The Church was intended to be “a union of men arising from communion of religious life,” founded in their common relation to Christ, as the source of that life and the centre of union. It was, in a word, the form in which Christ established the kingdom of God upon earth; a spiritual kingdom, indeed, but designed, in the course of ages, to mold all the social and political institutions of men into harmony with the purposes of the King of nations. This Church can only be visibly realized (imperfectly for a time, but some day perfectly) in an organized community or communities of men. An organized community must have a government: but the form of its government, and the character of its laws, may vary in different periods of its development; nay, must very, if there is to be any development at all. The only restriction upon the powers of the Church to establish rules, order, laws, &c. in the nature of the case must be, that all its enactments shall tend to promote its organic aims, namely, the promotion of spiritual life and spiritual union, or, in other words, the advancement of the kingdom of God, both intensively, in the hearts of individual men, and extensively, in the world of mankind. And, on the other hand, it must be the duty of the Church, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and with a single eye to the glory of Christ, as age after age unfolds one necessity after another, to enact such laws as may be essential for the promotion of these ends.
If this view of the origin and functions of the Church be correct, it is not necessary, as I have before said, in order to show the duty of the American Church in regard to American slavery, to prove that Christ enacted any special laws against slavery; but only to show that it is a moral evil, and that the circumstances of the age and the country demand and justify the action of the Church to remove it. In regard to any other evil now existing among us, one would not need to spend words in supporting this proposition.
Still, most of our Sothern brethren assert that nothing less than a specific statute, given by Christ or his apostles, can suffice to show that American slavery is morally wrong. American slavery, I say; for if their argument does not go thus far it goes for nothing: with this, and this only, are the Churches of American directly concerned. Dr.. . . admits that slavery is contrary to the “genius of Christianity,” and that it is an evil which the spread of Christianity will finally abolish; and yet he tells us that there is not in the New Testament “a single sentence, nor any series of them, [i.e., of sentences,] from which induction can logically draw the interference, that the simple owning or holding of slaves [under the present slave-laws of America, recollect] is inconsistent with the word of God or Christian character;” and again, that “by a . . . unaccountable overnight, the great Teacher, and the inspired expositors of his declared will, failed to intimate that it was a sin at all.” I do not . . . to misrepresent Dr. Bascom; but if I understand his theory of morals, as far as his pamphlet on “Methodism and Slavery” develops it, one of its fundamental principles is, that nothing is morally wrong, however much it may be opposed to the spirit of Christianity, (for “spirit” and “genius,” I suppose, mean the same thing,) unless it be forbidden, in so many words, by the letter of Scripture. I think this is the Doctor’s moral teaching: certainly it is describable from his book, or I have failed to comprehend it.
But Dr. Bascom’s adherence to the letter rather than to the spirit of Christianity is nothing in comparison with Dr. Longstreet’s. The scribes themselves could not have gone beyond the latter excellent brother in this particular. Dr. B. says that the Bible is neither pro-slavery nor anti-slavery; but Dr. L. tells us that it clearly “sanctions” slavery—that he has “never met an argument which meets the texts so often quoted by Southern slaveholders in support of their authority.” After “examining the Scriptures carefully, from Genesis to Revelation,” he is firmly and fully persuaded that “the innocence of slavery [American slavery, recollect again] is incontrovertible!”
We certainly should be surprised at this tenacious adherence to the ipsissinma verba of Scripture, if we were not furnished with so many examples of precisely the same kind in learned teachers, of the Law during Christ’s ministry on earth, and in the history of Christianity in all ages. There is one instance, so instructive, and so nearly parallel with the one now under discussion, that I cannot forbear to call the attention of your readers to it, although it is familiar to all students of Church history.
There were play-houses in abundance in the time of Christ, yet he uttered, so far as we know, not a word against them. . . . . shows, all cruelty and bloodshed, were exhibited annually to thousands upon thousands of admiring eyes, yet neither he nor his apostles opened their lips to denounce them. Paul stood upon Mars’ Hill, and preached to the Athenians, whose life, one might say, was spent in the theatre; yet he had no word to utter on the subject. The massive Colosseum towered up within its vast circuit; but still he was silent. The public games, the races, the chariot course, all, it seems, were alike innocent; for on all alike he held his peace. Nay, he even “sanctioned” them by drawing illustration after illustration of the Christian life from the breathless speed the concentrated earnestness, the unresting ambition, of the racers and the combatants, and all this was actually plead in defense of theatrical amusements in the early Christian Church. It was argued “that the great Teacher and his inspired apostles had failed to intimate that these things were sinful at all.” No word of prohibition could be found in the whole Bible. “Elijah was carried to heaven in a chariot.” “The music and dancing of the theatre must be sinless, because David danced and played before the ark of the covenant.”
So many professing Christians stifled their consciences in this plausible way, appealing to the very letter of Scripture, that Tertullian wrote a treatise,” De Spectaeulis, on purpose to convince them of their error and their sin. “How acute in argument,” says he “does human ignorance fancy itself, especially when it is afraid of losing some of the pleasures and enjoyments of the world!” “Although no express verbal prohibition of games and shows is found in Scripture, yet it contains general principles, from which this prohibition follows as a matter of course . . . I may safely affirm that it were better for such men never to know the Scriptures than so to read them; for the words and examples placed there to exhort to the virtues of the Gospel, they pervert to the defense of vices . . .Reason of itself may deduce from the propositions laid down in Scripture those consequences which themselves are not expressly unfolded.”
Had Dr. Longstreet lived in these days, and taken the side of the play-goers, he would have said, (just as he says in his letter to Dr. Durbin and others, on Philemon,) “Now, my dear Tertullian, we must meet this subject as we do every other involving duty; not with wiredrawn arguments from the law of nature, but with honest arguments deduced from the word of God. And while we argue it, there must be no sophistry, no skipping of hard texts, no forgetting of strong inferences from them, no cuttle . . . hiding, no theatrics. All this may do very well in debate, for the mere exercise of skill; but upon a grave question of divine law, involving the peace of the Church, and the internal interests of millions, it will never do. The more I have examined the Scriptures, the more quiet has my conscience become upon this subject.”
As a pendant to the above allusion to Tertullian’s controversy, and a further historical parallel to the recent attempts to baptize Slavery with the holy name of Christianity, it may be recollected that the clergy, at a later period, finding the tide too strong for them, abated their opposition to theatrical representations, or, rather, took the matter into their own hands, and manufactured religious plays, with Bible characters or legendary saints for heroes, which were enacted in the chapels of the monasteries, the priests themselves being the actors. The habit of play-going was so interwoven with the usages and institutions of society, was so strongly sustained by public opinion and the laws of the land, and therefore so delicate an affair for the Church to act upon, as had been shown by centuries, almost, of agitation, that there was no help for it; the best thing that could be done was to take it under the wing of the Church, purify its “relations” as much as possible, cut off its “abuses,” and let the people do as they pleased. Yours truly,
John McClintock, Jr.
Carlisle, April 8, 1847.
P.S. In my second article, the first sentence of the paragraph next to the last should read, “Why did not Christ enact such a law?”