Guest Writer Ernest B Gordon
“Humanism, man beginning only from himself, had destroyed the old basis of values, and could find no way to generate with certainty any new values. In the resulting vacuum the impoverished values of personal peace and affluence had come to stand supreme.” ~Francis Schaeffer
[The book is a biography of New Hampshire born and bred, Brown University- and Newton Seminary-trained, Baptist minister Adoniram Judson Gordon; but occasionally the son and biographer, Ernest Gordon, editorializes. Here the son’s satire provides one of the most pithy word pictures of the Laodicean Age and cultural Liberalism ever composed. Because it is written in heady, 19th-century language, I have, in some places, restructured cumbersome grammar and added definitions of unfamiliar words.]
Three things combined to give the field of work on which AJ Gordon had now entered [pastor, Clarendon Street Church, Boston] a character of exceptional difficulty: (1) the general current of doubt at that time prevailing in educated circles, here and abroad, (2) the local Unitarian Transcendental Movement, then at the height of its prosperity, and (3) the somewhat contracted spiritual life of the church to which he was now to minister.
THE GENERAL CURRENT OF DOUBT
The epoch  was Sadducean [spiritual unbelief]. Men were passing into that prisonhouse of which, for a whole generation, Herbert Spencer had held the keys. The Ancient of Days had been deposed in favor of the Unknowable. The promise and potency of all things were to be sought and found in matter [material things]. “Science,” an overshadowing swashbuckler, defied all previous opinions and generalizations. Then were rung the changes on …
Geology, ethnology, those little passing-bells
That signify some faith’s about to die. ~Robert Browning, Bishop Blougram’s Apology
How seductively the chimes did peal—not in violent clangor, but with a charming melancholy as the old, beautiful, much regretted, but hopelessly obsolete, beliefs were laid away to their long rest! A new anti-religious classification had arisen.
Men called themselves agnostics—a name of gentlemanly note, a pledge of culture, without the anarchic suggestions of unveiled atheism. Those were the days when the educated mob ridiculed the belief in a purposing, sovereign Maker. Teleology, that ancient prop of faith, was, they thought, being undermined and destroyed completely and for all time by the great Darwin, as he studied his earthworms and rock-pigeons ….
THE LOCAL UNITARIAN TRANSCENDENTAL MOVEMENT
… Unitarian Transcendentalism was based on a false psychology and on a wholly unethical concept of history. The attitude of Unitarianism was and is distinctively negative. Denial has been its tradition from the days of [Joseph] Priestley down to the present hour. In earlier years it was busy in controverting bald statements concerning the nature of the Godhead. [Unitarianism] was profoundly convinced that three could never be one, and was content to do battle with this alleged superstition. In the present era of paradoxical marvels, of matter-penetrating rays, and of mysterious fourth dimensions, [Unitarianism’s] peculiar contention has not the support in antecedent improbability it once might have had. The old watchcry, accordingly, attracts little interest or attention.
Its negative positions have been modified to a great extent by the positive theory of Transcendentalism, which has flowed along, in greater or less confusion and intermixture, beside and within it. This revival of Gnosticism found its corypheus [chief leader] in [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, whose influence in New England was due primarily to the fact that he first introduced to his countrymen, cut off from the intellectual life of Europe, and shut up to a rather dry and formal type of religion, the fermenting systems, the neologies and ideologies of Germany.
He was the first to travel in the realms of gold, a naïve Marco Polo, first to break from the provincial life of old Massachusetts. His ship, before all others, brought over the strange fruits that now come daily and by steamerload. We of the present forget that ship and its burden of novelties. No longer does the “seer” fill the whole sky like a new angel standing in the sun. He seems, on the contrary, a gentle mystagogue [“mystery” guide] with a somewhat superficial culture, who unduly exaggerated the importance of the systems of [Johann Gottlieb Fichte] [Transcendental Idealism] and [Friedrich Heinrich] Jacobi [Pantheism], and who had not, alas!, even the shadow of an idea of the evil that ravages this earth.
[Henri Frédéric] Amiel says that “the best measure of the profundity of any religious doctrine is given by its concept of sin and of the cure of sin.” Judged by this test, Emersonian Transcendentalism would be hardly important enough to command serious consideration. Yet, if it has no philosophical significance, it has had a place too baleful in the life of New England to be passed over.
Transcendentalism, a modification and perverted expression of the theory of subjective idealism, makes of man a creator.1 Of course, therefore, it cannot concede him to be a rascal. The logic of idealism is indeed undeniable; yet, after all, it remains as unbelievable as it is irrefutable. The “Transcendentalist” induction from it as to man’s moral makeup, however, is, when brought to the touchstone of history and of daily experience, both unbelievable and refutable. “It asserts,” to quote the word of its historian, “the inalienable worth of man.” “It claims for all men what Christianity claims for its own elect.” “It regards the inner light that Quakerism attributes to the supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit as the natural endowment of the human mind.” In short, it inverts the order of the Christian revelation in its estimate of humanity and of Christianity, making of the latter an illustrious example and fruit of the greatness of man instead of a resource for the repair of human shortcoming, and finding in Jesus a notable type of human nature, of which type we all partake by birthright without reference to repentance or to divine renewal. It teaches the essential goodness of man, and the indefinite perfectibility of society.
This unwillingness to acknowledge the corruption of the human heart was the essential feature of Transcendental ethics. “Never wrong people with your contritions, nor with dismal views of society,” Emerson used to say. Like his own humblebee, he was capable of …
Seeing only what is fair,
Sipping only what is sweet ~Robert Waldo Emerson, “The Humblebee”
… and the result was a serenity of mind hardly bought at the expense of a complete ignorance of the bitter, wisdom-bringing tragedies of life. “That horrid burden and impediment on the soul that the churches call sin,” as well as “the courses of nature and the prodigious injustices of man in society, affected him with neither horror nor awe.”2 To him as to his fellows, the minor prophets of unbelief—the [Bronson] Alcotts, the [George] Ripleys, the [Theodore] Parkers—the world was one rose-garden, the monotone of whose loveliness is disturbed by neither thorn nor hidden snake. They ignored “that sin which circulates in our bodies as blood.” They forgot that “savage, brigand, and madman each of us harbors, in repose or manacled, but always living, in the recesses of his own heart.”3 And as the natural and inevitable corollary of this superficial and false estimate of the place of evil in man’s economy, there followed a low and inadequate concept of holiness.
Of course, such views attained great popularity with those tired of two hundred years of honest Puritanism. Theodore Parker, after recounting the many theories to which the men of his day attributed his success, said, “The real thing they did not seem to hit was that I preached an idea of God, of man, and of religion that commended itself to the nature of mankind.”4 Sure enough. It is indeed cheering to “the natural man” to be told, for instance, that “sin has no more existence than the phlogiston [hypothetical substance] that was premised to explain combustion,”5 and to hear all reference to it branded as “damaged phraseology, tainted with infamous notions of God and man.”6 And if, perchance, mention must be made of the petty errors, the venial omissions, the occasional peccadillos, that now and then force themselves on our attention, what more soothing and reassuring than to be told that such slips “are but the incidents of our attempt to get command over our faculties”7; that, “just as children in learning to write mistake letters, miscall words, and miswrite phrases,” so we, by “these experiments which fail, learn self-command.”
Such was the lavender-water theology preached for a whole generation by this priest of Transcendentalism. It was a theology, too, as full of opposition to Christianity as it was weak and irrational. What can be said of a man who could speak of the Communion table in this way: “On what terms shall a person be allowed once a month in a meetinghouse on Sunday to eat a crumb of baker’s bread and drink a sip of grocer’s wine, which the deacon has bought at a shop the day before? The Lord’s Supper as now administered is a heathenish rite, and means very little.”8
Does not Liberalism reach in such utterances its nadir [lowest point]? Does it not become the bare synonym for an indecent folly and hatred, comparable only to the bitterest, most raucous, hate-inspired anti-Christianity of Ludwig Büchner [scientific materialism] or of Anacharsis Clootz [humanism]? Yet this fanatic [Theodore Parker] is even now spoken of currently by Unitarians as St Theodore.
The refusal to recognize realities, and especially the most terrible of all realities, has been punished in our day by a comic mania for follies, which is a distinguishing feature of present-day Boston life.9 This tendency is directly traceable to early Transcendentalists. Anyone who turns over the files of The Dial, will find there the seed-corn of almost all the intellectual hallucinations that have here flourished. He will find there that headlong and unsophisticated enthusiasm, that undiscriminating, open-armed acceptance of new things, and that contemptuous rejection of what had been the milk of life, the source of vigor and of pristine strength. He can there run up and down the whole gamut of the now familiar Liberal slang, the wearisome phrases about ethnic religions, salvation by character, the bigotry of creeds, narrow literalism, and those peculiarly Emersonian classifications in which Jesus, Socrates, and Buddha are coupled in a patronizing impartiality. He will find the mystically meaningless utterances of Bronson Alcott, those Orphic sayings about “the poles of things which are not integrated,” “the intertwining of the divine Gemini,” and “the love which globes and the wisdom which orbs all things.”
The manifestations of this spirit of eccentric novelty-hunting have been endless in number and variety. For years it found its most acute exhibition in the summer meetings of wayward “philosophers” at Concord. It has broken out in manifold scrofulous [morally degenerate] vagaries [inexplicable changes], such as spiritualism, Christian Science, theosophy, and esotericism [occultism]. Indeed, as [Blaise] Pascal said, “it is the incredulous who are most credulous, the skeptical who are most surely and easily duped.” A French epicure contended that the discoverer of a new dish is a greater benefactor than he who announces a new planet swimming within his ken. In like manner does this community estimate spiritual things. Any new fantastic religious importation from Asia precedes in popular interest the weightier matters of the law and of judgement.
We can trace this strange malady, this restless mania for the unusual, to that tendency in the Transcendentalist teaching that destroys cleancut distinctions, which, from its alleged absolute point of view, finds all religions good, and obscures in every sphere of life all that most men would call evil. We are able, on the other hand, to trace that icily critical temper that characterizes Cambridge and Boston—that unresponsiveness, that insensitive, stony, unsympathetic spirit that no man who stops overnight in the intellectual hostelries of Massachusetts fails to perceive or succeeds in forgetting—to the Unitarianism that was born struggling against its mother, Puritan orthodoxy, and that has spent its mature years as a permanent party of opposition.
As Emerson represents the first tendency, so Dr [Oliver Wendell] Holmes, in his religious phase, might, in spite of his sunny geniality, stand for the second. Here we have full culture, the kindly spirit, the enlightened humanism. But there is also a tartrate [ester] of acrimony in his mental reaction, which the slightest suggestion of Calvinism immediately precipitates. One drop, and the limpid [clear, unclouded] soul is discolored as a hogshead of water into which falls one ten-thousandth of a grain of cochineal [crimson dye]. To the New England Unitarian, Calvinism is as an August thunderstorm. It sours in his breast the milk of human kindness. We confess it is black, foreboding; that its locks threaten, that its shafts are terrible in their majesty. Yet it waters the thirsty fields, and has (history will bear us out) blessed every land lain across its track, though it has turned the cream in the dairies of unbelief.
The attempts made by those of this connection to engage in work usually considered religious have been, on the whole, unimportant. Slight, too, have been the efforts put forth by them to reach the destitute, ignorant, helpless masses of the American cities. No missionary has gone from their midst to preach even the ethics of Jesus to the gloomy heathen of Asia and Africa. Their whole propaganda has been disintegration among Evangelical Christians, and their favorite occupation has been lashing the dead lion of Calvinism. [Theodore] Parker, [Oliver Wendell] Holmes, [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson, F[rancis] E[llingwood] Abbott, [Cyrus Augustus] Bartol, [James Freeman] Clarke, and the whole Unitarian pulpit have busied themselves in conjuring up a nightmare, in which [Jonathan] Edwards has played the part of chief ogre, and in which [John] Norton, Cotton Mather, and the fathers of New England Puritanism have been made to act as the terrible and ghastly supernumeraries [temps, amateurs]; predestination, hellfire, and original sin being their gruesome stage properties.
Ah, well! we may be forgiven when we hear this outcry against that sweet soul, that massive intellect, that Doctor Angelicus, Jonathan Edwards, if we recall a remark of Heine’s anent [about] the romanticist detractors of [Martin] Luther. “The ape on the giant’s shoulders sees farther than the man on the ground,” he says. We may, from the height of two later centuries, have wider outlooks and a clearer vision, but let us not dare to measure ourselves against the men below.
We have traced cursorily the influence and tendency of the Unitarian Transcendental Movement. This influence was deepened and strengthened by the brilliant place the leaders in these opinions attained in the contemporary literature. It was a season of unparalleled efflorescence [blossoming] in the intellectual life of New England. The prestige of this flowering time, of this season of admirable productivity in poetry and pure literature, naturally accrued, in a greater or less degree, to the party of religious revolt and of philosophical vagary [inexplicable change].
Their authority was strengthened, too, by the noble part which, as a body, they played in the Antislavery Movement. One can hardly doubt that the devouring indignation against the slavocracy possessing the soul of Theodore Parker did more to commend to serious people the interpretation of Christianity set forth by him each Sunday in Music Hall than a critical and sympathetic study of the New Testament possibly could. Yet the historian of that period and of the ideas then current will not be likely to fall into the mistake of supposing that the activity in reform noticeable in the careers of [Theodore] Parker, of [James Russell] Lowell, of Samuel May, and of other New England Unitarians, had its spring in the negations of Unitarianism, much less in the essentially unmoral and confused ethics of Transcendentalism. This would be to suppose that the lily blooming in the midst of a tangled mass of weeds grows actually on one of the weed stalks.
No reasonable man will forget that these were the children of the Puritanism that they assaulted, that Emerson, for example, was, by birth, the eighth in a series of Puritan ministers. That their moral courage and piety were largely exotic, now know we who compare the work of Unitarianism, in the purely humanitarian lines it preaches, with that of such strange, bizarre, yet essentially Evangelical agencies as the Salvation Army. We are not unfaithful to the Truth in asserting that the advantage lies altogether with those who are without the social prestige, the wealth, the great traditions, but who are empowered by the very Spirit of God.
A community dominated by a party of this sort, full of pride in its career of unbelief, full of bitterness against its opponents, ever assaulting, aspersing [attacking], and pelting with catchwords those who still preached the gospel in its fullness, was not by any means an easy place in which to undertake religious work. The infiltration from above of this weak rationalism, of this insipid humanity-worship, among the thoughtless newspaper-reading elements in the community popularized, while diluting, the current opinions. A pastor visiting among people would find everywhere the objections to the revelation of God in Christ that Cambridge and Boston made, only stripped of the glitter, the garnish, the attractiveness with which the educated had clothed them. Thus, among all classes the tendencies were, to a great extent, away from Evangelical Christianity. The tide was running out fast. Only strong men could stand on their feet and resist its flow.
THE CONTRACTED SPIRITUAL LIFE OF THE CHURCH
The church AJ Gordon was entering for a quarter-century’s incessant work [Clarendon Street Church] was, from some points of view, the most important of the denomination in Boston. It was a “family” church of an approved type, somewhat exclusive, with a generous sprinkling of rich men in its pews. It was a church in which the line of separation between the Haves and the Have-nots, so fatal to the best type of church development, was defined with more or less conscientiousness. The optimates, the “nice” people, the “best” people, were distinctly in evidence. A line of substantial merchants and bankers ran up and down the ends of the most desirable pews. If you had gone in any Sunday morning, you would have seen well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, singly or in groups, passing down the center aisles to their seats. The more common folk in the fringe of gallery and rear seats were, as befits the outer edge of a parterre [formal garden], in more subdued dress. Numerous carriages at the doors lent a pleasant suggestion of capitalism to the exterior of the church.
The choir-loft was “a nest of singing-birds.” One of the foremost American organists sat at the keyboard of the great new instrument. The music was faultless and severely classical. The preludes of [John] Baptiste [Calkin], the offertories of [Joseph] Barnby, the rapturous anthems of [John] Stainer and of Berthold Tours, seem indissolubly connected with those old, cold, correct, formal days of fashionable Clarendon Street.
It was indeed a church of a well-defined and easily-recognized type—a church that had its counterpart in every city of Protestant Christendom. It summarized, as all of its class, the admirable traits of Protestantism—comfort, order, intelligence, affluence, reserve, a not-too-aggressive religiousness. A church of this sort may be called the Church of the Disciples, the Church of the Covenanters, the Church of the Pilgrims. A more correct and more modernized sobriquet [euphemism] would be, perhaps, the Church of the Bank Presidents. And why not? Do we Americans not believe that [Raimondo] Montecuccoli‘s three conditions for the prosecution of successful warfare—first, money; second, money; third, money—are alone indispensable in every other form of activity, social, commercial, religious?
This was the apprehension, evidently, of many who attended the church in Clarendon Street during the early [1870s]. The feeling of exclusiveness congealed finally into a condition of things akin in some degree to that prevailing in close corporations with elected membership. An officer of the church was rebuked by one of the deacons for attaching the words “strangers welcome” to some circulars for public distribution. The prevailing theory, apparently, was that which, in the field of economics, goes under the name of Gresham’s Law. Base metal will drive out better currency; people of humble social status will scare away the more “desirable” families. The result may easily be imagined.
The severely facetious title of “The Saints’ Everlasting Rest,” commonly applied to the church by outsiders, was perhaps not altogether undeserved.
Years after, the young man who was now entering on his pastorate here [AJ Gordon] wrote of just such churches: “Ecclesiastical corpses lie all about us. The caskets in which they repose are lined with satin; they are decorated with solid silver handles and with abundant flowers, and, like other caskets, they are just large enough for their occupants, with no room for strangers. These churches have died of respectability and are embalmed in complacency.”
His own church was not, however, beyond resuscitation. For years he worked on it, turned it over and over, smote it mercifully severe blows, rubbed it back and forth, refused to listen to its protests, to its demand that it might be left to die in peace. And his reward was to see it, in his own closing days, the ruddiest, healthiest church in the city, bending all its strength for the salvation of others.
In 1890, reviewing his twenty years’ pastorate, Dr Gordon remarked:
“We believe we have learned much, through divine teaching, as to the true method of conducting the affairs of God’s church; have proved by experience the practicability of what we have learned; and have largely united the church in its practice. Innovations have from the beginning been strongly urged. ‘Innovations’? No! that word implies newness; and God is our witness that in theology, in worship, and in church administration it is not the new to which we have been inclined, but the old. Renovation, rather, is what we have sought. With a deep feeling that many of the usages fastened on our churches by long tradition constitute a serious barrier to spiritual success, it has been my steady aim to remove these. In general, we may say, it is our strong conviction that true success in the church of Christ is to be attained by spiritual, not by secular, methods; by a worship promoting self-denial in God’s people, and not by that ministering to self-gratification; by a cultivation of the heart through diligent use of the Word and of prayer, and not by a cultivation of art through music, architecture, and ritual. And with the most deliberate emphasis we can say that every step in our return to simpler and more scriptural methods of church service has proved an onward step toward spiritual efficiency and success.”
His whole ministry, then, faced backward [retro, first-century]—away from the pitiable modern devices, schemes, and substitutes, to “that higher, holier, earlier, purer church,” from which we are ever departing, and to which we must ever return if we are to live.
“Humanism was not invented by man, but by a snake who suggested that the quest for autonomy might be a good idea.” ~RC Sproul
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Graves Lighthouse, Boston
* Adapted from Ernest B Gordon, Adoniram Judson Gordon: A Biography (New York: Fleming H Revell, 1896), chapter 4 “A Stony Field.” Quotes, photos, links, emendations added. Downloadable pdf file.
1 O[ctavius] B[rooks] Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England, 202, 119, et passim
2 “Emerson,” by John Morley.
4 Quoted in Frothingham’s Transcendentalism, 312.
5 “Theodore Parker’s Life and Letters,” I, 151, 152.
7 Op cit, I, 149, 150.
8 Op cit, I, 322. He recommends as a substitute, we believe, the coming together in a parlor and eating, if one likes, curds and cream and baked apples.
9 One recalls [Heinrich] Heine’s quatrain (the unquestioned sovereignty of dreamland seems to have passed from German to New England hands):
Franzosen und Russen gehort das Land,
Das Meer gehort den Britten;
Wir aber fiihren im Luftreich des Traums
Die Hcrrschaft unbestritten.
French and Russians own the land,
The sea belongs to the British,
But we [Germans] have in the air kingdom of dreams
The reign undisputed.