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the year 1821, an association of ministers in Plymouth county proposed to the Convention the following question; What constitutes a Congregational Church, entitled to fellowship as such? Nothing was determined with regard to this question; and it is easy to see why. The good ministers of Plymouth had selected a question, which, of all questions imaginable, was about the worst adapted to the purpose in hand. body could have told them, that the very nature, and distinguishing characteristic, of a Congregational Church, was its entire independence.
So, to retrieve this capital mistake, the question was brought forward the following year by the North Worcester Association, amended thus; What constitutes a CHRISTIAN Church, with which we ought to hold communion as such? The liberal part of the Convention decidedly opposed the consideration of this question, as it was one, which, in their opinion, the Convention had no authority to determine. But their sentiments did not prevail, and a committee of thirteen was chosen, to report on the subject at the next annual meeting. The expected report was accordingly presented to the Convention, which assembled on the 28th of last May. Its purport was, as we understand, that a church professing the leading articles of Calvinism was the only Christian Church, and the only one entitled to Christian communion. The first motion after the reading of the report was, That this Report be printed, and a copy sent to each member of the convention; but it was superseded by the previous questionThat this Convention take no further order on the subject of the Report; which passed in the affirmative. Thus the matter is, for the present, put at rest.
Uses and Abuses of Religious Rites. IT
seems to be reasonable and proper, that even the purest and most intellectual religion should include certain rites and forms, when, without immediately reverting to divine command or authority, we merely take into consideration some calls and tendencies of human nature. While we remain on earth, we must, in a measure, be subjected to earthly influences. Formed of the dust, we must have something visible and tangible, even in our relations with the Invisible Spirit, who fashioned our clay, and breathed into us the breath of life. Religion should regard as its main objects the thoughts and affections; but the senses must often be en ployed as its instruments. The subtle essence of flame is fed and supported by substances of a grosser consistence. Our spirits may soar far away, and be absent long, but they must return at last to their corporeal habitations.
It is true that our conduct is to be influenced by belief, and not by the representation, or the performance, of outward actions. It is not the less true, however, that in our present state of imperfection, we stand in need of some such observances to keep us in mind of the obligations which are to determine our duty, and suggest to us the creed which is to guide our lives. The
gem is more valuable than the casket, and the picture than the frame; but the gem might be mislaid, were there no casket to hold it, and the picture might be defaced, were there no frame to preserve it.
Beside this, there is an impulse given to the force of religious sentiments by some external observances, without which impulse they might lose their activity, and relapse into faintness and stupor. Thought does not act upon itself with the same power that sense acts upon thought. The mind receives more vivid impressions from without, than it can ever create within; just as its ideas are often more forcibly and vividly expressed by figurative than by plain language, symbolical actions than either. The same rule which governs the expression of our ideas applies also to their formation and character. If we perform an action ourselves, we have a better perception of its consequences, than if we only thought how that action was or might be performed; we see the connexion between the cause and the effects in a clearer light, and feel it more intensely, by going through an entire process ourselves, than by endeavouring to inspire the effects by imagining the cause. Though it might be asserting too much, therefore, to say that religion could not exist without religious ceremonies, we are surely safe in saying that they give it a more definite existence. They do it service by uniting with it a perceptible shape, a something by which it can be brought before us, and kept by us; and also by exciting, or preserving,
and by through external impulses, those deep, vivid, and practical feelings of devotion, which might else have languished and died.
These are not their only benefits. The peculiar rites of a religion serve as a bond of union to those who profess it-not always a very strict one, to be sure, but a bond of union still. Cifierent sects may differ in their mode of observing an ordinance, and in their apprehensions of its nature and efficacy; and yet from the single and simple circumstance of its being observed by all, it will be common to all.
This remark may be applied to religious belief as well as to religious ceremonies. In many important articles of our faith the coincidence between Christians is in a great measure nominal; and yet this nominal coincidence is of the utmost importance. We all profess to believe in one God; but the God who is worshipped by some is a very different being from the God who is worshipped by others. Their several characters and attributes are, in many points, altogether at variance. And so we all profess to acknowledge one Saviour; yet there are not only general varieties or classes of sentiments concerning the person and offices of that Saviour, but it is probable that there could be found hardly two individuals in all Christendom, who, if they were minutely examined on these subjects, would answer exactly alike, on both, or either of them. The God who rigorously exacts an atonement from an innocent sufferer for the sins of his creatures, is not the God who is willing to receive and pardon those creatures, whenever they will repent and turn to him. The Christ who is supposed to be very God, and very man, equal to the Father in his Godhead, and inferior to the Father in his manhood, is not the Christ who in all points was tempted as we are. Still we all profess to believe in one God the Father, and in one Saviour, Jesus Christ. With this imperfect consent we must at present rest satisfied. Imperfect as it is, it may be made the means of cherishing a better fellowship than has yet been cultivated among Christians. We come together on the ground of general terms, general subjects, general ideas;—it is enough-let us come together as brethren. Then, whatever may be the differ. ences of our Christian belief, we shall answer the great purpose of Christianity, after all.
It is to be regretted that Christians do not meet, and never have met together, in so amicable a manner as this general agreement may not only justify but demand. And yet I think it may with confidence be asserted, that at the bottom of all the sectarian spirit, of all the mutual rancour and mutual abhorrence which they have displayed, there has still been preserved the feeling of a common interest and a common cause. Whatever he may have persuaded himself to believe, or to utter, the Christian has always looked on the Christian as standing nearer to him than the Heathen. All the religious persecutions which have arisen are but exceptions and partial interruptions to this feeling of a general union, which has been constantly in existence, and constantly in operation. Christians have hated each other, banished each other, and murdered each other; and still throughout the Christian world there has been a prevailing sentiment of unity. After the whirlwind, and the earthquake, and the fire, have done their worst, a still, small voice has whispered the name of brother!