I DESIRE to observe the fiftieth anniversary of my birth, in a village parsonage, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination into the ministry, by documenting a few personal impressions of the present activities and apparent aims of our Nonconformist churches. The criticisms have not been conceived in petulance and brought forth in irascibility. I have had no occasion to quarrel with the Church. She has been a just and generous employer, and had I again to choose an occupation I would cheerfully work for her.
Not infrequently of late it has been clamorously announced that the Church must determine — presumably by the prompt acceptance or rejection of some programme suggested by the alarmed — whether she is to survive this generation. All this is nonsense, of course, as these excited sons of Amittai would realize were their talent for interpreting history comparable to their gift of tongues. The Church is the only institution we have with us to-day that does not reek of fresh paint, hot rivets, and perspiration. All anxieties concerning her perpetuity may be reassigned to more pressing problems. The questions I am about to raise do not relate to her probable ability to survive.
One notes in the journals lending encouragement to the popular cult of ‘neo-smartaleckism’ that the Church is headed toward oblivion because she is unwilling and unable to keep pace with modern thought. Nonsense, again. Scientific research has ever been a pensioner either of the churches as institutions or of avowed churchmen as individuals. If Science is disposed to doubt this, let her make the experiment of refusing further support, from the church element, and pass the hat among the vocally irreligious. By next June you can have first-class microscopes and laboratory-trained bake ovens at your own price, with a few stadia thrown in for good measure. My anxiety about the churches does not lie in that quarter.
It is to be observed that much agitation is manifest among the more militant of the conservatives lest Christianity be imperiled, if not extinguished, by the yelping infidelities of an increasingly incautious group disinterested in such traditions as the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the historical validity of miracles, and a few other controversial items customarily listed in this invoice of riddles. More nonsense. These debates only deepen the interest of the contentious in their respective theories, inspiring a commendable zeal to justify their metaphysics by their capacity to recall that sixteen ounces make a pound; besides temporarily engaging forensic talents which might be put to much worse employment.
Modernism is quite incapable of destroying the churches, even were it bent upon doing so, which it is not; and Fundamentalism, however smugly vain of the cold thumb wherewith it valiantly plugs the dogmatic dike, could not rescue the churches were they in jeopardy. Both of these tendencies have been too self-conscious, vastly overrating the importance of the issue which absorbs their attention. Most of what passes for ’modernism’ in the pulpit amounts to nothing more serious than the desire of an overworked parson to add in candescence to his Sunday morning essay by presenting fresh facts from the laboratories, information not arrived at through his own diligent scholarship, but hastily abstracted from the bedtime stories of Messrs. Wiggam, Slosson, Kellogg, and other journeyman-scientists now praiseworthily engaged in the installation of better guideboards along the road to the higher wisdom.
While not personally covetous of the Fundamentalist’s rating in the esteem of the intellectuals, I confidently believe it takes more brains, at this hour, to command respect as a Fundamentalist than to achieve a local reputation for modernity. The layman’s race memory is an institution mortgaged to the shingles by the old religious traditions. The Fundamentalist preacher who expounds these well-known dogmas must mind his step and make sure he stays on the reservation. The Modernist preacher, on the other hand, is quite too well aware that the average layman, disavowing any clear knowledge of scientific affairs, is unable to bring his pastor to book for whatever intellectual misdemeanors he may commit in that field. With such feeble censorship from the pew, the iconoclastic apostle of modernity is with great difficulty kept back from presumptuous sins, and is prone to lapse into a state of mental slovenliness most distasteful to the occasional informed wayfarer questing spiritual refreshment at this fountain.
The most unfortunate feature of the warfare between the conservative and progressive forces is the apparent necessity of their engagement at a strategic salient which happens to lie quite remote from contemporary interests. Under normal conditions, the Fundamentalist would make a wide detour around the Garden of Eden, aware that it is a bit of landscape appearing to much better advantage when reproduced in oil, by one of the old masters, than on a cinema film shot at high noon in the second quarter of the twentieth century. But circumstances have required him to encamp there and withstand a siege. Upon the recent renascence of scientific knowledge concerning man’s place in Nature, the Fundamentalist set off hurriedly with his entire host, horse, foot, and artillery, for the Garden, where he dug himself in; and where the Modernist means he shall stay for some time to come. It is a very anachronistic rumble that the motor lorries make as they go careening across the pontoons which span the River Pison, laden with fresh munitions for the besieged ensconced in the old bdellium quarries behind the orchard — as the Modernists have facetiously observed with an infuriating, tongue-in-cheek ridicule which has driven the Fundamentalists into a state of pardonable exasperation. To put the case gently, the water of life has been issuing, lately, in a very slim trickle, from both the conservative and the progressive springs, while their custodians have been employed as indicated above. But the criticisms I have to present do not relate to these polemics, however tragic they may seem to lovers of concord or ridiculous to the unconcerned.
The churches are neither failing nor slated to fail of maintaining a certain grip upon the imagination and loyalty of their own natural constituencies. They are building larger auditoriums, collecting more money, staging more impressive conventions, and apparently doing more business than ever before.
My contention is that they might easily and quickly rise to an unquestioned position of confidence and respect in the opinion of the general unchurched public by doing adequately the things for which they were manifestly intended, and finding time and energy for these things by abandoning the pursuit of a group of endeavors for which they have small talent and in which they have had but little success. The very points of apparent strength, wherein they have vaunted themselves in their yearbooks and periodical literature, are, when carefully analyzed, disquieting weaknesses. The enterprises to which they are devoting the major part of their time and zeal are, for the most part, identical with similar endeavors of agencies entirely secular as to organization and merely humanitarian as to motive. Meantime they are minifying the distinctive mission for which they are exclusively responsible. Their weaknesses, in my opinion, may be catalogued as follows.
They are too noisy. The chief charm of the original Galilean culture is its ability to fill out and complete life at the points of its most urgent need. To make life ‘more abundant’ is the prime errand of the gospel. Whatever the ‘one thing thou lackest,’ Christianity stands ready with a prescription. Beyond question, the greatest need in contemporary American life is for the recovery of a lost serenity. The churches have the capacity, but not the disposition, to meet that demand. No other institution has either the disposition or the capacity.
The uniqueness of the Christian message may be said to be founded upon the conviction that life is good, acceptable, livable; not to be resisted, rebelled against, groaned over, or antagonized, but calmly appropriated. A ‘militant church’ is as absurd as a blistering twilight. The Galilean ethic, in its original form, comprehended a theory of nonresistance quite startling in its proposals of quick and expensive settlements out of court, the cheerful volunteering of a second mile, the submissive offer of the other cheek — all in the interest of a tranquillity to be had only at the price of refusing to contend with adversaries. In its unadulterated form, Christianity is as quiet as yeast. Its energy is that of catalysis. No distinction could have accrued to Jesus had he shouted, ‘Join me, and we will go to war! ’ He set his cultus apart from every other inspirational appeal when he said, ‘ Come unto me . . . and I will give you rest.’ This is an alluring promise; never more so than now. It is strange that the churches, possessed of an inducement so intriguing to the human imagination, and maintained in their exclusive keeping, should have stowed it away, preferring to fill their windows with poor imitations of such gaudy delectables as other institutions are infinitely better equipped to display and distribute. It is an incomprehensible state of mind that leads our churches to conceal the one benefit of which they have an undisputed and enviable monopoly.
At this hour, while scores of selfordained prophets in every city conduct overflowing classes in psychology as it relates to personal poise, contentment, and spiritual nurture, obviously endeavoring to point distracted people to mental ways of peace and steadiness, the churches, in imitation of commerce and industry, patter the lingo of the market place, mistakenly believing the public unresponsive to any summons but the strident ballyhoo of the huckster.
There is a certain sedative quality in Christianity which our churches decline to recognize, much less administer. They are ashamed to admit that they have it. They lack the faith to abandon their frail and ludicrous attempts to outyell the theatres, the department stores, the automobile manufacturers, and the realtors, and quietly offer to this harassed, jaded, noisepummeled public a sanctuary insulated against the raucous squawk of the saxophone, the blink of illuminated billboards, and the monotonous bleat of that legion who clamor for the reform of this, the abolition of that, and the putting over of something other.
Increasingly every appeal to the good impulses of the public has been in the nature of a stimulant. For the vast majority of Protestant-born Americans, there is now no institution inviting them to find, by a quiet inspection of their own hearts, a motive and a reason for believing and practising Christian altruism. No matter what agency of good works happens to be shrieking, the summons is an irritant. The individual is fused into the pack, and his ‘charity’ is literally snatched out of his hand. The appeal laid before him rarely rises beyond the shallow lure of a tribal vanity. Notwithstanding the charter of Christianity had advocated a process of charity so unostentatiously carried on that the donor’s left hand would be unaware of the gift, dispensed by the right hand, the improved method boasts of the brazen publicity accruing to our group should we exceed our quota and points with alarm to the shame we must feel if we fail to ‘come across.’ The American business man has come to identify Christian altruism with mob hypnotism. The technique is always the same, essentially, whatever may be the nature of the cause to be aided, or the time, or the place. More ‘pep’! More push! More punch! ‘And now, folks, while the pledge cards are being passed among you, if you will temporarily put aside your pie, our own beloved song leader, Mr. Grimace, will direct us. . . . Attaboy, folks! Are we happy? Y-e-a, Bo! Say it! Now, turn in the goodole songbook to Num-berrr Thirrrty-thrrree! You all know this one, folks. “Under the Soft Pale Moon We Sit and Spoon.” Now, snap into this, folks! All-togetherrr — sing!’
Let no sequestered sister, incredulously lorgnetting the above, bear down too heavily on the antepenult when declaiming ‘Impossible!’ You flatter us, madam, in that you think this impossible. Nevertheless, this is the approved method of teaching and administering the Golden Rule, today, in every hamlet, town, and city of our land. This technique of inspiring interest and unity of purpose originated during the days of our mental dishevelment when we were attempting, by any process whatsoever, to raise and equip an army on short notice. It quickly came to be recognized as the standard formula for encouraging the public to resolve, amiably, unselfishly, and concertedly, upon the mass performance of good works.
To say that the large majority of even approximately intelligent men and women are disgusted with this moronic blather which has become the liturgy of altruism, and all the other rackety tactics of get-togetherism corollary thereunto, is to state the case with cool reserve. Were the churches better informed as to public sentiment on this subject, instead of imitating this cheap claptrappery of luncheonclub fellowship and altruistics, as they do to the limit of their capacity, they might be courageous enough to resort, to the measures of appeal bequeathed to them, and provide a spiritual motive for a life of goodness, kindness, and friendliness by offering tranquillity to this neurally distraught, aching eyed, weary-eared generation, which has been ridden at full gallop by the uplifters, with a curb bit, sharp rowels, and burrs under the saddle, until it fairly cries out for respite.
But the churches, accustomed to taking their cues from secular institutions of good intent, are fearful to speak of the Beatitudes. They suspect that they might be considered sleepy and spiritless. They hesitate to announce that they are possessed of a blessed palliative to counteract the psychopathic effects of overstimulation. It is too grave a risk, they think, in face of the fact that every other organization — commercial, political, industrial, educational, humanitarian — is screaming at the top of its lungs, ‘Own Your Own Home!’ ‘Clean-theGarage Week!’ ‘Vote for “Bob” Jones!’ ’Patronize Heep — Sympathetic Mortician!’
The churches are unwilling to be outdone in the business of promotion. Their Saturday advertisements in the daily papers screech shrilly of ‘peppy’ programmes on the ensuing Lord’s Day, promising sensational pronouncements from the sacred desk bearing upon the political campaign, the current scandal, and the first-page crimes. Latterly, some of the more energetic have been electrifying the symbols and slogans of the faith, on the ground that the good news of salvation should be kept before the public by whatever process happens to be prevalent. While there may be nothing essentially wicked about the awkwardly close proximity of two blatant, blaring, blazing mottoes, — ‘JESUS SAVES!’ and ‘EATMORE SAUERKRAUT!’ — it is symptomatic of the poor psychology of the churches, sincerely wanting to make religion attractive, and succeeding only in making it ridiculous.
If the churches only knew it, great material prosperity — by no means despised among them — would instantly accrue to them were they able to guarantee a man one solid hour on Sunday morning exclusively devoted to spiritual recovery. As the case stands, while they excoriate the pleasure-mad, sensation-seeking, frantically excited public that refuses to come in and be saved, the depressing fact is that they have little to offer — according to their own paid space in the newspapers — but an attenuated solution of the same strychnia whose use they so stoutly deplore when administered elsewhere. They appear to believe that the public wants its water of life carbonated.
It is by no means a trivial matter to be required to confess that it has become next to impossible to meditate calmly in the typical Nonconformist church because of the racket. Here we have the chronic gabbler at his (and her) utmost. Now that the intolerable clatter of unfortunates, who have obviously stripped the gears engaging the brain and the larynx, makes hideous the theatre, the opera, the concert, the lecture, what vast credit would immediately attach to the churches were they able to announce that they were conducting houses of worship in which a spiritually minded pilgrim could be briefly enisled from the rasping banalities of the incessant talkers.
But witness the manner in which the average Nonconformist church conducts its so-called service of worship. The penitent is met in the lobby by the strong-arm squad of official greeters, and affectionately pawed. There is nothing distinctive about this process of welcome. The prospective worshiper was greeted thus on Tuesday noon at the Kiwanis, on Wednesday at the Chamber of Commerce, on Thursday at the Better Business Commission, and on Friday night at the Masonic Temple. He is shown to his seat by a snappy usher who trusts that he will feel at home ‘among these good folk.'
While appreciating the genial intent of these busy, buzzy brethren in their somewhat overdrawn efforts to be cordial to the stranger without being actually impudent, our man who has come here to worship finds the place so much like every other institution, whither the tribes go up, that he has reason to doubt whether the quest for heavenly light can be pursued here to any better advantage than in any other social club similarly astir with breezy amenities. The organist is vainly trying to drown the racket with his boisterous prelude.
The parson is probably romping about on the platform, fussing with his holy properties, chatting over the choir rail to the conductor, and beckoning his associate to come up and sit down, or go there, or do something else. An excited deacon scurries down the aisle to whisper a belated announcement into the car of the prophet. Indeed, it is an interesting place — eventful, almost bewildering in its activity.
But the solemn hush, the sense of being in the presence of the divine, the feeling of reverence for a holy place — no; it is not there. Our visitor learns, from the pew behind him, that gasoline has dropped a cent; from the pew ahead, he is informed how much quince jelly we have put up; to the right, an animated conversation discloses that the parson’s wife is sporting a new hat. Jesus had said, ‘Come unto me . . . and I will give you rest.’ And, so far as Nonconformity is concerned, this is it! A house of worship? So is the Grand Central Station. A place for prayer and spiritual refreshment? Nonsense!
Presently the clatter subsides, and the ‘service’ is in progress. It is obvious that this performance is intended to buck you up, to stimulate you, to be to you a veritable ‘shot in the arm.’ The hymns are sprightly, and the congregation is strongly counseled to make a joyful noise. Every time there is a moment when ‘silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound,’the pastor chinks the gap with fatuous prattle. He reads the Scriptures as improved by one of the more informal revisions, and by his inflection the bronzed Tarsan is made to speak to the Romans with that crisp, heman, hands-in-pockets effectiveness employed so adroitly by the Secretary for the Older Boys at the Y. M. C. A. We will now pray. We do so extemporaneously, chattily. ‘We’re all for you, God!’ is the general impression deduced from the supplication. Frequently, through the ‘service,’ a bit of pleasantry is spontaneously introduced to promote a feeling of genial fellowship ‘among these good folk.’ If the smile it was intended to engender gets out of bounds, the minister may offer a vicarious apology for all whose untimely cackle has too generously rewarded his wit by remarking in a tone suddenly invested with an almost lugubrious piety, ‘God is just as much pleased with a smile as a tear, folks!’ — which may, indeed, be true, for all that the good brother or anybody else knows. There is one authentic forecast that God in His Heaven shall laugh! I am sure I have seen things done in churches that would justify it. Now we will have the announcements. The congregation has been waiting, in some impatience, for this event; for the announcements are usually a treat. Almost every Sunday something delightfully funny is said at this point. There are still seven cases of chocolate bars for sale by the Ladies. The Young Men’s Guild will have a soap-bubble party at the Parish House, Thursday night. The semiannual rummage sale will occur on Friday and Saturday of this week. Ransack the attic and bring your junk to the good Ladies. It will be sold. The proceeds will be applied to our missionary fund. Missionaries will go forth into all the world to spread the light — the same kind we have — and the Kingdom will be increased. Your morning offering will now be received. (This, too, is frequently inadequate.)
I do not wish to convey the impression that all Nonconformist churches are constantly making all of the mistakes to which I have referred. Even a programme of blunders cannot be standardized to one-hundred-per-cent efficiency. Some of the churches are making all of these mistakes, and almost all are making some of them. Nor do I care to be identified as one of those dissatisfied Protestants who think that the Catholics — and possibly the Episcopalians — have a monopoly of the art of inspirational appeal in public worship. One of the dullest services I ever attended was in St. Peter’s under circumstances which made it a noteworthy event for the celebrants to excise from the occasion all the inspirational element resident in it. But the Nonconformist is obliged to admit that when he enters a Catholic or an Episcopal church he realizes that he is on holy ground. He becomes aware, in that environment, of the supremacy of spiritual interests. People become strangely transfigured as they cross the threshold. They are there to worship. The imperatives of soul culture have driven secular concerns into complete eclipse. The priest is there to direct the heart. Godward — not to prattle amiably of good-fellow clubbishness, or to exploit the latest quirk in relativity, or to campaign for a better prosecuting attorney.
Were Nonconformity a bit more canny and resourceful, it would realize the crying need of its own potential following for an opportunity to worship, to meditate calmly upon divine things in holy places, to recover its spiritual poise, to experience the peace which passeth all understanding. Our churches consider this matter unimportant. Dim lights, toned to restfulness by symbolic windows, are depressing.
If we had a little more discernment, we should offer services of worship eclectically compiled from the greatest works of religious inspiration. But we will not do it. At this exact point our most serious weakness lies; but we do not realize it. We think the people want folksy, chatty churches — mere social clubs surmounted by steeples. We have a notion that the public wants to be noisy and excited. We will continue to provide noise and excitement. We are mistaken. The people sincerely desire an opportunity to worship. It is the business of the churches to meet that demand. They have proved themselves inadequate to supply the need.
They are too meddlesome. Surely there is no necessity, at this late date, to lower one’s voice and speak enigmatically of the fact that Nonconformity owes its origin to the stout conviction, on the part of some very determined people, that Church and State are far better off as friends than as relatives. Whether the Catholics, today, entertain the belief that in all matters of disagreement between the Church and the State the wishes of the former should, must, and do take precedence, is a subject I do not wish to trifle with, not because of any reticence, but for lack of sufficient information. One sees so many obviously sincere and well-authenticated statements on both sides of this question that it is difficult to arrive at a satisfying opinion.
The fact remains, however, that the plaint of the original Protestants was against the increasingly dictatorial attitude on the part of the Church. They asserted that she had her finger in every pie, that she meddled too much in secular affairs, that she kept herself in doubtful company through her political alliances, that she had become so astute in business as to commercialize sin and sell it for whatever it would fetch on the counter of the confessional booth, that she had become the general manager of too many diversified endeavors.
Perhaps the Church was not nearly so predatory, high-handed, and magisterial as the seceders imagined, but they did so imagine — which came to the same thing as if it were true — and they fled, unforgivably ruining priceless works of art and showing up very badly in the manner and extent of their profanations, vandalisms, and iconoclastic excesses, to hatch a spawn of turbulent, competitive sects which had little enough in common but their determination to escape an ecclesiastical surveillance no longer tolerable.
I think we are in error when we believe that any considerable number of these early Protestants really had acute grievances against the Church. In the main, she had looked out for their welfare probably better than they could have done it themselves, as their impending vicissitudes were promptly to prove. It was the spirit of the old ecclesiastical oversight, rather than overt deeds of tyranny, that actually evoked the Reformation. The public had grown tired of the mother-knowsbest attitude which the Church had developed to such fine efficiency; tired of the long nose of official holiness flattened against the pane, the inquisitive eye of legalized piety peeking through the curtains, and the attentive ear of infallible righteousness applied to the keyhole of every institution from the laborer’s cottage on up to the baronial castle. The worst they could say of her was that she had become an indefatigable meddler, which was unquestionably true enough to justify their exodus.
With such history behind us, then, plus the fact that the bulk of contemporary Nonconformity is obsessed by the psychosis that Catholicism still strives for and strides toward a strangle hold upon our political institutions,— probably untrue, but commonly believed by the majority of American Protestants, — it seems very strange that so large a number of our churches should be practising, feebly, but with ardent zeal, the very teclmique of coercion, bossism, political intrigue, and general meddling which they consider so reprehensible when sanctioned in Latin.
I am sure nobody wants to tie the hands of the churches so that they may not help to wield the fork when the Augean stables require a bit of tidying, or demand their silence when great moral issues are at stake; but the quite justifiable liberty to do that, on occasion, does not carry with it the right to indulge in as much meddling as they are now engaged in, at the behest of a bevy of interdenominational and undenominational agencies of alleged reform.
This business dates from the war. The government’s Bureau of Publicity contracted the habit of bulletinizing the churches, once a week, informing the preachers what it would be well to say on the coming Sunday. When the war was over, a good precedent having been established for using the churches as centres of propaganda, every agency of reform, plus a score more which rose suddenly to assist in the world’s salvation, began to solicit the cooperation of the churches in the promotion of every manner of cause, from worldwide peace and universal prohibition to foundations for the care of infirm canary birds. Every minister’s mail box is crammed daily with appeals to enlist his congregation for the support of enough remedial and prophylactic projects to ensure our entrance upon the millennium by a week from Tuesday, at the farthest.
Take the brood of peace societies, for example. Without doubt, we ’re all for peace. But the typical peace advocate wants it at the price of unseasonable rackets with persons in authority who probably know very much more than he about the practical terms on which the great boon may be had. He wants peace, this afternoon! No more waiting. He inflames the churches to send telegrams and write letters and print literature. They are encouraged to denounce the R.O.T.C., thus increasing the embarrassment of university officials already sufficiently bewildered over the problems incident thereunto. War being a bad thing, so are army chaplaincies; therefore the churches must make the situation unpleasant for the chaplains whose opportunity to exert a helpful influence in their environment is meagre enough without additional restrictions and annoyances. Not infrequently Nonconformist bodies have voiced, on the floor of their religious conclaves, their determination never to sanction or obey another call to arms, regardless of the issue. If Catholicism in this country were to pass a resolution of that nature, or even seriously debate it, a yelp would go up that could be heard from the Tropic of Capricorn to the nebula of Andromeda.
The churches are meddling too much with legislation — urban, state, and national. It is no secret that the manner in which many of these interchurch organizations now conduct their lobbies, influence elections, and operate the inquisitorial machinery of bossism compares very favorably in effectiveness with any of the ingenious devices built for similar purposes by merged industries at their utmost of conscious strength.
I refuse to take into consideration the fact that many, if not most, of these causes are meritorious. I likewise refuse to listen to the explanation that the people who promote them are of excellent character, desirous only of contributing to public welfare, with nothing to gain, personally, when they win their point. My criticism is based wholly on the fact that this was not the Galilean way of saving society from its blunders. Ends do not justify means. This was one of the first sentences Protestantism learned to parse. It is as true in 1927 as it was in 1517.
The field of this meddling has been growing more extensive of late: active participation in the election of representatives in Congress and the state legislatures; petitions to Senators urging the passage or defeat of certain bills, and broadly hinting of the wrath to come in the event of failure to comply; mass action to regulate the curricula in state schools; resolutions demanding the parole or pardon of convicts; advice of all sorts to special commissions engaged in investigations under government auspices; drastic enforcement of obsolete ordinances regulating Sunday commerce; embarrassing interference with local school boards relative to the employment of Catholic teachers, the teaching of the Bible, the textbooks on natural sciences.
Let it be assumed that everything the churches get, by this process, is beneficial. Personally I think that assumption is doubtful; but let it stand undebated. Review the historic occasions when Mother Church dictated to kings and appointed herself to the receivership of involved European states, and you will discover that her ministrations were mostly benevolent. The interference she offered was almost uniformly in the interest of public welfare. But it was not her manifest destiny to tinker with politics, as her present plight on the Continent indicates.
The Master made very clear the relation which should obtain between the Christian cultus and political affairs. It was proper that Cæsar should have his penny and his due meed of respect; but if there is any hint that the Founder contemplated for His Church the right to meddle in statecraft, it is not in my copy of the New Testament.
Beyond question, the interference of the churches in economic matters, especially relating to the problems of Capital and Labor, has made more difficult the harmonious adjustments imperative to the welfare of all industry. The major denominations in Nonconformity now have permanent commissions for the study of social and economic conditions. Occasionally these commissions report to their respective church bodies, recommending for adoption a ‘social creed’ loaded with trouble for many persons occupying strategic positions in the No Man’s Land between Capital and Labor. The average preacher, whose experience of industrial problems is restricted to what he reads, knows just enough about economics to speak its academic dialect. He lacks just enough practical knowledge of shop problems to make his stormy counsel on such matters not only valueless but more or less dangerous! He sees innocent Labor ground under the iron heel of rapacious Capital, inflames the discontent and prejudice of the underdog, to whom he imputes martyrdom, thus driving another wedge between the classes whose efforts to conciliate are frustrated by that much. And the utter futility of it! Big Business does not seek counsel of the parsons in its endeavor to untangle its skeins.
‘Not by might, nor by power’ would constitute an appropriate text, for the churches in these days when they are flushed with their questionable victories as meddlers.
They are too mechanical. The typical Nonconformist pastor has latterly become an administrator of the complex business activities of his church, an occupation requiring so much of his time and energy that the sheep of his fold are restricted to a very light diet. He is more to be pitied than censured when the charge is made that his homiletic disbursements are in excess of his intellectual income. He is expected to do more talking than any one man is capable of doing with promise of being helpful. His time is quite absorbed by executive duties. There is little opportunity for him to meditate. He rushes about, watch in hand, hurrying from one mighty event to another, in a perpetual state of mental stampede hardly conducive to a prophetic mood. Hence the inspirational note is but feebly sounded in his pulpit.
Until recently our great ecclesiastical conventions were unquestionably events of inestimable value to preachers who, because of their duties, rarely have opportunity to listen to inspiring appeals bearing upon spiritual culture. Returning from the national convention of his sect, in a fine glow of religious fervor, the minister was able to transmit much of this spiritual energy to his people. It was as if he had recharged his soul’s batteries. Convention programmes, usually covering a week or ten days, were made significant by the presence of noted preachers who were there exclusively on an errand of spiritual development.
More and more the mechanics of ‘ churchianity ’ encroached upon the time previously allotted to inspirational addresses. There was much money to be raised in the churches for the support of foreign missions, home missions, schools and colleges, hospitals and orphanages, commissions and bureaus, and this and that. The preachers had to secure this money from their congregations. It went without saying that they would not be able to get it unless they themselves were ‘sold’ to the causes needing assistance. The programmes of these great conventions are devised by the officials of the denominations, who usually belong to a sort of interlocking directorate necessarily interested in the adequate maintenance of all the various boards. And so it has come to pass that, whereas it requires a great amount of money to do the Lord’s work throughout the world, the chief source of the minister’s inspiration has been converted into a mere conference on ways and means, reports and forecasts, audits and budgets, harangues and howls of ‘crisis,’ deficits and overdrafts, quotas and apportionments. The preacher comes back to his flock after ten days of this pummeling and puts into practice, in his pulpit, the excellent exhortation, ‘Freely ye have received, freely give.’
And thus, more and more, the churches are becoming administrative offices for the collection of funds to support extension programmes. The minister is a tax collector, sitting at the receipt of custom. So much of his interest is required by this business that the main function of his office is seriously neglected. He is aware of it, but docs not know how to remedy it. Moreover, he observes that the conditions are growing steadily worse. Every year there is installed new machinery to be kept in motion, somelimes apparently useful and necessary, somet imes because it seems to make a noise significant of progress. Let him protest, and he is an obstructionist. The chieftains of the denominations, being a bit remote from local problems and local sentiment, do not yet realize that they are laying low the goose that lays the golden egg, and speeding the arrival of the day when a general revolt against the complicated mechanism of ecclesiastical bodies will seriously cripple them.
The religious instinct demands a recognition of the mystical element in the soul. That’s what religion is about! People want to experience close contacts with the divine life. They are eager to feel the presence of God in their hearts. They like to come under the influence of somebody who has had the opportunity and inclination to think long and deeply upon the ways of God in the soul of man. That being true, folks, I am obliged to speak to you again, this morning, about our splendid little college at Blifkins Corners. The faculty has been unpaid for three months, the town seems to be illdisposed toward the institution, local support is not fort hcoming, the roof of the recitation hall leaks, new plumbing is needed in the men’s dormitory.
They have too little self-respect. I hope somebody will successfully challenge my guess that ten per cent of the people whose names appear on the rosters of the Protestant churches of the United States do not know whether they are members of the church or not. With very few exceptions, the churches are carrying on their rolls, as of ‘good and regular standing,’ the names of people who have moved away without asking for certificates of transfer to other churches, people who have lost all interest and have treated the church’s inquiries and appeals with contemptuous silence or rebuff, people who never come near the place but subscribe a few dollars, grudgingly, when importuned.
There is nothing that this generation stands more seriously in need of than good discipline. There is no institution so inadequately administering it as the churches. Church members jest with the parson about their prolonged absences from the services of worship, and he smiles over their delinquencies. The MeFudgeon family are in open revolt because Susie’s Sunday School teacher reproved her for disturbing the class, and the minister is counseled to hurry to the stricken home with balms and unguents. Something he had the audacity to say, last Sunday, concerning ‘an international citizenship,’ sent Brother K. K. Scraggs out, growling, and it is strongly urged that the prophet seek the injured saint without delay. People who have demonstrated their incapacity to succeed in their own business are frequently vociferous with their advice as to the proper management of the church. In many cases the church seems to have become useful to persons who employ it as a drainage tube for whatever septic accumulations cannot be exuded anywhere else — the subordinate in an office, who cannot talk back to his chief; the henpecked husband, whose voice is not heard about the family table; the officious woman, the ambitious youth.
This is no secret. Everybody knows that the churches will tolerate any manner of shabby treatment both from within and from without. A young man comes to arrange for his wedding, and informs the minister how long the service is to be, whether or not they will recite the ‘plighting of the troth,’and such other stipulations as his impertinence may inspire. A bereaved family tells the minister what he is to do and say at the funeral. The minister smiles his approval of all suggestions, and sincerely trusts that what he does will be found entirely acceptable. Everybody knows more about his business than he does.
All this has been very bad for the people themselves. It is to their interest that the institution which ministers to their spiritual development shall have their unqualified respect — at least as much respect as the merchant has for his bank, and the little boy for his school, and the salesman for the company employing him. As the case stands, the Nonconformist layman today is somewhat to be pitied. He is conscious of spiritual needs which his church cannot supply. He envies the Catholic his deep reverence for his church, and wishes that he himsell might find the same consolation, invigoration, and assurance in his own. He enjoys the fellowship to be had there; he experiences considerable satisfaction over the good reports of worthy causes aided, and almost incredible numbers of heathen brought into the light by way of his denomination’s activities in foreign parts; he is proud of the fact that the church members defeated Tim O’Rourke for sheriff; but he knows that there is just one little service his church is inadequately performing. He is losing the path to his own soul, and the church is too busy to aid him in its rediscovery.