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THE NO CHURCH MAN
BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
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Young Orestes Brownson did not immediately take his elderly Congregationalist friend’s advice to steer clear of the New Lights, and join a church “that began with Christ and his apostles, and has continued to subsist in the same without change of doctrine or worship down to our own times.” She had personally known Methodist founders John Wesley and George Whitefield, foremost leaders of the Great Awakening, a religious precursor to the Revolution, and did not trust them. Although the Great Awakening was conservative of Puritan ideals, the revivalist leaders relied on appeals to emotions rather than boring intellectual appeals to engage their audiences in religious experiences. That naturally resulted in some bizarre behavior and organization of new sects, condemned by the conservative religious, especially the well established Congregationalists. According to his autobiographical account, The Convert, Brownson was dismayed by the fireand-brimstone rhetoric of the Methodists. He “fell in with new sectaries, universalists, deists, atheists and nothingarians, as they are called with us, who profess no particular religion.” Wanting authority, he was on the run from the devil, seeking the truth wherever it might be found. He happened to pass by a Presbyterian meeting-house one day, went inside and witnessed the rather plain service before continuing on his way in doubt, interrogating himself: “I have, said I, in my self-communing, done my best to find the truth, to experience religion, and to lead a religious life, yet here I am without faith, without hope, without love. I know not what to believe. I know not what to do. I know not whence I came, why I am here, or whither I go. My life is a stream that flows out of darkness into darkness. The world is dark to me, and not a ray of light even for one instant relieves it. My heart is sad, and I see nothing to hope for, or to live for. For me heaven is dispeopled, and the earth is a desert, a barren waste. Why is this so? Why does my heart rebel against the speculations of my mind? If doubt is all there is for me, why cannot I discipline myself into submission to it? …. “Was I not told in the outset that, if I followed my own reason, it would lead me astray, that I should lose all belief, and find myself involved in universal doubt and uncertainty' Has it not been so, In attempting to follow the light of reason alone, have I not lost faith, lost the light of revelation, and plunged myself into spiritual darkness? I did not believe what these people said, and, yet, were they not right? They were. They told me to submit my reason to revelation. I will do so. I am incapable of directing myself. I must have a guide. I will hear the Church. I will surrender, abnegate my own reason, which hitherto has only led me astray, and make myself a member of the Church, and do what she commands me.” Hoping to find a purpose or meaning for his life by recognizing some legitimate authority on the matter, he was baptized a Presbyterian in 1822, becoming a member of the Presbyterian Church at Ballston, Saratoga County, New York. He had not asked “whether the Presbyterian Church was the true Church or not, for the Church question had not yet been fairly raised in my mind, and as it did not differ essentially from the Standing Order, and claimed to be the true Church, and was counted respectable, I was satisfied. What it believed was of little consequence, since I had resolved to abnegate my own reason, and take the Church for my guide.” What Protestant denomination has never claimed to be the truest if not the true Christian church? Brownson did not care the Methodist denomination or the anti-denomination denomination that Page 2 of 8
separated from it to call itself simply “Christian.” We certain sympathize with Rev. James O’Kelly’s Christian faction: Christ was its creed, the Bible its book, and Christian its name. People who are stupefied by complexity are well advised to be simple, but simplicity or singlemindedness in faith is easier said than done. Brownson had practically memorized the Bible by age fourteen, and was confused by it to say the least. He needed something more. He loved his liberty, but he must have been lonely on his own, and he wanted some social order in his life so that he might enjoy his freedom more. He needed an organic structure, a new foster family to take the place of the one he had left, and, even more than that, we think he needed a personal master if not a father and mother. The Hindus stress the necessity of submitting to personal authority, to a guru or spiritual master, for spiritual development. Perhaps one day the disciple may eat the guru and sit on his mat, but he will get nowhere without him to begin with. After all, religion is a personal relationship. Alienated individual existence is insufferable. The fall of one from the One is the original sin that wants reunion. Christian churches stress submission to the ideal person, Jesus Christ, and provide procedures for doing so, but many are left wanting by what we might call the real presence of a spiritual master. Brownson did not know that he was destined to eventually be picked up and held by the Mother Church under the spiritual guidance of the Holy Father. He fell in with the Presbyterians for the time being, and he was correct about their similarity to the Congregationalists. They were quite alike in their theology and doctrines, having adopted nearly the same basic confessions and declarations that we discussed in our previous essay on Congregationalism. So alike, in fact, that the two sects became so closely affiliated in some parts of the country for awhile that the synthesis was called Presbygationalism. American Congregationalists and American Presbyterians were both Calvinist strains, but they differed culturally and politically. Presbyterians hailed mostly from Scotland, where John Knox, who had been a student of John Calvin in Geneva, advanced the Puritan cause via the Scottish Reformation. England had its Presbyterians as well; the Presbyterian Church was clandestinely organized there in 1592. Among those who resented the English Church were so-called congregationalists who wanted "no head, priest, prophet or king save Christ." They played an instrumental role in the revolution that cost King Charles I his head in 1649. The Puritan Long Parliament allowed the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in England in 1647, but a minority who had dissented from the tyrannical hierarchy of the English Church remained independent of the establishment, insisting on an autonomous congregational polity, each congregation to be self-governed by its members hence ostensibly democratic in structure. Presbyterian churches are governed locally by councils or “sessions” of elders elected for life; the constituent churches in turn are represented by elders in presbyteries. The independent dissenters felt that the very term “presbyter” smacked of the detested authoritarian governance by bishops albeit “presbyter” means elder, and Congregationalists themselves are governed by elected elders; but their elders serve at the pleasure of independent congregations, and conventions or synods of the representatives of congregations are merely advisory.
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Representatives of the dissenting independent congregations persecuted by intolerant Presbyterians adopted the defining Savoy Declaration of October 12, 1658, at Savoy, London. The Declaration was more or less an amendment of the Westminster Confession. The convention of Congregationalist “Members and Messengers” at Savoy declared, in the Preface to the Declaration, that the “odious” charge of Schism should not apply to their way, the “Independent Congregational Way,” because the difference between Presbyterians and Independents was in “lesser things and circumstances.” “And let it be further considered, that we have not broken from them or their Order by these differences (but rather they from us) and in that respect we less deserve their censure; our practice being no other then what it was in our breaking from Episcopacy, and long before Presbytery, or any such form as now they are in, was taken up by them; and we will not say how probable it is that the yoke of Episcopacy had been upon our neck to this day, if some such way (as formerly, and now is, and hath been termed Schism) had not with much suffering been then practiced & since continued in.” Furthermore, the Independent Congregational Way was not really novel, although the ways of Independents as well as the Presbyterian were indeed strange to the Nation: “For ourselves we are able to trace the footsteps of an Independent Congregational Way in the ancientest customs of the Churches as also in the writings of our soundest Protestant Divines, and (that which we are much satisfied in) a full concurrence throughout in all Puritans, the substantial parts of ChurchGovernments, with our Reverend Brethren, the old Puritans and non-Conformists, who being instant in prayer and much sufferings, prevailed with the Lord, and we reap with joy, what they sowed in tears. Our Brethren also that are for Presbyterian subordinations profess what is of weight against Novelty for their way.” Church liberty and freedom, it was prefaced, had depended on the clemency and indulgence of magistrate, and the synod declared that God had ordained magistrates to lord it over the world. Magistrates, whose duty is to promote God’s glory and Christ’s interest in the public welfare, must be obeyed even if they are infidels. Nonetheless, “in such differences about the Doctrines of the Gospel, or ways of the worship of God, as may befall men exercising a good conscience, manifesting it in their conversation, and holding the foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that differ from them; there is no warrant for the Magistrate under the Gospel to abridge them of their liberty.” The Independent Congregational Way is to congregate in particular congregations with no general assembly over them, the officers of each congregation to be chose by “common suffrage.” The Episcopal Church was re-established with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660; many Presbyterians refused to conform and continued their form of worship outside of the established church. The Independents persisted, some of them arriving in the New World on the Mayflower, where they called themselves Congregationalists, and became the Standing Order or established church in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The purportedly democratic order of the Puritan Congregationalists was unjustly impugned as totalitarian and contrary to the essential political principal of Christianity not to say Protestantism since it was a state church. Christianity whether Roman or Protestant was traditionally subject to political domination. And since religion worships absolute power while politics distributes it, we may speculate that political concerns, Page 4 of 8
especially political economics, has a greater bearing on the faithful and moral order than faith and morality has on the political order. All that being too briefly explained, we might retrospectively forgive our forefathers for their hostilities, and liken the difference between Presbyterians and Congregationalists to that between Democrats and Republicans, which is hardly any difference at all in this country today, so little that there must be books written on how to be one or the other lest people become too confused by the whole damn thing. Alas that love is so often hate-based, i.e. that love of “brethren” is based on hatred of enemies for whatever reason can be contrived to make a difference. The Democratic-Republican Party just would not do, hence the Whigs and the rest. But to continue: The Monday after his reception into Presbyterian communion, Brownson attended an assembly of about six hundred church members who had come together to renew their covenant, binding themselves “to greater efforts for the conversion of sinners, the common name given to all not of the sect, even though members of the congregation, and born of Presbyterian parents. In this meeting we all solemnly pledged ourselves, not only to pray for the conversion of sinners, but to mark them wherever we met them, to avoid them, to have no intercourse with them that could be helped, and never to speak to them except, to admonish them of their sins, or so far as it should be necessary on business. There was to be no interchange of social or neighborly visits between us and them, and we were to have even business relations with them only when absolutely necessary. We were by our manner to show all, not members of the Presbyterian Church, that we regarded them as the enemies of God, and therefore as our enemies, as persons hated by God, and therefore hated by us; and we were, even in business relations, always to give the, preference to church members, and, as far as possible, without sacrificing our own interests, to treat those not members as outcasts from society, as pariahs; and thus, by appeals to their business interests, their social feelings, and their desire to stand well in the community, to compel them to join the Presbyterian Church. The meeting was animated by a singular mixture of bigotry, uncharitableness, apparent zeal for God's glory, and a shrewd regard to the interests of this world.” No doubt many nonmembers were treated well for selfish reasons, for sake of successful business intercourse, given the worldly interest that must not be sacrificed. Today it appears that our culture is a total backslide or degeneration from Puritan principles of purity. So many sacrifices have been made to freely produce and distribute more things to more people that it seems the money is the general god, wherefore in that god do we trust. Everyone shall be saved if they overcharge each other. A Christian church of any kind is a temporary retreat from individualism, a reprieve from the merciless war of all against all, salve for the guilty conscience, a place to feel good and save the soul no matter what one has done. The lonesome individuality or “original sin” of Christian souls may motivate to commune with another for wholesomeness or sanity. But not all Christians appreciate churches as societies: a Christian-of-one who lived in a cave on the watershed above the University of Hawaii in Manoa claimed to this author that all churches are “dens of vipers.” He was a Christian No Church Man. However that may be, Brownson’s Presbyterian covenanters bound themselves to watch over each other affectionately. “I was not long in discovering that this meant that we were each to be a spy upon the others, and to rebuke, admonish, or report them to the Session [the local governing Page 5 of 8
church council]. My whole life became constrained. I dared not trust myself, in the presence of a church member, to a single spontaneous emotion; I dared not speak in my natural tone of voice, and if I smiled, I expected to be reported.” His quest for authority had taken him to a police state. Brownson knew right away that he had made a terrible mistake joining the church. Nevertheless, he submitted to the harsh Calvinist discipline that allowed no liberty but by stealth for a year or two. After all, he had joined the church because, “despairing of reason, I had wished to submit to authority.” He might have continued to submit if it were not for the utter hypocrisy of the Church: On the one hand, it disclaiming all authority to teach him anything, referring him instead to scripture alone, while, one the other hand, claiming the authority to condemn him as a heretic if he diverged from the confessional doctrine; for example, failing to treat everyone who did not confess as an enemy of God and to shun them. The great fault of the Puritan doctrine of sola scriptura is that scripture alone is no purer than its interpreter hence can be variously interpreted to justify anything including some degree of human depravity, and here we may see why Puritans had good reason to throw up their hands and leave salvation to God rather than be justified by their works. “Do not mock me with freedom that is no freedom, or with authority that is illusory,” our seeker complains, and said he had gained nothing but had lost much by hastily joining the Presbyterian Church. His old Congregationalist friend had warned him not to go with the New Lights, but “are not these Presbyterians New Lights, as much as the Methodists and the Christians?” Brownson is recounting his dismay from the perspective of the Catholic apologist he later became: “If our Lord founded a Church and has a Church on earth, it must reach back to his time, and come down in unbroken succession from the apostles. But the Presbyterian Church is a recently formed body, not three hundred years old. It was founded in Scotland by men who had been Roman Catholics, and who had deserted the faith in which they had been reared; and in-England, by men who had belonged to the Church of England, which itself had broken off from the Catholic Church.” But how could he leave the Presbyterian Church to become a Roman Catholic, when the Roman Church had been condemned as everything vile, base, odious, and demoralizing? What could he do, knowing that all Protestant sects were New Lights? The essence of Protestantism is protest, potentially of every doctrine contrived by sophisticated man. Protestants are skeptics, but what is skepticism without reason, without good cause to doubt every cause? Only the First Cause may not be doubted. The relationship between faith and reason is deemed antagonistic instead of complementary. One is denied in favor of the other. Calvinists, which Brownson declared to be the dominant American doctrine of his day, oppose revelation to reason. Man is a totally depraved, rational creature; therefore his fallible reason cannot save him. No matter what anyone does, the redemption of only a few elected saints has been foreordained providing they have blind faith in the grace of God. You will know if you are graced when you get there, when it is revealed to you. Until then dare not examine the grounds for your faith, blind to reason. Brownson did not like a god that would damn or bless men in advance no matter what they think and do. He just could not submit to what was more of an excuse than justification for faith: “Revelation, if revelation there be, must be made to me as a man, as a rational subject. Take
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away my reason, and you can as well make a revelation to an ox or a. horse, a pig or an ass, as to me. It demands reason to receive revelation, and the natural to receive the supernatural.” Wherefore, at the rip age of twenty-one, he decided to revoke his surrender to the Presbyterian Church: “I offered in it no reasonable obedience or submission to God. It was a blind submission and really no submission of my reason at all. It was a cowardly act, the act of an intellectual desperado, although the motive was good. I reclaim my reason, I reclaim my manhood, and henceforth I will, let come what may, be true to my reason, and preserve the rights and dignity of my human nature.” So the young man boiled down his dilemma to a choice between the infamous Catholic Church and no church at all. “Since I cannot be a Catholic, I must be a no-church man, and deny all churches, make war upon every sect claiming the slightest authority in matters of faith or conscience.” As a matter of fact, he was ordained an evangelist by a Universalist association at age 23. He had been under the “pernicious” influence of Universalism even before he became a Presbyterian. At least he was not a member of an orthodox church, in the legal sense, as Elias Smith, one of the first elders of the Christian Church, asserted in the first edition of The Morning Star and City Watchman, dated June 3, 1827, in Boston. He was almost correct in respect to New England, where the Standing Order supporting the state-sponsored Congregational Church had been abolished in Connecticut in 1818, and in New Hampshire in1819. A Massachusetts constitutional convention took up the issue in 1820, but the Standing Order was not repealed by voters until 1833, the amendment passing 10 to 1 since the old order was considered passé. Since there was no legally dominant denomination, according to Rev. Smith, “orthodox” was used by denominations to denominate themselves as holders of the right religious opinions. As for Universalism, one of the “Four Extremes” of Christian parties in the country, which he laid out in the form of a cross, with his Christian Church in the center, he offered his Christian Church opinion of the subject, which seems to be that Universalism is an unorthodox church at the most, if it is a church, or maybe a no church, an opinion that Brownson might agree with after his own experiences as a Universalist: “UNIVERSALISM: This we place in the West or the "going down of the sun." Here man turns his eyes for relief, when he finds that neither Calvinism, nor Unitarianism, nor Arminianism includes him; if he is not one of the Elect, does not follow Christ's instructions, finds his works are not such as he may be safe in doing, he turns to this. This includes all, it therefore includes him. Here is no regeneration, no change; no being born again, no baptism, no walking in newness of life; no punishment unless in this life. The man who is hung for murder, and the martyr are upon equal standing after death. ‘He that is dead is freed from sin,’ when I die, all will be well. Here the sun of holiness, praise, self denial and walking in newness of life sits, and all besides is nothing to him. Deism and this system are so nearly alike, that the Deist can embrace it, and become such a Christian, without any change, excepting in the name, as I understand the system.”
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-XYXTo Be Continued
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