An occasional sermon does not always measure up to its opportunity; but the following sermon, delivered before the National Council of Congregational Churches in Washington, at which President Coolidge was also a speaker, is a notable exception. It struck the key-note for a great assembly, calling upon Christian men not only to keep the eternal values of faith, but to apply its power of light and leading to the issues of a new day.
Born in Michigan in 1866, educated at Oberlin College and Andover Theological Seminary, Dr. Patton entered the Congregational ministry in 1892. After two early pastorates, he went to the First Church of Columbus, in succession to Washington Gladden; and since 1917 has been minister of the First Church of Los Angeles; which he recently resigned to accept the Chair of Preaching in the Chicago Theological Seminary.
In this sermon, as in his books—such as Truth in Small Packages and Sources of the Synoptic Gospels—we find a clear-sighted, sure-footed Christian leader interpreting the everlasting Gospel in a time of rapid and confused transition, when so many are adrift without rudder or pilot.
Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the Gospel may have free course and be glorified. I Thessalonians 3:1.
In its essence the gospel of Jesus Christ is a simple thing; just the great message of Jesus that God is love, and that He would have his children live a life of love and service in the world. But in its application the gospel is as complex as life itself, always new, and forever changing to meet the new need of a new age. There are, preëminently, three fields in which the gospel, in our day, must adjust itself to new conditions, and speak a clear word of guidance to a world in great perplexity. They are the Intellectual Field, the Social Field, the International Field.
1. The Intellectual Field. In the intellectual field the outstanding task of the gospel is to adjust itself to the scientific knowledge of our time. A few months ago the town of Dayton, Tennessee, sprang suddenly to the front page of the newspapers and to the consciousness of the civilized world; because there a young man had been teaching the doctrine of evolution in one of the schools, and the law of Tennessee said you mustn’t teach it.… I have never been able to share the surprise felt by many people that such a thing could happen. It does not seem to me surprising at all. There is no more tremendous difference between any two ideas than there is between the idea of a world made between two Sundays and intended to remain forever as it originally was, and the idea of a world changing, growing, evolving, and in every fiber and through all time and place alive. The gospel lived for almost two thousand years with one of these ideas, and then suddenly it was called upon to give it up and take to the other.
Such things cannot be done in a day. With the mass of any population, in Tennessee or in any other place, that cannot be done in the time that has passed since the modern doctrine of evolution was born. It took the Hebrew people five hundred years to pass from the idea of a God who walked in the garden in the cool of the day, and shut the door of the ark after Noah, and came down to verify the report he had heard about Sodom, to that of a God who inhabited eternity but who dwelt also in the humble and the contrite heart. Now from a God who made the world and all things and creatures in it in a week, and closed his work, and called it good, and rested, to a God who creates now as he has always created, and who lives his life of ceaseless activity in us and around us all the time, is quite as long a step. But this step we have been asked to take, not in five hundred years, but within the lifetime of two generations. It should not surprise any one that we have suffered some confusion in taking this step, nor that there should be great sections of our population who have not taken it at all.
But it is a step that we have to take. For the doctrine of evolution appears to be true. If it were not for that, we should not need to bother about it,—neither to understand it, not to adjust ourselves to it, nor even to deny it. We could just forget it. But it seems to be true. However it may be modified in one detail or another, it is the best account we can give of what God has done in the earth. There is not the slightest prospect that the thinking world will abandon it for any competing theory.
That being the case, the first thing we have to do is to get our gospel adjusted to it. We cannot continue forever to deny what the whole trend of modern knowledge makes every day more certain. We cannot successfully appeal to our people to forget on Sunday what they know the rest of the week. To shut our eyes to the greatest, most far-reaching, most fruitful scientific idea of modern times, and to keep our mouths shut about it, as if it were a thing with which God had nothing to do, and which somehow throws Jesus Christ into the shadow, is no way to get our gospel home to the heart of this present time. We must, at the least, have a gospel that is not threatened with destruction every time anybody discovers something new about the world in which we live.
That is the least. That is the minimum, without which, in a little while, we cannot get a hearing for our gospel among educated people. But this minimum is never enough. If all we can do is to keep our gospel in spite of the advances of modern knowledge, we shall be merely holding our own, and that with increasing difficulty. That is never enough. If the gospel of Jesus Christ is true; if the great spiritual principles that underlie it are the same that God has woven back and forth into the structure of the universe at large, then every discovery that man can make about the world, will not merely leave the gospel where it was but will put it that much ahead. So it will be here. Let the church cease to treat modern knowledge as a load she must reluctantly carry, and let her take it as a light, and hold it high in her hand. Let her turn it upon the long hard road the race has travelled up to now, and follow it back to where the heart of the universe glows a spiritual principle. Let her illumine with it the origins of nations, races, customs, religions, sacred scriptures, giving God thanks that that same principle of growth that runs through nature runs still more clearly through the spiritual life of man. Let her understand that no revelation of God was ever meant to close the eyes of explorers or to discredit the report of those who come back from the frontiers of knowledge. Let her understand that the one divine value of the past is to enable men to see in this present time the pointing finger of God; and as we lay down the weapons of our present controversies we shall find in our hands, not merely the old gospel, but a gospel transfigured by the immediate presence of a God who as upon the first morning of creation still works his daily work in the world.
I have spoken of this matter of evolution and the scientific view of the world because it is in men’s minds just now. It does not exhaust the intellectual field in which the gospel works these days. There is a great body of new knowledge concerning the Bible. Information about the Old and New Testaments lies open to the hand of the intelligent layman today that was quite out of reach of the ablest preacher in the days of Jonathan Edwards or even of Horace Bushnell. Philosophy has become a new subject since the time of William James. I am not pleading that the preacher be a specialist in all these matters. Absurd. Our specialty is the gospel. But there is an intellectual quarrel with his time which puts the preacher in the wrong on every question he touches. And there is an intellectual understanding of his time that puts the preacher everywhere on the inside track. Not a mastery of details outside our own field, but an attitude toward the ongoing march of intellectual achievement, is what the gospel needs in this and every age. It is not our business to make evolutionists or higher critics, but to make Christians. But to make Christians, we must have a gospel that shines in the light of the best knowledge God has given us.
2. The Social Field. More significant by far than any intellectual task that invites the gospel in our time, is its well-known passage from the personal to the social. We need not exaggerate here. Neither we nor our fathers were first to discover that no man liveth to himself. No absolutely individualistic gospel has ever been possible. I know also all that can be said here by way of caution and demurrer. The gospel is still a personal thing, and always will be. Like the voice of your oldest friend, like the face of your mother or your child, like the blood in your veins, like your own soul to yourself, so intimate and personal is the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know that. I know also that the preacher is not a political economist. The New Testament is not a treatise upon sociology. Jesus was not a social reformer. If all the preachers in the world should declare every Sunday that we must have the spirit of Christ in our industries and our commerce, not all our shouting, however sincere, would point any short-cut to the Kingdom of God on the earth. Good-will is not enough. All this is obvious. Let it be admitted.
But all this does not touch the point. Nor is it a matter, entirely, of special instances and particular questions—child labor, wages, trades-unionism, the right or wrong of this or that particular strike. These things are never settled except to come up again. No last word is ever said about them. And we have no social gospel if we have nothing to say about them when they do come up. But there are things that lie back of these. There are convictions that ought to pervade the Christian mind, and against the background of which every social question should present itself. That economic laws are also human; that they do not move on mercilessly and quite out of our control, like the stars in their courses, but that they can be turned to human welfare and the spiritual good of the race. That the organization of the world is not now and never has been ideal or in any deep sense Christian. That there is nothing sacred about the present order, and no evidence that it was created by divine fiat to remain forever as it now is. That a better, fairer, juster, more Christian arrangement of society is always possible, and that it is the business of the Christian man to push hard for it. That a gospel that makes no appeal to the weak and the dispossessed of the earth is a stranger to the gospel that Jesus preached. That there is no spiritual life, unaffected by the house a man lives in, the job he works at, the wages he draws, and no gospel worth the name that does not push its saving way into all these common matters. That all industrial and economic questions are at the same time moral and spiritual questions. That no stable civilization can be built upon anything but justice, that no nation has anything to fear from within itself except injustice, and that even justice itself is a flying goal, not to be found forever in any one arrangement but to be pursued with a divine persistence—all these convictions, I take it, are part of the enlightened Christian consciousness of the present time.
And no calamity could be greater than that, because we have so much else to say, or because we have said it so often and nobody has heeded, or because Dr. Gladden or Prof. Rauschenbusch before us, or Dr. Ward and Bishop McConnell can say it so much better than we can, or for any other reason, we should lapse from the high level of this social gospel to any smaller and less significant message. It is better for the gospel, and for its reputation among serious men, that one preacher in every ten should go wrong on some pet scheme for the redemption of human society, than that we should all keep our mouths shut about it. If congregations have to be held together by turning their backs and shutting their eyes to what is wrong with human society, what are they good for after they are held together?
It is not to the point that we should be told, or that we should plead in our own defense, that we do not know the way out of the industrial labyrinth. In detail, and to the end, nobody does, or ever will. But some things we know. And these things that we know are the clews to any and all ways out. We know it is absurd for a nation not to have the power to protect its own children. We know that it is not ideal that industry should be organized for the production of goods, with only an incidental squint at the production or maintenance of the humanity for whom the goods are made. We know that the one scarlet sin, beside which all the cambric sins we have often denounced are too trivial to be interesting, is the sin of human exploitation. We know that the next great step ahead is the abatement of autocracy and the advancement of democracy in industry. We know that when we bid men be content with the injustices of this world and hope for their reward in heaven, we have given them stones instead of bread. We know there is no “simple gospel” for a complex world like this one. All these things we do most surely know. They concern our gospel if anything in the world ever did. They are spiritual matters. Mother Jones betrays the right perspective when she says, however crudely, “When I get over to the other side, I shall tell God what happened in West Virginia.” It would be better, for the salvation of preachers and people and the whole round world, that no fine churches be built, no big endowments be raised, no fine choirs lift their praises to God, no preachers ride in automobiles, but that the church be poor and despised again as she was in the time of Paul, than for the world to know, or even to suspect, that Christian men have no mind about these matters, or are afraid to speak it out. We have a gospel for this time because we have passed from the merely personal to the social. The word of this social gospel we must speak in patience, with no assumption of divine authority for our individual views, in a good nature that no difference of opinion can ever disturb, in a love like that of Jesus Christ himself. But we must speak it. Haltingly if we have to, clearly as we can, boldly as God will give us courage, we must speak it. The Kingdom of God waits for it. It is the gospel of this present time and of the years to come.
3. The International Field. But the one great question of this present time, absorbing, bewildering, insistent, from which we cannot turn our eyes away, is the question of race and international relations. And no other question—not any question raised by the advance of knowledge, nor about the human relationships that lie close at our door, not any question in all the world—has a more immediate and pressing interest for the Christian church than this question of international relations. The progress of the gospel, now and in the years to come, is bound hand and foot with it.
Many wonderful things Christendom has done in the world—not merely our preachers and our missionaries, but the governments and the nations of Christendom. Schools and hospitals we have established. Languages we have reduced to writing. Immemorial wrongs we have redressed. Heathen customs we have abolished. A high road for progress we have opened, the world around. We have had our part in all this, thank God. And the world has blessed us for it.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ hears a new question in our day. A question that is upon the lips of every non-Christian nation in the world. A question not in scorn, nor in self-righteousness, but with a hidden fear as to what the true answer may be. This is the question: Has Christendom any higher ethical standard than the rest of the world? And can you prove it by the way the Christian people behave toward all the rest? It is no use to go back to the New Testament and to the Analects of Confucius, to prove the superiority of Christianity. Now that the nations are everywhere face to face, one acid test will determine their judgment of any religion; are the people who profess it honorable, just, brotherly? How long can we go with our gospel to a proud people like the Japanese, if we cannot convince them that we do not consider them as our inferiors? And how much good does it do for our Christian missionaries and Y. M. C. A. men to say “We don’t consider you inferior,” if the Christian statesmen and legislators of the world say, “We do”? What headway can the gospel make in China, against the impression recently expressed by the Students’ Anti-Religious League of Peking, that “Christianity is the forerunner of imperialism and exploitation”? Is it a good omen for the gospel, that the Chinese Federation of Educational Associations recently declared, “The educational work of foreigners in China may look like charity, but its purpose is either religious propaganda or political aggression”? The question of extraterritoriality may be a complicated one. But the statement of the Chinese University professors is a perfectly simple one, and nobody can doubt its truth: “The tragedy that happened in the international settlement of Shanghai has filled the Chinese nation with horror and indignation.”
Christendom suffered grievously in the eyes of the non-Christian nations from the Great War. She has suffered almost as much from a long series of smaller and less spectacular happenings. Her reputation for fair dealing and even for efficiency is hardly going up just now in Morocco. Can any one maintain that Christendom has been uniformly kind, courteous, considerate, or even just, beyond other nations, in her treatment of the rest of the world? Or that it was somebody else than Christendom that divided up Africa, that parceled out its spheres of influence in China, and put its stamp of inferiority upon the Hindus and the Japanese? Or is it any secret that India and China and Japan and Africa are right now in a deep and growing revolt at the way Christendom has handled herself toward them? Or does it surprise anybody that it is so? How will it fare with the gospel if the impression goes round the world, that the Christian nations, when they face other nations, are no better than the others—not really Christian, or if Christian still no better, no fairer, no juster, no more intent upon peace and friendship, than the rest?
It is not to the point that we should be told that we do not know the way out of the international tangles of the world. In detail and to the end of the road, nobody does. But some things here also we know; and these things that we know, are the open doors to any and all ways out. We know that war is the most expensive, the most devastating, the most absurd way of settling disputes between nations, and that it can be excused only on the ground that nations have not yet grown sensible and self-controlled enough to avoid it. We know that no nation can really profit at the expense of any other nation; that no race and no people liveth to itself; that isolation is only a word left over from the vocabulary of an earlier age, with no realilty any longer corresponding to it; that “Prosperity” is well enough, but it is no star by which to steer the destinies of a nation; that no high moral leadership was ever yet acquired and no consuming spiritual enthusiasm ever yet aroused by the sight of a nation standing on the bank and keeping its feet dry; that the ultimate security and peace of the world do not rest upon guns, or ships, or airplanes, or upon any accumulation of the engines of destruction, but upon good-will—all these things we do most surely know.
And these things we must say. We have other business to do. And these things are far away. And the others are close by. But we are servants not of the parish alone, but of the Kingdom of God in the earth. And what shall it profit us if, while we are busy training our children, the nations are busy getting ready, when the children are grown, to burn them up in another world-conflagration? Shall we tithe the mint of the women’s sewing circles, and the anise of the Wednesday evening meeting and the cummin of pastoral calls, and never raise our voices for the brotherhood of man? Is there any use of our talking, if we leave this out?
Now all these things, in all these fields, intellectual, social, international, are part of our gospel in this present time. Our interest in them is a spiritual interest. We have no ambition to tell scholars how to conduct their investigations, nor business men how to run their business, nor to get our bungling fingers on to international problems before which the wisest statesmen hesitate. But we are the bearers of a gospel that antedates all modern knowledge, modern industrialism, and modern nationalities; that will outlive them all, and that means more for the salvation of men and of nations than all of them. And what we want is that no man or group of men, and no nation or group of nations, shall in any of these fields give the lie to that gospel, or slam the door in its face, but that everywhere in this present age, at home and abroad, it should have a free course and be glorified.
For what our leaders have done for us, for Christian scholars and Christian business-men and Christian statesmen, we give God thanks. Our intellectual reconstruction is well under way. The world of industry was never before so full of men who want peace and good-will, and who are doing their best to find it. And they are finding it. “The last few years of my life,” says Mother Jones, “have seen fewer and fewer strikes. I have passed my ninety-third milestone, but over the rim of the years my old eyes see the coming of a better day.” Beneath the pessimism that covers the surface of the international field are the seeds of altruism and idealism, sown broadcast during the world’s greatest conflict, and striking deep root in the heart of a generation that sinned, and has suffered, greatly.
For all these things we thank our leaders. But we, the common Christian people, cannot bring home too solemnly to ourselves our own responsibility in these great matters. Far away as some of them seem, we are not without power in them. No, we are the power in them—and we are the power to hold back even when we are not the power to go ahead. In all these fields there is no salvation apart from the thought, the prayer, the consecrated struggle of the people. Scholars, captains of industry, statesmen, rise out of the community. They reflect what the people want and what the people believe to be possible. In a democracy, or church, or state or school, the leaders can lead only where the people will follow. The learning of the scholar leaves the commonwealth poor, if a great gulf yawns between him and the people. Pioneers of good-will in the industry rest back upon the understanding and the appreciation of the people. Christian statesmen cannot force a laggard public opinion. There is a spiritual preparedness that underlies all other, for obscurantism or for progress, for war or for peace, for the order that relies upon force or for the order that rests upon justice and good-will. And the soil of that spiritual preparedness is the hearts of the people. Back of all treaties, all naval and military programs, all associations of men and of nations, is the steady set of the popular will. People who trust each other, who believe in each other, who wish each other well, will find a way to keep the peace and to build the structure of a world-civilization. But all the work of scholars, philanthropists, statesmen, falls to the ground in the first storm that blows, unless the foundations are laid deep in the minds of the people. There let us help to lay them, till the gospel of this present time shall merge itself in the larger, fuller gospel of the better time to come.