Means of Promoting Christianity
William Ellery Channing

from The Works of William Ellery Channing, D. D. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1890), 254-257.

      We live at a time when the obligation of extending Christianity is more felt than in many past ages. There is much stir, motion, and zeal around us in this good cause. Even those who seem not to be burdened by an excess of piety themselves are in earnest to give it to others. The activity of multitudes is taking strongly this direction; and as men are naturally restless, and want room for action, and will do mischief rather than do nothing, a philanthropist will rejoice that this new channel is opened for carrying off the superabunant energies of multitudes, even if no other good should result from it.
      We hope however, much other good. We trust that, whilst many inferior motives and many fanatical impulses are giving birth and action to large associations in Christendom; whilst the love of sway in some, and the love of congregating in others, and the passion for doing something great and at a distance in all, are rearing mighty institutions among us, -- still many sincere Christians are governed in these concerns by a supreme desire of spreading Christianity. They have found the gospel an infinite good, and would communicate it to their fellow-beings. They have drunk from the Fountain of Life and would send forth the stream to gladden every wilderness and solitary place, and to assuage the thirst of every anxious and afflicted mind. They turn with continual pleasure to the prophetic passages of Scripture, and, interpreting them by their wishes, hope a speedy change in the moral state of the world, and are impatient to bear a part in this stupendous renovation. That they are doing good we doubt not, though perhaps not in the way which they imagine or would prefer. The immediate and general success of their attempts would perhaps be ultimately injurious to Christianity. They are sending out, together with God's word, corrupt interpretations of some parts of it, which considerably neutralize its saving power, and occasionally make it a positive injury. They are perhaps to do good not by success so much as by failure. Almost all great enterprises are accomplished gradually, and by methods which have been learned from many unsuccessful trials, from a slow accumulation of experience. The first laborers often do little more than teach those who come after them what to avoid and how to labor more effectually than themselves. But be the issue what it may, sincere Christians who embark in this good work, not from party- spirit and self-conceit, as if they and their sect were depositaries of all truth and virtue, but from unaffected philanthropy and attachment to Jesus Christ, will have their reward. Even a degree of extravagance in such a cause may be forgiven. Men are willing that the imagination should be kindled on other subjects; that the judgment should sometimes slumber, and leave the affections to feed on hopes brighter than reality; that patriotism, and philanthropy, and the domestic affections, should sometimes break out in chivalrous enterprises, and should seek their ends by means on which the reason may look coldly. Why, then, shall we frown on every deviation from the strictest judiciousness in a concern which appeals so strongly to the heart as the extension of Christianity? Men may be too rational as well as too fervent; and the man whose pious wish of the speedy conversion of the world rises into a strong anticipation of the event, and who, taking his measure of duty from the primitive disciples, covets sacrifices in so good a cause, is an incomparably nobler spirit than he who, believing that the moral condition of the world is as invariable as the laws of material nature, and seeking pretexts for sloth in a heart chilling philosophy, has no concern for; the multitudes who are sitting in darkness, and does nothing to spread the religion which he believes to have come from heaven.
      There is one danger, however, at a, period like the present, when we are aiming to send Christianity to a distance, which demands attention. It is the danger of neglecting the best methods of propagating Christianity, of over-looking much plainer obligations than, that of converting heathens, of forgetting the claims of our religion at home and by our firesides. It happens that on this, as on almost every subject, our most important duties are quiet, retired, noiseless, attracting little notice, and administering little powerful excitement to the imagination. The surest efforts for extending Christianity are those which few observe, which are recorded in no magazine, blazoned at no anniversaries, immortalized by no eloquence. Such efforts, being enjoined only by conscience and God, and requiring steady, patient, unwearied toil, we are apt to overlook, and perhaps never more so than when the times furnish a popular substitute for them, and when we can discharge our consciences by labors which, demanding little self-denial, are yet talked of as the highest exploits of Christian charity. Hence it is that when most is said of labors to propagate Chris tianity, the least may be really and effectually done. We hear a torrent roaring, and imagine that the fields are plentifully watered, when the torrent owes its violence to a ruinous concentration of streams which before moved quietly in a thousand little channels, moistening the hidden roots, and publishing their course, not to the ear but to the eye, by the refreshing verdure which grew up around them. It is proper, then, when new methods are struck out for sending Christianity abroad, to remind men often of the old-fashioned methods of promoting it, to insist on the superiority of the means which are in almost every man's reach, which require no extensive associations, and which do not subject us to the temptations of exaggerated praise. We do not mean that any exertion which promises to extend our religion in any tolerable state of purity is to be declined. But the first rank is to be given to the efforts which God has made the plain duties of men in all ranks and conditions of life. Two of these methods will be briefly mentioned.
      First, every individual should feel that, whilst his influence over other men's hearts and character is very bounded, his power over his own heart is great and constant, and that his zeal for extending Christianity is to appear chiefly in extending it through his own mind and life. Let him remember that he as truly enlarges God's kingdom by invigorating his own moral and religious principles, as by communicating them to others. Our first concern is at home, our chief work is in our own breasts. It is idle to talk of our anxiety for other men's souls if we neglect our own. Without personal virtue and religion we cannot, even if we would, do much for the cause of Christ. It is only by purifying our own conceptions of God and duty that we can give clear and useful views to others. We must first feel the power of religion, or we cannot recommend it with an unaffected and prevalent zeal. Would we, then, promote pure Christianity? Let us see that it be planted and take root in our own minds, and that no busy concern for others take us from the labor of self-inspection and the retired and silent offices of piety.
      The second method is intimately con nected with the first. It is example. This is a means within the reach of all. Be our station in life what it may, it has duties in performing which faithfully we give important aid to the cause of morality and piety. The efficacy of this means of advancing Christianity cannot be easily calculated. Example has an insinuating power, transforming the observer without noise, attracting him without the appearance of effort. A truly Christian life is better than large contributions of wealth for the propagation of Christianity. The most prominent instruction of Jesus on this point is that we must let men "see our good works," if we would lead them to "glorify our Father in heaven." Let men see in us that religlon is something real, something more than high- sounding and empty words, a restraint from sin, a bulwark against temptation, a spring of upright and useful action; let them see it not an idle form, nor a transient feeling, but our companion through life, infusing its purity into our common pursuits, following us to our homes, setting a guard round our integrity in the resorts of business, sweetening our tempers in seasons of provocation, disposing us habitually to sympathy with others, to patience and cheerfulness under our own afflictions, to candid judgment, and to sacrifices for others' good; and we may hope that our light will not shine uselessly, that some slumbering conscience will be roused by this testimony to the excellence and practicableness of religion, that some worldly professor of Christianity will learn his obligations and blush for his criminal inconsistency, and that some, in whom the common arguments for our religion may have falled to work a full belief, will be brought to the knowledge of the truth by this plain practical proof of the heavenly nature of Christianity. Every man is surrounded with beings who are moulded more or less by the principles of sympathy and imitation; and this social part of our nature he is bound to press into the service of Christianity.
      It will not be supposed from these re marks on the duty of aiding Christianity by our example, that religion is to be worn ostentatiously, and that the Christian is studiously to exhibit himself and his good works for imitation. That same book which enjoins us to be patteras, tells us to avoid parade, and even to prefer entire secrecy in our charities and our prayers. Nothing destroys the weight of example so much as labor to make it striking and observed. Goodness, to be interesting, must be humble, modest, unassuming, not fond of show, not waiting for great and conspicuous occasions, but disclosing itself without labor and without design in pious and benevolent offices, so simple, so minute, so steady, so habitual, that they will carry a conviction of the singleness and purity of the heart from which they proceed. Such goodness is never lost. It glorifies itself by the very humility which encircles it, just as the lights of heaven often break with peculiar splendor through the cloud which threatened to obscure them.
      A pure example, which is found to be more consistent in proportion as it is more known, is the best method of preaching and extending Christianity. Without it, zeal for converting men brings reproach on the cause. A bad man, or a man of only ordinary goodness, who puts himself forward in this work, throws a suspiciousness over the efforts of better men, and thus the world I come to set down all labor for spreading Christianity as mere pretence. Let not him who will not submit to the toil of making himself better, become a re former at home or abroad. Let not him who is known to be mean, or dishonest, or intriguing, or censorious, or unkind in his neighborhood, talk of his concern for other men's souls. His life is an injury to religion, which his contributions of zeal, or even of wealth, cannot repair, and its injuriousness is aggravated by these vein attempts to exdiate its guilt, to reconcile him to himself.
      It is well known that the greatest obstruction to Christianity in heathen countries is the palpable and undeniable depravity of Christian nations. They abhor our religion because we are such unhappy specimens of it. They are unable to read our books, but they can read our lives; and what wonder if they reject with scorn a system under which the vices seem to have flourished so luxuriantly. The Indian of both hemispheres has reason to set down the Christian as little better than himself. He associates with the name perfidy, fraud, rapacity, and slaughter. Can we wonder that he is unwilling to receive a religion from the hand which has chained or robbed him? Thus, bad example is the great obstruction to Christianity abroad as well as at home; and perhaps little good is to be done abroad until we become better at home, until real Christians understand and practise their religion more thoroughly, and by their example and influence spread it among their neighbors and through their country, so that the aspect of Christian nations shall be less shocking and repulsive to the Jew, Mahometan, and Pagan. Our first labor should be upon ourselves; and indeed if our religion be incapable of bearing more fruit among ourselves, it hardly seems to deserve a very burning zeal for its propagation. The question is an important one, -- Would much be gained to heathen countries were we to make them precisely what nations called Christians now are? That the change would be beneficial, we grant; but how many dark stains would remain on their characters! They would continue to fight and shed blood as they now do, to resent injuries hotly, to worship present gain and distinction, and to pursue the common business of life on the principles of undisguised selfishness; and they would learn one lesson of iniquity which they have not yet acquired, and that is, to condemn and revile their brethren who should happen to view the most perplexed points of theology differently from themselves. The truth is, Christian nations want a genuine reformation, one worthy of the name. They need to have their zeal directed, not so much to the spreading of the gospel abroad, as to the application of its plain precepts to their daily business, to the education of their children, to the treatment of their domestics and dependants, and to their social and religious intercourse. They need to understand that a man's piety is to be estimated, not so much by his professions or direct religious exercises, as by a conscientious surrender of his will, passions, worldly interests, and prejudices, to the acknowledged duties of Christianity, and especially by a philanthropy resembling in its great features of mildness, activity, and endurance, that of Jesus Christ. They need to give up their severe inquisition into their neighbors' opinions, and to begin in earnest to seek for themselves, and to communicate to others, a nobler standard of temper and practice than they have yet derived from the Scriptures. In a word, they need to learn the real value and design of Christianity by the only thorough and effectual process; that is, by drinking deeply into its spirit of love to God and man. If, in this age of societies, we should think it wise to recommend another institution for the propagation of Christianity, it would be; one the members of which should be pledged to assist and animate one another in living according to the Sermon on the Mount. How far such a measure would be effectual we venture not to predict; but of one thing we are sure, that, should it prosper, it would do more for spreading the gospel than all other associations which are now receiving the patronage of the Christian world.

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