IN Boston I had long and free conversations with the Catholic priesthood on their own premises. A Mr. Taylor, who afterwards became a bishop in France, where he died long since, took the lead in the conversation with his accustomed affability. While on the points of grace and free will, such were his definitions that I said to him, "Then, if I rightly understand the position of your church, you approach the Arminian standard. Shall I say so in my book?" "That will not do," was his quick reply; "we copy from no party." "Well, how shall I express the matter agreeably to the fact, and the true state of the case?" "You may say, the Arminians approach us on the points of grace and free will. That will do. But to say that the Catholic church, the oldest of all churches, follows any other creed, would be an historical error."
Among the many topics which came under discussion
during my visit to Catholic officials in Boston, was the pope's infallibility. "No such thing in our creed," said one. "Not at all" said another, "do we hold that doctrine, in the sense ascribed to us by our opponents." "The pope is not more infallible than you are," said Mr. Taylor. "It is true," continued he, "that Bossuet, and some other high churchmen, have flattered his holiness with this appellation, in the excess of their zeal for the apostolic prerogatives against the Protestants." At this point various definitions were given by the company of theologians by whom I was surrounded, the substance of which, as near as I can recollect was, that as the decisions of the church, in all matters of faith, were infallible, and as the pope is its head, this attribute is erroneously ascribed to him in his own private character.
The adoration of the cross also came under discussion at this time, with similar efforts on the part of the Catholics to correct the misrepresentations of the Protestants; when one of the company, touching the golden pendant on his breast, quaintly observed, "Too many of all parties worship the material of which this symbol is made."
At the time here referred to, the controversy between the Unitarians and the Orthodox was in full vigor, and it was plain to be seen, that the sympathies
of these Catholic men were on the Unitarian side, notwithstanding they were bound to a very strong Trinitarian creed.
With other ministers of this order I at times had free conversations on various subjects, one of which was the power of priests to pardon sins, which they declared was a vulgar error to which no good Catholic subscribed. God alone can pardon sin, was their prompt decision; but when, said they, the priest at confession, gains evidence of sincere penitence for sins confessed, he grants absolution to the confessing party, and thus has arisen the error in question. As I was a mere inquirer after matters of fact, I gave no opinions of my own on whatever statements were made to me, but I received them and recorded them in this case, and in all others, as the sentiments of the men of whom I inquired, according to their own professions. And as to the Catholics, who, as a general thing, are intensely disliked, I have thought it best in all my intercourse with them to endeavor to treat them with more mildness than they generally exhibit towards their opponents, and show them by my language and spirit towards them that our religion is better than theirs. This idea was suggested to me a long time since by one of my correspondents, who was once a member of that church, but who, for many
years, has been a very successful minister of our order.
In the city of New York I made an extensive survey of the different classes of Presbyterians, and especially the Scotch Seceders, most of whom have congregations in this great metropolis. When I returned to the house of one of these ministers who accompanied me in the round, I expressed my surprise to him at the similarity of all the parties of the Secession church, and I said to him, "How shall I describe these dissenting interests, and what difference in them shall I point out? Your parties all appear so much alike, that for any thing I can see, they all ought to be classed under the same head; and yet the lines between them are distinctly drawn and strictly maintained. You are all Presbyterians in your form of church government, you are all orthodox in your creeds, and you are all rigid Protestants and Pedobaptists. You all complain of the Baptists for their close communion, and yet you do not all commune with each other. Is not this an anomaly in church history?"
The comments of my friend I do not recollect, but this much I remember, namely, that throughout my whole interview with him he acted the part of a Christian gentleman, and displayed the sociability of a well-bred Scotchman.
I found the Lutheran ministers very tenacious of the term evangelical, as applied to their church, and that they viewed with much complaisancy the prosperity of their cause in this country. The clergy of this community, with whom I conversed, appeared sound in the faith, and lamented the defection of so many men of eminence in the Lutheran church, in the old country. In their public worship, I observed, they use a liturgy of a very limited extent. When I inquired of this people respecting Luther's famous doctrine of consubstatiation, instead of transubstantiation, as held by the church of Rome, they informed me that although it was in their creed, yet very little was said among them on the subject. Indeed, they did not hesitate to say that this mysterious and peculiar dogma of the great reformer had become a dead letter with many, if not most of their community.
With the Moravian ministers, on whom I called, I was very much pleased, especially their kind and unassuming manners. Their private dwellings and confraternity establishments I found remarkable for their neat and comfortable appearance, and their mode of living gave me to understand how this community can sustain their operations on so broad a scale, with so small an amount of funds.
The simple and moderate episcopacy of the United Brethren appeared to me a model of church government,
of the Episcopal form, which i should be disposed to adopt, were I to relinquish the Baptist rule.
In one instance a singular result followed my call on a clergyman, who received me very kindly, and from whom I parted without any suspicion of rival-ship. But it so happened that before my work came out, one on All Religions, about the same size, was issued, and put into the hands of book peddlers by a large publishing house in the city of ___. This book was hastily thrown together from other works, and I ascertained that the clergyman above referred to was the compiler of the production, which was without a name. I never saw the man afterwards. He died many years ago. The most singular part of the story is, that the agents who were sent out with the work in question, actually palmed it off on many of my subscribers. With this transaction, however, I did not suppose that either the compiler, or the publishers were concerned.
The Result of these visitations. I have already stated that my free and familiar intercourse with men so diversified in their religious opinions and pursuits, confirmed me in an opinion which I adopted long ago, namely, that the course I had pursued spoils a man for a bigot; and again, that a firm attachment to ones own church and creed, and a cordial Christian friendship for good men of every name, are entirely compatible
with each other. In the visitations above described, where I discovered the vitality of religion, I often found my sympathies involuntarily enlisted on the side of the men with whom I was then associated, in all that pertained to their trials and embarrassments, and was really glad for them, when they could make out a good account of their affairs, and exhibit fair prospects for the future.
With almost all the parties I visited, I found them complaining, a good deal like the Baptists of the following things:
1. Of misrepresentation and unfair treatment by other societies. Something or other in their faith or forms was misunderstood or was erroneously stated. In some cases a slight modification of terms would make all right; and they were often grieved that their opponents would hold them accountable for language which they did not adopt, but which was put into their mouths by others, and for sentiments which were palmed upon them by analogy and construction. This complaint, according to all church history, I find has been common in all ages and countries, so much so that in my judgment, misrepresentation, in some way or other, has been the bane of the world, especially in religious matters, and most of all, when dissenters from national churches have been made to feel its
power. This subject will be more fully discussed in the next chapter.
2. Of pecuniary embarrassments, and the want of liberality among the people. I soon found that the Baptists were not alone in these matters, but that many other communities were groaning under embarrassing debts on their houses of worship. They too had depended much on borrowed capital. This false principle, this most miserable rule of action in former years, seemed to be a truly American idea, and many splendid sanctuaries have I seen, which had been dedicated to the God of heaven, but which were owned in reality by men of the world, in part at least.
Many suppose, that as a whole, the Baptists are the most backward of any denomination in the land, in parting with their money for religious purposes, but I have heard grievous complaints on this score from other quarters. I well remember the free remarks on this subject, of an old Lutheran minister of Philadelphia, while he was showing me the spacious church in which he officiated. The parsimony of his people and the smallness of his stipend were freely commented on by the good old German divine.
"I thank the Lord for a free gospel," said a zealous Methodist. "I have been a member of the society twenty-five years, and it has never cost me twenty-five
cents." "The Lord have mercy on your stingy old soul," said the minister from the desk.
My late Edition of Baptist History. After a lapse of about thirty years from the time my old history was published, I began to make preparations for a new edition, the principal object of which was to bring down the account of the denomination to the then present time. I also resolved to present to my readers all the new facts which I could obtain in favor of the main positions of the Baptists, relative to the antiquity of their sentiments, and the prevalence of the same in all ages and countries where any traces of them can be found. For this purpose a great amount of additional reading became necessary, and a considerable number of books, which I could not find in this country, had to be sent for from abroad; but this labor was small compared with the long journeys which I found it necessary to perform, and the extensive correspondence which I found it absolutely needful to maintain.
A number of local Baptist histories had been published in different places since my old history was published, which supplied me with good materials to a limited extent; but still it was reduced to a certainty, after a fall view of the field before me, that widespread and long-continued efforts must yet be made for the accomplishment of my new plan. The denomination
had increased many fold in the course of thirty years; vast regions of country, which were in a wilderness state at the time my old work was published, had been settled, and were filled with multitudes of our people among other settlers, all of which regions must be explored anew, and historical facts and documents collected from them, for the purpose of carrying out my design to its full extent. This amount of labor had a somewhat formidable appearance at first view; but by dint of perseverance, with the aid of a long list of valuable correspondents, together with the post office facilities, which I shall soon name, this greatest labor of my life, in the collection of historical documents, in the course of about ten years, was effected, and the work was published by L. Colby & Co., New York, in 1848. One of my sons was with me five years, constantly engaged in copying for the press, assisting in my correspondence, reading proofs, and other parts of my labor.
In the commencement of this laborious undertaking, I sent out a large number of printed circulars, in which were stated the outlines of my plan, and the kind of assistance I needed. These I often directed at a venture to men whose namesI found in the minutes of our associations and elsewhere, and in this way I obtained many of my stated correspondents.
The Historical Correspondent and Enquirer was the name of a small paper which I published gratis for a number of years. This sheet was wholly devoted to my historical pursuits. It came out at different periods, as my wants required, and by being sent to Baptist papers of all kinds, on exchange, in this way they came to ms free of cost. Large parcels of the papers thus received are now on hand.
During all this time I had no interfering vocation, except the care of the post office in this placer which I went into after I had resigned a pastoral station which I had occupied twenty-five years. This resignation was forced upon me by a severe pressure of one of the high excitements of those times. The post office, then the third in the State in size, I held ten years, so that I was literally "ten years among the mail-bags." Most of the labor, however, was performed by my sons. While thus occupying this official station, and at the same time pursuing my historical inquiries, I was often at head-quarters, where I became pretty well acquainted with the routine of Congressional affairs, with the interior arrangements, and the outside management of the General Post Officer and with many of the men in high official stations at the capital; and for a while I was a member of the board of the college there under Baptist rule.
My principal reason for going into a secular employment was the great assistance it would afford me in my historical pursuits by means of the franking privilege, which was then enjoyed by postmasters of all grades. This privilege was very useful to me in the extensive correspondence, which I was at that time obliged to maintain. But I found bigots among postmasters as well as elsewhere. Some of them challenged my little historical sheet as not being a newspaper, in the sense of the law, which defines their rights, because it did not contain general news. This construction, had it been admitted at head-quarters as correct, would have operated very much against me, especially in the business of exchanges. In that case neither my papers could go out, nor others would come to me free; and as newspaper postage was then very high my bill of expense in this department must have been much increased.
But my opponents failed at this point, and my little paper stood its ground, and brought me in papers and pamphlets to a large amount free of all cost.
The next and most serious complaint against me was for a too free use of the franking privilege in sending letters and circulars in such abundance all over the country in aid of a sectarian work. But as our government has nothing to do with sects and parties in its laws, which I had been careful not to violate,
as I made it clearly to appear, the case was dismissed and my franking went on.
In vindication of my free use of the mails for the transmission of my documents far and wide, I stated to the men in charge of the General Post Office, that besides my right, by the laws of the Department, as a matter of equity I was entitled to a large share of mail facilities, since I claimed to be the historical representative of more than one fourth of the population of the United States, including Baptists of all classes, with their adherents; that I corresponded with them all of every name and nation, and was assisted by them in my historical pursuits.
The income of letters during the ten years in which I was engaged in collecting materials and publishing the work now under consideration, was very large. These epistolary documents are all preserved with care among my papers of this kind.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 251-263. -- jrd]