This and the next two posts are from an essay written by R.L. Dabney for the periodical The Southern Presbyterian Review, for the April 1883 edition. I was written in response to an October 1882 & January 1883 article, entitled "An Inquiry into the Aggressiveness of Presbyterianism."
At first thought we are surprised to find that the best established principles should need reconsideration and resettling in every age. Yet the explanation is not difficult. Some new pressure of circumstances, or some trait of mind in a part of the new generation, gives renewed prominence to the old objections against the settled principle, and temporarily overshadows the more weighty reasons for it. For every practical question has two sides, contras as well as pros. Then, it is forgotten that those objections were as maturely considered as they now are by us, when our fathers determined the system for us, and were properly overborne by the affirmative considerations. We are tempted to think that the contrary reasons have never been regarded as they deserve to be, and that we have a new light on the subject, until our innovating experiments, by their failure, teach us again that our predecessors had really looked more thoroughly around the subject than we had. Such a process-has been for some months engaging a part of our church, as to the general requirement of a thorough and classical education of our ministers. The two awakening essays which appeared in the October and January numbers of this Review, entitled “An Inquiry into the Aggressiveness of Presbyterianism,” are not the only outgivings of this movement. The overture of the Bethel Presbytery, pleading for a ministry without any classical acquirements, and other declarations, evince the unsettled mind of many. Our discussion, therefore, does not derive its whole importance from the wide attention which the brilliancy, force and plausibility of those essays are exciting.
The most of the points, so well made in them, we concede. Aggressiveness ought to be a prime trait of every church, and test of its fidelity; for what else is her great commission from her Lord, except a command to be aggressive until she has conquered the whole world? She ought to be able to reach the poorest and lowest. Presbyterial supervision ought to be wiser and more effective. There is a startling lack of ministers, calling in trumpet tones upon Christian men. Looseness in examining candidates, false and deceptive verdicts of a scholarship which does not exist, and literary indolence in the applicants, are painfully inconsistent with our rules and professions. The practical relations of our seminaries to our Presbyteries are most anomalous and mischievous. Our constitution, though of well proved wisdom, is not inspired, and therefore its betterment is not impossible. In our author's pungent presentation of these points, we heartily rejoice. The one point on which we take issue with him is his proposal to revolutionise our system of training ministers, in order to overtake our aggressive work more rapidly.
The argument for this proposal is drawn from a comparison of our numbers in the four Southern Atlantic States with the numbers of the Baptist and Methodist Churches in the same regions. The allegation is that they, no older than we on this ground, have each made fivefold progress over us, in number of ministers and members. This fivefold growth is ascribed mainly to the facility and speed with which they multiply ministers and cheapen their labour, by reason of their not requiring classical education of them. The inference is, that we must imitate those denominations, so far as to cease to require—though we shall still invite—such training of our candidates. The author thinks that we need ministers whose grades shall differ in this sense, to perform the different kinds of missionary and pastoral work.
First, the fact assumed needs inquiry. Is it true that each of these denominations has done five times as much real work for Christ and souls as our own? Our author claims this, and rather dogmatically forbids us to go behind their statistics, or to deduct any more from them than from our own, for inaccuracies. It is impossible for sensible men, acquainted with stubborn facts, to submit here. Our own statistics may be loose; but theirs are doubtless far looser. This could not but result from the independency of the Immersionist churches, and from the notorious facility with which the Methodists demit or resume their church membership. Are all the hundreds of their “local preachers,” in any continuous sense, labouring in the ministry? Is not the country notoriously sprinkled over with members who have not been to the Lord's table for years, whose families frequent no church or Sabbath-school?
But both denominations have become far more numerous than ours. We freely admit it; yet we do not admit that this has been the result of the inferiority of our system of rearing our ministry. Twenty other solutions of their success are listed; and but little influence seems to be assigned to any of them—none at all to the most—by our author. The really influential causes of their comparative numerical growth do not appear in his list.
One is, the broad scriptural catholicity of the Presbyterian Church, It is the most liberal of all churches, receiving all true penitents to membership, of all shades of doctrinal opinion, having no shibboleth, communing with all, unchurching none, who teach the essential rudiments of salvation. Now, everybody condemns other people's bigotry; yet every carnal man is naturally a bigot as soon as he ceases to be a mere indifferentist. Hence, this wide catholicity of our church is an obstacle to her popularity with the carnal, because she firmly refuses to give them this gratification of pride and dogmatism, or to allure them by any partisan bait; but holds out only the pure and enlightened love of the holy truth of the gospel. It is well known, indeed, that this adverse world is in the habit of calling the Presbyterian the most bigoted church, at least next to the Popish. People think so, because she sternly refuses to cater to their secret bigotry.
But a second influence is more potent:—our church presents to the world the humbling doctrines of the gospel with faithful candour:—man's death in sin and inability for all spiritual good; his entire dependence on efficacious grace; the demands of a perfect law; God's eternal and essential punitive justice; the worthless-ness of man's works and sentiments for his justification; the everlasting doom of contumacious sin. These are the doctrines which carnal man hates. He also dreads perdition. Yes, with a selfish dread. And therefore is he charmed with any theory of redemption which takes off any part of the edge of these hated truths, and yet makes plausible promise of escape. The Methodist church is avowedly Arminian, and the Immersionists are partially so; the independency of the latter has borne its usual fruit, the partial relaxation of the old Calvinism of the denomination. Arminianism is semi-Pelagianism, repolished and reconstructed. There are a few modem improvements. These were probably intended by Mr Wesley to make a compromise between the Arminianism of Episcopius, Grotius, and Whitby, and Calvinism. But there is no compromise. The attempt to patch the old garment with new cloth only results in a lack of consistent juncture in the “Wesleyan theology,” which gives occasion, in that church, for all the shades of preaching, from moderate Calvinism down to almost blank Pelagianism, according to the personal impulses of the ministers.
Again, in competition with the Immersionist churches, Presbyterianism meets a capital disadvantage in scripturally refusing to countenance any shade of ritualism. She does not permit her sacraments to be misunderstood on that point by any one. Everybody comprehends, as to her, that she sternly rejects every plan for manipulating sinners into a state of salvation by a ceremony; that she refuses to allow any process less arduous than that of a living faith, a deep repentance, including “the full purpose of and endeavour after new obedience,” and a holy striving in duty and life-long watchfulness. It is true that all better Immersionists profess to discard ritualism also in their dipping; but in spite of their disclaimers, the inordinate importance given to that form, with their close communion, practically encourage both a ritualistic and an exclusive temper. To the carnal, and even the partially sanctified heart, it is very seductive to find one's self exalted by a shibboleth and a ceremony into a spiritual aristocracy, sitting nearer God's throne than other Christians. This powerful attraction Presbyterianism will not and cannot use.
But doubtless the chief cause of the numerical spread of the other churches, and especially among the ruder classes, is the employment of “new measures.” These, the anxious-seat, the altar of penitents, and others, known as “revival measures,” have hitherto been almost universally used by Methodists, and generally by Immersionists. They are as influential as they are deleterious. They cater to the strongest passions of the sinful heart. By parading in public the vivid, and often the hysterical, emotions of penitents, and especially of females, they offer to the populace that spectacular excitement which is as fascinating to them as bodily intoxication, and draws the gaping crowd as powerfully as a hanging, a horse-race, or a pugilistic battle. These measures also engage the passion of sympathy, a passion, as universal as it is misunderstood. They allure the awakened carnal mind, by flattering it with the permission, yea, the direct encouragement, to adopt a gust of sympathetic excitement, a fit of carnal remorse, with the calm of the natural collapse which succeeds it, and a shallow, spurious hope, in lieu of that thorough work of mortifying sin and crucifying self along “with Christ, which, we teach, alone evidences a title to heaven.” No -wonder that these “measures” have been found a prime enginery for religious self-deception; the patent process for building wood, hay, and stubble into the fabric of the visible church, instead of precious metals and stones. If our consciences would permit us to resort to these measures, we could burn over wide surfaces, as others do, leaving them, as they do, blighted and barren for all more scriptural methods. Thus this unhealthy system works against us, not only by sweeping the multitudes, by unsound means, into these other communions, but by searing and hardening what is left, so as to unfit them for our sober but safer methods.
These are the differences which account, so far as merely natural means are concerned, for the greater facility with which these denominations gain popular accessions. It may be said that, in urging these points, we are guilty of making “odious comparisons,” and of insinuating, at least, disparagement of sister churches. If our reasonings on these points are untrue, then we are thus guilty. But if we are correct, then loyalty to truth requires us, in studying the comparison of results to which we are challenged, to state the true solutions. But we state them in no spirit of arrogance or insolence towards others; for we accompany these points with deep and sorrowful confessions of the imperfections of our own household. The nominal membership of all the churches, including our own, is, doubtless, deplorably mixed. Witness the prevalent worldly conformities; the incursions of dissipating amusements; the decline of family religion and discipline; the Sabbath-breaking by communicants, and even ministers; the loose and unscrupulous methods of “making money;” the indifference of multitudes to the obligations of old debts; the practical prayerlessness of countless families and individuals. The correct inferences to draw from all these corruptions are:—that any conclusions whatever from these hollow numbers, as to the methods of a real and spiritual efficiency in God's work, are mainly out of place, and untrustworthy;
that the number of counterfeit coins among our supposed gains. are too large to leave much place for prudent counting up; that the church of Christ at this time is called to study genuineness much more than numerical increase.
If the question be raised, why the church does not grow faster? we are persuaded that the real answer, which most needs looking at, is the one which our author dismisses most hastily:—that the fault is not ecclesiastical, but spiritual. The real desideratum is not new methods, but fidelity to the old, a true revival in the hearts of ministers and Christians themselves, a faith that “feels the power of the world to come,” a solemn and deep love for souls. What we most need is repentance, and not innovation.
We are persuaded, however, that the Southern Presbyterian Church is contributing to the general advancement of Christ's cause, along with sister denominations, in ways of her own, which are not to be measured by numerical results; and it is not arrogance, but truth, to view these contributions. In the natural “body there are many members, yet one body, but all the members have not the same office;” and it is so in the ecclesiastical body of the visible church-catholic. Presbyterian Ism is providentially fashioned and employed to do for Christendom her own peculiar part. It is the conservative branch of the family of churches, checking the departures of all the others from sound doctrine. It is the exemplar of scriptural organisation. It is the sustainer of the more thorough education of both ministry and laity. And we assert that, constituted as poor human nature now is, it is entirely reasonable to expect that Presbyterianism cannot, in the nature of the case, both perform all these her peculiar precious functions, and also compete successfully for the largest and most promiscuous numbers. The two results may be now incompatibles. And hence it may be justifiable that Presbyterianism should make the practical election, and pursue these vital results which are peculiarly assigned to her in providence, though at the cost of resigning the more promiscuous numerical greatness. The normal school cannot have as many pupils as the popular school; to do so it must cease to be normal.
The issue raised, then, is this:—whether it is not now our duty to give up our constitutional requirement of a classically learned ministry, and provide another grade of ministers, equipped only with piety, seal, and an English training, in order to gain these numerical accessions, like our Immersionist and Methodist neighbours. It is not proposed that we shall lower the standard of learning in our Seminaries, or discourage such as have taste for it from acquiring classical training; but that there shall be another wide door into our ministry, by which a large number of ministers of another grade shall be permitted to enter, -with only an English education. On the other hand, we hold that our present theory of preparation should be left unchanged, and only more faithfully executed. The extent of this is, not to make classical learning so essential to the being of a ministry as to refuse the character of a valid minister to those who are without our training, but to assert that it is a true source of increased, efficiency; and hence, inasmuch as every one who avouches the obligation to serve Christ ought to feel obliged to serve him the most and the best possible, we conclude it to be our duty to gain that increase of capacity for service.
The first reason we urge against innovation is, that it opposes the deliberate judgment of the wisest and best of our fathers, when viewing and deciding the very same problem. Is it said that the tremendous emergency arising out of our growth of population has put a new face on the question, in the presence of which they would have decided otherwise? No. Dr John H. Rice, for instance, foresaw precisely this increase and this emergency. He looked full in the face the figures disclosing the slow relative growth of Virginia Presbyteries. And in the presence of these express facts this is what he did in 1825:—he devoted his great powers to pressing these two points, the evils of an uneducated ministry, and the equipment of Union Seminary. Never, for one moment, did the facts sway him and his co-workers to favour the hurrying of a single partially educated man into the field; their only idea of the remedy was, to provide means as speedily as possible to give the most thorough. education to the largest number of ministers. The same thing was true of the fathers who began the creation of Princeton Seminary in 1811, Ashbel Green, Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and their comrades. The same was true also of Moses Stuart in New England, and the men who created the Congregational (American) Education Society. They saw the solemn emergency; they appreciated the church's slow progress in overtaking it; they refused all other remedy for it than the one to which they devoted their energies; means for the thorough education of more numerous men to reap the perishing harvest.
But it is suggested that there is substantial difference in the case now, because we now have a rich and profuse literature in English, covering all the departments of theological learning, whereas, when the Presbyterian constitution was first devised (say 1649-1651), all was locked up in Latin. We are told that, even at the day of Albert Barnes, he had nothing in English to begin with, save Doddridge's Family Expositor.
This greatly misrepresents the facts. We must remind readers, first, that the dates of the creation of our constitution, as an American church, are not those of the Westminster Assembly but are 1729, 1758, 1789, and especially 1820. At the last date which marks the real establishment of our polity, the English works on all the branches of divinity bore as large a ratio to the Latin then accessible to American scholars, both in quantity and value, as at this day. To make it much otherwise, indeed at the epoch of the Westminster Assembly, one must strangely forget the works of the great English Reformers a century before, from Cranmer onward, many of which were in English He must forget that the age of the Westminster Assembly was adorned by such writers as Lightfoot, Richard Baxter, Manton John Owen, the prince of expositors, Joseph Caryl, Sir Robert Boyle, Bishop Hall, Matthew Poole, the Scotchmen Baillie Henderson, and Rutherford, the evangelical prelates Usher and Leighton, the poet and divine John Milton, and a multitude of others. These men illustrated every part of biblical learning by works which, to this day, are mines of knowledge for the more pretentious moderns, and that, not only in Latin dress, as Poole's “Synopsis Criticorum,” but also in English, as the same author's “Annotations.”
Now, when we add to this noble catalogue of English biblical lore of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the yet more profuse works of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth, how much is the trivial assertion of Barnes worth? Not to dwell on the profound works of the scholars of the Anglican Church, such as Dean Prideaux, Bishops Hammond, Bull Stillingfleet, Warburton, Waterland, Pearson, we remember that age witnessed the critical labours of a Bentley and a Mill, the Hebrew Grammars (in English) of Bayley, Fitsgerald, Joseph Frey; the Lexicons of Parkhurst and Frey, the publication of Dr George Campbell's Gospels, the vast and unsurpassed work of Dr Lardner (Credibility), the prophetic studies of Sir Isaac Newton and of Bishop Newton and Dr Faber; ministers had possessed Doddridge from 1740; McKnight from 1756; Dr Benson from 1735; Paley's Horæ Paulinæ from 1790; Blair on the Canon from 1785; Lowth's critical works from 1787; Whitby from 1761; Dr Gill from 1763, unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled, by any commentator since, who wrote on the whole Bible; Matthew Henry from 1706; Scott from 1790; not to dwell on the long line of American divines from Drs. John Cotton and Cotton Mather down to Jonathan Edwards. No, the framers of our constitution did not require learning of their ministry because the stores of information were then locked up in Latin, but because they knew that knowledge of the originals of the Bible was essential to make a competent teacher in the church. Nor are the English books of this age on divinity more learned, or accurate, or useful, than the former; they are more frequently feebler rehashes of the very materials already gathered by those admirable old scholars.