William B. Sprague
Being Over Wise
Copyright © 1997 Naphtali Press
Danger of Being Over Wise : A Sermon Preached June 7th, 1835, in the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany. (( Editor’s Note: A Sermon Preached June 17th, 1835, in the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany, by William B. Sprague. Appended to which is a reply to Dr. Stuart’s letter in the American Temperance Intelligencer concerning the same. The sermon treats of the way in which men make themselves over-wise in the manner they treat God’s truth and God’s institutions. In the reply to Dr. Stuart, Sprague defends the views expressed in the sermon concerning the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. Dr. Sprague served the pastorate of the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany for forty years (1829-1869). The article in the Presbyterian Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Publication Co., c.1884) says “While Dr. Sprague never relaxed his pulpit and pastoral duties, his added literary labors were prodigious, and their fruits exceedingly great. He preached nearly two hundred sermons on special public occasions, the most of which were published. He also produced a large number of biographies and other volumes on practical religious subjects. But the great literary work of his life was his Annals of the American Pulpit, undertaken when he was fifty-seven years, and finished in ten large octavo volumes.” ))
Albany, June 11, 1835
In compliance with the wishes of many of your church and congregation, and in full accordance with their own views and feelings, the Session and Board of Trustees, have instructed me to request for publication a copy of the sermon delivered by you last sabbath morning. They cannot but regard it as a highly seasonable warning on a most important subject; and having listened to it with much pleasure, they earnestly hope you will put it in the way of exerting a still more extensive influence.
In their behalf, I subscribe myself,
- With great respect, Your friend and servant,
- Joseph Alexander,
- President of the Board of Trustees.
Albany, June 12, 1835
My dear Sir,
In complying with the request which you have so kindly communicated to me from the Session and Trustees of our church, it is due to myself to say, that the Discourse to which you refer must appear under the disadvantage of having been written not only within the compass of a few hours, but while I was suffering severe bodily pain. I do not, however, in the circumstances of the case, feel at liberty to decline your request that it should be published; and I find I cannot forbear to say that it has given me great pleasure to know not only that the Session and Trustees, but the Church and Congregation which they represent, are so unanimous in the opinion that the threatening innovation to which the Discourse principally relates, ought to be promptly and firmly resisted.
- I am, Dear Sir, with great regard,
- Very truly yours,
- W. B. Sprague.
Neither make thyself over-wise: Why shouldest thou destroy thyself?
There is no quality which is more frequently commended in the sacred scriptures than wisdom. It is represented as emphatically the wealth of the immortal mind; the fountain of peace and joy; the seed of whatever can dignify the character, or elevate the destiny of man. He who has this treasure in the scriptural sense of the word has life; has all needful good in the life that now is, all conceivable good in the life that is to come.
But if this be so, you will ask, perhaps, whether the language of my text, and the general tenor of scripture, are quite consistent with each other; or rather whether they do not involve an absolute contradiction. I answer, they are entirely consistent; for it is genuine wisdom which the scripture everywhere enjoins; it is the affectation of wisdom which the wise man in our text so pointedly condemns. Make yourself as wise as you will in any legitimate sense of the word. Cultivate that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, no matter how great an extent. Be as zealous as you please in the acquisition of every species of useful knowledge. But be not wise in your own conceit. Be not wise above that which is written. Be not so wise as to attempt to make things plain which God in his wisdom has seen best left obscure; or to make things appear absurd which God has been pleased to reveal as matters of faith; or to abate a single particle from the strictness of God’s truth, or to mar in the least degree the purity of his institutions. “For why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” Why, by setting up your wisdom against the wisdom of the Highest, by walking in the rush light of your own reason, rather than in the sun light of his testimonies — why should you bring upon yourself evil, the depth of which you have no line to fathom?
The text will naturally lead me to mention some instances in which men make themselves over-wise, and as I pass along, to rebuke the indulgence of this wayward spirit.
Men make themselves over-wise in their manner of treating God’s truth, and God’s institutions.
In their manner of treating God’s truth.
The operation of this spirit in respect to divine truth leads, in different cases, to different and opposite results. The point of true wisdom is to make our faith the exact counterpart of God’s revelations; to believe that, and only that, which He has revealed, either directly or indirectly, in the sacred scriptures. But there are many who show themselves over-wise by departing from this simple principle, and making a use of their reason in connection with God’s truth, for which reason never was designed. And the result is, that some, because they find difficulties which they cannot explain, deny the divine authority of the scriptures altogether; while others darken counsel by words without knowledge, and incorporate into their creed hair breadth distinctions and metaphysical dogmas, and the result of all is, either that in attempting to explain God’s truth, they have explained it all away, or else they have, in a great degree, neutralized its influence by mixing it up with the deductions of their own erring reason. It is an error to believe too little, and an error to believe too much; and he who makes himself over-wise is sure to fall into the one or the other.
Let me illustrate this branch of my subject by one or two particulars.
Take, for instance, the scripture doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible has revealed with as much clearness, for aught we can see, as human language admits, the doctrine of a three-fold distinction in the divine nature. The manner in which this distinction exists, God has not made the subject of revelation; but the fact he has declared in the most explicit and unequivocal terms. But there are multitudes, as you know, who make themselves over-wise on this subject; rushing into gross absurdity on the one hand, or absolute unbelief on the other. One man approaches the doctrine with the spirit of a caviller; contemptuously asks how one can be three or three one; and then gives forth an oracular triumphant smile, as if he had demolished the whole fabric of orthodoxy with a blow. He in his wisdom rejects the doctrine of the Trinity altogether; and avows himself a Socinian, or peradventure, a Deist.
Another approaches this doctrine, and finds it so clear that he not only believes it, but believes far more in respect to it than God has ever revealed. Instead of being contented to receive the simple truth as he finds it in the Bible, he gives us the philosophy of truth, and undertakes to show that it is quite susceptible of being proved by human reason, and that even if the Bible had been silent in respect to it, the world by wisdom might have guessed it out; and not improbably, in such hands, it is sadly belittled by being exhibited under low and earthly similitudes. Both the classes represented by these individuals are wise above what is written: the one in their wisdom blot out the doctrine as an absurdity; the other in their wisdom receive it, but they strip it in a great degree of its awful mysteriousness, and its mighty power, and give it to us only in connection with their own vain and conceited speculations.
I borrow another illustration of this point from the manner in which men often treat the doctrine of divine and human agency in the work of our salvation. The scripture doctrine on this subject is, that man works out his own salvation, and that God works within him both to will and to do. But the over-wise are not satisfied with this simple verity; and hence the almost numberless attempts that have been made either to modify it, or to abolish the Bible that contains it. One will have it that man is the only efficient agent in his own conversion; and that it is absurd to suppose that any divine influence should be brought to bear directly upon the human will. Another maintains that man in his conversion and sanctification is little, if anything more, than a mere passive recipient of impressions; and that the Holy Ghost not only works, but works alone in the process of fitting him for Heaven. Another is surprised that it should ever have occurred to anybody that there was the appearance even of mystery in this doctrine; and professes to be able to show not only the fact that a divine and human agency both exist, but to tell us how they exist, and accurately to define the spheres of their respective operation. And yet another insists that this doctrine, as it lies in the Bible, is an absurdity which human reason was never made to digest; and he points to it as part of his warrant for giving the Bible to the winds, and embracing the cold creed of the infidel. Each one of these in making himself over-wise, has turned his back upon the teachings of God’s wisdom.
I might extend this illustration to other truths of the Bible, and show how men make themselves over-wise in respect to them; but instead of enlarging on this article, I will proceed to show you how the same spirit often discovers itself in reference to the institutions of God.
You may see it in the manner in which men often treat the Christian sabbath. God in his wisdom has ordained that one day in seven should be sacred to the purpose of piety and devotion; and has commanded all men to hallow this day by religious observances; but men, in their wisdom, practically, and sometimes speculatively, decide that this institution is not necessary, and refuse even to recognize its existence. There are multitudes with whom the sabbath is a day of business or of sport; who employ its sacred hours in forming plans for accumulating wealth, or in yielding to profane and impious merriment, or to the grovelling and sensual enjoyment of themselves. There are others who, while they profess in general to acknowledge the obligations of religion, cannot see why one day should be more sacred than another, and in their practice actually regard all days alike. And there are others still who profess in some sense to observe the day, who yet practically set at naught that standard of observing it, which God has given us in his word. What else do any of these various classes, than virtually arraign God’s wisdom? If He has instituted the sabbath, and they, either by their words or actions, decide that this institution is not necessary, or at least that it need not be observed with so much strictness as his commandment enjoins — what better, I ask, is this than assuming to be wise above their Maker?
The same general remark applies to public worship. God has been pleased to ordain that men should assemble for the purposes of devotion and religious instruction, and has commanded that they should not forsake the assembling of themselves together; and for their edification has instituted, in connection with the sabbath, the preaching of the word — an ordinance which is evidently designed to be the grand instrument in the world’s regeneration. But need I say how this institution is disregarded and profaned by multitudes who are cast within the circle of its hallowed influences? Let the throng of the profane and profligate who may be seen every sabbath in the streets even of our own city, where the temples of religion are open to invite attendance on every side, testify how extensively the worship of God’s house is regarded as a vain thing. And of those who actually attend, how many entirely lose sight of the design of the institution, and come hither only in conformity to what they regard a decent usage! And how many who acknowledge that it is an ordinance of God, yet suffer themselves to be detained from the observance of it, by causes which would have not influence to detain them from the most trivial worldly engagement! And how many others who allege as an apology for their absence, that they can occupy themselves more profitably in reading and reflection at home, than in listening to the preaching of the word! And how many others still, who will have it that all devotion is alike unprofitable and unnecessary; and that, as God knows our wants before we express them, and is inclined from his very nature to be merciful, the expression of them can be of no avail! How flagrantly, how shamefully, do all these classes impugn the wisdom of God, by arrogantly setting up their own wisdom in opposition to it!
I may instance baptism as another institution in connection with this spirit which I am condemning often takes occasion to discover itself. The command of Christ to the apostles, and through them to all their successors in the ministerial office, was that they should go into all the world, baptizing in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. But there are those who ask what good can possibly result from such a ceremony. “Surely,” say they, “the application of water either to the face, or the whole body, can do nothing to wash out the spots of the soul, or to implant holy principles and affections.” And there is a large and highly respected denomination of Christians, who, while they acknowledge that baptism is a divine rite, still urge the same inquiry in respect to its application to children, and ask how an infant can possibly be benefitted by being sprinkled with water, before it knows anything of the nature of the act. Now, whoever, professing to believe the Bible, endeavors to show that the ordinance of baptism in general, or of infant baptism in particular, is not there enjoined, so far reasons fairly; because he appeals to that which, with every Christian, must be the ultimate standard of truth. But surely it will not do for one who acknowledges the divine authority of the scriptures, to decide that this institution is of no value, merely because he cannot, or does not, discern its uses. I am far from admitting that these uses may not be discerned; but even if they could not be, I would say the grand question is, whether God’s word authorizes the institution; and if so, to refuse to submit to it were to make one’s self over-wise. Men certainly are not required to believe absurdities; but is it an absurdity to suppose that God should institute some right of introduction into his visible church significant of the blessings which the relation hereby constituted involves? Or is it an absurdity to suppose that He who promised to be the God of Abraham’s seed, and who instituted the ordinance of circumcision to be applied to infants under the ancient dispensation as a seal of the covenant of grace — is it an absurdity, I say, to suppose that he should still have contemplated infants of believers under the Christian economy; and that the distinction which they enjoy, in consideration of their being born in the bosom of the church, should still be recognized by a solemn rite: a rite which is full of meaning to a parent’s heart, and which, when the child becomes capable of understanding it, is fitted to come home to his heart also with deep and abiding impression?
And finally, men make themselves over-wise by the manner in which they treat the sacrament of the Supper. The command of Christ to observe this ordinance is imperatively binding upon all men; not an individual who has the opportunity of doing it is exempt from the obligation. But I surely need not say that there are multitudes who refuse to observe it; and that too, on the very ground that it is not essential to salvation, and that they can as well go to Heaven if they do not, as if they do, join themselves to the visible Church. But who art thou, vain man, to oppose your Redeemer’s wisdom, and set at naught your Redeemer’s authority? You expect to go to Heaven when you die. You cannot go to Heaven without being a disciple of Christ. You cannot be a disciple of Christ without obeying his commands. One of these commands you deliberately disobey on the ground that it is of little or no importance. Judge then whether, with the spirit you now possess, you have reason to expect that you shall ever reach Heaven.
Another way in which men make themselves over-wise on this subject is by modifying the ordinance to suit their own views; especially by inculcating the doctrine, or adopting the practice, of dispensing with the appropriate elements, or of substituting something in place of them, which the scripture does not warrant; or to come fully to the point which I now have more particularly in view, and on which the movements of the present day will not allow me any longer to be silent — THE EXCLUSION OF WINE FROM THE LORD’S SUPPER. Do you say that it is impossible there should be any danger of such extravagance in an enlightened community like this, and that I am giving a false alarm in expressing the opinion that there is danger? You shall know then the grounds of my apprehension, and judge for yourselves of their validity.
In the first place, there are several churches in different parts of the country, which, if I am correctly informed, have actually adopted the measure, and are of course strongly committed to its defense and extension. In the next place, there are in many of our churches, individuals who suffer the cup to pass them in the communion service, on the ground that they believe the use of wine, even on that occasion, to be sinful. And then there are periodicals extensively circulated, lending their influence, in a greater or less degree, to this unhallowed innovation; and one religious newspaper especially, which has never, to my knowledge, been ranked among ultra publications, is giving forth a series of articles from the pen of an aged and highly respectable clergyman, designed to show that the exclusion of all that can intoxicate from the holy communion is essential to the triumph of the Temperance cause. And the writer of these articles is understood to be the author of a premium tract, about to be published, in which he endeavors to establish the same position, and which is soon to be scattered through our churches, and for aught I know to be sent to the dwelling of every one of you. And there are other great names too which stand pledged before the community to the same doctrine; and are doing all that industry, and zeal, and talents, and learning can do, to maintain and extend it.
A distinguished professor of biblical literature in one of our theological seminaries — a man whose name is known scarcely less abroad than at home, and is justly regarded as reflecting a luster upon the character of his country — has told us in an essay which has just appeared that, though he thinks wine may be used in the communion in such a way as to avoid reproach, and is not himself disposed entirely to abandon it, yet it is by no means necessary to the acceptable celebration of the ordinance; and it to be classed among the unessential accidents of the service, such as receiving the elements in a reclining posture, holding the service in an upper room, and other similar things, in which few churches now think of imitating the apostles. Another professor connected with one of our colleges, and a man too whose talents and acquisitions and virtues no one holds in higher estimation than myself, has written an essay for publication, in which he endeavors to show that neither bread nor wine is essential to the acceptable observance of the Lord’s Supper; and that the Temperance cause cannot advance much farther until the use of wine is abolished from this ordinance.
And in addition to these particular facts, there is another of a more general nature, which awakens my apprehension not less than those which I have already stated — I refer to the gradual and silent change which is evinced by the manner in which this subject is treated in the ordinary intercourse of life. Men who, a year ago, felt nothing but shuddering when it was introduced, have come now to speak of it with timid caution, as if they were speaking on an unsettled question, upon which it were wise not fully to commit themselves; while some of them actually half adopt the principle, and others show that scarcely any of their former scruples now remain. And wherefore is this change? It is because the subject has gradually become familiar to them; and while the current in favor of this innovation has been imperceptibly becoming stronger, no effort has been made to resist it; and even ministers of the gospel have been silent, because they have apprehended no serious danger, or possibly because they have feared to sound the alarm, lest it should subject them to the charge of being hostile to one of the best of causes; and hence these individuals, by a process which they themselves can hardly analyze, and for reasons of which they can give little account, have been brought to their present posture of indecision at least, if not of actually favoring the views which, not long ago, they regarded with horror.
And here you have my reason for bringing this subject before you today. It is not that I believe that any of you are prepared to banish wine from the communion. I am not conscious that there is an individual before me, who would not be disposed to resist such a measure. But then I know that the whole history of the Church shows that such innovations come in by little and little. And though you may now be right — fully right on this subject, yet it supposes nothing worse of you than that you partake of human nature, to take for granted the possibility of your becoming wrong. And it is with a view to prevent evil that I give you this timely warning.
Be not deceived by the parade of Oriental learning on this subject. Remember that no authority is worth a rush, that contradicts the plain declarations of Christ and his apostles, as they are found in the New Testament. And I ask how the blessed Founder of our religion — a religion designed for common people who can only judge the meaning of scripture, by the principles of common sense — I ask how it was possible that he should have instituted this ordinance to be observed in the Church forever, and spoken of the fruit of the vine, and nothing else, as one of the elements, if, after all, he meant wine and water, or tamarind water, or molasses and water, or anything else than that which his words properly and exclusively indicate. I say, brethren, you have no occasion for Hebrew learning, or Arabic learning, than plain English, to settle this question. The Master himself has settled it; has settled it for the obscurest peasant as truly as for the most eminent biblical critic. And no man, no body of men, has a right to call in question the Master’s decision. I have heard the practice of the Church in the second century appealed to in justification of this usage. But if the authority of the second century is good, surely that of the first is better. And why not go a little farther back, and take advantage of that? And if the testimony of uninspired men on this subject is good, the testimony of those who were inspired is better. Why not then be satisfied with simply opening God’s word, and ascertaining what is there written on this subject? Ah, it is because God’s word says not a word about any other element to be used as drink in this ordinance, but the fruit of the vine.
I have heard it several times spoken of, as if it were a singular inconsistency, that either ministers or churches should complain of having something else at this day substituted for wine in the sacramental cup, when they have been for years administering and receiving wine that was adulterated by spurious and even noxious admixtures; and in many instances, probably, have actually used that as wine which had nothing of it but the name. Be it so, and what then? Are not the individuals who say this well apprised, that if this had been the case, neither ministers nor churches have, until a recent period, suspected it; and that they themselves have been sharers in the common ignorance that has prevailed on this subject? Is the alleged fact that we have administered brandy and water, when we have honestly supposed that we were administering wine, a good reason why we should substitute simple water, or wine and water, with the full knowledge of what we are doing? If I have given forth, and you have received, some impure element, with the honest belief that it was wine, who will say that we are able to be set down as voluntary offenders; but even if we are, is it not a singular mode of manifesting our repentance for violating Christ’s authority in one way, to set ourselves forthwith to violating it in another?
Does anyone say what harm, after all, can result from the agitation of this subject in our churches, or even from the substitution of water for wine at the Lord’s table? Will it not be the same thing, it may be asked, when the first shock occasioned by the innovation is over; and may not the ordinance be celebrated with greater safety, and equal acceptableness? I answer, if wine is not essential to the celebration of the communion, by the very conditions of the ordinance, I know not what is. I would answer again, the very same spirit which would banish wine from the Lord’s table, would banish the other element — would annihilate the ordinance itself; and hence my respected friend, the professor, tells us that neither bread nor wine is essential to the acceptable celebration of the Lord’s Supper; and hence another individual with whom I have conversed, more than intimated his willingness to have the ordinance entirely abandoned, rather than it should stand in the way of the cause of Temperance.
There is another reason why I cannot be silent on this subject — it is, that by remaining so, I am a stumbling block in the way of multitudes of my fellow Christians, who are looking to the ministers of Christ for warning when the doctrines or the institutions of religion are in danger. In the course of the last week, a highly intelligent and active Christian in the city of New York, whose name is well known in the walks of public benevolence, said to me — and he said it with a degree of emotion which he struggled in vain to suppress — “Sir, nothing has occurred since I indulged a hope that I was a disciple of Christ, which has operated so powerfully as a temptation to believe that all religion is a miserable delusion, as the fact that grave ministers of the gospel are trying to remodel, and in effect blot out, that ordinance in which I have been accustomed to celebrate my Redeemer’s death; in connection with the equally astounding fact, that no one of you, who are set for the defense of the gospel, has ventured to open his lips in public to arrest the progress of this impious fanaticism.”
Ah! methinks I hear some one say, whatever else that man might have been, he was a cold friend to the Temperance cause. I will tell you how he evinced his coldness. He did it by writing his name on the honored list of those who, not long since, subscribed a thousand dollars each, for helping that very enterprise. He is no cold friend to the temperance cause; it is dear to him as the apple of his eye; he is willing to give not only his influence and his prayers, but his money, by hundreds and thousands, to advance it; but he cannot consent to see it built up at the expense of breaking down, or attempting to break down, one of God’s own institutions.
Yet another reason, my friends, for bringing this subject before you: the infidel is casting upon this movement a look of self-complacent triumph. He is beginning to boast that we are getting rid of Christianity by piece-meal; and the signs of the times indicate to him, that under the wonder working hand of modern theological refinement, both the doctrines and institutions of the gospel will gradually be frittered away, until his creed becomes our creed, and his hope becomes our hope. Is it worthwhile for Christians, by tampering with the ordinances of Christ, to give occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.
I cannot forbear to say too, that this innovation is a deep stab to the comfort of Christians in the commemoration of their Savior’s dying love. When I come to the communion table, and administer or receive the sacramental cup, I wish to think of my Redeemer and his death, and the hopes and blessings which I enjoy through him. I wish not to have my mind distracted by having the question forced upon me, whether I am not committing a sin by taking into my lips a drop of wine; and I hesitate not to say, that they who have taken the lead in this effort, who are urging either from the pulpit, or the press, or even in a more private way, the expediency of banishing wine from the holy Supper, are responsible in a great degree for these painful associations by which our communion is embarrassed and embittered; are responsible for imposing upon many a weak conscience a load which renders the approach to the Lord’s table anything else than a cheerful and joyful and profitable occasion.
Brethren, I am sure I need not tell you that, in expressing my views so plainly on this subject, I have taken counsel of anything else rather than my feelings. For most gladly would I have been silent, if I could have reconciled such a course with my convictions of duty as a minister of Jesus Christ. I have witnessed too much of the operations of human nature not to know that he who ventures to oppose extravagance, when it is in any way connected with a good cause, does it at the peril of being set down as an enemy to that cause. I cannot forget that my own experience, since I have been among you, has proved that a man who takes it upon himself to rebuke the spirit of fanaticism in revivals of religion, must be expected to have his name blazoned on the list of the enemies of revivals; and most fully do I expect that the remarks which I have now made, will be appealed to, not by you, but by others, to justify the charge against me of being a foe to the cause of Temperance. I say not by you, my friends; but even if it were otherwise, and I knew that every one of you would join in this charge — much as I value your good opinion (and there is nothing that I value more, except the approbation of my conscience and my God) — I should still feel myself constrained to protest without a qualifying or softening word, against this unhallowed invasion of one of God’s institutions.
But I am not a foe to the cause of Temperance; with religious indignation I repel the charge. I regard it as having come into existence under the special favor of Heaven. I honor it as a noble part of that moral machinery designed to help forward the world’s renovation. I look upon those who have labored in it faithfully and diligently as the benefactors of their race; and I would still bid them God speed in the good enterprise, and invoke the smiles of Heaven on every effort which they put forth in the spirit of charity and of a sound mind. But if the Temperance cause claims a precedence of the institutions of God, then I insist that it claims too much. If it cannot go forward but at the expense of perverting or annihilating an ordinance or our religion, then I insist that it is high time it should come to a solemn pause; and I say unhesitatingly, perish the hand — no matter what hand it be — that would profanely withdraw from the Supper either of the memorials of my Redeemer’s death! Let God’s institutions stand in their own simple majesty, though the noblest fabric which man ever built should be prostrate in the dust.
Brethren, whatever you may think of the freedom of these remarks now, I verily believe the day will come when every one of you will be satisfied that I have been pleading in behalf of the Temperance cause; for after all that I have said, God’s institutions will live, and whatever arrays itself against them, will come to naught. I counsel you then, as friends of Temperance, to beware how you even seem to sanction this innovation. For, rely on it, God will not smile on any effort that goes to impugn his authority, though it be professedly made for the advancement of his honor; and even if it seems to succeed, it will be found ultimately to have concealed in it the principle of self-destruction. Let the Temperance cause be kept upon its own proper ground, and within its own legitimate limits, and God’s blessing will be in it; and the blessing of many ready to perish will come upon it; and new and ardent friends from every side will cluster around it; and its triumphs will not only be gratefully celebrated on earth, but we may reasonably believe will swell the anthems of Heaven. But let it attempt to rise on the ruin of God’s institutions, and I forewarn you that the days of its heaviness and mourning are at hand; and it will be well if we do not have occasion to go weeping to the grave where it is entombed, and in the bitterness of our spirits to ask concerning it, “Can these dry bones live?”
Dr Sprague’s Reply to Professor Stuart’s Letter addressed to him through the American Temperance Intelligencer of August, 1835. Relative to his late sermon on the exclusion of wine from the Lord’s Supper.
Rev. Professor Stuart:
In preaching, and especially in publishing, the sermon on the exclusion of wine from the Lord’s Supper, which has given occasion to your letter addressed to me, in the last number of the Temperance Intelligencer, I was well aware that I was taking a step which could not escape observation, and which must, of course, be subjected to severe scrutiny. But I had determined to leave the sermon in the hands of the public, and let it take its chance for good or evil, without vindicating it from any exceptions, or noticing any strictures which it might call forth; and to this determination I should have adhered, so far as the sermon was concerned, if you had not thought proper to honor me with a public letter. Your right to address me in this way, I fully recognize; and especially, in view of my having made a distinct allusion in my sermon, to your essay in the Temperance Intelligencer of June, as furnishing one of the reasons for bringing the subject before my congregation.
I am induced to reply to your letter, partly from the respect which I bear for your character, and partly from other considerations; though I feel constrained to say, that I cannot commit myself to a protracted correspondence, or even hold myself pledged to any future communications. I make this explicit statement the rather, as I infer from an estimation in your letter, that you have a goodly number of puzzling interrogatories still in store for me, when those you have already put, shall have been disposed of. I say then frankly that my professional duties are too numerous and urgent, to allow my attention to be diverted by a lengthened discussion of this subject; that I am happy to see that it is in a way to be thoroughly examined by other men who are more competent to do it justice, and have more leisure to discuss it, than myself; and that, in view of these circumstances, both you and the public must expect that this will be the first and last of my communications.
I will take up the several queries suggested in your letter, and give to each the best answer that I can. My limits will require that I should be brief under each head, and should omit many things which seem to me to have an important bearing on the discussion; nevertheless, I shall state those considerations which I deem most important; and if those which I do state have no weight, I freely acknowledge that those which I do not state, must pass for nothing.
After quoting from my sermon the following sentences — “There is no occasion for Hebrew learning, or Arabic learning, or any other learning than plain English, to settle this question. The Master himself has settled it” — you say, “But what, I beseech you, are we to understand by this? Did the Master then speak English at the institution of the Lord’s Supper? Did he make use of our word wine in the same sense in which we now employ it? I had always supposed that in a dispute about the proper meaning of a word in the Scriptures, the only ultimate resort is to the original Hebrew or Greek of them. Do you mean to defend the doctrine that such an appeal in a controverted case is unnecessary and out of place? And is it a Protestant principle that such an appeal shall not be made?”
No, my dear sir, I did not mean to defend any such doctrine, and I am sure you have too much candor and good sense ever to have thought of seriously attributing to me any such intention. I meant to assume the fact, not that the translators of the Scriptures were infallible, but that the translation which they have given us is, in this instance, correct; and on this ground I said, and certainly should say again, under similar circumstances, that no other learning than plain English is necessary to settle this question. You yourself acknowledge that wine () was used at the original institution of the Supper; then in order to show that our Savior “did make use of the word wine in the same sense in which we employ it,” I have only to show that the wine which was used on that occasion, was the juice of the grape in a fermented state. The proof of this would involve the answer to one of your main inquiries, which must be reserved for its appropriate place. At present I assume the fact that it was so; and on it I build the conclusion that our Savior used the word wine in the same sense in which we use it, and of course that our translation is liable to no exceptions. If I fail of the proof in its proper place, my conclusion must, of necessity be abandoned.
You may possibly think me somewhat of an Anti-Orientalist in expressing so much regard for the translation. But I assure you that it not from any want of respect to Greek or Hebrew learning that I do this. I honor those who have devoted themselves to deep and laborious research into the original languages of scripture, and no one do I honor more than the man who has taken the lead in this department of study in our own country. But still I cannot think that the translation ought to be set aside, or even called in question, but for good reasons; especially as the great mass of people are obliged to rely upon it, and whatever serves to unsettle their faith in the translation, is adapted to diminish their general confidence in the scriptures themselves. I know not how many instances, since the discussion about yayin and tirosh has been going forward, I have heard intelligent men remark that, if these things are so, there is no Bible for them; as they can read neither Greek nor Hebrew. You will observe that I do not mention this as a reason for not appealing from the translation where the translation is really wrong or defective; but only as an argument for not appealing from it unnecessarily; especially where, as in your own case, there would seem to be a virtual acknowledgement that it is correct.
In your next paragraph you say, “But supposing now that you concede to us that such an appeal should be made” — i.e., an appeal to the original languages of scripture — “(which I may presume your candor will concede); then I ask how the fruit of the vine is to be understood? If the mere phraseology, of the mere English translation is to decide this, why then wine is out of the question. The fruit of the vine in its plainest, most obvious and literal sense, means neither more nor less than grapes. Grapes then and bread are to be the elements of the Lord’s Supper; for in vain do we seek for the explicit declaration that wine was drunk there by the Savior and his apostles.”
But it is said explicitly that they drank the fruit of the vine and did you ever hear of an individual drinking grapes? The truth is that this passage not only admits the construction that the fruit of the vine was the juice of the grape, but it admits of no other; and hence I cannot see why you should have suggested it to me in the form of a difficulty; or how it bears more unfavorably upon my doctrine than yours.
You go on to add, “But you will say, `This is to be figuratively construed.’ You put your construction upon it, and make it mean wine, i.e., the Greek .” I do indeed put my construction upon it; but it so happens that in doing so, I put yours upon it also; for in the very next sentence you proceed to say, “I will not complain now of the liberty which you here take with the words, fruit of the vine. I also believe that wine, i.e., , was drank at the sacrament in it origin; because I cannot see why the cup should be named, and drinking be spoken of, unless such was the case.” Here then we are brought to a very happy issue of this part of the controversy: that is, precisely to the same point, and for aught it appears, in precisely the same way. I only complain that you should have gravely put me to the proof of that of which you yourself had no doubt; in other words, that you should have imposed upon me the necessity of showing that men do not drink grapes, when, in the very next paragraph, you intended generously to concede what you had called upon me to prove.
After admonishing me that “the matter is not yet at an end,” and mentioning the various Hebrew words which the Jews employed to designate different kinds of wine, you proceed as follows:
“Now here we have at least five different names in Hebrew, two of them for must or new wine, and three for different sorts or qualities of fermented wine, and all these are rendered by the Septuagint translators, by one and the same Greek word ; which also is the New Testament word to designate all sorts of wine. Instead then of its being ascertained by the English New Testament, what wine means, we are not definitely informed by the original Greek itself, which of all the five kinds of wine, or rather of `the fruit of the vine,’ was exhibited at the table of our Lord. If the word itself had been used, i.e., wine instead of fruit of the vine, it would have still left us in the same condition, viz. uncertain whether the first, second, third, fourth or fifth kind of wine, was used by our Savior and his disciples. Will you show us, my dear sir, how this question is to be determined? We may then have a standpoint, from which we can take a new survey of the subject. Until then we may well suppose that `the fruit of the vine’ may be either of the five kinds of wine above noted, inasmuch as the Savior has not been particular in his designation. You will allow us to insist on some specific proof here, before we can take it for granted that your position is certain. We wish to know how `the Master has settled it,’ and what is the proof that he has decided that such wine as we now employ was used by Him at the sacramental table.”
My first remark under this head is that, notwithstanding you have given us five words to designate as many different kinds of wine, the only distinction with which we are concerned, so far as I can see, is that which exists between fermented wine and the unfermented juice of the grape; for no position which I have taken in my sermon requires me to show what particular kind of fermented wine was used; as we admit that that is an unimportant matter now; that Port, Madeira, Teneriffe, Malaga, etc. may be used with equal propriety. Without expressing any opinion then, as to the question whether the unfermented juice of the grape may not be used in the Lord’s Supper at this day, I am going to attempt to prove that it was not used at its original institution; and that, in the example of Christ and his apostles, we have our warrant for using on that occasion FERMENTED wine.
1. My first argument is drawn from the fact that (yayin) which you say means fermented wine, was not only allowed as a drink, but was spoken of as a blessing under the Old Testament dispensation. I shall not dwell much on the proof of this, as it has just been presented at length, and with great ability, by a correspondent, (J.M.) of the New York Observer. I will only say that it was the yayin which the Nazarite vow had an express permission to drink when the days of his separation were ended (Num. 6:19-20). It was yayin which the psalmist, in enumerating some of the blessings of Providence, mentioned in immediate connection with bread and oil (Psalm 104:14-15). It was yayin which God, by the prophet Amos, promised to the people of Israel, among various other blessings, on their being restored from captivity (Amos 9:14). It was yayin by which the Holy Ghost was pleased to represent the blessings of the New Covenant, which all were invited to accept without money and without price (Isaiah 55:1). I might multiply quotations almost indefinitely to the same point, but the passages to which I have already referred are enough to show, not only that fermented wine was actually used under the ancient dispensation, but that it was regarded both by God and man as a blessing. If this be so, may I not at the least ask, where is the improbability that it was used at the time of our Savior, and in the sacramental supper?
3. It was exclusively yayin, or fermented wine, which was prescribed by divine authority to be used in the service of the temple (Ex. 29:40; and Num. 28:7). Now I ask, if it was not a sin to use it for religious purposes under the ancient dispensation, if the use of it was even expressly enjoined by God himself, where is the evidence that it is wrong to use it for similar purposes under the present dispensation? Nay, does not the fact the God prescribed it for the service of the temple, infer the probability that Christ used it in the institution of the Supper, unless you have something to show to the contrary? That it had been used for ages in the daily offerings of the temple you certainly will not question; that it was used in those services at the time of our Savior’s advent, I can see no reason to doubt; and as the Passover was kept in Jerusalem, there is every ground for believing that the same kind of wine was used as in the ordinary service of the temple. At any rate, whoever asserts the contrary, is most unquestionably bound to prove it.
3. My next argument is drawn from the celebrated case of the church at Corinth, of which we have an account in the latter part of the eleventh chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians. It is readily conceded that there is nothing in the language which our Savior employed at the original institution of the Supper, from which it can be determined whether it was fermented wine, or the unfermented juice of the grape, which was used on the occasion; as “the fruit of the vine” may legitimately mean either. But within a few years after our Lord’s ascension, there was a church established through the instrumentality of the apostle Paul, in the city of Corinth. Paul must have understood perfectly the proper manner of celebrating the ordinance of the Supper; for he expressly declares that he “received it of the Lord.” And it were a reflection upon his character as a minister and an apostle, to suppose that he should not have made the Corinthians acquainted with everything essential to the right observance of it; and that if the unfermented juice of the grape were the article to be used, that he should not have distinctly told them so. But it is certain that the Corinthians drank intoxicating wine, for the apostle informs us that some of them actually became “drunken.” Perhaps it may be said that this proves nothing more than that they perverted the ordinance by the use of an improper beverage. I reply that the whole strain of the apostle’s remarks proves the contrary. He reproves them for drunkenness and irregularity, but not an intimation does he give that they have fallen into any error in respect to the article to be used in the service. If their error had really consisted in drinking fermented wine, is it not passing strange that the apostle, when he set himself formally to rebuke them on the occasion, did not even advert to that which, on the principle I am opposing, must have constituted the root of the whole evil? Especially is not this a most unaccountable omission, when it is remembered that he wrote under divine inspiration, and for the benefit of the Church in all coming ages? Is it to be supposed for a moment that an apostle, and especially the Holy Ghost who inspired him, should have witnessed such a dangerous innovation, without setting up a barrier against its progress, by a plain and pungent rebuke?
Suppose it were a universally conceded point now that the unfermented juice of the grape is the only authorized beverage to be used in the communion, and some church, in imitation of the example of the Corinthians, were so far to deviate from the right way, as to substitute fermented wine, and get drunk upon it. What kind of rebuke should any of us be disposed to administer, especially what kind of a rebuke would a temperance man administer, for such an irregularity? Would he not say, “You have made an unhallowed invasion of the ordinance by setting aside the article which the Savior prescribed, and which has been universally used in the Church, and substituting an intoxicating drink. And it is no wonder that you have fallen into such criminal excesses?” Under such circumstances, this certainly would be a natural rebuke; such as the occasion would obviously call for. But no such rebuke came from the apostle. Could the occasion for it then have existed? Or was he not a Temperance man?
4. I appeal to ecclesiastical history in support of my position. I have never seen an intimation in the history of the Christian Church, nor heard of an individual that had, that the unfermented juice of the grape was ever used in the sacrament of the Supper. At any rate, it has not been used in our day, nor in the days of our fathers, or our forefathers, to any period of antiquity to which we can go back. Now I ask whether this is not a most speaking silence in ecclesiastical history, in favor of the conclusion that it was never used at all? If it had been the beverage with which Christ instituted the ordinance, and especially if it had been wrong to use any other, is it not marvellous indeed that fermented wine should have been introduced, and yet no record remain of the unhallowed innovation? Various other innovations in reference to this ordinance are distinctly marked, but to this no author that I have heard of even alludes. Could this have been so, if such an innovation had ever occurred? And if it did not occur, was not fermented wine originally used in the communion?
5. I have yet another authority to urge in proof of my doctrine, which I hope you will not be disposed to gainsay, as it is one for which I have been accustomed to entertain a high respect. Pardon me for saying it is the authority of PROFESSOR STUART himself. In your essay published in the Temperance Intelligencer of June, 1835, two months before the publication of your letter to me, you have the following exceedingly pertinent and judicious remarks: “But here again, it will probably be said that the argument against alcoholic drinks of all kinds, must prove too much, because it will prove that Jesus and his disciples who drank wine, did partake of drink which was injurious, and which therefore should be prohibited, in case the principle that I am defending be allowed. The reader will observe, however, that my argument has all along and throughout been directed against the frequent and common use of alcoholic drinks. To say now that because such use must be injurious, and therefore should be prohibited, is quite a different position from saying that an occasional use of wine and drink less strong, is altogether prohibited.” Again: “It is indeed only on sacramental occasion that the thorough disciple of Temperance, at the present time, will feel disposed to taste of any liquor of this nature” (including fermented wine). “Here the example of Christ and his disciples would seem to give a sanction to the use of wine, which may justly remove all scruples respecting it.”
Now I insist upon it, if I have not proved my position, Professor Stuart is no authority. But really, my dear sir, I cannot express all the surprise that I feel that you should have raised up this second man of straw for me to contend with, when, in your essay published but two short months before, you had considered the very thing, which you now call upon me to prove, as so clear, that you might take it for granted without any proof. If you have gained “new light,” would it not be more fraternal that you should endeavor to impart it to me, and let me into the secret of your conversion from the error which you held two months ago, than that you should leave me to grope in the fog from which you have just emerged, and even challenge me to a defense of your recent error. If your views have undergone no change within this short period, then I must be permitted, notwithstanding the question you have proposed, and the earnestness with which you call for an answer, still to claim you as a fellow-worker with me in proving that fermented wine was used at the communion; and in this case, I submit it to you, whether the public should not do us the justice to acknowledge that we have together made out “a standpoint from which we can take a new survey of the subject.”
I am led next by the course of your remarks to consider the subject of DILUTING wine at the Lord’s table. And here I am happy to find that the questions proposed in your letter are entirely consistent with the views contained in your essay.
You say, “How can it be taken for granted that the wine was drank unmixed with water, when all the sober men of surrounding heathen nations, looked on such a practice as belonging only to drunkards or lovers of the cup? The remarks you make on this subject seem to imply, that if a man were to mix water with his wine at the sacrament, it would be a profanation of that ordinance. It is to be supposed then that an essential part of commemorating the Lord’s death consists in swallowing a given portion of undiluted alcohol in wine? Is it — can it be — this which gives efficacy to such an ordinance, or is it rational to suppose that pious Hebrews, like temperate Greeks and Romans, diluted their wine, when they drank it?”
Now admitting the fact that it was the custom of surrounding heathen nations to drink their wine mixed with water, and without stopping to inquire whether the reason of this might not have been that it would give them an opportunity of enjoying their cups the longer without intoxication — I am constrained to say that your conclusion from this fact seems to me entirely unwarranted. What! Is the fact that “temperate Greeks and Romans” diluted their wine, to be taken as evidence that the Hebrews did the same, when there is not the shadow of such an intimation in any of the writings either of the Old or New Testament? Especially, can we infer from any usage of the heathen on this subject, anything in respect to the mode in which the Hebrews drank wine at their religious festivals? I see not why you might not with equal reason select any other indifferent custom of the heathen world, and infer that it prevailed among the Jews, though the supposition should not be sustained by the least particle of evidence. In respect to the question whether it is “to be supposed that an essential part of commemorating the Lord’s death, consists in swallowing a given portion of undiluted alcohol in wine,” I frankly confess that I do not comprehend your meaning. I will however undertake to answer the question, if not in public, yet in private, when you will show me that alcohol ever did, or ever can, exist undiluted in wine.
You proceed with your questions: “Is it preposterous to call a man a brandy-drinker, or a spirit-drinker, who mingles half or two-thirds water with his brandy? Is not this almost exclusively the method in which these drinks are used? Yet common parlance never makes a brandy-drinker any the less, because he dilutes with water. How then are you going to show us that Christ and his disciples did not drink their wine at the last supper diluted? And how can it be shown that this was not drinking wine?”
This argument from “common parlance” has certainly some plausibility; but I am greatly deceived if it will bear examination. I admit that it is “not preposterous to call a man a brandy-drinker or a spirit-drinker, who mingles half or two-thirds water with his brandy.” But I beg you to observe that this proposition is not analogous to the one in which the use of wine is spoken of in the institution of the supper. Christ says not a word about wine drinkers, but he says, “I will not henceforth of the fruit of the vine,” etc. He had the cup then before him — perhaps in his hand — and he speaks of it as “the fruit of the vine.” Now while I admit that “common parlance” allows a man to be called “a brandy-drinker, or a spirit-drinker, who mingles half or two-thirds water with his brandy,” or if you please, allows a man to be called a wine drinker who mingles half or two-thirds water with his wine, I ask you, my dear sir, whether “common parlance” would justify you in taking into your hands a cup of brandy and water, or wine and water, and speaking of it in the manner as our Savior did, only as brandy or wine? I confess this would not accord with any usage that I have been accustomed to observe. And in view of it, I am constrained to attach a little importance to the argument from “common parlance,” as to the argument from the practice of the heathen.
These are the only arguments which I find in your letter to justify the practice of diluting wine; or rather the only difficulties which you have been pleased to propound for me to dispose of. I take it for granted you mean by the questions you have put to me, virtually to assert the opinion that the wine used in the Lord’s Supper was diluted. I cannot but think, my dear sir, that it yet devolves upon you to prove it. There is not an intimation in the Bible that this was the case; and the arguments you have already advanced, are, I am sure, to say the least, altogether inconclusive. Pardon me then for saying to you on this subject as you have said to me in regard to fermented wine, that it is “a question on which we expect you to throw more light; for more is needed.”
But I will not dismiss the subject here. You shall have my reasons for believing that wine used in the original institution of the Supper was not diluted, and that it ought not to be diluted at the present day.
1. There is not the least intimation in scripture that the wine used in the temple service, and by the priests, was diluted. If it was right to use it undiluted for sacred purposes under the Jewish dispensation, can it be wrong to use it in a similar manner, and for similar purposes, under the Christian dispensation? If it was actually used undiluted in the former case, is it not reasonable to presume, unless there is some evidence to the contrary, that it was originally used in the same way, in the latter? If our Savior had made a change, and especially if he had considered that change important, would he not have distinctly marked it, so that the Church might effectually guarded against mistake?
2. In the only instance which I have been able to find in the scriptures, in which the mixing of wine with water occurs, it is spoken of as a judgment. “Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water” (Isaiah 1:22). Is it likely that Jesus Christ would have enjoined that as a part of one of his own ordinances, which God had inflicted as a judgment upon a guilty nation, and which is not even mentioned in scripture in any other connection?
3. The example of the Corinthians is as much to my purpose in this case as in the other. You expressly say in you essay, “It is highly probable they drank undiluted wine, for intoxication could scarcely be produced in most persons by drinking ancient wine diluted by half or two-thirds water.” If it is highly probable that they drank undiluted wine, then I maintain that, as they received the ordinance from the apostle who had received it “from the Lord” himself, it is reasonable to conclude that undiluted wine was used at its original institution. And besides, on any other principle, the failure of the apostle to rebuke them for having profaned the ordinance by using an improper element becomes utterly unaccountable. It supposes, as in the other case, that he undertook to reprove them, and actually did reprove them with some degree of severity, and yet did not even allude to that which primarily constituted their offense.
4. I derive an argument under this head also from the history of the Church. I am well aware — and I think I have alluded to the fact in may sermon — that a sect arose before the close of the second century, who contended for diluting wine at the communion. But what else is this than evidence that it was originally drank undiluted? What gives authority of the early ages its importance in these matters, is their nearness to the period of the introduction of Christianity; and the nearer we can trace any practice to the time of the apostles, provided we cannot fix its date, other things being equal, the greater the probability that it was actually an apostolic practice. But if we are able distinctly to date the origin of any custom at a period subsequent to the apostolic times, it were absurd to claim for it any divine authority on the ground that it arose only in the second century; for a real corruption in the second century is not better than the same corruption in the nineteenth. I say then that the fact that the second century is appealed to on this subject shows that the first cannot be; for as the authority of the first is better than that of the second, so no man would be satisfied to stop at the latter, who was not conscious that the former was against him.
5. The nature of the ordinance furnishes another argument in my favor. It is not designed as a repast for the purpose of sustenance, but as a ceremony for religious instruction. Wine, as used in this service, is merely a symbol of the blood of Christ, shed for the sins of men; and of course the smallest quantity of it is sufficient to answer the end of the institution. If it had been designed that it should be used on this occasion as in a common meal, for the sake of quenching thirst or gratifying appetite, there might have been some show of reason in its being diluted, with a view to prevent intoxication. The Corinthians indeed actually fell into this error; but I am not aware that the history of the Christian Church furnishes another example of it.
6. If the wine in the sacramental supper is to be diluted, who shall prescribe the measure? One individual may be satisfied with having half water; another may require three-fourths; another five-sixths; and another still perhaps may think that the cause of Temperance requires that the smallest possible quantity of wine should be used, and that a drop of wine to a gallon of water will fairly come up to the spirit of the Master’s injunction; while yet another, more scrupulous for the cause of Temperance, and less scrupulous for the authority of Christ, than the preceding concludes that the single drop stands too much in the way of Temperance, and is of too little importance to the sacrament, to be retained; and behold he comes out for pure water. Now I ask whether, if the principle be admitted that we must not drink wine at the communion table without diluting it, so long as there is no standard given by which the mixture is to be regulated, the Church is not almost of course to be involved in an endless controversy? Admitting even the lawfulness of diluting it — a point which I am by no means prepared to concede — would not the dissensions which it would occasion for the Church, far more than counterbalance any advantage which it could be supposed to secure to the cause of temperance?
Before I pass to your next class of interrogatories, allow me to suggest a query whether there is not some slight inconsistency in your proposing to me one set of questions, which would seem to imply at least a doubt on your part whether fermented wine was to be used in the communion, and forthwith following them by another set, which plainly imply that you are advocating for diluted wine on that occasion? If I understand the matter, these are two distinct theories, which cannot with any show of reason both find an advocate in the same person. For the only reason that I have ever heard given for diluting the wine is to lessen its intoxicating power; but the unfermented juice of the grape has no intoxicating power, and therefore there can be no occasion for diluting it. It seems to me, therefore, if you go for the unfermented juice of the grape, as your former series of questions would seem to imply, you must give up the diluting theory. If you declare in favor of diluting, then I submit it to you whether the unfermented theory does not become at once useless and ridiculous. It seems to me that you are bound in consistency to abandon one or the other; and yet I cannot resist the impression that you are holding on a little upon both, as if you were not quite certain at which point the light would be the strongest.
But I come back to your interrogatories. You say, “The bread which our Savior brake, was surely unleavened. No other was in existence among the Jews on the Passover day. How do you justify the use of leavened bread at our sacramental table?”
I justify it on the ground that the use of unleavened bread belonged peculiarly to the Jewish economy; and as that dispensation has passed away, this, among other of its peculiarities, has passed away with it. You remember that the question how far the Gentile converts were bound to Jewish observances, once actually came up, and was referred for decision to an apostolic council. And the decision was that they were bound to observe nothing, even then, except what was enjoined in the letter from Jerusalem, which contained no allusion to unleavened bread. It cannot reasonably be questioned that the Corinthian church, in celebrating the ordinance, used the bread which was in common use among them; and as Corinth was a Gentile city, it was of course leavened bread. Is there nothing to this to “justify the use of” the same “at our sacramental table?”
You go on to remark, “We do not know whether the bread employed by Christ and his disciples was wheat, or millet, or spelt. Yet the Savior says, `This do in remembrance of me.’ Note the word THIS. Reasoning as you do, now, I am not able to see why the letter of this command is not to be taken; nor what authority you find for administering the Lord’s supper anywhere but in an upper chamber at night, the guests lying down around a triclinium, the dress and wine and furniture and bread in all respects the same as originally; in a word, this is to be literally construed, and literally complied with. To depart from such an obedience in any one respect, is to give up the principle in question.”
I utterly deny that any position taken in my sermon even remotely implies an obligation on our part to a literal imitation of our Savior and his disciples, in respect to all the minute circumstances which attended the first celebration of the supper. For what is the great point which it is the design of the sermon to establish? Is it that Port wine, or Madeira wine, or some other particular kind of wine in distinction from all others, is essential to the validity of the ordinance? No such thing; if it had been, I might undoubtedly have been called upon, and with some reason, to show whether the bread which was employed was made of wheat, or barley, or millet, or spelt. But the position of the sermon is, that wine was originally used in the supper, and that it ought therefore to be used still; without attempting to decide anything in respect to the kind of wine, other than that it should be “the fruit of the vine.” Now all that this position requires me to prove in respect to the other element, is that it should be bread — the kind of bread, if you please, that happens to be in use in the country where the ordinance is celebrated. It seems to me, my dear sir, that your remarks go to annihilate the distinction between the essential and accidental properties of the institution. You call upon me especially to note the word THIS — “This do in remembrance of me” — as if the word this necessarily implied that, upon my principle, all the particular circumstances which you have enumerated as peculiar to the first celebration of the ordinance must be observed now. But read the next verse (1 Cor. 11:26) and you will there find that our Savior himself has settled the meaning of this, past all contradiction. Immediately after saying, “This do ye, as oft as ye drink it in remembrance of me,” he adds, “For as oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.” The design of the institution, as our Savior himself expresses it, is “to show the Lord’s death till he come.” The essential things belonging to it, are indicated by the words, “eat this bread and drink this cup;” while not a word is here said of the “upper room,” or the “triclinium,” or any other of the unessential particulars which you enumerate. Drinking the cup, as every one knows, is a figurative expression for drinking what the cup contains; and that it contained wine in this case you admit; while the particular kind of wine which it contained, in distinction from all others, I have not been so “over-wise” as to attempt to designate. It seems to me then that Christ himself has distinguished as clearly as possible, between what belongs essentially, and what belongs accidentally to this service; and that he has made such a distinction as to justify to the letter the position I have taken in my sermon.
I must beg leave to quote one more paragraph from your letter — a paragraph which I confess I have read with more surprise than anything else which the letter contains. It is as follows:
“I must beg you to review one awful clause in your sermon. It is this: `I say unhesitatingly, Perish the hand — no matter what hand it may be — that would profanely withdraw from the supper either of the memorials of my Redeemer’s death.’ I am well aware how many things can be said to whittle away the force of such a declaration. But I am also aware that they are subsequent expedients; subterfuges resorted to in order to save one from the consequences of what he rashly uttered in a moment of passionate feeling, or a paroxysm of polemic zeal. The plain unvarnished English of the above malediction is `Let all who differ from me, and who maintain that the Lord’s Supper may be celebrated without the elements of bread and wine as they exist among us, or with diluted instead of undiluted wine — let all such perish!’ That is, let all who presume to differ from you, incur the wrath and curse of Almighty God! Standing in the connection that your words do, I can construe them in no other way; and I shudder to give them such a meaning. It is, I verily believe, a fair construction of them; and I beseech you to look at them with serious contemplation of their nature and tendency. I know you will extenuate and parry, as to this part of the subject; but I appeal to all candid men whether your words are fairly capable of any other construction.”
I certainly am not disposed to doubt that you supposed you had given “a fair construction” to my words; and I do not marvel that you should have “shuddered to give them such a meaning.” My chief wonder is that anyone, and especially one who is officially an interpreter of language, could have found such a meaning in them. If the expression had admitted of such a construction, I should have supposed that your accustomed candor would have led you to apply the most charitable principles of interpretation, and even to strain a point a little, rather than find me guilty of such a shocking imprecation — an imprecation which must put me at once upon the list of the profane and the heaven-daring. But they do not admit of such a construction; and as you have not attempted to show how they admit of it, or rather require it, I shall at present simply oppose my ipse dixit to yours; with this single remark that of the great number of individuals, learned and unlearned, whom I have heard speak of it, there has not been one but has marvelled at the injustice you have done me. I cannot forbear to add that the apprehension which you express that I shall “extenuate and parry as to this part of the subject,” indicates to me a lurking distrust after all of your own interpretation of my language; and that you would have been better satisfied in stating it, if you had been more certain that it was correct. I am quite willing to leave the expression, strong as it may seem to be, to the tribunal to which you have yourself appealed; but I frankly confess that I complain of you for having suggested to those who may be more than willing to admit it, but who would themselves never have thought of it, so unreasonable and injurious a construction.
I have now, my dear sir, taken up every point suggested by your letter, and answered, according to my ability, the various questions you have propounded to me. And having done it, permit me to say that I consider myself as having performed an entirely gratuitous service — a service to which the position I sustain on this subject in now wise obligated me. The ground taken in my sermon is, that the uniform practice of the church as it now exists, and as it has existed for ages, is right; if you say that it is not right, then surely it behooves you to prove that it is not — not to call upon me to prove that it is. The presumption from long existing usage is, that it is right; and until you have furnished evidence to the contrary, I can see no reason why the Church may not be at rest in respect to it. The present reformers on this subject are evidently agreed upon nothing but that some change shall be made; for while some go for the unfermented, and some for the diluted, there are not wanting those who think that the pure water system is better than either. If then these men cannot agree as to the nature of the change that is to be made, nay if they not only contradict each other, but in some instances, contradict themselves also, is it not most unreasonable that we should be challenged to establish the correctness of our principles? Why wish to demolish the foundations of many generations, unless you have something better, at least unless you have something, to substitute in their place?
I will detain you with but one more remark. In reading your letter, and other recent communications which have been made to the public on the same subject, I have been struck with the fact, that there seems to be a virtual acknowledgment of a principle on which infidelity cannot fail to thrive. You well know how the opposers of revealed religion have triumphed in the alleged contrariety between certain physical facts which natural science, especially the department of Geology, has brought to light, and the Mosaic account of creation; though there is not reason to doubt that natural science is destined, in her progress towards perfection, completely to correct the error which, in her infancy, she had seemed to originate. Now I ask whether Christians, in endeavoring to sustain this new theory in respect to the Lord’s Supper, are not unwittingly arraying certain moral facts or supposed facts, against the Bible; and thus supplying infidels with a weapon with which to make a deadly thrust at Christianity herself. It is boldly asserted in defense of the new doctrine, that the least particle of alcohol — no matter in what form it exists — is injurious to the constitution of man. But from whom did man receive his constitution but from God. If then God has permitted, and on some occasions even required, the use of wine, what does this prove but that God is either ignorant of the constitution of his own creature (the work of his hands), or else that he has commanded the use of that which he foresaw must injure him? That God has actually permitted and required this, you surely will not question, if the Bible is acknowledged as a Divine Revelation. Here the infidel stands ready to complete the argument by saying that God cannot act contrary to his own perfections; and therefore the Bible has no claim to be considered as bearing the stamp of his authority. Is it not, to say the least, a sad mistake that, in our zeal to advance any good cause, we should virtually yield the best of all causes — the cause of our blessed Christianity — to the tender mercies of its enemies?
Wishing you the light and guidance of God’s gracious Spirit, in all your efforts to ascertain and exhibit the truth,
- I am, my dear Sir,
- With sincere regard and affection,
- You friend and brother,
- W. B. Sprague.
- Albany, Aug. 22, 1835.