dawning upon their town. A corps of efficient professors took charge of the various departments, and a happy student body, numbering about two hundred, sought the pabulum of knowledge at the richly endowed institution. Those of us who were to receive special financial aid were known as the millionaire students, which designation we bore with becoming dignity. Literary societies, political clubs, and prayer circles were soon organized, and all signs inspired the hope that ere long our college would merit the title of the ‘Harvard of the Middle West.’

The theological department, in which I was especially interested, was under the sole control of an elderly preacher who succeeded eminently in convincing his pupils that he knew Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He was a devout man, brimful of friendliness and fatherly counsel. Perhaps his most serious defect was his strong tendency to doze during recitations. On one occasion, in order to awaken him in a polite manner, we sang a hymn. He woke and was so pleased with our melody that he discoursed to us for about half an hour on the power of music over a congregation.

My life in North Manchester was most happy. American friendliness and hospitality never seemed to me to be more free and abundant than in that little city. The demand for me as a lecturer and preacher was always more than I could supply. On one occasion I was highly honored by being asked to represent the college at a patriotic celebration and make an address on George Washington. I took for my text the story of the hatchet, and proved conclusively that the Father of his Country was a very honest man, concluding with the admonition that, in order to be worthy of such a father, as American citizens we should all be honest.

The entire population of the college, as well as the town, had implicit faith in the ‘anonymous millionaire’ until the beginning of the second term, when the treasurer of the college, having spent all the tuition money he had received at the beginning of the school year, became suddenly insolvent. He was in frequent consultation with the president, when attitudes spoke louder than words. The countenances of our poor professors began to betray a portentous situation, and the student body was seized with a secret fear such as is felt upon the first intimations of an earthquake. At last the treasurer became more communicative and informed the faculty that the college was in ‘financial straits.’ ‘What? With a million dollars back of it?’ When appealed to for funds, the president stated rather cheerfully that ultimately all was safe. The reason, he said, that the ‘millionaire’ had not yet turned over to the college treasurer the first installment of the endowment fund was due to the fact that the citizens of the town had not as yet met the terms of their agreement by beginning the erection of a certain building for the college. The citizens protested that they had never entered into such an agreement, but that they were willing to aid the college in every possible way, provided that a committee chosen from among their most highly respected citizens be permitted to meet the ‘donor’ himself and ascertain his wishes with regard to what was expected of them. But the president contended that to reveal even the name of his wealthy friend would be base treachery on his part, adding emphatically that he would rather resign than commit such a deed.

‘Some one had blundered,’ and thus what seemed, at least to Mr. K. and to me, one of the most significant educational enterprises of the nineteenth century was practically killed in its infancy, just because a millionaire philanthropist insisted on interpreting literally the scriptural injunction, ‘When thou doest thine alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, that thine alms may be in secret.’ Just because of such a technicality, we, millionaire students, were suddenly reduced to pauperism.

Whatever the original design of Mr. K. was, I thanked him for his many kindnesses to me and faced again my college problem, saying to myself, ‘ Wait on the Lord; be of good courage.’

My few months of college life in North Manchester were not unfruitful of good things. My close contact with individuals and families in a typical American town deepened my insight into the life of a country my love for which had already become a ruling passion. Within the college I enjoyed the excellent opportunity of observing the various moods of American youth, from the political, social, and religious points of view. The few regular lessons I had were not without their guiding influence toward systematic thinking; my vocabulary was greatly enriched and my self-confidence as a public speaker much strengthened. And not the least of the results of my brief career as a ‘millionaire student’ was the following smile of fortune: —

During my last week in the ill-starred college, I met a Methodist minister of Des Moines, Iowa, the Reverend W. A. Wiseman, whose three children were among our students. Mr. Wiseman said to me in a very gracious, complimentary manner that, two days before, he had heard me give a lecture on the Orient, with some observations on American life, which not only deeply interested him, but convinced him that I had a message which the general public needed to hear. Furthermore, he said that he was in deep sympathy with my purpose to secure a college education and enter the ministry. Therefore, if the offer met my approval, he would like to be my ‘advance agent’ and plan for me a regular ‘lecture tour’ in the farther West, which would bring me more money than any lecturing for a ‘collection’ could. His final proposition was that he would give me two hundred dollars and pay all my expenses for twenty-four consecutive dates. He explained that since I was not known to fame, he could not ask a higher price for a lecture than twenty or twentyfive dollars, and that, by the time he had paid all my expenses, the cost of advertising and other incidentals, his share of the proceeds would be much smaller than mine.

Of course, two hundred dollars had not the hypnotic charm of a million, but it was the biggest sum of real money I had ever fancied my lecturing would bring me in one month. I did not allow Mr. Wiseman to leave my room before I closed the contract with him.

My lecturing tour began in the city of Des Moines, most auspiciously. A large and appreciative audience gave me a most cordial reception. The lowa State Register published, the following day, this report (in all probability written by Mr. Wiseman): ‘Mr. A. M. Rihbany, a native of the Holy Land, lectured at Grace M. E. Church last night to a large and delighted audience. He is a speaker of great ability and keeps his audience in fine humor from beginning to end. No lecture given in Grace Church ever gave such universal satisfaction.’ That was all that was necessary for us to ‘sweep’ the state of Iowa and a considerable portion of Illinois. Prosperity and joy attended our course, at the end of which I found in my possession, for the first time, two hundred dollars in real ‘greenbacks.’ Certainly now not all the Fates could prevent me from securing a college education.

Early in September, 1895, I matriculated at the Ohio Wesleyan University. My fear that I might not be able to complete the regular course led me to elect a special course. I chose my studies as a boy picks apples out of a basket — taking the biggest. All but one of the branches I elected came in the Junior and Senior years. To the protest of the president that such studies were too advanced for me, I answered most conceitedly that I should be very willing to take less advanced studies if I failed to measure up to the other students in those higher classes. I was permitted to follow the course I had chosen. The compassion of my professors, coupled with some effort on my part, prevented me from being transferred to the lower classes.

The Ohio Wesleyan University of that period was suffering from that affliction which was, and, to a large extent still is, common to denominational institutions. As a rule, its professors were chosen not so much with reference to their qualifications as instructors and educators, as to their doctrinal ‘soundness.’ Consequently the university was heavily over-preachered. The surplus of doctrinal soundness could not be used to make up the deficit, occurring on the educational side. But the branches in which I was deeply interested— psychology, ethics, history, and English literature — were taught by two professors who were considered the most modern and efficient in the entire institution. They had ‘a vital touch to them,’ and their methods stimulated thought and encouraged independent research.

At the end of my second term in college, I became again ‘financially embarrassed.’ In view of the fact that among the eight hundred students there were many ‘ local preachers ’ who were endeavoring to make their way through college by preaching in the churches for miles around, my opportunities for lecturing and preaching were greatly limited. Was it not, therefore, the part of wisdom for me to leave college for a time and reënter the lecture field with my friend Mr. Wiseman, secure the necessary funds, and return to the university the following September? So it seemed to me and to my good professors, who, while regretting the emergency which made such a course necessary, earnestly hoped for my return to them in the autumn.

When, about the middle of March, 1896, I left the Ohio Wesleyan University for the little town of Morenci, Michigan, where my friends had moved from Wauseon, Ohio, and where I was destined to live for several years, I little dreamed that I should never see a college again as a student. In April and May I ‘toured the West’ again as a lecturer, and again in August. Shortly after my return to Morenci, the Methodist minister called on me on a Friday evening and requested me to preach in his stead at a union meeting of all the churches of the town, to be held in the Congregational Church on the following Sunday evening. The time for preparation was short, but the request was urgent and I consented to serve. In my brief diary of that year, written in Arabic, I find the following entry, literally translated: ‘Saturday, September 5 — Spent the greater part of this day in preparing myself for a sermon which I will preach in the Congregational Church here at a general (union) meeting.’

On the following Sunday evening a large audience taxed the capacity of the Congregational Church. My text was from Luke XII, 48: ‘To whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.’ The cordial eagerness of my auditors was inspiring, and I spoke from the depth of my soul.

At the close of the service many of my hearers were most generous with their appreciative remarks; as typical Americans they believed in encouraging a beginner, in ‘helping a fellow along.’ But my sermon on that evening brought to me other significant and utterly unexpected results. During the following week the senior deacon of the Congregational Church came to me with the following, to me most astonishing, proposition. ‘Our people,’ he said, ‘were so pleased with your sermon last Sunday night that they have directed me to ask you if you would not take charge of our pulpit for the coming winter and become our regular pastor.’ For the moment I could not believe that the good man was really serious in what he said. ‘I to become your regular pastor?’ was my astonished question to him. ‘Yes, if you will,’ he replied with a very genial smile.

To my objection on the ground that my English was as yet barbarous, and utterly unfit for devotional services; that I had not had a college or theological education, and had not the slightest knowledge of pastoral duties, he replied to the effect that colleges did not really make preachers; that although I did at times split the infinitive and use an adjective where an adverb should have been used, all such matters were of small importance. ‘There is something vital in your utterances,’ he added, ‘and it is that something which we are after. Your emphasizing the wrong word or syllable now and then gives your message a pleasant flavor. As to pastoral duties, you will learn them as you go.’

Notwithstanding the fact that the gracious words of the deacon greatly expanded my youthful vanity, I did not feel vain enough to accept the offer. I consented, however, to supply the pulpit of the Congregational Church for a few Sundays before going West on another lecturing tour. So I did. But upon my return from the West, those good Congregationalists renewed their offer to me with greater insistence and cordiality, and again I consented only to supply their pulpit for a season.

But, on this occasion, I urged another objection to my becoming the regular pastor of a church. About that time the entire country was on fire with political excitement. The campaign of 1896, one of the most agitating, most spectacular campaigns in the history of America, was upon us, and, as a true patriot, fired with the zeal of a new convert, I decided to remain free from the limitations of a ministerial position in order that I might ‘serve my country politically.' I would first do my utmost to save the nation from the ‘disgrace and ultimate ruin of cheap money.' Bimetallism, ‘sixteen-to-one,’ the double standard, and other heresies, seemed to me to be like smallpox, cancer, and diphtheria, which must be stamped out at whatever cost. I would preach on Sundays to the best of my ability under the circumstances, but on all other days I would place myself on the altar of the ‘Gold Standard,’the savior of the commercial integrity of the nation.

I devoted myself unreservedly to the study of the monetary question. You might not think that my sources — campaign documents — were the most reliable, but they were the only means at hand, and the time was short. Besides, they had been published by Republicans whose learning and veracity I had no reason to suspect — chiefly because the Republican party had ‘saved the Union’ in 1861-65, long before I was born.

I did make several speeches which met with the heartiest approval of my fellow citizens —the Republicans. One of them, an influential leader in local politics, said to me one day, ‘You can’t convince me that you had never studied the monetary problem before this campaign. You must have studied it in Europe or somewhere else. I have learned more from you on the present issue than from those “ big guns ” that the State Central Committee sends to us. You ought to head for the Legislature instead of the pulpit. Do let us start the “boom”” for the next state campaign.'

The suggested ‘boom’ had no attraction for me. My goal was the pulpit. But I was decidedly proud of what I did in that great campaign. No king, I believe, ever felt more exalted with his crown and sceptre than I did whenever I said, ‘My country!' Just think of me, the child of ages of oppression, now having a great country to serve, to defend, nay, to save from impending ruin! It was undefiled glory to address ‘my fellow citizens,” even to carry a torch — a lighted one — and join the procession under the Stars and Stripes.

The country having been ‘saved’ at the election, I turned my undivided attention again to the ministry. The Congregationalists of Morenci were still waiting for me with the attractive offer to become their pastor; my relations with them had been growing more pleasant as time passed, and, after much hesitation and with some misgivings as to my fitness for the position, I accepted the ‘call’ and postponed indefinitely the matter of my return to college.

It may not be uninteresting to the reader to know that I did not come into the office of a pastor alone. The romance of ‘love at first sight’ had already occurred; Cupid’s arrows, which no barriers of race or language can check, had already pierced two hearts, the one Semitic, the other Aryan, and made them bleed for one another. The sacred union, which the Church blesses and the State makes legal, followed, and brought to my side an American wife from Ohio to share with me the trials and triumphs of the ministry. And it may interest the reader to know also that notwithstanding the fact that, in reporting this marriage, the editor of the Ohio State Journal used the heading, ‘An Ohio School Teacher Has Poor Taste,’ I have already forgiven him, for he knew not what he did, — he never saw me.

Now before undertaking to write the Gospel which I felt commissioned to preach when I assumed the office of a Christian minister, I wish to mention an event which bears a very close relation to my political activities. When war between this country and Spain seemed inevitable, I decided that if the circumstances required I would enlist, not as a chaplain, but as a private soldier. Consequently I wrote to my father with regard to the matter, begging not only his opinion but his consent. Having in mind the warlike spirit of the Rihbany clan, I was not very greatly astonished when I received the following letter: —

BETATER, LEBANON, SYRIA.To our Beloved and Honored Son, may God protect him:
We send you our intense love and parental blessings from the depth of our hearts which are deeply wounded for your absence, for you are the possessor of our hearts in life and in death. We ask daily the mighty God to bless you and keep you and multiply the fruits of the labor of your hands. Your letter is received and we thank God that you and your honorable wife are safe and well. We learn from your letter that there is war between your government and that of Spain and that you intend to enlist if needed. This news causes us intense anxiety and life seems worthless without you. Nevertheless, O dear son, such being the case, we commit you to God, hoping that his mighty arm may protect you. First we ask that God may bring peace on earth; and second we beseech you, O our son, not to shrink from entering the army to fight for your government. We know that you are brave, and bravery is characteristic of your clan and ancestors. As long as you are an American citizen, you must fight for your exalted government, and not only you, but if your brothers can help fight your enemies we would gladly send them over to America. America has done much for you, and you ought to pay her back by fighting her enemies as an honorable man. We hope to see your luminous, smiling face again, but let us say, under the circumstances, ‘God’s will be done.’ Your mother sends a thousand kisses to you and your wife. The Reverend Father, our priest Michael, sends also his rich blessing. May God prolong your days.

Here I had not only my father’s consent, but his mandate, to enlist. But Spain was considerate enough to give up the fight before I deemed it necessary to don the ‘blue.’


When I first came into the pulpit as a regular minister, I was granted a salary of six hundred dollars a year and a ‘donation’ — that is, the proceeds of an annual church supper at which the guests were supposed to pay more than the repast was worth. The success of the donation depended largely on the weather. I was simply a layman in earnest. The conventional phraseology of the pulpit was well-nigh unknown to me. I prayed at the sacred desk as simply as in my secret chamber, and preached in an unaffected conversational tone.

As has been already indicated, I had had no college education, no familiarity with authoritative systems of theology, and no extensive memories of creeds and catechisms. I was supremely conscious of one great fact, namely, that by my sincere and reverential consent to serve in the office of a Christian minister, I was ordained to preach the Gospel of Christ in the simplicity of the New Testament and not necessarily as it has been restated by any group of theologians. This attitude toward the ministerial office was the cumulative result of all my religious past.

Having departed from the Greek Church in my youth, I carried away with me from that fold, not doctrines but religious feelings. My Mother Church exerted upon me unconscious, mystic, indefinable spiritual influences. In the almost entire absence of preaching in that church, doctrines are only implied in the ritual, not directly taught to the laity. As a Greek Orthodox, I simply took it for granted that the tenets of the faith of my church were absolutely correct.

When I first came in contact with Protestantism in the American mission school at Suk-el-Gharb, that faith appealed to me as a more stimulating, more enlightened, and more enlightening form of the Christian religion than the one into which I was born. It was the intellectual and ethical phases of Protestantism which drew me away from the less reflective faith of my fathers. True, here I was taught doctrine, but always with the understanding that Protestantism was the Christianity of the open Bible, the individual conscience and private interpretation. Consequently, in that early period of my religious history, whenever I glanced over the scroll of my destiny, and in so far as I was able to do so, I thought of myself as a free man in Christ.

When I left my father’s house in far-off Lebanon and came to the New World to struggle and to suffer, it was not the learned polemics and authoritative creeds of theologians which kept my heart from breaking. It was God, the compassionate Father, and Christ, the triumphant fellow-sufferer, who said to me, ‘Fear not, be not dismayed.’ It was He who loves us more than a mother loves her babe who walked with me the rough road of hunger and nakedness and loneliness, and was with me in the musty darkness of the tenement houses of New York, as a strengthening and consoling presence.

In my travels in this country before I entered the pulpit I studied Christianity not in catechisms but in the faces and characters and helpful deeds of living men and women of all creeds and no creed. I never knew the exact doctrinal positions of such persons. What I was aware of was that by their reverential and friendly attitude toward God and man, by the sanctity of their lives and their readiness to aid every good endeavor, such men and women addressed themselves to my inmost soul as fresh revelations of the divine spirit and as inspiring examples of the Christ-life.

Now, do you suppose that when I came into the pulpit to break the bread of life to my congregation, I was going to close my eyes to all these open visions of the spiritual life, my Protestant freedom and the simplicity of the New Testament, and turn to dusty and musty theological documents to find my faith, my God, and my Christ? To do so seemed to me to be like forsaking my newly acquired freedom as an American citizen and returning to the bondage of Turkish rule. No; as God revealed himself to Isaiah and Paul, so He reveals himself to me and to every soul that seeks Him. The Council of Nicæa, or any other council, had no more right to make an authoritative and infallible creed for the succeeding generations than it had the right to make an infallible bill-of-fare for every age and race.

With such ideas and convictions as my background, I preached to my people with the utmost directness and sincerity of which I was capable. My hearers often told me that I did not preach ‘after the usual manner,’ to which I answered that I did not know what the ‘usual manner’ was. We loved one another. Our church prospered to the extent that we had to build an addition to our auditorium in order to accommodate our growing congregations and church activities.

During my ministry of nearly three years at Morenci, as I had no public library at hand and as I had but few books of my own, my reading was of necessity miscellaneous. My theological library consisted of two commentaries on the Bible: the one (written in the seventeenth century) given to me by a friend; the other (written in the eighteenth century) I bought from an enterprising publisher at a ‘slaughter sale of epoch-making books.' Both of these commentaries are treasure-houses of preconceived ideas regarding God’s attitude toward man and the universe. But during those years three books of quite different type fell into my hands. The first was The Apostolic Age, by Professor A. C. McGiffert, concerning which, when I had read it, I concluded that its author believed in making use of his mental faculties and his reason even when writing ‘sacred history.’ The other two were The Theology of Civilization, and The Religion of a Gentleman, both by the Reverend Charles F. Dole, D.D., of Boston. These books convinced me not only that their author was a truly civilized man, but that he had succeeded in sounding the spiritual depths of human interrelations.

But my real book of theology was the New Testament. I read it with the freedom with which the Master read the Old Testament in his day — as the freeman of the Spirit and not the bondman of the letter. I read it in my study, on trains, and in railway stations, with all my spiritual faculties alert, not so much to know what every single text meant as to discover the controlling purpose of the whole book.

It is indeed most difficult, if not impossible, to analyze the religious consciousness chronologically. But the fixing of dates and the defining of eras is not necessary here, because I am not writing a diary of events but trying to make a confession of faith. What I feel certain of is that no person can read the records of the spiritual life, as they are inscribed in the souls of wellmeaning, kindly disposed men and women and the New Testament, with reverent freedom, — taking into consideration the mentality and the social habits of the times and country in which it was written, — without feeling upborne by a spiritual tide high above all creeds and dogmas. It was such a state of mind of which I became intensely conscious during my second year in the pulpit. The words of the Master, ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself,’ and, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,’ held undisputed sway over all my thoughts and words. For me Christianity shook itself free from all divisive dogmas and appeared as the religion of brotherly love, of trust and salvation, and not of fear and damnation. All good men of whatever creed or nationality seemed to me to be friends and disciples of Christ. In this frame of mind, I could not, of course, be an efficient helper at those ‘ revivals ’ at which professional ‘evangelists’ consigned to hell the majority of mankind. A revival always seemed to me more like a tragedy, poorly acted, than a profound spiritual experience. Whenever the evangelist would compress the message and mission of Christ so as to fit the narrow dimensions of his own particular view of Protestantism, and urge his hearers (and by implication the world at large) to believe or perish, my whole soul would say no. He who has taught us to forgive ‘seventy times seven,’ and to love our enemies, will not torture his enemies forever.

As all thoughts gravitate toward expression, and in view of the fact that I never intended to believe one thing and preach another, as time passed, my pulpit utterances became increasingly infected with liberalism. In proportion as the spiritual Christ prevailed with me over the dogmatic Christ, I felt the limitations of my theological environment and the suspicions of the conservatives in the community. My conception of my newly acquired freedom as priceless, made me decidedly inhospitable to arbitrary restraints. When on one occasion one of my deacons advised me to keep my ‘broad views’ to myself and preach the ‘accepted doctrines,’ I answered rather abruptly that I and my forefathers for centuries had suffered enough political and religious repression; that I had not learned my ‘ broad views ’ at any heretical school. My teachers were Congregational Protestantism and Americanism, both of which urged me to ‘stand fast in the freedom wherewith Christ hath made us free.’


Shortly after the close of the Spanish-American War, at the urgent invitation of my parents, who longed to ‘behold my face again before death parted us,’ and to ‘revive their hearts by beholding the Lady, my beloved American wife,’ I visited Syria. The people of Betater, both aristocrats and commoners, gave us a royal welcome. All the clans of the town called on us in fifties and hundreds. Invitations to feasts were more than we could accept. For the time being, the aristocrats admitted me into their ranks with cheerful generosity as ‘a man who had progressed much in the land of effrenj.’

How did the old home appear to me after an absence of seven years? Well, from the pretentious buildings of Beyrout to the ordinary dwellings of Betater, everything seemed to me amazingly small. The scale of my vision had been so enlarged in giant America that upon my arrival in Betater the place seemed to me for all the world like a kindergarten. And what was even more astonishing to me was my unconscious departure from many of the customs of my people. The friendliness of the Syrians is very inquisitive. It has very little regard for what Americans call ‘private matters.’ On the very evening of our arrival, old friends assailed me with a multitude of questions which could be answered only by the laying bare of both my outer and inner worlds. One day an acquaintance, whom I had forgotten altogether, arrived at our home. He said to me that he had journeyed two hours for the purpose of seeing my ‘ blessed face,’ and to inquire particularly as to how much money I had — in all — and how I managed to get an American wife. Of course I was asked by many how old my American wife was, and whether the ‘clear color in her face was natural.’ It required all the Yankee shrewdness I had acquired in America to evade such questions without giving offense.

At the invitation of our old parish priest we attended mass in the church of my earlier years. Contrary to the rules, two chairs were placed for us near the reader’s desk, where I used to stand during mass before I left the church of my fathers. There I gazed again at the old Mizpeh, — altar of sacrifice, — the robed priest, the pictures of saints, the candlesticks, and the worshiping congregation. The priest sent us two pieces of the korban — consecrated bread — with which distinguished members of the congregation are favored during mass, and which is the symbolic remnant of the sacred feast which was eaten at religious gatherings in bygone days. That sense of reverence which I have never failed to experience in a house of worship of whatever faith, invested the hour with solemnity. Nevertheless, what I had become in the New World could not be easily reconciled to what I had been in the Old World. The service awakened in me old feelings and sentiments, but they were such feelings and sentiments as one experiences while turning over the pages of an old picture-book with which one had been familiar in childhood.

As I looked at the worshipers before me gazing reverently at those material objects, made sacred to them by long associations, I said to myself, Suppose that all these objects were taken away from these persons, would they still know what their religion was? To the remote ancestors of these men, Jesus spoke in simple, fluid, living parables. Those parables have become hardened into material objects in the ancient ecclesiastical communions, and into rigid creeds at the hands of more modern theologians. Christ recognized neither of these forms. There is no greater warrant in his Gospel for an inflexible creed than for this lavish spectacle. Let those who find religious inspiration in such forms have them. For my part, I prefer that Christianity which was preached on the Mount, by the sea side, at Jacob’s Well, and in the upper room on Mount Zion — the Christianity of the open air and the open mind.

The governmental, religious, and social institutions of the land of my birth seemed to me to be in distressing harmony with one another, and turned my gaze with a profounder sense of appreciation toward forward-looking America, the land of light, liberty, and active hopefulness. I felt, as never before, that as an American citizen my religion must be as free, as progressive, and as hopeful as the genius of my adopted country.

While on that voyage and during a short stay in Naples and in England, whenever I found myself in the company of an enlightened person, whether preacher or layman, I took the opportunity to discuss with that person the ‘present state of the religious world.’ Of the clerical orders, I conversed with Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Unitarians. What was pleasantly surprising to me in all such conversations was the fact that almost every person with whom I discussed the momentous question of religion impressed me with the idea that discontent with many of the old statements of religion, and a desire for new and more enlightened ones, was very strong among many men in all communions. By all this I was much encouraged and confirmed in my belief that in my limited sphere I was facing the light of a new and happier day.

But when, upon returning to America, I made my views more fully known in my Michigan parish, I was met with more determined opposition. As usually happens in such cases, a very lively local theological controversy of a few months’ duration, which in all probability would not have assumed such significance in a larger centre of population, agitated and entertained the community. Of the many amusing incidents which occurred during that controversy, the following are a few samples.

After hearing one of my liberal sermons, an elderly gentleman of impenetrable conservatism, was asked what he thought of the discourse. ‘Well, sir,’ was his prompt and decisive answer, ‘it is the surest way to hell that I know of.’

A good Methodist, an old man of saintly purity, called on me one day to express his regrets at my departure from ‘sound doctrine.’ At my invitation, the good man dined with us. In the course of our conversation, he assured me that I was in danger of eternal damnation because, in the sight of God, I was no better than a drunkard. ‘But,’ I asked, ‘Brother G., if the matter were left to you, would you throw me into such a lake of fire and brimstone as you believe hell to be?’ ‘Of course not. I would n’t do it.’ ‘Don’t you think, Brother G., that God is as sensible and as good as you are? ’ With no little perplexity Mr. G. said, ‘He must be much better than I am. He is — well — God works in mysterious ways! ’


Fourteen years have elapsed since I fought the decisive battle of my religious freedom and followed definitely the open road of the religion of the spirit. Of these years, after leaving Morenci and previous to my settlement in Boston, I spent two years in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and nine of joyous ministerial activities in the youthful and progressive city of Toledo, Ohio. During these years, having been deprived of a regular college course, I have followed the path of my destiny in the world, not as a learned, but as a learning man. I have always sought to conserve the truths of the past. I have listened eagerly to the voices of scientists, philosophers, sociologists, and theologians. So far as my time and ability have permitted, I have acquainted myself with ‘Evolution,’ the ‘New Psychology,’ the ‘Higher Criticism,’ ‘Social Religion,’ and other fields of modern research. My contact with such men and systems of thought has been to me like the contact of the ‘men of Athens’ with Paul on Mars hill: they all say to me, ‘The God whom you ignorantly worship, Him declare we unto you.’

Every step forward confirms me in my belief that God’s judgments are those of a loving Father, that Christ’s mission is to awaken all men to their divine sonship, that religion is life, and salvation spiritual self-fulfillment. And I find it neither possible nor just to think of myself as the pupil and beneficiary of any one church or denomination to the exclusion of all others. I am the grateful child of the whole Church of Christ, regardless of sect and creed. But I am particularly indebted to those communions whose activities have influenced my life in a more direct way.

To my Mother Church, the Greek Orthodox, I am indebted for the earliest spiritual inspiration which flowed into my life in the name of Christ. Notwithstanding the pagan traits which still cling to her, that ancient church fixed my eyes in childhood and youth upon the cross of Christ as symbol of the soul’s victory over sin and death.

To the missionary zeal of the great Presbyterian denomination, and to its firmness in the Christian faith as it is known to its members, I am indebted for my first lessons in the religion of an open Bible, and of individual conviction. It was in that Presbyterian school on the western slopes of my native Lebanon that I first learned to think of Christianity as a personal and not a corporate religion.

To the Methodist Episcopal Church of America I owe the profoundest sense of spiritual fervor. In my lonely days of poverty and struggle, when America was yet a strange land to me, the brotherly spirit and friendly touch of Methodism did more than any other one church influence to renew my strength and steady my faltering steps. And I trust that no modern revolutions, either in science or theology, will ever lead that communion to lose its noble and apostolic spirit of friendliness.

To the Congregational Church, both Trinitarian and Unitarian, I owe the largest measure of theological freedom and the highest level of spiritual thought I have yet attained. And I believe it is fitting, at the close of this story of my religious evolution and in connection with the preceding paragraph, for me to add the following.

About seventy-two years ago, when the Trinitarian-Unitarian controversy was going on among the Congregational churches of New England, the noted scholar, patriot, and preacher, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, D.D., organized a church in the city of Boston. In order to save that church from the theological contentions of the period, he would have for it no doctrinal conditions of membership, but founded it on the simple basis of spiritual discipleship to Jesus Christ, with the sole object of coöperation in the study and practice of Christianity ; and called it ‘The Church of the Disciples.’ Although the members of this Church have come from among the ‘liberals,’ its pulpit has never given itself to acrimonious controversial preaching. The deep spiritual insight of its founder led him to realize that the controversy between ‘liberals’ and ‘orthodox’ dealt largely with the non-essentials of Christianity, and that the essentials were common to both factions. Time has proved his wisdom. It is now my privilege to serve this free church whose altar bears this inscription: ‘In the freedom of the Truth, and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.’ It was indeed most gratifying to me that at the service of my installation as minister of this church both wings of Congregationalism were represented.

Now, do you wish to know what riches I have gathered in the New World? I will tell you. These are my riches, which neither moth nor rust can corrupt. I have traveled from the primitive social life of a Syrian village to a great city which embodies the noblest traditions of the most enlightened country in the world. I have come from the bondage of Turkish rule to the priceless heritage of American citizenship. Though one of the least of her loyal citizens, I am rich in the sense that I am helping in my small way to solve America’s great problems and to realize her wondrous possibilities. In this great country I have been taught to believe in and to labor for an enlightened and coöperative individualism, universal peace, free churches and free schools. I have journeyed from the religion of ‘authority for truth’ to the religion of ‘truth for authority’— a religion which teaches me the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the friendliness of the universe, and makes me heir to all the prayers, songs, and sermons of the ages. I am privileged to occupy the office of a minister of religion — the holiest vocation in the possession of man. I enjoy the blessings of a happy home, and daily bread comes to me and mine as regularly as it came to Elijah when he was being fed by the ravens. In all these things I am unspeakably rich; my dividends are large and constant and the source of my blessings seems inexhaustible. Last, but not least of my spiritual companions, is my ‘Aim of Life,’which I rejoice to hear the children and young people in my Sunday School repeat together at their meetings: —

Our aim is to conquer
Ignorance by Knowledge,
Sin by Righteousness,
Discord by Harmony,
Hatred by Love.

(The End.)

  1. Mr. Rihbany’s autobiography began in the Atlantic for November, 1913.