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Christian Truth and Its Keepers

I have seen it stated that the origin of the American Baptist Publication Society was due to a circumstance as simple as that falling of the apple from the tree which revealed to Newton the law of gravitation. The falling of a little tract from the hat of the Rev. Samuel Cornelins suggested to Noah Davis the idea of a General Tract Society, that should fill the land with a trenchant and succinct denominational literature. It might almost seem that Mr. Darwin's doctrine of "pangenesis" had found an illustration here, and that this cellule of an idea contained the germs of the whole subsequent structure of this society. I have no notion, however, that either its beginnings or its after-work can be explained by any mere law of natural development. There are such things as new creations, not only in geologic history but in the history of the church, and I believe that the starting of this society into life was one of those new creations. I attribute its origin, not to Noah Davis, who saw the tract fall, nor to Samuel Cornelins, from whose hat it fell, but rather to that all-working Providence which in every century and through agencies utterly insufficient of themselves, summons new moral forces into being to further the progress of his truth. And if this be their origin, then we may dismiss our fears lest these organizations take from the church her honor or her responsibility. They are the appointed servants and helpers of the church,— when they work, it is the church that works through them,— all their glory is the glory of the church. My only fear is that we forget that these societies hold their commission from God, that they have been raised up as bulwarks and defenses of his truth, and that the demands they make npon us are the demands of Christ himself. I ask your attention to certain considerations which vindicate the claims of this society for help in its great work of furnishing a cheap denominational literature. I maintain that the work of propagating our peculiar views of truth is correct in principle; that we who hold these views are specially ordained to this work; and that the methods of which we make use are demanded in these times by a sound Christian expediency.

The principle upon which our whole work is based is nothing more nor less than this: Christ's truth is an organic whole, all whose parts have vital connections with each other, so that to stand for any one part of the great system is logically to stand for every other part,— to harm any part is to do injury to the whole. We all know something of the organic unity of the human body. Suppose a man comes to me and asks me to let him cut off one joint of my finger, on the ground that it is a very small part of my body

* An address delivered before the American Baptist Publication Society, at its annual meeting in Now York City, May, 18«8.

and that its loss .will not be felt,— you would think him crazy, and you would think me crazier still to grant his request. To tear one joint from my finger is to maim the whole body, and send horrible pains through every part. God's truth is an organic whole like a human body. Injure it in any one part, however insignificant, and you injure the whole, you sap the life-blood, the blow is felt at the very heart. Just as the law of God is the expression of the will of the One Lawgiver, and therefore he who offends in one part is guilty of all, so Christian doctrine is a reflection of the being and nature of the God of truth, and he who denies or hides any part of it, however small, is, just so far, bringing the Sun of Righteousness into disastrous eclipse, and destroying the symmetry and power of God's revelation of himself to men.

Now we believe that our distinctive denominational tenets are part and parcel of this truth of God, and as such are built into the very frame-work of Christianity so that they cannot be torn away without injury to the whole structure. Those grand principles for which our fathers contended even unto death — the sole authority of the word of God, the freedom of conscience from all civil domination, the admission of none but baptized believers to the membership and ordinances of the church, the right of every member of the church to a voice in its government and discipline,— these principles are not only logically inseparable from one another, but are organically connected with the whole body of revealed truth. Even that tenet of our faith, that nothing is baptism but the immersion of the believer in water in the name of the Trinity, is linked in organic unity to every other part of the Christian scheme. And as this may illustrate what I mean by the organic unity of revealed truth, let me ask you to give a moment's reflection to the relations of baptism, first, to Christian doctrine as a whole and then to the other ordinance of Christ's house, the Holy Supper.

Baptism is not a meaningless ceremonial — it symbolizes the great central truth of the gospel — in it« very form it represents a death, burial and resurrection. "Whose death," do you ask? The death of Christ, I answer, and the entrance of the believer into communion with that death. We see the death of Christ set forth as clearly and powerfully in Baptism as in the Holy Supper. Baptism signifies purification indeed, but purification only in a peculiar and divine way, namely, through the death of Christ and our personal communion with that death by faith. It is said that in the last century, every rope, great or small, that was used throughout the British navy, had a scarlet thread running through it from end to end; lost, stolen, sunk beneath the waves though it might be, the smallest vestige of the cordage showed by this simple thread that it bore the King's mark and was the possession of the crown. So there is a scarlet thread running through the whole circle of Christian doctrine and practice certifying that all its different parts are one. It is the scarlet thread of the blood of Jesus. That scarlet thread runs through the ordinance of Baptism — that reference to Jesus' death reveals to us its divine significance — that emblematic declaration that even the beginnings of spiritual life must have their source in the fountain of Jesus' blood, vindicates its place and importance as an indispensable part of Christian doctrine and practice, and gives it all its glory as the initiatory ordinance of the Christian church. But this is not all. Baptism not only sets forth with all the vividness of sign-language the great central truth of the gospel, but other related truths find expression there as well. That sacred ordinance is nothing less indeed than a pictorial representation of the whole substance of Christianity, an incarnation in symbol of all the essential truths upon which our salvation hangs, a mirroring forth in visible form of the great invisible realities of atonement through Jesus' death, regeneration by the power of the Spirit, union with Christ by a living faith, resurrection with Christ to a new life here and eternal glory hereafter. Thus Baptism is bound up in the organic unity of the Christian scheme. To defend Christ's ordinance from abuse and perversion is not to preach a partial and sectarian gospel, but to stand for the whole system of doctrine which that ordinance sets forth and illustrates. To substitute anything for Baptism which excludes all reference to the death of Christ is to falsify the whole body of Christian truth and break down one of the grand safeguards of Christian doctrine.

Observe, too, how this reference of Baptism unites it by a living tie to that othor ordinance of Christ's house, the Holy Supper. We know the tenacity with which all branches of the Christian church hold to the symbolism of the Communion. There is a so-called Protestant church in this city where the eucharist is weekly celebrated by the light of blazing candles, while incense and procession and genuflexion lend their meretricious attractions to an ordinance which was meant to commemorate the Savior's death, but which has come to be little else than a piece of Romish idolatry. Yet if you were to suggest to these ritualistic Christians that they might substitute for the broken bread and poured-out wine of the communion, some other form of administering the ordinance which would leave out all reference to the death of Christ, even they, with all their forgetfnlness of its real spirit, would start back in horror of the sacrilege, because in that sacred ordinance they see compacted all the creed, and hold themselves specially commissioned to maintain it inviolate forever, as a visible witness for the central truths of the gospel. To celebrate the Holy Supper in any form which obscures to popular apprehension the mighty sacrifice it was meant to commemorate, is to celebrate not the Holy Supper but some ordinance of human invention. But who has authorized us to empty one ordinance of its meaning, any more than the other? Even the High Churchman can appreciate the shock which the Christian faith would sustain, if all reference to the death of Christ were taken out of the Communion, for it would be equivalent to declaring that Christian life could be preserved and nourished apart from that one death by which alone we live. But is it any the less a wrong to the whole body of truth to assert in symbol that Christian life and purity can begin in the soul without having its source in the death of Christ? Yet this is done whenever anything is substituted for baptism which cannot set forth a burial with Christ. The one ordinance is as sacred as the other — both are bound together by their common reference to the death of Jesus. Like those twins of whom old Hippocrates wrote, one life and breath seems to animate both, one blood pulsates through their veins, they smile and weep together, their minds are united in electric sympathies, when one suffers the other suffers with it, when one dies, the same hour witnesses the death of the other also. Let baptism degenerate into a half-mystical, half-magical rite, void of all allusion to the sacrifice on Calvary, and administered to those whose infautile years preclude all conscious communion by faith with the Savior's death, and you have not far to go to see the perversion of the Lord's Supper into a sensuous accessory of ritualistic worship by which in some cabalistic way the communicant is manipulated into the kingdom of heaven, and made partaker of the blessings promised only to the believer. Regard for the integrity of the Lord's Supper, as well as for the great sum of truth of which these two ordinances are constituent parts and appointed emblems, urges us to keep the ordinance of Baptism as it was first delivered to the church, a living symbol of the death of Christ, and of our entrance into communion with that death by faith.

But I am asked, what peculiar responsibility have we as Baptists, more than others, in upholding and propagating our distinctive views? Let me reply briefly to this question by laying down a second principle, of as great practical importance as that first one with regard to the organic unity of Christian truth. It is this :— Christ has committed special truths of his great system to special keepers. It has been so through the whole history of man. Both civilization and religion have gone out from centres. Revelation was first given to a historic nation, that from them it might be disseminated through the world. And in this is the wisdom of God. There were two possible plans,— one to give the knowledge of himself in disconnected parts, to individuals isolated and scattered here and there over the globe, — the other to make the revelation in a fixed place, to one people and with historic connection and unity. Any one can see that the last is better than the first, just as the introduction of a new variety of wheat could be better effected by planting it at first in a single field, than by scattering single grains of it here and there over the surface of the world, and thus running the risk of total choking-out and extinction. Just as God has made the great fundamental truths of religion to go out from Judtca and her now stricken and desolate race, so he has made some single branches of his church the special interpreters and defenders of single portions of his truth, and has laid on them the charge of keeping the light of those special truths burning before the nations.

I am not one of those who are in anguish of spirit over the multiplicity of sects. Mere unity of external organization may be a deceit and a snure, as the palmy days of the Roman hierarchy may witness. The only unity worth striving for is that unity in the truth, which the Spirit of God, dwelling in all true believers, is working out in the course of the church's history. But that unity in the faith to which we all shall ultimately come is to be promoted only by the fidelity of each body of Christians to the truth as they apprehend it. God's word is a field in which many a treasure still lies hid. When any man or set of men gets hold of a truth that has been hitherto neglected, and finds it full of power and life, the natural tendency, yes, the providential design, is that the new spirit should take to itself a new form, and through a new outward organization, impress upon the world its importance and its claims. Christianity is many-sided; there is a possibility that another, looking at Christ's truth from a different point of view, may embrace within the circuit of his vision something which I cannot see. God bless him in his efforts to make it known to men! Single Christians and single churches are but partial illustrators and reflectors of the mighty truths of the Bible,—

"Hither, as to a fountain, Other suns repair, and in their urns Draw golden light."

But as the one colorless light, falling upon different objects, loses a part of its rays by absorption, and only blue, red, green or some other color, is reflected to us, so the one light of truth, reflected from different Christian bodies, loses it whiteness,— a part of the truth is lost in the transmission, another part is made too prominent, it may be,— all the rays of all the sects together, and not of one alone, make up the pure white light of Christian doctrine; and though wo cannot understand the truths which many of these sects are striving to represent, though we have no mental chemistry which can now combine them, we may rejoice that all these scattered rays shall at last be reunited and form a circlet of glory round the Redeemers brow.

For this very reason, therefore, that Christ has given to us certain definite convictions which differ from the views of others, are we bound to be faithful to those convictions, and to contend for them until we die,— our ray of truth is a part at least of Christ's light,— one element will be lacking if we hide that ray or put it out. Let it shine! Let it shine, and do its work for God, like the lighthouse on some rocky coast, lighting the track of safety to thousands of souls storm-tost and bewildered on the great ocean of controversy and speculation. The world needs that light ; God has made us its keepers; from us it must go forth, if it is to enlighten the nations. Let us not imagine that truth of itself will win its way to victory and universal acceptation. Truth, without a body of believers to hold it forth, and a divine Spirit to make that exhibition effectual, is an abstraction and not a power. The cross that caps the dome of St. Peter's could never look down from its lofty height upon the myriad roofs of the eternal city, if it were not for those gigantic piers far beneath, which Bramante built up in the sixteenth century from the primeval rock. So there is no truth of revelation that, has power to hold itself in mid-air alone. The church of the living God has been appointed to be its pillar and ground; its very historical existence as Christian truth rests on this, that there remains from age to age a company of devoted souls who give themselves to the work of sustaining and preserving it. For this purpose of upholding a portion of Christ's truth, long neglected and despised, God has given us our being as a separate Christian organization. If it be not our duty to use all lawful means for the support and propagation of our faith, then our very denominational existence is an impertinence, and our boasted truth is only schism and heresy. But if, on the other hand, we have built up our denominational faith upon the everlasting rock of God's revealed will, then to give up one inch of our position for the sake of liberality, or worldly repute, or wider influence, is simply to give up Christ and in that thing to deny him. To every taunting charge of bigotry, we can only answer as Peter and John answered of old: "Whether it be right, in the sight of God, to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard." God has appointed that those who believe should speak, and that through their speaking the truth which he has committed to them should bring forth fruit after its kind, until the world shall be covered with the waving harvest.

I have but one other thought to present, and that is that Christ requires us, in the propagation of his truth, to adopt modern measures for modern needs. We must not only defend the points which are most attacked, but must defend them by means suited to the emergency. In the Arabian Nights, there is a strange story of an evil Afrite whom a king's daughter sought to destroy. Perceiving her purpose, the Genie put forth his magic power and changed his shape into that of a roaring lion. But the princess possessed equal powers of enchantment. Plucking a single hair from her waving locks, she turned it in a instant into a glittering sword, and with the sword she cleft her adversary in twain. But the lion's head still had life, and ere she was aware it had become a deadly scorpion. Then she herself became a serpent to pursue him. But he was a scorpion no longer; transformed into an eagle, he was soaring far beyond her reach. Then she followed him in the shape of a vulture. Metamorphosed into a fish, he found himself chased by a shark, whose form was only the disguise of his relentless foe. Reduced at length to the last resource of depair, he turned into a flame of fire, but his enemy became a greater flame and devoured him. It is an illustration of the protean forms which error assumes,in its conflicts with the truth, and of the vigilance and flexibility with which truth must adapt her weapons of attack to each of them.

Of all the auxiliaries of error, there is none which for power can compare with the modern press. Truth must arm herself with the same weapon, if she would counteract its influence and take possession of its strongholds, — like David, she must take Goliath's own sword to behead the giant. But why do I speak as if the church were taking the weapon of another, when she used the press? It is her own, by right divine. The printing of the Bible consecrated it to God forever. Without it, the Reformation would have died in its cradle. It i% one of those diversities of operations by which the Spirit, in his sevenfold energy, is renewing the face of the world. In the religious literature of the day, we see some glimpses of its power. Who can estimate what it will be in coming days, when history and poetry, science and fiction, shall all become the handmaids of religion, and each shall count it the highest aim of her ambition to receive the laurel from the hand of Christ!

It is the part of a true Christian expediency to bring the press to bear upon those peculiar errors which to our view mar the symmetry of modern Christianity, and hinder the progress of the gospel among men. We are confirmed in this belief by the wondrous blessing which, under God, has attended the printing and dissemination of our denominational literature. What one of us can look at Sweden with its two hundred churches established, and its seven thousand souls converted to God, without rejoicing that a publication of this society led Andreas Wiberg to devote to Baptist missionary work the energies of a consecrated soul! Witness the mighty progress of pure religion in Germany. See the fifteen thousand baptized believers who labor there for Christ, and then remember that the single grain of seed-corn from which this vast harvest sprang was a little tract of the American Baptist Publication Society, which led Dr. Oncken thirty-four years ago to embrace Scriptural views of Baptism. And who cau tell how many thousands, once dead in trespasses and sins, have read the tracts of this society, and reading them have seemed to touch the bones of some dead prophet, and to be raised thereby to new spiritual life. And this, my friends, is the work your Society is doing. Day by day and year by year, it is sending forth its leaves for the healing of the nations. Through its Sabbath school and tract departments it is reaching thousands upon thousands whom you and I will never see, spreading everywhere the knowledge of Christ and of his commandments. Like the foraminifera, those microscopic "toilers of the sea," — each one so small that a hundred and fifty of them, strung together end to end, would form a line only a twelfth of an inch in length, but which, with all their littleness, built up in the geologic ages the enormous masses of the Wenlden chalk, and stretches of limestone rock, hundreds of miles in extent and thousands of feet in thickness,— these little publications which singly seem so insignificant, sent forth and scattered broadcast through the land, are building up whole continents of truth, and laying foundation for the future which no after storms or cataclysms can ever wear away.

Into this work, then, let us put our strength of money and of heart. We have no iron wheel of outward organization, revolving at the bidding of some central despotism, to fill our treasury. Let us demonstrate that the voluntary offerings of Christian love will accomplish more than forced levies can. Let us show that we value our principles, by our zeal and liberality in diffusing them. And while we stand faithful to Christ, and to the truth as he has revealed it to us, let us not fail to adopt for our own the reputed maxim of the noble Persians — ever to speak of our opponents in controversy with heartfelt acknowledgment of all that God has wrought in them of good, — for, after all, the differences which separate us are far less important than the ties that bind us together; though we cannot now in all things see alike, we may still rejoice in the inheritance which we possess, as children of one common Father; though the bars of outward organization render our union imperfect here, we may look forward with all the more of longing to that time when all these divisions of the twilight shall disappear in the sunrise of a fuller kuowledge, and it shall be known to all the universe at last that there is but "one flock and one Shepherd."