Is the Christian Religion Declining

Is the Christian Religion Declining  (1900) 
by Charles Augustus Briggs




THE question whether the Christian religion is declining is agitating the public mind in some measure at the present time. This is due to the many changes that are taking place in the forms of religion, the types of doctrine, and the methods of action in the numerous religious organizations which bear the name of Jesus Christ. Are these changes symptoms of disease and decay in the Christian religion, or are they evidences of renewed vitality and enlargement by growth? It is quite evident that many things which have been regarded as important and even essential in the past have declined in importance, and some of them seem to be on the eve of disappearing altogether. It is not surprising that those who have been trained to regard these as essential to Christianity should think that the Christian religion is declining with them. If, however, these things are not so important as has been supposed, but have gained for a time an exaggerated importance, then their decline to their normal position and the advance of other things to their rightful place, as more important things than has hitherto been supposed—all this is evidence of a healthful advance in Christianity. This question, therefore, will be answered in accordance with the point of view of the one who considers it. If it is to be answered correctly we must put aside all prejudice, and examine the whole situation candidly and with a critical scientific spirit. It is impracticable within the bounds of this article to examine this question on all sides. We can only make a few suggestions relating to it.

It is necessary at the outset to approach the question aright. We must distinguish between what is essential to the Christian religion and what is non-essential. This is not so easy a task as one might imagine. We can only make this distinction generally, and not with scientific precision. In the study of religions we have to distinguish (1) the more fundamental things in the historical institutions and experience in life; (2) the doctrines which express the popular belief or scientific knowledge of the adherents of the religion; and (3) the expression of the religion in ethical principles and moral conduct. The order of development is always life, doctrine, morals. The earlier stages of the Christian religion and of Christian experience at any time and in any community is the vital experience and the institutional organization. Doctrines of faith and knowledge presuppose the vital relation, and morals presuppose both, and conduct is the final aim and crown of the whole development. And yet there are some scholars who exaggerate the relative importance of each one of the three in its relation to the other two and to the whole.

In our age greater attention is given to Christian ethics and sociology than ever before. A man who has the ethical enthusiasm of our times is inclined to criticise historical Christianity with great severity, because of its failure to realize the highest ethical ideals, and especially those presented by Jesus in his teaching and his example. Historical Christianity is so far below these ideals, even in its best types, that one is inclined to say if the Church has failed so badly in nineteen centuries, what prospect has it in the present or the future? Some good men in our times are disgruntled with historical Christianity for its ethical failures, and keep aloof from the Church on that account; but these are after all proportionately few, and they are unreasonable, for they exaggerate the ethical phase of Christianity over against the doctrinal and the vital; they fail to see what is necessarily involved in the development of the Christian religion, that the ethical age should come last of all; and they also are not just in their estimate of Christian history, for, notwithstanding the failure of the Church, there has been a wonderful and steady ethical advance through the centuries. Indeed, it is Christianity itself which is chiefly responsible for the ethical enthusiasm of the present time, and this is an evidence that Christianity is about to enter upon the last and highest stage of its development. Holy love in principle and practice in the liberty of self-sacrifice is better understood in the Church to-day than ever before, and it is becoming more influential in the Church and in the world. The Church is about to put forth the supreme ethical influence of holy love to transform society and the lives of men.

In large sections of the Church the greatest stress is still laid upon Christian doctrine, especially as expressed in dogmatic forms. If a man thinks that orthodox doctrine is the test of a healthful and vigorous church, he will make that the determining element in his judgment whether Christianity is advancing or declining. In this sphere we have to distinguish three things: (1) The popular orthodoxy, which is determined by the consensus of teaching from the pulpit; (2) the scholarly orthodoxy, which is determined by the teaching of the theologian from the chairs of the theological schools and in text-books of dogmatic theology; (3) the official orthodoxy, which is determined by creeds, liturgies, confessions of faith, and canons of the Church.

There can be no doubt that there has been a great overturning of dogma in our times, and it is altogether probable that this will assume much greater dimensions. Many think that dogma has had an exaggerated importance in the past, and, from their point of view, the Christian religion has made an advance by pushing dogma back to a less dominant position. Those who maintain that dogma is of supreme importance naturally think that the Christian religion declines when dogma is discredited in the Christian community. There can be little doubt that a large number of men absent themselves from church attendance because they dislike the popular orthodoxy, which seems to them antiquated, unscientific, and untrue. Many refuse to unite with religious organizations which are dominated by an orthodoxy representing the theories of scholastic theology. Many remain apart from the churches because they are unwilling to be responsible in any way for their official orthodoxy. Many, born and trained in Presbyterian families, refuse to remain in an organization which is responsible for the hard doctrines set forth in the Westminster Confession. Many Methodists refuse to be compromised by Wesley's doctrines and Wesley's rules of hie. Many refuse to remain Baptists because of what is involved in close communion. Many refuse to be Episcopalians because they resent the doctrines and practices of sacerdotalism. And so we could find, more or less in all religious communions, a dissatisfaction with dogmas—sometimes superficial, giving a plausible excuse for absence, sometimes profound, inciting active hostility to the Church. If all of these dissatisfied ones are to be regarded as hostile or indifferent to Christianity, then it is evident that an army of Christians have practically separated themselves from the Church in our time, and we must say that Christianity has in this respect declined. If, on the other hand, we think that these dissatisfied and disgruntled ones are yet Christians, and that they are maintaining their faith in Christ in opposition to an unreasonable church, that they are exerting an important influence in the transformation of the dogmas of the Church, then we may say that this is an evidence that Christianity is in a state of transition, that it is on the move away from an untenable position of exaggerated dogma to a truer and stronger position, in which dogma will be transformed and given its normal place and importance.

The effort to throw off the bondage of the popular and the scholastic dogma is an advance, and not a decline; it is an advance into the realm of freedom. It first gives the possibility of a critical re-examination of the dogmatic faith of the Church. Only by the application of the scientific methods of our age to dogma is it possible for our age to verify dogma and accept it as valid and reliable. We can not rely on anything that is merely traditional or the product of the logical analysis of premises which remain themselves unverified. The revolt against the confessional orthodoxy, especially in the Presbyterian, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, is not a sign of decline, as some think, but a wholesome movement which indicates a determination to know the truth and to hold nothing but the truth.

The Chicago-Lambeth articles, adopted by the whole Anglican communion throughout the world, reduces the essential doctrines of Christ's Church to the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed; those creeds in which all the great historical churches, the Greek and the Oriental, the Roman and the Protestant, agree. This marks a dogmatic advance, not a dogmatic decline, because it makes the distinction between the essential and unessential doctrines, it defines essential doctrines by holding up ancient fundamental historical creeds; it thereby represents all other matters as within the realm of the unessential doctrines, the province of Christian liberty.

The churches are therefore readjusting themselves in their relation to Christian doctrine, and the Christian community is readjusting itself likewise. The offensive features of Christian dogma, while still retained and advocated by some theologians and some communions, have been in great measure removed by other theologians and communions, and the process is going on with great rapidity. The war against science, criticism, literature, and art-all that is characteristic of our age—is gradually being limited to a smaller number of theologians and denominations, and there is ever an increasing number of theologians and churches which fully recognize all the achievements of modern times, and who are at work in harmonizing them with the verified Christian dogmas in a larger, grander system—in a new theology representing all that is noblest and best in Christianity as applied to the modern world. While this process is going on, the dissatisfied ones will take some little time to find their new church homes and to adjust themselves to new conditions and circumstances.

So far as the great mass of mankind is concerned, the chief factor in the Christian religion is the fundamental one of the Christian life and the Christian institution, and the advance or decline of Christianity will be judged from this point of view. Here, however, we must recognize that there are several types of religious life which sometimes combine in one community, but which ordinarily exist apart as characteristic of different temperaments, different nations, different races. The lines of cleavage in historical Christianity are for the most part racial, national, or temperamental. We have to take this into account when we consider the religious life and institutions of different countries. What a difference there is in religion from this point of view in the great centers, such as Rome, St. Petersburg, Berlin, London, Edinburgh, New York! That man would go far astray who should undertake to use any one of these as a test of any or of all the others.

Let us consider, for example, the question of participation in the services of the Church. Rome has apparently, from a Protestant point of view, an abnormal number of churches, and in these churches an extraordinary number of chapels and altars. The reason for this is that there is an immense number of clergy in Rome, and all these altars are needed that they may perform the most important of their duties—the sacrifice of the mass. The churches, chapels, and altars are not erected for the people merely—if so, vastly fewer would be necessary—but for the priests who sacrifice for the people even when they are absent. Berlin has apparently very few churches, and these are not always well attended by the people, and are used infrequently except on Sundays. Judging from this, it would be a very irreligious city; but any one who really knows Berlin would not say that it is less religious than Rome. The religion of the German people finds its expression in a mystic type of personal piety and of family and social life; it maintains and propagates itself without frequent attendance upon public worship.

In London regular attendance upon public worship is commonly regarded as indispensable for the maintenance of the Christian religion. Therefore Christian people frequent the churches to an extent that is unknown on the continent of Europe. But to make the British habit of frequenting the Church for public worship a test of the vitality of the Christian religion in the great cities of the Continent would be altogether unjust and untrue. The historical development of religion in Great Britain has brought about an entirely different state of affairs there from that which we find everywhere else in the world. The situation in Great Britain is therefore special, peculiar, and, one might say, abnormal as compared with the situation in other parts of the world. In the United States the original population was chiefly British, and therefore followed British methods in religion. But in the present century our land, and especially our cities, have filled up with a population from the continent of Europe, bringing with them Continental methods of worship which would not yield to or readily adopt British methods. Intermarriage with the British stock and familiar converse in society have tended to assimilation, and therefore the situation has gradually and inevitably emerged that the Christianity of New York and Chicago and our other great cities has assumed an intermediate position between that of the Continent and that of Great Britain. The religious customs characteristic of British Christianity have undoubtedly declined—they have yielded to the influence of Continental Christianity. If British Christianity is the norm by which we are to judge, then Christianity has declined in the United States. If, however, it is not the norm, then it might appear that an intermediate position, such as we have attained by the assimilation of the British and the Continental types, may be a real advance and gain, because of the appropriation of some of the best features of both methods and the rubbing off of some of the eccentricities and excrescences of both. A decline in the relative attendance upon the public worship, and especially upon the second service on Sunday, is exactly what we would anticipate under the circumstances. It is altogether probable that the decline is much less than we had the right to expect in view of the vast influence exerted upon us by Continental types of Christianity during the past half century. And it is altogether probable that the decline has not reached its normal goal. Especially is this the case when we take into consideration other influences which tend to diminish the attendance upon public worship.

1. In Great Britain, where the churches were established by law, the state and Church were so entwined that it was a badge of good citizenship to attend upon public worship. In antithesis with this, attendance of the nonconformists upon public worship was regarded as a standing by their principles and a test of fidelity and courage. These influences worked also in the United States during the colonial period; but during the present century this motive has lost its influence, and it is to be feared that politicians as such feel under no special obligation to attend church, especially in view of the attitude of many of the ministry as to political life and political questions.

2. In Great Britain it has been a badge of social propriety to attend public worship. Social influences still prevail greatly in the United States, in villages and small cities, and even to some extent in the churches in the great cities, where they are organized and conducted in social lines as social religious clubs. But this influence is much weaker than it used to be, and it is gradually passing away.

3. The pulpit was once the chief means of instruction and of intellectual and moral stimulation for the people. The preacher was the people's orator. The pulpit has in great measure lost its attractive power in this regard. The daily and weekly press have a greater influence in public instruction. The multiplication of cheap books also takes from the preacher a large share of his influence in this regard. Oratory in legislative bodies has to a great extent lost its influence. Its place has been taken by simple, compact, time-saving statements, often printed but not delivered. Committees do the work which used to be done after discussion before the public. So the people will not listen now to the pulpit orator of former generations. They demand short, crisp sermons that bristle with points, and are practical and helpful. In other words, the oratorical and highly intellectual character of the pulpit which used to attract worshipers no longer attracts them. They feel that they can get more benefit in this regard by reading in the comfort of the home. Multitudes of people can no longer be induced to attend church to be instructed by the minister or to get his judgment on topics of the time, or to be stirred by his eloquence; they can get all these things cheaper and easier by reading at home. When, now, this is re-enforced by the fact that multitudes dislike the doctrines of the Church, and resent them when they are preached, we can easily understand that church attendance should decline very greatly from this reason.

But this is no evidence that the Christian religion has declined. If men absent themselves from public worship because it is no longer necessary for them, as good citizens and as respectable members of society, to attend, or because they may get their instruction and stimulation elsewhere easier and with less expenditure of time and money, that is simply an evidence that attendance upon church in the past has been due in great measure to other than religious reasons, and that, these no longer holding, attendance has disappeared with them. The attendance upon public worship, though reduced so far as number is concerned, is now more simply and purely for religious reasons, and therefore minister and people may with greater freedom make the services more distinctly religious. This is indeed the real situation that has emerged. The sermon has declined relatively in importance, and rightly so. It had an exaggerated importance in the Protestant Church, especially in the non-liturgical churches. There is a world-wide tendency now, which is increasing in power, to improve and enlarge the worship of the Church. Liturgies and ceremonies of worship are more discussed now in the Protestant world than are sermons and lectures, because it is becoming every day more evident that the Church is organized for common prayer and for public worship, and not merely to furnish a pulpit for a minister. The pulpit is more and more being merged in the worship, and is losing its domination over the worship. With this tendency goes increased attention to the Holy Sacraments, especially the Holy Communion, more frequent celebrations and more frequent participation, increased opportunity of worship during Sunday and during the week, and also therewith the greatly increased attention to the organization of the Church for aggressive Christian work. Those who think that the pulpit is everything in the public service naturally suppose that with the decline of the pulpit Christianity declines, but those who think that public worship is the essential thing in the Church rejoice at the changes that are taking place, and hold that Christianity is advancing. They maintain that it is not so important for the Church to gather large crowds to listen to the sermon as it is for the church doors to be ever open, with frequent services for the convenience and help of worshipers at any time, without regard to whether they are few or many, assured that thereby a much greater number of people are reached and benefited than by the former limited methods.

It is sometimes said that biblical criticism has undermined faith in Holy Scripture, and that, therefore, many absent themselves from public worship. But there is no real evidence for it. I doubt not that the opponents of biblical criticism drive many people from their congregations, just as they do when they attack the sure results of modern science, or expose their ignorance in the discussion of political and economical questions in which they have not been trained; but these people simply remove to other congregations where they will not be offended by obscurantism and intolerance. Biblical criticism really makes the Bible more attractive to the people, and its reading and exposition more interesting and influential in the Church.

A careful study of the situation makes it evident that the Christian religion is not declining in our land; but it is passing through a transition state, putting off antiquated dogmas, customs, and methods, and adapting itself to the modern world, and transferring itself so as to better accomplish its work. In no age has Christianity made more advance than in the century now drawing to a close. v

The Indiana of Bolivia are described by Sir Martin Conway as "an exceedingly bigoted folk, retaining under a mask of Christianity their ancient superstitions, little altered," and are kept in order by priestly management rather than by force. Mr. Conway was seriously interfered with by them in the prosecution of his researches because the nature of his undertaking involved some outrage to their superstitions. They regard the mountains above the level of habitation as part of the other world, and holding, among other fancies, that a golden bull and a golden cross planted by supernatural agency stood on the summit of one of the peaks round the base of Mount Serata, thought that the object of the explorer's expedition could be nothing else than to obtain possession of these priceless treasures. Hence they offered formidable opposition to him.