Freedom of Religion
In 1870, Thomas K. Beecher, teacher, Congregational minister, and chaplain during the Civil War, publishes the series of lectures he has given concerning the seven churches in Elmira, New York.
But in this land, where there is no privileged class nor established church, he who talks of tolerating his fellow-citizens insults them and becomes himself intolerable in his conceit. We must learn to respect and love our fellow-men and our sister churches.
Our Seven Churches
I DO not find that the people whom I serve are any less content with our own faith and order because of my repeated efforts to show them that other churches excel us in some particulars. A good man’s home is the more delightful to him as he calls to mind that the world is full of good homes, and that millions are as happy as he.
Time was when “toleration” was reckoned a christian grace. Established churches tolerated (i.e. endured) dissenters as they would any other remediless evil or mysterious visitation. But in this land, where there is no privileged class nor established church, he who talks of tolerating his fellow-citizens insults them and becomes himself intolerable in his conceit. We must learn to respect and love our fellow-men and our sister churches.
Charity between churches is too often a mere sentiment, a transient thing smiling out now and then at some union meeting or anniversary, where the speakers are equitably adjusted between the denominations, and each one is careful not to say anything in particular, and all go home delighted to find that brethren can meet and talk without offence;—all thankful that the meeting “went off well,” without a quarrel or any scandal!
Charity must strike its roots deeper than this. The sentiment needs a refreshment from facts. To respect a man increasingly we must know him more and more. To love a church we must see in it something lovable. It is impossible to love on general principles or from a sense of duty. What better service, then, can be rendered to a christian man that would love his brethren, than to set before him their lovable qualities? This service I have endeavored to render to my people, and now, by this little book, to as many others as may read.
The witness which I bear to the excellence of churches other than my own has a value in the fact, that, while they are not my own, they yet compel an admiration which I am able but in part to express.
I make no pretension to exhaustive detail in setting forth the characteristics of these churches. Possibly I may not have noticed their strongest points, their most attractive features. I have walked in them as in gardens of the Lord; their beauties have filled my eye, and the air is fragrant round about.
All who profess and call themselves christian have surely more points of agreement than of disagreement. Every church that has maintained a separate denominational existence, by the mere fact of living proves that there is something in her that maintains her life. Every church can teach every other church something, and every church can learn. There are diversities of operations, but one Spirit,—many churches, but one religion.
I cannot see that there need be, and I certainly see that there cannot be realized among men the dream of church unity. No two men have the same horizon. Because the eye cannot reach indefinitely, therefore vision must be bounded somewhere. Because no two eyes can be in the same place at the same moment, therefore the boundaries of vision are the same to no two persons; that is, every man has his own horizon. Because a man cannot know all things, nor be acquainted with everybody, therefore he must be content with knowing some things and loving a few people. The things and the people that a man is able to take in, constitute his church. But let every man remember that beside his church, bounded as it must needs be by his horizon, there remain the rest of mankind and the universe of God. Let no man think of himself or of his church more highly than he ought to think, but let him think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
THOMAS K. BEECHER.
Elmira, N. Y., August, 1870.
Click image to read Our Seven Churches at Archive.org.