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The Bible and the Church (1850).


Address at the New England Antislavery Convention at the Melodeon, Boston, May 28-30, 1850. A clergyman by the name of Corliss having expressed his fears that some of the advocates of the slaves were lacking in a due appreciation of the Bible, and were therefore tending toward infidelity, Mr. Phillips rose and said:--

I wish to say one word in regard to the remarks which have been addressed to us, in order that the Antislavery enterprise may stand aright before this audience. It might be judged from the tone of the last speaker, that the Abolitionists see an enemy and an obstacle in the Bible. He has been entreating us to have greater regard for the Bible. He has been endeavoring to impress upon us reverence for that book. You might draw the inference that we needed such entreaties.

Now, in behalf of the Abolitionists, let me say, we have nothing to do with the Bible in regard to its merits or its faults, except in one point: does it sustain or rebuke slavery? If any speaker wanders beyond that, he speaks on his own responsibility; he speaks that for which this society is not amenable. Perhaps it may be impossible for him to avoid expressing his private opinion of the Bible as to other points, in the course of illustrating some Antislavery topic. Yet you are to take them as illustrations. And when my friend Foster introduced [245] some speculations of his own, on other points than slavery, he had no right to do it otherwise than as illustrations.

Now, the friend who has just spoken will, I think, grant us this,--that no speaker, unless it be Mr. Foster, has wandered beyond the just limits of Antislavery discussion; that our Antislavery speakers have never yet allowed that the Bible sustained slavery; that we have felt no need, therefore, to throw it overboard. And all though we may put the question like my friend Wright, What would you do in certain circumstances? let it be remembered that the Antislavery enterprise puts such circumstances as merely fictitious, hypothetical,--and claims the Bible on its own side. [Prolonged applause.]

Remember, that although we feel there is enough in mere humanity, without the Bible, to condemn slavery; that the verdict against it is so self-evident as to destroy the title of any book to be thought inspired which sanctions such a system,--still we, so far from bringing any such accusation against the Bible, have always claimed it in behalf of justice and liberty. It is from Moses Stuart, it is from Daniel Webster, it is from the Church and the politicians, that this attack on the Bible comes, and not from us. [Loud cheers.] I know I am repeating things abundantly well known to all our friends; but it is often the result of such speeches as we have just heard, that the audience go away under a wrong impression. I contend that everything that has been said, that the principles of these resolutions, that the substratum of all that has been spoken, all claim the Bible as a basis; and that, confident the Bible is on our side, we will not be forced into any position of seeming hostility to it. We have issues enough with this community.

Because the clergy of our little day and neighborhood pervert the Scriptures, shall that make us disbelieve [246] them? No matter for the texts: enough for us to know that on every field where justice has triumphed, the Bible has led the van; that tyrants in every age have hated it; humanity, in every step of its progress, has caught watchwords from its pages. Freedom of thought was won by those who would read it in spite of Popes; freedom of speech by those who would expound it in defiance of Laud. Luther and Savonarola, Howard and Oberlin, Fenelon and Wilberforce, Puritan and Huguenot, Covenanter and Quaker, all hugged it to their breasts. It was to print the Bible that bold men fought for the liberty of the press. When the oppressor hurries to place it in every cottage, when the slave-holder labors that his slave may be able to read it,--then will we begin to believe that Isaiah struggled to rivet “every yoke,” that Paul was opposed to giving every man that which is just and equal, and that the New Testament was written to “strengthen the weak hands and confirm the feeble knees” of tottering iniquities.

But not till then shall a few petty priests shut us out from sympathy with, and confidence in, the noble army of martyrs and the glorious company of the Apostles. Not till then shall the Stuarts and Waylands, with their little black gowns, hide from us the burning light of the great Apostle of the Gentiles. What though, holding up the Book, they cry, “See here and look there, note these specks on the sun;” we know still it is the sun, and astronomy tells us that what is dark there to-day will perhaps be brightness and living light to-morrow. So with the Bible. What though, here and there, there should be isolated texts which look inconsistent with the great spirit which informs the whole; coming years, we know, will show them, like spots on the sun, all bright with the splendid effulgence of Infinite Love. Shall an ambiguous line in Timothy cover up the whole [247] Sermon on the Mount? No! we still claim the Bible; and, bad as the American Church is, it will take all its cunning and craft to make us doubt the purity of Jesus or the humanity of Paul.

Let those lock up the Bible who fear it; our prayer is, May it find its way into the hovel of every slave and into the heart of every legislator in the land! Our original attempt was this,--to show that the Bible and Christianity repudiate slavery. For a long time, in one unbroken phalanx, the so-called Christian Church denounced such a statement as infidelity; and from Maine to Georgia, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, we had the unbroken testimony of the Church that the Bible was proslavery. Now the Church is divided. We have Henry Ward Beecher against Moses Stuart; we have Albert Barnes against Leonard Woods.

The time was when the Recorder, and the religious press, claimed, with the New York Observer, that until you could mend the Constitution, you must mind it. We have urged our principles until we have scared up William H. Seward, and pitted him against Daniel Webster. [Great applause.] We have found persons who are willing “to bewray not him that wandereth.” And therefore it can never be often enough repeated, that when the question comes as to Christianity itself, not to American Christianity; to the Bible itself, not to the Bible in the glass of Moses Stuart,--that the Abolitionist holds on to the Bible as his, with his right hand and with his left hand. And I wish you to go away with that conviction, spite of the remonstrances which I think have been unnecessarily, however sincerely, made to us.



From an address at Music Hall before the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society, Sunday, April 24, 1859.

The Bible is a record of the religious history of the Jews. It is a record of the struggle, as all history seems to be, between the conservative and the progressive elements in society; between the element which believes, and the element which distrusts; between the element which reaches forward, and the element which is contented with the present; between the element which eats its bread in selfishness, and the element which seeks to raise itself and its fellows by sounding on and on in the great ocean of living thought. It has two sides,--the priesthood and the prophets; and although the word “people” is sometimes used in a general sense, yet both Testaments taken together represent the struggle betwixt the established and progressing,--between the priesthood and the prophets. I want to read you this morning, the description which God gives of both, partly in words, partly in action.

[Mr. Phillips then read one or two passages from the Old Testament, and said:--]

If you have heard of a church where a man could say, after a quarter of a century of experience, “I lived a life of worldliness and trickery; I stood in the market-place and let out my gift of persuasion to shield the guilty, and throw dust in the eyes of the judge, to turn the murderer out into society, and make black crime look like white justice; and I went into the church, and heard nothing of it, and the next day I went out into the world to do the same deeds in the week to come, and remembered [249] nothing that I had heard,” --to such a church the language of the Lord is, “Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain; they speak a vision of their own heart; they steal every one words from his neighbor. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord: and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”

The other side of the picture is found in such passages as this,--“Think not I am come to send peace on the earth: I am not come to send peace, but a sword.” I stand, if with one exception, then only one, in the only Christian church in the city. I stand in the pulpit from which, 1 verily think, the ear of God has listened to more Christian truth, within a dozen years, than from any or all of the pulpits of Boston put together. I stand in the place of one whose great offence was that he practised what he preached. He dared to take his torch, and flare it in the face of the public and recognized creeds. He differed but little, at the outset, from the faith of the Unitarians that he saw around him; but he pronounced the word “Liberty” --and Unitarianism vanished with a shriek! He found himself alone, with God's sky above him, and the world for an audience. They said, “He is a reckless man, he tells all he knows. He is a rash man, he utters all he thinks.” If he were, I should say with the old divine, when divinity meant something, “Thank God for a rash man once in a quarter of a century!” They said, “He shall not have the sounding-board of Brattle Street, nor the walls of Chauncy Place for an audience;” and when they denied him these, they gave him the Rocky Mountains for a sounding-board, and the heart of every hopeful and oppressed man for an audience.

You and I are called “infidels,” which means, merely, that we do not submit our necks to yokes. But, men [250] and women, brothers and sisters, if your gathering here has done no other good, it has done this,--what was the New England Church, in its ideal, has come to be a mere yoke in which the awakened religious life was fastened, and it became a spiritual slavery, so that all the machineries of outside life were brought to bear as if for the manufacture of hypocrites. It has become the outer shed of the factory, the appendage of the shop, the rich man's kitchen. It contents itself with the policeman's duty of blinding the eyes of the working-men, and striving to make them contented. The undertone of its preaching is the clink of the dollar.

I have studied the history of the New England Church; I know what the world owes to Calvinism, to the pulpit; I have no wish to tear a leaf from its laurels; its history is written and sealed,--but God knows that, within the last thirty years, the ecclesiastical machinery of New England has manufactured hypocrisy just as really as Lowell manufactures cotton. The Pope himself, with all the ingenuity of a succession of the most astute intellects that Christendom has known, could not have devised machinery more exactly suited to crush free thought, and to make each man a sham. It was never more plainly shown than in an article published in one of the papers of the day, which arrogates to itself a semi-religious character,--the Boston Traveller of the 13th of April. It refers to Dr. Kirk's sermon on “Infidel philanthropy.” What a title! “Infidel philanthropy” ! Black white; moist dry; hot cold; “Infidel philanthropy” ! There was a Man once who said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The beloved disciple said, “He that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen, how shall he love God, whom he hath not seen?” “Infidel loving your brother!” The writer in the Traveller says: [251]

We have not unfrequently thought that the combination of infidel philanthropy, angry political violence, and religious devotion which has been enlisted against slavery, was the cause of the ill success which has thus far befallen this work . .

We hardly know how to speak in fitting terms, in the brief space which is allotted to our editorial column, of the theoretical and practical infidelity of the present day. It certainly presents an entirely different phase from that which was witnessed in the days of Paine and Voltaire and their associates. Instead of the ribaldry, sensuality, and blasphemy of that day, it presents to us now seriousness, philanthropy, and religion.

When Paul “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and a judgment to come, Felix trembled.” When infidelity reasons of “seriousness, philanthropy, and religion,” the Felix of the day has a right to tremble. But how blind the writer must be! As if the Church of God was a place, and not a power! Why, when the news of this great experiment in the West Indies came to this country, as your preacher tells it, the infidels asked, “Is the man temperate? Does he love his brother and not shed his blood? Does he respect his wife? Does he teach his children?” and the Church asked, “Does he make as much rum as he did before? Are there as many hogsheads of sugar exported from Jamaica? Show me the statistics!” God said, “Justice! When I founded the universe, I saw to it that right should be profitable.” Infidelity said, “Amen! I cannot see, but I believe.” The Church said, “Prove it!”

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