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in which, in that institution, one denomination of Christians meets another, and which is essential to the effecting of its great and glorious object of giving the word of God to the whole world. In all this, I make no reference to the case of Socinians, or any other class of here tics or evil doers : it is a difficulty among the orthodox themselves, and one which would have equally existed, and will equally exist, if no such persons as Socinians had ever been heard of.
Prayer is not a thing that can be neutral; so that while there are honest differences of opinion, it cannot always be orally offered by one, as a mouth for the rest, in a miscellaneous body of varied denominations of Christians, so that all shall say Amen to the supplications and giving of thanks. I have myself heard from very good men miracle prayers, and millennarian prayers, and prophetical prayers, and political prayers, to which I could not respond ; and even far less differences of opinion are often considerable obstacles to real union. I some time since heard a clergyman, at family devotion, expound a chapter in a hortatory, heart-searching, and applicatory style ; after which another, of a somewhat Malaniste turn, knelt down and at great length pointedly contradicted the whole, beseeching God that we might not be looking to what was passing in our own hearts, or get into a legal way by striving after this or that spiritual attainment; but might rather seek for“ assurance," and walk in joy. These things, multiplied on a large and wide scale, would eventually cause much evil, and lead to the formation of as many Bible societies as there are sects, and in the end to the disruption of all. I am very far from wishing to restrain prayer at any public meeting at which it can be introduced in peace, and for edification ; Christian love and forbearance in such cases will overcome many seeming difficulties : we feel this in missionary and other institutions, in which the practice has been adopted; but the Bible Society is constructed on a basis so broad, that the difficulty is greater there than elsewhere; and I am fearful, therefore, that the experiment would not lead to those blessed results which we all, I trust, equally desire. A variety of such points as, who is to offer up the prayer? on what topics is he to enlarge? is the prayer to be written or extempore? would, I doubt not, in the end, engender strifes, and dissolve the whole fabric of union; and thus, for a mistaken scruple, that great work of giving the word of God to the world, which is essential to all missionary, educational, and philanthropic efforts, would be thwarted, and all the other efforts of Christians which have grown up with it be scattered to the winds.
The case of the Society of Friends deserves peculiar consideration. Its members have ever been among the most active and liberal friends of the institution : they are also, I am persuaded, as a body, orthodox on the great points in which the classes sought to be excluded are unsound; for though they do not adopt a creed in words of man's devising, they would I have their own authority for the fact-exclude from their society any person whose opinions grossly contradicted Scripture on the fundamental points usually expressed by the word Trinitarianism. But on the subject of prayer they are peculiarly sensitive; they view it as so solemn an abstraction of soul, and as requiring to be so immediately the dictate of the Holy Ghost, that they dare not say that a meeting—even a meeting for Divine worship-shall open with prayer; and they also object upon principle to mixing up so solemn an act with the common business of a committee-meeting, or the speeches and excitement of a platform. Had the Bible Society at its commencement decided to open its meetings with prayer, the Quakers could never
have joined it; and were it now to commence the practice, they would, as a body, quit it. But ought such men to be thus forced out? for it is not, be it remembered, a case of compromise with blasphemers, but of yielding to the tender-call it, if we will, the scrupulous-consciences of those who love and honour the same common Master. In a church, we could not concede these points : but where the only object is one strictly neutral, it would be sinful not to study all lawful for bearance. For who are the men whom we reject? Not men who do not pray, but men who entertain conscientious difficulties in regard to our mode of conducting the oral performance of prayer. I am not concerned to defend the views of the Society of Friends; but they have been so much misunderstood in this as in some other respects, that it may not be irrelevant to subjoin a few extracts from some of their chief writers : it is, indeed, but an act of justice due to them, and your lordship, I am sure, will not think the citations uninteresting.
George Fox says, in 1677,
“ As the Apostles and saints did, so do we: we pray in secret, and we pray in public, as the Spirit gives us utterance; which helps our infirmities, as it did the Apostles and true Christians. After this manner we pray for ourselves, and for all men, both high and low.”
William Penn, speaking of Fox himself, says,
“ But above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fulness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awsul living reverent frame I ever beheld, I must say was his in prayer.”
Barclay writes in his Apology,
“ Prayer is both very profitable, and a necessary duty, commanded, and fit to be practised frequently by all Christians; but as we can do nothing without Christ, so neither can we pray without the concurrence and assistance of his Spirit. But that our peculiar sentiments on this highly important subject may be better understood, let it be considered, first, that prayer is twofold, inward and outward. Inward prayer is that secret turning of the mind towards God, whereby being secretly touched and awakened by the light of Christ in the conscience, and so bowed down under the sense of its iniquities, unworthiness, and misery, it looks up to God, and joining issue with the secret shinings of the seed of God, it breathes towards, and is constantly breathing forth, some secret desires and aspirations towards him. It is in this sense that we are so frequently in Scripture commanded to pray continually; which cannot be understood of outward prayer; because it were impossible that men should be always upon their knees, expressing words of prayer; and this would hinder them from the exercise of those duties no less positively commanded. As such who are most diligent, have a near access to God, and he taketh most delight to draw them by his Spirit to approach and call upon him, so when many are gathered together in this watchful mind, God doth frequently pour forth the spirit of prayer among them, and stir them thereunto, to the edifying and building up one of another in love. But because this outward prayer depends upon the inward, as that which must follow it, and cannot be acceptably performed but as attended with a superadded influence and motion of the Spirit, therefore we cannot prefix set times to pray outwardly, so as to lay a necessity to speak words at such and such times, whether we feel this heavenly influence or assistance or no; for that, we judge, were a tempting of God, and a coming before him without due preparation.”
Besse, in his “ Defence of Quakerism" in 1732, makes a remark which shews the reason why the Friends object upon principle to such a rule as that of the Trinitarian Bible Society, that all the meetings shall commence with prayer. I do not concur in their view, but it is a scruple which I cannot but respect; and I feel that I could lawfully transact the business of a Bible Society with those who hold it, without proposing a practice that would violate their conscience:
“ We never opposed stated times for worship, nor praying by the motions of the Spirit at such times; what we gainsay, is men's resolving beforehand to use vocal prayer at such times, though without any motion of the Spirit thereto."
Mr. Gurney, whom your lordship, I know, numbers among the most
learned, able, and pious modern defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, remarks in his work on Quaker “ Peculiarities,"
“ Were we, in our public assemblies for worship, to use addresses, either speaking to the people or to the Almighty, not prompted by his Spirit, but either previously written or extemporaneously composed, we should, with our views of the subject, consider ourselves not as honouring the God of our fathers, but as making an unauthorized and improper use of his holy name.”
I will add, my lord, but one extract more, and that shall be from the very last Yearly Epistle of the Society. In this epistle, we find the meeting urging the members of the Society both “to pray,” and “to do all things in the name of Jesus ; to obey the dictates of his Spirit. and humbly to follow his example.” But I quote a passage of another kind, just to shew, by the most recent document of the community. what is the character of that large class of persons, who, by the proposition respecting prayer, would be expelled from the Bible Society.
“We would remind our beloved brethren, that unless we are pressing forward toward Zion, the city of the living God, we may soon lose our remaining strength and become immersed in the spirit of the world. How earnestly will they who are seeking to make progress in the spiritual course, ask and wait for that holy aid which constitutes the life and strength of the renewed soul! It was by a constant reference to the Spirit of Christ in the heart that our early predecessors were enabled to support their Christian testimonies under severe persecution, as well as to maintain that standard of Christian principle, by which they obtained from those who injured them so high a character for strict veracity and integrity in all their transactions. We entreat you, dear friends, to consider whether the Lord is not requiring of us, individually, a fúller surrender of the natural will, a greater degree of decision in giving up all for Christ, and a more ardent pursuit of heavenly things. •If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right band of God.' A just view and full belief of the astonishing fact, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world to save us, is we believe suited, beyond all other things, under the power of the Holy Ghost, to humble us in a sense of our own corruption, and to excite in our minds fervent gratitude towards the Author of all good. Under the influence of this gratitude, may we all devote ourselves, without reserve, to the service of our Redeemer! When love for Christ has expelled from our hearts the love of the world, we shall no longer go halting on our way in a condition of weakness, but shall experience growth in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
Such, my lord, are the sentiments and feelings of a large and valuable class of the Bible Society's best friends, whom the Sackville-street committee have, without scruple, rejected from membership in their new society, and would reject from the old, by the adoption of rules which they knew beforehand would inevitably exclude them. But I would ask, as in the sight of God, is not theirs a case in which we may lawfully, and without guilt, yield something to the feelings and consciences of our Christian brethren?
But though I have particularly mentioned the Society of Friends, they are very far from being the only persons concerned in this question. Your lordship, I am sure, is far removed from a spirit of bigotry : but it is an Apostolic injunction, that all things should be done “decently, and in order ;" and you might therefore, without any breach of Christian charity, justly feel perplexed if the good Baptist minister whom I alluded to were brought forward as chaplain to the meeting, when your lordship happened to be sitting on the platform. This is but one illustration among many: and though, in the animation of a popular meeting, many very excellent persons would vote by acclamation that all such discrepancies of feeling ought to be absorbed in a spirit of love and charity; yet who does not see that, in cooler moments, they must recur again and again; and that, till we can bring the visible church of Christ to its spiritual unity, they are fatal to that universal comprehension which all good men desire, but few expect to witness, at least on this side of the Millennium. If, indeed, any person seriously
think that the Oxford under-graduate ought to have preached for the Baptist minister, or preached at all, I cannot argue with him ; but if matters of doctrine or of church order are of any weight, then I see, for the present, no alternative in the Bible Society but to proceed in the present course.
Besides all which, as before suggested, many truly pious persons have considerable hesitation as to the practice of commencing our large public-meetings with prayer, even if the peculiar character of the Bible Society interposed no difficulty. I do not myself see the force of this scruple-far from it-but I can respect it in those who conscientiously entertain it. Such persons think it impracticable to attain that seriousness and stedfastness of spirit which are requisite for so solemn an act. The recurrence of business and conversation, even though suitable to the occasion, jars on their feelings : they would prefer that the speeches should be serious and proper, but that the direct act of prayer should be either mental, or transferred to the private chamber. I repeat, that I myself view the matter differently, and wish that the practice were far more general ; but I cannot see that the point is so absolutely ruled in Scripture that I may not, in the exercise of Christian wisdom, lawfully yield it on particular occasions ; or that I am compelled in conscience to force my Christian brother, in a matter in which he feels so tenderly, either to comply with my view or to deprive him of his share in so great a privilege as that of circulating the word of God. The cases in which either a majority or a minority are bound to insist upon dividing the members of a society on such a matter can only be judged of as they arise : at present I am only adverting to the point of the lawfulness of mutual concession, where there is no direct scriptural injunction as to any particular exigence.
Again : the question of the application of a principle is a matter of detail, even where the principle itself is equally agreed on by all parties. Are all vestry meetings, all meetings for charitable business, to commence with prayer ? I repeat that I would extend the practice very far, much farther than at present; but again I ask, Is it a point so binding—that is, so scripturally determined—that I cannot lawfully yield it, under circumstances of extreme urgency or difficulty ? Such difficulties, in the case of the Bible Society, have actually arisen : they have arisen among truly conscientious men; and there has been no attempt, on the part of those who propose the new arrangement, to solve them. The friends who have seceded have planned their rules according to their own views, without any respect for Christian liberty or other men's consciences : their language is, “ We shall pray : those who do not choose to conform to our plan may leave the room :" it is well if it be not added, “The sooner we get rid of such graceless persons the better.” But there is a harshness in this which must revolt a tender spirit: it is not a fair reciprocity of Christian affection, and esteeming our brother better than ourselves. If we can arrive at the practice by a mutual good understanding, it is well; but to force it, in the style of a parliamentary division, is utterly opposed to the meekness of Christ.
It is very possible to push the best things to a sort of ultraism which defeats their proper object. Even the language of devotion may be made to degenerate into mere ceremonies : I doubt whether even the scriptural expression“ if the Lord will,” which has of late been so much used in advertisements and newspaper announcements, and stuck up at the corners of the streets, may not be thus perverted from its true character, and become an empty form. The same is the case with regard to prayer. We may quarrel for its language till we lose its spirit; and, in place of viewing it as the natural, spontaneous expression of the renewed mind, we may tie it down by rules and fetters till it becomes a carnal ordinance, instead of a soul-elevating act of devotion.
Most unfair is it to represent the friends of the Bible Society as undervaluing the privilege or neglecting the act of prayer. Beautifully did Robert Hall say, long before the present objection was thought of, -and his testimony is therefore the more important,“ The Bible Society is the grand seminary of religious principles : perhaps there is no single moment, night or day, in which some voice does not rise up to heaven in its behalf; and pruyer is the grand key that unlocks the celestial treasury." How pleasingly and fairly does this language contrast with some recent invectives against the society, as being “a prayerless institution.” Are its officers or members prayerless, when we find its venerable president attesting his belief that “ thousands are daily praying at the Throne of Divine Grace, that, through its instrumentality, the word of the Lord may have free course and be glorified:" and adding, as his own feeling, “I should consider myself unmindful of the duties of that station in the institution which I have the honour to hold, if this petition did not invariably form a part of my daily devotions?". Are its Reports prayerless, when we read in them such exhortations as the following? (I purposely select an old Report, before the present question arose, that for 1810; but the whole mass of them is in a kindred spirit :)—"Blessed are the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance : in thy name shall they rejoice all the day, and in thy righteousness shall they be exalted. Your committee, therefore, anxiously desirous that the blessing of God may accompany the circulation of the Holy Scriptures, conclude their Report in the spirit of their institution, by pressing upon its members and friends, in every part of the world, the advice of the Apostle, Pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified.”
No, my lord ; the Bible Society is not a prayerless, graceless company of book venders, as some have tauntingly called it: its members do not really neglect prayer because, amidst the infirmities of faithful men, all cannot agree upon one scheme for conducting it. There is, in truth, no rule amidst the Society's laws that forbids it; and some committees and auxiliary meetings actually adopt it; but in the magnitude of the parent institution, and in the mixed feelings that prevail in many of its auxiliaries, there are powerful, I fear insuperable, obstacles. The whole, therefore, is left, where it is best left, to mutual feeling and concession : if ever the ante-millennial state of the church of Christ shall be such that the members assembled from all portions of its domains shall so far speak one language that they can agree'upon a united act of oral worship, it will be a joyful day; but while the existing conscientious differences intervene, it seems precluded- not, I repeat, unlawfully precluded, as a concession to heresy or worldliness, but lawfully, as a mutual deference between brother and brother to honest scruples and conscientious objections. I have not found those public meetings which I have attended otherwise than prayerful, or had reason to think that the spiritual presence of the Saviour was not vouchsafed at them; and this I know, that some who have entered them to “scoff” have remained to " pray ;” and in the last day, I doubt not that many who shall stand before the throne of God will trace their blessedness, under the guidance of his providence and the influence of his Spirit, to Biblea, society proceedings and Bible-society meetings. It is, I verily believe,