The Dangers of Denominational Prosperity
(Taken from a Sermon delivered before and published by vote of the Portsmouth Association, convened at Mill Swamp, Virginia May 26, 1843; reprinted from The Virginia Baptist Preacher, vol.2, no. 7, July 1843))
“Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.”
1 Cor. 10:12
The sacred oracles leave us in no doubt that as long as the world stands, God will have a church on the earth; and yet, in some sense he has left it to the church herself to preserve and perpetuate her existence. Her prosperity also, at any give period will be proportionate to the zeal and fidelity of her members. I would not by any means, here lose sight of the necessity of sovereign, divine grace in the preservation and upbuilding of Zion; but I say God has clearly instituted and made known the connection alluded to. We may have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, on our side, and yet we are taught that the success of our cause is coupled with the measure of our watchfulness, activity, and prayer. The arm of the Lord must indeed awake, and put on its strength, but His people must not be deaf to the call, “awake! awake! put on thy strength, O Zion!”
There are two respects in which the adherents of any system may be mistaken, and wherein they should take heed. They may think that they are firmly planted in the truth, when they are really in error; and they may be confident of triumph, when they are destined to disaster, if not total defeat. Where the truth is actually entertained there is no question, but that is the side which must ultimately prevail; and yet, it does not follow before the final consummation, that its success in any given struggle will be proportionate to its superiority in point of truth. Does not universal history teach us, that truth, though immortal, may yet long lie crushed to earth, while error is rife and rampant in the world?–that the ground which she gains, if she would maintain it, she must watch with eagle eye, and defend with a vigorous arm?–and that if she would make new conquests, she must march boldly forth, and win them on fields, where every inch will be desperately disputed? Thus has it been in every past age. Truth and error, like two sturdy gladiators, have held each other in close grapple, and now one has seemed uppermost and now the other. When it may please God that the mortal blow shall be inflicted upon error, and the ultimate triumph of truth shall arrive, the Omniscient only knows; but it is certain, as yet, no one can say, “I am right, because my opinions are triumphant;” or “My opinions must triumph, because I am right.” Let him that thinketh he standeth, then, either in respect to the truth or the triumph of his particular sentiments, take heed, lest he fall.
As Baptists, we trust, and we are confident in the persuasion, that we have the truth, as nearly as human imperfection can approximate to it, on our side. We cannot doubt, but our views, founded as they are, on the simple word of God, irrespective of the traditions of men, are destined ultimately to complete triumph. And from the rapid progress they have made, and are still making, we fondly believe that the day when they shall universally prevail, is not distant. That day cannot be distant, if Baptists are only true to the sacred trust committed to them. But here we have just ground for apprehension; and a little reflection will convince you, brethren, that our most serious fears must actually be based on our apparent prosperity. We are bound, indeed, to thank God and take courage, for what our ears have heard, and our eyes have seen. In this land, we have already come to outnumber any other denomination, and the leaven of our views is diffusing itself more and more widely in every direction. We have a right to rejoice; we do, and we will rejoice; but let us be careful that we do not give ourselves up too exclusively to exultation; let us not blind ourselves to the fact, that with this advance has come an accession of dangers, which should keep us incessantly on our guard. I ask your prayerful attention, whilst I shall endeavor to point out some of these dangers,–the perils of our prosperity,–perils, which, if not guarded against and counteracted, may give a retrograde movement to the cause of truth, and involve the world once more in the darkness of error and superstition. Heaven forbid it! Heaven forbid that we prove faithless to the high and holy trust committed to us!
I. The first danger I specify, as springing from our prosperity and threatening to mar it, has respect to our purity–our soundness both in doctrine, and in practice. Bodies as they grow large are very apt to grow corrupt. It is as true in the moral as in the natural world, that rapid growth is not always a symptom of health. It becomes our churches then, as their numbers increase, to see to it that there be no relaxation of sound doctrine, and that a healthy tone of piety be maintained. However the bulk of a church may have been augmented, there has been no advance in real prosperity, if, take the church through, the average attachment to the great truths of God’s word, and the tone of practical religion have been lowered. And is there not danger of this? Where there have been large additions, is it improbable that among them are many whose views of divine truth are very partial and defective; and many, who, having no definite views at all, are in danger of imbibing notions exceedingly erroneous, or of being tossed about by every wind of doctrine? And so, does not experience teach us, that where many present themselves for membership, at a time, we are apt to be less particular, as to the evidence of a real change in the candidates, than where only one, or but a few present themselves? And is it not peculiarly difficult, in the flush of such an occasion, to judge accurately what weight is to be allowed to the statements presented? At all times there is danger of deceived persons being admitted to the church; but is not the danger especially great, at a time when the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence? It is a critical time with a church when membership in it is popular. But, allow that all who have been received are genuine converts, and sound in their doctrinal views, so far as they have any, this is the point to which I would come; is there not danger, where there are so many more to be instructed, and watched over than formerly,–and who will not admit the necessity of such watch-care, and instruction?–that less attention will be bestowed on the members individually? that where many are to be looked after, the business will be done in a more hasty and general manner, than where there are but few? Is it unlikely, that neglects, inconsistencies, and abuses, which before would have been promptly rebuked, will be suffered to pass unnoticed?
You know how it is in tillage. A farmer may be increasing his acres, and still be growing poorer. We should not forget that a small estate, constantly improving, is better than a large one running to waste. This deterioration in the church may not be very perceptible at once, but let some emergency arise, in which it is necessary for her to vindicate her purity,–to speak out, and act out boldly against heresy or sin,–and then it will be seen whether the church has improved, on the whole, by comparing the present degree of her union and promptitude with the past. Look in at the prayer meeting also. Have the attendants an interest there kept pace with the increase of the church? Is as large a proportion of the whole number to be found there now as when the church was smaller? Do you witness the cheerfulness of that little band, who in days gone by enjoyed such sweet seasons together? or does gloom preside, and do your hear little else than lamentations, that out of so many so few only feel love enough to the Saviour and love enough to one another, to draw them out to meeting? And how is it in respect to the interest of the church in the various objects of Christian liberality and exertion? Has the church enlarged her contributions and operations, in proportion to the enlargement of her ability? If an unfavorable answer is given to there questions is not the conclusion inevitable, that the church is not so sound as when it was smaller? Understand me, brethren, I say nothing against the large and rapid accessions to our churches; would to God they were larger and more rapid; I do not say that the evils referred to necessarily follow, but only that there is danger of their following, because, where there are so many more to be instructed and trained, there is a liability that individual cases will not be looked after so carefully. Now what makes this a point of great importance is these two things; 1st, the objects of church association, it must be obvious to all, can be carried out only in proportion to the soundness and piety of the body; and 2ndly, it is only in that proportion that a church can expect to enjoy the smiles of her great Head; and what, brethren, what is a church without God’s blessing? I pass to notice another danger.
II. It is the increased liability to disunion. All must be aware that this liability is much greater in a large body than in a small one. The more materials there are for parties the more schisms there are likely to be. Philosophy itself cannot furnish a stronger illustration of cohesive attraction than is found in that union, which binds together a little, despised, persecuted handful, cemented together by a common faith. But let their number be increased; let them come to assume an aspect of respectability and importance in the eyes of the world; destroy the powerful bond of sympathy in suffering for conscience’ sake; introduce a greater diversity of interest and outward circumstance; instead of all knowing each other intimately, let numbers be unacquainted with each other, and generally the acquaintance be slight, compared with what it was before; let them come to feel that rupture, after all, will not be death to them;–I say, let the condition of that little band be thus changed, and will not discord find much easier admittance than before? No one can doubt it. Besides, the greater the number of members, the greater will probably be the diversity of views and feelings to be reconciled; consequently the more numerous the occasions which can be wrested by disaffected persons to the purposes of faction. And still further: the larger and more influential the body, the stronger are the allurements to pride, ambition, and cupidity in it; and what more fruitful parents of disunion than these? And so we might go on to enumerate many other ways in which the increase of a church widens the entrance for disunion. But time forbids. This curse need not enter, and it should not be suffered to enter; everything should go on harmoniously in the church of God; all I say is, there is danger on this score, and the more numerous the body, the greater the danger. Hence, with the augmentation of our ranks, the necessity of increased vigilance to prevent the evil, and promote mutual conciliation and love.
III. The next danger I notice is that which threatens our humility. The Lord will not bless a proud denomination, or a proud church, let their creed be ever so orthodox. When David, at the instigation of Satan, numbered Israel, Jehovah was indignant, and sent Gad, the seer, to him, with this fearful message:–”Choose thee one of these three things, that I may do it unto thee. Choose thee either three years’ famine; or three months to be destroyed before thy foes, whilst that the sword of thine enemies overtaketh thee; or else, three days the sword of the Lord, even the pestilence in the land, and the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the coasts of Israel.” Thus when David, in the pride of his heart, went to numbering the people, the Lord determined to diminish the people, and there fell of Israel 70,000 men.
Let us learn a lesson from the history of Hezekiah also. The king of Babylon having heard of his recovery from sickness, sent messengers to him, with a present, and letters of congratulation. Hezekiah, flattered at the attention of the heathen monarch, and doubtless, wishing to show that the distinction was not unworthily bestowed, takes the ambassadors to the house of his precious things, and there makes an ostentatious display of his wealth. The light in which God regarded this vain act, may be learned from the message he sent by Isaiah: “behold the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried into Babylon,”–the very country from which these ambassadors have come, “nothing shall be left, saith the Lord.” And when we, my brethren, show symptoms of elation, in consequence of the great prosperity with which the Lord has crowned us,–when we, as a denomination, or as separate churches, begin to boast of the great numbers in our ranks,–the wealth, the talents, the respectability, the influence, that have been added to our communion,–when we begin to lose that spirit of simple, lowly, unsophisticated piety, which characterised us in the days of our fewness and contempt,–it will be high time for us to begin to tremble also. We may expect the withering frown of Jehovah, and the tide of our prosperity will be turned backward. We may rejoice indeed, that the Lord has blessed us; and let us be glad; but let us exult only because in our success we see the advancement of truth, which is the cause of God, and essential to the enfranchisement, the glory, and the felicity of our race. It cannot be doubted, brethren, that with the enlargement of our denomination, there has come a tendency to this vain-glorying. I say it with regret, I fear the indications of this tendency have already made their appearance. What means the boastful parade so often made in our publications, of our superiority in numbers over other denominations? and especially of any inroads we may chance to have made on their ranks? Let us beware of this spirit. Let us see to it that we be not puffed up with arrogance. The devil cannot be better gratified than to witness this. Let us take heed lest we make shipwreck here, and it be left for us merely to furnish a beacon to some remoter generation, who, thus warned of the rock on which they are most likely to split, shall safely bear the holy trust now in our hands, into the port to which we had had the honor of bearing it but for our folly.
IV. Another danger to which our prosperity renders us peculiarly liable, is a diminution of energy in propagating the truth. Let us not forget that our obligation to exert ourselves for the glory of God is as great now as ever it was, and we are bound to exert ourselves as vigorously as ever. What has been accomplished will afford us no apology for suspending, or in any degree relaxing our efforts. Had our churches been ten-fold more active and faithful than they have been, no excuse could possibly be offered for the slightest flagging in our solicitude and labors for Zion’s good. Too much still remains to be done,–too much lost time, and too many wasted opportunities remain to be redeemed,–too many enemies are waiting for our halting,–to allow the least apology for folding our arms yet. No, when we consider how remiss in fact we have been, when we contrast all the labor that has been bestowed with the tremendous demand for exertion, and with what might actually have been done with proper fidelity, do we not really seem to have been asleep? So far then from thinking of rest, let us feel that we are called upon to arouse ourselves and redouble our diligence and energy; let us tremble at a single symptom of indisposition to continue,–nay, to increase to the utmost,–our attacks upon the power of the prince of darkness.
But, I repeat it, our past success brings with it a peculiar liability to such indisposition. We are apt to be satisfied too soon, before our Master is, or to fancy because so much has been accomplished, what remains can be done at our leisure; or, since because there are so many more in the service, each one may do less. It is the natural tendency of prosperity to enervate; and this tendency, if not counteracted, will eat out our vitals. When the world frowns upon the church, and Satan threatens to devour; when Christians are few and despised, there is every thing to stimulate to activity. It is then a struggle for life, and no one feels excused from fighting as hard as he can. But when large numbers have enlisted, and we imagine that we are too many, and too strong, to be scorned down, or beat down, we are prone to rest contented at this point. Many relax their exertions, while not a few cease their aggressions upon the enemy altogether. Like Job, we say, “I shall die in my nest.” Like the Laodiceans, we say, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.” Like Babylon, we say, “I shall be a lady forever.” We feel safe, we feel respectable, we feel at ease, and so do not bestir ourselves,–forgetting that our own personal safety, and comfort, and respectability, are not the ends set before us, but the total defeat of Satan, the extermination of sin,–the complete subdual of the earth to Immanuel’s reign. Thus, brethren, are we in danger of being satisfied with what the Lord has already done for us, of feeling that we are strong enough, and, sinking down into ignoble indolence, of restraining prayer, and neglecting all the means he has made it our duty to employ for the advancement of his glory. I pass just to hint at another danger intimately connected with this.
V. I refer to the danger of activity not being so general throughout the churches as when they were smaller,–of every church and every individual not coming up so much, as a body, to the help of the Lord. The churches being so much more numerous, the smaller ones will be apt to be overlooked in the calls which are made for the support of our various denominational enterprises; and not being particularly called upon, come themselves to forget the duty to do their proportion towards supporting those enterprises. And so, take any given church, I think this fact cannot have escaped your notice, brethren: that as the members and resources of a church increase, instead of each member doing what he can, as in the days when it was necessary for every one to work, or see the church die, a portion of the members come to be thrown out from bearing their share in supporting the difference operations. The mites and the one talents thus fail to come into the Lord’s treasury. Where the church can get along respectably without them, they are not considered worth the trouble of collection.
The fact is, there ought to be no trouble about it; a church should have its regular treasuries for good objects, and every member should know where the treasuries are, and have that spirit, which will lead him to bring in, systematically and punctually, his contributions himself. But the evil I refer to is not a mere matter of dollars and cents. It is the loss of a sense of individual responsibility,–of obligation on the part of every member, not merely to pay money, but to pray and labor in every way for the prosperity of Zion. From the very nature of things, it cannot be avoided that some members should become more prominent in the affairs of the church than others; but this is no reason why any one should feel that he has less personal interest in the church than any other. Alas! in too many of our churches there may be noticed a class, who hardly seem to regard themselves as part and parcel with the church, but rather, as in some sort mere useless appendages to the body. This ought not to be so. All should feel that they are members one of another; that each one has a part to perform in the upbuilding of the spiritual edifice; and that direct action, personal exertion in some way for the glory of God, is essential to the safety and prosperity of every soul. The danger on this score attendant on the progress of our denomination must be apparent to all. Let us see to it that the appropriate preventives be promptly and effectually applied.
VI. Another danger of no inconsiderable magnitude, and to which I designed calling your particular attention, but which I can barely notice, is that of our denomination becoming secularized by its prosperity. From being a small body, we have become so numerous, that, by uniting for secular and political purposes, we could wield no small amount of influence and power. How strong the temptation to this is liable to become, you need not be told. But Heaven defend us against it! The moment we attempt to erect ourselves in to a great establishment, and proclaim ourselves banded together on any other grounds, and for any other ends, than those which are purely spiritual,–that moment will be disastrous indeed to us. So soon as we, in our denominational capacity, take a stand of this kind, and are to be bartered with for objects of mere worldly advantage–bought and sold in the market of demagogues and speculators,–we may inscribe Ichabod upon our banners, for the glory will have departed.
VII. Another point of danger on which it were perhaps worth while to dwell, but which I will only suggest, is the influence of denominational prosperity on the toleration of others. I confess, brethren, when I read the pages of history, I feel proud of the stand that Baptists have always taken on the subject of religious freedom. I say it not in the spirit of boasting,–truth will bear out the assertion, that the great, invaluable principle of toleration in spiritual matters, if not discovered by a Baptist, has, at least, been more clearly developed, more powerfully enforced, and more unwaveringly acted on by no denomination than ours. No denomination has shown less disposition to abuse its advantages, more freely and cheerfully conceded to others the right of judging for themselves what is truth, and of carrying out the convictions of their judgment. God has blessed us in thus respecting the rights of others. We have reason to fear his frown, should we ever consent to abuse our advantages by the invasion of those rights. God forbid that we should ever set ourselves up as spiritual dictators in the world, and attempt to tyrannize over the consciences of men. Let us go on, as we ever have gone, trusting to no sword for our victories, but the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Let us especially abhor and dispise that petty despotism, which we sometimes see wielded over a community by a dominant sect,–so abhor and despise it, as never to tolerate the slightest approach to it in our own case. There cannot possibly be any thing lost, by the exhibition of that noble disinterestedness and generosity, which will lead us always cheerfully to concede to others as unshakled an exercise of the understanding and conscience, as we claim, or wish for ourselves.
VIII. I will detain you brethren, to notice but one danger more; and that is, the danger of incurring the displeasure of Heaven by ingratitude. The Lord hath done great things for us, and he expects us to make corresponding returns. He expects that we will be thankful, and manifest our thankfulness by our increased devotedness to his service. He expects that, as he has enlarged our ability, we will enlarge our operations. As there are more laborers in the vineyard, he expects that more work will be done. And he expects an increase of service, not merely in proportion to our increase of means, but that we will exert ourselves to supply the deficiencies of the past,–that we will make him special thank-offerings,–and that being taught by experience how certain our outlays are of being crowned with a rich return, we will never hesitate to make our investments correspond with our absolute ability.
I feel, my brethren, that this is a point of unspeakable importance. I fear we are not alive as we ought to be to its importance. I fear so, because I cannot learn that there is any more self-denial in our churches; I hear no more frequently than before of young men longing to proclaim the gospel to perishing sinners; I cannot hear that our churches are much more willing to do justice to their minister, and let them prosecute their work undistracted by worldly cares; I cannot see that our benevolent institutions are any better sustained now than they have been for years past. Our Missionary Board have been put to their wit’s end more the last year than ever before. I know it has been a year of almost unprecedented embarrassment in the commercial world; but I do not see in this depression an adequate reason for the falling off which has taken place in the support of our holy enterprises, I fear that our retrenchment is too apt to begin at the sanctuary instead of our own houses. I fear that this multitude of new converts are not properly instructed in the principles of true Christian consecration, and in the claims of benighted millions. I fear that this vast mass of material is not growing up as it ought to “into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”
If this be true, my brethren, how shamefully, or rather, shamelessly unthankful does it prove us! Have we not reason to fear that the gratification we feel at the increase of our denomination is of a very unholy and selfish kind? Have we not reason to apprehend that God will change his method of dealing with us,–that he will turn our prosperity into desolation,–that he will drive us from his vineyard, and commit the culture of it to those who will make him more worthy returns? O my brethren, the distinguished favor of God devolves a weighty responsibility upon us. Would that we felt it more. Let us implore the grace of God to make us feel it. Let us dwell much upon the goodness of the Lord to us, as a denomination, as separate churches, and as individuals. Let us praise Him for his goodness, and be it our earnest endeavor henceforth to serve Him with greater fidelity.
But it is time for me to close. I have endeavored, brethren, plainly and faithfully to portray the dangers, in which I conceive our present position involves us. Your attention has been directed to the perils which threaten us on a variety of particulars. I trust that the views presented have convinced you of the importance of our taking heed in relation to our future course. Many other considerations might be offered, but I hope these will suffice to put us on our guard, to make us instant and earnest in our supplications, and cause us to advance with renewed and vastly augmented zeal in the service of our adorable Redeemer. It is a high trust that has been committed to us. We concede, and that cheerfully, to other evangelical denominations that not a little truth may enter into their systems, and that they are doing not a little to promote the happiness of mankind, for time and for eternity; but so long as they cling to a single error, or corruption of “another Gospel,”–a degenerate Christianity,–it is not for them to lead forth the world, completely unshackled, from its house of bondage. This I sincerely believe to be the vocation of the Baptist denomination. I am not a bigot, and no one who knows me will accuse me of an excess of zeal for the peculiarities which distinguish us from every other body of Christians; but I believe firmly, that religion will never stand forth, emancipated, and in her native majesty, dispensing her richest blessings, until all who love the Lord Jesus shall have united in the belief and practice of his simple teachings, just as he left them with his church,–and of nothing else. Believing, brethren, that God has called us to this high work, and seeing, in the success with which he has already crowned us, the earnest of victory complete, but fearing that that victory may be retarded by the abuse of past success, I have been moved to raise a voice of warning on this occasion. May the great Head of the church own and bless the feeble endeavor! church of the living God “peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces! for my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, peace be within thee!”