Below are (yet) a few more extracts from William Smith’s Endowed Territorial Work (1875). Smith certainly was on to something in his critique of the so-called American success story, allegedly vindicating religious Voluntaryism. From a confessionally Reformed standpoint, time seems only to have further confirmed his thesis. With Christianity subordinated to the laws of supply and demand, populism has compromised ministerial fidelity and has accelerated the decay of orthodoxy.
As I dwell on it, is there really a twofold problem, traceable to something other than gold standard Reformational thought? Our spiritual fathers fought for biblical freedoms, not absolute ones. They preached freedom from papal tyranny, freedom from slavery to human traditions, freedom to form a private judgment on the letter of Scripture. But there was a trajectory of freedom that pushed further still – the Enlightenment. That freedom knew no restraints, because it was not ultimately tethered to any authority besides its own.
Within the pale of Protestantism, it seems to me that this non-Reformational lust for human autonomy reared its ugly head in the walls of the confessing Church. That was Arminianism. While Dort repressed it for a time, it lived on, and in America it burst into open flame in the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney.
At the same time, a more seemingly innocuous manifestation of Enlightenment freedom was gaining ground in Reformed communions. That was Voluntaryism. What was deceptive about that system was perhaps its frequent affiliation with theological Calvinism. No free will soteriologically, but free choice ecclesiastically. Interestingly, American Presbyterians as early as 1729 embraced Voluntaryism, before it even became a major force in British evangelicalism. Great men, too – some of them my heroes. But Smith’s reflections here, plus more than a century’s worth of all too painful confirmation, draws me to the conclusion that a major fault in American Christianity lies in this twofold concession of ground to the Enlightenment by the sons of the Reformation.
Read this, and see what you think.
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“Dr Magee, formerly Rector of Enniskillen, now Bishop of Peterborough, in his trenchant treatise on the Voluntary system, proves with reference to the current fables of its success in the great Western world, that out of a total of 42,359 churches, there were no fewer than 12,829 without any settled pastoral ministry,— that out of a population of twenty-seven millions, more than a third were not even under the influence of pure Christianity, and much less than a sixth were members of any pure Christian Church, — that upwards of five millions either make no profession of any religion whatever, or are open and avowed infidels — that over and above these, another million connected with Mormonism, Spiritualism, or other such monstrous abortions, cannot be regarded as Christians at all—that not less than one hundred different denominations, some of them calling themselves by the most ridiculous names, and glorying in the most absurd peculiarities of faith and practice, are enumerated in the American Census—that the occupants of the pews exert the most degrading and pernicious influence on the occupants of the pulpits, who dare not, as they value their salaries or the place they fill, denounce national sins, and who, as the result of this subserviency, were the great abettors and upholders of slavery so long as it subsisted in the South—that with churches crowded in the cities, hundreds of thousands are living on the territory without Sabbath or sanctuary influences, without a pastor, and without any one to care for their souls—and that in America, as elsewhere, Voluntaryism tends to promote Congregationalism and commercialism, instead of a system of faithful and devoted pastoral superintendence in connection with the ministry of the Gospel” (229-30).
[Quoting a minister in western Canada] “I must pass by the other still greater evil of the Voluntary system; I mean the evil effect which must be the natural consequence of the want of independence in the clergy themselves upon the doctrines of the Gospel. The multitude of sectarian creeds produces a very general indifference to all religion’” (232-33).
“Voluntaryism, therefore, it is very evident, does not change its hue on the other side of the Atlantic. It is fruitful of the same evils there as here. With all the free scope and fair-play it enjoys under the starred and striped Republican banner, it leaves tens and hundreds of thousands uncared for. With a Beecher there, as with a Spurgeon here, planted in a large and populous city, enshrined in a temple where fashion helps to swell the votaries, and sensationalism or genius impregnates the winged words spoken from the pulpit with power to awe, entrance, or excite, Voluntaryism will win for itself such victories as impress the vulgar or unthinking with the idea that it is the system best fitted to succeed” (233).