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The Power of Nonconformity

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the July 1876 Sword and Trowel


NONCONFORMITY in England was at first a protest against the errors of the church established by law, it is at the present time a protest against the establishment of any church whatever by the state. In the enlarged area of its protesting it is driven to use other weapons than it employed at first, and to give greater prominence than it once did to matters aforetime regarded as of small moment: our fear is lest the baser weapons should put the nobler out of fashion, and the secondary aims should overshadow the primary intents. We think it right to struggle earnestly against the unhallowed alliance of church and state, and to use the political power with which we are entrusted to promote the principles of religious equality. May the best success attend the exertions of those who devote their lives to this object in their own way. We wish them God speed with all our heart. Still the real power of Nonconformity will never be increased at the hustings; it may be displayed there ever and anon for noble ends, but it is not gained there nor fostered there. Ministers do well to give their votes, and to express their opinions for the guidance of their people, but in proportion as the preaching becomes political, and the pastor sinks the spiritual in the temporal, strength is lost and not gained. Romanists obtain power by various maneuvers, and devices which we would not use if we could; their kingdom is of this world, and they are not slow to use all the methods of the children of this world in gaining their ends; Dissenters will never be powerful in this fashion. There will we hope never be a Nonconformist brass band in the House of Commons ready to side with either party in order to obtain fresh privileges for their clan, nor will men in office be secretly influenced and induced to patronize Dissent by the hope of quieting secret societies of Nonconforming rebels. The Church of England also has not scrupled for its own purposes to ally itself with the partisans of the liquor traffic, and write upon its banners "Beer and Bible": to this also it is to be hoped Dissent will never come; neither will it ever be supported by the landed interest, the nobility, and the vast army of persons whose positions are more or less mixed up with the conservation of things as they are. We are to a very large extent shut out from the use of instrumentalities which others possess in abundance, and it is well that it is so, at least we think it well, and many others agree with us in the opinion.
    Our forefathers left the Church of England because of the serious errors of her prayer-book, her form of church government, and her manner of ecclesiastical procedure. Upon spiritual grounds they left her, and suffered the loss of all things. They could not be true men and subscribe to her doctrines, nor honest pastors if they sanctioned her laxity of discipline, nor faithful to their convictions if they yielded allegiance to her prelates. Their piety as much as their creed drove them out, and made them a power in the land despite the persecution which they endured. Very few of them objected to a state-church, as such; probably most of them agreed with an ideal church of the nation, though the actual embodiment of it was obnoxious to them; in this we have outrun them, and we ought to be grateful for our greater light. But the narrowness of their protest may greatly have tended to increase its force. They fixed their eye on doctrinal and practical evils of the first magnitude, and turned their undivided energy in that direction; we would not obscure what we have added, but we wish the first original things were more tenaciously held. Spirituality of mind was the Puritan's weapon against religious formality, sound doctrinal teaching was his shield against Popery; by watchful discipline in the church he protested against an all-comprehending establishment, and by a careful maintenance of household devotion, every man being a priest in his own home, he superseded the daily services of the steeple-house and the pretensions of the parish priest. The life and power of the gospel made the meeting-house the resort of devout men, and made it impossible for the State-paid parson with informers, bailiffs, and county magistrates at his back, to put down Dissent. These holy men had no influence at the polling-booth, but they were mighty at the mercy-seat; they were nowhere on an election-day, but they went everywhere preaching the word. Hence came their acknowledged power, and hence must ours come also.
    Alas, there were times of wretched blight, when Nonconformity became respectable, intellectual, cold, and worldly. Her great antagonist and herself alike felt the deadly power of Arianism, and then it is true she sought to justify her position rather by appealing to the rights of man than to the truth of God. Small enough was her success. The uprise of Methodism under Whitefield and Wesley did more for Nonconformity than all the agitators for religious liberty that ever lived. The object aimed at was the glory of God and the conversion of souls, the end gained was the arousing of the churches and the revival of evangelical doctrine, but as a remoter consequence the entire position of Dissenters was elevated, and it became impossible to keep them down. Like a volcanic force which cannot be kept in check, but moves all things according to its will, the power of vital godliness caused a general upheaval, and hurled to the ground institutions of persecution which seemed to have been built upon a rock. The awakened church of God began again to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and other things were added unto her, for which she had scarcely hoped. She grasped no longer the wooden weapon of mere intellect, but took for her watchword "the sword of the Lord and of Gideon," and her victories were sure.
    At this time we deem it needful to insist upon it that the real power of Nonconformity must still be found in true doctrine, holy living, burning zeal, and simple faith. Agitate by all means for those just reforms which will give religious equality to all men, but do not neglect the weightier matters; "these things ought ye to have done, but not to have left the other undone." If our pulpits become infected with errors which becloud the atonement, if our members grow worldly and lukewarm, and if the life of piety and the power of prayer become weak in our churches, the essential force of Nonconformity will be gone. The subscriptions to the Liberation Society may not be diminished for a generation, and the funds of our various institutions may even show an increase, but the worm is at the root, and in a few years decay will assuredly appear, if spirituality shall be at a discount and truth be undervalued. Nothing can serve the ends of our semipopish established church so much as unspiritual Dissent. "I was driven to the parish church," said a devout Baptist to us the other day, "because the only dissenting place near me was an Independent chapel, where the minister did not preach the gospel as I had been accustomed to hear it; no, nor the gospel at all. I found more food for my soul under an evangelical clergyman than at the chapel, and so I went to church, sorely against my will." We have heard others say "The people at the Baptist chapel were so dead, and of such high doctrine, that I could not join them. I went several miles to hear a pious curate in a little church, and much as I dislike a form of prayer, I put up with it for the sake of the gospel which the good man gave us." Such things ought not to be; but we fear such things are becoming far too common. Where the old orthodox faith is preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, and errors are pointed out plainly and the truth declared, our people become Nonconformists to the backbone; but no true man of God will sacrifice the vital doctrines of the word of God, and the good of his soul and the hope of seeing his children converted, to what is an important, but still a secondary matter. We fear that in certain quarters Nonconformity has need to cry, "Save me from my friends." The "modern culture" men are undermining the structure which they profess to build up, the pretenders to intellectual preaching are clouding the gospel which they are supposed to proclaim, and the gentlemen of aesthetic taste are aping the ritualism against which it should have been their first business to protest. We confess we do not understand why certain persons are with us at all, they would be more in their places in the opposite camp. A Nonconformist, and yet use a liturgy! If a man can bring his mind to a liturgical service it is a mere whim which makes him seek an improvement on that of our National Church. A Dissenter who knows not why he dissents, and only does so from political motives, or from the force of education, is a weakness to those among whom he is classed; but a Dissenter who actually leads others towards the very church from which he professes to dissent is far worse, he is a traitor in the camp and ought not to be endured. If we had a writ to serve upon the parties here intended we should not be long in finding them.
    We need at this time to make our spiritual and doctrinal protest more clear than it has been. A powerful society represents our political demands, but we have no organization whatever to promote our far higher designs. Why is this? Dissent is represented politically, but not doctrinally. How comes this to be the case? Surely the second is by far the more important. If the present Anglican church were disestablished to-morrow we should conscientiously dissent from her as much as ever, for our differences are solemn, grave, vital, and are not at all confined to her being a state-church. It is a pity that this fact should be so little remembered. How is it that Nonconformists are so little instructed in the great religious principles by which they justify their distinctive position? How is it that they take so little trouble to instruct others in the same? Is it more pleasant to talk politics than to preach Christ? Are there more charms in warring against flesh and blood than in wrestling with spiritual wickednesses in high places? Our call is for old-fashioned Dissenters, for doctrinal Protesters, for godly Nonconformity to the world, for deeper piety and more sound doctrine; we must have them or the cause will go down, and deserves to go down. The life of God in the soul is a force which nothing can baffle, and it has power, like the cherub's flaming sword at the gates of Eden, to turn every way: "There is none like it, give it me." We may be misunderstood in this article, and some may suppose that we are shifting our ground, but they will greatly err if they think so. We have aforetime urged every Christian to exercise the franchise and use his political privileges as in the sight of God, and we do so still with equal energy; but this is by no means so vital, or so essential to the best interests of Nonconformity as soundness in the faith, and depth of piety. We value the agency which protests against the unrighteousness which patronizes a sect, but we believe that this is not all; there ought to be a powerful organization for spiritual objects, whose one business should be to expose the original sins of the Anglican body, and to lay bare the ever-growing errors within her pale. If ever this work needed doing it is now. It would lay the ax at the root of the tree, and accomplish far more towards disestablishment than any other imaginable agency, with the one exception of the church herself, which is doing all it can for its own overthrow. For our part, we should like to see a vigorous, evangelical Episcopal church in this land, free of the State, and purged of Popery; we have no enmity in our heart towards any branch of the true church of Christ, but desire to see it flourish and fill the land with fruit; but the present hodge-podge must be ended or mended. It cannot be described by any one term, it is good and evil, light and darkness, Popery and Protestantism, and while the evil neutralizes the good, the good assists the evil to do its mischievous work. O Lord, how long! Souls are being ruined wholesale by high church and broad-church teaching, and the low church lends the aid of its association to the deadly work: this moves our very soul. Party ends we have none; but God's gospel, the good of souls, the honor of Jesus, all demand of us that this evil corporation should not go unrebuked, but should be resisted with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Are there none who think with us, and are able and willing to make our suggestion a fact?

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