John M. Mason
Letters on Frequent Communion
Copyright © 2001 Naphtali Press
Letters on Frequent Communion – Part Three (( The text for this new edition of these letters is taken from The Complete Works of John M. Mason (New York: 1849), and has been corrected and edited. Mason was “a distinguished Presbyterian divine and noted American pulpit orator. … The Associate Reformed Church, to which he belonged at this time, had been wont to celebrate the Lord’s Supper but once or twice annually. Mason believed in more frequent communion, and both by his pen and his tongue went forward to advocate reform in this respect. A pamphlet, consisting of “Letters on Communion,” which he published, brought him prominently before the religious world, and thereafter John Mitchell Mason was not an uncommon name in the assembly of American Christians. … The mind of Dr. Mason was of the most robust order, his theology Calvinistic, and his style of eloquence powerful and irresistible as a torrent.” McClintock & Strong. ))
John M. Mason
- Letter 1: Introduction
- Letter 2: Frequent Communion an Indispensable Duty
- Letter 3: Objections Answered – Innovation
- Letter 4: The Subject Continued — Irreverence — Want Of Preparation
- Letter 5: Of the customary appendages to the Lord’s Supper; particularly public fasts and thanksgivings
- Letter 6: Public Fasts and Thanksgivings Continued
- Letter 7: The Evils occasioned by Sacramental Fasts and Thanksgivings
- Letter 8: Some Popular Pleas for Sacramental Fasts and Thanksgivings, briefly Considered
- Letter 9: Benefits of Scriptural Communion
My last proposition concerning our sacramental fasts and thanksgivings is, that they are attended with great and serious evils.
1. They establish a term of religious communion, which has no scriptural sanction.
Christ Jesus hath specified in his word the principles, duties, and conduct of those to whom the privileges of his house belong. His decisions, then, are the only rule of appreciating character, and ascertaining the conditions of Christian fellowship; and it is high presumption in any man, or society of men, to extend or abridge them. Now, as he hath not enjoined, either directly or by implication, a day of fasting before, or of thanksgiving after, the commemoration of his death, no churches under heaven have a right to require them. Yet they are required, for they are judged necessary, and to omit them is deemed censurable. This is to erect them, at once, into laws of conscience and laws of Christ; for nothing is necessary in his church but what he has commanded, nor any thing censurable but what he has forbidden. They are, therefore, to all intents and purposes, made terms of communion, and will deprive of the privileges of his house those who cannot feel themselves bound in conscience to observe them. And what is this? It is nothing less than to impeach the wisdom, and usurp the authority, of the Lord our lawgiver. If he will resent the unfaithfulness of those who throw down the hedge of his vineyard, and lay it open to the beasts of the field, he will equally resent the arrogance of those, who, by additions of their own, so narrow the door as to exclude his sheep.
2. As the evangelical institution of the supper does not contain our customary appendages, the insisting upon them is reprehensible as an unwarranted addition to that part of divine worship.
The ordinance, as Christ left it, is simplicity itself; but we have made it a very different thing from what the gospel describes it. We have encumbered it with a pompous ceremonial which the “Lord never commanded, neither came it into his mind.”
It may, perhaps, be said, that this is a rash and unreasonable charge; that both fasting and thanksgiving are duties which God hath prescribed; and, therefore, that we do not add to his worship.
This is a mere evasion, and a miserable one. God, indeed, requires the observance of days of fasting and thanksgiving, but does he require it whenever the supper is to be dispensed? We are no more authorized to join what he has not joined, than to coin new modes of worship. The connection between the supper and the fast and thanksgiving days is a human device, and the compound is as real an addition to God’s appointments as ever human presumption ventured upon. Let me not, however, be misunderstood. I have already conceded that duties, which have no necessary connection, may occasionally coincide in point of time. But if the coincidence result not from God’s providence, but from man’s pleasure; if it then be held up as a rule of conduct; if it set aside any part of scriptural obedience; if it be employed as an engine of superstition; it becomes, in the strictest sense of the word, a corruption, and a corruption of which it is impossible to calculate the effects. The same principle which justifies one deviation from the simplicity of evangelical worship, will justify a thousand; and it is of small moment in what form the deviation presents itself. An arbitrary connection between duties is as exceptionable and dangerous as any other; because, independently on its mischief as a precedent, there is no defining its extent. Whenever men assume this power, they set an engine to work, which, without increasing or diminishing the number of God’s institutions, may deface every part of his worship, and render it as ridiculous and contemptible as infidels or devils could wish it.
3. The multiplicity of our weekday services is incompatible with such a frequency of communion as is our indispensable duty.
If just regard were shown in this particular to the dying precept of our dear Lord Jesus, and all the extra days of worship kept up, no congregations either would or should submit to the burden. The tribute of time, which would be withdrawn from their ordinary occupations, would be much too great for any who “eat their bread in the sweat of their brow.” This alone might convince that these days cannot be agreeable to the divine will, for they would render the New Testament worship more oppressive than the Jewish ritual. Yet they may not be touched. And the consequence is exactly what might be expected; the memorial of the love of Jesus is a rare occurrence. These very days have invariably defeated every exertion to bring back the usages of the church to Apostolical simplicity. Had it not been for them, communions would have been much more frequent, both in the Church of Scotland and in the denominations which have sprung from it. The best of men have lamented, and entreated, and struggled, but all in vain. These observances repressed the spirit of generous and scriptural reform. Prejudice took the alarm; steeled her heart against conviction; stopped her ears to expostulation; drowned the voice of reason and scripture in the cry of innovation and defection; the genius of the gospel may be violated; the commands of Christ may be trodden under foot; the monument of his great sacrifice pushed out of sight; but these days which he never appointed; to which the church, founded by his Apostles, was an entire stranger; these must not lose an atom of their importance or their pomp. And can men have the hardihood to call over this adulterine zeal the name of Jesus, and palm it on the world for faithfulness to his cross?
4. Through the accumulation of weekday services, the dispensation of the supper, seldom as it happens, is almost impracticable to any minister without the aid of some of his brethren.
Is it credible that Jesus Christ hath imposed on his ministers a labor which usual health and strength are unable to sustain? Is there a text, a line, a word, in the whole Bible, to show that one part of his family should be deprived of their food, because another part are celebrating their feast? Let none plead necessity, and the duty of consulting each other’s comfort. Convenience, I know, must yield to necessity. But we must first be sure the necessity is real. In the present case, it is obviously one of our own seeking; and the evil is only aggravated by sanctifying it with the name of a providential call. We would show our wisdom by leaving God’s providence in his own hand.
5. Our sacramental fasts and thanksgivings not only destroy, as hath been proved, the sound distinction between ordinary and extraordinary duties, but tend to banish altogether both the principal and practice of scriptural fasting and thanksgiving.
As to the principle. By wedding these exercises with the sacrament of the supper, you tie down to certain periods, what the Bible has tied down to no periods. You attempt to fix the “times which the Father hath put in his own power.” You regulate the seasons of fasting and thanksgiving, not, as your directory has wisely done, by providential dispensations, but by human agreements. You lift yourselves up into the throne of God, and determine for him, instead of allowing him to determine for you, when those duties are proper. Now, this is directly subversive of their very principle and use. In the common acts of his government, and the stated ordinances of his worship, Jehovah hath established a permanent testimony for his supremacy and our dependence. But to quicken our sense of his continual agency, of his sovereign rule, and of our accountableness to him, he is pleased occasionally to make bare his holy arm, and, by special interpositions, to proclaim a present God. This revives our languid sensibility, awakens our slumbering cares, and leads directly either to solemn humiliation or exceeding joy before him. To join these exercises, statedly, with any stated part of worship, is to disregard the very thing which makes them duties at all; to cherish in the rising generation an ignorance, and to breed in the risen one an oblivion of their primary end, is to wrest from the Eternal a means which he employs to teach the rebellious that he “sitteth King forever,” and of which he hath reserved the application to himself. In vain do you pretend to explain the nature and occasions of fasting. Mankind will never profit from doctrine which is a visible and perpetual contradiction to practice.
If the principle of extraordinary duties be overlooked, the scriptural performance of them cannot be preserved. Between them and their occasions, God hath created a beautiful correspondence, to which man cannot furnish a substitute. If you call us to such duties, and Divine Providence does not, we cannot enter into their spirit; because the occasion of them does not exist. And as you cannot command the latter, you cannot infuse the former. You can hardly expect anything else than dull formality. And the Lord knoweth that this is too sadly the character of many of our sacramental fasts. Instead of deep meltings of heart, they are little better than dry and sapless ceremony. Not to mention, that, being fasts in name more than in truth, they are not seldom a mockery of the Holy One of Israel.
But this is not all. Our custom at the communion may operate as a prohibition to fasting and thanksgiving on their proper occasions. The providence of God may call to them, but the supper is in prospect, and they must be deferred till then. On the other hand, the supper may be scarcely over, before a necessity for them occurs, and then, they cannot be attended to, because we have just been engaged in them. This is no fiction: it has actually happened, and that not once or twice. And it deserves any other name than reverence to God’s institutions; for it is saying, upon the matter, “We will have our own way; we will fast when he does not require us; and we will not fast when he does.” Can we lift our eyes to heaven and look for a blessing, while we are guilty of such preposterous and headstrong disobedience?
6. Our numerous services about the holy supper create a pernicious distinction between the sacraments.
Being seals of the same covenant; representing the same blessings; and ordained by the same authority; one would suppose that they are to be approached with equal reverence and equal preparation. Yet we must have a public fast before, and a public thanksgiving after the one; while nobody dreams of either in connection with the other. Who taught us to make this difference? It is not in the word of God. From Genesis to the Revelation, not a passage can be alleged for public fastings and thanksgivings at the administration of the supper, which is not equally friendly to them at the administration of baptism. It does not arise from the nature of these ordinances: the approach to God in both, is equally near, and equally solemn. (( If any should argue that these exercises are proper in one case, and not in the other, because the members of the congregation at large, are in the one engaged, and in the other, only a very few at most, they are requested to solve the problem, How many communicants are requisite to a public fast? If this be a duty at all, the number of communicants is of no importance. It is as necessary in a communion of two, as of ten thousand. ))
Christian reader, do we not lament the ignorant and sinful conduct of many professors towards the sacraments? They refuse to glorify Jesus by commemorating his death, but are offended if they be not allowed to present their children in baptism. They startle at the thought of the one, but rush without concern to the other. Whence proceeds the profanation? From various causes, no doubt. But it merits consideration, whether we have not materially contributed to it by our unscriptural appendages to the holy supper. These, by throwing around it an air of superior sacredness and awe, have depreciated baptism in the eyes of men, and have led them to view it’ as less serious in itself, and less dangerous to be sported with. They suppose much to be requisite for the former, and little, if anything, for the latter. Hence they demand the one with great confidence; and when questioned about their neglect of the other, tell you they are unprepared.
While this distinction emboldens the careless, it disheartens the feebleminded. Not a few who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, are afraid to touch the symbols of his body and blood. They would go to his table; but when they think of attempting it, their courage fails: the spirit of bondage bows them down; and instead of feeling like children drawing nigh to a most compassionate father, they feel like criminals dragged to the tribunal of a judge. Why this unhappiness? Beyond dispute, in part from the trappings which have been hung around the table of love, and from the unwarranted manner in which even good men have permitted themselves to speak of it. Between both, it has been made an object of dread. Its tender persuasions, its rich consolations, have been too little regarded; and even to believers, it has been arrayed in terrors, and fenced with thunder. Nay, Christian reader, we have exalted one sacrament at the expense of the other; we have thrown a stumbling block before a carnal world; and have countenanced a ruinous departure from equal and vigorous discipline.
7. Let not the assertion be deemed too hardy, that our manner of celebrating the supper is unfriendly to pure and evangelical devotion.
Ordinances are desirable, not on their own account, but as means by which communion with Christ Jesus is promoted, and his covenant-mercies enjoyed. Believers know that they grow in grace in proportion as they live by faith upon their divine Redeemer: and that nothing is more fatal to their peace, nor casts them down more rapidly from holy attainments, than a legal dependence on duties. Now the question is certainly worth asking, and worth answering, whether the pomp of our communions does not bear strong marks of legality, and has not a tendency to engender and nurture it in the minds of men? Else, why this pomp at all? Why not the same simplicity here, as in other ordinances? The grace of Jesus is quite as sufficient for this as for those. But the language of our supernumerary days of worship is, that, however sufficient it may be, it is not so free as on other occasions. Nor is the opinion of their legal tendency mere surmise. Would to God it were! Every one who is not grossly ignorant of himself will own the proneness of corruption to rest in frames, duties, anything but the grace that is in Christ Jesus: and especially, to idolize whatever has “a show of will-worship and humility.” That this has been the fruit of our additions to the scriptural mode of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, daily facts make but too apparent. What means this religious parade, when that blessed exercise draws near? Whence this unusual sternness? these sudden austerities? Whence that mortified air which vanishes like a phantom, and never returns but with a returning communion? Why do so many plead for infrequent communion, on the pretext that they cannot otherwise be suitably prepared? Why do so many abstain from communicating, even at the periods which theirselves approve, if they happen to be prevented from keeping the fast day? The plain interpretation of it is, “had I kept the fast, I had been well qualified: but now I am altogether unfit.” But why not communicate without it? “The service is I peculiarly holy: great preparation is very necessary, and very difficult.” And what is the obvious inference? We must work the harder. Ah! is there no legality in all this? Yes verily. And so powerful is it in many, that not all their love to Jesus Christ, not all their zeal for his name, not all the allurements of his grace, not all the majesty of his authority, will preserve them from the deliberate violation of his command, lest they should transgress – the tradition of the elders!
8. Our sacramental fasts and thanksgivings involve us perpetually in self-contradiction.
We speak with great confidence, of lifting up a banner for truth; of not believing every spirit, but trying the spirits whether they are of God. We reject, in a mass, the corruptions of Popery and prelacy. We renounce the religious observance of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, etc, and the festivals in honor of saints and saintesses, as superstitious and inconsistent with gospel-worsbip, how graceful soever to the anti-Christian calendar. The reason of their being laid aside by the Westminster Assembly, and of their being disowned by ourselves, is their want of divine authority. “Festival-days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.” (( Ed. Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God. An Appendix, Touching Days and Places for Public Worship. )) The reason is sound and irresistible: but the mortification is, that with this profession in our mouths, we gravely declare by our practice, and especially by justifying it, that sacramental fast and thanksgiving days, which have no warrant in the word of God, are to be continued.
Talk no more, then, to a Papist or an Episcopalian, of his un-commanded holy-days. He will reply that you have no objection to holy-days, provided they be of your own appointing. Question him not about the fast on Good Friday, before Easter Sunday. He will question you in his turn, about your Thursday or Friday fast before, what he would call, Sacrament Sunday. Ask not for his warrant from the Bible. He will retort, by asking for yours. He will produce quite as many, and quite as good proofs for Lent, as you can for your fast days; and infinitely more examples. On the ground of decency, he will keep up with. you: on the ground of devotion, outstrip you: and on the ground of antiquity, leave you out of sight. Here, then, you are reduced to a dilemma. You must either allow his days, or give up your own. They stand and fall together. It is superlative inconsistency to inveigh against the one, and defend the other. In vain do you quirk and shuffle: the absurdity is glaring. You are fastened down, nor can you disentangle yourself by all the arts of controversial chicanery. If, therefore, we venture to attack corruptions of divine worship among others, a skillful adversary will combat us with our own weapons, and turn the edge of our testimony against our own bowels. We shall be incessantly rebuffed by the stinging, but merited taunt: “Physician! heal thyself. Hypocrite! first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” In such humiliating circumstances, it is a poor subterfuge to exclaim against the defections and. incorrigibleness of the times; and to console ourselves as being reproached for Christ. This is not witnessing for truth; but putting a cheat upon ourselves. The religion of Christ is not answerable for our folly: nor hath his reproach any affinity with reproach for inconsistency. The alternative, Christian brethren, is decisive: We must either act up to our profession, or sit down self-condemned, and silently bear our shame.
If we would have a good conscience, and an unblushing face; if we would present an invulnerable front to every foe, let us dare to acknowledge and to rectify what is amiss in ourselves. Let us not shrink from the scriptural test. If anything which custom has taught us to value as fine gold, should prove to be dross – to the dross with it! Let us have the Christian magnanimity to say, Perish the traditions of men! The commandments of God be honored! Then may we expect his blessing; and we shall no longer injure his truth, nor expose our profession to ridicule. (( Should it be demanded, how a weekday service of any kind, preparatory to the supper, is more defensible than public fasts and thanksgivings, or more consistent with the foregoing reasonings? I answer, Preaching the word, unlike those exercises, is an ordinary part of God’s worship; and, if it do not displace any other duty, can never be unseasonable. But should any assert a previous weekday sermon to be essential, either to the right administration of the supper, or the right preparation for it – should it be considered as obligatory, by divine authority, on the conscience – should it jostle other duties out of their places – should it be a pillar of will-worship – should it lead to erroneous notions of the sacraments, breeding a false reverence for the one, and sinful slight of the other. Could it be proved to have all, or any of these effects, the author would be the first to condemn and reject it. ))
After all that has been said, will any still advocate our sacramental fasts and thanksgivings, by pleading that “they are of long standing in the church – are a laudable custom – are well meant – have been practiced by great and good men – are helpful to devotion – are either sin or duty; and if not the former, then certainly the latter?”
A word or two to each of these pretenses. As to their antiquity, I remark,
1. It is not true: we have already proved them to be quite modern; an innovation of yesterday.
2. Antiquity is a wretched standard of truth; the abominations of popery are more ancient than they, by several centuries.
That they are a laudable custom is begging the question, for it is the very thing in dispute. Beside, custom is not to be the rule of worship. Many bad customs have crept into the church of God: and if their being once customs is a reason for their being always customs, the reformers acted very foolishly in throwing so many of them away. If it be not a scriptural custom, the longer it has stood the worse; the more mischief it has done; and the greater need for its immediate abolition. The injury done by custom to purity is the subject of old and heavy complaint. “Our Lord Christ called himself truth, not custom,” saith Tertullian.
Their being well-meant is no better apology than the former. Good intentions do not sanctify a fault. The worst of things have sometimes been done with the best design. Zeal for God, not according to knowledge, has been a greater pest to his church than all the openly wicked schemes of Satan and his agents.
But great and good men have practiced them – And the argument will be conclusive whenever it is proved that great and good men never do wrong. Till then, we must look more at God’s word than at their example. Great and good men have observed “days, and months, and times, and years;” and have used rites and ceremonies, the very mention of which, as parts or appendages of worship, would excite among us just and universal indignation. Their errors were not so much their own as the errors of their day and place. They followed the fashion merely because it was the fashion, without serious examination, or perhaps any examination at all. This is undoubtedly the fact with respect to our sacramental fasts and thanksgivings; not one in a hundred of those who keep them having ever inquired into their reason and obligation. And this is the best apology for those worthies whose conduct is now held up as a model for ours.
But the principle of this argument is utterly intolerable. It puts an everlasting stop to reformation. Had our ancestors acted upon it, we would have been still within the precincts of that synagogue of Satan, the Church of Rome. They were more enlightened. Could they hear us allege their example in vindication of an unscriptural usage, they would be the first to resent the impiety. Not wishing us to be followers of them farther than they were of Christ, they would disown us as a spurious brood, and not the genuine sons of the Reformation. We have made miserable proficiency if we have not yet learned that maxim of Christian independence, not to call any man our master upon earth.
Will it be pretended that the days in question are helpful to devotion! This very pretext is urged in behalf of Christmas, and Good Friday, and Whitsunday, and Lent. This very pretext has been an inlet to a multitude of those abuses, which in the most profligate times inundated the church of God. Nothing so ridiculous, so monstrous, so profane, as to be denied its sanction. Pictures, penances, saint worship, crosses, images, and all the rest of the ungodly trumpery, find a sanctuary here. Devotion, forsooth, cannot be maintained by means which the Lord hath appointed; but when to these men have added a host of their own inventions, they become wonderfully devout! What rashness! what presumption! As if the great God were less concerned about his own worship than we! As if he did not thoroughly know our frame, and what is necessary to cherish devout affection! As if he had left his institutions imperfect, and we must mend them!
But, says an objector, the observance of these days is either sin or duty; and if not the former, then certainly the latter.
As this argument appears to be a favorite with some, and one which, by involving their opponent in a perplexing dilemma, issues, they imagine, in their own certain and decisive triumph; it demands a more particular animadversion.
1. Then, the proposition that an act must be either sin or duty, is false and absurd. It is, no doubt, sinful to omit what is our duty to do, and duty to omit what is sinful to do. This, however, is nothing to the purpose; for it is only saying that duty is duty, and sin is sin. But it is not true what the proposition asserts, that if a thing be not sin, it is necessarily duty. By this mode of arguing, you must own everything to be duty which you cannot prove to be sin. For example; you will not maintain that it would have been sin in the apostle Paul to have taken wages from the church of Corinth; for he peremptorily affirms his right to it from the ordinance of God. Then it must have been his duty; and in declining pecuniary support, he was chargeable with a breach of duty.
This same mode of arguing will convict not only the apostle of sin, but the Bible of error. Let us instance, in the vows spoken of [in] Deut. 23:21, 23. These vows, the argument says, were either sin or duty; not sin, most assuredly, therefore duty; and not to vow would have been sinful, because an omission of duty. But, saith the Lord, “If thou forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee.” On the other hand, we might equally argue, Not to vow was either sin or duty. Sin it could not be, for God said so; therefore duty; so that vowing, being the opposite of duty, would have been sinful; whereas the Lord declared it lawful, and sin not to pay it. This argument has now done its work. It has proved the apostle a fool; the word of God a contradiction; and the same act to be, at the same time, and under the same circumstances, both sin and duty, and yet neither one nor the other.
2. Were the argument in itself a good one, it would do no service, but much harm, to the cause which it is brought to aid. The sacramental fasts and thanksgivings, you allege, are either duty or sin. That they are duty will not be granted. Then, says the terrible dilemma, they are sin. And what then? Why, my practice, and the practice of my forefathers, in this particular, have all along been sinful. Ay, there’s the rub. That the practice of others who differ from you is sinful you can readily admit, and perhaps warmly contend. But, that such a charge should be laid at your own door, you cannot endure; and at the very idea of extending it to your fathers, your displeasure kindles, and you exclaim, “Shall those godly men, the Bostons, the Moncrieffs, the Erskines, and the multitude of the faithful both in the church of Scotland and in the secession, who have uniformly kept the fast and the thanksgiving days, be accused of conniving at a corruption of the Lord’s worship? Away with such an unworthy reflection!”
But recollect, my friend. The position that these days must be either sin or duty is not mine; it is your own. As you never can prove them to be duty, the consequence of your principle is, that both yourself and others have sinned in observing them. It is only your own argument recoiling with the weight of a millstone upon yourself.
But taking it for granted that they cannot be sinful, as your pious ancestors observed them, and contending that they must be duty, you pronounce the omission of them to be sin; for that is not a duty which may be innocently neglected. Now this renders the matter unspeakably worse.
For, in order to remove an imputation from your forefathers, you throw it upon all the holy men of God who have lived in every age of the Christian church, till a little more than a century ago; and in every part of the globe excepting the spots of Great Britain and Ireland. For they never observed the sacramental fasts, and thanksgivings on which you insist. If you are resolved, then, to adhere to the principle of their being either sin or duty, you have your choice whether you will own the sin to have been in your father’s skirts, or will charge it on the whole church beside, with the apostles of Christ Jesus at their head.
This argument, therefore, embarrasses none but those who use it; and as for the others, they ought never to be heard out of the mouth of a Protestant; far less of any who have embraced the Westminster Confessions and Catechisms. With what eyes do men read these admirable composures? or with what conscience avow them as containing their own faith? Could a stranger believe that the identical pretexts on which they vindicate their sacramental fasts and thanksgivings, are enumerated in a part of this very system, which they profess to receive as founded on the word of God, and are there marked with the most unqualified reprobation? Yet such is the fact! Among the sins forbidden in the second commandment, as explained in the larger catechism, are “all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever. (Q&A 109)
Let us never forget, Christian brethren, that our notions of propriety, or the examples of men, though they seem to be pillars, have nothing to do in modeling Jehovah’s worship. A jealous God, he will curse innovations, and overwhelm their apologists with the terror of that challenge, “Who hath required this at your hands?”
Considering, therefore, that our sacramental fasts and thanksgivings have no divine warrant; that they are strangers in the church; that they are inconsistent with our profession; that they establish an unscriptural term of communion; that they tend to destroy the principle of public fasting and thanksgiving; to create a pernicious distinction between the sacraments; to cherish legal tempers in devotional exercises; and that they stand in the way of that great duty, the duty of frequently showing forth the death of our Redeemer – does it not become you, Christian brethren, to make a solemn pause, and to search whether in this matter, there be not with You, even with You, sins against the Lord your God?
Those who confound the idea of change with that of innovation, or whose convictions are overpowered by their fears, view the proposal for frequent communion as pregnant with alarming consequences. Their apprehensions, however sincere, are certainly ill-founded. On the contrary, we have reason to anticipate, from this very measure, the most desirable and salutary effects.
1. We shall enjoy the consolation of having performed a duty much and long neglected.
In the hour of retirement and reflection, an exercised believer can hardly persuade himself, in the face of all the considerations which have been set before him, that one or two communions in the year correspond with the will of Christ, with the end of his memorial, or with his own profession. His heart, in spite of apologies, will smite him; it will tell him, that a Savior’s death merits not such forgetfulness; nor will all the weekday pageantry silence its murmurs. Unable to show a clear warrant for his appendages to the supper, and conscious that they supplant an obedience, otherwise easy, to his Lord’s command, his confidence will waver, and a shade pass over his cheerfulness.
By communicating after the primitive model, in, reviving its frequency, and lopping off the redundancies of human fancy, this source of disquietude will be dried up. Our Master’s memorial restored to its just respect; the reproach of disregard to his dying precept wiped away; the excellence of his simple institutions practically asserted; our “keeping of the feast” more pure, because more scriptural – will be sublime attainments. They will repay, a thousandfold, the sacrifice of adverse prejudice and habit. Singleness of heart, in conforming to the obvious intentions of our Lord Jesus, will infuse into our obedience a vigor, and into our privileges a delight, which are vainly expected from conformity to the devices of men, and which can be appreciated by those alone who have smarted from the sting of a misgiving conscience.
2. A harmony, at present impossible; will be established in our system of public worship.
God is the God of order; and his word, which is the rule of Christian order, hath referred every duty to its proper place; ordinary duties to ordinary occasions; and duties extraordinary to occasions extraordinary. But our sacramental fast and thanksgiving days have reversed this order, by wedding extraordinary duties with ordinary occasions. Now, if our arrangement be right, that of the Bible must be wrong. But as no Christian can impeach the latter, it must be admitted, not only that the former is faulty, but that dissolving the unnatural union between ordinary occasions and extraordinary duties, and reserving public fasting and thanksgiving for the seasons to which the scripture hath assigned them, viz. providential emergencies, will be a needful and a great reform. This will indeed curtail, by more than two-thirds, the existing week day observances, and reduce the supper of the Lord to a very simple thing. Exactly what it should be! Christ left it a very simple thing. By making it otherwise, men have only spoiled it; and be it remembered, that simplicity is the glory of all evangelical worship. It may have few charms for carnal professors; it may appear to them ignoble and sordid: but in proportion as it characterizes a church is “the beauty of the Lord our God upon” her. And who will not count that beauty our honor and our blessedness?
3. Our judicial profession will be rescued from charges which it is now difficult, if not impossible, to repel.
While we maintain that the feast of the supper is frequently to be celebrated, and keep it only twice in a year – that communicating is an ordinary, and fasting an extraordinary duty, and yet blend them in our practice – that holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be observed, and insist upon the religious observance of days which have no such warrant – it requires uncommon assurance, or betrays contemptible weakness, to vaunt our own steadfastness, and bewail the departure of others from their avowed principles. This may render us objects of derision or of pity, but not of respect. We must lie under the suspicion, if not the reproach of hypocrisy, because our pretensions are unsupported by our conduct. But if, in the hope of teaching others, we set out with teaching ourselves – if we exemplify our doctrines by the severe application of them to our own church, rectifying her mistakes and banishing her corruptions – it will be manifest to the world that we contend not for the preeminence of party, but for the claims of truth. Such honesty will throw a luster round our character, and imprint a majesty upon our testimony, for which the usual clamor and acrimony would be too much honored in being called a miserable substitute. Passion would be soothed and prejudice allured. Men would listen with candor to the expostulations of conscience. We should have the praise of consistency, if not of success. And though we might fail to convince an opponent, we should at least command his esteem.
4. Frequent and simple communions will probably purge the church of unworthy members.
There is not a greater nuisance to Christianity than men who usurp its name without its influence; who give to Christ the vapor of the lips, and to mammon the solid homage of the heart. They are a perpetual mildew on the blossoms, a death-frost about the roots of social piety. In any denomination, one such professor is one too many; though entire freedom from them never has been, and never may be, the happiness of any earthly connection. In the little family of the Master himself, a devil occupied the seat of an apostle. Highly favored the church which has the fewest of them, and in which their numbers are diminishing! Perhaps there could not be devised a more effectual expedient for getting rid of them, than employing them in spiritual work. With abundance of formality, they may attend to the notorious externals of religion: and as a bribe to conscience, and a set-off to character, they may have no objection to the communion, if it be not too often. Once or twice a year will do. But strip this precious ordinance of the additions which nurture legality, or flatter pride: let it be as plain as the Bible made it, and as frequent as a believer needs it: let there be nothing to render it impressive, but its subject; or alluring, but its spirituality; and mark the consequence. The formal zealot will cool. Novelty, decency, example, may secure his compliance for a while; but it will be strange if his impatience do not at last get the ascendancy. Without affection to Jesus Christ, he will grow tired of his supper. Without a principle of spiritual life, he will count spiritual worship intolerable: the more spiritual, the more intolerable: and the holy communion most intolerable of all. His soul will loathe the heavenly manna, and by degrees he will drop off. It is not asserted that this would be the course of every formalist. Of some it more than probably would. And every one who should thus become a self-detector, would be a clear deduction from the mass of enmity, in a particular church, to the interest of truth and holiness.
5. A blessed fruit of frequent communions would be the promotion of brotherly love.
In nothing is the religion of Jesus more dishonored, than in the want of that kind affection which ought to subsist between the heirs of a common salvation. No trait of moral character is in itself more amiable or excellent; none more ornamental to the gospel of Christ; none more powerfully recommended by his example; more peremptorily enjoined by his authority; more solemnly insisted upon in his word, as a test of profession; than the grace of love. And the time has been, when it formed the chief distinction of a disciple. In those days of primitive glory which we commend so much, and imitate so little, the mortified, yet admiring pagan, could not forbear to exclaim, “Behold, how these Christians love one another!” Alas! the sad reverse! Professors of every name, should they agree in nothing else, agree in forgetting the lesson of love. To judge from facts, one would suppose that we are commanded not to “put away,” but to cherish, “all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, with all malice.” For it is too evident, that amid the lust of preeminence, and the strife of party, the meekness of the gospel is banished, its charities stifled, and the most sacred appellations bestowed on wranglings which nurture malignant corruption, and scatter infernal pestilence. The infidel stands by, a spectator of these guilty scenes, and scoffingly remarks, that Christians “have just religion enough to make them hate one another heartily.” This departure from the spirit of the gospel, among those who retain its doctrines, is a common, and a grand apostasy. The Holy One of Israel cannot suffer it to pass with impunity; and it is doubtless a principal cause of the controversy which he is now pleading with us, by restraining his gracious influence, and permitting the adversary to triumph.
In searching for the reasons of this difference, so little to our credit, between ourselves and the first believers, their attention, compared with our inattention, to the table of the Lord, is too remarkable to be overlooked. At this holy ordinance they were incessantly together. Between our communions is an interval of several months. When they rose from the sacramental bread, it was their joy, that in a few days they should mingle their friendship, and renew their vows, in the same spiritual covenant. With us, after one feast is over, it is so long before another come, that we almost forget we are brethren. The monument of a Savior’s death, with us a rarity, being continually before their eyes, kept their faith steady; awakened the most tender emotions; and preached to their hearts the duty of mutual love. Could it be otherwise? If reiterated meditation fix the evanescent impression; if the object of warm attachment stir the soul; if society, in an exercise purified by grace, and elevated by devotion, beget reciprocal endearment; then must frequent communion have an auspicious influence on Christian charity. Love is inscribed on every object, every action, every circumstance, connected with it. No admittance here for diabolical tempers. A son of malice may thrust himself outwardly among the children, but he is no child; nor does he partake of the children’s food. The bread of earth he may eat, and the wine of earth he may drink: but he has no communion in the body and blood of crucified Jesus. He is, therefore, out of the question. It relates to none but living disciples.
Now, is it possible that believers should indulge a sentiment of pride, when they are at once reminded that they were lifted from the dunghill, and receive the pledge of a celestial crown? A sentiment of revenge, when they realize that God is in Christ reconciling them to himself? A sentiment of enmity, when he is saying to them, I am pacified towards thee for all that thou hast done; and thy sins and thine iniquities will I remember no more? When they feel themselves infinite debtors to the love of Jesus, can they disobey his commandment enforced by this argument from his own gracious lips, as I have loved you, so do ye also love one another? Let Christians declare from their own experience whether they have not often felt, on sacramental occasions, a more “than usual interest and complacency in each other? Whether suspicion and coldness, contention and revilings, among brethren, ever appear to them more indecent and detestable; whether they are ever more ashamed of themselves and of others for the want of mutual love, than when they have risen with spiritual mindedness from the table spread for the household of faith? Indeed, if it is a mean of exciting our love to the Lord Jesus, it must be a mean, and a powerful one too, of exciting love to one another; for in proportion as we love him, we will love his image, and be governed by his Spirit. And it is no less clear that this is one of the ends of its institution. For, being the memorial of our Redeemer’s love to us, it sets before us the amiable pattern of our love to each other. It is almost impossible to contemplate it in the former light, and not in the latter; and altogether so, to contemn it in the latter without profaning it in the former.
The result is, that spiritual communions having a natural and necessary effect in cherishing Christian love, their frequency must have a proportional effect in augmenting it. An appeal to facts will justify the inference. The whole weight of primitive example is in its favor. And at this hour, no churches, in point of harmony and love, exhibit so fair a copy of that example as those in which communions are most frequent and most simple.
Would you, then, dear brethren, contribute to banish the animosities which are but too prevalent in the family of faith, and to revive the love of former days, repair often to your sacramental table: there learn that “in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” There pray with the apostle, and with him embody in your actions the spirit of the prayer, “as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy even upon the Israel of God.”
6. It is by no means improbable, that the restoration of scriptural communions may usher in a time of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.
It has just been shown, that no mean will more effectually conduce to the revival of love; and with the grace of love every other grace flourishes. In that sweet confidence and endearment which are inseparable from it, believers strengthen each other’s faith; and are helpers of each other’s joy; nor is there, in the whole circle of social graces and duties, any which the Lord more delighteth to honor.
Beside, the nearer a church approaches in her worship to the institutions of the Lord Jesus, the more solid ground has she to implore and to expect his countenance. Christians, the strength of whose judgment was exceeded only by the fervor of their piety, have complained that a damp has settled on their spirits, and the liberty of God’s children been remarkably denied them, on the sacramental fasts and thanksgivings. The only reason they could assign for the fact is, that they could not say they had God’s warrant for them. Laying them aside, and retaining his appointments, faith can plead both his warrant and his promise. He hath sufficiently taught us, and often “by terrible things in righteousness,” that he will not sanctify the liberties which men take with his worship. If they throw it into a different from than which he hath prescribed, they have no right to look for his blessing. And if at any time they enjoy it notwithstanding, it is an act of mere sovereignty condescending to their infirmities. Historical testimony may be confirmed by our own observation, that the power of godliness declines in a church as the inventions of men prevail. And on the contrary, that in those churches which are freest from them, the life of religion, and the presence of the Lord with his ordinances, are most conspicuous. It demands, indeed, no small degree of spiritual mindedness, and of reliance on his wisdom and truth, to be satisfied with them exactly as he has left them. They are so plain, so noiseless, so unlike every carnal notion of importance, that when compared with their destined effects, unsanctified reason stands astonished, and cries, how can it be? Yet Israel’s King hath chosen to work in a manner, and by means, which shall mortify human pride, and exalt his name. It is the highest attainment of any Christian society to “receive, observe, and keep pure and entire all such religious worship and ordinances as be hath appointed in his word;” humbly committing their success to himself, and, steadily resisting the encroachment of human officiousness. The fear that discarding all un-commanded observances, and bringing back our sacramental feast to the simplicity and frequency from which it has swerved, would destroy reverence and breed carelessness, proceeds from unbelief in his providence and promise. The protection of this blessed ordinance would then be placed where it ought to be, in the hands of its Author; and our attendance on it would be distinguished by greater power and glory, because it would have more of God and less of man. A church casting off her errors in a day of coldness, declension, and blasphemy – doing homage to truth by sacrificing her prejudices, her habits, her traditions – setting at defiance the scoff of the worldling, and the clamor of the formalist, in order to conform more perfectly to scriptural establishments, and honor more pointedly the love of Jesus, would be a spectacle not I more singular than magnificent. It would bespeak the doing of the Lord; and would be a token, such as we have never had, that he is about to revive his work in the midst of the years, to build up our Zion, and appear to us in his glory. And in the hope thereof, when we see this, our heart shall rejoice, and our bones shall flourish as an herb.
Lastly. The proposed reform will be a preparative for trial.
With trials we may, at all events, lay our account. They even commonly precede a revival. The messenger of the covenant, when he comes into his temple, is, “like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap.” And the less stubble to be consumed, the fewer stains to be washed out, the better, as the preliminary discipline will be gentler. And while he shakes the nations, should he also, as appearances indicate, sift the churches, they will suffer the least in whose skirts are the fewest abominations. Un-commanded observances will then be found to be a serious evil, and the zeal that defended them will be rewarded with stripes.
If we would be ready, O brethren, to meet our God, let us give all diligence that our public order, as well as our personal hope, be built upon the naked rock; and in the day of the tempest both will stand fabrics fair and immovable, when the rubbish of human devices and of human flatteries are swept away, and made the sport of the whirlwind.
“Now may the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”