The Disease of the Church, by Aaron Merritt Hills

The Disease of the Church, by Aaron Merritt Hills

When Jesus rose from the dead the whole Church of Christ could assemble in one upper chamber. At the time of his ascension it numbered one hundred and twenty. Of all the ages of history it was the age of universal corruption. Outside of Judea, idolatry reigned supreme. Gods and goddesses, representing every phase of vice, were openly worshiped in magnificent temples and at costly shrines. All power was in the hands of a magnificent and heartless imperialism. The masses were sunk in hopeless degradation, without means, without learning, without protection, and sixty millions of them in the Roman Empire alone were slaves. Aged parents were suffered to die of starvation, children were exposed and murdered. Men fought each other as gladiators in the amphitheaters and died by thousands for the amusement of the cruel populace. Every precept of the moral law was violated almost without conscience and without hindrance. The early disciples had no wealth, no social position, no prestige, no Government aid, no help from established institutions. They were in themselves a despised and feeble folk, without influence, without skill, without education, without a New Testament, or even the Old Testament in the hands of the people, without a Christian literature, or a single Christian house of worship. Pomp, power, custom and public sentiment were all against them. They were reproached, reviled, persecuted, and subjected to exile and death.

But those early Christians had the help of an indwelling, sanctifying Saviour and the anointing of the Holy Ghost, and with that equipment they faced a hostile world and all the malignant powers of darkness, and conquered. Within seventy years, according to the smallest estimate, there were half a million followers of Jesus, and some authorities affirm that there were a quarter of a million in the province of Babylon alone. In other words, with Holy Spirit power upon them, they increased more than four thousand fold in threescore years.

Is it too much to say or believe that if the Protestant churches and ministry had a similar anointing of Holy Ghost power today, we could take the world for Christ in ten years? We now have thrones and governments and protection and favorable public sentiment, and hundreds of billions of money in the hands of Christians. We have established institutions and organizations and all needed facilities, the Bible printed in some four hundred languages, and a Christian literature in abundance, like the leaves of the forest. We have everything desirable for doing Christian work but the general enduement of Holy Spirit power. But without that, alas, how feeble, comparatively, when measured by that first century, are our Christian triumphs!

If any thoughtful reader should be tempted to accuse me of exaggeration, let him note the testimony of the great souls on the watchtowers of Zion. Fifty years ago that spiritual commentator and theological professor of Oberlin, Prof. Henry Cowles, commenting on the depressed standard of holiness and the consequent confusion and shame of the Church, wrote: “Plainly, there is no remedy but for the Church to come back to the very elements of piety. She must return to God and holy communion. The standard of piety must be raised. What can the Church do for the conversion of the world, for her own existence even, without personal holiness — much deep, pure, personal holiness. No wonder that a conviction of this truth should have fastened upon discerning minds with painful strength. The standard of piety throughout the American Church is extremely and deplorably low. It is low compared with that of the primitive Church, compared with the provisions of the gospel, with the obligations of redeemed sinners, or with the requisite qualifications for the work to be done. The spirit of the world has deeply pervaded and exceedingly engrossed the heart of the Church. Go through the land and estimate her unconsecrated wealth, measure the energy of worldliness and the apathy of love and prayer, for the proof. There is extensively a public sentiment which repels the subject of personal holiness, hears it named with fear, discusses it with sensitive apprehensions of excess, or even treats it with sarcasm, and, of course, which shields the heart and conscience against the appeal of truth … The responsibilities and privileges of Christians in this life must be clearly exhibited, and mightily urged upon the heart and conscience of the Church.”

About twenty-five years ago, Dr. Albert Barnes, the commentator, of blessed memory, delivered a discourse in New York City, in which he made the following statement concerning the condition of the churches: “Not one in ten of the membership of our church [Presbyterian] are doing anything effective for the sanctification of believers, or the salvation of sinners.” “That utterance was very extensively reported, and never,” writes one of wide reading, “was its strict correctness questioned.”

Still later Dr. Cuyler wrote: “Too many new converts sit down contented with the fact that they are converted. Born into the kingdom, they are satisfied to remain babies or dwarfs. To make a profession seems to be about the beginning and the end of their religion. They have no spiritual ambition to get beyond their alphabet, and the Church of Christ gains very little more than their useless, uncreditable names on their muster-rolls.”

Rev. A. T. Pearson, D. D., said before a Christian Conference in Detroit: “God meant to impress men by the contrast of the unworldliness of his people; but, on the whole, the witness of a separate and sanctified life is gone, and the witness of the tongue of fire is gone with it. The worldliness of the Church is a fact to which we can not with impunity shut our eyes.”

Dr. Rice, of Virginia, said: “The work of foreign missions will not advance to any great degree till there is a higher type of piety at home; that it would not consist with the plan of God to diffuse over the world such a low type of piety as prevails among us. In fact, such a sort of piety has but little disposition to diffuse itself: it requires all its vitality and energy to maintain its present position — there is none to spare.”

Dwight L. Moody, than whom, probably, no man living is better acquainted with the spiritual condition of the English-speaking world, writes: “Nine-tenths, at least, of the church members never think of speaking for Christ. If they see a man, perhaps a near relative, just going right down to ruin, going rapidly, they never think of speaking to him about his sinful course, and of seeking to win him to Christ. Now certainly there must be something wrong. And yet, when you talk with them, you find they have faith, and you can not say they are not children of God, but they have not the power; they have not the liberty; they have not the love that real disciples of Christ should have. A great many people are thinking that we need new measures, that we need new churches, that we need new organs, new choirs, and all these new things. That is not what the Church of God needs today. It is the old power that the Apostles had; that is what we want, and if we have that in our churches, there will be new life. Then we will have new ministers — the same old ministers renewed with power, filled with the Spirit.” … “Oh, that God may anoint his people! Not the ministry only but every disciple. Do not suppose pastors are the only laborers needing it. There is not a mother but needs it in her house to regulate her family, just as much as the minister needs it in the pulpit, or the Sunday-school teacher in his Sunday-school. We all need it together, and let us not rest day nor night until we possess it. If that is the uppermost thought in our hearts, God will give it to us, if we just hunger and thirst for it, and say, ‘God helping me, I will not rest until endued with power from on high.’ “

Spurgeon said: “If we have not the Spirit of God, it were better to shut the churches, to nail up the doors, to put a black cross on them, and say, ‘God have mercy on us!’ If you ministers have not the Spirit of God you would better not preach, and you people would better stay at home. I think I speak not too strongly when I say that a church in the land without the Spirit of God is rather a curse than a blessing. If you have not the Spirit of God, Christian worker, remember that you stand in somebody else’s way. You are as a tree bearing no fruit standing where another fruitful tree might grow. This is solemn work: the Holy Spirit or nothing and worse than nothing. Death and condemnation to a church that is not yearning after the Spirit, and crying and groaning until the Spirit has wrought mightily in her midst.”

Rev. J. Morlais Jones. D. D., in his inaugural address over the Congregational Union of England and Wales, in 1896, said: “Wanting in what? We can not pretend that the Church is telling on the world as it ought to. We are filled with a divine discontent. There is something missing. The first want is a renewal of the purely religious life of the Church. The Church is splendidly organized. We are great in all the accomplishments of religion. But the tone of religious life is low. God and fellowship with God are ceasing to be pathetic needs; the prayermeeting, which used to be the thermometer by which we measure the temperature of the Church, is fast becoming a tradition, and the ideal Sunday service is getting to be that in which the music and the esthetics of worship are perfect and the sermon is not too long. The first corrective is earnest, devoted and constant prayer.” We would only add, let that prayer be after the advice of Jesus — prayer for the Holy Spirit.

Rev. S. A. Keen, D. D., the mighty advocate of holiness and Spirit power of the Methodist Episcopal Church, so recently translated, wrote, in his “Pentecostal Papers”: “How presumptuous for us to attempt our mission without the anointing, when Jesus did not venture to enter upon his without the aid of the Spirit. How careful he was to guard his first disciples against venturing to their mission — even after their commission was given, and the gospel message all ready for the mouth of its heralds — without the anointing of the Holy Ghost! He said: ‘Tarry till ye be endued with the power from on high.’ Yet how many ministers, teachers, missionaries, evangelists, and workers have gone to their mission without this power to achieve it! The great blunder of the Church today is, that so many are attempting to do God’s work, and to save souls, without the power of the Holy Ghost. Then we wonder why, for so much giving and doing and going, there is so little fruit and so little salvation. If the column of the Church would halt a few moments, get on its knees, look up, and receive the Holy Ghost, without stopping long enough to go into camp, it would push on the campaign so successfully that it would be the surprise of this century.”

Rev. Asa Mahan, D.D., L.L.D., first President of Oberlin College, once wrote: “What are the relations to Christ of the mass of believers in the ministry and in the churches? What were my own relations, also, during the first eighteen years of my Christian life? The sense of orphanage rather than sonship, of deadness to the things of God rather than to the things of the world, and of bondage rather than of liberty, have a leading place in their religions consciousness. Such was my experience. I read: ‘He that believeth in me, out of him shall flow rivers of living water.’ All this fullness, I said, ought to be, but is not true in my experience. For this state I found, as multitudes are finding, but one remedy. We must wait in prayer ‘the promise of the Father,’ until we are ‘filled with the Holy Ghost.’ “

President Finney, the mighty Elijah of our century, before he left us for glory, wrote these words: “It is amazing to witness the extent to which the Church has practically lost sight of the necessity of this enduement of power. Christians and ministers go to work without it. I mourn to be obliged to say that the ranks of the ministry seem to be filling up with those who do not possess it. May the Lord have mercy upon us! Will this last remark be thought uncharitable? If so, let the report of the Home Missionary Society, for example, be heard upon this subject. Surely something is wrong. An average of five souls won to Christ by each missionary of that Society in a year’s toil certainly indicates a most alarming weakness in the ministry. Have all, or even a majority, of these ministers been endued with the power which Christ promised? If not, why not? But, if they have, is this all that Christ intended by the promise? I have alluded to ministers not that I suppose them exceptionally weak in faith and power as laborers for God. On the contrary, I regard them as among our most devoted and self-denying laborers in the cause of God. This fact simply illustrates the alarming weakness that pervades every branch of the Church, both clergy and laity. Are we not weak? Are we not criminally weak? It has been suggested that by writing thus I should offend the ministry and the Church. I can not believe that the statement of so palpable a fact will be regarded as an offence. The fact is, there is something sadly defective in the education of the ministry and of the Church. The ministry is weak because the Church is weak. And then, again, the Church is kept weak by the weakness of the ministry. Oh, for a conviction of the necessity of this enduement of power and faith in the promise of Christ!”

Bishop Peck said: “The Church is loaded with a body of death, filled with backslidings, and is comparatively powerless for the great work to which she is ordained of heaven.”

Bishop Foster: “How true that the Methodist Discipline is a dead letter. Its rules — no one ever thinks of disciplining its members for violating them. They forbid the taking of such diversions as do not minister to godliness; yet the Church itself goes into shows and frolics and festivals and fairs, which destroy the spiritual life of the young as well as of the old. The extent to which this is now carried on is appalling. The spiritual death it carries in its train will only be known when the millions it has swept into hell stand before the judgment. Is not worldliness seen in the music? Choirs, often sneering skeptics, go through a cold, artistic, or operatic performance, which is as much in harmony with spiritual worship as an opera or theater. The number is comparatively small who honestly desire and earnestly endeavor after full consecration, all the mind that was in Christ, (“Christ Crowned Within,” pages 25, 26).

Cowles, Mahan, Finney, Albert Barnes, Cuyler, Rice, Moody, Pearson, Jones, Spurgeon, Keen, and Bishops Peck and Foster, noble representatives of four great evangelical denominations in England and America — these are not men of reckless thinking or rash statement. They all agree that there is a great need, pressing, urgent, awful! — the need of such a personal baptism of the Holy Ghost as shall bring holiness and power to the churches and the ministry.

Joseph Cook, who has acquired an inveterate habit of saying things, says: “The great need of the world is the Christianizing of Christianity.” We do, indeed, sorely need to get back to the Pentecostal experience with its subsequent holiness and power. If anybody doubts it, and yet questions the accuracy of the opinion of these leaders above quoted, let him study the unquestionable facts of the present hour. Last week’s Advance (July 23, 1896) lies before me, informing us that a whole religious denomination in England, with an honorable history, is “discussing the cause of its census decrease.” One correspondent of the Methodist Recorder thinks it is “probably bicycles.” A whole denomination, bearing the honored name of Wesley, and not holding its own in England, where millions are living in sin and dying without hope and without God, is a matter too serious for satire or joke.

But we can find ample food for serious reflection nearer home. We will take the Congregational denomination, of which the writer has been a member since childhood. The last four Year Books show that on the average for the last four years there have been over thirteen hundred Congregational churches annually that did not receive an addition by profession of faith. The Year Book for 1896 shows fourteen hundred and eighty-three such churches. The average church of the denomination has one hundred and nine members and six and one-half converts per year, only one convert annually for seventeen church members.

But in some quarters the picture is darker still. We will take Massachusetts. There are probably no other equal number of churches on the globe that have a more cultured ministry, or better equipment for Christian work, or a more intelligent constituency or more promising opportunities for winning souls. They all rejoice in their intellectual privileges, living in sight of the “Athens of America.” They have all needed organizations, and as perfect facilities for doing Christian work as the world is likely to see. While the Congregational churches of Michigan numbered thirty-five more than there were ministers, there was a superabundance of one hundred and ninety-seven Congregational ministers in Massachusetts. Yet, with all these undeniable advantages, there has been for years an annual average of one hundred and forty Congregational churches in Massachusetts that did not report a conversion in a year. In Michigan it took fourteen church member to make one convert in a year — a fact truly sad enough, but in Massachusetts it took thirty! If that early Church in Jerusalem had had a like success, they would have had four converts the first year! They had no Boston culture among their preachers or membership, but they had something infinitely better — the baptism with the Holy Ghost for holiness and power, and the result was three thousand converts the first day of public effort, and converts daily afterward. But seventeen Congregational churches in Massachusetts can be named with an average of four hundred and eighty-three members each, which report all together only fifty-five conversions, one for every one hundred and forty-nine members. Such work in churches would not be very liable to hasten the Millennium.

Mr. Moody writes in the New York Independent (quoted in the Advance, December 10, 1896) as follows: “In a recent issue of your paper I saw an article from a contributor which stated that there were over three thousand churches in the Congregational and Presbyterian bodies of this country that did not report a single member added by profession of faith last year. Can this be true? The thought has taken such hold of me that I can’t get it out of my mind. It is enough almost to send a thrill of horror through the soul of every true Christian. If this is the case with these two large denominations, what must be the condition of the others also? Are we all going to sit still and let this thing continue? Shall our religious newspapers and our pulpits keep their mouths closed like ‘dumb dogs that can not bark’ to warn people of approaching danger? Should we not all lift up our voice like a trumpet about this matter? What must the Son of God think of such a result of our labor as this? What must an unbelieving world think about a Christianity that can’t bring forth any more fruit? And have we no care for the multitude of souls going down to perdition every year while we all sit and look on? And this country of ours, where will it be in the next ten years if we don’t awake out of sleep?”

Think of more than three thousand ministers in two denominations, world-renowned for their schools and culture, preaching a whole year, and aided by deacons and Sabbath-school teachers and Christian parents and church members and prayermeetings and Sabbath-schools and Endeavor societies and help and helpers innumerable, and all without a convert!

Think of the charge of Rev. Thomas Dixon, made in the Academy of Music, New York, last September, that the eighty-six Methodist churches of that city, with over seventeen thousand church members, ran a year at an expense of five hundred and fifty thousand dollars and had a net gain of two hundred and forty-one members, and about the same number of Baptist churches, with eighteen thousand members, and an annual outlay of five hundred thousand dollars, had a net gain of two hundred and sixteen members a year, while all around them were half a million human beings who, as regards Christian knowledge, are heathen, and heathen not in name and form, but in heart and spirit, and that the same state of affairs prevails in the Presbyterian Church, notwithstanding its immense wealth and power.

Think of the wickedness of our ever-growing cities, waxing under the very shadows of our church towers, church attendance declining in the country until we are told that fifty per cent of the population of the State of Maine, and fifty-nine and a half per cent of the population of Vermont, have not been to church on the average for the last six years, and Dr. Fairbanks, of St. Johnsbury, Vt., declares that not more than seventy-five thousand (twenty-two per cent.) are ever in church on a given Sabbath. And all this while the Christian Church — the Bride of Christ — as Bro. Moody says, “is walking hand in glove with the world,” or what is worse, is indolently sleeping in its guilty embrace.

Truly, something is needed besides church organization and machinery and culture and pulpit oratory. These unspeakably sad facts above cited ought to call the Church to its knees in humble supplication for the mercy of God and the outpouring baptism with the Holy Ghost. The only escape from our spiritual impotency, the only way out of the difficulties and threatening perils of Zion for believers in general, and for these ministers and theological professors and the leaders of Israel in particular, is a journey back to Pentecost.

A married missionary and his wife can be supported in Japan for a year for one thousand dollars. A Congregational church in New England can be named in which during four years each convert, counting the interest on the permanent investment and the current expenses of the church, cost five thousand dollars apiece, enough to support ten missionaries for a year in Japan. One year the converts were so few that each one cost enough to support sixteen male missionaries for a year in Japan. For a term of years that church has had but one convert for every fifty church members, and one for every fifty in the Sabbath-school. One year it was one for every one hundred. In other words, that church is training gospel-hardened candidates for damnation. Many other churches might be named that are scarcely less inefficient. Yet we have become so accustomed to these things that such deplorable facts do not awaken a comment in any quarter. A baptism with the Holy Ghost upon that same minister and church would make them felt throughout the world. A journey back to Pentecost is the only cure of such disgraceful barrenness.

This is from Hills’ renowned classic “Holiness and Power.” It is available at the following retailers:

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