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Good Words 1860
The World's Debt to Christianity


It is impossible to exaggerate either the number or the value of the benefits conferred upon the world by Christianity. No one can grew weary of tracing out the many ways in which his religion has blessed his kind; or fail to feel a thrill of pleasure as one of its benign modes, undiscovered before, presents itself to his view. Even as a man, whose heart is full of the love of his country, delights not only to visit its high hills and bold headlands, its stately rivers and still mountain tarns, its varied scenery of fertile valley and barren moor, but feels pleasure in watching these in all their moods, from the bright smile with which they welcome spring, or bask in the noons of summer, to their dark frown, when they scowl upon the winter storm; so a man, whose heart is full of the love of his religion, delights not only to study its sublime doctrines, and ponder its righteous laws, but is pleased to trace out its subtlest influences, to follow its recorded changes, to see how it has been affected by man, and how man has been affected by it. And one of the most striking influences of Christianity is to be seen in the everyday life of the world. Nor is this to be lightly thought of. We can never be grateful enough to God for the light which the gospel has cast upon the hereafter, and the good hopes of everlasting rest which it holds out to every mortal wanderer weary of the journey of time, for the balm which it brings to the wounded conscience, and the holy solaces which it carries into the home of sorrow, and sheds over the bed of death; but it would ill become us to render no thanks for the blessings brought us by the gospel in a high-toned civilisation, and the numberless appliances for the convenience and comfort of social life. By attending to this aspect of Christianity we ourselves may see more of the love and wisdom of God; and some who see not these attributes elsewhere may find them here.

The assertion, that to Christ's life and teaching we owe the blessings of civilisation, may seem unwarrantable. It will be said, long before Christ appeared, and His doctrine was promulged, men had made large advances, not only in ordinary civilisation, but in high refinement. Greece and Borne had sent forth their artists, their philosophers, their statesmen, their orators; in Athens, and on the banks of the Tiber, there stood trophies of genius which men, throughout succeeding ages, have imitated, but never equalled; in the porch and in the forum eloquence had been heard more grand and powerful than has ever flowed from a human tongue elsewhere. We grant at once the greatness of heathen philosophers and bards, of Athenian sculptors and Roman lawgivers. We would not pluck a single leaf from the laurel crown that wreathed the brow of poetry or art. Yet we hold that ancient heathendom, notwithstanding its boasted triumphs, was not really civilised. For it must be borne in mind that civilisation does not deal with the few, but the many; it does not refer to a favoured oligarchy, but to the common mass. Nor does it consist of triumphs in art and science; it is not even composed of a wise statute-book, and an upright judge: it consists of men, made good citizens, respecting the rights of their fellows, keenly alive to a sense of probity and honour, loving virtue with a common love, hating vice with a common hatred. Now, in this sense, ancient heathendom was not civilised. Its masses were not leavened with the spirit of gentleness, and equity, and truth. It boasted men who, impelled by the stirrings of their own genius, rose far above their fellows, and obtained glorious insights into beauty and truth; but these were separated from the masses, alike by their inherent powers and large acquirements, and served to adorn, but not to elevate or inform their kind. Into the crowded city lane and the remote country hamlet civilisation entered not; there refined tastes and pursuits were unknown. Look to this picture of ancient heathen life, drawn by a master's hand: —"If you would witness a scene characteristic of the popular life of old, you must go to the amphitheatre of Home, mingle with its 80,000 spectators, and watch the eager faces of senators and people. Observe how the masters of the world spend the wealth of conquest, and indulge the pride of power. See every wild creature that God has made to dwell, from the jungles of India to the mountains of Wales, from the forests of Germany to the deserts of Nubia, brought hither to be hunted down, in artificial groves, by thousands in an hour. Behold the captives of war—noble, perhaps, and wise in their own land—turned loose, amid yells of insult, more terrible for their foreign tongue, to contend with brutal gladiators, trained to make death the favourite amusement, and present the most solemn of individual realities as a wholesale public sport. Mark the light look with which the multitude, by uplifted finger, demands that the wounded combatant be slain before their eyes. Notice the troop of Christian martyrs awaiting, hand in hand, the leap from the tiger's den. And when the day's spectacle is over, the blood of two thousand victims stains the ring. Follow the giddy crowd, as it streams from the vomitories into the street; trace its lazy course into the forum, and see it there scrambling for the bread of private indolence, doled out by the purse of public corruption; and see how it suns itself to sleep in the open ways, or crawls into foul dens till morning brings the hope of games and merry blood again; and you have an idea of the imperial people, and their passionate living for the moment, which the gospel found in occupation of the world."

And there can be no doubt that the spurious civilisation of ancient heathendom resulted from the fact that it had no elevating doctrines appreciable by the masses; no bold revelation of truth to present to the mind of the peasant; no thrilling gospel of love wherewith to touch the heart of the artisan. Its mode of reformation was exactly the opposite of that adopted in the religion of Christ. It sought to reform from without to within—from the summit to the base—from the state to the individual. By means of an outward polity, and some striking examples of the heroic and. the wise, it imagined that the tastes of a people might be elevated, and their feelings humanised. And by such a mode it did, at rare intervals, produce good and great men. But these were not, so to speak, the natural products of the soil,—they were not the necessary results of a power like the gospel, which, ever passing from beneath, must inevitably raise some into positions of influence and honour; they grew up, as it were by miracle, and lived and died in the solitudes of their own souls, connected with their fellows only by the air which they breathed, and the ground on which they trode. But though old heathendom produced such men, it cannot be said to have been civilised. If the walls of a palace were to be built of rough, unhewn boulders, loosely put together, and rudely arranged, no one would regard the building as a triumph of masonic skill, though its front was graced with the most splendid statues, and its roof adorned with the costliest spires. And so, since its masses were left unrefined and rude, without any great power of good to reach them, or any stimulus of strong hope or right ambition to urge them on, no one can claim a true civilisation for the old heathen world, though it produced the greatest philosophers that ever thought, and the greatest poets that ever sang. These were in it, but they were not of it.

And by what means, then, it will be asked, has Christianity established and fostered a true civilisation ? It is a statement which will not be denied, that man can only advance in what is useful and great when he has obtained true ideas of himself, and of his relations to his fellows. If he is ignorant of his own dignity and destiny, his life will become besotted and mean; if unacquainted with the duties required of him by his kind, nothing will save him from being unjust, capricious, and cruel. And in no way can right conceptions of self be so well obtained as by disclosing to each of us a noble past and a splendid future. History shews how powerfully the consciousness of having a high ancestry has acted on the development of self-forgetting bravery and self-denying toil, and all those chivalrous qualities which have ennobled and adorned the world-life of man. To have had forefathers famous for doughty deeds—to belong to a family begotten by valour, and nurtured by honour—has strung many a soul to stand up boldly in the council against victorious wrong, and nerved many an arm to strike home to mailed oppression on the field. To be a member of a nation distinguished for its love of liberty, or renowned for its jealous care of the arts of peace, yielding from its past many an image of a great and arduous life, 'cannot fail to foster genuine manliness, and hold up the coward and the sluggard to contempt and scorn. With much truth it has been said—"No material interests, no common welfare, can so bind a community together, and make it strong of heart, as a history of rights maintained, and virtues un-corrupted, and freedom won. And one legend of conscience is worth more to a country than hidden gold and fertile plains." Now, Christianity assigns to us the highest ancestry; for it tells us that we are "the sons of God, and the joint heirs with Christ." It assures us that we belong to a community whose fair honour is never sullied, whose proud liberty has been gained by ' garments rolled in blood," and "great tribulation;" for it informs us that we are " fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God." The poorest and the humblest it allies with the greatest and the noblest; for it points out to them Christ—the Conqueror of evil, the Lord of angels, the King of men —as their Elder Brother. And in this way we maintain that Christianity has ministered, more than any other power, to the advancement of the human race in all that is great and good; for thus it reaches and leavens the masses, and fosters the grandest principles of rectitude and honour within the meanest lot. When the labourer comes to feel that he is the brother of the Galilean peasant, and the artisan is taught that he is the brother of Him who wrought at Nazareth in Joseph's workshop, then labour is made a sacred thing, to be done, not for the wages of a master, but for the glory of God. At the forge and in the field, honour as high and courage as true are exemplified as in the cabinet or the camp; and man advances in all the virtues which belong to his glorious lineage.

Nor is it only by telling us what we are that Christianity helps us to right ideas of self, and thus fosters civilisation; it does the same by informing us what we yet may be. Not only does it disclose to us a splendid past, it also unfolds a sublime future. And that man may really advance, he must be certain of his futurity. If the present life is looked upon as the sum of existence, it is hardly to be expected that anything will be desired which does not minister directly to immediate comfort and ease. If no plain information is given concerning the hereafter, one of two things must happen. Man will either be so oppressed with doubts and fears about his eternal future, that, in reference to present duties, he will be utterly unfit for serious thought or earnest labour, and thus sink into nervous restlessness or sheer supine -ness; or, casting these doubts and fears aside, and, resolving, after death, to take his chance, he will remove one of the strongest curbs upon sinful passions and appetites; and thus, instead of doing good, will do evil, instead of advancing will retrograde. Take the case of the old heathen world. It had some conception of a future; but that conception was only a point for speculation, and not a spring of action : it was a subject to be discussed in the school of the philosopher, and not a power to rule in the workshop of the artisan. And what was the result? That influence which we now feel to be the mightiest in softening and solemnising life, calmed no passion, sobered no present pleasure, frightened away no flagrant crime, inspired no strength to do, and no courage to bear amongst the masses of heathen men. But Christianity, by revealing plainly our futurity, and stating distinctly that what we shall be hereafter depends upon what we are when here, has given us the highest incentive to present work, and the sweetest solace under present sorrow. The Christian doctrine of immortality idealises the life of man. It blunts the edge of pain, takes away the sting of disappointment, abates the bitterness of the cup of grief, lightens the toils of nature by an eternal hope, sends an angel of love to help the heavy-laden to bear their burden, subdues the tyranny of the present by a future sublimely great, draws over the world which now is the shadow of that which is to come, and fills us with an earnest wish to make earth more like to heaven, and thus puts into the hand of the humblest Christian a means of bettering and adorning the world, mightier than the parchments of Grecian sages or the swords of Roman warriors.

But not only does Christianity furnish man with true ideas of self, it also sets before him most plainly his relations to his fellows. And without a knowledge of these relations there can be no true civilisation. When a number of men form themselves into a community, and determine to live together, the first thing they do is to establish, and bind themselves to defend, the rights of property. This is necessary, not only for their happiness, but for their very existence. And in the old heathen world, the utmost advance that man made in rectitude was the full recognition of these rights; and that recognition, embodied in law, was the only great moral power by which the masses could be reached. This being the case, it must be plain that justice was the ground on which ancient civilisation was based. But justice is not a principle essentially progressive in reference to all that concerns the general wellbeing of man. It is satisfied if the duties contained in its own code of laws be discharged; if they be neglected, it will punish the delinquency; but it does not prompt the doing of anything beyond its legal requirements. Hence in heathen states there was no principle that ever enlarged the claims of man upon man, necessarily engendered deeds of kindness, and large efforts for the benefit of mankind, and thus one of the strongest agents in true civilisation was wanting. Theft was punished; but philanthropy, though honoured, was not of necessity produced. An inadequate or effete constitution might be reformed; but no machinery for ameliorating or ennobling life was of necessity created and put in motion. But the gospel introduced a change. It recognised the rights of property; but based the recognition of them, not on justice, but on love. The foundation on which it rested all the rights of manhood was this broad commandment, ''Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Now, love is a principle essentially progressive. To aid and bless evermore and more must be the wish and aim of every soul within which it rules with power. The nature of its influence is seen most clearly in Him in whom it was incarnate, and the story of whose life is summed up in these precious words, ''He went about continually doing good." Hence, under the gospel the claims of man upon man must ever become more apparent, and fresh efforts be always made to discharge those claims. The rich must ever see more clearly that it is their duty to succour the poor; the strong feel more deeply that they are called upon to protect the weak ; the wise own more willingly that they are required to instruct the ignorant; and thus benevolence will be ever fostered, and courtesy ever developed, and the truest gentleness and heroism ever displayed. Hence, also, under the gospel the useful arts must flourish; for every invention that tends to lighten labour, or extend knowledge, or cheapen bread, is something done for the good of man, and is the product of Christianity's great law of love. And so we would maintain, and take history to witness that our words are true, that to the broad Christian commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," we owe most of the grandest proofs of the civilisation of our country and our time. To it we owe the laws of our country and the comforts of our homes ; upon it is founded our nation's constitution; and by it, thank God, are ever guided the counsels of our beloved Queen; to it are we indebted for the freedom of our opinions, whether civil or sacred; and it we must thank for the liberty of our press : it reared not only the school and the college, but the bank and the exchange; it has ever prompted the investigations of science, and encouraged the efforts of art; it urges on the steps of the colonist, and nerves the traveller to explore the resources of regions unknown; to it do we owe every appliance for the lightening of labour, the bridging of space, and the conquest of time—our factories, our telegraphs, our railroads on the land, and our steam-ships on the sea. Whatever is done by man for man, consciously or unconsciously, is done through the great gospel law of love.


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