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THE MORAL POWER OF THE CHRISTIAN
CHURCH: A SE. YON PREACHED BEFORE THE KENT GENERAL BAPTIST ASSOCIATION AT HEADCORN, JULY 14TH, 1816. The following discourse appears in its present form, at the request of many of those who heard it, and througlo the kindness of the Editor of the UNITARIAN. It is de dicated to the members of the Association, before which it was delivered, and especially to the members of my own congregation, as a small token of respect and affection. Dover, August 1st, 1846. JOHN LETTIS SHORT.
“ Ye are the salt of the Earth.”—Matt. v. 13. Salt being used abudantly in the East, as elsewhere, for preserving articles of food from taint, and for imparting, to them a stimulating flavour, became a symbol of that. moral and spiritual power, which keeps the nature of main free from the impurities that result from a predominance of evil propensities and affections, and imparts to it a holy and godlike character. Hence our Lord declared that his disciples would be the salt of the whole world. By announcing this great fact to them, he informed them that they had been summoned to the highest of all moral eu-. terprizes—that the hopes of the whole race of man depended on them that through them the gospel would purify and preserve in a healthy state all the children of God; and warned them of the responsibility of so great a trust—not to lose their savour—not to fall short of their high duties to the world. The same warning holds morally
good in all ages. Not only the first disciples, but Christians at all times, are the salt of the earth—the preservers of society from moral putrefaction—and are bound by their deepest obligations to God, to Christ, and to Man, to act as such. This idea appears to me worthy of our attention whenever we dwell upon our individual positions, and specially so when we are gathered together in a collective capacity, to report our progress through past time, to consider our present duties, and to stimulate each other to the conscientious discharge of the obligations which rest upon us. I would, therefore, invite your candid attention whilst I endeavour to show that the recipients of the doctrines, precepts, and promises of Christianity have exerted a powerful influence in all ages since its promulgationthat the Christian Church, consisting of all who ar faithful to Jesus as their Lord and Master, have now the
power of exerting a like beneficial influence—that there are various evils in society which demand the most active cooperation of its members—and that their influence
may be brought to bear upon those evils so as to banish them from the earth.
1. There is no portion of ecclesiastical history more cheering than that which relates to the Moral Power of the Church. Christianity had scarcely issued into life when it became evident that it was to produce the most stupendous moral revolution the world had known. At its birth darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the minds of the people. The very characters attributed to the heathen deities are the best proof of this fact. They were such as could be reverenced in any degree only by grossly perverted minds; and as far as they were reverenced their only effect upon the worshippers must have been of a depraving nature. Nay, the very services of religion were, in many instances, mere atrocious orgies of cruelty and libertinism. The temples of religion were the haunts of flagitious sin, and the nearer the altar the more shameless the crime. The statements illustrative of these facts would be incredible, were it not for the strength of evidence by which they are authenticated. I will not enter into the recital of them. Suffice it to observe that the assertion of Paul is but too fully borne out by the heathen writers themselves, where, describing the moral state of the Gentile world when addressed by Christianity, he declares
that, “ being alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that was in them, because of the blindness of their heart: they gave themselves up to lasciviousness, to the working of all uncleanness, with greediness." Now, what was the effect produced by the men who were first converted to Christianity on the great mass of the people who were thus debased? There was infused into them a principle of new interior life, which could not but manifest itself in external acts and give a new colouring to their whole existence. All records deceive us, and testimonies delivered under circumstances which entitle them to implicit confidence prove false, if the early disciples did not, by their zealous diffusion of the gospel, produce a marked and very broadly marked difference between the early and latter part of the lives of many of their heretofore heathen brethren. Having first announced to them the doctrines of the gospel, they induced them, by the irresistible persuasiveness of their own lives, to carry out in the most trying circumstances, the two great principles of Christianity-holiness and love--to an extent which may well astonish even the most easily persuaded. Accustomed to a religion containing nothing that was profitable for the regulation of morals or the guidance of life, they were no sooner brought beneath the influence of the first preachers than their manners were transformed, their conduct, changed, and their lives in
form and relation remodeled and improved. Simplicity, truth, single-heartedness, and moral purity, took the places of their
previous defor: mity and vices; and a mutual sympathy, which has seldom been surpassed, was substituted for their former selfishness and enmity. I do not say they were freed. from all faults. Some they had which were the results the natural results of their position; but, notwithstanding these, they afford abundant proof of the power the first Christians exercised in bringing about a great moral and social reform, which affected all the intimacies of domestic life, and every human relation.
Such were the effects produced by the first Christians upon those by whom they were surrounded, when they had to rely upon the power of individual action. At the end of the fourth, and beginning of the fifth centuries, the body of believers had assumed the form of a regularly constituted society, and were henceforth to operate collec
tively: yet we find them, though the mode of warfare is changed, producing the same results. In the midst of chat deluge of material power with which the barbarians inundated every European State, the church alone exereised a moral and civilizing influence. But for the church, the whole world must have been abandoned to physical force. It, and it alone, sustained and spread abroad the sdea of a law superior to all human laws-ofa Divine law, which the conscience was to apply, and the soul was to obey, in opposition, if necessary, to the powers that
the electric shock which first roused those warlike tribes, and rendered them capable of higher views and nobler purposes ; and, when beneath its kindly shelter they began to settle in peace, and to frame their laws and institutions, those Christian men who constituted the church, stood among them the sole source of popular instruction. Around those teachers of heavenly truth, gathered the submissive throng of believing multitudes. Princes and people listened to their mandates, and bent before their authority. All were influenced by their efforts. The character of society was: changed by their power. When we consider the gross ignorance of the lower classes, the equal ignorance of the nobles, and the ferocious and despotic passions by which all were guided during the dark ages, we are at a loss to conceive how society would have been preserved from the most savage anarchy, but for the influence of the disciples of Christ. Whatever raised men above their grossest and worst propensities--whatever restrained them in their fiercest and mnost unlawful desires—whatever softened or humanized their manners--whatever nurtured or diffused the best charities of life, was mainly, if not entirely, gathered from the men who had sat at the feet of Jesus.
It 'may be stated, indeed, that during this period the church not only acted upon the barbarians, but the karbarians also acted upon the church, and deprived it of much of its power. The fact is admitted. This result of its contact with them was probable, though not inevitable.
As salt exposed to certain influences loses its savour and efficacy, although it continues to sparkle, so did the members of the Christian world lose many of their useful properties when exposed to the influence of the Northern hordes; but they were regained ; and how?
Not, assuredly, by the operation of the secular spirit which was then predominant in the church, but by the efforts of those men who had been most entirely preserved from that spirit. The regeneration of the church was effected by that small band, who, within or without the Roman section of it, remained faithful to their Lord.. When, on the 9th of January, 1559, Paul IV. went enraged to the assembly of the Inquisition, and thundered out "reform, reform," he was met by the reply, “Holy Father, we must begin reform with ourselves.' not the first time such language had fallen from the lips of Christian men.
The Mystics, seeking in solitude for holiness of heart and purity of life, had long cast looks of sadness and dismay on the desolation of the church. The Vaudois, from their mountain tops, during a series of years, had protested against the degeneracy of Rome. Wickliffe, in our own country, had set his hand to the work of purification. John Áuss had raised his voice in Bohemia;
and Luther had rekindled the torch of the Gospel, and led myriads on from darkness to light. The moral purity and power of these men and their followers gradually increased, until from Geneva to Glasgow, and from Würtemberg to Paul's Cross they aroused the popular mind from the death-like slumber in which it had lain, and substituted for the forms and ceremonies which had been represented as containing the whole of Christianity--the Master himself-His spirit-His loveHis piety--and His example.
To tell the results of this movement, would be to relate the history of all the benefits which have arisen to individuals and to society, from a general awakening of religion among the mass of the people ; but who is sufficient for these things? Who can fully appreciate or estimate all the pure and spiritual worship, which since the sixteenth century has ascended to heaven from Christian hearts; or count and record the virtues which for the last three hundred years have adorned the Christian world? The purity, disinterestedness, philanthropy, and piety, which during that period have been the glory of so many of our race, are all to be traced, more or less directly, to the exertions of those disciples of Jesus, who, amid peril and suffering, lifted up their Master to the view of all men, that he might transform them into