Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Church and Dissent
By Thomas Chalmers (17801847)
From tract On Endowments
BUT though we hold a revival in the Establishment to be the likeliest means by far for the revival of Christianity in our land, such a conviction of the might and efficacy which belong to a national church does not preclude the conviction that it is of the very highest importance to have an active, unrestrained, and fully tolerated dissenterism. This latter will never, we think, supersede an establishment, but it may stimulate that establishment to a tenfold degree of effectiveness. It may act by a moral compulsion, not merely on its existing clergymen, but on those holders of patronage and power to whom we have to look for our future clergymen. For this purpose it is well that sectarianism should flourish and prevail, even to the degree of alarming the dignitaries of our land for the safety of its ecclesiastical institutions, of reducing them to the necessity of providing these institutions with those functionaries who are best fitted by their talent and their piety to uphold the Church in public estimation. We should therefore like, on the one hand, to behold dissenters in the full glow of activity all over the land; for out of the disturbance thus given to our high church exclusionists we should anticipate the happiest consequences. We question not that there is a great direct service rendered to Christianity by the instrumentality of sectarians; but we have ever reckoned it their chief service, that they set in motion, and in more efficient play, a far more powerful instrumentality than any which is wielded by themselves. They are not the best fitted for working a general religious effect upon the population; but they give impulse to that apparatus which is best fitted for it. They do not themselves form an effectual mechanism, for operating throughout a whole aggregate of human beings; but they, nevertheless, occupy a high place of command, for they touch the springs of that mechanism which is effectual. It is to the intervention of the Church, in fact, that they owe their greatest usefulness; for, by moving that which most powerfully moves and affects general society, they might do more for the religion of the people, than by the application of their own immediate hand to the hearts and consciences of individuals. With these views, sectarians on the one hand might bless and honour the Church, while on the other hand the warmest friends of the Church might look with benignant welcome on the zeal and prosperity of sectarians. They have done much for Christianity by the congregations which they have formed in towns and crowded parishes, and by the conversions which they have achieved in families. But the benefit which they have wrought by their wholesome reflex influence on the Establishment is above all computation.
In every great question upon which two parties have been formed, the difficulty is to construct the right system by adopting the excellencies and avoiding the errors of both. The parties themselves move in masses. They act gregariously. And hence, in spite of all that is said about the ascendency of rational opinion in this our enlightened day, there is really much of the blind and the headlong in the operation of these moral forces which decide the practical measures and influence the general state of society. Men take their direction and their impulse from the broad aspect of thingsand when once they take their stand with either side of a controversy, and read nothing but hate and hostility in all that is opposed to them, they find it a far easier work than that of discrimination, simply to urge forward whatever shall make for one side, and shall make against the other. It is thus that the bigots of an establishment are for putting down all sectarianism, and that the zealots of sectarianism are for rooting up all establishments. They regard not how beautiful it is, that these two rival interests act and react for the good of a populationso that the perfection of an ecclesiastical system lies in the ample endowment of the one, and the ample toleration of the other. Without an establishment the light of religious instruction would shine forth but rarely, or be spread but superficially over a land. Without a free and active dissent, that light might wane to its extinction and become darknessthe establishment, reposing in its undisturbed security would become inert and inefficient; or, along with the intolerance might be further deformed by all the corruptions of Popery.