Fifty Years Of A Church's Life
( Originally Published 1912 )
A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you. —Hebrew Scriptures.
All things are conditioned in time. This is true of a world that endures for a hundred ages or a flower that only blooms for a few summer days. The words old and young are relative and vary in their meaning with the nature of the thing which they qualify. The pyramids seem very ancient when compared with some of man's work—the discovery of the use of steam or electricity, the invention of the printing press, the building of London or Paris; but there are great geological periods and world making epochs which make the ,pyramids seem very recent and youthful. That which may be a trifling period in the history of a mountain or a river becomes a great era in the history of a government or an art or a religion. When thought of in connection with the long course of Humanity on the earth and the Church which, in some form, has been present ever since mankind awoke to consciousness and began to wonder over his surroundings and adore the unseen Cause of all things, the term of fifty years possesses but little significance. It is only when thought of in connection with a single human being or a single church that it becomes important and impressive.
In fifty years many things may occur. When we think of the amount of time and even of human history lying back of it this half century seems almost invisible. It is only a single point of a line extending each way into the infinite. But to those of us who have passed a great part of our earthly lives within its borders it becomes large and significant. Laying aside the personal pride which we might pardonably have in the years of our bodily contact with earth and time and contemplating them in judicial mood it might be easily affirmed that there has never been a more notable group of years than the last fifty. A period of time takes its true rank by the kind and magnitude of deeds accomplished within its limits. The hour would not be sufficient to even call the roll of things that have been attempted and done since 185o. Such diffusion of knowledge, such advance of the scientific method in all departments of the world, such extension of government, such inventions, such emigrations, such building of states and cities and rail-ways, such changes in social and economic conditions, such mental unrest was never equalled in any other like period on our planet. Passing by the rest of the world, our own land furnishes events and changes too many and too great to be painted on any single canvas. If mental and physical activity be the test, then more has been accomplished within the last fifty years by this nation than was accomplished in ten times as many years by some of the ancient nations.
It is a well established principle that increase of opportunity enlarges obligation. He who receives much must give much. Hence a life or an institution whose career lies within these years of great mental activity and colossal achievement, has duties resting upon it equal to its advantages and endowments. Where there are no books and schools ignorance is excusable, but where they abound ignorance becomes a kind of crime. To live a restricted or careless and aimless life in the center of Africa is a very different thing from living a similar life in the center of America. Rights and duties should always balance each other. Thus, living in a rational and free age, a church must become an agent of reason and liberty.
Everything is in part colored by its surroundings and is helped or hindered by them. Nothing can fully resist the spirit of the times. No matter how firmly established an institution may be, it finally becomes movable and is swept along in the prevailing direction. Thus the same forces that have carried everything else forward have not left the churches untouched. It is just as impossible for people to think about religion as they did fifty years ago as it is for them to think of electricity or chemistry or railroads as they did in that former time. We are just as powerless to entertain the old dark views about God and human destiny as we are to entertain the old views about government or modes of travel. Many new questions have come up for solution within fifty years. When this church was founded our country was divided over the question of slavery. Slavery has disappeared, but the other problems and other wrongs have come in its place. The many new questions that have arisen have made necessary a new kind of education. The same thing compels a new kind of preaching. The church could not be quite the same after the theory of evolution began to claim the attention of all thinking people. The present generation does not hate the old church, the old preacher, and the old theology any more than it hates the old modes of farming or travel or commerce. It does not hate any of these things. It simply regards them as useless. They are inadequate to meet the present conditions. When threshing machines came into use, flails disappeared. Thus when science came to the front with its explanations of the world, many of the theological doctrines retired into the background.
If these reflections are true, a reason for the origin of this church is not difficult to find. Of one thing we may be sure: it was not founded in a spirit of hostility to religion. The letters of its first pastor, Rev. T. J. Mumford, silence all doubts concerning its purpose. They are full of the spirit of Christ. Thus those who founded this church wished to make it an aid of religion; but the religion they wished to aid belonged not to the past alone, but to the present and future. It was religion as interpreted by the growing consciousness of mankind. The increase of humanity, not only in numbers, but in education, in desire for all that is great and true and good and beautiful in life, demanded a widening of the old way of religion. The Indian trail must become a broad highway.
A free church is only a sign of a free religion; and a free religion is the sign of a free soul. A free soul can only come when church and state have alike lost their power to control belief. It marks the triumph of protestantism. Given Luther and Knox in Germany and Scotland, in America will follow Channing and Parker. Free religion is the flower of which puritanism is the stalk. This church is one humble, but precious blossom on the great noble tree.
The middle of our century was favorable to new religious ideas. The mind of man was alert and active. It had become inquiring and aggressive. In 1859 John Stuart Mill published his book on Liberty. In the same year Darwin's book on the Origin of Species appeared. The transcendental philosophy of Kant and Schelling and Fichte, which takes authority away from books and. institutions and places it in the human soul, had become well known to English and American thinkers and scholars. Lessing's method of the free treatment of the Bible had come to these western shores and was adopted by Theodore Parker and other adventurous souls. Only twelve years be-fore this church was organized Emerson delivered his famous address to the divinity students at Cambridge. Only two years earlier Sartor Resartus had been printed in this country and it was not long until its doctrines were being spoken from the platforms of lyceums and the pulpits of liberal churches. The second quarter of our century was the golden age of American literature. Poets, prophets, reformers abounded. A new creative genius was in the air; and under its gentle, but powerful, influence everything was being trans-formed. New methods of education were evolved. History received a new interpretation. The doctrine of human freedom was given a broader and deeper meaning.
Thus the appearance of a new order of liberal churches in the early part of the century was only one among many similar phenomena. It was only a part of a more general movement. For this country the center of the movement toward freedom of religious belief was in New England. Gradually it extended its influence westward. This was accomplished largely by emigration. It may be said of this church that it was not indigenous to this city. It was originally an exotic. It was brought here from Massachussetts and replanted. At first the climate did not agree with it. The theological atmosphere was very' harsh and unfriendly to it. After a time it passed the period when it was in danger of death and established itself firmly. Two things now give it security for the present and take away all fear for the future: it is strong in itself and the soil and the atmosphere have become much less hostile to it. Perhaps it has itself done something to change the conditions. If so we can only wish that it may do much more of the same kind of noble work. To be tolerated is better than to be hated, but to be loved is much better than to be tolerated. Perhaps other changes may occur in the relations of this church to other churches in the city. They may become more loving and we may become more worthy of being loved. All may think it best to abandon the war upon those of different opinions and introduce a reign of spiritual peace. It ,would be a glorious sight to see all who have been intellectual enemies transformed into friends and concentrating all their powers upon the one aim of making earth better and happier.
All things have an external and an internal history. Of these two. the outward is easily written. The mere annals of a nation—the date of its origin, the names of its founders, the enemies it encountered, the battles it fought, and the parties which, in turn, governed it are first recorded. But the other history is not so easily written. The landing of the Pilgrims in Massachussetts and the landing of Cavaliers in Virginia, as external and detached events, are similar. But when seen in relation to their causes and the motive in each they are dissimilar. The most thrilling and essential history of anything is that of its spirit and purpose.
Conforming to this law this church presents a two-fold history. From data furnished by its written records for fifty years an external history could be easily framed. But we all ask for something more than that. We would like to see the relation of each outward event to the inner life of the church. What power has been at work within to maintain and perpetuate this outward body for half a century ? Considered in relation to its surroundings at the present time, is this church filling as necessary a place as it did when it was founded ? Is its existence as vital and significant in this fair city to-day as it was in those old days when a few earnest hearts met, and, in the name of a religion that dishonored neither man nor God, laid its foundations ? If, in its present form, it means anything less to us who have inherited it than it did to those who founded it; if it has lost any of the moral and spiritual earnestness which animated its originators, if its ideals are any lower; if it is any less needful and less worthy of our love and toil; if our loyalty has become weak; if our expectations for its future need in aiding the spiritual nature of mankind have declined; if we have no dreams of a glorious future for it; —then its history can have no interest for us beyond the gratification of a mere passing curiosity and our anniversary becomes almost meaningless.
From its records nothing can be gleaned which makes its early career remarkable or in any way separates it from many similar organizations. There were doubtless the same things occurring in the lives of those who formed it that are occuring in the lives of us and all mortals. Then, as now and always, disappointments and despondencies divided life with expectation and hope. We know when and for what purpose the different committees met and what business was transacted. But all the talk preliminary and subsequent, which so abounds at such times and seems so important, and the discussions, sometimes calm, sometimes heated—of all this no record was made. Doubt-less there were differences of opinion then as now, some of which were founded in reason and some in personal prejudice; doubtless there were hasty and unkind things said; there were some who criticised the music and some who criticised the preaching; some thought they were, others thought they were not, able to build a church and when all thought they were able some wished the church located in one and some in another place. But where now are all the things that seemed so indispensable and momentous then ? Gone. Wholly vanished as those who took part in them have nearly all vanished. A lesson for us all who are disposed to magnify our preferences. In fifty years from this time our private opinions, to maintain which we are sometimes inclined to grow heated, will all have ceased to disturb us or any one.
The church was formally organized on October 6th, 1850. The form of organization is as follows:
"To all whom it may concern:
"Know ye by these presents, that, at a meeting of regular attendants upon Unitarian Religious Services held at the Odd Fellows' Hall, on Sunday the Sixth of October A. D. 1850, in pursuance of Notice duly given in accordance with the pro-visions of Chapter Fifty-two of the Revised Statutes of the State of Michigan: the undersigned, U. Tracy Howe and Henry Brooks, regular voters at said meeting, were duly elected Pre-siding Officers thereof and thereupon the following Gentlemen were duly elected Trustees of a Religious Society which is to be known by the Corporate name of The First Congregational Unitarian Society in the City. To-wit:
"U. Tracy Howe,
"Silas A. Bagg,
"Charles Jackson and "Henry Marsh.
"Given under our hands and seals this Sixth day of October, A. D., 1850.
"U. TRACY HOWE. "HENRY BROOKS."
For a time the church was dependent upon casual supplies for its pulpit, but in July 1851, Rev. Thomas J. Mumford came from Meadville Theological Seminary and in the following September was unanimously elected pastor of the church. This pastorate continued until i 86o. Following this, in the order named, the regular pastors of the church were: Rev. R. Metcalf from 1860 to 1861; Rev. S. S. Hunting from 1862 to 1863; Rev. A. G. Hibbard from 1864 to 1866; Rev. Jason F. Walker from 1866 to [867; Rev. Clay-Macauley from 1867 to 1868; Rev. W. R. G. Mellen from 1869 to 1871; Rev. Calvin Stebbins from 1872 to 1879; Rev. T. B. Forbush from 1879 to 1886. The present pastoral relation began in October 1886. In addition to these the records contain the names of many other preachers whose stay only included a few weeks. Without doubt each one who for a short or long time has been associated with the church tried to do his duty in his own way. When he has failed perhaps no one censured him more bitterly than he censured himself. He uttered that which at the time seemed to him to be the most important truth. He was often mistaken, but that is because he was a human being. Speaking as frequently as he must it cannot be expected that the preacher's words will all be words of wisdom. Those who listen to him for many years have great opportunity for the exercise of toleration and patience. But sometimes the preacher is right, and the words he utters are true and wise. They sometimes are misunderstood and unheeded. This is because those who hear him are also human beings. He too has an opportunity to discipline himself in patience and forbearance. A long pastorate can only exist where there is mutual charity.
Sometimes the rumor reaches us that there are those who think this is not a religious organization. It is reported, by those who know nothing whatever about it, that it is not a church for meditation and worship, but only a place in which we meet for skepticism and denial. These reports need not disturb us. We know that this is a church whose aim is the triumph of belief and love as much as are the churches around it. It only differs from them in its intellectual basis. There are as ardent lovers of man and as reverent worshipers of God here as there are any where. All who meet here on Sunday mornings are free to reason and free to adore. Every honest opinion is respected and the spiritual conviction of no one is slighted. Our aim is to awaken reverence for the Most High and make right-doing a holy passion. That we partly fail in accomplishing our purpose no one would think of denying, but all the churches and every human heart may make the same confession. Although the churches of the great denominations in the city may continue to hold us aloof from their fellowship, because they think our theology is so defective, yet sincerely doing our work in our own way we will not feel humiliated nor lonely. Whom some of His children excommunicate perhaps the great God will accept.
Looking back over the half century and seeing rise out of the silent years the forms of many noble men and women who, among their multitude of duties, found time to love and toil for this church, our hearts grow very tender. We will not pronounce their names, but will recall them in silence. These fifty years while they are passing form a splended arena for action for those who live within them. But they form a no less grand and impressive tomb for those who have ceased to live. Surpassing the cathedrals of earth, where reposes the dust of kings, do we find this great group of years a fitting place of repose for those who have worshiped with us, but whose voices we shall never hear again on earth. Let us trust they have all found the good they craved and for which they worked.
As for us who are still here there is only reason for renewal of our vows of loyalty to this church. It stands for righteousness toward God, love toward man-kind, and faith toward the boundless future. Bringing to it our best thought, our highest aspirations, our choicest music, all the richest fruits of our love and toil and offering them upon its altar we shall best honor those who laid its foundations and add a diviner meaning to its past years. Thus only can it justify its present existence; thus only can its future be glorious. May we all record the wish that, when another fifty years have been measured with the past and we shall be elsewhere, this beloved church may still be here inspiring the living to work for a higher form of Christian Civilization on the earth and pointing the dying toward the sky.